The End? Do not fear

This is our second post in our journey through Revelation.

Never before in recorded history have people been so aware of the fragility of our existence, of human life.  My newsfeed informs me of natural disasters, plague-like diseases, terrorizing wars, economic depression, political instability, brutal kidnappings and drug syndicates as they occur.  These updates and images are on every screen that catches my eye.

Knowledge of these threats leaves us uncertain and afraid.  We feel angry at the loss of innocence, the (illusion of) peace that we once enjoyed.  We live in a pandemic of panic, in a world longing for peace, stability and security.  We wall up, save up, or pack up in the hope of keeping the evil outside – but we learn that the spores of terror have landed on every continent, every community, every child.  Is This The End?  Is this THAT END?

Awareness of the destruction of our Father’s world brings believers down to our knees, looking up, praying our fears with tears.  “How long, Lord?”  “Lord, do you see?  Do you care?”  “Are you in control?”  “When will you act?”

There were the cries and concerns of John and the believers during the tyrannical, egocentric reign of Domitian, Emperor of Rome AD 90-92 who banished the old disciple to Patmos.  But John’s prayers were answered when this island prison became his inner chamber with his Beloved Lord, containing a window into the throne room of God revealing the cosmic conquest of Christ’s victory over evil, culminating in the glorious restoration of all creation.

This letter of Revelation was a message of hope and comfort, to help and correct the early church in its struggle with evil – to endure both trials and temptation in faithful witness of Christ’s coming kingdom.  Although this prophecy was written for them, it is preserved for us.  Therefore, everyone who reads these holy words today and hears its invitation to “behold!” will also see how Christ is near to us, is moving in us, through us and for us his Church to accomplish the culmination of his glorious kingdom.  This revelation of Christ’s victory over evil in this world brings comfort and strength to endure until The End.

Guillaume-Francois Colson
Guillaume-Francois Colson, The Spirit of Evil Is Hurled into the Abyss After the Arrival of the Messiah, 19th century.

A note on my approach towards Revelation: In this discovery through Revelation, I will not write scholarly or critical, but rather devotional and encouraging.  The posts will be like all my other posts: an attempt to read the text from the view of the first readers.  How did these seven congregations make sense of this apocalyptic prophesy from their imprisoned apostle?  What was the message of hope to them?  For this I will keep with the explicit nature of the book: Revelation is an apostolic letter to seven congregations in Asia Minor (1:4,11), which contained a prophecy from the Lord (1:3), in the apocalyptic genre (1:1) which is rich in symbolic images and numbers, rooted in (a) their first-century geopolitical context, and (b) Old Testament literature.  If we stick with these principles, the symbolism in this remarkable book becomes alive and life-giving. (I expounded more on this in the first post in this series).

Greeting and blessing (Revelation 1:4-8)

This short greeting by John is a masterful introduction and succinct overview of the book’s message.  He blesses his readers (and hearers) with grace (divine help) and peace (wellness) from the Triune God.  His name for the Father “(He) who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4) takes the readers back to God’s self-revelation to Moses (Exodus 3:14) before His great deliverance from Egypt.  The Spirit is titled “Seven Seven” (1:4) from Isaiah 11:2 in that great chapter that speaks of the Messiah’s divine wisdom and righteousness by which he will destroy the oppressive nations and restoration of all creation in peace. Here John says “God had delivered his people before from the tyranny you suffer, and He has promised to end this violence once for all!

Next, John answers the question “Can Jesus save us?” with a loud “Yes, he can, and he will!”  Jesus is first introduced as the “Christ” (1:5) – the long-awaited Messiah who will restore the righteousness rule of God on earth.  Then Jesus is hailed “the faithful witness” to a church struggling to maintain faithful witness under brutal persecution and the seduction of a perverse society.  He is held as their example who faithfully proclaimed and demonstrated God’s kingdom and eventually accomplished it by His vicarious death and resurrection: the ultimate witness of God’s Kingdom Coming to earth is Jesus rank “Firstborn from (or over) death” (1:5).  Not only does Jesus have authority over every spirit, even death, he is also “Ruler over the kings of the earth” (1:5) – good news the readers oppressed by Emperor Domitian!  These titles stirred flickers of hope to those battered congregations wondering whether Jesus is indeed the Christ who will bring righteousness and peace to the earth.

The next portion answers the question in the heart of every suffering believer: does God care about me?”  John writes YES HE DOES!  Jesus is called “Him who loved us and loves us and frees us from our sin by His own blood” (1:5). This phrase is which more than a reference to His cross: it is a clear allusion to the Passover lambs slaughtered to deliver God’s covenant people from Egypt by judging the oppressors and preserving them (Exodus 12:21 ff).  And as God adopted and honoured the delivered Hebrew slaves, these em-battered believers were called “kings and priests to God” (1:6, compare Exodus 19:6), sharing in His eternal reign.

“But does God not see how we suffer by the hand of our oppressors?” Yes, He does, and his Day of Judgment will come!  Alluding to Zechariah 12:8-10, John writes how the Christ will defend and deliver his covenant people from their oppressors, and how he will reveal Himself in glory to those oppressors so that they will weep at his fierce judgment (1:8).

As the nature of the letter is prophecy, the greeting ends with Jesus introducing himself as “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End who is and who was and who is to come” (1:8).  For the contemporary reader of the day, the Greek alphabet was known to have each letter attributed to a major Greek god.  Thus, Jesus’ self-revelation comforted his hopeless church “I am the All-powerful, Ever-living One – your covenant God and Savior. Do not despair!”

Section 1: Christ among the Lampstands (Revelation 1:4-3:22)

seven-golden-lampstands.jpg

Like prophets of old John describes how and where he received this prophetic message to these churches (1:9-10).  Imprisoned on the island Patmos, John was “In the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” – meaning in fellowship with the Holy Spirit in prayer and worship on resurrection day – what we call Sunday.

This is significant.  Although this beloved disciple was isolated, shamed and cruelly treated, his suffering did not lead him away from Christ to self-pity; instead, it drew him to Christ as he drew near to the Lord in Spirit.  And his cries and concerns in Spirit gave birth to one of the most excellent messages of hope the church had ever received.

A question every suffering believer asks is Lord, where are you when I suffer?” This is the question the Lord clearly answers in the first section of Revelation (Ch 1-3).

John hears Jesus a loud voice with the clarity and urgency “like a trumpet” declaring “I am the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last” followed by the instruction to write what he sees in a letter to seven specified churches (1:10-11).  (Throughout Revelation, what John hears and what John sees is very revealing, because things are not always what they seem to be at first).

John turns and sees Jesus walking among seven golden lampstands – the precious, sanctified churches of Jesus, the recipients of the letters (1:12-13, 20).  Where is Jesus, while these churches are suffering? “I am among you,” he says, “and I am intimately aware of what you are enduring for my name’s sake.” (Ch 2-3).

Then John describes how he sees Jesus, a vision that makes him collapse with awesome terror (1:17).  John sees the Son of Man as described in Daniel: One who has received eternal dominion (Daniel 7:9-14; compare 10:4-9).  The white hair, long robe and golden sash reveal Christ’s dignity and honour. His burnished feet portray the strength of his kingdom. The force of his voice cannot be ignored. His fiery eyes see everything – open and hidden. The sword represents judgment from his mouth which brings both justice to the oppressors and mercy to the oppressed (1:13-16).  This is Christ in his ascended glory.

“Do not be afraid – I’ve got this”

The first message of comfort this exalted King Jesus speaks to his suffering churches is “Do not be afraid” (1:17).  Why not be afraid?  Because this exalted, glorified, All-mighty King Jesus is with you, and for you.  He is not distant or disinterested.  He is with you, knows what you face, and cares for you.  What’s more comforting is that he has met the greatest this world can do to you (death), and conquered the grave, holding “the keys to death and Hades in (his) hands” as eternal comfort to his followers.

Christ’s message of comfort ends with the declaration that He holds the angels (messengers/ pastors) of these seven churches in his hand (1:16, 20).  Thus Christ directs the world rulers and affairs towards his eternal reign (1:5) while protecting and leading his church in service of his unfolding reign, holding the leaders in the palm of his hand.  What great comfort this must have brought to these struggling churches!


“Sounds great, but I don’t see it (yet)”

For a church in an uncertain, harsh world, these introductory words brought so much peace.  The All-powerful, Ever-living Lord, is among his people, promising to fulfil his long-awaited prophecy to eradicate evil from the earth and establish his reign of eternal peace – as it was in Eden.

But how is Christ working out his Great Restoration if it seems that this world is ruled by evil in violence, seduction and deception? For that answer, we will be invited to look from God’s perspective, to “Come up here” (4:1).  But first, the Lord will encourage and exhort each congregation (unpacking the church’s battle against evil), thus revealing Jesus’ intimate knowledge and care for each community of believers (Chapters 2-3).

Quick links to full THE END Revelation Series posts

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26

THE END?  An introduction to Revelation

This is the first post in a series through the book of Revelation – a letter meant to bring comfort and encouragement during times of uncertainty and hardship.

What have you heard or read about the book of Revelation?  How does that make you feel?

For many, their response to this book include feelings of uncertainty, confusion and anxiety.  These feelings are precisely what the Revelation aims to address in its readers, leaving them feeling comforted, encouraged and hopeful in Christ’s presence and victory over evil in the world.

7 trumpets - mountains

How then should we read Revelation to make the meaning clear, leaving us peaceful and hopeful during times of uncertainty and hardship?  John states this clearly in his introduction: this document is an apostolic letter (1:4), containing prophesy from God (1:3), written in the Jewish apocalyptic genre (1:1).   Reading the book with this in mind will leave you encouraged and exhorted to live confident in Christ through tough times.

THE NATURE OF REVELATION: A letter containing prophecy in the apocalyptic genre

Revelation is a letter of encouragement and exhortation to suffering believers.  This epistle was penned by John (1:1,9; probably the Beloved disciple), while imprisoned on the island Patmos (1:9) addressed “to seven churches in Asia” (1:4; 1:11).

The meaning of the book becomes apparent when it is read from the perspective of the first readers – the seven congregations in Asia minor listed as recipients.  Like every other apostolic letter by Paul, Peter, James, Jude and John, this letter answered real questions, brought instruction, warnings and encouragement to the first readers. The message was written to them, yet preserved for us. The truth becomes clear to us as we see what the letter meant for them.

Secondly, Revelation is called prophecy (1:3) ­– God’s Word to a people in a specific context.  Like Isaiah, Amos, Malachi etc. this book contains prophecy (God’s spoken word) to the seven congregations in the seven towns in Asia minor.  This message from the Lord brought real comfort and confidence as the Lord revealed love and care for them, but also corrections and challenges as prophesy always calls God’s people to covenantal faithfulness.  Prophecy is primarily about God’s salvation of his people in a particular time and place.

However, Revelation, like many old Testament Prophets, places this Word from God in the context of his cumulative redemptive work through the ages.   It is said that 287 of the 404 verses in this book contain allusions to Old Testament Texts, notably from Exodus, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah.  This means that the “prophet” John aimed to ground the message to these seven, suffering churches in the history of God’s great redemption of his people.  God is bringing his great work of salvation to a climax.

Again, the reader is invited to read this book as a prophecy from God to the persecuted believers in these seven congregations.  This message was clear and made sense to them.  If we want to understand God’s word of us, we have to understand God’s word to them first.

Thirdly, this book is self-titled as “Revelation [or apocalypse] of Jesus Christ” (1:1).  This Jewish literary style, of which Revelation, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah are prime examples, was at its most popular during the time of John’s writing.  Apocalypse means “unveiling” or “uncovering” and aims to show that things are not entirely as they seem – there is more at play here. More specifically reveals the heavenly drama behind our earthly struggles – that “our fight is not against flesh and blood but against principalities, powers, rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).  Note how Revelation starts with the earthly reality of the seven congregations and shifts realms to show the cosmic drama behind everyday events.

Apocalyptic writing makes use of symbolism through vivid imagery and representative numbers in dramatic scenes that aim to evoke powerful emotions, and a sense of participation in the story told. Secondly, this genre is rooted in Old Testament literature; Revelation contains more than 550 Old Testament reference (but not one direct quotation, as this is uncharacteristic of the style).  Thirdly, Apocalyptic language is rooted in the historic-political context of its day; the message of the writing was clear to the 1st Century Greco-Roman believers of their day, and that ancient context is our key to unlock its meaning.  Lastly, this genre (like most Jewish genres) is not chronological.  The reader should not ask “what happens next?” but rather, “what does John see next?”  The letter is written in the sequence of John’s visions, not chronological time – and therein is much meaning.

THE CONTEXT into which John wrote Revelation

The letter of encouragement and exhortation is set during the terrifying reign of Domitian, Emperor of Rome (AD 90-92). This egomaniac revived the Imperial cult (much like the infamous Nero thirty years earlier) and decreed that all his subjects worship him by offering incense, exclaiming “Caesar is Lord.” For most of the Greco-Roman pluralist, this was an easy instruction to comply with… unless you live by the confession that “Jesus is Lord.”  This led to the severe persecution of Christians, resulting in their imprisonment, torture and execution. Sadly, due to their hatred for the “blasphemous” Christians, Jews were often the first to turn their Christian neighbours over to the Roman authorities.

Suffering did not only come by Roman persecution.  Many communities in Asia minor suffered from disasters such as earthquakes, droughts, barbaric raiders and widespread disease.  People lived in fear. This led to the cruel treatment of Christians by their pagan neighbours, convinced that these disasters were the result of followers of Jesus’ refusal to worship the gods of the elements.  This left Christians ostracized, excluded from public social life and the market economy.

This severe persecution and hardship caused many Christians at the end of the 1st century to lose hope in Christ’s return and to doubt his power over the affairs on earth.  Is Christ’s kingdom indeed more potent than that of Domitian?  If so, how?

Jezebel2

However, a more significant threat was the seductive nature of the Greco-Roman lifestyle: sensuality, perversion and revelry were the order of the day and frequently associated with the worship of pagan gods.  Against the backdrop of persecution and the pain and poverty resulting from social exclusion, the pleasure and prosperity associated with participation in this sensual society seemed seductive. It seems that many believers were tempted to draw away from the public witness of Christ and blend in with their contemporary pagan culture.

In his apocalyptic letter, John describes this struggle as the intimidation from the Beast (worldly power), the seduction from Babylon the great harlot (sensuality), and the deception of the False Prophet (false religions) – all three servants of the Great Dragon (Satan) warring against the church.

John, far from the churches in his care, was praying for these believers subjected to hardship and vulnerable to temptation.  Then Christ invited him to see their present reality in the light of the cosmic struggle played out on earth.  In and through this, His Kingdom was advancing!

THE AIM of the Book of Revelation

The Revelation shows Jesus Christ as victorious over the forces of evil, leading his church in victory over their enemies (17:14).  This prophecy aims to firstly comfort the church in its struggle against evil by showing them that Christ is among them (1:12-20) and that he is intimately aware of their unique situations (ch. 2-3).  He steers the world affairs in the interest of his church (5:7,8), in response to their prayers (8:3,4).  The revelation shows that God sees their tears (7:17, 21:4) and will avenge their blood (19:2), yet their victory is assured (15:2).  Lastly, the revelation reassures them that Christ is coming to take his people to Himself to live with them in His renewed creation (21:22), stirring confidence for His return (22:17).

Secondly, this prophecy is a correction of the church’s perspective in its struggle against evil. Though it may seem their prayers are ineffective (6:10), we see God’s response (judgments) as a result of it (8:3-5).  Though they seem defeated, they reign now on earth (5:10), will reign with Christ (20:4) forever in the renewed creation (22:5). Though it may seem that the dragon (12:3), the beast (13:1), the false prophet (13:11) and Babylon (14:8) wield power on earth – they are all defeated (18:2; 19:20; 20:10) and will be bound forever.  All is not as it seems.

Thirdly, this revelation calls for a renewed commitment to Christ in his struggle against evil, patient endurance in trials and steadfastness in resisting temptation.  For this, there are great rewards (22:12).

Compromise

HOPE TO THE CHURCH IN ANXIOUS, UNCERTAIN TIMES

The structure and layout of John’s Revelation letter bring much hope to fearful, confused believers during hardship.  The Spirit shows John firstly that Christ is among his people (ch. 1-3), secondly that God is on his throne. Christ is unfolding his Kingdom reign in history (ch. 5-16), thirdly what this world is really like and how Christ will conquer it (ch .17-20), and lastly the renewed creation in beauty and peace, with rewards for the faithful (ch. 21-22).

1: Christ is with his church

The first thing John sees is that the church is not abandoned by God during their hardship. The Spirit reveals Christ walking among his people, between his suffering congregations (1:10-13).  Then Christ reveals his intimate knowledge of every congregation’s faithfulness, challenges, struggles, and promises (ch. 2-3).

The comfort for every believer and believing community today is the same: Christ the Victorious One is with us, always among us.  He knows our efforts and struggles and will reward our faithfulness.

2: God is on his throne, and Christ is unfolding his redemptive plan for creation

The second thing that the Spirit shows John is God on his throne in all his goodness and glory (ch. 4), and Christ receiving the Scroll of God’s redemptive plan with his creation (ch. 5).  As Christ opens the seals, rolling out God’s kingdom reign with cosmic consequences calling the nations to repentance before the Great Day of Judgment (ch. 6-16).

This reassures the church during turbulent times that indeed God is in control, and that these events which shake our world is part of Christ’s work in establishing his peaceful reign on earth – even though the hardship we face.  In some way, these events are answers to the cry of his saints (5:8; ch. 16).

3: The nature and spirit of this world (Babylon and her Beast)

The third thing the Spirit reveals to John is the true nature of this world, which is likened to seductive Babylon and her power-hungry Beast (ch. 17).  John also sees her fall and judgment – with all who follow her (ch. 18-20).

The unveiling of this fallen world stirs our hope in Christ and strengthens our resistance to temptation because we know that the best this perverse, power-hungry world has to offer is corrupted and temporal.  But one day, Christ will return to bring lasting justice and goodness and peace, to restore lasting joy to His people.

Furthermore, the knowledge of judgment on this greedy and oppressive world brings much comfort and hope to those suffering under this regime – as was the case in John’s day.  Judgment of the consuming lust and abusive power of rulers (and their cronies) means the vindication and deliverance of the oppressed.   In God’s kingdom, the oppressed are freed, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed because their oppressors are judged.

4: The New Heaven and New Earth

The last thing that the Spirit shows John is God’s new creation (ch. 21-22) – the marriage between heaven and earth. John is encouraged to see that God’s creation will be reconciled with its Creator, and his image and reign will be restored in mankind.   Indeed, John is comforted that the pain and sorrow of suffering and death that now marks the church’s existence will be no more, because “Look! I make all things new!” (21:4-5).  The faithful are richly rewarded, the perverse are judged (21:7; 22:12-14).

This unveiling of Christ’s great renewal stirs much hope that our tears of suffering and sorrow are short-lived; he has conquered sin and death forever.  Furthermore, overcoming the temptations of sin and terrors of persecution does not go unnoticed; our short endurance of hardship secures our eternal rewards in Christ’s eternal reign.  This is great encouragement and exhortation to hold on to Christ’s promise: we will inherit His kingdom and receive His rewards.

TAKE IT TO HEART

Reading the Revelation as a letter to seven real congregations facing severe hardship on every front, as a prophecy of encouragement and exhortation from God about his redemptive work in and through them, in the emotive, unveiling genre of the apocalypse makes the main message clear.  (Yet there are difficult parts – as in every Bible book!)

Even this simple outline encourages me that Christ is always among his church, ready to comfort, correct and call to his church commitment during hard times.  It reminds me that God is still in control and that Christ is always busy unfolding his redemptive plan with creation.  This unveiling calls me to see this fallen world in all its splendour and power is at best corrupted and temporal, but Christ’s kingdom is eternal, and his reign will be marked with restored beauty, justice and peace, eternally.  And the bonus: my faithfulness and your faithfulness during these hard times will be rewarded!

How do you feel about the message of Revelation now?  Ready for a more in-depth look into chapter 1?

Quick links to full THE END Revelation Series posts

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26

On a Journey of Intimacy

Craving intimacy

Humans crave connectedness. We are creatures characterized by a desire for companionship, with a yearning to be known, a longing to be loved.  This is a primal need; even in paradise “it [was] not for man good to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  Indeed much of our conscious and subconscious decisions are driven by this aching to “become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

In paradise, our ancestors were “naked and not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25), being fully satisfied in intimacy.  But now we no longer live in paradise, making connectedness and companionship so much more complex.  Although the desire for intimacy still burns fervently inside of us mankind’s fall has stained our spirits with shame – the knowledge of our imperfection, the nagging voice that there is something wrong with us.  The awareness of our flaws deceives us into believing we are unlovable, so like our parents in the Garden (Genesis 3:7-8) we try to “cover our nakedness” with futile fig leaves or hide to avoid closeness with others altogether in the shadows of our loneliness.  Thus, shame – this sense of unworthiness – brings a deep fear of rejection and closes one up, making intimacy impossible.

Therefore, to have and maintain intimate relationships one has to firstly believe that you are worthy to be loved and secondly embrace vulnerability, knowing that closeness with others will expose the true you in all your glory and imperfections.

An atmosphere of AWE

So one of the easiest ways of cultivating intimacy is to create a safe relational atmosphere that affirms worth and encouragement.  In Creating and Intimate Marriage Jim Burns writes about creating an atmosphere of A.W.E. (Affection, Warmth and Encouragement):

  • Affection says “You are loved!”  It speaks to the basic need to feel loved through a gentle touch,  a hug a kiss and the loving tone in words of endearment affirms the worth of the other and strengthens the relational bond.
  • Warmth says “You are valued!”  by creating a friendly, welcoming and positive atmosphere within the home or relationship.  It is communicated by the attention we listen with, the attitude we respond with, and the air we speak with. It is strengthened through a culture of honour and celebration, creating an environment to which people would want to return.
  • Encouragement says “You are doing great!” It refers to a healthy habit of affirmation, praising both the worth and accomplishments of the other, and constantly recognizing the efforts and contributions of the other with giving thanks.  Encouragement aims to build the other up.

This Atmosphere of AWE affirms the worth of the other and creates a safe milieu conducive for vulnerability, allowing hearts to gently grow closer together. Even during difficult relationships seasons, creating a positive atmosphere through affection, warms and encouragement will result in increased joy and intimacy – even if just one in the couple keep to it.

Greater capacity for intimacy

intimacy_collage1
Our pursuit of intimacy proves difficult at times, but these moments of loving closeness brings delightful joy!

Over the next seven weeks we will embark on a journey of intimacy, specifically designed to help you grow in your personal capacity to be intimate within marriage.

  • Firstly we will consider our view of intimacy, including spiritual, emotional and physical (sexual) intimacy.  While we evaluate our view of intimacy we will also consider the nature of shame at work in our relationships and see how we can recognize and limit this destructive dynamic in our interactions.
  • Secondly we will recognize other barriers to intimacy, considering general stress as well as relational tension caused by unresolved conflict leading to anger, unforgivess and bitterness. Other major barriers to intimacy include self-centeredness, laziness, pornography, and physiological issues.
  • Thirdly we will consider how to enhance our capacity for intimacy by growing in courage for vulnerability, a stronger sense of worth and identity, as well as embracing the attitude of a servant lover.  We will also focus on the importance of consistently securing a safe space (through our actions and communications) within our relationships in which both we and the others can entrust themselves.
  • Lastly we will devote time in which we will deal with sexual intimacy, considering the the different ways with which men and women generally approach lovemaking, and how to prioritize physical intimacy in our busy lives and homes.

We all can grow in our capacity to love and feel loved.  Come join us on this journey of intimacy!

When you walk through the fire

It’s the beginning of a new year, and we are reminded often of the good plans God has for us – “plans to prosper and not to harm us, to give you a future and hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11).  But what do we do when God’s plans include walking through the fire?

i_believe_in_God“I believe in God, the Father Almighty.” This first line of the Apostolic Creed is fundamental to the Christian faith (Hebrews 11:6): the belief in a God for whom nothing is impossible, and God who is a loving Father who has our best interests in heart.  In this God we trust.

Yet this great truth is the problem for many devout believers who sincerely trust in God for something – healing, provision, breakthrough at work, peace in a relationship – but God does not come through.   Over and over we affirm that God is almighty and good, and that he hears our cries and answers our prayers – but then a loved one dies, your company folds and finances dwindle or marriage ends in divorce court.  Or your desires are unmet in spite of all the promises you received, and you start another year lonely, or childless, or frustrated at work.  What do we make of these situations?  How do we relate to a loving, Almighty Father that allows for the suffering of his children?


 The cause of suffering

As mentioned in a previous post Suffer Well, suffering has two basic behavioral consequences in a believer.

"Introspection" - bronze statue by Frank Somma (2004)
“Introspection” – bronze statue by Frank Somma (2004)

Firstly, he/she may gravitate towards doubt of self, leading to unhealthy introspection, believing that the suffering is either a result of God’s punishment for sin or some “open door” through which Satan has access to hurt us.  Job’s friends believed this and accused him of secret sin. (Yes, “sin leads to death” (James 1:15) and yes, our God “disciplines those he loves” (Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:5-6), but like a good father he warns beforehand and makes it clear what you are being corrected of – his aim is correction)).

Accusing God.
Accusing God.

Secondly, the one suffering may doubt God’s character or ability, leading to accusation, that either God is unjust (as Job did) or unable to save. This can escalate to agnosticism or even atheism.

However, the Bible contains a myriad of godly characters who has undergone suffering – neither because of their sin or God’s unfaithfulness.  These accounts were recorded during times of hardship “for our learning… encouragement… [and] hope (Romans 15:4) during similar circumstances.  One such helpful recording is of Daniel’s three friends who refused to bow down and worship a statue which emperor Nebuchadnezzar erected (see Daniel 3:14-30).  By their own declaration these godly men believed “our God is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand…” (v17).  Yet they ended up in the fire; God did not prevent them from suffering.  What can we learn from this account of the three Jews in Babylonian exile 530BC?  How does it encourage us or give us hope in our own suffering?

"The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace" -  3rd Century wall painting discovered in the Priscilla Catacomb, Rome
“The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace” – 3rd Century wall painting discovered in the Priscilla Catacomb, Rome

God is not the author of suffering and death

In Genesis and Revelation we see the nature of God in creation: no suffering, no death, no sikcness, no enmity.
In Genesis and Revelation we see the nature of God in creation: no suffering, no death, no sickness, no enmity.

As illustrated in this account, God is not the one who initiates suffering and death – the pagan king was.  God’s character and desire for his creation is clear in the Genesis creation account (Genesis 1 and 2) – there was no death, sickness or suffering until the fall.  We see this also in the promised re-creation of the New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 20 and 21) where again death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelations 21:4). God is the author of life; Satan is the author of death and destruction (John 10:10). Since the fall of creation sin in our hearts and our world will result in pain, suffering, sickness, and death.  This is exactly why Jesus came – “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8) so that mankind may again have life more abundantly” (John 10:10).  God is not the author of suffering, but he is drawn to our suffering to redeem mankind from it.

A good life does not save us from suffering.

As seen in our text, a good moral life does not prevent us from suffering.  In fact, even a devout godly life does not protect us from all harm as we see in this account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who refused to worship idols, and yet were thrown in the fire.  A casual glance at Biblical and church history will assure you that good people suffer – in spite of their godliness and often because of their devotion to God.

Consequently, suffering is not always the result of our sinfulness or imperfection.  Our suffering many times is the result of other people’s cooperation with evil (as in this case – the idolatry and oppression of Nebuchadnezzar), or simply the result of the fallen world infested with genetic imperfections, diseases and natural disasters.  Our righteousness does not always exclude us from these hardships.

God enters into our fire.

God enters our suffering. (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace by William Maughan, 1985)
God enters our suffering. (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace by William Maughan, 1985)

Suffering believers often feel abandoned by God.  The question asked many times “Where is God when it hurts?” is clearly answered in this account of Daniel’s friends: God enters the fire to be with his people in their suffering and strengthen them.  This is clearly demonstrated by Christ’s incarnation: Jesus became man to identify with us in our suffering (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; Hebrews 4:15) and to ultimately bring an end to the suffering brought about by sin and Satan (Revelations 21:2-5).

And still today Jesus is “Emmanuel – God with us” (Isaiah 7:14) who will “never leave us or forsake us” (Hebrews 13:5).  Especially during hardship the Psalmists sings “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted” (Psalm 34:18).   No amount of suffering, pain, death or loss – “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ” (Romans 8:38).  God enters our fire – we never suffer alone.

Our suffering has purpose

Why does a loving God then allow suffering? If he is with us in our suffering, why does he not simply save us from it?  The mocking Jewish elite asked this same question to Jesus hanging on the cross 2000 years ago (Matthew 27:41-44), but Jesus endured it because he knew there was purpose to his suffering (Hebrews 12:2) – the salvation of the world!

Our text shows us that the suffering of the three righteous men at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar also had purpose, and we find hope that our suffering has the same three benefits.

Firstly, we note that their suffering lead to their immediate promotion (Daniel 3:v30).  This is a pattern in the Bible – the one who suffers well is promoted directly after his/her suffering.  Think of Job who was double as wealthy after his loss (Job 42:10), Joseph who became ruler over Egypt after his imprisonment (Genesis 41:41-44), David who was crowned king after his persecution (2 Samuel 5:3), Peter who became leader of the early church after his “shaking” (Luke 22:31-32 and Acts 2:14), and Jesus who earned the title “King of kings, Lord of lords” through his obedient suffering (Philippians 2:8-11 and Revelations 19:6).

As mentioned in a previous post Suffering your good tutor we can rest in the truth that “Nothing irredeemable can happen to a Christian” – or as Paul said it “all things work together for the good…” (Romans 8:28).  For the Christian who hold onto God in Christ, regardless of what you are going through, you are better off afterwards – both in this life and the life to come.  Suffering well always lead to promotion.  Nothing we encounter can put you back – God can turn every situation around for your good and his good.

Secondly, the suffering of the three friends of Daniel functions as an amplifier of their witness of and faith in God, so that everyone knew them and was attracted to them after the suffering to hear and investigate their story (Daniel 3:27; refer Philippians 1:13).  Their faith in God and faithfulness to him drew the attention of the king and his governors.  Furthermore, because of God’s preservation and presence in the fire, the king issued a decree that no one may “speak anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” (Daniel 3:29) for fear of their life. Effectively, their faithful, hopeful suffering lead to the honoring of Israel’s God throughout the vast Babylonian Empire, by the King’s decree.  Because they suffered well, the name of God was known and held in honour throughout the fast Babylonian empire; in other words, their suffering was part of God’s plan of salvation of the world. Joseph discovered the same after his imprisonment and promotion – what his brothers intended for evil, God intended for the preservation of millions of souls from widespread famine (Genesis 45:5-8).

Throughout the ages, the blood of the saints has been the seed of the church.  In other words, the faithful, hopeful suffering of God’s people has lead to the salvation of millions of souls throughout the ages.  Likewise your suffering amplifies the witness of your faith in God and lends credence to your message of hope in God – if you suffer while trusting God and remaining faithful to him.

Thirdly, as in the case of the godly martyrs who endured Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, suffering helps one grow in the knowledge of both yourself and God.  Trying times helps one discover the end of yourself and you realize how much you need the Lord’s grace to survive the fiery ordeal, as Paul realized (2 Corinthians 12:9). This produces a beautiful humility.

But suffering also helps one grow in intimacy with God like never before, as we see in this rich example of the three Jewish martyrs who experienced Jesus “walking in the midst of their fire” with them (Daniel 3:25).  Suffering forces one to draw near to God with no pretense, and the result is an honest perception of who God is, as Job discovered (Job 42:5).    This intimacy with God leads to uncharacterized confidence to pursue the impossible, because you have come to know the power and faithfulness of God through your hardships.

Taking it home

In closing, there are three take-home messages from this story in Daniel 3.

We find comfort in the truth that God will never forsake us – especially not during hardship!  “I am with you when you go through the fire… you shall not be burned, the flame shall not consume you…” says the Lord (Isaiah 43:1-2). But don’t isolate yourself, don’t walk through the fire alone – “God is among His people” (Revelation 21:3).

We find hope that our suffering has meaning, it has purpose – God makes “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)  You will be better off after this suffering than you were before it!

Lastly, this story makes us consider and prepare our hearts: can we say with these three godly men “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace … but even if not… we will not serve your gods… (Daniel 3:17-18).  They knew God could save them, but God said no.  Jesus pleaded his Father to make a way around the cross, but God said no (Matthew 26:39, 42).  Paul pleaded the Lord to save him from his torment, but the Lord said no (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).  David trusted his Shepherd to lead him “through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4) – will you?  Will you serve God when the he says no and you must walk through the fire?

flames
Will you trust God to follow him into the fire?