The End? The Lion and the Lamb.

In this 11th post of Revelation we come to Revelation 5, where Christ is worshiped as the One who is worthy to unfold God’s redemptive plan for all creation. A recording of this session is available here

John and the oppressed church in his day struggled to make sense of their suffering in the light of their belief that Christ is Lord of all.  Then, while in prayer, John receives the comforting vision that the resurrected Jesus is still among his church (Chapters 1-3), and that God is indeed sovereign over all of creation (Chapter 4).  His vision of the throne room in heaven continues in chapter 5 as he sees a scroll and a shared throne.  

An important scroll (5:1-5)

In keeping with the apocalyptic genre of Revelation, the importance of the scroll is indicated in several ways.  (The opening of this scroll sets the script for the next eleven chapters).   The scroll is “on the right hand of Him who sits on the throne”, a position of prominence and power.  It is inscribed on the front and back – an unfamiliar practice in John’s day – meaning the scroll was full and complete, with nothing to be added or taken away (compare 22:18-19).  The scroll is sealed perfectly “with seven seals” so that no one could lift a corner to peek into it.  When “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll” John “began to weep loudly.”  John’s response should be our response, because this scroll’s unfolding is of paramount importance to end the tyranny, seduction and deception under which the church and the world is bent.

What is this scroll?  The following chapters will reveal that this scroll contains God’s redemptive plan for his creation – the King’s decrees for the restoration of his Kingdom.  Chapter six through sixteen will show how this progressive unfolding of God’s redemption of creation aligns with the opening of the scroll.  The scroll is his victory over sin, Satan, and the gentile kingdoms that resist his reign and oppress his church.  As such, this scroll contains the answer to the cry of John and the church in his day, and ever suffering saint since: “Lord, don’t you care, don’t you see? If you are the Christ, when will your kingdom come?”

Who then is this champion for God’s redemptive quest with creation?  “Who is worthy to open the scroll?”  This question reveals the central figure of Revelation – the only one who is worthy to unfold this scroll.  John hears the elder’s reassurance “Weep no more!  Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”  The elder’s words paint the picture of a mighty Messianic figure, a lion-like leader from the loins of David.

Lion_2

But like so many times in Revelation, what John hears and what John sees are two different things.  Christ hints that things are not like they seem, church!  When John joyfully turns around to look at this valiant freedom fighter, he sees a slain Lamb (5:6).  The rest of this chapter is devoted to show the worth of this Lamb.

The worth of the Lamb (5:5-7)

The elder already revealed that the Lamb is powerful (“the Lion of Judah”), has prestigious rank (“the root of David”), and has been victorious (“has conquered”).  John notes that the Lamb is “amidst the throne” – in the place of rule and judgment; God regards this Lamb worthy to share his throne with!  The Lamb is said to have perfect strength (“seven horns”)  and perfect wisdom (“seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God”, refer Isaiah 11:2).  

In addition to who the Lamb is (Messiah), where the Lamb is (amidst the throne), and what the Lamb has (perfect strength and wisdom), the Lamb is worthy because what he has done and what he does. The Lamb is described as “slain” – killed as a sacrifice.  The image portrayed is of a violent death.  The Lamb is worthy because of what this all-mighty, all-wise Lamb had willingly endured.  As Jesus said “no one takes my my life from me, but I give it of my own accord.” (John 10:18)

The slain Lamb points back to Egypt, to the Passover Lamb that was slain for the redemption of God’s people from the oppressor (Exodus 12; compare John 1:29).  It reminds the reader of Isaiah’s prophesy of the Messiah who was oppressed, and afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.(Isaiah 54:7, see verses 1-6 for context).  This vicarious Lamb is worthy of honour!

Yet John points out that this Lamb is not only worthy because of what he had done, but what he is doing.  He is slain, yet “standing”!  He had endured and overcome the worst the enemy could do to him, yet he stands victorious over sin, suffering and death!

Because of his worth, his honour, the Lamb ” took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.”   This act causes all of Heaven to erupt in worship.

The worship of the Lamb (5:8-14)

elders_bowing_throne2

Where chapter 4 of Revelation centers around God’s Sovereignty over creation, chapter 3 centers around God’s redemption of creation.  In chapter 4 God (the Father) is worshiped as Creator and Sustainer of creation, but in chapter 5 Christ, the Lamb of God is worshiped as Redeemer of creation.  This truth should not be brushed over too quickly.  Jesus Christ is not only applauded for his sacrifice – his is worshiped together with his Father (5:13). Yet where the Creator is worshiped with three-fold praise (4:11), the Redeemer is worshiped with seven-fold praise (5:12) – in the very presence of the Father.  here in this chapter, the Lamb is the focal point of worship.  

Yet their is no hint of jealousy or competition among the the Godhead.  In his study of the Christian Triune God, Daniel Migliore (Faith seeking understanding, 1991:177) concluded that the relationship between the Three Persons of the Trinity reveal our God to be “eternally self-expending, other-regarding, community forming love.”  As we see here in the Throne Room scene of Revelation 4-5, with God the Father, the Seven-fold Spirit, and Christ the Lamb together, their relationship is indeed eternally self-giving and other-regarding, forming a community of redeemed ones to share in their loving joy and peace.  Truly, God is worthy to be praised forever!

The redeemed (5:9-10)

Every nation tribe tongue

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
    from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
    and they shall reign on the earth.”

As part of the procession of worshipers, the elders sing this song (5:9-10).  Much can be said about these two verses, but I want to highlight only three things.  Firstly, their song show that the Lamb’s work of redemption is rooted in the Old Testament Messianic expectation that the Christ would deliver his people from the woes of the evil kingdoms of this world, like he did when he saved the Hebrews from Egypt in the evening of the Passover.

Second, seven times in Revelation this phrase “from every tribe and language and people and nation” is used in variant forms (5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15).  Israel had a messianic expectation that the Christ will rule over every nation (Genesis 12:3; Psalm 2:8-9; Isaiah 49:6; 56:6-8 to name a few).  Christ’s commission to his disciples was to proclaim his reign “to every nation” (Matthew 24:41; 28:19). All these were redeemed from various ethnic groups by the blood of Christ (compare Mark 10:45; 1 Pet 1:18-19).  This universal reach of his redemption is to showcase both his grace and glory (Romans 15:9).

Thirdly, these redeemed ones are not only forgiven, but are given the right and responsibility to reign with God, as these crowned, enthroned elders depict (4:4; 5:8-9).  They praise Christ for making them “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).  This image of Christ’s full redemption, where mankind are invited to reign with God, is an allusion to the original intent God had with Adam and Eve: created in his image, to rule and reign with him (Genesis 1:26-27; Psalm 8).  Christ has come to restore all things, including man’s original position in God’s kingdom.

Bringing it home

take_scroll

“Weep no more!”  This vision encouraged these seven suffering churches (1:4, 11) that God has a scroll – a plan for the fulfillment of his redemption and restoration of fallen creation – and that Christ was championing this charge.  They could stop their weeping: Christ is on the move! (The next 11 chapters reveal how).

“Reign with me!”  But these churches understood that their redemption did not merely mean that were reconciled with God; they were also rightful rulers with God in Christ.  Even now they were kings and priests to reign on earth with him.  They were privileged and empowered to participate in his Kingdom witness and work.

Today also, to a church afraid, bewildered and confused by the mess the world is in, the Spirit says “Weep no more! Don’t despair! There is a Champion at work!”  We will see in the chapters to follow how all the calamities and confusion is serving Christ’s conquest, and how “in all these things were are more than overcomers through him who loves us.” (Romans 8:37)

But likewise the Spirit reminds us that were are not helpless victims or passive onlookers in this struggle – we are positioned to “reign with Christ” (Romans 5:17) over sin in this world, now and forever.  However, our reigning is not meant to be in the way of the Roman leaders, not in the way of the Lion, but in the way of the Lamb.

“Walk in the way of the Lamb!” Like Paul learn, we rely on his grace to reveal his power – not ours.  This means that like Christ, we who reign with Christ should humble ourselves (Philippians 2:5-10).  It means that we should consider ourselves merely as “jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)  It calls us to be content and patiently rely on the sufficiency of Christ’s grace during suffering, to “boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (1 Corinthians 12:8-10).   This does not imply resignation to all the world throws at you, but rather a reliance upon Christ to vindicate one than self.

My friends, weep no more – there is Champion!  The Lamb has conquered, and has redeemed and esteemed you to reign with him over evil in this world – today and always.  But he calls us to walk in his way – in the way of gentleness, meekness and sacrifice.  Be of good cheer – His grace is sufficient for all you face today, and will return to wipe every tear and banish every fear.  He makes all things new! 

(Not) Enough!

At times I feel I need 8 arms like an octopus, just to have hands on everything that is going on.  But I don’t.

The other day I spoke to God about the moments when I do not feel the peace of God, when I feel disconnected from the God of peace.  I concluded that I feel anxious and frustrated whenever I am overwhelmed with all the people, projects and places I am unable to sufficiently connect to and serve.

I find that (my) life is simply too demanding to do everything well.  As a husband, I am at times unable to connect to and love my wife the way I want to.  As a father of two beautiful young children I find that I am at times to busy and too drained to bless them the way I would want to.  As pastor and overseer I am thoroughly aware of all the people going through hardships whom I would want to spend time with to comfort and care for – as well as the people with great potential whom I would want to coach and encourage.  What drains my peace is that in every area of my life I feel that I am falling short; I am too busy to give my wife, my children, my congregation, my friends, my community, my studies and my God the time and devotion I want to or feel I should.  As such I am always aware that I can (and should) be a better husband, better father, better friend, better pastor, better steward, and better Christian.  I am failing everyone, mostly God and myself. I don’t do (well) enough, and I am not (being) enough for anyone.

These are the moments when I am acutely aware of my inadequacy, my insufficiency to be everything for everyone. My emotions dashboard lights up with anxiety, frustration, disappointment, shame, and that familiar sense of being overwhelmed.  At these moments I am acutely aware that I am not enough, and that I just don’t do enough.

I want to be more.  I want to do more. And I feel I should.

If you can identify with these emotions, then cheer up – we’re in great company!

Joshua felt insufficient

intimidated_incompetence

Joshua was apparently also overwhelmed with a sense of being insufficient, unqualified, and uncertain of himself.   Moses was dead, and Joshua had to take the reins of leading Israel to occupy the promised land.[i]  Joshua certainly had the faith in God to face those giants in their fortified cities,[ii] and had shown himself competent in combat.[iii]  The Bible writes that Joshua was faithful,[iv] and full of the Spirit of wisdom, [v] and knowing God intimately.[vi]  Moses had mentored him for 40 year, and now God himself called him to step up and take the lead.[vii]

In spite of all these qualities Joshua was intimidated and for the task at hand.  He needed much encouragement, or rather, much urging to step up and lead.  It was not the giants or the combat that freaked him out.  He felt insignificant, insufficient, incapable compared to Moses whose shoes he had to fill – a mighty leader who regularly demonstrated the power of God.[viii]  And who can blame Joshua for feeling small in comparison to the man who stood in front of Pharaoh and brought down ten plagues that plummeted the mighty Egyptian empire?  Or the man for whom the Red Sea opened up, mountains shook, manna rained down and water gushed out of rock?  The man who brought identity, moral law and formalized worship for the Israelites?  Who would not be intimidated?

The irony is that, when God at first called Moses for his task, he also felt intimidated.  He declared himself incompetent and insufficient for his task.  And I’d say he had a good enough reason – this leader couldn’t speak in public, and had the bad reputation of murderer and deserted in Egypt.  Moses of all people knew where he fell short, where he was not qualified, not good enough for the role he was called to fulfill.

But Moses was not merely sent to do a job for God; he was called to do something with God.  He was not called to bring down Pharaoh and his oppressive empire for God, but with God.  He was not sent to lead the people out of Egypt, through the Red Sea and the wilderness into the Promised Land for God.  He was called to follow God and walk with God as he led the people.  Moses’ significance and success were not determined on his own performance and perfection but on God’s presence and power.  He just had to stay in step with God.

Yes, Moses was incompetent, insufficient, incomplete as father, as husband, as leader, as worshiper.  The Bible records his flaws on purpose.  But Moses appears larger than life in the Sacred Text because in spite of all these imperfections and shortcomings, God was with him.  All the successes attributed to Moses were God’s miraculous compensation for human shortcomings.

Therefore, all Joshua needed to hear to be brave, to be strong, to lead God’s people and to possess the land was the promise that “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you.”

I’m insufficient.  God is not.

Back to my weekend encounter with God about my insufficiency to do everything well: I poured out my heart and told God how I felt insufficient, how I felt that I did nothing good enough because I am too busy, too scattered.  If I had less commitments, perhaps I could do at least a few things well.  But what can I cut from my life?  I am quite confident that I am connected and committed where God has led me.  I feel that it is in fact God’s tasks that make me feel insufficient and incompetent.  Could that be?

As I was praying, I heard God clearly answer me: “I know you are insufficient.  I called you, knowing you are not perfect.  I don’t expect perfection from you.  I don’t expect more from you.  But I am with youMy grace is sufficient.

These words were as refreshing and revitalizing as cold water on a hot day.  I felt as though weights dropped off my shoulders, a burden left my chest.  God does not expect more from me; he knows my insufficiency.

Simply the Gospel

Over against a striving culture that that celebrates performance and perfection, the gospel of Christ sounds the invitation that God’s sufficiency in Christ qualifies and compensates the insufficient and imperfect.  His invitation to the weary and incomplete is to find rest in his sufficiency.[ix]  In Christ, God does not frown upon the insufficient nor does he reject the imperfect.  Rather, God is compassionately drawn to our brokenness and weakness,[x] “because he remembers that we are dust.”[xi]

And that is the gospel: that the Perfect One redeems and embraces the imperfect ones through the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.  God is always with us.

God with me 

“I am with you,” God said to the stuttering Moses,[xii] to the hesitant Joshua,[xiii] to the fainthearted Gideon,[xiv] and the youthful Jeremiah.[xv]  The list goes on.  Yet, aware of (and even intimidated by) their insufficiency in the face of their calling, these believers were inspired to step out, assured of God’s empowering presence.

That’s how the stuttering Moses lead 4 million Hebrews out of Slavery, hesitant Joshua conquered the Promised Land, fainthearted Gideon defeated the powerful Midianites with 300 men, and young Jeremiah faithfully proclaimed God’s word in wicked times.  God’s grace proved sufficient, his strength was perfected in their weakness. [xvi]

Imperfect, but worthy

Realizing our insufficiency is a good thing.  It does not help to brainwash ourselves with Ted Talks, nor to try and persuade ourselves with “mirror-mirror” pep talks that indeed, we are sufficient and have what it takes.   Our inner and outer reality clearly shows that we fall short.  But our imperfection does not diminish our worth or our work. 

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.[xvii]

enough1

Our (in)sufficiency does not (dis)qualify us from salvation.  Quite the opposite!  The reason why God sent his son into the world was because everyone fall short of God’s perfection; therefore God in Christ has made a way to impart his sufficiency to us, that we might stand sufficient before him. [xviii]  Whoever humbly asks for this gift we call salvation will be made right before God.[xix]

Our (in)competence does not (dis)qualify us from service.  God is not intimidated or irritated by our shortcomings!  Comparing yourself to the accomplishments of others is futile.  Accomplishments does not qualify us before God, the true eternal judge: God alone calls, God alone qualifies, God alone commends us before him.[xx]  Every character in the Bible who played a meaningful role in history reminds us that God calls, qualifies, commends and empowers imperfect people to accomplish significant work with him.  That’s still his way with me and with you.

The Invitation

In those moments that I feel strong, that I feel on top of everything, I usually have courage to exert myself for concerns bigger than myself.  I have courage to stretch myself beyond my own needs.  But God challenged Joshua to do just that when he was intimidated by his own imperfections: to be strong and act courageous in the face of his incompetence.  How?  By the assurance of the Sovereign Lord’s personal presence.

Think about it: what could Joshua possibly face that is too big, too hard for God?  Not the Jordan river in flood, not Jericho with its high walls, not the seven mighty nations in Canaan.  No, not even the rebellious people God had entrusted to him!

That invitation to walk towards God’s Promised Peace today is the same:  in spite of my insufficiency, God is with me.  And that is how my heart is encouraged to act with confidence.  Today, in every place and every situation, God has my back to compensate for every inadequacy and insufficiency.

The reminder

What would I say to myself next time I am overwhelmed by my own incompetence and insufficiency.  I would remind myself that God is not irritated with my imperfections, nor is he not disappointed with my defective performance.  I will remind myself that his grace has made me both accepted in he presence and empowered by His partnership.  He has not sent me to do work on his behalf – he has invited me to live a life of service with him.  I will remind myself that God does expect perfection of me – he knows that I am dust and has perfected me in Christ.  I will remind myself to look beyond my inabilities, to discern God’s presence and trust in his God’s sovereign power.  I will urge myself to look to him and be strong – because it is not the “perfect ones” that do great; the ones who know their God will do great exploits.[xxi]

[i] Joshua 1:1-10

[ii] Numbers 13:16-14:9

[iii] Exodus 17:8-13

[iv] Exodus 32:1-17

[v] Exodus 33:11

[vi] Deut. 34:1-12.

[vii] Deut. 31:14-23

[viii] Deuteronomy 34:12

[ix] Isaiah 55:1-2

[x] Psalm 34:18

[xi] Psalm 103:14

[xii] Exodus 4:10-12

[xiii] Joshua 1:2-6

[xiv] Judges 6:12-14

[xv] Jeremiah 1:6-9

[xvi] 2 Cor 12:9

[xvii] 1 Pet 5:5-6; James 4:6

[xviii] Rom 3:23, 6:23

[xix] Romans 10:13

[xx] 2 Cor 10:18

[xxi] Dan 11:32

Known by your scars

On a recent trip to the East I had to declare all the identification marks or scars on my body during my visa application process.  It reminded me of a humorous incident when I was 17 years old.   My brother and I both applied for an engineering scholarship in the Navy which required a full medical check-up. During the check-up the Naval doctor asked me about my scar on my upper right arm, and also inquired about my hand which had been broken before.  Embarrassed I had to tell confess that the scar was caused when my brother “accidentally” stabbed my during a dish-washing washing incident. “And about the hand?” I blushed.  “Well… my brother ducked and I hit the wall instead…” (Three teenage brothers… these things happen!)

A few weeks later I found myself neatly dressed in a Naval board room, facing several officers of the selection committee.  Very intimidating for a teenager! Near the end of the interview (which I thought went quite well up this point!) the one captain – introduced as a psychologist – asked me about my relationship with my older brother (who was interviewed by this committee just before me).  “Very good!” I answered truthfully.  “Are the two of you competitive with one another? Would there be striving if both of you are selected for the training?”  “Not at all!  We are very close … really no issues between us!” I assured the captain.  He smiled knowingly and asked: “Ross, will you tell us how you got the scar on your upper right arm?  And how did you break your hand?”  I blushed… apparently the Naval doctor made very thorough notes of my medical exam.  We all had a good laugh as I retold the stories of my scars, and the day ended with both my brother and I being selected for the Naval training program.

As I previously wrote, the rings and marks of a tree reveal much of the events that literally shaped the tree.  We can discern much of the climatic and environmental events such as wet and dry seasons, forest competition, sickness or pestilence, animal damage, forest fires and even major earth quakes it lived through.  We can never see the trauma the tree encountered – only the tree’s growth response to the events.  We only see the rings and the scars – how the tree grew and healed through its encounters.  These scars latterly tell the story of life of the tree – what the tree endured and survived.

trees_response

Our scars – visible and invisible – tell a similar story.  My experience is that people want to hide and even forget their scars, being ashamed of the imperfections and afraid of the memories.  In contrast, the apostle Paul boasted about his scars[i] and listed the events which caused these scars (inside and outside) with gratitude and dignity, claiming that these scars are something to be cherished, even honoured. [ii]  Why?  How could our pain and the scars it left be something to be thankful for, something to be cherished and even paraded?  What can we learn from Paul about our scars and the trauma which caused it?

Firstly, my scars are a witness to my weaknesses, and therefore they are signs of grace.  Paul boasted in all his weaknesses[iii] because during these weaknesses and the sufferings which revealed the end of his strength, he experienced the grateful strength and intervention of God.  These traumatic events scarred Paul’s body because of violence and accidents; it scarred his soul because of betrayal and abandonment; and it scarred his spirit due to accusations and torment.  Yet these scars were cherished by Paul because each scar – visible and invisible – reminded him of God’s sustaining grace.  Without God’s grace Paul would have died, given up, or turned back from God’s call for his life.

Like the rings and marks on a tree, our scars are reminders of God’s faithful care, intervention and sustaining power during each situation that left its mark.  The scar says “If it had not been for the Lord,[iv] this would have been my end… but God carried me through and restored me!”   As such these scars bring me daily comfort that God is always with me, and can turn anything and everything I face today for my good.[v]  Whenever my strength fails, I can be sure of His strength.[vi]  When fear wants to overwhelm me, my scars remind me that stronger is He that is in me than what I may face in the world today.[vii]  I never face anything alone.[viii]

Secondly, my scars are witness to tests I have passed.  Like the marks that give character to the tree, every scar – visible or invisible – tells the story of pain that I endured, of hardship that I was not spared.  And therefore, as a believer in Christ, these scars are signs of faith that remind me that I was tested and purified as through fire. [ix]  In spite of the troubles I kept on believing that God is good and a rewarder of those who diligently serve Him[x].  Through the pain, loss, or shame I kept on trusted God, believing that he has overcome the world.[xi]  My faith was proven and found to be real because I have come to trust God’s character more than my experience.

Looking at my scars as marks of faith bring me daily confidence.  My scars remind me that nothing can separate me from God’s love, and that in every hardship I endure I am more than a conqueror through Christ who gives me strength.[xii]  In this sense each scar is an affirmation of my faith, each adding confidence in the face of adversity.

Thirdly, my scars are witness to a fading, fallible world.   We only get scars on earth because the rule of sin and its decaying effect is limited to this fallen world of ours.  Our scars are caused by things like violence, sickness, calamity – and these have temporal freedom here.  The driving forces that brings the pain and leave scars are often hatred, jealousy, greed, betrayal, or abuse – and these are only at work here and now.  But when Christ returns to reign there will be no more pain, no more sickness, no more calamity[xiii] – there will be no new scars in heaven.

our scars

Every scar reminds me that our world is fallen, and it stirs my longing for the day when Christ will come to make all things new.[xiv]  As such our scars are signs of hope, reminders that Christ will bring an end to sin and suffering and establish His reign of shalom. Looking at my scars in this light brings me joyful endurance, knowing that whatever I might face is today temporal; it cannot compare to the eternal glory that awaits me.[xv]

Lastly, our scars are reminders of Christ’s scars on his body.  CHRIST HAS SCARS BECAUSE WE HAVE SCARS. Moved by love the Eternal Perfect One exchanged his pain-free heaven for our pain-stricken existence.  He vicariously suffered everything mankind endures to redeem us to Himself.[xvi]  This sacrificial love left the Eternal Perfect One scarred forever – as a Lamb having been slain.[xvii]

Our scars point us to His scars, a visceral reminder that we are greatly loved.  My scars are signs of love.  He was scarred in body, soul and spirit for our healing, peace and forgiveness.[xviii]  In this – His scars – His love for us is demonstrated.[xix]  O, how He loves us!  Looking at my scars in this way stirs my gratitude and devotion to Christ.

Through what did you grow this year?   What scars did the past year leave in your body, soul and spirit?[xx]  How do you feel looking at the marks life left on you?  Like the rings and scars in a tree, we our character is shaped by our response to what life throws at us.  We too are known by our scars.  How you relate to your scars shape your reality, relationships and ultimately your destiny.

Reframing how you view your scars will realign your reality, relationships and your destiny.  Ask yourself: How do these scars remind you of God’s sustaining grace? Can you see the scars as affirmation of real faith? Do the scars stir your hope in Christ’s return? And do the scars remind you of God’s immense love?  How does all this make you feel at the prospect of another year? Comforted? Confident? Joyful?

Now you too can look at your scars and say with Paul: “We we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. These light afflictions, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory…” [xxi]

[i] Galatians 6:17.

[ii] 2 Corinthians 11:23-33, 12:8-10.

[iii] See above.

[iv] Psalm 124:1.

[v] Romans 8:28.

[vi] 2 Corinthians 12:8-10.

[vii] 1 John 4:4.

[viii] Isaiah 43:2.

[ix] 1 Peter 1:6-7.

[x] Hebrews 11:6.

[xi] John 16:33.

[xii] Romans 8:35-37.

[xiii] Revelation 21:4.

[xiv] Revelation 21:5.

[xv] 2 Corinthians 4:17.

[xvi] Revelation 5:9.

[xvii] Revelation 5:6.

[xviii] Isaiah 53:4-6.

[xix] Romans 5:8.

[xx] If you read ‘spirit’ in this sense, it is helpful to think of identity, as well as your relational ability to love, hope and trust.

[xxi] 2 Corinthians 4:16-17.

On Spiritual Maturity : The Error of Balaam

In the book of Numbers, four chapters are devoted to the history of a prophet who had a profound impact on God’s people during their conquest of the Promised Land.  This prophet was not a Jewish man, but a seer who dwelt in Pethor: Balaam son of Beor.  In 1967 archeological evidence was discovered with the inscription of “Baalam son of Beor” prophet of “El Shaddai” – the Almighty God as he was known to the Israelites in the days of Moses.  This archeological evidence adds tremendous historic weight this account in the Bible.

Image of wall tiles inscribed by "Balaam son of Peor, Prophet of El Shaddai" found at  Tell Deir Alla, Succoth (dated to 1406/750 BC). See  www.bible.ca/archeology/
Image of wall tiles inscribed by “Balaam son of Peor, Prophet of El Shaddai” found at Tell Deir Alla, Succoth (dated to 1406/750 BC). See http://www.bible.ca/archeology/

The reason why this account of a foreign prophet speaking to ancient Israel is important to contemporary believers is highlighted by the numerous New Testament references to Balaam.  All of these references of Balaam are warnings: Peter warns the church of false prophets who “have gone astray… in the way of Balaam…” (2 Peter 2:15).  Jude warns of “ungodly people… [who] abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error” (Jude 1:1, 11).  John wrote of those in the church in Pergamum “who hold to the teachings of Balaam.” (Revelations 2:14).  In each of the three texts the prophet Balaam is used as reference or type of ungodly lifestyles and doctrinal error of believers that is condemnable.  But what is this dangerous “error”, “way” or “doctrine”?

Reading through the historic account of Balaam’s dealings with Israel (Numbers 22:1-25:10, 31:8,16), one has to acknowledge his absolute commitment to relay only what God says: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God to do less or more” (22:18).  Throughout these three chapters he maintains this stance, repeating his commitment to speak only the words of God another five times (22:38;  23:8, 12, 26; 24:13).  In the end, Balaam’s loyalty to prophesy in truth as God revealed cost him his wages which Balak promised (24:11).  Thus Balaam is an accurate prophet, true to delivering God’s message, not yielding to pressure or bribe to speak falsely.

So why the negative connotations with Balaam?  Numbers 25 records a shameful time in Israel’s travels as they camped on the Eastern side of the Jordan river and started living like the Moabite people.  Swaying under the power of cultural seduction to sexual immorality and idol worship, the Israelites came under the wrath of God through as a plague that killed 24’000 Israelites (Numbers 25:1-9).  This moral decay is attributed to Balaam (Numbers 31:16).  Although he was extremely gifted and graced by God to hear and speak accurately the pure words of God, he himself was an immoral man whose way of life was corrupted with sin (“way of Balaam” 2 Peter 2:15; ““error” Jude 1: 11) and his teachings deceptive (Numbers 31:16).  His lifestyle and teachings were not to be followed, admired or trusted.  In fact, Balaam was executed along with the Midianites under the wrath of God (Numbers 31:8).

The first talking ass - Balaam's donkey!
The first talking ass – Balaam’s donkey!

Although his prophesies is shown to be infallible in the text, the author of Numbers includes the humorous account of his journey on the donkey to Balak (Numbers 22:21-38), which is very deliberately inserted to humble this “great prophet”.  For instance, Balaam the great prophet is hired to subdue Israel with words, but he cannot even subdue his donkey with a stick.  He claims to see visions (24:4,17) but can’s see what the donkey sees on three occasions (22:32).  He claims that his prophetic speech is from God (22:38; 23:5, 12, 16), yet the donkey silences him as its mouth is also opened by God (22:28).  Balaam claims to posess knowledge “from the Most High” (24:16) was beaten in verbal exchange with a stupid donkey (22:30) and then has to admit to the angel “I did not know [what the donkey knows]” (22:34).  Although Balaam is on his way to slay a whole nation with his words he has to draw a sword to kill the donkey (22:29); while lamenting lamenting that he had no sword to slay the animal, the donkey sees the drawn sword in the hands of the angel (22:23) right in front of him.  This irony is meant as a lesson in humility – that the great prophet, like any donkey, can see and speak only what God shows him, and that he simply is graced to serve in the purposes of God.  Secondly, this account shows that although the prophet speaks graceful words by God’s Spirit, he is more beastly than his donkey: where the beast is kind to move his master Balaam out of harm’s way three times, the master is beastly in beating the faithful, kind-hearted, willing animal without considering the motive.

Godliness and our culture

Although Balaam had the ability to speak God’s words accurately, he had lead a whole nation astray.  His life serves as a warning that accurate spiritual discernment without holy living (from a godly character) is dangerous.  What was this ungodliness?  Balaam’s error (2 Peter 2:15) or Balaam’s way (Jude 1:11) simply refers to his lifestyle of cultural acceptance.  Although being a gifted prophet Balaam lived as the Midianites did, and that lead to the corruption of God’s holy people as they followed his “way” and “erred” in his footsteps.  His love for sensual pleasure made him prone towards greed, sexual immorality and cultural festivity surrounding the worship of other gods, plus his independence lead to rebellion.  (See 2 Peter 2:2-14; Jude 1:1, 6-11; Psalm 106:28; Revelation 2:14).

no_rules
The doctrine of Balaam: everything goes! No consequences!

The doctrine of Balaam (Revelation 2:14) teaches that God’s people are chosen, holy and saved in God’s eternal covenant and therefore nothing can change that reality – not even their lifestyle.  So by his example and by his teachings the great prophet Balaam deceived God’s people into a lifestyle of sexual immorality and the worship of Baal of Peor.  As a result, many died under the wrath of God, never reaching the Promised Land (Jude 1:5).  Still today Balaam’s dualism (distinguishing spiritual holiness from moral life) is taught in many places (associated with Gnosticism in the early church and extreme grace teachings).  Apart from formal teaching, the way of Balaam is engrained in our spiritual DNA by the example of our contemporary church culture where Sundays is God’s day, and the rest of the week we live good lives, but find pleasure and security as the rest of society does.

Balaam is not the only example of this fallacy in Scripture.  Samson, the mighty deliverer of Israel was like him: a man empowered by the Spirit of God to lead and deliver Israel, yet always seduced and enticed by his worldly passions and made ineffective. (Judges 14-16)  Giving in to the seduction of sensual sins enslaves God’s people and brings shame to his Name.

In contrast to Balaam and Samson, Daniel and his friends stand out as examples of godliness amidst a crooked world.  Daniel chapter three records how Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden image that everyone in his kingdom had to bow down to whenever the music played. The image was not an image of a particular god, but rather represented the religious culture of the day.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the image, and was persevered by God in the fire.  Their refusal to succumb to the cultural pressure in faithfulness to the One True God stands as an example to every believer in our present-day materialistic, promiscuous culture feeling pressures us to conform.

How do we respond?

Considering the the error of Balaam, I find three ways to respond to this in pursuit of spiritual maturity.

  1. Review your definition of “Spiritual Maturity”

The reference to Balaam in Peter’s second epistle pertains to false prophets among the first readers, thus spiritually gifted leaders. This is worth mentioning.  Peter appeals to his readers to note the ungodly fruit of these spiritually gifted ministers, and therefore not following their example of sensuality and rebellion.  Peter looked at the character and behavior of these gifted leaders and was not easily mesmerized by their prophetic ability.  After all, Jesus taught him that a person is “known by [his] fruit” (Matthew 12:33).

Peter needed to write this to the growing young church, since the charismatic gift of prophets is very appealing to especially young believers.  And the display of spiritual gifts is easily taken as signs of spiritual maturity. It is the will of God that we grow up (Ephesians 4:11ff), but how do you define maturity? That is why these warnings by Jesus and his apostles are so strong and clear.  So re-evaluate your view of spiritual maturity: Who do you admire?  Who do you want to follow after?  Consider their character – are they known by their love? What can you learn from their marriage and family relationships, their work ethic and how they manage money?

Take stock of your life spiritually.
Take stock of your life spiritually.
  1. Take stock of your own life.

In Jude and Revelations the warning to individuals walking in the error or teachings of Balaam is merely to wrong belief of individuals in their congregations of those in their midst.  Balaam is the image of a spiritually gifted man with the lust of sensual pleasures that are lead by his passions through this life like waves thrown around by their earthly desires (Jude 1:12-14).  Take an honest view of your life your own life, with special reference to you your passions and desires.  Are you leaving it unchecked?  What are you doing about it?  And who are you accountable to about it?

  1. Grow in godliness.

Our aim remains to be conformed to the image of Christ Jesus and to help form others into that image (Romans 8:29; Colossians 2:28-29).  Be purposeful about it.  How have you grown in godliness in the last year, and in which area do you need to grow now?  Are you growing in the will of God?  What does the Lord say, and what will you do to grow in that area of Christ-likeness.  Again, and who knows about that?

While closing with growth in Christ-likeness, remember these words of Paul: “Continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, giving you the desire and ability for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)  Continue, don’t stagnate in your pursuit of Christ-likeness.  Work it out yourself, don’t expect it to automatic or someone else’s job.  As you grow in Christ-likeness you also will grow to emulate the Christ – the Anointed One (Acts 10:38).  Earnestly desire spiritual gifts but let the motive be love (1 Corinthians 12:31).

And work with God – it is he that works in you, leading your through your desires and gracing your with the power needed to grow in Christ-likeness.  Don’t stop!  Work joyfully with the grace God gives.