The End? The new beginning

With this last chapter of Revelation John focuses again on Jesus and his centrality to all of God’s creation and redemption. A recording of this post will be available on the Shofar Durbanville YouTube channel.

The Bible begins and ends with the description of a paradise-garden in which there is a tree of life and a life-giving river. In this last chapter of John’s Apocalypse John shows how God’s restoration and renewal of all things is brought to a completion. In this final vision of the Revelation of Jesus Christ (1:1) we see the Gospel of God beautifully painted.

Jesus is life (22:1-5).  Continuing with the scene of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21), John describes the the River of Life flowing from the throne room of God and the Lamb.  The picture of the life-giving river alludes to Eden (Genesis 2:7-10) and Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 47:1-12).  This River of Life flows in the middle of the street of this Holy City.   On its banks are the Tree of Life, bearing fruit all-year long, with “it’s leaves for the healing of nations” (22:2; Ezekiel 47:7,12).

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After Adam and Eve rebelled and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God removed them from the Garden “lest [they] stretch out [their] hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” in their fallen state (Genesis 3:22-24).  But access to the Tree of Life is a sign that there is no more sin, no more darkness, “for the Lord God will be their light” (22:5) and those who dwell therein will forever reign.  This garden-image is a powerful picture of Christ’s full redemption and restoration of mankind, where mankind will live in communion with God, to share in his life, and reign over his creation with goodness (Genesis 1:26-27).  Here life is as it always should have been.

The symbolism is beautiful and meant to be both hopeful and instructive to the readers. Christ is the source of all light and life (John 1:4-5; 11:25; 14:6).  The Life-giving River “which make glad the city of our God” (Psalm 36:8; 46:4) depicts the nature and work of the Holy Spirit – the “Spirit of Life” (Romans 8:2, 11) who satisfy believers to never thirst again” (John 4:13; Isaiah 55:1), even to overflow with rivers of living water” (John 7:38-39).  The street in the Holy City is “the Highway of Holiness” (Isaiah 35:8), “the Way” of life Jesus taught of and made possible by his blood (Acts 24:14,22, cf Hebrews 10:19-20).  The Tree of Life is the church, God’s redeemed creation who in turn is God’s redemptive gift to the world.  It is the tree that grows from the Gospel seed (Matthew 13:31-32), who is planted next to the River of Life and therefore yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither (Psalm 1:3; Jeremiah 17:7-8).  And through the reigning of the Lamb and the nourishing of his Spirit the church now and forever reign in this life (Revelation 5:9-10; Romans 5:17).  

Put together, the church are those renewed and sustained by the Spirit of God, who walks in the Way of Holiness as they submit to the reign of God and the Lamb.  By drawing from the water of the Spirit the church bear fruit that gives life and healing to the nations, displacing evil.  This is as much a picture of the church today as it points to Christ’s coming kingdom.    

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Jesus is the judge (22:12).  Four times in this chapter John records the words that Jesus’ return is “soon”, and hears Christ’s admonition to “hear the words of this prophesy and keep it.” (22:7)  The angelic warning about the end on the river-bank pictures a strong allusion to Daniel 12.  But in contrast to Daniel who was told to “seal up” and “shut up” the prophesy “until the last days”, John is now told to “not seal up the prophesy, for the time us near” – implying the Day of the Lord, the day of Judgment is near (22:10; Daniel 12:4, 9).  Alluding to Daniel’s vision (22:10; Daniel 12:10) the angel says:

“Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, 

[let] the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.”

This does not imply that the time of grace is over.  John writes that doing proceeds from being.  In keeping with the rest of the prophesy to the seven churches, John urges believers that, if indeed they have been redeemed and sanctified by the Blood of the Lamb (5:9-10), then act in accordance with your standing.  Since you are holy, do righteous deeds!  Do not live in the filthy ways of Babylon, because Jesus is coming soon as judge, “to repay each one for what he has done” (22:12; Isaiah 40:10).

 

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Jesus is goal (22:13).  What will be the standard of the judgment?  Christ Himself!  In addition to being the Ever-living One (Alpha and Omega), the Sovereign One (First and Last in rank), Christ is also “the Beginning and the End (Greek telos) of all things – the origin and the purpose (or goal) of all creation.  The goal of all mankind is “to conform to the image of His Son”, to resemble or reflect the image and reign of God (Romans 8:29, Genesis 1:26-27).  The problem is that all have sinned and fall short of of His glory  – that none resemble his nature and ways (Romans 3:23).  When Christ’s comes to “repay each one for what he has done” (22:12), there will be “no one righteous”, none can stand on his own works (Romans 3:10). With the disciples we cry “Who then can be saved” in that Day (Matthew 19:25)?

Jesus the only hope (22:14). As he did in the recording of his gospel, John displays “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” as the only hope for the sinful world before a Holy Judge. “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates” (22:14).  How have the redeemed washed their robes to gain entry into God’s New Creation?

“These with white robes… are the ones who… have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:13-14)  These are saved from the wrath of God not by their own efforts, but by grace through faith in God’s mercy (Ephesians 2:8-9).   These are the ones who trust not in their own ability or righteousness, but recognize their own shortcoming and trust in God’s Lamb who was slain as the propitiation for their sins (substitutionary sacrifice, 1 John 2:2).  Truly, the just shall live by faith forever (Romans 1:17)!

One big message.  From beginning to end the book of Revelation shows cohesiveness in form and message intended to encourage and exhort the church in its struggle against evil.  The nature of Revelation is that of an apostolic letter (1:4, 11; 22:16, 21) from John to seven congregations, containing a prophesy from the Lord to his church (1:3; 22:7) in apocalyptic genre unveiling what is at work behind the suffering of the world and how it will end (1:1, 10; 21:6, 10).  It’s central confession is that Jesus Christ is sovereign over both his church and the world, and that he is already at work to destroy evil on earth until he rids the world of all evil influence, even sin, death and Satan.  Christ is among his church, and through the presence, prayers and patient endurance the saints participate in Christ’s conquest over evil, until he returns. It calls the church to remain faithful to its Lord, promising rewards in the share of His reign.

Bringing it home

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This chapter reveals the Gospel of Christ in beautiful images.  The renewed Garden City of God shows a world without evil, sustained by the life-giving presence of God.  But also warns of the immanent judgment of Christ to a fallen world, because sinners cannot enter God’s renewed creation.  Then it displays the amazing grace of God, who would slay the Heavenly Lamb to cleanse sinners through his blood, in order to reconcile a broken world to himself in love.

This gospel depiction reminds us of God’s amazing love and his unwavering justice.  It calls me to consider my conduct in light of my being: have I repented of my sin to accept God’s is grace and submit to His Lordship?  Then by the blood I have been made holy, and should act righteous“Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1 John 2:6)

Moreover, this chapter displays the corporate reality of the nature and mission of the church in a beautiful way. We the church, redeemed and renewed by Christ, already share in His Life-Giving Spirit and walk in His Way, bear the fruit and the leaves for the healing of the nations.  The church is the living witness of God’s coming kingdom.  It calls me to consider my personal and communal witness: in which way can the world taste and see that the Lord is good?  In which way does my life (personal or communal) bring healing to the nations?  May the love, grace and justice of Christ be known in your life.

“Come, Lord Jesus!” 

The End? All things new

The renewal of all things: this is the message of Revelation 21, our 25th study in the encouraging book.  A recording of this study will be made available on the Shofar Youtube channel.

What do you deeply desire for the future, your future? What is your ultimate hope?  If every problem is fixed and every desire is met, everything is made right again, what will your reality be like?  How confident are you that this will happen?

This hope for God’s renewal of all things is the focus of John’s vision Revelation 21. His only invitation to the reader is to “behold”, to picture the beauty of God’s renewed creation.

A physical future.  Often we are tempted to think of life after this as spiritual, eternally living disembodied lives.  We imagine floating on the clouds, enjoying the bliss of an unending spa while singing praises with the angels.  We think that when Jesus returns we will once and for all be rid of our sensual bodies, of the earth, because in this material world the problems lie.

The idea that matter is less good than spiritual comes from Greek philosophy.  Yet the  Bible teaches that God is the creator of our material world, and that everything he made “was good”.  Mankind he made with body and soul, breathing His very spirit into them, and affirmed them as “very good”.  Then came the fall and the corruption of sin.  Still we are called to “glorify God in our bodies”, even in the most mundane things like “eating or drinking” (1 Corinthians 6:20, 10:31).  God is the one who gives us these material things to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17).  Our material world is not inherently the problem – the corruption of sin is, and that affects both our earthly and heavenly realms.

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The first thing John notices of God’s great renewal is the continuity of our lives as we know it – that our eternal existence will be both physical and spiritual, lived out in “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1; compare Isaiah 65:17-25).    God’s promise is the renewal of both our physical existence and spiritual existence.  So Paul’s cry for deliverance “from this [wretched] body of death?” (Romans 7:24-25) is not answered by being eternally free of a body.  No, “when we see [Christ], we’ll be like him” – having the same resurrected body as he has.  We don’t know much, just that our resurrected bodies will be “imperishable”, “glorious” and “powerful” (1 Corinthians 15:42-43).  Eternally free of corruption and at peace – as it was in the Garden.

Free of fear and flaw.  The next thing John notices of this renewed creation is that “the sea was no more” (21:1).  In this apocalyptic genre John is not trying to say that the new earth will be one big continent without oceans. (Do I hear the surfers and divers sighing relief?)  As mentioned in a previous post the sea in ancient literature represents everything that is mysterious and dangerous, all the hidden forces of evil.  In stating that the “sea was no more” John sees a world where there is no more evil, and therefore no need to fear.  It speaks of a life without terror, loss, and lack.  John clarifies this by writing “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (21:4)  O, what peace awaits us!

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A glorious city.  The Bible records the story of mankind beginning in a garden, but ending in a city.  Yet God’s renewal does not take mankind back to agricultural living, but “to the holy city, the New Jerusalem coming out of heaven” (21:2).  This new creation will be familiar to us, yet gloriously beautiful.

New_Creation2For most of us, cities are synonymous with hard work and the struggle to survive within a culture of greed and competition, leaving its inhabitants anxious, depressed and lonely.  Cities are breeding places for violence, corruption, addiction, and perversion that drain the souls of men.  But cities also boast the best of humanity – filled with beauty in the diversity of its architecture, music, arts, and feasting as well as creative collaboration that bring pleasure and progress.   Even fallen people displays something of God’s intended purpose for humanity, the crown of His creation.

The city was always God’s plan.    Man’s mandate to work, to “keep and cultivate the earth” (Genesis 2:7), implies serving one another with our unique passions and abilities, building culture together.  In the renewed creation we will still work, still plant, produce,  build and trade (Revelation 5:10; 21:24-26; Isaiah 65:17, 21).  Yet in the new heaven and new earth we will be free of selfish ambition and fear.  Now imagine our combined collaboration in a world driven by brotherly love.  This is the city John sees.

God’s dwelling place.  The city John sees is God’s city, the New Jerusalem where he dwells (21:2). But unlike the earthly Jerusalem, this city does not to close its gate for protection, nor does it need the sun or moon to light it up, because God is “the wall of fire all around her, and the glory in her midst” (22:23, 25; Zechariah 2:5).  It has no temple, “for the Lord God almighty and the Lamb are it’s temple” (21:22).

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To accentuate this point, John records an angel measuring the city (21:15; an allusion to Ezekiel 48). The clutter of measurements and details invite us to seek out the message. (Remember, apocalyptic genre does not allow us to take the measurements as literal!) John hints at the point of the numbers in verse 3 “Behold! The tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them…” (21:3; compare Leviticus 26:11). Like Moses who was called up to a high mountain to see the heavenly Tabernacle, John is taken up to a high mountain and sees this tabernacle-city “descending out of heaven from God” (21:10). But there is a twist. John records the dimensions of the city as being cube-like, “it’s length, breath, and it’s height are equal” (21:16). The Most Holy Place in the Temple was a cube.  Within this temple/tabernacle metaphor, we are called to see this city as the Most Holy Place, the room where the ark of the covenant stood, separated from the Holy Place by a heavy curtain (Hebrews 9:3). 

John is shown that this tabernacle-city is special in that it allowed unequaled access to all its citizens to the presence of God.  No need for an outer court that catered for the gentiles/ outsiders, because there are no “gentiles” and no defiled after Christ’s judgment (21:8, 27).  There is no need for the altar or washing basin because the Lamb of Heaven was slain for our sins once for all (Hebrews 10:1).  There is no need for the Holy Place separated by the veil, because the veil was torn at Jesus’ death making a way for us to God forever (Hebrews 10:19-20).  In short, when Christ returns, there is no need for ritual to meet with God: the blood of the Lamb has brought us near and reconciled us with God (Ephesians 2:13; 2 Corinthians 5:18).  We will enjoy what Psalmists dreamt of: to dwell with God in his House forever (Psalm 84:1-4).   

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Firm foundations.  The gates of this city are named after the twelve tribes of Israel (21:12; compare Ezekiel 38) and the foundations named after the twelve apostles of Christ (21:14).  These foundations are decorated with precious stones – the exact stones on the High Priest’s breastplate (21:19-20; Exodus 28:17-20).  The twelve gates are twelve massive pearls. This alludes to Christ’s parable that the kingdom is like the pearl of great price, calling the one who wishes to enter to forsake all else and pursue this treasure only (Matthew 13:45-46).

Together, these images reveal to us that this new creation is not an afterthought or Plan B, but God’s redemptive plan in the making from the very beginning.  From the choosing of Abraham and his decedents Isaac, Jacob (Israel) and his twelve sons, through to Jesus and his twelve apostles, God was redeeming and renewing his creation. The saints through the ages were waiting for this city where they would feel at home (Hebrews 11:13).  Israel and the NT church are heralds of God’s gospel of redemption and renewal, and all who repent and return to Him are recorded in the “Lamb’s Book of Life” (21:27) – this city register of this New Jerusalem.

A Living city. Make no mistake – John vision of “the New Jerusalem” is not dead angelic architecture, but living people.  John sees an image of “the Bride, the Lamb’s wife”, the church of God (21:2.9-10).  We are God’s temple “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” (Ephesians 2:20; compare 1 Corinthians 3:10-16). This glorious image John sees is the beauty of us, God’s renewed people.

Not of this world.  It must be noted that the vision of the New Jerusalem in chapter 21 is structured to invite comparison to Babylon the Great in chapter 17, and the contrast is striking.  Chapter 17 opens with “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated on many waters.” (17:1) John sees Babylon the Great“Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” (17:5)  It is a vision of the kingdoms of this world, secular culture filled with perversions and greed and deceit. Her enticing beauty is only skin-deep: gilded with gold and precious stone and pearls.” (17:4) but she is inherently gruesome and violent (17:6). 

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The twelves stones as foundations (21:19-20)

In contrast, John is invited “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” (21:9)  It is a vision of God’s Kingdom.  John sees the church, the New Jerusalem, the Holy City in whom there is “nothing impure…shameful or deceitful” (21:7).  Its beauty is genuine, goodness its essential nature, as “the wall was made of jasper [clear as a diamond], and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass… foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone.. each gate was made of a single pearl.” (21:18-21)

The end of Babylon is utter destruction for her deception, perversion and violence.  The end of the church is eternal security and delight in God’s presence and peace.  To a tired and suffering church these images are very encouraging indeed.

Bringing it Home.

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This glorious chapter is a window of hope, through which I can see God’s “renewal of all things” (Matthew 18:19).  That indeed there will be a day when there will be no more fears and no more tears because of painful labours, lack or loss. All these will pass away as God “makes all things new” (21:5).

Revelation 21 also calls us to look in the mirror and recognize that much of what see in ourselves and the world will remain.  God comes to purify, to redeem, to renew – not to destroy everything he had created.  All evil, sin and death will be burnt as with fire, so that what is good will remain (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).  It calls me to discern what is of God in this world, and what is not of God so that I may not miss His prompting or be mislead by the evil one. In particular it invites me to see the Church, the Bride of Christ in a new light.

This vision from Christ is also a door that asks me to participate with God in his work of redemption of mankind and renewal in my city.  Firstly it calls me to flee from all things “that defile, or cause an abomination, or lies” (21:27). Secondly it urges me invite my neighbours to enter through those pearly gates to delight in God’s eternal goodness along with me.  And thirdly, it prompts me to witness the coming Kingdom by my efforts to bring renewal in the city or community where I live, praying “let Your Kingdom come!” (Matthew 6:10)

 

 

 

The End? Reasons to rejoice

The contrasting conclusions in this 19th chapter of Revelation bring much hope to suffering believers.  A recording of this 23rd study in our series through Revelation will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

As Christians we want to believe that God will (and should) protect us from hardships.  Even though our news feeds are filled with the reality of hardships today and our Bibles are stories of suffering saints, we are often stunned at the sting of suffering.  The early believers were warned by Peter to “not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice…” (1 Peter 4:13; compare Romans 5:3-5).  What contrast!  Yet this verse is such a good summary of the message Revelation conveyed to its first readers/hearers.

What is there to rejoice in when you suffer?  Paul wrote that believers should “rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12).   Along with patience and prayer, rejoicing in hope carry believers through times of trouble (compare Hebrews 12:1-3)

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God’s promise to Abraham – a picture of hope.

Images of hope.  Hope is the confidence that things will end well, an image that depicts a desired outcome. It is more than a target – these images move us deeply as they invite us to envision the promise as fulfilled reality.  These images of hope give a reason to go on – the assurance that my endurance will be rewarded.  To Abraham it was the stars above and sand in his toes that symbolized his offspring.  To Joseph it was the dreams of his reign that kept him faithful to God through enslavement and imprisonment.  

Revelation 19 paints these three pictures of hope meant to spur on the suffering saints: Babylon’s destruction; the marriage of the Lamb; and victory over the Beast and his False Prophet.  Seeing these images will stir the same joyful hope in us today.

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Babylon’s destruction (9:1-8). Chapter 18 depicts the fall of Babylon, representing the destruction of each and every worldly system that sets itself up against God and His rightful reign. The saints are called to “rejoice” over her destruction (18:20); chapter 19 opens with this rejoicing.

John’s hears four “hallelujah” cries, with four reasons to rejoice over the end of this evil empire.  The first shout celebrates God’s justice that had been served against Babylon’s cruelty and injustice (19:1-3). The saints were redeemed from oppression and their enemy had been destroyed.

The second shout John hears celebrate Babylon’s destruction as final and eternal – perversion had been destroyed once for all (19:3-4).  Creation had been fully rid of lust, greed and pride, to never seduce the world again.

The third set of shouts celebrate the end of evil’s reign on earth; God’s reign had come, having triumphed over his enemies (19:6).  Righteousness, peace and joy will govern the earth forever (Romans 14:7)!

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Happily ever after (19:7-8). The shouts of joy culminate in the festive sounds of the wedding feast of the Lamb: Christ has returned to marry his Bride, to be united with his people forever!  The heavens rejoice because the “Bride had made herself ready… clothed herself with fine linen, bright and pure — for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (19:8).  The “fiery trials” of Babylon had “finished its work” in the church, presenting it “perfect, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4; compare Malachi 3:3-4). 

What John hears are these shouts of joy over Babylon’s destruction and the Bridegroom’s return.  When John turns to look, he sees Christ (compare 1:12-16), described like the valiant and victorious royal bridegroom in Psalm 45.

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The Bridegroom (19:11-16).  John proceeds to describe the Bridegroom.  He sees Christ as the conquering King, a victorious one riding on a white horse, leading his army into conquest. This Bridegroom is called the Word of God – the embodiment of the scroll of God’s redemptive plan for creation – the Faithful and True witness of God’s kingdom. His clothes are stained by his own blood, making him alone worthy to champion God’s quest to redeem and reconcile all things to God.  With the words of his mouth he judges the wicked nations (refer 14:13-23).  He is indeed the Sovereign ruler, the “the King of kings and Lord of lords.” (19:16)

The victory over the Beast (19:17-21).  Next John describes the conquest of this valiant Bridegroom against his enemies. Although the Beast with all the kingdoms on earth and their armies gather to make war against Christ and his armies, there is no contest.  The Beast and False Prophet were captured and thrown into an eternal fire, while the earthlings died from the sword of Christ mouth.  The shift in the scene creates great contrast as the readers hear of the bridal feast, but the only meal described is the one that the birds are invited to: to feast on the corpses of those who serve the Beast and bear his mark. (This is an allusion to Ezekiel 39:17-20, God’s victory foretold against the nation of Gog. Revelation 20 continues to draw on Ezekiel 38-39).

With this, the battle on earth is completed: the Beast (oppressive regimes), the False Prophet (deceptive ideologies) and Babylon (seductiveness of worldliness) is conquered by Christ.  Now only their master, the Dragon (Satan himself) must be slain by Christ our Champion.  This is what Chapter 20 describes.

Bringing it home.

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This text is firstly a mirror of our world, of sin’s corruption in mankind that results in the atrocities that fill our news-feeds daily.   We are terrorized by the incessant greed and seductive perversion in our culture (Babylon).  We are oppressed by the corruption of power in every sinful government/ governing system, leading to injustice and abuse of the weak (the Beast).  We are bombarded with the deceptive ideologies that exalts mankind and disregards God as creator and rightful ruler of the world (The False Prophet).  Because of sin in society, mankind suffers greatly – especially the righteous who resist the seduction in culture and refuse to submit to ungodly ideologies and its enforcers.  We crave peace and joy in a fallen world that can never deliver it.

The aim of this picturesque chapter is to cause the reader to rejoice in hope – to look through the window of this text and feel joy welling up as we look towards a world free from sin, seduction and subjection.  Can you picture society without sensual seductions and its vile perversions?  Can you imagine life free from competitiveness, violence and oppression?  Can you imagine a world without deception and division?  A world of shalomn – peace in heart and mind, and in society.  This hope is the expectation of Christ’s rule in justice, peace and joy that the believer can look forward to.

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This text is also a door for us, an invitation to receive joyful encouragement from God by holding these promises before us.  It urges us to envision the promised victory of Christ over all earthly forces that tempt us, intimidate us, and deceive us.  Imagine a world filled with peace, joy and justice.  A world free from suffering, separation, and seduction.  Drink it in, and let “the joy of the Lord be your strength” to endure! (Nehemiah 8:10)

 

The End? Living from the heart.

This post is the third stop in our reflective journey through the book of Revelation, bringing us to the letter to the Ephesian church (2:1-7).  For a brief video recording of this post, click here or on the image below.

Remember that song “You’ve lost that Lovin’ Feeling” from the Righteous Brothers, popularized by the original Top Gun movie (1986)?  It gets to the heart of Jesus’ first letter to the churches, the church in Ephesus.

Ephesus was a prominent port city in the in the Aegean Sea, on the Western shore of modern-day Turkey, about 80 km south of Izmir, rich in archaeological discoveries.

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Ephesus became the provincial seat of Roman government into Asia. It was renown for its scholarship, housing Heraclitus’ first university and the Great Library of Celsus (top left). The city was a cultural hub as witnessed in the well-preserved great Amphitheater (bottom right).  The city was a religious center, most notably because of the temple (top right) of Artemis (Greek, central image) or Diana (Roman), and later because of Christian influence.  In contrast, Ephesus was also known for its “sin industry” through the sailors frequenting its busy sea port.  Its unique setting and well-developed harbor (bottom left) made it a trade hub into Asia and Greece – notably the Silk Trade Route.   

These political, religious, educational, cultural and trade hubs made Ephesus very influential in the region.  No wonder Paul stopped and spent more than 2 years there (Acts 19).  It is fair to say that, after Antioch, Ephesus was the most prominent church in the New Testament.  Other big apostolic leaders made Ephesus their headquarters, including Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila, Timothy and John. In some way the church in Ephesus still has the greatest influence in the church today because many of the New Testament letters were written either from or to the church in Ephesus.  

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Apostolic leaders that settled in Ephesus for significant time in the first century.

 

It is therefore not strange that the first church Christ addresses in his letters is the church in Ephesus.  By the time John penned these words of Jesus the Ephesian church was more than 50 years old – a second generation church that had grown significantly and endured a few waves of severe persecution from various emperors.   

Keep in mind that this short, personal letter to the Ephesian believers is part of a circular letter to these seven congregations (1:11) with the aim to comfort the persecuted believers and to correct their perspective in their struggle against evil.  As with each of these seven letters, this letter starts with a unique revelation of Christ, followed by a commendation, a condemnation, a charge, then a warning and finally a promise of reward.

Revelation of Christ (2:1).  The letter, addressed to the “angel of the church” or “messenger/ pastor/ elder / leader of the church”, starts with the comforting reminder that Christ is among them, and securely holds and steers his church.  Their suffering is not because He has abandoned them or that he has lost control; Christ is present and at work in this turmoil. 

Commendation (2:2-3).  Then Jesus affirms their persistent good works and their efforts in the witness of His kingdom. He honours their devotion to him amidst the seductive, immoral city.   He praises them for enduring the suffering and yet remaining faithful to him.

Moreover, Jesus commends their keen discernment and scrutiny of people who claim to be sent of him, but are not.  This is significant, because when the apostle Paul greeted the elders of this church 40 years earlier, he warned that “after my departure savage wolves will come in among you… even from among you men will rise up, speaking misleading things, trying to draw away disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:29-30)  The testing of what is true and who is genuine has evidently become a value for this church – and Jesus applauds this.

Jesus commends the Ephesian church for their character of steadfastness, endurance and pursuit of the truth.

Condemnation (2:4). However, we see in this letter that although they keep on doing the right things, they have lost their first love.  In the beginning all their good works, all their witnessing, all their congregating sprung from hearts set ablaze with newfound love.  But now it was duty, merely (good) habits.  They did the right things like before, said all the right things like before, but their hearts had grown cold.

Notice that Jesus does not say “You lost your love for me” – he points out that they lost that lovin’ feeling as a whole.  Their good works in the city, their care for one another, their worship in their gatherings – all these good rhythms had lost its passion.  It became a duty, not a delight as before. And the greatest command, which ought to be the mark of the church, is a life motivated by a love for God, overflowing in love for your neighbor (Matthew 22:38-40; John 13:34-35).

You only have one heart from which you live.  When you’re in love everyone notices; your joyful heart gives you a joyful attitude which breeds joyful actions, bringing joy to others.  But when love wanes because of disillusionment or disappointment, one’s attitude becomes apathetic or bitter, producing actions bound by duty or dread, resulting in dead works which does not give life.  Just as joy over one thing overflows to all of life, so also disillusionment dulls all of life.  That’s why the teacher warns us to “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23)

How could this vibrant community’s passion fade?  Many years of hardship could make their hearts callous.  Consistently showing kindness to a city which in unkind to you can make a heart callous.  Incessant business and the cares of this world can make a heart cold.  Unanswered prayer and unmet expectations cause disappointments and disillusionment, which breed carelessness and apathy.   “Loving can hurt sometimes” Ed Sheeran reminds us.

Exhortation (2:4b).  How can a cold, callous hard be revived?  The answer is in Christ’s charge to them.  Firstly, “remember” the times when your heart burned with passion, when love overflowed in joy.  Reflect on how you lived and felt from when you loved well.  Then “repent” – decide to love and live like that again.  Do those “first works” which flowed from your “first love“.

But note the key: “first” – the moment you met Christ and felt his love.  That first kiss, that first taste of true love revived your heart and erupted in ardent adoration, generous giving and shameless witness. That first discovery of true love brought freedom, joy and delight to every aspect of your life.  The call is to remember that moment, to relive that love by returning to those works.

Note that the Ephesian church was not accused of being passive; rather Christ commends their good, faithful works.  Christ is not seeking more work – there is something in their duty that Jesus calls attention to – it is loveless, lifeless, lightless.  The works have become disconnected from Christ himself – void of the display of love that would light up the city.

Warning (2:5).  The church is a witness to God’s kingdom, a city on a hill, the light to the world. They ought be known by the love they have.  Therefore Christ warns them that unless they return to their first love, “he will remove their lampstand form its place.”   

The church is a lamp to the dark world and love it its light.  A lamp with no light has no point.  A church with no love has no witnessing power.   Even preaching of the truth or demonstration of power without love are mere “clashing symbols” (1 Cor 13:1-7).  Love is the essence of the Kingdom of God – it is the life of the church and the hope of the world.  We have to fight for truth.

Promise (2:6). Before closing, Jesus commends the church for hating what he hates – the Nicolatians.  (No, they were not a family who left the church!)  “Nico” means conqueror, domineering the “laity” – the common people.  Apparently this church resisted a church culture which allowed for forceful, harsh leadership that elevate some above others.  Apparently the Ephesians had a healthy culture which honoured the “angel of the church” (2:1) – a leader recognized by God to serve the people – but hated domineering leadership that is the nature of this world (Matthew 20:24-28).  And for this Jesus commends them, implying “you hate what I hate, now love as I love.”

He closes with a promise, “eat from the tree of life” – enjoying the fullness of his life and goodness – even in this harsh city filled with immorality and violence.  Living from his love is sharing in his Kingdom.

Bringing it home

heart

It is easy to identify with Jesus’ letter to the Ephesians.  We admire their faithfulness to Christ and consistent good deeds in a hostile, immoral city.  And can understand, even associate with their devotion degrading into duty.

That’s why Jesus’s accusation to them strikes us in our own soul: “you have lost your first love.”  Have you?  Does your heart still burn for Jesus as before?  Are you know by your love for the community of believers?  Does your love for the city overflow in generous goodness?  The question is not so much about what you do as is it is do you live and act from a heart of love?

The invitation is clear: remember and return to your first love by doing the works that sprung from your first taste of Jesus’ love.  Let the Lord revive your heart and restore your joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uprooted | Nostalgic | Homesick

How often do you catch yourself reliving the best days of your life, your “Summer of 69”? Do you miss your old home, “watching the sunset over the Castle on the Hill”?  Listening  to songs such as these can evoke feelings of nostalgia.

The term was fist coined by 17th century Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer, combining two Greek words: nóstos (homecoming) and álgos (pain) .  He was alarmed at the number of Swiss mercenaries deployed in the lowlands of Italy and France who became sick, longing for home.  Symptoms included insomnia, fatigue, indigestion, stomach aches, etc.  Some doctors suggested this “Swiss ailment” was a neurological disease caused by brain and inner ear damage due to the constant clanging of cow bells in their Alpine homeland.

cow_culture_8

Today we know that everyone becomes nostalgic at times, that painful pleasure of remembering the good times. Anyone can get homesick. (Apparently 7 out of 10 adults still think of “home” as the one they grew up in!)  This longing for a particular time or place leaves a sense of being uprooted, the loss of stability and security, relationship and belonging.  And we all instinctively long for love, protection and comfort – feelings we normally associate with home and our childhood days.

How we relate to the past – the degree to which we indulge in or suppress nostalgia – can be helpful or hurtful.  For example, remembering the good old days during difficult times of transitioning reminds us that we are loved, cherished and valuable, increasing confidence and drive to push through the hardship of resettling in a new community or company.  In this way nostalgia is helpful to cope with the stress of change.

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But, as John Piper points out, our relation to the past can be hurtful in two extremes: both the neglect of the past (never going there) and the obsession with the past (constantly longing for it) can wreck your life.

Not surprisingly, Jewish composers also wrote a number of Psalms during spouts of nostalgia, later canonized for reflection and instruction.  One such example is Psalm 137, written by exiled Jews after 586 BC, deported as slaves into Babylon.  This song gives us insight into the unhealthy obsession of living in the past.

Psalm 137 opens with passionate unveiling of the emotional state of these uprooted people.  “1  By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. 2  On the willows there we hung up our lyres (harps).” They were heart-broken, defeated, without joy and unaware of the surrounding beauty.

But their hung harps were more than a sign of sadness.  The sense of uprootedness left these exiles with a loss of identity as captured in the fourth verse: “4  How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”  This central theme is the profound theological question these exiles battled with.  As the offspring of Abraham, they increased as God had promised, had possessed their own land, and was blessed to be a blessing to other nations.   How are they still God’s special people here as slaves in a pagan country?  Could these oppressed indeed God’s blessed? How can they be a blessing here in a foreign land?  Feeling uprooted left these Jews with a lack of confidence with who they are (identity) and what their role is in this world (purpose).

The Psalm goes on (verses 5-6) to expound the emotional state of these sad slaves, showing their obsessive longing for Jerusalem their (previous) home. Indeed, the writers pronounce a curse over themselves, should they ever let go of the joyful memories they had back home.  Jerusalem should always remain “my highest joy” (verse 6).  In these verses the exiles reveal what they truly feel: they would never again have goodness and pleasure as they enjoyed in Jerusalem.  They believed that those days were the good days, but now it is forever gone.  They will never enjoy life like that again.  These slaves were without a hope for a good future; all they expected was darkness and gloom.

Not only were the hopeless, but as the Psalm continues, we see that these exiles were angry and full of hateful vengeance.  They wished death and destruction for their Babylonians captors in the most violent ways (verses 8-9).  They also prayed disaster upon their Edomite neighbours who did not help them in their day of trouble but cheered at their destruction (verse 7).   In short, they were angry and bitter at these nations who caused the end of their “good life”.  “Our joyful and peace is gone, and it is all their fault!”

But God had not left his people; he never does.  To these uprooted people, heartbroken and hopeless, the Lord spoke through faithful Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 29:4-7

4  “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

 

God impressed on them that they were not there by some demonic triumph, a cosmic coincidence, or even God’s rejection.   No, they are there by Sovereign design; the LORD of Heaven’s Armies had sent them there.  The Babylonians are merely his servants.
5  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.  6  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. And what should they do as exiles in Babylon?  Build, live, plant, marry, increase. Don’t just survive and wait out the 70 years (verse 10) – thrive here! Do what God had commanded mankind to do: be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, have dominion (Gen 1:27-28).  Prosper and live life to the utmost, even here.
7  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

 

More specifically, even though you were brought here as slaves, seek the Shalom – that welfare and peace and joy that you experienced in Jerusalem – seek and expect the same here in Babylon.

God’s invitation to these uprooted Jews affirms the truth that shalom (the fullness of joy, peace and prosperity) is not locked up in a time or place.  His sovereign providence leads us in his purpose through the changing seasons, but in every season he invites us to share in his shalomn.

Can you identify with these uprooted, homesick and nostalgic exiles?  Do you have a longing for the good old days, fearing that those days are forever lost? I have good news for you: every story in the Bible shows that the best is yet to come as we hold on to God!

left_home

How do I deal with feeling Uprooted?

  1. Allow your nostalgia to overflow in thanks.

Psalm 136 calls Jewish worshipers to reflect on God’s faithfulness, reaffirming 26 times “His love endures forever”.  As these uprooted Jews would think back on the defining moments in their history through this song, thanking God for his faithful acts of deliverance and provision, their repeated thanks would affirm the truth that, again here in this present exile crisis, “His love endures forever.”

This is the power of thanksgiving: it reminds us of the loving care and persistent presence of God in our lives.  This truth gives us confidence for today, knowing we can bank on his love and goodness here, now – although we have been uprooted.

  1. Allow your nostalgia to overflow in grieving.

Nostalgia is a sense of loss of that which was good: the painful loss of a pleasant period in a peaceful place with precious people.  You remember the good times, but now it is no more.  From there the bitter-sweet sensation of nostalgia.

For my heart to be healed, I need to mourn this loss.  Neither suppression of the past, nor the obsession with the past will help me to move on. The process of grieving or lamenting allows the wounded heart to acknowledge the pain and trauma of loss, to work through the emotions and consequences of the loss.

I find it significant that more than half of the 150 psalms canonized in the Bible are songs of lamenting.  I find it equally significant that the prophet Jeremiah was able to help these Jews find meaning in their displacement, inviting them to shoot new roots and expect shalom even in exile – after he himself had wrestled through his Lamentation, also canonized in the Bible.  Once he found healing he could not only move on, but he could also help others grieve their losses.

Grief has many stages, but prayers like Psalm 43 and 137 are good examples of how Biblical authors have poured out their emotions of loss, expressing their emotions of shock, sadness and even anger in their prayers to God.

stages_of_grief_sml

  1. Don’t let nostalgia blind you to the beauty of God’s provision and presence: praise Him!

The homesick exiles were blinded by their nostalgia to the beauty of their new homeland.  Their belief that the good life was in Jerusalem and is now forever over made them miss the goodness and provision of God around them.

Indeed, every season has serves God’s purpose, He made everything beautiful in its time.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).  There is bliss and beauty in today, and the discipline of praise brings it out and lightens our eyes to see God at work where we are.

  1. Let nostalgia stir your hope that the best is yet to come.

As for the heart-broken exiles of Psalm 137, the trauma of loss can snuff out our flame of hope, so that we may not expect any good to come.  But nostalgia is a reminder that in this life, amidst its pain and trauma, goodness has come.  Nostalgia is our way of holding on to the belief that there is goodness, joy, peace, belonging and love in this broken world.  And because God had given that in the past, He can do it again.

The Bible is filled with accounts of hopeless situations where people cried out to God, and the Lord turned the situation around for good.  It follows the lives of everyday people, often oppressed, who held unto the belief of God’s goodness and power, resulting in the most incredible and inspirational turnaround of events.

These teachings invite uprooted people to believe that the best is yet to come. Like Joseph, Naomi and Ruth, Ester, Daniel and his friends and countless other uprooted people in the Bible we can know that God makes all things work together for your good (Rom. 8:28).  God still has great plans for you – a hope and a future secure (Jer. 29:11). And even through the troubling times, God leads us on in victory upon victory (2 Cor. 2:14).  You might feel uprooted now, but watch this space: God is always at work.

Feeling uprooted?  Feel like hanging up your harp for good? 

Don’t lose heart!  Embrace your place.  Live as though God had sent you there.  Let those painfully-pleasant memories of nostalgia remind you of the reality of God’s goodness, and thank him for it.  Allow the pain of loss of that place and its people to pour through prayers of grief for your healing.  But don’t live locked in the past – open your eyes and praise God for his beautiful provision in your life today.  And let the memories of happiness remind you that indeed, there is goodness in God’s gift of life – and the best is yet to come! Watch as He makes all things new (Rev 21:5).

Willow_Grey

Greater still – the best is yet to come

If in this life we hope only in ourselves, in the best that we can dream up, delve up or deliver, then we have reason to be dreadful and live on in despair.  If our fate rests on the fullness of our faculty and fidelity then yes, we have reason to be frantic and fear the future.  Mankind is a mess.

But Christians have cause for hope, a reason to look up and expect the good.  Our surety of survival is in God, the eternally good and ever strong God.  Our security for today and faith for the future is not based on nature’s mood, on man’s motive or my own mojo.  We are hopeful because Our God Reigns!  And his arm is not too short to save, his ear not too deaf to ear.[i]  Our God is near, and He hears.

There is no place for hopelessness or defeatism in the heart and mind of a Christian.  Like the elder said to despairing John imprisoned on Patmos, God is saying to the church today “WEEP NO MORE!”[ii] Christ has triumphed and is already unfolding His universal reign of peace!”  Yes, Christ has come to reclaim God’s rightful reign and to redeem all of creation to Himself.  God is up to something great!

Because of God’s generous, faithful character and expanding reign, I believe that the best is yet to come!  Your tomorrow is better than today; expect to thrive and not only survive.  You can be sure that God’s reign is always expanding, his grace is always abounding, his glory ever more visible.  In God, your future is looking brighter still. The best is yet to come!

Greater_Still4

Your best life is yet to come.  Ageing does not mean fading; your best years are still ahead.  The psalmist recorded that “he who is planted in the house of the Lord will bear fruit in old age, he will be fresh and flourishing to declare that God is righteous!”[iii]  Our Lord Jesus always keeps the best wine for the last, and makes the latter glory outshine the former.[iv]

Is your life miserable now?  Then smile – in Christ, you can always expect better!  No matter what this life throws at you, God makes ALL THINGS work together for your good.[v]  That is your confidence of a good tomorrow!

Regardless where you are at in life, look up!  God’s plans are for better welfare, a better hope, a better future.[vi]  He has more and better plans prepared for you to walk in.[vii]  He had already written your book, prepared all your days[viii] – your life story is not over yet, but we know it ends in glory!  Come on, God is leading you upward, onward.  Can you recall some of the surprises he has showered over your path in the past?  Prepare your heart for more – your next leg is already littered with love. The best is yet to come!

Greater_Still5

The best you is yet to come.  When you look at the mirror, do you like what you see? Do you love whom you’ve become?  Cheer up – the best version of you is still being formed.   God has started weaving you in your mother’s womb,[ix] but He is not done with you yet!  You’re still “under construction” because God is ALWAYS at work in you shaping your character, growing your competence.[x]  The resurrection Spirit is EVEN NOW giving life to your body,[xi] transforming you for gory to glory – just keep your eyes fixed on Him![xii]  He is the not done with you yet – what He has started he will complete in you;[xiii] he is the Author and Perfecter of your faith.  Christ, your hope of glory, is alive and at work in you.[xiv]  The best is yet to come!

Greater_Still6

Your best victory is yet to come.  God always leads us on in victory, from glory to glory until we win our last fight in Christ by overcoming death.[xv]  I wrote previously that every scar is a reminder of a victory we have won in Christ, of our faith that has been tested, purified and approved.  “What does not kill you makes you stronger” is true for every Christian.  In all things we are more than overcomers in Christ![xvi]

You are stronger than you were before.  David first conquered the lion, then the bear, then Goliath, and later the Philistine armies.  Likewise, God is leading us through progressive victories.  Do not fear these future fights – in God’s providential wisdom you will not be tested beyond what you can bear.[xvii]  And for everything you face, His grace is sufficient and His strength is perfected.[xviii]  Heads up!  Your greatest victory is yet to come!

Another year is over.  Another year of God’s faithful love and preserving grace.  Another chapter in your book declaring “Thus far the Lord has brought us”.[xix]  But the story is not done yet: there are grander adventures to live through, more glorious victories to be won, greater love to enjoy. The path of your purpose is prepared with plentiful provisions and pleasures.   Look up! Be strong! Take courage! Nothing you will face tomorrow is impossible for God.  You are growing from glory to glory.  His mercies are new for every day, his grace sufficient for every challenge.  With God, the best is yet to come.  God is up to something great.

 

[i] Isaiah 57:1.

[ii] Revelation 5:4.

[iii] Psalm 92:13-15.

[iv] John 2:10.

[v] Romans 8:28.

[vi] Jeremiah 29:11.

[vii] Ephesians 2:13.

[viii] Psalm 139:16.

[ix] Psalm 139:13.

[x] Philippians 2:13.

[xi] Romans 8:11.

[xii] 2 Coronthians 3:18.

[xiii] Philippians 1:6.

[xiv] Colossians 1:27.

[xv] 2 Corinthians 14:14; 1 Corinthians 15:57.

[xvi] Romans 8:37.

[xvii] 1 Corinthians 10:13.

[xviii] 2 Corinthians 12:9.

[xix] 2 Samuel 7:12.

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.

Dreaming of a life together

Post by guest author Joanne Eksteen.

Every so often it happens that I meet someone whose presence lingers in my thought processes for a while. The time afforded to them depends on the impact that they had on my mind and emotions to start off with. When they inspire me they usually stay for some time.

One such an individual in particular has stood her ground. She inspires me as someone that is able to deeply connect with others on all levels but also practices supreme boundaries and ambition. I imagine her as a competitive corporate giant and a most attentive and loving wife and mother. On paper she is brilliant and in life her personality brings out the best in those around her. She is successful on multiple levels. She inspires me. She is my pedestal person (well at least one of them).

A little while ago I mentioned to her that I would be travelling abroad. She was excited and explained (obviously having seen the entire world herself!) that the people of the country I would be visiting and their manner of being, still lingers in her mind to this day. She talked further of contentment and how very different her own life experience has been. Her experience in life articulated that regardless of what one does, one should be able to do it better. Her mind was still reaching, contentment a foreigner in another country.

I felt many things in that moment, mostly confused, a deep sense of sadness and then relief. How could she not see herself?? My pedestal person was a human being much like myself.

My mind wandered to hers. I wondered about her thoughts, emotions and behaviour. If she had felt that she had never been good enough, why continually strive? Why not give up? If what we assess is not up to standard, how then can we still move on successfully? Or maybe that is exactly what has always driven her?

Yet there in that moment my pedestal person had revealed a tender and vulnerable part of herself that overflowed with honesty and insight. Her revelation, although shockingly new to me, was not new to her. Her identity was right there in the midst of our conversation and she was quite aware of it.

It led me to consider sonship, the term we often hear in church but one I wonder whether we fully understand. It means that we will as sons of God, understand in oneness with Our Father, who we are and where we are going. To me, understanding who we are with all of our good parts, bad parts and in spirit opens up the doors to enlighten us to the paths He created for us.

As married couples we are one. We have spent four weeks looking at what God says our marriages should be and do, barriers to intimacy and finally we started to vulnerably explore our identities as individuals and how it impacts on what our marriages are at present. Not only did this process create an opportunity for greater intimacy with our spouses but it should also mean that in exploring our identities we can have hope. Hope that we are going somewhere. Hope in our purpose as an individual and as a couple. Surety that we are not married to wear a bling ring, have a housemate, be a Mrs or expect a plate of cooked food every evening, but surety that our marriages are meant to mean something to this broken world. Surety that there hope to reach contentment and joy in finding our purpose as a married couple.

My pedestal person is not free from struggles. She is a person just like me and she knows this. Her understanding of herself allows her to move onto the path created for her, her life is evidence of this and I realised in that moment, this is why she does not lose hope and continues on.

With the idea in mind that we want to pursue our purpose and destiny as a couple in order to honour God, continue to explore the identity of each individual in the group. Look at shame, selfishness, fear, self-esteem, self-doubt and in general, identity. May we all become pedestal couples!

Reflection question: how does selfishness, shame, poor self-esteem, or fear affect your marriage and you as an individual?

Post and reflection questions by Joanne Eksteen.  Joanne is wife, a mother and a clinical psychologist with a passion to help people grow in healthy identity and relationships.

Expecting the miracle in your marriage – hope for tomorrow

What do you do when your relationship is lifeless, communication is strained, interaction is difficult? Your partner feels like an estranged friend, someone you once shared life with, but now there is nothing left to share. There has been too many disappointments, too much pain.  Hearts have become hardened and the passion is long gone.  In fact, the affections are directed elsewhere. The marriage is on the rocks. All the signs are there: there is no coming back from this; it is THE END.  You are beyond hope.

Really?

What is hope? And why bother? 

Hope, simply put, is the anticipation of good. Hope, or vision, or a dream, is something desirable that you believe to be possible for you – those “plans to prosper… a good future” (Jeremiah 29:11).  It is best captured by the imagination, illustrated in a picture, or envisioned in a story.  It is an end-state that draws your affections and invites you to dream with.  We have seen the power of phrases such as “offspring as many as the stars above you and sand below you” and “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Genesis 15:1; Exodus 33:3).  Hope is powerful.

Hope is the attitude that looks up and dares to believe that this journey I am on is leading to something beautiful, something desirable, something worthwhile. That the best is yet to come!

Hope is like the architects drawing of the beautiful house in which you will have your kids and the two of you can grow old together, sitting on the veranda as the sun sets peacefully.  Although the house is not built yet, these lines on the paper is the catalyst of desire which will make you build the house.  But more, this picture (hope) is also the reason and clear direction for every inch of effort that will go into making that drawing into your dream home. (Refer to Hebrews 11:1). Indeed, hope is very powerful.

Why is hope powerful?

Hope makes hard times bearable, because as you hold onto the belief in a good future you understand these troubles are temporal, and the hope you long for gives meaning to the things you suffer on the way there.  A lack of confidence of a good future (or hope) is the cause for companies to close their doors, marathon athletes exit the race and couples end up in divorce court. We give up when we loose hope.  Conversely, hope gives athletes strength to endure pain in order to gain the reward, what makes the soldier survive his wounds to see his wife again, and what causes the mother with cancer to keep on fighting and see her children grow up.  Hope, the confident expectation of a beautiful future together, is the reason to endure hard times and helps to see meaning in the daily grind. (See Romans 8:28).

Secondly this hope (a clear vision of a good future) helps us to navigate life’s challenges because it sets priorities in our activities and the direction of our efforts – in both good times and in bad.  We know that the Christian hope of eternal life builds resistance to temptation, is the standard for our relational growth and gives strength to push through endure hard times. Similarly the marital hope of our beautiful and meaningful life together keeps us faithful, helps us grow closer and helps us overcome obstacles together.

Why can I have hope?

If everything in your relationship point to failure and hopelessness, why could you trust that all will be well soon? How could you be persuaded of a joyful, meaningful future together?  Indeed a fair question.  If one has tried everything to keep the relationship alive and nothing seemed to work, you have come to the end of yourself, allowing a sense of hopelessness to set in.

But for the Christian, the end of oneself is not the end of a matter. With God there is always hope: our success or failure does not depend on our efforts alone, but we hope in God (or “trust in God”) as the Psalmists frequently sing (eg Psalm 39:7; 62:5; see Ephesians 2:13-14). When nothing seems to help we are confident of a good outcome because of God’s character, his love for us and his ability. To say “I hope in God” means to trust that God is indeed merciful, trustworthy and powerful enough to help me, and that he is certain to hear my pleas and help me from this seemingly hopeless situation.  We further hope in God because of the hope intrinsic in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, showing that no situation is every truly hopeless to God who brings even the dead to lifer. No situation is ever too late, too hopeless, because “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27)

How does hope work in practice?

Hope works best in pictures and stories – something you can look at or recall in your imagination. Something that best illustrates the good future you desire.

So find or draw a picture like the stars above Abraham and the sand beneath his feet which reminded him daily of God’s promise that “so will your offspring be.”  What he saw reassured him that his will have offspring – and many.  These visual depictions of God’s promise motivated him to be intimate with his wife, reminded him daily that God was at work in his daily actions, and comforted them both every month Sarah discovered she was not pregnant. It also intended to prevent them from giving up altogether from the hope of a child together by finding other women to provide offspring.   You need a picture like this – it can even be a picture of your wedding day or honeymoon when you were happy together.

Stories are also powerful sources of hope – the Bible is filled with those for a reason!  If you marriage is in a tough spot, then consider finding the story of a couple who were about to give up and God turned it all around beautifully.  Stories are very potent because you can identify with their suffering, and wish to share in their success.  Look for these people, talk or write to them.  Read their blogs and buy their books.  Go to their seminars and workshops where you can listen to their stories, cry about their pain, celebrate their restoration and gain hope!  Ask them to encourage you and pray for you.  Because what God has done for the he will do for you. These stories are filled with hope because these people live the dreams you have – these people embody the hope you need.

These images and stories stir our imagination, and our God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). So, like Abraham was invited to picture his offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky and the dessert sand between his sandals – so image your marriage in it’s prime. Imagine the greatest marital bliss, joy filled home, carefree moments of intimate pleasure, sweet companionship and potent partnership.  Imagine what God can make of your marriage – with all his wisdom and all his might – what could God do in and through the two of you.  What type of marital relationship between you and your spouse would bring God glory, would showcase his loving goodness to the world? Picture that!

I encourage you to “write out the vision and make it clear” as God told Habakkuk (2:2). Talk to your spouse about it, pray about it.  Tell your friends what you dream about. The challenge is to allow the hope (confidence of your good future) to overpower your anxieties (fearful expectation of failure and pain).  Deliberately dwell on the good of your spouse and what you have in your marriage, while you also pray about what makes you anxious or sad, “casting your cares on the Lord, for he cares for you” (Philippians 4:6-8; 1 Peter 5:7).

If you really cannot see a future because you are so aware of the challenges and pain, do what Elisha did when his servant was only aware of the Syrian army surrounding them. ’Don’t be afraid,’ the prophet answered. ’Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ And Elisha prayed, ‘Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.’ the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Kings 6:14-17). Then the servant was not intimidated by the challenge they faced, because he was aware of The Lord of Heavens Armies who was right there with them.

You are never walk alone – God is right here with you in your marital crisis. And he is in the business of saving!

Let this be a reminder today that although your relational journey might be laden with disappointments, miscommunication and frustration that left you both hurt and hopeless, with God there is always hope. Nothing is too hard for him (Jeremiah 32:17)! He is close to all who call on him, and look – picture it – he makes all things new! (Revelation 21:5)

So what is the most ideal picture of your marriage? What could your story be? What is your hope?

 

 

 

 

 

 

When intimacy hurts

Recent studies show an alarming increase in “sexless marriages” – in fact, The Times reported that more than 21’000 people search help on this monthly via Google, outnumbering searches such as “unhappy marriage” and “loveless marriage”. The phrase “sexless marriage” refers to couples having sex less than once a month.

But who cares?  A survey by psychotherapist Abby Rodman says 75% of those couples do! They had healthy sexual relationships, but claim that having children(!), stress and fatigue, health reasons or simply time had dried up all the romantic passion.  In fact, this matter so much that half the respondents stated they would not have married their spouses had they known their married life would be sexless. (Although 75% said that they would not end the marriage because of the lack of sexual intimacy).

(Not making) love hurts

Why do they feel so strong?  Because constant sexual rejection in a marriage hurts. A lot.  Reading through articles, blogs, and recalling phrases I have listened to during counselling sessions, the following statements best capture the pain of spouses in sexless marriages.

  • I feel unloved, unwanted.
  • I feel unattractive, ugly.
  • I feel hurt. I sometimes hide in the bathroom and cry.
  • I feel so ashamed – what about me is so despicable?
  • I feel angry and cheated because I explained my desires, yet he/she ignores my pleas.
  • I feel ignored, my needs and desires are simply not important to my spouse.
  • I feel so worthless because he/she has time and energy for everything else but not me.
  • I feel so alone. I lie next to him/her in bed and yet feel so far away.

Sexual rejection by a spouse hurts much because it denies the means and expression of intimacy reserved exclusively for each other.  Especially in relationships where there was at some point much sexual arousal, the onset of habitual sexual rejection communicates not just “I don’t want sex” but rather “I don’t want you.”  Simply put, long-term sexual denial feels like rejection of the person.

Something’s gotta give

Marriage by definition is companionship, a means to obtain intimacy.  When sexual relations within marriage is rejected over a long period it not only impedes the relationship but also has devastating effects on the identity and emotional health of the rejected partner.  The following statements give good insight into the effects of such long-term sexual rejection.

  • I feel so disconnected from with my spouse. We live like house-mates, nothing more.
  • I find myself to be very irritable; small things make me act out in anger.
  • I have lost confidence – not just at home. I am not the strong man/ woman I used to be.
  • I feel resentful; my heart is really hard towards my spouse.
  • I feel attracted to the attention of others; the rejection has made me vulnerable to emotional and physical affairs.
  • I have grown tired of being rejected so I have stopped making efforts for the relationship.
  • I am very suspicious – I hate admitting this but I think my spouse is interested or in relationship with someone else. 
  • I am so depressed; the one person that I love does not want me.
  • I have suppressed every sexual desire, because not feeling anything is less painful than being rejected.
  • I am addicted to porn and masturbation. I know it is wrong but I can’t stop it (and I honestly don’t care anymore).
  • I don’t have hope for our marriage anymore. Things will always be this cold between us.

These phrases capture much pain. Looking at the two lists of statements above I feel so much sympathy for anyone in a sexless marriage. And I understand why Paul would write so strongly about not denying your spouse sexually intimacy (1 Corinthians 7:3-7).  Yet every marriage goes through ups and downs, and therefore the challenge of married life is to continue “cleaving to your [spouse]” to remain “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Never stop pursuing intimacy with your spouse!

couple-not-talking

Helpful, hurting and hopeful

Over the years I have noticed three general responses of people suffering from long-term sexual rejection.  The first group harbors anger, visible in hostility and frustration – typically accusation.  It is as though these people subconsciously want to hurt their spouses to share in their pain of rejection.  This is not helpful.  Yet anger and hostility hinders any form of intimacy, which requires safe space to open up.  So this response pushes the couple further apart.

The second group has become passive, apathetic.  Escaping the torment of perpetual rejection, they have given up on any hope for intimacy and suffocated their own desires for intimacy.  Marriage has become a cold, platonic friendship.  This is indeed a very lonely place – especially within marriage. This is not necessary: there is hope!

The third group has embraced vulnerability to allow for intimacy, enduring the hurtful rejection towards the other’s heart. It simply means to forgive the other in order not to close one’s heart.  They strive for connection beyond fear. These spouses talk about their hurts – but with open hearts – and intentionally create an environment of affection, warmth and encouragement.  They never lose hope that they will regain the romance and intimacy which they once enjoyed.  And they see the fruit.  Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:8)

To the rejecting spouse I don’t think I need to write any further advice, except to ask your partner whether he or she feels the same as the statements recorded above, and strive to understand his/her needs for intimacy.  Then share your feelings to identify the barriers to intimacy, whatever they may be, and seek help as a couple. Do it today!

My counsel to you, the rejected spouse, is take courage, and embrace vulnerability to graciously and patiently explain your feelings to your spouse, but do so in gentleness and love, not angry, and not nagging.  Express your love and attraction for him/her.  Affirm your affections and approval of him/her.  And with of without your spouse, seek help – your journey need not be so lonely.  But never lose hope!

You might not be able to fix this, but nothing is impossible with God. (Luke 1:37) Ask him to make a garden in your wilderness! (Isaiah 51:3)

couple-talking-in-bed