The End? The Reason to Endure

In this 19th study of revelation we look at need for salvation and the reality judgment and Hell in chapter 14.  A recording of this will be uploaded at the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

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“What’s the point of all this hardship? Why push through the pain?  Others have given up, and they seem to be having an easier life! What can be worth this much effort?”  Whether it’s a marathon, long-term studies, a grueling project or start-up initiative – somewhere along the road you will ask that question in agonizing pain.  So too in your journey of faith.

The answer to this question is what Revelation 14 offers to struggling church.  The scenes instills courage in the hearts of believers tempted to give in or give up, but it does not shy away from the sober reality of what is at stake.  The chapter is divided in three logical sections, revealing the role models, the reason and the reward for endurance.

The role models for endurance (14:1-5).  Chapter 14 opens in stark contrast to chapter 13’s end.  Moving from the Beasts and those who receive the mark, John’s attention falls on the Lamb and his army of 144’000 who bears the mark of His Father on their foreheads.  In our post on the 144’000 from chapter 7 we concluded that this group represents the fullness of people saved by Christ’s blood, who remain loyal to him.

From the contrasting groups John hears contrasting sounds (14:2-3): God’s voice roars from heaven “like many waters” accompanied by “load thunders” (repeated in 8:5; 11:19; 16:18; refer 4:5) alluding to God’s justice and judgment from his Law (Exodus 19:16). This originates from his judgment on the and his worshiper (14:8ff).  John also hears the sound of joyful, tranquil music by harpists.  These comes from the believers singing before the throne the song of the redeemed (compare 4:3 with 5:8-10) – a song that only those who have been saved by the blood of the Lamb can faithfully sing.

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Here comes the brides!

The redeemed are described as those “who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins… who follow the Lamb wherever he goes”. (14:4).  This phrase is not a reference to physical celibacy, but spiritual fidelity, as it contrasts God’s faithful people to those seduced into “fornication” with “Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth” (14:8; 17:6).  Here, drawing from the Old Testament prophets (notably Hosea), John describes idolatry as the Church’s spiritual unfaithfulness to God symbolically with a married person’s immorality and sexual unfaithfulness towards his or her spouse.  Paul uses this imagery when he laments the Corinthians’ backsliding: I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that… your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:11).  But the ones before the throne are a bride “without blemish” (4:5; compare Ephesians 5:27).

The reason for endurance (14:6-12). The next section in this chapter outlines the basic theology on judgment, revealed by three angelic messengers.  Angel one proclaims the “eternal gospel: Fear God and give him glory.”  God is the creator of all the earth, that he is sovereign over all the nations, and that he will judge all people, everywhere – and that hour is soon (14:6-7).  Angel two announces the destruction of “Babylon” because she lead people everywhere into idolatry and immorality (14:8; compare Isaiah 21, Jeremiah 51).  In chapter 18-19 the author returns to this theme, wherein Babylon is described as the the city infested by demons and inhabited by the defiled (18:2).  Angel three decrees God’s wrath on the beast and all who bears his mark: eternal judgment in “fire and sulfur” (14:9-11) – an allusion to Hell.

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Vision of Hell by John Culatto.

Our generation is not comfortable with the idea of judgment in general, and hell in particular.  I don’t like speaking about hell either – but Jesus, our Saviour, spoke more about Hell than he did about Heaven.  His urgency to save people from the reality of eternal judgment drove him from heaven to earth, from comfort to the cross.  Because, in his words, Hell is an eternal torment (Luke 16:23) of anguish and regret (Matt. 13:42) in unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43), where the worm does not die (Mark 9:48).  From this “outer darkness” (Matt. 25:30) there is no escape (Luke 16:19–31).  Hell is not a place where he banishes people to, but rather the default destination that he came to save us from.  This same urgent cry to count the cost and remain faithful is what we hear throughout Revelation, and in particular in this chapter. 

This section concludes with the exhortation “for the endurance of the saints, [to] keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” (14:12; compare 13:10 and Matthew 24:13).  In other words, this is the reason to patiently bear the shame and suffering on earth, because the alternative is to serve the beast and bear his mark, which mean you will share in judgment.  Suffering tempts believers to deny Christ to escape the wrath of the Beast, to enjoy peace on earth.   But the angels warn that it is better to suffer the wrath of the Beast for brief time on earth than the wrath of the unbearable Lamb for eternity.  Remain faithful to to Christ, because – “those who endure to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).

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The reward for endurance (14:13-20).  John describes then hears the voice declaring that “those who are dead in the Lord… may rest from their labors” (14:13) but sees a terrible judgment by “the Son of Man” likened to the harvest and trampling  of grapes in the wine press (14:14-20; compare Isaiah 63:1-6).  This terrible judgment of the nations happens when the “grapes are ripe” so that their crushing leave the land flowing with blood (14:15, 20; compare Isaiah 34:1-3).

In this image of judgment, with blood flowing on the land, there is a powerful allusion to the crucifixion of Christ – an act of God’s mercy and justice.  In this grape-pressing image of judgment John alludes to Christ being taken “outside the city” (14:20; compare John 19:16-17 and Hebrews 13:12), “crushed by God” (Isaiah 53:5), and his “blood flowed” for the remission of sins of all the world (compare Matthew 21:37-39).  The invitation for the reader is that in the crucifixion of Christ, and his blood which flowed on our behalf, we may escape the wrath of God (1:5; compare Ephesians 2:13).

Herein Jesus reveals that the reward for endurance is to enter the rest (or peace) of God by faith is atonement (14:13; compare Hebrews 4:1-13), to be freed from the presence of sin, suffering and Satan forever – rather than suffer from the wrath of God along with Satan and his hosts of evil.

Bringing it Home

This call to endure was written to church in Asia oppressed daily by the Beast which was Rome and temped by the seductive culture called Babylon, nearly 2000 ago.  However we can identify with their inclination to give up on our faith and fidelity as we are bombarded daily by suffering and seduction.

Walk on. This chapter calls me to look at my suffering in light of the eternal Fires. I’m urged to consider the cost of denying Christ and default into a life of compromise for comfort’s sake. And this spurs me on to “run the race with endurance, looking to Jesus” and that “great cloud of witnesses” who surrounds his throne (Hebrews 12:1-2).  I’m encouraged to “to be found in Him… hold onto what is true…press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:9-16).  My salvation from Hell makes the endurance worth it!  

Cross_massesWitness. This sober look at the Final Judgment calls me to consider how I look at my family, my neighbours, my world.  If Christ was moved from comfort to the cross to save the lost – like me – how much am I moved to share this “eternal Gospel” (14:6) so that others may be saved from the wrath of God?

Worship.  This look at the Final Judgment also moves me to sing the song of the redeemed – to remember the his blood and relish in his mercy towards me.  Amazing grace indeed!

The End? Blow the trumpets!

This post, the 14th in a series through Revelation, finds us in the second set of seven judgments. We will look into chapters 8 and 9.  A recording of this post is available on Shofar Durbanville’s Youtube channel

In our day, it is often easier to imagine God as the Sacrificial Lamb slain for our sins than to see him as the Sovereign Judge over all.  That is why Revelation 5 reads so much easier than chapters 8 and 9, where the Lord rains down disasters on the earth as his redemptive judgments on sin.  What do these chapters on divine judgment reveal about God’s character and relation to mankind?

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Yes, God hears you! Unfolding the first six seals of the scroll unleashed chaos and cries on earth (ch 6), followed by a command to cease all judgment so that God’s servants may be sealed to be spared the great Day of Judgment (7:1-3).  As the 7th seal is opened heaven becomes still, “silent for about half an hour” (8:1).   John then describes how God’s full attention is given to the prayers of the saints (8:3-5).

To the churches who received this letter at first, oppressed economically, excluded socially and persecuted religiously – in addition to the periodic earthquakes, famine and threat of war they faced – this was so necessary to hear.  It reassured them that “You matter; I listen to you.”  Faced with the daily troubles, their faith in an Almighty, Loving Father and hope for the return of Christ, the Prince of Peace, was waning.  They needed to be reassured that indeed, despite all the madness in the world and all the magnificence surrounding his throne, God pays attention to every single prayer of the simplest of his saints.  And these prayers are pleasing to him, like the scent of incense burning (8:4).

Yes, your prayers are powerful! But do these prayers make a difference?  Long-term suffering can often lead one to doubt whether God is good, or whether one’s prayers are good.  This was certainly the case for these seven churches in Asia minor, the recipients of the Revelation.  Their prayers did not seem to change their circumstances because the suffering only intensified over time.  That is why this hopeful vision of prayers as incense mixed with fire from God’s altar and poured out in wrath on the earth (8:5-6), brought hopeful encouragement that indeed their cries are heard, and their prayers are effective.  Christ’s kingdom was advancing by the power of their prayers.  These disasters that surrounded them were simply “birth pains” of the emerging Kingdom of Christ – all affected by their prayers.

Yes, God is just! If God is just, why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper? Does God not see? Does God not care about the injustice and oppression of the vulnerable and the righteous? These are the age-old questions believers have wrestled with throughout the ages (Psalm 73; Jeremiah 12; Job 21, etc.).  This was also the cry of God’s saints (6:10) during the vile and violent Roman Empire into which John wrote this letter.  The vision of their prayers being mixed with fire from God’s altar, poured out over the earth, resulted in “noises, thundering, lightning and earthquakes” (8:5).  This phrase is repeated another two times in this middle section of the book when God’s judgments are poured out, notably in response to the blood of his martyrs (11:19; 16:18; refer 4:5).  The image of “lightning, thunder and voices” alludes to the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16), and occurs throughout Scripture about God’s justice and judgment (e.g. Psalm 77:18 and Hebrews 12:18).

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The seven trumpets which follow (8:6-9:21; 11:15-19) are God’s just judgment response in the prayers of the saints.  Christ’s message in this vision to these seven churches is “Yes, I am just.  These judgments on the nations are my response to your prayers for justice.”   But how do these disasters help God’s people?

The judgments of the seven trumpets contain allusions to the plagues of Exodus by which God delivered his people from the oppressive, wicked Egyptian Empire. Pharoah, like Ceasar, demanded his subjects worship him as the Sovereign Son of God.  We read of water turning into blood, hail, darkness, locusts and the death of its citizens.  These allusions would have been very encouraging symbols of hope to the early church, oppressed within the Roman Empire ruled by a man who demanded worship as the Sovereign Son of God.   If God had delivered his people once, he could do it again!

We need to be reminded that the apocalyptic genre of Revelation does not allow us to take these images literally: that blood literally would fall from the sky (8:7), or that demon-like militant locust would roam the earth (9:3-5).  These are symbols of various forms of destruction – natural disasters and warfare that are meant to shake earthlings out of their rebellious deception that mankind can live independent of God’s just, benevolent rule.

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What are these trumpet-judgments?  Trumpets (Greek salphinx) signify two things here: firstly, the blasts of trumpets accompanied royal decrees, and these trumpets were typically blasted to announce a military victory.  In this context, both apply: By these blasts, the Lamb announces the orders of God’s redemption of his kingdom, and with every judgment announces his victory over and against the devil and the wicked kingdoms in this world.

wormwoodThe first four judgments (8:7-12) point to various forms of natural disasters that would affect significant climatic change, causing a crisis in food production, freshwater supply and economic sustainability worldwide.  These allude to the plagues which destroyed Egypt and assert God’s sovereignty over all of creation. 

The next two trumpet judgments point to the woes accompanying the military conquest of an invading army.  The 5th trumpet blast releases a terrifying army likened to armoured locusts (9:1-11) lead by “The Destroyer” (Heb: Abaddon, 9:11). The 6th trumpet blast releases a destructive army of 200 million riders on poisonous, fire-breathing horses.  These two judgments have strong allusions to Joel 2 (compare Joel 2:3-5 to Revelation 9:7-8, 18), a chapter calling for Israel’s repentance from immorality, idolatry and injustice or face destruction by a ravaging army such as this.

Many New Testament authors read in these two trumpet-judgments the imminent invasion by the Parthian army, who were advancing East of the Roman Empire at the time of John’s writing.  As mentioned in a previous post, this army was notorious for its swift and skilled horseback archers.   This army would probably have been the first thought from the first readers/ hearers of John’s apocalyptic letter.  But the accusation against the Roman Empire of their day is that, like Pharaoh, despite these disasters, “they did not repent” of their pagan worship, violence, witchcraft, sexual immorality or thefts. (9:20-21)

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The image of God as a just, sovereign judge, pouring out his wrath in disasters, famine and war one the earth sits uncomfortably with our modern man and woman.  It seems cruel.  But we need to remember that judgment is good – the punishment of the oppressor leads to the deliverance of the oppressed, just like the judgment on Egypt resulted in the liberation of the Hebrews.  So too the punishment of the violently oppressive Roman Empire results in the deliverance of the viciously persecuted Church.  Justice leads to peace.

Herein we see a third character of God displayed in this chapter, that even in these judgments, we see God’s grace.

Yes, God is gracious! As these prayers of the saints result in acts of God’s judgment, we see that it reaps destruction in a third of the earth.  Only a third.  We noted in the first seven judgement described in the opening of the seals (ch 6-7) that 1/4 of the earth was touched.  In the seven trumpets, 1/3 of the earth is touched (ch 8-9).  When the seven bowls are poured out, we see judgment results in the final and complete destruction of the earth.

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6 Trumpet judgments result in the destruction of 1/3 of creation (Revelation 8-9)

Therefore, even in these judgments, we see God’s grace at work.  These judgments are redemptive in two ways: it leads to the release of God’s oppressed people and creation and calls for the repentance of the oppressive kingdoms which rebel against his benevolent rule.  And repentance, yielding to God’s rule, will result in reconciliation and peace with God through the Lamb.  These temporary, earthly judgments warn of eternal judgment, calling for repentance to avoid the wrath of God and the Lamb.  Therefore these temporal judgments display the mercy of the “Lord (who) is patient… not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9).

Bringing it home

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Worldwide natural disasters in recent past (source: statistica)

The occurrence of natural disasters is on the increase every year, with 409 catastrophic events recorded last year. Wars are on the increase worldwide, with 832 Militias-guerrillas and terrorist-groups involved in civil wars around the world today.  Revelation 8-9 depict these disasters as judgments unleashed by the Lamb, asserting his Supremacy over all creation and every nation, while revealing our fallenness and inability to assure a peaceful reign apart from God.

But in these chapters filled with judgment, we are so encouraged to see God’s compassion and attentiveness to his servants.  We note the powerful impact of their prayers, resulting in God’s sovereign justice ridding the world from evil.  Yet in this, we see God’s merciful patience with his enemies.

Today as we are so acutely aware of the fallenness of creation, the corruption in government, and lawlessness in our society, we are encouraged by this vision of a God who hears when we pray.  We are encouraged that indeed, our prayers are liberating the world of evil.  We are comforted that Christ is not outside these disasters that ravage the earth – but instead through these advancing his kingdom.  Lastly, we are hopeful that these just judgments awaken individuals and nations to the sinfulness of man and the reality of God’s wrath, even as he graciously allows time for sinners to turn to Him and find mercy before the Day of his Judgment.

May this encourage your heart to pray, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

Quick links to full THE END Revelation Series posts

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

The End?A Throne set in Heaven.

In this 10th session in our series of Revelation, John is invited to “come up here” and see God’s throne room, and view life from his perspective (Revelation 4).   A recording of this will be made available at Shofar Durbanville’s Youtube channel.

Revelation 4 starts with the phrase “after this” – after the first part of the vision of Christ among the seven churches, addressing each of them with a specific word of comfort and correction (chapters 1 – 3).  Then John looks up – shifts his perspective from down here on earth to what is going on in heaven.  He sees “a door open in heaven” and is invited to “come up here” – to gain Godly perspective on the chaos and conflict the church endures on earth, and to identify with the Sovereign reign of God.

Imagine this! The only instruction the reader receives in this chapter is to “behold” (4:1,2) – to imagine this or picture this.  John invites the reader twice to see what he sees – because this hopeful message to the church is contained in the vision of what takes place in heaven.  John sees a throne, the Ruler, and the response of those around the throne.

A Universal Throne (4:2).  As he entered the door, John sees a magnificent throne. The early church was familiar with a throne over many peoples and nations – and that was not good news to them. Emperor Domitian’s reign (like those before him) was egocentric and brutal.  But this throne John sees was universal over all of creation – he was the true King of kings and Lord of lords who Domitian claimed to be.  The throne was not the problem – the one who sits on the throne determines whether his subjects will weep or rejoice.  And this is what John sees next.

A Regal Ruler (4:3-5). The first thing John notes of “him who sat” on the throne, is the beauty – “the appearance of jasper and carnelian.” (4:3a)  Jasper is a transparent stone, like a diamond, conveying the image of clarity, perfection, flawlessness – justice and righteousness. Carnelian is a red, translucent stone like ruby, carrying the image of love, sacrifice and mercy.  John sees this ruler as righteous and abundant in loving compassion.  Indeed, His “kingdom is ruled by justice and fairness with love (mercy) and faithfulness leading the way.” (Psalm 89:14, CEV)

Secondly, John sees “a rainbow, appearing like an emerald.” (4:3b)  The rainbow, the sign of God’s covenant with Noah and all life, is God’s reminder to himself to never again destroy all life on earth with a flood (Genesis 9:8-17).  John sees God’s throne encapsulated in goodness and faithfulness, preserving life. God’s reign is “good; His lovingkindness is everlasting, and His faithfulness endures to all generations.” (Psalm 100:5)

Thirdly John describes “around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.” (4:4)  Unlike the egomaniac Domitian, this graciously humble Ruler chooses to share his reign, to include others to rule with him over all his realm!  In this apocalyptic genre, the 24 elders imply the fullness of God’s covenant people of the Old and New Testament (12 tribes of Israel, 12 disciples/ apostles of the church). God’s renewed people reign over his creation, as the offspring of Adam and Eve were always meant to rule and reign with him (Genesis 1:26-28; Revelation 5:10).

Next, John notes “flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunders” (4:5) coming from the throne. This phrase appears three more times in Revelation when God pours out judgment on the peoples (8:5; 11:19; 16:18), and it draws from Exodus 19:16 where God gave the Law to Moses atop Mount Sinai.  Therefore, here as elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Psalm 77:18 and Hebrews 12:18), the flashes of lightning and peals of thunder from heaven refers to God’s perfect justice and judgmentJudgment has a negative connection in our day, but the punishment is excellent news when you’re oppressed – like the church was in the first century.  Moses sang “His work is perfect, and all his ways are just. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity just and upright is he.” (Deuteronomy 32:4)

God judges with complete knowledge and wisdom, as the next image that John describes reveal.  John sees “seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God” – an allusion to the 7-fold lampstand in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-40) and 7-fold Spirit of God (Isaiah 11:2), implying that God sees all and knows all; his judgment is true and right.

Unlike the ruler Domitian who ruler the great Roman Empire at the end of the first century AD, John caught a glimpse of this Universal Ruler who is righteous and merciful, good and faithful, graciously humble, perfectly just and all-wise.  Then John notes the response of those around the throne.

A Proper Response (4:6-9).  When John looks around the throne of God, he first sees that the sea are “of glass, like crystal.” (4:6)  In the ancient world, the oceans were regarded as mysterious, menacing and full of monsters; seafarers would frequently disappear into the unknown depths of the sea, never to appear again.  The sea (4:6) here represented the worst of John’s world: that which is uncertain, dangerous, and out of control.  But suddenly he sees that, from the perspective of this Regal Ruler’s throne, even the seas are at peace and crystal clear.  The higher your viewpoint, the calmer the waters.  From God’s perspective, nothing is out of control, nothing is mysterious, nothing is dangerous.  All is well, and there is no need to be anxious.

Next, John sees, around the throne, four formidable beasts: one with the face of an ox, one with the face lion, one with the face of an eagle and one with the face of a man.  These all have wings like seraphine.  The ox is the mightiest of domestic animals; the lion is the most potent of the wild beasts; the eagle is the most indomitable of the birds; man is the greatest of God’s earthly creatures, and seraphine is the most powerful of the angelic beings.  Yet these four intimidating beings (representing the mightiest of all God’s creation) erupt in awe-filled praise at God’s glory.  They relentless cry out “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (4:8; compare Isaiah 6:3 and Exodus 3:14).

John then describes the complete surrender of the 24 elders around the throne: every time the four impressive beasts praise God, the elders bow down, casting their crowns and declare “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will, they exist and were created.” (4:11)  The elders recognize that all creatures and all powers are subject and subservient to God, created to serve his purpose.  And, rightly so, subject themselves to willingly serve him.

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Bringing it home

John was confused by the chaos and conflict that the church suffered – where was the reign promised by Christ?  After being assured that Christ is among his church and fully aware of what was happening on earth, John is invited to see God and look at creation from God’s perspective (ch 4, continuing in Ch 5-20).

John invites us to see that there is a door open to heaven where One is seated one his Sovereign seat.  John comforts us that this One can be trusted to reign over all: he is described as righteous and merciful. Good and faithful, graciously humble, judging with complete wisdom and perfect justice.   When we become aware of the power and presence of his reign, we are filled with peace and awe, prompting praise and surrender.

How do I respond?  Whenever the cares of the world and the chaos of our day overwhelm me, in prayer, I choose to walk through that door to the throne room of God and imagine what John saw.  I see him for who he is and allow peace and praise to strengthen my heart that I may entrust myself to His sovereign plan.

The next post (on Revelation 5) will start to answer the questions that this vision begs us to ask: If God is in control, why do evil persist in the world?  And how does Christ’s reign fit in the chaos and conflict of our world today?  

Quick links to full THE END Revelation Series posts

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

Known by your love

A while ago this question came to me: “If people were to judge my faith based on my actions – what would they say I believe?”  It is certainly a question worth considering, because “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).  And this question is even more relevant today since the number one accusation against the contemporary church is that of hypocrisy[1] – that Christians profess one thing but live differently. According to outsiders, our intentions and actions do not correlate.

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‘Hypocrite’ means actor, pretender or ‘masked one’.

In stark contrast, Jesus said his followers would be known for their love, and he even gave the world the right to judge their authenticity based on this!

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

Before considering the life example of Jesus a few aspects in this incredible text are worth noting.  Firstly, Francis Schaeffer called this love “the mark of the Christians”[2] since this love which distinguishes Christians as followers of Jesus is not primarily a feeling, but a relational dynamic which is visible from the outside. Jesus-followers are known by their love because this love is seen in actions which are not normative in the world.  Secondly, by saying ‘as I have loved’ Jesus said the disciples should copy his loving behavior – his relationship to them modeled these loving actions. Thirdly, note that Jesus did not say our love to unbelievers characterize us as Christians, but rather love for insiders, for “one another”.  This is important, because doing one loving act for a passer-by is easy, by living in constant love with people around you is quite another thing. Lastly, note that Jesus gave it as a command to love, implying a decision to comply, and thus not a love primarily lead by feelings.  Thus it is our choice to do loving actions towards fellow Christians which mark us as Jesus-followers, or not.

Considering this command of Jesus, how can we follow his example so that his love is made visible in our actions?  Or more simply put, what does his love look like?

  1. Radical acceptance

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Jesus instructed his disciples to love as he loved them, thus to emulate his loving actions towards them (and this was before his crucifixion).  They have walked with him for about three years so they would have had ample reference for what he meant.  Looking at the twelve to whom he gave this command, we immediately see the first aspect of this love: it is radically inclusive.

Jesus disciples were diverse in every aspect.  Firstly they were culturally and racially diverse: Peter, Andrew, Bartholomew were Galileans while Simon was a Canaanite – people who did not normally associate by choice.   Secondly, we know that they were politically on opposite sides: Thaddeus and Simon were Zealots, a Jewish extremists party aiming to liberate Israel from Roman oppression by means of military force[3]. On the opposite political spectrum Matthew was a chief tax collector, a liberalist Jew who lived as the Romans and made a living oppressing his fellow Jews financially in service of the Roman oppressors.  There certainly would have been political conflict between these two groups! Thirdly, the Gospels make it clear that there were personality clashes within this group: the brothers James and John were called “sons of thunder” because of their impulsive and aggressive tendencies, while Thomas was the doubtful and more reserved.  Peter was an initiator and natural leader while on the other hand Phillip was recorded as pessimistic, perhaps even cynical.  John’s gospel reveals that he and Peter did not get along, even indicating some competition between the two.  Yet Jesus chose each one of these individuals alike and was patient with them.  And by doing so he demonstrated his love by accepting their racial and cultural, political and personality differences, giving the disciples an example to follow.

These first apostles, who themselves experienced this radical acceptance from Jesus, put this principle in writing to the first congregations. James wrote to the church in Jerusalem about this love in practice, to treat rich and poor alike and not to tolerate “distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts”, labelling it the sin of partiality (James 2:2-9).   Paul likewise wrote to the churches in Galatia that they make no distinction among themselves based on ethnicity, social class or gender since all have died to the flesh and have “put on Christ” in baptism (Galatians 3:27-28; cf 1 Corinthians 12:13 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-17).  Regarding this new identity, Peter wrote Christians should regard themselves as “a new generation… a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:8-9) thus one new ethnicity in which they find identification rather than distinction.

In practice, Jesus’ love shown among his followers means a radical acceptance and equal treatment of each other based on their acceptance by Christ.

  1. Sharing life

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Secondly, the disciples who first heard this New Commandment of love knew how Jesus shared his life with them – every day, everything.  They lived together from one purse, with one purpose.  They knew that before they had a “mission” of preaching and healing, Jesus called them “to be with him” (Mark 3:14) – to share life together.

This communal living was modeled and imitated in the early church who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).  Simply put, they came together for learning together, sharing together, serving together, eating together and praying together.  They met for fellowship and teaching “every day, in the temple and from house to house” (Acts 5:42).  They were aptly named “church” (Greek ekklesia) which means “called out ones” – thus people were heard the call of God and gathered together.  Church means being together, living together, coming together to meet with God.  And that’s where the love is shared and felt.

Our contemporary society values privacy and individualism. We strive for self-sufficiency, autonomy and independence.  With that mindset we come into the church.  However, being part of the Church means being “immersed into one body of Christ” by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), implying a shared life of interdependence. We must then exchange our self-centeredness for communal life. The words the New Testament writers use to explain this concept is “fellowship” (variations of the Greek words metocos and koinonia roughly meaning “to have in common”), with four primary implications, ala Keathley[4].  Firstly this fellowship is an objective relationship, since together we share in the Gospel (Ephesians 3:6) and thus share in Christ himself (Ephesians 3:9) and are “coheirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). Secondly this fellowship is companionship, the acts of sharing in Christ together (1 John 1:7) through the Spirit, as we meet together for teaching, communion, worship, prayer or to encourage each other.[5] Thirdly, fellowship refers to partnership of those “who share in a heavenly calling” (Hebrews 3:1) and are called “God’s fellow workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9) – essentially working together.  Lastly, fellowship implies stewardship as sharing earthly resources and meeting material needs – a logical overflow from sharing in the life of Christ and his calling (see Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 6:18; Philippians 4:15).

Thus the early church followed Jesus’ example of love through being together and sharing all literally, and instructed new converts to do likewise.

  1. Patience and forgiveness

forgiveness

Jesus’ example of love with his disciples was one of patience and forgiveness.  In the Gospels he nick-names his disciples “You of little faith” (Matthew 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8) since they struggled to believe the power of God who was with them. Yet Jesus was patient with them and modeled this life of faith until they believed.  The disciples were also slow to understand (Mark 4:13; 6:52; 8:17, 21; 9:32) the teaching of Jesus, so that we read the well known phrase “again I say to you…” (Matthew 18:19).  Yet Jesus was patient and did not give up on them.

Jesus also demonstrated tremendous patience with the disciples’ amidst their constant striving for prominence and “greatness” (eg Luke 22:24).  Jesus was patient and tolerant with the weaknesses of doubtful Thomas as well as Judas the thief.  He gave stern yet loving correction. But Jesus’ patient example and teachings paid off, so that in the end they believed as he believed, and lived as he lived.

When his disciples betrayed him during his arrest and crucifixion he forgave them and continued with their discipleship afterwards.  Jesus modeled patient and merciful love.

The early church also modelled their communities on this aspect of Jesus’ love.  Paul frequently wrote to the socially and ethnically diverse congregations to be patient with one another, and forgive one another “tender-heartedly” in the way Christ did (Ephesians 4:2,32; cf Colossians 3:12-14).  This also implies gentle restoration of someone who falls into sinful practice, and to “bear [the] burdens” of someone who is weak in any sense (Galatians 6:1-2; cf 2 Corinthians 2:6-7).

Jesus’ example of love was one of patiently bearing with the weaknesses and failures of his disciples, as well as relentless forgiveness of their betrayal and offences.

  1. Affection

 

Affection-hugs4

Another practical way in which Jesus’ love was to be perpetuated in his disciples was the intimate, affectionate way he shared himself with them.  This sincere, simple love for his disciples which included intimate friendship, such as John using Jesus as a pillow for his head while the group was relaxing (see John 13:25) and the affectionate way in which he spoke to them and prayed for them (see especially John 14-17).  He also allowed others to come close and touch him as expressions of love and admiration (eg Luke 7:37-38; John 12:2-6).

Consequently the apostles gave instructions that this example of Jesus’ affection be ingrained in the culture of the early congregations.  For example Peter instructed “Greet one another with the kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14) and Paul wrote “Let love be genuine… Love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:9-10).  Paul also appealed that the church’ verbal culture should always be gracious and uplifting (Ephesians 4:29; Colossians 4:16).

Thus Jesus’ love should also be seen through demonstration of appropriate affection and a culture of verbal affirmation and endearment among his followers.

  1. Selfless service

humility_feet_washing_small

Lastly, the way in which Jesus modeled love for his disciples on the evening when he gave them the New Command was humble, selfless servitude.  After washing their feet, taking the place of the lowest servant, he said “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13: 15)[6].  Jesus taught that love meant esteeming the worth and needs of others higher, meeting those needs in service; love manifests in selfless sacrifice (John 15:13). This is the message of the cross is ultimately this selfless love of Christ.

Years later Paul appealed to the church in Philippi that love should manifest in this humble, selfless attitude in serving one another, regarding the needs of the other higher than self as Jesus “who made himself nothing, taking the form of a bondservant …and humbled himself to the point of death” (Philippians 2:7-8; cf 2:3-4).  Love in practice results in selfless service, fulfilling the needs of others – even at cost to self.

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These five ways in which love was modeled in the life of Jesus formed the basis of the relational dynamic of the early church; they were indeed known by their love.  And this should be the key aspects which distinguish Christ-followers today: a love that is visible and practical.

How do we respond to this command to “love one-another” as Christ loved his disciples?  Firstly, we respond in radical acceptance and inclusion of everyone who wishes to follow Christ – treating everyone with the same dignity and affection, regardless of ethnic or cultural background, political ideology or personality.  Secondly we respond by sharing our life with the congregation: meeting together in fellowship, worship and prayer as well as sharing readily from what we have with one another.  And this is fundamental to our identity as Christians.  Thirdly, love demands we support and identify with Christ-followers who differ from us, disagree with us, or disappoint us.  Even when they hurt us.  This requires patience (also known as longsuffering or forbearance) and forgiveness (or mercy) as Jesus modeled.  Fourthly, love in practice is affectionate in appropriate physical demonstration and verbal affirmation – our conversations and interaction should be loving and encouraging.  Lastly, and most importantly, the love Jesus modeled for us is selfless, humble servitude.  Our culture should be one of regarding the other higher, and deeming the needs of the other more important.

This practice of sharing life together in loving acceptance, affection, patience and forgiveness and selfless service is a visible witness of Christ among us.  This is the love that Jesus says shows your faith.  This is the love that turns the world towards Christ.

[1] Kinnaman D., Lyons G., unChristian (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2007), p. 21-23.

[2] Schaeffer F., The Mark of the Christian (IVP Books: Downers Grove, Illinois, 1970)

[3] The evening of Jesus’ arrest He gave instruction to the disciples to arm themselves, knowing things could become violent later.  The disciples answered “Look, Lord, here are two” (Luke 22:38) – probably Thaddeus and Simon’s swords.  It appears as though these two Zealots never let go of their political ideals of restoring the Kingdom of Israel with force, and Jesus was patient with them.

[4] Keathley J.H. III, Christian Fellowship, article found at http://bible.org/christian-fellowship

[5] Some examples of how and why the early church came together (“had fellowship”): They came together as whole congregations (Acts 2:42; Heb 10:25), smaller groups (2Tim. 2:2), or one-on-one (1Thes 5:11), for sharing truth together (Rom 1:11-12; 2Tim 2:2), communion (1Cor 10:16), singing (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16), prayer (1Cor 14:16-17), teaching (Acts 20:20; 2Tim 2:2), and ministering to one another (Rom 12:15; Heb 10:33).

 

[6] At times this text is misinterpreted to make a sacrament or ministry of foot-washing.  Yet Jesus did not say “do what I have done” meaning to imitate the act of foot-washing, but rather “do as I have done”, implying to copy the way in which he served them.  The disciples were instructed to imitate Jesus’ humble, selfless service – not repeat the act itself.