How to resolve conflict and restore relationships

How do I resolve conflict?  How can I restore a strained or broken relationship?

Our world is filled with conflict.  The pages of history are littered with stories of conquest, wars, and familial strife.  Military battles, political clashes, workplace competition, and marital strife are familiar stories that make up our news reports. 

Yet we all dislike strife, and most of us would rather avoid conflict.  We don’t know how to settle disagreements, and even our sincere efforts often escalate the situation.  I find it ironic that conflict resolution is not one of all the things we get taught in school.  When it comes to peace-making skills, our generation is anaemic.  No wonder our world is more divided than ever.

It always seems easier to walk away from a conflict than to settle a disagreement.  However, it is always more rewarding to resolve a dispute than to dissolve a relationship.

Jesus said that the good life, the blessed life, is reserved for those who make peace.  [i]We know that unresolved conflict erodes our joy and eradicates a sense of well-wellbeing.  It even hinders our fellowship with God.

The Bible instructs us to pursue peace with all,[ii] even with our enemies[1] and our accusers,[1] and actively serve our communities by reconciling people with one another and with God.[iii]

Making peace has always been difficult.  It is sobering to read the bulk of the New Testament letters as efforts to resolve conflicts within new church communities.  In this light, I find James’s appeal to the church in Jerusalem refreshingly simple: “Peacemakers sow seeds of peace to reap a harvest of goodness/ righteousness.”[iv]    The Message translation reads this way:

If you want a good life, a peace-filled life, you must do the hard work of cultivating your own robust, peaceful community. 

Before we discover how to make peace, we must agree that making peace starts by facing conflict.  Peace-making is the opposite of avoiding conflict.  Likewise, peace-making is the opposite of appeasing others, of keeping people happy.  Conflict is necessary to cultivate a community characterised by mutual safety and freedom.

It is normal to have conflict.  When two or more imperfect people share a space, they are bound to bump into one another and cause friction.  Conflict is an opportunity for self-awareness, other-awareness and growth, leading to mature love. 

So, how do we resolve conflict and mend a broken relationship?


1: I own my part

Peace-making starts with taking ownership for the health of the relationship, by considering my part in the breakdown and the restoration of the relationship. 

If you want to live in peace, you have to prioritise reconciliation – even over worship!  “Leave your gift at the altar, go and be reconciled to that person.  Then come and offer your sacrifice to God,” Jesus said.[v]   Whatever the reason for the breakdown, I must take responsibility in resolving the conflict to restore the relationship.  Sometimes reconciliation requires help from mature friends or professionals.[vi]

Time by itself will heal nothing.  Like a festering wound in my leg won’t heal by itself, a wounded relationship does not mend by itself.  Unattended hurt matures into bitterness and resentment.  Paul urges, “do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. [vii]

Furthermore, a relationship can be restored as I acknowledge my contribution to the breakdown.  Jesus, in classic exaggerating humour, said that to resolve a conflict, first recognise the “pole in your eye” before you point out the blind spot in the other’s perspective.[viii] Before you point out the wrongs of another, recognise your imperfections.

Rick Warren states that the cause of all conflict is rooted in self-centeredness (“selfish desires”[ix]) and self-exaltation (“Pride leads to arguments.”[x]).  He says that every heated argument can be calmed by this simple phrase “I’m sorry – I was only thinking about myself!”  Acknowledging my part in relational break brings grace for healing.[xi]

Reconciliation begins when I take the initiative to restore the relationship and own up to my part in the breakdown of the relationship.


2: I listen for perspective

People fight not so much about what happened or what was said, but rather about how they were made to feel.  We respond to our emotions.  Hurt people, hurt people.

Cultivating peace requires patient listening.  “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.”[xii]   Not the type of listening to prove who is right or rebuttal the argument.  But listening to hear, to understand, to have compassion for the position of the other.  This attitude Paul appeals for – a kenosis – that is not concerned with my interest only, but the interest of the others.[xiii]  Kenotic listening forgets my interests and forgoes my preconceptions, deeply listening to the other and benefiting him or her.

Listening in this way helps us to understand and identify with the views and feelings of the other.  This type of listening gets us on the same page – the reconciliation threshold.  We listen our way into unity.

3: Confront the problem in love

Conflict does not damage relationships – what we fight and how we fight damages relationships.  First, don’t fight the person, fight the problem.  A couple with a budget issue should not fight one another about the budget but stand next to each other and find a resolution about their budget.  The goal is to sort out the budget, not the spouse.  Confront the problem, not the person.  

Second, how we fight can either bring us together or push us apart.  “Some people make cutting remarks, but the wise words bring healing.” [xiv] 

During the Cold War between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., these superpowers were wise to agree that their conflict would never escalate to the use of nuclear or chemical weapons.  Although they were at war, they were sober enough to see that such Weapons of Mass Destruction (W.M.D.’s) would lead to Mutually Agreed Destruction (M.A.D.) for both nations.  The fallout would be too much.

Paul urged the believers to adopt the same wisdom: when you confront one another, do it so that it would lead to restoration of the relationship, not destruction.  Therefore, “put away [all W.M.D.’s]: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another…”[xv] , and “don’t use foul or abusive language.  Let everything you say be good and helpful so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.[xvi]  

Words cannot be unsaid.  The power of life and death is in the tongue.[xvii]  So, especially in a fragile relationship, “speak the truth in love” [xviii], and “let our speech always be gracious.”[xix]  Fight to restore the friendship, not to end it.  

4: Aim for reconciliation, not resolve

Before we close, another helpful pointer in conflict resolution is not to aim for agreement on everything but on reconciliation.  The goal is to restore the relationship, not resolve every issue.  It is possible to walk hand in hand through everything without seeing eye to eye on everything.

Our generation is highly divided on so many issues.  Talking through some matters is as volatile as walking through a minefield.  But to habitually part paths with people who see differently will lead to isolation and sectarianism.  It is always more rewarding to resolve conflict than to dissolve a relationship.  The blessed life is enjoyed by those who do the hard work of making peace, who build robust communities by sowing seeds of peace.[xx]


[i]  Matthew 5:9 

[ii] Romans 12:18

[iii] 2 Corinthians 5:18-20

[iv] James 3:18

[v] Matthew 5:23-24

[vi] Matthew 18:15-18

[vii] Ephesians 4:26-27

[viii] Matthew 7:5

[ix] James 4:1

[x] Proverbs 13:10

[xi] Proverbs 3:34

[xii] James 1:19

[xiii] Philippians 2:4-5

[xiv] Proverbs 12:18

[xv] Colossians 3:8

[xvi] Ephesians 4:29

[xvii] Proverbs 18:21

[xviii] Ephesians 4:15

[xix] Colossians 4:6

[xx] Matthew 5:9; James 3:18

Ready for (another) Roller-Coaster Year?

Oh, how we wished that the pandemic and all its problems would burn with our 2020 calendars. Alas, it followed us into 2021, promising another roller-coaster year. How do you buckle up and ready your heart?

Most of us enjoy a good roller-coaster.  The ride starts with a slow climb, followed by a sudden drop and quick turns at high speed. As you feel the wind in your hair and hear the passengers’ screams, your veins flood with adrenaline and dopamine, leaving your hands shaking and legs jittery.  One group shouts “Let’s go again!” while another cries “Never again!”

Roller coasters leaves you either ecstatic or terrified.

What causes these two groups of people to have vastly different experiences in the same roller coaster cart? It comes down to a sense of security: the ability to trust in the ride designer and the system’s integrity. The ones who trust in the integrity of the seat belt or harness don’t fear for their safety.  These passengers have peace on the track and enjoy the thrill of the ride.

The second or third round on a roller coaster is often even more enjoyable, precisely because you have come to know that you will not fall from the cart. With arms high in the air and eyes closed, you can smile wide and laugh loudly through the tight turns – once you trust the carriage and the rest in the seat belt.

2021 will be our 2nd ride in the Corona Coaster. We would have preferred a more docile track, but this is our ride for the year. How do you prepare yourself to push out the panic and enjoy the thrill that 2021 brings? Is there a harness we can strap ourselves into, to lend the sense of security we need for the months ahead?

A short phrase penned by a Jewish prophet gives us a plan. Isaiah warned the Jews that the Babylonians would lay siege and destroy Jerusalem, taking its people into exile. He promised a rough time ahead for them.  The Babylonians would rip them from everything gave them a sense of belonging and security. Yet the Lord comforted the Jews with this beautiful promise – a phrase that instils comfort, safety and hope in everyone who believes.

Isaiah 54:10

For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

Isaiah 54:10

“For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed”

The Lord warned the Judeans of catastrophic changes – both sudden and permanent. They would suffer loss. Mountains speak of safety, security and a sense of permanency. Hills bring a sense of familiarity, normality, and a sense of belonging. These significant changes create anxiety, and the sudden onset thereof brings a panic.

“my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed”

In contrast, the Lord assures them that His constant, loving nature and reliable character do not change. His steadfast love “never ceases” and is always “abounding.” (Lamentation 3:23; Psalm 145) 

In particular, God’s covenantal commitment towards Judah does not change either. It cannot be removed (Numbers 21:12) and is stronger than the bond that draws a mother to her nursing child (Isaiah 49:15).

While these sudden changes create a sense of vulnerability and insecurity, the Lord assures them that His character and commitment towards them for their welfare (shalom) will never change. He is good and promised to do them good, always. Yes, even these sudden changes will work out for their welfare. (compare Romans 8:28)

“says the Lord”

The One who makes this pledge of partnership is indeed trustworthy. He is the LORD, Yahweh – “I AM THAT I AM” – the eternally existing God who never changes (Exodus 3:14; Malachi 3:6).  He is all-powerful yet very personal (Isaiah 40:28-29; Psalm 113).

While everything around them changes, they the Lord invites them to rest in the truth that He does not change, nor his loving nature and covenant with them.  Indeed, Yahweh has shown his goodness and faithfulness to them for generations since He first bound Himself to Abraham by covenant. Israel’s covenant God is trustworthy because of his character and power.

“who has compassion on you.”

God Almighty knows that the coming catastrophic changes would bring pain and panic. Moreover, God cares about them!  Their situation moves Him with compassion so that He would show them kindness. (Compare with Christ Matthew 9:36; 14:14; Mark 1:41 etc.)  What comfort these words must have brought to the vulnerable and fearful Judeans who were plucked from their familiar homelands!

a MIRROR to our society

Isaiah depicts Judah’s calamitous change as “mountains disappearing and hills being removed.” Our generation can easily identify with his passionate poetry. For years we have experienced the stormy disruptions in our social fibre, and local economies and political harmony caused by the tsunamis of globalization, technological advancement and climate change. Now, on top of that, the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating social changes, affecting economies and governments at an unparalleled pace.

These rapid changes make us feel unsafe, like foreigners in our own homeland. Like the Judeans hearing Isaiah’s words for the first time, we too need of hope, some assurance that good may come, a reason to march on and direction for the future.  

a WINDOW into God’s Heart

Isaiah’s prophesy reminds us that God knows that big changes leave us vulnerable and insecure. These words reveal God’s compassion for us; his heart is moved because he identifies with us in our suffering.

A reporter asked John and Charles Wesley’s ageing mother, which of her children she loved best.  She replied, “the one who needed it most at that time”. Her compassionate heart was moved with kindness to help the one who was struggling at that time. David says God’s paternal love is the same: “As a father shows compassion to his children… for he knows our frame… he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:13-14). God does not love us less because we struggle in our turmoil or temptation; instead, God’s fatherly love (compassion) is activated by our weakness, urging him to show us kindness. The Lord “is able to have compassion with our weaknesses… so let us boldly draw near to his throne room to receive grace [help]” (Hebrews 4:15).

Isaiah reminds us that God’s steadfast love (character) and covenant of peace (commitment for our good) is unchanging. Through all these changes, God is working out his redemptive purposes work for our good and his glory. This window into God’s heart and plans brings us much comfort.

a DOOR into God’s Kingdom

Isaiah’s prophesy acknowledged the first readers’ uncertainty and invited themto walk with God into their new world. Likewise, this prophesy shows the door into the stable and peaceful world our overwhelmed generation longs for.  The Lord assures us that He is unchanging and his covenant unshakeable. Drawing close to him brings the security and familiarity that is fading in our rapidly changing context.

How do we strap ourselves in to feel safe in the 2021 roller coaster ride?

To cognitively know that “the God of the Bible is loving and does not change” does not bring the deep, lasting peace we pursue.  Instead, recognising and reflecting on God’s loving-kindness and reliability in my own life (and those around me) brings the security and hope I need in this changing world. This text invites me to remember and reflect on God’s steadfast love that I have experienced and how he has faithfully intervened on my life in the past. In a rapidly changing world, I feel safe to the degree that I am rooted and grounded in God’s love and commitment to me (Ephesians 3:14-17).

My friend, strap yourself in for the thrill-ride of 2021. Throw those hands in the air and let out a shout. God is up to something great, and it will work out for your good!

The End? The reign of peace

This 24th post looks into the 20th chapter of Revelation.  A recording of this study is available on Shofar Durbanville’s Youtube channel.

What is wrong with the world?  And what will make everything right again?  How you answer these questions does not only define your religion but your approach to and expectation of life itself.  This is the focal point of Revelation 20.  John describes the end of Satan, sin and death, ushering in 1000 years of peace.  This 1000 years of peace,  called the millennium (Latin for thousand), is the cause of much debate in Christian circles.  

If you are new to Christianity, the debate surrounding the millennium might seem strange.  But six times in this chapter the 1000 years are mentioned – it is central to the meaning of this chapter.  Moreover, this reign of peace is central to the message of Revelation: the destruction of Satan’s earthly forces (Babylon, the Beast and the False Prophet) in the previous chapters and here the end of Satan, sin and death, signifying the culmination of Christ’s work of redemption – making the 1000 years of peace possible.  From John’s perspective, the millennial reign of peace is central to God’s plan to redeem creation, and therefore significant for you and me. It is what the church – and all mankind – longs for.  How we make sense of this chapter will impact your view and expectation of life.

What then is meant by John’s vision of the 1000 years of peace? When is it? John’s millennium is read in three primary ways.

millennial-views

Premillennialism expects Jesus to return and end the tribulation, reign in peace for a 1000 years, and then make an end to Satan, sin and death. This is the most prominent view among Christians in the West today.

Postmillennialism expects the church by way of the Gospel to usher in God’s peaceful reign for 1000 years, before Christ returns to judge the world.

Amillennialism reads the 1000 years as symbolic, having been initiated by Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension.  From this perspective, we are now in this thousand years of peace.

All three of these views are held by very learned people who have given much thought to these views.  Sadly, in all the dust kicked up by the debates about when the millennium will or has commence(d), some beautiful truths in Revelation remain unnoticed.  Let’s walk through the chapter and ask ourselves “What did John see, and what could this have meant to him?”

angel_binding_dragon
Angel binding Dragon by Joshua Wilson.

The end of Satan (20:1-3, 7-10).  An angel descends from heaven and binds Satan in the Abyss, sealing the pit. Satan is tied up not by God, not by Christ, not by a known archangel like Michael or Gabriel. Instead, Satan is bound by some ordinary angel who “came down from heaven.”  This reassured  John that Satan is not God’s equal and never a threat to God’s authority or purposes.  Although Satan persecuted the church on earth and gave power to the empires of the Beast, the Sovereign Lord allowed Satan to roam loose in service of his redemptive plan. Once the Devil had served his purpose, God commissioned an angel to bind him up.  At an appointed time, Satan will be released briefly again to serve God’s redemptive purpose in bringing judgment on the wicked nations.  After that, he will be thrown into the lake of fire forever, joining his servants the Beast and the False Prophet.

The thousand years (20:2-7). One thousand years” is mentioned six times in these six verses – the only place in the Bible explicitly naming the thousand years of peace.  How do we read it?  For one, we know that we cannot read this as literal ten centuries in the apocalyptic genre. This genre calls for a symbolical interpretation, just as we read the seven horns and seven eyes of the Lamb of God to convey a particular truth about Christ.  We also note this symbolism elsewhere in the Bible.  When we read that God “owns the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10), we don’t ask “on which thousand hills do God’s cattle roam?”  When reading “with the Lord, a day is like a thousand years” (2 Peter 3:8) we don’t start calculating our age in God-years; instead, we understand that the Ever-living One is not bound by time as we are.

dove_11

In apocalyptic genre, 1000 is read as 10x10x10 – three sets of 10.  Ten is the number depicting totality or completeness, as in 10 commandments to Israel, 10 plagues over Egypt, or 10 horns and 10 crowns of the Beast (Revelation 13:1).  Therefore 10x10x10 years refers to an ideal, perfect or ultimate time.

What did the binding of Satan mean for John?  This disciple had seen Jesus demonstrate power over the Devil’s hordes and had heard him teach about binding before.  After Jesus’ baptism, empowerment and testing in the wilderness, Jesus returned to announce “the Gospel… repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” (Mark 1:15)Christ’s preaching of God’s imminent reign was confirmed with significant signs of healing the sick and deliverance of those afflicted by demons (Matthew 4:23-26).  Being confronted by hypocritical teachers about the source of his authority, Christ explained that “no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed, he may plunder his house” (Mark 3:27).   Here we see Christ referring to the binding of Satan and plundering of his house.

In another instance, after Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ, Son of God, Christ turned and said to him on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.(Matthew 16:18-19).  The preaching of the Gospel of God in Christ binds Satan and allows for the plundering of his “house” – souls can be redeemed from death and Hades.

So, from John’s perspective, the church lives in a now/not now reality of peace in God’s reign.  Yes, “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8).  And yes, with the preaching of the Gospel of God’s reign in Christ, “what is bound on earth shall be bound in heaven”, and Satan’s dwelling may be plundered of souls (Matthew 16:18-19; Mark 3:27).    The proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel is the way the Devil is bound, and souls are saved from his domain for the fullness of time.  In this way, the church is reigning with Christ on earth – the enforcers of his reign of peace.

elders_bowing_throne2

The church reigning (20:4-6).  John sees the church, in particular martyrs and those who refused to worship the Beast, receiving thrones with authority to reign and judge with Christ for this “1000 years” period. These are depicted as kings and priests with Christ (refer to Revelation 4:4; 5:9-10; compare Luke 19:11-27; 1 Corinthians 6:2-3).  Only these saints are raised to reign with Christ in these “1000 years”, and are spared the second death – the lake of fire (20:14).

To John and his first readers/hearers, this vision conveyed the assurance of their standing with God, the reality of sharing in Christ’s resurrection and victory over death (Romans 6:3-5) and their authority to “reign in this life” with Christ (Romans 5:17).  Through faith in Christ, saints who were dead in our trespasses, [were] made alive together with Christ… and raised up with Him and seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:5-6).

The great war (20:7-10).  Satan is “released from his prison” for a little while to deceive the nations again.  Alluding to Ezekiel 38-39, the author records a great battle where Gog, Magog and other nations draw up in battle against God’s people “in the last days” when “thoughts will come into [their] mind, and [they] will devise an evil scheme” (Ezekiel 38:8,10).  They will be consumed by the fire of God’s judgment (20:9; compare Ezekiel 38:22; 39:6). 

It is important to note that Revelation 19-20 together allude to Ezekiel 38-39.  The battle and victory over the Dragon and his earthly puppets the Beast (ungodly governments), the False Prophet (secular ideologies), and Babylon the Great Prostitute (seductive culture) is one.  In both chapters, we see that the victory is complete and final – there are no human enemies left (19:18-19; 20:7-9).  This speaks of a singular event of judgment and victory – the same triumph and retribution that is referred to in the outpouring of the 7th seal, 7th trumpet and 7th bowl (8:1; 11:15-19; 16:17-21).

Just as these seals, trumpets and bowls do not foretell different judgments chronologically, but are somewhat different perspectives on the same disasters that plague humankind throughout history, so too the final seal, trumpet and bowl point to Christ’s final judgment on evil and renewal of all things (Matthew 16:27).  Like birth pains of a woman in labour, these disasters incrementally increase in intensity and impact, with shortened intervals, with the last “little while” being unparalleled in pain (20:3; see Matthew 24:6-8, 21-22, 24).

throne_of_judgment

The great judgment (20:11-15).  With all the dead raised to stand before God’s throne, God is said to open “books” for retribution.  The first is a record of “deeds“, another the Lamb’s “book of life” (20:12; 13:8; 17:8).  In OT literature, the “book of life” was a record of citizenship (compare Exodus 32:31-33; Psalm 69:28; Isaiah 4:3).  The Lamb’s Book of Life contains all those who have been (and are) saved through his blood, who remain faithful to him; it is a record of citizenship of the New Jerusalem (21:27; compare Hebrews 12:22-23 and Philippians 4:2-3).

At this throne judgment of God, the dead are brought to life.  Remember that John already saw the saints before God’s throne; they are already alive, having been raised from death to life by sharing in Christ’s resurrection (20:4-6).  Those in Christ are not judged by God (Romans 8:2).  The judgment, therefore, distinguishes those who want to live by their own works and those who live by faith in the completed works of Christ, the Lamb of God who was slain for our sins.  In this judgment, only those who are not found in the Lamb’s Book of Life are judged by their own deeds.

At the end of this chapter, Satan, Death and Hades are all judged and thrown into the lake of fire to join the Beast and the False Prophet.  Those bound in their sin to death share in this condemnation.   Here the battle with evil is finally won.

Bringing this home.

This chapter brings much comfort, hope and sobriety to the reader.

great multitude - palm branches

Considerable comfort. The glimpse into heaven shows believers – even those struggling with sinful seduction or despair – that we are already seated with Christ in heavenly places, and reign with him forever (Ephesians 2:4-6; Romans 5:17; Revelation 5:9-10).  It reminds us that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus – that we escape the judgment seat of God (Romans 8:2).  This is all because of God’s gift of grace, bought with the blood of the Lamb.  Our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life!

Healing hope. Revelation 20 shows saints that Christ has the final victory over sin, Satan and death (Compare 1 Corinthians 15:54-57).  It reminds us that all our struggles on earth are temporal, that all this shall soon pass away when Christ returns to renew all things.

throne_of_judgment2

Sombre Sobriety. This chapter brings sombre warnings and three invitations.  Firstly, there will be a time of unparalleled hardship – especially for believers – for a short while.  It will be intense, but it will be brief, and “calls for the endurance of the saints” (Revelation 14:12).  Secondly, the church is not called to a life of leisure or self-preservation, but a life of witness.  We are the light of the world, and especially in dark times we should not hide our light (Revelation 1:12, 20; Matthew 5:14-16).  The stakes are high: eternal life and joy for all who believe the Gospel, or eternal death and torment for all who trust in themselves.  In the Gospel, the church holds power to bind the Devil and plunder his hellish house, to redeem souls from death to life (Romans 1:16-17).  This chapter calls us to think hard of the Words of Paul, “Woe to me if I preach not the Gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:6) 

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 his entire 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 judgment.  Judgment has a negative connection in our day, but God’s fair 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 a sea “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, situated around the throne, four formidable beasts: one with the face of an ox, one with the face of a lion, one with the face of an eagle and one with the face of a man.  These all have wings like seraphim.  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 seraphim are 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 relentlessly 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 chapters 5-20).

John invites us to see that there is a door open to heaven where One is seated on his Sovereign Throne.  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

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