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? Can’t keep silent

This, our 16th post in our journey through Revelation, explores chapter 11 devoted to the Two Witnesses. A video recording of this will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

In chapter 10 John was invited to take and eat the scroll containing God’s redemptive purpose, to embody God’s redemptive plan on earth.  The chapter concludes with John’s commission to prophesy – to participate in the Lamb’s redemption of creation by being a witness of God’s renewal of all things.  Chapter 11 continues with a vision of two witnesses, depicting the identity, purpose and destiny of the church in the Lamb’s renewal of all things.

This is a complex chapter, rich in symbolism from the Old Testament, but very helpful in understanding the role of the church in a wicked world.  To simplify the reading of the chapter, we will focus on three questions this chapter answers about the church:

  • who are we?  (identity)

  • why are we here?  (purpose)
  • where is this all leading? (destiny)

Measure_temple_EzekielA living temple. “After this”  John was sent to “measure the temple, the altar and those who worship there” (11:1). By the time of John’s writing, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed for more than 20 years – so the temple refers to the church (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 1 Peter 2:5 etc.). This “man measuring the temple with a rod” is a clear allusion to Zechariah’s vision (Zechariah 2:1 – 5).  Here in John’s vision there are no measurements given; what matters is that measures are taken. The temple, altar and worshipers are “measured” or counted because they matter to God.  The promise of peace and protection in Zechariah 2:5 is the intended message to John’s readers: “I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the Lord, and I will be the glory in her midst.”  God has measured his people, and not a single one will be lost (compare chapter 7 where God’s servants are “sealed” for protection).

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Vulnerable yet Invincible.  However, “the outer court” should not be measured, for it would be “trampled upon for 42 months” (11:2), “1,260 days” (11:3) or 3½ years (“time, times and half a time”). 42 is significant in apocalyptic genre, because it is an important number in Israel’s history.  For example, 42 is the number of stages in Israel’s journey through the wilderness toward the Promised Land (Numbers 33).  42 months is the period that Elijah had stopped the heavens from raining to bring the nations to repentance (1 Kings 17; James 5:17). Matthew’s genealogy is portrayed in three sets of 14, amounting to 42 generations, showing that the birth of Jesus marks the end of waiting for Israel’s Messiah (Matthew 1).  Therefore, 42 represents the fullness of time in any stage of redemptive history.  For the readers of Revelation, 42 represents the period we live in – the time allowed for the nations to come to repentance, between the cross and Christ’s return.  Darrel Johnson writes:

“42 months represents the period of time from the day Jesus Christ constituted the new temple by the shedding of his blood, until the day when the new city without a temple, the city which is a temple, comes down out of heaven” (Discipleship of the Edge: An expository journey through the Book of Revelation; Regent Publishing: 2004)

In putting verses 1-2 together we see that the church is measured and protected by God’s seal until the Day of Judgment, but will be resisted and persecuted by secular nations until that time. We are simultaneously invincible and very vulnerable in this age – “like lambs in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16).  Why then are we here?

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Two Witnesses. John sees two witnesses like olive trees and lamp stands.  Olive trees represent God’s covenant people, his new creation (Genesis 11:1) bringing peace and holiness as its oil is used in consecration (Exodus 29:1-2,7) and worship (Numbers 7:19, 25; 8:26; Leviticus 24:2).  The lamp stands are synonymous to the local church (Revelation 1:20), bringing God’s light to the world (Matthew 5:14-16). 

This vision of lamp stands and olive trees is an allusion to Zechariah 4:1-6.  In that vision, the olive trees provide unending oil to the lamp stands to show the enduring power of the witnesses during these hardships is “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)  The oil that provide light to the witnesses is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. (Compare with the parable of the five wise/foolish virgins in Matthew 25:1-13).

Why two witnesses and not just one?  In Jewish law a charge can only be verified by two or more witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15).  Many commentators feel that these two witnesses represent God’s elect in both old and new covenant; both faithful Israel and the faithful church display the just, peaceful and joyful reign of God to the nations.

Why witnesses? Who is on trial?  Not the church, nor the world is on trial here, but Jesus is.  Jesus who claims to be the Christ, the Son of God, sent to reclaim God’s reign as rightful ruler over all kingdoms and dominions.  For that claim Christ was killed, but rose again.  The church is God’s witness that Christ is risen and therefore his claims are vindicated – that “Jesus is Lord!” (Romans 10:9).  That’s why the world hates and quiets the witness of the church, because it rejects Christ’s claims of lordship.

These witnesses are said to prophesy with power like Elijah (1 Kings 17-18) and Moses (Exodus 4-11).  The miracles of these ancient prophets were signs to God’s claim as Sovereign Lord over Egypt, Israel and the nations, and these witnesses are said to bear similar signs to validate their witness of Christ’s Lordship.   They witness in and against Sodom, Egypt and Jerusalem “where [the] Lord was crucified” (11:8).  Here Sodom represents immorality, Egypt injustice and oppression, and Jerusalem false religion.

Note that these witnesses are dressed in sackcloth (11:3), representing a witness in repentance and humility, not superiority and power.  The witness of the church is a life of repentance and humility towards God.  Yet those who do them harm will be consumed by fire from their mouths (i.e. the wicked will be condemned before God’s Judgment by the very words of the witnesses they resist).  

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Death and resurrection. These witnesses are killed by the “beast that came from the bottomless pit.”  (Verses 7-14 foreshadow events that will be described in chapter 13).  Note that the beast kills the witnesses – that Satan is their real enemy, not people (Ephesians 6:12).  They are said to be dead for 3½ days (a relatively short period of time).   The nations rejoice at their death because the testimony of the witnesses trouble them, and dishonour the witnesses by refusing to bury their bodies.

Ironically, the people who bring this Gospel, the good news of freedom to the world are hated and killed for it. But like their Lord they are also resurrected for all to see (11:11-12), resulting in a cosmic shaking that kills many (11:13; compare with 6:9-17).

The glorious vindication.  After this, the seventh trumpet is blown (the final judgment), with the angel declaring the final victory of the Lamb over the nations in this world.  The praise “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” is the phrase of Handel’s Messiah’s famous  Hallelujah Chorus.

Summary.

In Revelation 10 we see John’s commission to prophesy/ witness his redemption of creation through embodied witness of God’s redemption.  In chapter 11 those who are called to witness are assured of the Lord’s protection but also warned of the world’s persecution.  The two witnesses are said to testify of Christ’s Lordship  from his coming, undergo hatred and suffering, until he returns to judge the world.

Even as this chapter begins with God’s temple on earth (his church), and God’s people being trampled underfoot, so the chapter ends with God’s eternal, heavenly temple opened and his enemies trampled underfoot.  The blood of the witnesses are avenged.

Bringing this home

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This rich and emotive chapter reveal three existential truths about the identity, purpose and destiny of God’s church on earth.

Identity: Who are we?  The church is God’s community of Spirit-empowered people.  We are empowered to witness the Lordship of Jesus both through powerful signs and miracles, as well as a life of continual repentance, resulting in progressive submission to God.  Both these shine the light of God’s kingdom in our world, calling our neighbors to submit to God.

Purpose: Why are we here?  The church is here to witness the reign of Christ.  We cannot be faithful witnesses until we make peace with the fact that we may be hated and hurt because of the message we herald.  Our lives cannot remain the most precious thing to us – our lives are given us to to be poured out (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6).  As such we are called to die, to “pick up our cross daily” and follow Him, to “present our bodies be living sacrifices” (Matthew 16:24-26; Romans 12:2).

But we are not only called to die, but also to be raised up with Christ (11:13-14).  We are called to live and reign with Christ eternally, assured that as Christ is raised from the dead, so we will raise with him in glory. We are called to witness this hope.

Destiny: Where is this all leading?  God’s redemption of creation will result in his victory over the nations, the judgment of sin and the renewal of all things.  His saints will be vindicated and rewarded, and God’s enemies destroyed.  He will unveil his new temple – his church – and we live with him in his benevolent reign forever.   

Come Lord Jesus!

 

When you walk through the fire

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

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

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


 The cause of suffering

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

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

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

Accusing God.
Accusing God.

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

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

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

God is not the author of suffering and death

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

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

A good life does not save us from suffering.

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

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

God enters into our fire.

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

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

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

Our suffering has purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking it home

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

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

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

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

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Will you trust God to follow him into the fire?

What is the will of God (for me)?

“What is God’s will for my life?” This is a question we hear asked more frequently than others.  It is coupled to one of the great existential questions of life: “Why am I here?” and more specific “What is the purpose of my life?”  Not surprisingly, it is one of the main themes of the Bible and also one of the things Jesus frequently spoke about – regarding his own life and the lives of his followers.

Jesus said he came down from heaven only to do his Father’s will (John 6:38).  Even as a young child Jesus made it clear that he was “about his Father’s business” (Luke 2:49).  Therefore he did nothing on his own, but he sought only to do his Father’s will (John 5:30), which strengthened him – even physically (John 4:34).  He told his followers that not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21; compare 21:31), and these ones who do God’s will he regards his brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:30; compare John 1:13).  In the end, Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross was in obedience to the will of his Father (Matthew 26:39; Galatians 1:4; see also Hebrews 10:5-10) destroying the works of the devil (1John 3:8).  Jesus literally lived and died to do the will of his Father – an example for us to follow after.

The Apostles followed his example of selfless obedience to the will of God for their lives, and also encouraged the churches to do the same (Philippians 2:5-8).  In fact most of the New Testament Text in itself answers the question “What is the will of God (for me)?” in a particular situation.  Some of the instructions are explicit regarding God’s will, for example “do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17), in order to “do the will of God from the heart” (Ephesians 6:6).  This will of God is not automatically known, therefore our minds need to be renewed “to know the will of God” (Romans 12:2) and the Spirit of God helps us to pray the will of God (Romans 8:27).  We are called to “stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Colossians 4:12), with “endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.”  (Hebrews 12:36)

It is clear that obedience to “the will of God” is extremely important, and even desirable, so what is the will of God?  What do the Biblical authors mean when they use this and similar phrases?

God’s will of decree (sovereign, predetermined, immutable)

Will of Decree

In many instances in the Bible, when the phrase “the will of God” (or similar) is used, it refers to God’s pre-determined plan for his creation.  This encompasses all the times and events in history which will take place, because God wills it and orchestrates it in his sovereignty.  As such, this “will of God” is immutable (or unchangeable, Isaiah 14:26-27), universal (or everywhere, Isaiah 14:26-27), efficacious (or certain, Isaiah 55:10-11, Hebrews 6:17-19), all-encompassing (considers all variables, human decisions and even evil plans, see Genesis 50:20, Colossians 1:16) and eternal (or for all time, Psalm 33:11).  This plan or “will of God” is unfolding (or progressively being revealed, 1 Peter 1:10-12).  The following well-knows passage in Isaiah captures God’s will of decree well:

Isaiah 46:9-11 “Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.

God’s will of decree is clearly seen in fulfilled prophesies as recorded in the Bible, in particular the birth, life death of Jesus Christ.  God’s redemption plan in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ is foretold in the Old Testament (Psalm 22, Isaiah 53) and revealed in the New testament (Acts 2:22-24, Hebrews 10:5-10, Ephesians 3:1-12), and in particular the many events surrounding his conception, birth and early years (Luke 1:26-38, 67-79: 2:8-14, 25-35, 2:46-50).

The knowledge of God’s will of decree comforts us with the truth that he is in control, always, everywhere.  Biblically, God’s will of decree has two sure outcomes: firstly, God’s reign will be universal (Philippians 2:10-11) and his glory known everywhere (Habakkuk 2:14), and secondly a good outcome for the Christian (Romans 8:28).

 God’s will of desire (moral, ethical, voluntary)

will_of_desire

The second use of the phrase “the will of God” (and similar phrases) implies that which is pleasing to God, that which he longs for in his creatures.  This is also known as the moral or ethical will of God and is already made known to us in the exemplary life and Christ Jesus (Colossians 1:9), or found in the commands of the Old Testament laws and the New Testament instructions.  Examples of God’s revealed will of desire include “this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3), “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) and “the Father is seeking” “true worshippers [who] will worship him in Spirit and truth” (John 4:23).  His heart for salvation of all people is expressed in this will of desire: “God is not willing that any should perish, but that al should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) for he “desires all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4; Matthew 18:14) as they “look on the Son and believe in Him” (John 6:40).  The apostles wrote the letters to help the early churches understand what God’s will of desire is in their specific circumstances, as in this instance regarding suffering unjustly, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” (1 Peter 2:15)

These expressions of desire and instructions are labelled God’s will, but unlike the will of decree described above, humans have a choice in the matter.  It is clear that obedience to these instructions has salvivic consequences as implied in several New Testament texts.  Apart from the above verse mentioned in the previous paragraph, 1 John 2:15-17 serves as an example Do not love the world or the things in the world… And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

Obedience to God’s will of desire results in eternal life and eternal rewards when Jesus returns to judge the world (Revelation 22:12).

God’s will of direction (destiny, purpose, wisdom for situation)

God's will of destiny is the purpose or goal that he has for us in life, or in a particular situation
God’s will of destiny is the purpose or goal that he has for us in life, or in a particular situation

The third way in which the phrase “the will of God” (and similar) is used implies one’s destiny, purpose or the intended direction of one’s life or a particular situation.  In Psalm 139 the psalmist sings about God’s intricate involvement in every aspect and acute awareness of every moment of one’s life – even before creation.  God’s call of the patriarchs, judges, prophets, kings in the Old Testament, as well as his call of the apostles in the New Testament shows that God does call one by name for a specific purpose.   In Jeremiah’s call we read clearly that God has this plan in mind before his birth (Jeremiah 1:5); so also in the call of Paul the apostle (Galatians 1:15).  Jesus lived with this reality of God’s will of direction for his life, referring to “the will of my Father” repeatedly in the gospels, especially in John’s gospel.  The image is what the psalmist sketches in Psalm 127 of a father directing and propelling his children towards their goal (target) in life.

God’s will of direction is also used in Scripture to indicate the wisdom of God for a specific situation, i.e. “What is the will of God for this difficult situation? What does God want us to do?”  as David did in 1 Samuel 30:8.  Much of New Old Testament prophesy is an answer to God to confused people in troubled times regarding this answer from God, where God’s expressed will comes through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit  (2 Peter 1:21).

This is the will of God we tend to pray about more as we prayerfully search for God’s guidance while making decisions regarding marriage partners, business partners, career choices, financial decisions or holidays.  And rightly so!  God’s will of direction confirms that God has an intended plan for each of his creatures, and that in his wisdom he knows best for each situation.  He invites us to ask him in relationship about these plans he has.

So what is the will of God for me?

God the Creator governs the world and nations, allotting their seasons and territories (Acts 17:26), steering the events towards the culmination of his redemptive plan for creation upon Christ’s return.  This is God’s will of Decrees; our lives form part of this great plan of God which will certainly take place regardless of our participation or opposition.

But we have a role to play in God’s will for our lives.  The first is often neglected in the pursuit for God’s will, with devastating effects.  (New Testament authors write about this as the error of Balaam).

Firstly, God’s will of desire for my life is that I will respond to his gracious invitation for salvation in Christ Jesus and that I will participate with his transforming work in shaping me into the image of his Son Jesus Christ, to embrace his character and mission.  Thus God’s will for my life is firstly to become a certain person, before I do a particular job.  God wants me to walk worthy of Christ in the everyday elementary things in life; I must represent and emulate Christ in his loving, humble, kind, obedient, joyful nature (Romans 8:28). The Bible says that this emulation of Christ is essential in fulfilling God’s will since  faith without character transformation will lead to a fruitless Christian life – the corrupted nature will thwart sincere efforts of good works and obedience to God (see 2 Peter 1:3-10).

Secondly, God’s will of direction for my life is unique; it is my calling.  And my calling is usually not towards full time Christian ministry; God calls people to teach, to build, to steward projects or finances, to govern.  God’s calls people to do essential everyday things, also “non-essential” everyday things such as arts and music.  The lives of Amos the sheep-farming prophet, Deborah the mother-judge-deliverer of Israel and Paul the tent-making-apostle-preacher teach us that you can do many things in one lifetime and be perfectly in God’s eternal will for your life.

How do I know what is God’s will of direction for my life? This question will be unpacked in a later blog, but let me leave you with this: start by sincerely asking your creator to lead you into his intended path for your life.  And while you wait, listen and respond to his promptings, comfort yourself in this mindset:

“I TRUST MORE IN GOD’s ABILITY TO LEAD ME THAN IN MY ABILITY TO FOLLOW HIM.”  Let the Good Shepherd lead you on in his path for your life!

sheherd-leading-sheep