The End? Making sense of judgment

Our 20th stop in the journey together through the book of Revelation has brought us to chapters 15 and 16.  A recording of this will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

not_fair1
“It’s not fair!”” Our craving for justice.

“Where is the justice?”  How do you feel when another corrupt politician escapes the law through bribery? Or when another rapist go free because of sloppy police work? Or gang members buy off another local police precinct to look the other way?

We are all born with an innate sense of right and wrong, a desire for justice.  Justice affirms there is indeed a universal right and a wrong and particular right and wrong within a community (customs and traditions).  Justice demands retribution (punishment) and reparation (restoration) to allow reconciliation (peace).  A system of justice aims to act for the weak ones in society, who are ignored by the powerful ones in their pleas for justice.   Without justice, there is no peace.

A lot of judgment. The middle section of Revelation (chapters 6-20) is devoted to God’s just judgments.  For fourteen chapters God’s wrath is being poured out as seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowls in natural disasters, great wars, cosmic chaos and celestial visitations. Knowing that this is heavy reading, the Author graciously allows for interludes depicting God’s care for his people and his invitation to participate with his  work of redemption. 

These judgments are in response to the rebellious nations’ idolatry, immorality and violence (9:20-21), and in particular the suffering saint’s cries for justice (6:11; 16:7).  These three sets of judgments illustrate increasing intensity, inviting repentance, yet repeatedly we read the wicked nations “cursed God” and “did not repent”.

Before we make sense of these three sets of judgments together, let’s get an overview of  the bowls (chapter 15-16). 

Victory in the fire.  The scene opens again with a contrasting view similar to the previous chapter (chapter 14). The saints are depicted as victorious over the Beast, at peace and worshiping while the fires of God’s judgment are lighting up the world (15:2; compare 4:6; 5:10; 14:3).  They sing about God’s “righteous acts” (15:4) from the song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32), the lyrics which describe the judgments being poured out not only in the seven bowls (chapter 16) but also the seven seals and seven trumpets.

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Just, holy wrath.  These bowls of judgments are portrayed as coming from the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle (15:5-8).  By referring to “the Song of Moses” (15:3; Deuteronomy 32), these judgments on the wicked and rewards for the righteous are depicted as the blessing for obedience (Deuteronomy 27-28) and curses for disobedience (Deuteronomy 29-32) recorded in the Law and kept in the Most Holy Place in the Dessert Tabernacle (Deuteronomy 31:24-30).    

Patient in mercy. These bowls of judgments are called “seven plagues” (15:1).  As God demonstrated his patience towards Pharaoh and Egypt, allowing 10 times to repent before every plague, we also see God’s rich mercy allowing for the nations to turn from the rebellion in repentance to him.  But the nations did not repent from their wickedness and cursed God (16:9, 11, 20).

Plagues (again?)  The judgments poured out over the earth allude to the plagues against Egypt through which God delivered the Hebrews from slavery and oppression (15:1; refer Exodus 4-12).  Here the seven bowl judgments are directed at the kingdom of the Beast, his city Babylon, and those who bear his mark (16:2, 10-11, 19).  The first five bowls of judgment result in painful sores, death of the sea creatures, rivers becoming like blood, the sun scorching people, and anguishing darkness (16:2-11).

The sixth bowl dries up the Euphrates river, making a way for the “kings of the East” to invade the land, resulting in a battle at Armageddon (16:12-16).  As we commented on sixth trumpet blasts, this 6th bowl judgment hints to the immanent threat of the Parthian army, who were advancing East of the Roman Empire at the time of John’s writing – an immediate threat to the seven cities to whom this Revelation was directed.

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The pouring out of the seventh bowl results in hailstorms and a massive earthquake “like never before”, sinking islands, flattening mountains and destroying the cities of the nations – in particular Babylon (16:17-20).  Still the nations cursed God and refused to repent – as Pharaoh did.

Sound familiar? There are great parallels between the seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowls, especially the last two sets of judgments (see table below).  All of these contain allusions to the fulfillment God’s promises in the song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32) to which Jesus also alluded in his end times teachings (Matthew 24).  Deuteronomy 32:22-25 (famine, plague, pestilence, wild animals and the sword) is the substance of the first four seals, and 32:41-41-43 is the substance of the last two seals. With a slight change in order, the seven trumpets and seven bowls follow a similar pattern, alluding to God’s plagues on Egypt (Exodus 7-11).  The first five come by means of natural disasters, the last two by warfare.

Seven Seals

(Revelation 6)

Seven Trumpets

(Revelation 8-9)

Seven Bowls

(Revelation 16)

1.      Conquest

2.      War (civil)

3.      Famine (& injustice)

4.      Death by war, famine, plagues, wild animals (earth)

5.      Persecution

6.      Cosmic collapse.

7.      Silence.

1.      Earth stricken

2.      Sea stricken

3.      Rivers stricken

4.      Sky stricken

5.      Torment (darkness)

6.      Warfare & Conquest

7.      Final judgment.

 

1.      Earth stricken

2.      Sea stricken

3.      Rivers stricken

4.      Sky stricken

5.      Torment (darkness)

6.      Warfare & Conquest

7.      Final judgment.

 

As mentioned before, these judgments increase in intensity: the seals affect 1/4 of the earth, the trumpets 1/3 of the earth, and the bowls all the earth (compare 6:8; 8:7-10; 16:2-10).  But they are similar in nature, seemingly repetitive.

How then do we read and respond to these sets of judgments?

We must remind ourselves that apocalyptic genre does not allow us to read these images as literal, once-off events.  Just as we don’t see Christ literally having seven eyes and seven horns (chapter 5), so we don’t expect talent-sized balls of hail (about 40kg! 16:20) or all the sea turning into blood at once (16:3).  Also, apocalyptic genre does not allow us to take these judgments as occurring chronologically in 21 consequential acts of judgment.  John did not write what happened next, but what he saw next.  Note the great similarity in both pattern and content.  The 7th seal, 7th trumpet and 7th bowl each indicate the Last Judgment or Final victory of the Lamb.  Why then three sets of seven judgments?

  1. Three perspectives on God’s judgments are highlighted in these three sets of judgments.    The seals are Christ’s perspective on these judgments, reminding us that only One is worthy to unfold God’s redemptive purposes through his cross.  The trumpets are the rebellious nations’ or Beast’s perspective on these judgments, alerting us to God’s victorious advance over the pagan kingdoms.  The bowls are the Church’s perspective on these judgments, depicting the judgments as God’s response to response to the prayers of the saints (8:5).   Thus we are always to see God’s judgments as God’s Christ’s redemption of creation, as God’s discipline on pagan kingdoms, and as God’s answers to the cries of the saints for justice.
  2. Just and Mercy.  As noted above, these judgments proceed from God’s holy place where his law is kept (15:5-8).  The judgments emanate from his holy and just nature; if God does not judge wickedness, he would not be just and mankind would forever be subject to abusive leadership with no one to save us.  These judgments  on wicked nations are just, i.e. deserved (9:20-21; 16:5-7).  Yet there is a way out!  Each of these judgments call people to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and repent of their rebellion.  These judgments are increasingly severe, urging repentance as it points to a final Day of Judgment. Indeed, “today is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2)
  3. Overwhelming urgency. These apocalyptic scenes are meant to overwhelm us of the sudden and severe judgments of God’s wrath poured out on the wicked.  It is meant to invoke the fear of God in the reader.  These scenes aim to call the reader to sober assessment of God’s impending Day of Judgment when Christ’s will come “as a thief in the night” (16:15).
  4. Encouragement and exhortation.  These overwhelming images of God’s judgments are meant to encourage the church that Christ is at work, delivering the world from evil, exhorting them to remain faithful to him and not submit to the intimidation of the Beast and seduction of Babylon.

Bringing it Home

fallen_world

In reading these judgments in Revelation, I am invited to look through God’s eyes at the  natural disasters and wars in our fallen world.  These are Christ’s redemptive works, calling the nations to repent of their claims to self-governance and self-sufficiency; warnings of God’s kingdom advancing in the world, and answers to the prayers of the saints for Christ’s return to reign.

I’m also called to look in the mirror and see my own sin deserving of judgment, and celebrate the mercy God offers me in the cross of His son.

Parted Seas

I’m both encouraged and exhorted as I look ahead to Christ’s renewal of all things, seeing that he is already at work making all things new in these redemptive acts.

Lastly, I’m called to look at the clock and recognize the urgency in these vivid images pointing to God’s Day of Judgment.  People get ready, Jesus is coming soon!

 

 

 

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 Toutube 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?

prayer_child

Yes, God hears you! Unfolding the first six seals of the scroll unleashed chaos and cries on earth (ch 6), then came the 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 a Almighty, Loving Father and hope for the return of Christ, the Prince of Peace, was waning.  They needed to be reassured that indeed, in spite of 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 question believers wrestle with in every generation (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, lightnings 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 “lightnings, thunder and voices” alludes to the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16), and occurs throughout Scripture in reference to God’s justice and judgment (eg. Psalm 77:18 and Hebrews 12:18).

Seven_trumpets2

The seven trumpets which follows (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 are “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 – the judgments by which God delivered his people from the oppressive, wicked Egyptian Empire ruled by a man who demanded worship 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 this 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 locusts 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.

7-trumpets-angel

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 decrees 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 great climatic change, causing crisis in food production, fresh water 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 armored 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 has 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 immanent 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 their 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,  in spite of these disasters, “they did not repent” of their pagan worship, violence, witchcraft, sexual immorality or thefts. (9:20-21)

Judge_hammer

The image of God as a just, sovereign judge, pouring out his wrath in disasters, famine and war one the earth sits uncomfortable 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 deliverance of the Hebrews.  So too the judgment on 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 prayer 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 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.

Seven_trumpets_1in3
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 an eternal judgment, calling for repentance to avoid the wrath of God and the Lamb.  Therefore these earthly 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

disasters_2019_statistica
Worldwide natural disasters in recent past (source: statistica)

The occurrence of natural disasters are 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 war 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 his merciful patience with his enemies.  Indeed,

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 vison 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 rather 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 him and find mercy before the Day of his Judgment.

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

 

The End? The Lion and the Lamb.

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

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

An important scroll (5:1-5)

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

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

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

Lion_2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

elders_bowing_throne2

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

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

The redeemed (5:9-10)

Every nation tribe tongue

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

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

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

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

Bringing it home

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suffer well

Over the last few weeks the world’s attention has been drawn to the intense persecution of Christians and other minority groups by the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), offering Christians three choices if they wish to stay: convert to Islam, pay peace tax and lose your family, or die.  More than 800’000 Iraqi minorities have been displaced, thousands have died a cruel death.

Ann Drew argues that “at no other time in history have we ever been more aware of the horrors of religious persecution.”  And rightly so: the #WeAreN campaign (Arabic “N” for “Nazarene” or follower of Jesus) is gaining momentum in social media as activists appeal raise awareness in the hope of a speedy end to this injustice by uploading images and petitioning for governmental engagement and financial contributions. (Do you also find the mainstream media strangely quiet on this serious matter?  I suspect they fear to put Islam in a bad light in fear of retribution). 

So again we have all been alerted to suffering of persecuted Christians in Iraq.  Off course, this is not new to the church in Iraq, as this is probably the most ancient Christian community in the world today, living in one of the most hostile Islamic nations on earth.  Most of Christian history is written in blood, and for large parts of the world, Christianity lives in varying degrees of religious persecution – it’s only in the West that we have enjoyed religious freedom – for now.

In fact, suffering is one of the main themes in the Scriptures.  Most of the Bible books were written to or about oppressed believers – whether slaves in Egypt, oppressed by Canaanite nations during the period of the judges, or Daniel and his contemporaries as Babylonian or Persian slaves, or the Entire New Testament written when the Church war persecuted by both Roman rule and the Jewish persecution.  Therefore a great number of the examples are recorded in Scripture about individuals of communities suffering, and God’s redemptive response to them.  Regarding these examples Paul writes to the persecuted congregations in Rome: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).  To the believers of both the Old and the New Testament, suffering was a reality.  This is our legacy.

Yet, for many Christians today, especially in the West, suffering is foreign to their theology.  But we all know the story of Job – probably the most ancient book in the Bible.  Job was a rich and influential man in his day.  He was a worshipper of God, a righteous man who interceded for his family and encouraged others.  Then disaster struck and he lost everything, leaving Job utterly surprised at first, then depressed and angry at God – crying “this is not fair!”  After lamenting his loss (and even his birth), his friend Eliphaz couldn’t keep quite anymore:

4 “Your words have upheld him who was stumbling,
and you have made firm the feeble knees.
But now [suffering] has come to you, and you are impatient;
it touches you, and you are dismayed.
Is not your fear of God your confidence,
and the integrity of your ways your hope?” (Job 4:4-6, ESV)

This sixth verse is a good summery of the theology of Job and three of his friends: the belief that if I worship God and do the right things, nothing bad will happen to me, because God is on my side.  In other words, bad things happen to bad people, good people should not suffer.  We might not say it like this, but this is also a popular theology in our time.  Like Job we are prone to believe that a life of integrity and sincere devotion to God will prevent bad things from happening to us. Then we, like Job, are caught off guard when disaster strikes, so we resort to unhealthy introspection (“What have I done wrong to deserve this?!”) or futile accusation (“Why does God allow this to happen to me?  God is not fair!”). 

When one believes that good standing with God prevents bad things from happening to you, as in Job’s case, suffering brings doubt: it makes you either question yourself (“where have I sinned to bring this suffering on me?”) or question the nature or power of God (“is God fair?” or “is God really there?” or “does God care?”).  This presumption is a pharisaic notion that entrusts the welfare of the self in one’s ability to walk rightly: “if I abide by the rules it will be well with me.”  It places our relationship with God on the contractual plane: “I do my part, God watches over me.

The ninth chapter of John tells of a man born blind. Both the disciples (v2) and the Pharisees (v34) presumed that the man was blind because of his sin, or his parent’s sin, but Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  (John 9:3)  In other words, his suffering had a redemptive purpose from God, and was not the result of someone’s sin.  God had a plan, and it involved the suffering of an individual.

We believe rightly that obedience brings blessings, but Scripture demonstrates repeatedly that righteous people suffer in this life, Jesus even promised that.  But even more clearly the life and death of our Saviour demonstrates that righteous people suffer, accomplishing the will of God. Therefore obedience to God does not prevent suffering in this evil age, and suffering is not always the result of sinful conduct. 

How do we view suffering as Christians?

As mentioned before all of Scripture was written to suffering people, mostly about God’s redemptive intervention into the lives of those suffering.  This is the basis of the Christian worldview: God’s creted everything good, the fall of sin bringing about suffering and death under the reign of Satan, and God redeemed creation by the death of his Son. 

A questions asked many times during periods of hardship is “Where is God in all of this?” to which Phillip Yancey simply answers “God is among his people” (see Revelations 21:3).   As Christ “went about doing good, healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38) during his life on earth, so Christ’ still today engages suffering with compassion and redemption through and among his people, being his “body” on earth (1 Corinthians 12:12).  The church is and will always be God’s chosen means of addressing suffering in this earth, until Jesus comes to usher in the new heaven and new earth.

So, if the church is God answer to suffering in the world, how do we respond to it?

How do we respond to suffering?

1. We are not surprised

Firstly, Peter wrote to the early church to “not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you… as though some strange thing were happening to you…” (1 Peter 4:12 ).  We should not be surprised either.  Suffering is normative to all humans, and Christians are not excluded, as our history teaches.  In fact, Jesus promised “in this world you will have trouble, so cheer up!” (John 16:33).  Paul echoed that promise, saying that “all who wish to live a godly life will suffer” (2 Timothy 3:12).  Why can we be so certain to experience suffering?

Although God created a good world, our world is fallen (1 John 5:19), and “the devil walks around like a prowling lion” (1Pet5:8-9) seeking “to kill, steal and destroy” (John 10:10).  But we also know that suffering is not only caused by an enemy “out there” – sin is locked up in every human heart (Romans 3:23), and therefore we humans are the cause of much of the suffering in the world (see Galatians 5:19-21).  Paul taught the Colossians (3:5-11) that greed leads to sexual immorality and (and eventually sexual violence), anger in the heart results in slander and obscenity (and eventually violent abuse). Even a casual observation of society makes one see that greed (or envy) makes one satisfy the desires of self causing suffering of others whether financially, sexually, or by exerting authority (1 John 2:16).  The same can be seen of pride which asserts rights for self at the cost of others, manifesting in of divisions in homes and communities, resulting of all types schisms: sexisms, classisms, sectarianisms, racism.  These in turn spurs hatred, oppression, violence, and a long history of wars as we see in Iraq and Gaza today.  

Do not be surprised when you are struck by suffering, for as long as we are in this world the prince of this word (John 14:30) excerpts his reign of terror and death, working through sinful people who both endure suffering and spread suffering (Ephesians 2:2).

(2) We joyfully endure suffering

New Testament writers teach that our response towards suffering should be joyful.  Jesus said that those who are poor, hungry, thirsty, mourning, persecuted and slandered are blessed: fortunate, well off and happy (acc to Strongs Dictionary; see Matthew 5:3-12, compare 1 Peter 3:14). This happy response is not natural.  However, there are at least six reasons to be joyful in our suffering according to the New Testament.

The first reason for rejoicing in our suffering is the imitation of Christ: since Christ himself suffered unjustly in this life, the early church counted it an honor to suffer like him, even to be identified with him in his death (1 Peter 4:12; Philippians 1:29; 3:10; Hebrews 12:3).  Secondly James motivates a joyful response to suffering because it gives opportunity to grow in godly character (James 1:2-4).  Hardship has the ability to reveal which parts of one’s faith and character are strong and which is not (Hebrews 12:27-28); it has the ability to reveal yourself for who you really are as Peter was brought face-to-face with his own cowardness the evening of Jesus’ arrest (John 13:38; 18:27).  Moreover, bodily suffering rids one of the susceptibility of sinful sensual pleasures (1 Peter 4:1-2), as we know from receiving a hiding as a child.  Thirdly, suffering (especially the threat of death) has a way of focusing the mind on what is really important, bringing the correct eternal perspective to our everyday tasks on earth (Philippians 3:8-9, 14; 2 Corinthians 4:18).  Furthermore, we endure suffering joyfully since we know there are rewards when Christ returns (Matthew 5:12; 16:27; Hebrews 12:1-2; 1 Peter 4:19) – our perseverance and faithfulness amidst hardships will rewarded (See Christ’s letters to the churches in Revelations 2:7, 11, etc).  Lastly, this eternal perspective gives joyful hope since we know that the age of suffering will soon be over, when Christ will usher in the New Earth where  there will be no more tears, no more sickness or poverty, no deceit or rejection, no suffering and enslavement, no violence or death.  Jesus said “in this world you will have trouble, so cheer up!  I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).  Rejoice, for our suffering is temporal.

(3) We work towards its redemptive purpose

Our suffering also has redemptive meaning, and therefore we have to see it as an opportunity from God to be grasped (James 1:2-4).  Jesus taught in the parable of the Sower that trials, temptation and tribulation arises because of the seed, to show the depth of the soil (Mark 4:5-6; Mark 4:16-17).  In other words, God allows difficult times for our sake to show the depth of our character and trust in him – which will otherwise not be known to us.  As an exam shows our depth of understanding in a subject matter, so suffering shows how much we trust God and how much our character has grown to represent Christ. 

In Peter’s case the time of testing rid him of immature flakiness and cowardness, and in turn produced godly character and courage in him (see Luke 22:31).  In Joseph’s case the repetitive injustice and abuse produced a beautiful humility and strength (Genesis 37-41).  In Job’s case, the suffering brought him to the place where he knew God for the first time (Job 42:5-6).

So suffering, Biblically, holds redemptive purpose from God, as Paul teaches “All things work together for the good of those who love God” (Romans 8:19).  Or as Dallas Willard stated it nothing irredeemable has happened to us or can happen to us on our way to our destiny in God’s world.” All suffering can be redeemed by God.  As Christians, our suffering has purpose.

How do we let the suffering fulfill its redemptive purpose? Difficult as it is, we surrender ourselves to God’s work in the suffering in the same way Jesus surrendered himself in the garden of Gethsemane to the cup his Father gave him to drink.  Note that, although Jesus was handed over by jealous, self-righteous Jewish leaders, and crucified by Roman soldiers – he rightly saw his suffering as a bitter cup which God gave him to drink (Matthew 26:42).  

This calls for a re-interpretation of our suffering, acknowledging God the Father has seen it fit to allow the suffering, and that he entrusts you with the suffering (1 Corinthians 10:13).  At some point during his suffering Joseph had to re-interpret his enslavement and imprisonment as a work from God, as he told his brothers who sold him into slavery you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20).  Paul encouraged the congregation in Corinth to find some meaning in their suffering, to reframe their experience with the words Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”  (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)  Suddenly, the Corinthian suffering was no longer persecution by the Romans, but a school of comfort and compassion with God as the Teacher.  Moses did the same reframing of the Wilderness wandering as a lesson in humble dependence on God, as well as a test of devotion to God amidst suffering (Deuteronomy 8:2-5 – see a previous post on Not by Bread Alone). 

As we realize our suffering has purpose and is permitted by God for our good and the good of others we entrust ourselves to God, knowing that he has the power to deliver us, and even to sustain us in during these fiery times (1 Peter 4:19; compare with Daniel 3:14-18).     

(4) We Suffer well

Peter admonishes believers under a reign of persecution to follow the example of Christ and suffer honorably, blessing those who hurt you (1 Peter 2:20-23).  He teaches Christians to maintaining their innocence under unjust rulers so that no one can find fault with their conduct, especially pertaining to honoring and obeying the rulers and slave masters as appointed by God himself (1 Peter 2:12-15; 3:9, compare Romans 13:1-7).    We walk worthy of the Lord at all times, and follow his example in suffering.

 (5) We respond prayerfully

 “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray!” (James 5:13)  Our natural inclination is to pray for an end to the suffering, but in the pursuit of the redemptive purpose of our suffering, Scripture has very helpful examples prayers recorded.   When Jesus warned Peter of his time of testing by Satan, he said “I prayed… that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31; compare Ephesians 3:17).  I always pray the same for people going through a very hard time, since people are tempted to abandon their belief in God’s good character and his ability to save them.  The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews (written probably early in Nero’s persecution of Christians around Rome 60 AD) had to be reminded of the same truth, from there the eleventh chapter on the heroes of our faith.

To the church in Ephesus undergoing persecution, Paul prayed three significant things, the first of which was for hope: a revelation of the rich inheritance God has reserved for all believers (Ephesians 1:18). The prayer is that they may know what lies ahead for them beyond this time of suffering, so that they may have something to endure for.  Everyone going through tough times needs something to press on for, otherwise the human spirit wills no more.

Then Paul prays “that you may be strengthened with power through his spirit” (Ephesians 3:16) – for endurance, the ability to persist.  The strength to suffer well, but to push on through this difficult time.

Paul continues to pray “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may… know the love of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19).  Why pray for love?  Because when suffering prolongs people are tempted to think that God does not love them anymore, that God has forgotten them.  So Paul prays that the suffering congregation may be secured in the awareness of God’s loving devotion towards them, even though the experience pain and grief from suffering.  Elsewhere he writes “nothing can separate you from the love of God…” (Romans 8:39).

Lastly, the Lord’s answer to Paul’s prayers to end his personal suffering gives good guidance for our prayers: pray for sufficient grace amidst the trial (2 Corinthians 12:8-9) – for God’s help and power to sustain one in times of weakness.  His is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).  In other words this grace carries the one suffering through to the end.

(6) We respond generously

Our last answer to the question “How do Christians respond to suffering?” is found in Apostles’ instruction to Paul and Barnabas regarding their mission to the Gentiles: “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10).  We read of this practice of collecting goods for suffering, persecuted believers in 2 Corinthians 9:1-7, what John calls “love not just in words, but love in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18).  As the church we respond compassionately and generously with those who suffer.  One avenue for giving to the church suffering persecution in Syria and Iraq is via the disaster management agency relief.life

In this life we will not escape suffering, since the world is fallen, and so are we humans.  Yet we trust God our Father since our life is in his hands, and he is able to deliver us, or sustain us during these trying times.  Therefore we pray to him to reveal and accomplish his redemptive purpose with our suffering.  We joyful endure the suffering because it is good for us – and others – and we remind ourselves that this life is short, and that – for Christians – suffering will end when Christ returns to usher in the New Earth.  And while we wait for That Day, we the Church will follow our Lord’s example to comfort and support those suffering with the same compassion he showed while he walked this earth.