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God’s Sovereignty; The Hands of Wicked Men

“Pilate said to them: ‘You take him and, according to your own laws, judge him.’ But the Jews said, ‘We are not permitted to execute anyone.’ This was to fulfill the word of Jesus which he had spoken indicating by what kind of death he was to be executed.’”

(John 18:31-32)

 

Recognizing that this was not a political matter, Pilate returns the verdict that the Jews should handle this matter on their own. Yet, under Roman rule, local courts were not permitted to practice capital punishment apart from the charge of blaspheming the temple. Execution (apart from this one exception) was something that the Romans kept to themselves. These Jewish leaders, thus desiring to put Jesus to death, recognized that they needed to have Pilate’s blessings and, as mentioned already, they desired to have someone to blame were the people to be upset at this execution. It is sad how often politics shows up in the realm of the church.

This is significant, though, John points out, not just because of the ones who will put Jesus to death, but in terms of the way in which Jesus would die. Typically, Mosaic law demands death by stoning (John 10:31-33); the Romans practiced crucifixion. Jesus had predicted his death by the hand of Gentiles (Matthew 20:19; Luke 18:32) but also that he would be lifted up like Moses did the bronze serpent in the wilderness (John 3:14; 12:32-33). In fact, the Apostle Paul goes as far as to connect Jesus’ execution with Deuteronomy 21:23 which speaks of one who is hung from a tree being cursed by God (Galatians 3:13) — a sign that Jesus bore the curse for us in his death (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Predictions of his own death may seem rather minor to us as we have heard and read these words over and over many times. But Jesus’ predictions of his death are just one more sign that he was actively in control over all aspects of his life and even of his coming death. There were no accidents nor were there any surprises — this is God’s economy, not man’s. As Isaiah wrote, ‘Yahweh delighted to crush him” (Isaiah 53:10). It is God’s design that is ultimately being worked out here, though by the hands of wicked and lawless men (Acts 2:23).

Sent into the World as Christ was sent into the World

“Just as you sent me into the world, I also send them into the world, and for them, I sanctify myself in order that they also might be sanctified in Truth.”

(John 17:18-19)

This statement that Christ makes is very simple to understand, but very difficult to apply and live out because of the ramifications that it means for those of us who are believers.  “Just as,” Jesus says, the Father sends the Son, so the Son sends the believers.  The simplest way to understand this is to see this as a call for us to evangelize the world.  Yet, there is much more to what Jesus is teaching, for we must ask in what way did Christ enter into the world?  In turn, how are we to live out being sent in the same way?

Jesus came into the world in humility for the purpose not only of showing the people the Truth, but also to die—to be a sacrifice, holy and true, for sinful people.  Thus, Jesus sanctified himself so that he would be prepared to be a sacrifice for his people.  Thus, if we are to also be sent into the world as Christ was sent into the world, we need to be prepared to be sacrifices for the gospel, not living for ourselves or for selfish gain, but living humbly for the glory of God and to call others to Christ.  Thus, Paul calls us to become “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1-2), being wholly committed to the sacrifice taking place (the Old Testament animal sacrifices kept nothing back, but were wholly committed to the altar—so too was Jesus, so too are we to be!).  Wealth, reputation, status, and privilege should not only be seen as God’s blessing to us, but also be seen as a tool toward advancing the end of the Gospel, not simply to make ourselves comfortable.

So, as you look at your life, how is it that you will sacrifice all for the Gospel?  What are the things that are holding you back from being sent into the world as Christ was sent into the world?  And how are you sanctifying yourself so that you can be a faithful and true living sacrifice to the glory of God?  These are dangerous questions for most of us to ask, because if we ask these questions honestly, God will call us to change in one way, shape, or form.  In addition, if we seek to live this out, God will call us to step outside of our comfort zones and stretch—but stretch to what end?  Think of things this way, Jesus called 12 Apostles (11 originals plus Paul) and those twelve men—wholly committed to the Gospel and to being led by the Holy Spirit—turned the world on its head.  Think of what God might do if confessing Christians today would be willing to be wholly committed to the claims of Christ that are upon them.  We would stop just “doing church,” but we would demolish the strongholds of this culture and turn this world on its head once again to the glory of Jesus Christ.  The church has largely embraced the devil’s temptation of comfort and has largely become impotent; let us see what would happen if we embrace Jesus’ prayer for us instead—the world, and our own lives, will never be the same.

A Theophany on Patmos, part 2: Revelation 1:11

“It said: ‘Write what you see into a book and send it to the seven churches; to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicia.’”

(Revelation 1:11)

 

Here we have John’s specific task.  One thing of interest is the contrast between the specific call of John and that of the Old Testament prophets.  When God calls to them, he calls them to speak (Isaiah 6:9, Jeremiah 1:9, Ezekiel 3:1, Hosea 2:1, etc…).  John is called to write.  In fact, Nahum is the only Old Testament prophet whose writings are introduced as a book (Nahum 1:1). 

In the case of Revelation, Jesus is the one doing the speaking, as he is the true prophet.  John, as his servant, is given the commission to write that which has been spoken for the edification of the church.  Like the faithful servants of the Old Testament prophets, John faithfully transcribes that which Jesus is relaying to him.

It is also worth noting that the churches are listed in order that the letter would probably be delivered.  Patmos was 50 miles off the coast of Ephesus (it was actually in the domain of Miletus, another Asian city, but one where we have no record of a first century church).  It would be read in Ephesus and copied for their own use and then transferred to the next church on the list.  The cities are listed in clockwise order as you would travel through the Roman region of Asia along primary thoroughfares.


There is evidence of a second century church in Miletus, though.  In Acts 20: 17-38, Paul meets with the Ephesian Elders in Miletus, but there is no reference to there being a church in that city at the time.  In 2 Timothy 4:20, Paul relays that Trophimus was left in Miletus because he was sick, perhaps that is the beginning of a church plant.  There are no other references to a potential church in the city.

A Theophany on Patmos, part 1: Revelation 1:9-10

“I John, your brother and participant in the suffering, the kingdom, and the perseverance in Jesus: I was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.  I was in the spirit in the day that belongs to the Lord and I heard behind me a voice as great as a trumpet.”

(Revelation 1: 9-10)

 

Again, John states his name.  What is interesting about this is the contrast between John’s statement and the statement of the Old Testament prophets.  The Old Testament prophets almost always gave their pedigree.  Isaiah was the son of Amoz, Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah, Ezekiel was the son of Buzi, Joel was the son of Pethuel, Jonah was the son of Amittai, etc…  Yet, any form of lineage is absent from John’s introduction.  He does not even list the region that he hails from as many of the prophets do.

What are we to make of this?  It is a reminder that as Christians, our lineage is in Christ and in him alone.  In the Old Testament times, when they were still looking forward with anticipation, there was a need to stand in the authority of their forbears.  As Christians, though we stand gratefully on the shoulders of those who have gone before us in faith, we do not stand on tradition for tradition’s sake.  All we do and all we accept of those who have gone before us, must be judged against the same rule of scripture.  There is no authority for the Christian but God’s word, and there is no lineage either biological or theological that is of any value apart from Christ.  John’s pedigree is “Christian,” and that is enough.

And what role does John play in the larger scheme of things?  John simply says that he is a fellow participator in the things of God.  Like the other writing apostles, John places no merit in his position as an apostle.  He does not use it to rule in authority over men—though as an apostle, he has greater authority over men—but considers himself a brother in faith to his people.  Jesus said, “if anyone wishes to be first, he is to be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35b).  The apostles understood this well and it would do us well to understand this better.

Also note the close connection between suffering, perseverance, and the kingdom of God that John makes.  It is a reminder of Jesus’ words at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount:

“Blessed are the ones who have been persecuted in the name of righteousness, for to them is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when they reproach you, persecute you, and say evil and lies of you because of me.  Rejoice and Exalt!  For your reward is great in heaven.  For thus they persecuted the prophets who came before you.”

(Matthew 5:9-12)

To those who would suggest that Christians ought not to suffer—that God only wants us healthy, wealthy, and wise—I commend to you the scriptures.  God’s word consistently tells us that if we are followers of Christ, we will have trials in our life, and they will be abundant.  The world hates the Lord who we serve and we ought to expect to be treated with contempt (John 15:20). 

Why is this?  James tells us that through trial we grow in faith and faith brings perseverance (James 1: 2-4).  In fact, with this in mind, trial is not a curse, but a blessing for it brings us closer to God if we persevere.  Why is this important to bring out?  Because the dispensationalist will tell you that God is going to remove the elect from the world before the great tribulations of Revelation begin.  I ask then, why would God deny his church such a great blessing and privilege as to persevere through even the greatest tribulation? 

Next, John not only gives us his location as he received the revelation, but he further connects himself to the people who are suffering in persecution to whom he is writing.  John is in exile because of his witness and preaching of Jesus.  Living in a modern society, I find John’s state interesting.  We live in an age where we strive to protect our leaders from suffering.  Generals designate their authority to lesser commanders and so forth, orchestrating the battles from a safe distance.  Most church pastors have adopted this mentality.  They tend to do very little “hands on” evangelism and ministry—especially if they serve a large congregation—in favor for training others to do the task.

Don’t get me wrong, there is no way that a pastor can do everything in a church, but because they cannot do everything, many pastors take that to mean that they are not obligated to do anything.  Here we have John, the last living apostle, probably one of the few, if not only, men alive at this point that actually spoke with Jesus face to face, and he is suffering in exile because of his preaching.  John’s example should serve as a reminder to all who would shepherd God’s flock that they will have to sleep under the stars.

Patmos was a little island (about 35 miles in circumference), about 50 miles off the shore of Ephesus in the Aegean Sea.  Roman Emperors would often exile political prisoners on the island.  In this instance, under the reign of Domitian, John is exiled.  We don’t know the details of what got him sentenced apart from the fact that it was because of his faithful testimony to the Gospel.  We learn from Josephus, the Jewish historian, that John was given a pardon after Domitian’s death by Nerva in 96 A.D. and returned to Ephesus.  John was the only Apostle not to suffer the death of a martyr, though he did experience persecution.

John tells us next that it was the Lord’s Day and he was “in the Spirit.”  Though some will debate it, this is pretty clear evidence that by this point, for the Christian, the Sabbath had been moved from Saturday to Sunday (from the last day of the week to the first).  We do this primarily to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, but it is important for us not to stop there in our understanding of the Christian Sabbath.

Most of the earliest Christian converts were Jewish as well as being Christian.  In fact, they would not have seen a contradiction between the two.  Christianity was the fulfillment of all that Judaism had anticipated.  In practice, then, they usually celebrated both the Saturday Sabbath and the Sunday Sabbath. 

Yet, as Gentiles flooded into the church through the missionary efforts of those like Paul, the Gentiles were not expected to keep all of the requirements that had been placed on the Jews.  The food laws and the circumcision laws were not applied to them.  In fact, the Jerusalem counsel only mandated four restrictions (Acts 15:19-20):

  1. Abstain from things polluted by idols
  2. Abstain from sexual immorality
  3. Abstain from food that has been strangled
  4. Abstain from eating meat that has the blood still in it

Not being required to conform to Jewish tradition, the gentile Christians tended only to keep the Christian, or Sunday, Sabbath, not both. 

  In 70 AD, the Romans came in and sacked Jerusalem, destroying the temple.  When they did this, they went out of their way to eliminate potential pockets of resistance and groups that might form an insurrection.  This helped to drive the wedge even deeper between Christians and Jews, until there was a fairly distinct separation between Christian and Jewish Sabbaths.

Yet, the change from Saturday to Sunday Sabbath-keeping was not simply a historical issue, but a theological issue.  It is important to note the comparison.  In the Old Testament, God’s people are commanded to keep the Sabbath for the following reasons:

  1. To rest from the labors of the week (Genesis 2:1-3)
  2. To commemorate God’s creative work (Exodus 20:11)
  3. To commemorate God’s consecration of His people as a holy and set apart (Exodus 31:12-15)
  4. To gather as a people in the name of God (Leviticus 23:1-3)
  5. To commemorate God’s redemption of His people (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)

As Christians, we look to Christ’s completed work for our hope and as the focus of our Sabbath day.  In turn, we keep the Sabbath for the same reasons, but with a Christological focus.  As Christ was resurrected on Sunday and the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost on Sunday, we celebrate our Sabbath on Sunday. 

  1. The Christian Sabbath is still a needed rest from the labors of the week.
  2. Not only do we commemorate God’s creative work, which was begun on a Sunday, but we anticipate God’s re-creative work in the new heavens and the new earth, which was secured on a Sunday, as it is Christ’s resurrection that secured for us an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading (1 Peter 1:4).
  3. We commemorate God’s election, setting us apart as a holy priesthood (1 Peter 1:14-16).
  4. We gather as a people in the name of the Lord.
  5. To commemorate God’s redemption of His people, not only through the history of redemption, but also in the saving work of Jesus, through which we have been redeemed from our bondage to sin and are being prepared for eternity with Christ in heaven.  Because Christ is resurrected, we have the hope of resurrection as well (Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:18).

 

John also tells us that he was “in the Spirit” when he received the revelation from Jesus.  While there is some discussion as to just what John means, we can at least say that John was involved in worship.  We can say this for a number of reasons.  First of all, his vision was on Sunday, as we previously discussed, which is a day set apart for the worship of God.  Secondly, scripture encourages us to pray with the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26, Jude 20).  And third, we see in Isaiah’s call and probably in Jeremiah’s call, that they were in the context of worship (for are not our souls best prepared for God’s call in this context?).  Isaiah was serving in the temple when God called him.  Though we do not know the context that Jeremiah was in when God called, we do know that he was a priest who resided in the city of Anathoth, which is less than 3 miles from Jerusalem. 

Some will argue that this is referring to a prophetic state that John was in.  John certainly ended up in that state, but to imply that John was in the prophetic state prior to the theophany is difficult to support.  Throughout the scriptures, the Holy Spirit is found to be descending on people in a prophetic way (1 Samuel 19:20-24, Ezekiel 2:2, Acts 10:10, 2 Corinthians 12:2), but what is consistent is that the person has no control over the timing of it.  God is sovereign not only in his creation and his election, but he is sovereign even in his revelation of himself.  My suggestion is that John was involved in sincere prayer and worship and God chose that very appropriate time to reveal himself to him.

We then hear the voice that calls to John from behind.  It is worth noting the imagery that John uses here: it is loud like a trumpet.  Trumpets are used in the Old Testament for a variety of reasons.  It is used to call people together for worship (Exodus 19:13, Leviticus 25:9) or for warfare (Judges 3:27, Nehemiah 4:20).  They were used in worship (Psalm 150:3) and to announce a new king over God’s people (1 Kings 1:34).  But there is one usage that carries over from the Old Testament into the New, and that is the use of trumpets to announce the presence of the Lord (Exodus 19:16-19, Isaiah 27:13, Matthew 24:31, 1 Corinthians 15:52, etc…).  Here John is in the presence of the Lord.

 

Joseph of Arimathea’s Garden

(John 19: 38-42)

 

What a drastic contrast there was in this garden.  We are told that Joseph of Arimathea was one of the secret disciples of Jesus, and that he and Nicodemus (who dialogued with Jesus early in his ministry—see John 3) brought the body of Jesus to a tomb in a garden that Joseph had reserved for himself.

What a heavy heart they must have had.  They carried the lifeless body away from the ugliness of the cross to a place of beauty.  Their task was to prepare Jesus’ body for burial, and quickly, for the Sabbath was coming shortly.  Have you ever handled the body of a friend?  It is a sobering occasion.  When Jesus was a toddler, three Magi from the east had given him gifts suited for a king.  Now, Joseph gives Jesus another gift suited for a king.  It was only the wealthy who could afford a tomb like this, and usually because it had been a place where all the family members were buried.  Joseph gave Jesus a virgin tomb.  No death had defiled the place, and in this place, they laid Jesus’ body.

They made their preparations, the Romans rolled the stone into place, and the two men were bidden to return to their homes.  What a dark night that would be.  But, praise be to God that this is not the end of the story!  For the day after the Sabbath Mary Magdalene and Mary the wife of Zebedee went to the tomb.  And what did they find?  It was anything but what they expected!

Here in the place of death was life!  Angels from heaven accompanied by all of the splendor of heaven filled this garden with light.  And Jesus had arose!  The garden was transformed not by earthly hands, but by the very power of God!  God was saying even through the change in the garden, “Have hope, for I am in control, and I will be glorified!”

What a great God we have, dear Christian.  This moment here, these words of life that were announced by the angel, are the most important words in the human language.  And this event is the most important event in human history.  Without the death and resurrection of Christ, there can be no hope, but with it, there is hope in abundance.  Friends, rest in that hope, never deviate from it or look another way, for outside of Christ, life is nothing more than darkness and despair—much like Joseph’s garden was before the work of Christ.  Glorify his name with all your life, and trust in his grace even in your darkest times, for it is more than sufficient for you.  Amen.