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Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Archives for September, 2019

True Confession #1: I did not sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night or the night before or at any time I can really remember! That means I cannot claim to be an expert about anything.

Except brokenness.

I get brokenness.

I get brokenness as the result of my own stupidity.

I get brokenness from my accumulated pain, heartache, and grief.

In that sense at least, there was never any reason for me to sleep at a Holiday Inn Express. Because, as it turns out, I own brokenness (I’m not so jaded or self-impressed to think I’m the only shareholder in this conglomerate). In fact, we both know there are as many different ways to be broken as there are broken people.

We’ll come back to brokenness momentarily, but in the meantime here’s True Confession #2: I have absolutely no idea why I signed on to write an article or post on The Book of Revelation.


I’m not the go-to-guy for advanced understanding of biblical languages. I’m not an expert on all the prevailing historical detail. So, for me to just pop out an insightful, accurate, and informative article on the Book of Revelation? The true question has to be what was I thinking?

Revelation is one of those books that has spawned innumerable interpretations. From the solidly biblical to the fantastical are-you kidding-me? From serious discussions of timelines and who was the Roman Emperor when it all took place to the meaning of locusts.

Yes, you read me correctly. Locusts. As in early predictions of Apache Attack Helicopters.

Who knew?

And all of that before you get to the interpretations of a great red dragon stalking a pregnant woman, souls under the altar, and angels pouring out Bowls of Wrath.

It would be remiss of me to forget the implanted microchip that we’ll all have as the Mark of the Beast.

666 anyone?

Knowing this commitment and deadline was approaching along with the very sneaky suspicion that I had little to offer, I kept defaulting to the silly. And goofy. We must not forget goofy.

What is that you might ask? Somewhere back in the dim recesses of time, I learned a song at Sardis Lake Christian Camp ripped right out of Revelation.

Revelation 21:8 to be exact and the song lyrics went like this:

Liars go to hell
Liars go to hell
Burn, burn, burn
Burn, burn, burn…

Being the stellar theologian that I am, I’m sure the whole purpose of this particular verse immortalized in song was to excoriate all liars.

Burn, burn, burn!


But frankly, that’s quite depressing. In my brokenness, I’ve told more than my share of lies. I have allowed myself to live deceptively. Accordingly, self-deception has been a double-edged sword: it has been both the mark of my brokenness and a source of it. And while we laugh or snicker at the goofiness of that little ditty, there is an element of pain and sorrow securely attached.

As I work my way through this, as I wrestle with who I am, where I’ve been, Revelation confronts me with a balm for my soul, but not just my own.

Broken people (no matter the reason why) need hope and this last exclamation point to the canon of scripture is serious hope! When you get past the apocalyptic language, when you move beyond the imagery, Revelation is a story of redemption, restoration, and reconciliation. It’s the story of heaven coming down. It is the broken being remade anew in the presence of Immanuel, God with us!

And maybe, just maybe, the reason I latched on to this particular topic with this particular issue is simpler than I have been want to understand. I own in some respects a realized hope even now. But I long for that day when hope is revealed in its entirety.

Who doesn’t need hope?

“He who testifies about these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20 CSB17)

Yours with hope for a blessed future indeed!

Les Ferguson, Jr.
Oxford, MS

From time to time I post on my blog about my experiences leading a bible study in a local prison. One recurring theme in these posts is how different the bible sounds on the inside of a prison as compared to the outside.

I once led a class in a study of the book Revelation where I was struck by the change in the sound of this book.

We all know that Revelation is a very violent and blood-soaked book. Consequently, when we studied this book at my church last fall a lot of people expressed dismay. The violence of the book didn’t sit well with our empathic, liberal sensitivities. Revelation in one of those embarrassments found within the pages of the bible.

What to do with all that blood and violence in the book?

Non-violent readings of Revelation look to Chapters 4-5 in the fusion of the Throne and the Lamb. Chapter 4 is dominated by the image of the Throne, a symbol of the Rule of God. The imagery is all about power. However, in Chapter 5 this is all thrown for a loop when we encounter the One who is standing on the Throne:

Revelation 5.1-6
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne

The Lamb Who Was Slain–the Agnus Dei–is how God rules, how God expresses and exerts God’s power. God’s power is sacrificial and self-giving love. The Lamb Who Was Slain expresses the Rule of God in our world and the next.

If you want to see the power of God in the world you point to Jesus on the cross.

With this understanding we read the blood and violence of Revelation through the cross. The War of the Lamb isn’t violent. The War of the Lamb is fought by fighting, resisting and witnessing non-violently. This non-violent, martyrological note is sounded throughout Revelation. For example, the “sword” of the Lamb is truth, witness and testimony. The sword of the Lamb comes from his mouth:

Revelation 1.16; 2.12, 16; 19.15, 21
In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.

Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.

The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh. It’s not surprising, given this imagery, that when Pilate and Jesus have a conversation about power (Does Pilate have the power to kill Jesus?) they end up talking about truth.

Following the Lamb into battle the faithful wage war with the non-violent methods of the Lamb:

Revelation 12,7-12
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:

“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.”

The faithful triumph over evil “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” Testimony is the weapon. And like Jesus, the faithful remain non-violent to the point of death.

These are some of the hermeneutical keys for those wanting to read Revelation non-violently. Like with most things in the bible, the key move is Christological–reading everything through the sacrificial and self-giving love of Jesus on the cross. So when you think of God’s power and rule remember the conflation of Throne and Lamb in Revelation 4-5.

Still, the imagery of Revelation is pretty over the top. Which brings me to reading the book in prison.

The great pastoral objective of Revelation might be best captured in Chapter 18 in the call for the People of the Lamb to come out from Babylon:

Revelation 18.1-4a
After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted:

“‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’
She has become a dwelling for demons
and a haunt for every impure spirit,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal.
For all the nations have drunk
the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”

Then I heard another voice from heaven say:

“‘Come out of her, my people.’
so that you will not share in her sins…

“Come out of her, my people.” That’s the heart of Revelation. That’s why the book was written, to communicate that message. The book is about two rival cities, Babylon and the New Jerusalem. And the encouragement to the churches is to “come out” from Babylon to live under the Rule of the Lamb as citizens of the New Jerusalem. Despite appearances Babylon stands under God’s judgment and those who are non-violently faithful to the Lamb will be vindicated in the end.

As I see it, the main trouble with reading Revelation as people of wealth, status and privilege is that we don’t have much of a problem with Babylon. We’re doing quite well in Babylon, thank you very much. Consequently, the prophetic indictment and cry to “come out” leaves us cold. We wonder, why is the author of Revelation so desperately angry?

Well, he’s angry because he’s screaming at a bunch of spiritual zombies. People who have become blind to the webs of oppression, immorality and violence that have entangled them and support their way of life.

Do you know who weeps first over Babylon in Chapter 18? Kings and merchants. Military power and marketplaces.

Revelation 18.9-13
“When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry:

“‘Woe! Woe to you, great city,
you mighty city of Babylon!
In one hour your doom has come!’

“The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore—cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.

The trouble is, as Americans, we benefit so much from American power–military and economic–that we can’t see the sins of Babylon. So the prophetic indignation of Revelation just sails right over our heads. “That book is crazy,” we say.

And Babylon rolls on…

But inside a prison it all sounds very different. Inside a prison the violence of Babylon is raw and exposed. The violence and economies of prison life are a microcosm of the larger world, Babylon distilled. Consequently, the men in my bible study were constantly tempted to give in to that violence and economy. The choices are stark and clear. Babylon or New Jerusalem? Lamb or Beast?

In prison they feel the Beast. They know very well what Revelation is talking about.

Inside the prison the call of Revelation rings loud and clear. The call to “come out” is felt within the gut. The life and death choice is acute. Prison inmates get the book of Revelation because they get Babylon. They fight against it every second of every day.

Us? Not so much.

And Babylon rolls on…

This article originally appeared at Richard’s blog at this link.

We encourage you to check out his blog. His content is top notch and thought provoking!

And Babylon rolls on…

Cypress Publications is an imprint
of Heritage Christian University Press

John Young, a doctoral candidate at the University of Alabama, has penned a small volume for use in a small group or Bible class setting titled Visions of Restoration: The History of the Churches of Christ (111 pgs). There are thirteen chapters, each followed by questions for discussion.  There is a useful appendix of suggested readings and an index. There is a Forward by Edward J. Robinson

John Young believes that church history is not a matter of trivia but plays a role in our spiritual formation as Christians. God’s people have both a “sacred” history that flows from the biblical writings. At the same time they also have a “profane” history that tells the story of how God’s people exist and live within any given time and culture.  Affirming the latter does not negate the former.

Visions of Restoration is a brief tale of competing understandings of “restoration” flowing out of the Stone-Campbell Movement and how those visions have been expressed in 20th century Churches of Christ. Young moves the story forward chronologically but with a thematic framework. So we learn there were “Big Four” personalities that function sort of like a foundation to our profane history. We learn that arguments over doctrinal matters were often not mere matters of biblical exegesis but were exacerbated by political, economic and even racial tensions. The Civil War and the resulting national division along the Mason-Dixon Line was mirrored in the life of God’s people in the Stone-Campbell Movement.

Young introduces the reader, very briefly, to names like Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, Walter Scott, James A. Garfield, G. P. Bowser and Selina Holman.  We learn that the movement was diverse and yet was able to remain united through much of the 19th century.

Within the 20th century controversies in Churches of Christ, Young rightly stresses how Foy Wallace set a pattern for how we fought and marked one another in divisions following the Boll controversy.   And he is genuinely insightful when he notes that Black Churches of Christ have functioned like a “movement-within-the-movement” (p.92).

Visions of Restoration is concise and very readable. The new reader is not overwhelmed with details in the story of our profane history.  Conciseness is a strength of the book. 

The strength of Visions is also its weakness.  The reader of the book learns very little of what the “Big Four” thought they were doing, when they did it.  We learn nothing of how they were scandalized by the division among Christians. There is neither reference to, nor an echo of, the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery or the Declaration and Address.  There is no discussion of what restoration meant: was it a way to rediscover the one true church that had been lost or was it a means to find common ground among those regarded as genuine Christians already.  There are hints that Stone’s followers and Campbell’s differed but the reader that does not bring that knowledge to the story will not learn what those differences are in this book.

A few details are confusing. Why is the Jesse B. Ferguson episode told before John Thomas? Indeed in a book like Visions, the Ferguson episode could easily be left out.  And is it accurate that women like Nancy Cram and Selina Holman would have justified their actions by “expressing the belief that no person had the right to prevent them from using their God-given talents” (p.98) or would they have given what they believed to be the biblical rational for their perspectives?

Apart from these minor caveats, I think John Young has accomplished the goal of showing that we do indeed have a profane history as God’s people.  Knowing that history can cultivate many Spiritual blessings among us: notably humility before God and one another, patience and graciousness with one another; and recognizing that just like the giants of yesteryear we too operate in an unseen matrix of social forces that influence us even as we are unaware. 

Revelation 20 is uncertain and potentially dangerous ground upon which to walk. To comment on it assumes so much. It assumes a particular way of reading the whole apocalyptic drama. It assumes a particular structure to the book. Consequently, there are many ambiguities, varied understandings, and even some nasty polemical controversies associated with this text.

Nevertheless, I will venture into these choppy waters in order to make a very specific point based upon my understanding of this text. And I do so only to share a pastoral meditation that I find quite meaningful.

In Revelation 20:1-3, Satan is bound. Whatever that means, it means he is not destroyed but only limited. Simultaneously, in Revelation 20:4-6, the martyred saints (those beheaded) and others who have overcome (they did not worship the beast) reign with Christ on thrones. Those who overcome are promised earlier in Revelation that they will sit down with Christ on his throne–it is a co-regency (cf. Rev. 3:21). They share in the glory of the kingdom of God. These thrones, as are all thrones in Revelation, participate in heavenly glory–they exist in the throne room of God, in the heavenly sanctuary, the heavenly dwelling place of God.

These saints (“souls”) participate in the “first resurrection.” This resurrection is described at the end of verse 4 as: “they came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” I believe this an affirmation, similar to the picture in Revelation 7 or Revelation 14:13, that those who have passed from earth to heaven, those who have died in the Lord actually come to life when they pass through the portals of death. When the saints of God die, they come to life. They enter the presence of God and reign with Christ on his throne. They are seated on thrones surrounding God’s own throne. They share the heavenly glory of Christ himself.

The “rest of the dead” –apparently those who do not share in that glory–do not “come to life” until the judgment day when everyone experiences the “second resurrection” (or the resurrection from the dead where bodies are raised to meet God). I tend to think that the righteous dead, according to this text, live with Christ, but the unrighteous dead (the rest of the dead) are not conscious of their state until the “second resurrection” (that is, the general resurrection of the dead when all will be raised with bodies once again). However, I am more confident about my conclusion regarding those who died in the Lord than those who did not.

Those who participate in the “first resurrection” will not participate in the “second death.” The “first” and “second” imply a contrast with missing components. What is the “first” death and the “second” resurrection? I believe the first death is physical death. The souls enthroned with Christ experienced the first death but as participants in the “first resurrection” they will not experience the “second death.” These “souls,” however, await the newness of creation–the time when creation will be renewed, including their own bodies in a (second) resurrection. The “new heavens and new earth” will appear along with a “new Jerusalem.” This newness is the (second) resurrection of the cosmos–a renewed creation with renewed, transformed bodies in which the saints participate.

Where are the saints who have died in the Lord? They have experienced the first resurrection. They came alive in their death. They live in the presence of God, reigning with Christ as they await the final consummation; as they await the renewed heaven and earth. They are not dead, but alive. But they are not yet complete, not yet all that God intends them to be. They are waiting for the new heavens and new earth just as those living upon the earth do. Even though they died, yet do they still live!

Thanks be to God!

Don’t miss the first three parts of this series
Part 1 – Where are the Dead? Before the Throne!
Part 2 – Where are the Dead? The Church Bears Witness Before the Empire
Part 3 –

I did not realize what an intensely personal journey down memory lane it would be, as I opened Searching for the Pattern. Reading Searching was like watching a movie of my own quest somehow unfolding before my eyes.

Searching for the Pattern is divided up by John Mark Hicks into four parts and concludes with three appendices.

Searching is clearly a labor of love from beginning to end. John Mark revels in his godly heritage from his parents to his biblical training at Freed Hardeman University. There is not a hint of condescension nor animosity recorded in his journey. The actors in the story are treated not only with profound respect but genuine love. Searching is itself a model, a pattern, for how “we be brethren” and can and should discuss matters that are deeply important to us. This alone makes it worth reading.

Constructing the Temple out of the Scattered Stones

In Part One, Hicks relates how he grew up learning how to read the Bible. Using the analogy from J. S. Lamar and Stephen Broyles on pp. 188-189, I will call this the “constructing the temple out of the scattered stones” phase of learning to filter scripture. Hicks relates how he learned which part of the Bible really mattered to answer the most important question of Bible reading, “What does God Require?” This question is actually a very limited question that rests upon a hidden presupposition behind it: how we do church is the most important thing. “What does God Require?” is not a question of how disciples live out the kingdom of God in the 20th and 21st centuries but what are we supposed to do (and not do) in worship and other corporate activities.

In answering the question, “What does God Require?” The Hebrew Bible, and even Jesus’s teaching, is largely lumped off as relevant to answering the question. So, without using the terminology, Hicks reveals our historical canon-within-the canon approach to the Bible and that our Bible is flat. Out of Acts and the Epistles we believe we are given a pattern from which we build a temple. The pattern is not on the surface. It has to be imagined and then the unmarked stones must be sifted, measured, and one by one fit together with great care. If one is out of place then the temple is likely to collapse.

Hicks illustrates this reconstructing the temple hermeneutic by bringing the reader into the “non-institutional controversy.” This controversy, that bloodied the Churches of Christ, was birthed by this approach to Scripture. That is the hermeneutic created this controversy. At the same time Churches of Christ believed that the controversy could be solved by the same approach to Scripture. What was needed was fine tuning our architectural prowess. So we learn of such technical matters as exclusive pattern, specific authority, generic authority, coordinates. John Mark then walks us through the transformation of an occasional (and not universally commanded) collection from 1 Corinthians 16 into a required pattern requirement and the money can be used only for saints.

“This is how I learned to read the Bible. It was comfortable, and it made sense to me” (p. 58). But it was (and is) exceedingly complex.

Questions about the Temple Building Process

Part Two of Hicks’ journey he calls, “Something’s Amiss.” This is when he began to see that the scattered stones did not come with all the directions necessary for building the temple. Some of the pieces might go together only after an exorbitant amount of mental pressure. The questions began for him, while discussing the non-institutional matter with a friend both before and after entering college. What happens when the temple, that we construct from the scattered stones, seems to be completely at odds with the God we have dedicated it to?

I regard Part Two of Searching as the crux of the book. It is here that we are lovingly but honestly taken step by step into the recognition that we do not just read the Bible and do what it says. Rather there is something between us and the text. This was the epiphany in Hicks’ journey: we filter the Bible through an intermediary step that arranges the stones into what we have already decided. That “deciding” is done before we ever look at the text. This middle step may be called “the regulative principle” or “commands, examples and necessary inferences.” The problem is the principle operates on the basis of many unexamined baby steps that are subsumed to the one large hidden step. This is nicely illustrated by Acts 20.7 and the Lord’s Supper being observed, by command, every Sunday and only on Sunday. So Hicks notes,

“In other words, it is not simply doing what the Bible says. Rather, one must decide what the Bible requires by identifying whether commands are generic or specific, by recognizing expediency in contrast to prohibitive silence, and determining what is a coordinate command and what is not, etc. This is no mere reduplication (or restoration) of biblical particulars but a process of discernment that makes judgments about what falls where and in what category . It is a highly developed expression of step two” (pp. 77-78)

What Hicks came to realize is that “each move is an inference” (p.85). Indeed inference (i.e. step) upon inference.

But it was the biblical narrative itself that began to cause the most angst in Hicks quest. The “story” of God’s incredible steadfast love, not for saints but for sinners, rebels, and even enemies that raised the question of why God’s people do not mirror God’s own actions and identity. At this point we are taken through a wonderful interpretation of 2 Corinthians 8-9 showing how Paul interpreted his Bible (the Hebrew Bible) and applied it to Gentile believers in Corinth in the matter of giving. Paul also had a “middle step.” He appeals to, and applies, Scripture but he also goes through the interpretation of Scripture in the person of Jesus. This is a rich section of Searching for the Pattern.

The non-institutional controversy made Hicks realize that neither he, nor the rest of the Churches of Christ, simply read and obeyed the Bible. Instead they, like everyone else, had a middle step (the existence of which we were frequently blind). The question that must be wrestled with is, “where do we get our middle step” and “does the middle step construct a temple that is completely at odds with what we know to be the values of God?”

Temple Exploring, Not Temple Constructing

Part Three of Searching is labeled “What’s the Alternative?” I call it discovering the temple is already built and God’s invitation us to explore it. During his quest, John Mark discovered that he actually had two hermeneutics already operative in his spiritual DNA. “I had one for God’s story, and God’s pattern, and I had a different hermeneutic for the blueprint pattern of the church” (p.110). At this point I am compelled to state that I did not grow up with these two approaches to the Bible. I inherited only the latter.

Hicks, in good traditional Churches of Christ practice, takes us “back to the Bible.” He confronts us with the “mystery of Christ” and the “rule of faith” demonstrating that, at least for Paul, there was a “canon” to determine Christian faith and life before there was even a New Testament. What is this “rule” or “canon”? John Mark demonstrates from the writings of Paul and Act (pp. 120-123) that this rule is the good news of the mighty acts of God culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This story interprets Scripture itself. This story is what the Scriptures are about.

But the traditional question in Churches of Christ has to do with what does God require and where is the authority to do what is or is not required. So if this story (story means the narrative of God’s acts in creation and redeeming creation) is what Scripture is about then how does it tell us what to do (how does it authorize)? Returning to 2 Corinthians 8-9, and the matter of giving, we are taken through the theological “middle step” to see how Christians are called to share in the grace of giving.

Instead of reconstructing the temple, disciples follow Jesus as he takes us on our tour of the temple.

Following Jesus

In the final section of Searching called “What Do I Do With This?” we are brought to the rubber meets the road questions for Churches of Christ, the Lord’s Supper and its frequency. This is rich material.

In following Hicks’ theological hermeneutic, the Supper is transformed from a legal requirement into a renewing covenantal encounter with the Triune God that anticipates (and partakes in) God’s new creation. Precision obedience to our imposed pattern is replaced with the imitation of God modeled supremely in Jesus Christ.

John Mark Hicks is a self-confessed patternist. He has a middle step in the hermeneutical process just like everyone. That middle step is the rule of faith or gospel that is embodied in the power of the Spirit through Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus interprets the rule and demonstrates how the kingdom of God finds expression in his own life. Paul calls this the “mystery of Christ” and shows us how to apply it to specific contextual situations in Corinth and Ephesus. Hicks believes we are far more biblical when we follow the same kind of hermeneutical move that Paul does himself.

The book ends with three short appendices on assembly, racism and women wearing expensive jewelry. Appendix two on segregation is especially helpful because it simultaneously highlights the inadequacy of the old blueprint hermeneutic. Churches of Christ never found a consistent way to address racism because the blueprint we brought to the text simply did not address the matter. Historically, the pattern hermeneutic allowed us to imagine we had restored the one true church while mirroring the racist culture around us that denied the heart of the gospel itself.

Wrapping Up

Searching for the Pattern is very much an “insiders” book. The issues and the approaches to the issues will probably be strange to anyone else. But for people who have grown up in Churches of Christ, who love the Lord, who desperately want to serve him and take the authority of the Bible with unquestioned seriousness, this book will be part biography of our mind, part clinical examination, and part prescription for wholeness and unity.

Searching deserves to be widely read. It deserves in fact multiple readings. It may in fact be required reading.

It is my prayer that it will be part of the answer to the psalmist’s prayer which asks God to come and take him/her on a tour of the temple of the word.

Open my eyes, so that I may see the wonderful truths in your law” (Psalm 119: 18, TEV).

Even in the middle of humanity’s faceplant, God attests to our solution: a future human that’s more than human. Someone that can take the bite of the serpent and survive to crush its head. Flipping to the NT to watch Jesus start rolling out the revolution is just what the heart needs after too much time in a bittersweet creation account.

But however much we’d like it, Jesus doesn’t save us from the Genesis 3 consequences of our broken world and broken selves by retracting the curses/consequences. He brings a way of undermining them, allowing all the curses and consequences and dark things of Genesis to grip us as firmly as ever while gently peeling away the weak, worldly, corrupted parts of us that they’re hanging on to. We’re made Spirit-drenched creatures that can live in a world that still runs on work and sweat and possessions and charisma and social standing, but without fear of devaluation or death. We can now celebrate our losses and weaknesses as shedding our own corruptible power and paving the way for His.

That’s what I love about Jesus’s foot-washing scene. It’s totally appropriate to marvel at the humility and servant-heartedness of our Savior in this moment, but I am more often struck by what an awesome power move it is.

He has absolutely nothing to lose in tying a Gentile servant’s towel around His waist, lowering Himself to the ground, and scrubbing dirt from under the toenails of His sweaty followers. His divine power is sturdier than that. He doesn’t care that He’s taking a disreputable role typically occupied by a lowly, “other” person — those are purely human distinctions of human society. He doesn’t care that He’ll be towered over from His kneeling position on the ground — He made that ground and scooped that towering person’s species from it. He doesn’t care that the job is icky — He is the embodiment of the kind of purity that is unaffected by anything coming onto or going into the body. He is more than human, more than physical, and more than confident enough to make Himself low in the eyes of His easily confounded, merely human disciples. Jesus knows in His bones precisely who He is.

This is the confidence He offers us when He offers redemption by His death and ascension, and remaking by His Spirit. This is how He wants to trademark Christian community. His transformation of us into primarily spiritual beings releases our grip on our honor even in this world telling us that when honor goes, power goes. We hang on to the truth that the greatest kind of power or self-assurance is not something that success or pride or respectability or romance or any human relationship or status could ever give us. It comes only from embracing the knowledge that we are made right and held tight by the Maker of heaven and earth, and that He wants nothing more than to share Himself with us so thoroughly that whatever makes us “us” is lost to His glory outshining our individuality and ego.

All throughout Jesus’s ministry, we see Him uplift and memorialize women who lived out this realization… those who came to Him filled to brimming with faith of who He is and hope in how He saw them. When the women of the Bible came to Emmanuel with twelve years of menstrual problems, He proved sovereign over our troublesome fertility. When they came fearing for their children’s lives or mourning their deaths, He proved sovereign over motherhood and childrearing — the frightening, heart-wrenching thing that it is to watch a piece of your heart grow legs and walk away from you out into the world. When they faced the end of life alone, unsupported, and easily forgotten, He honored their defenselessness by securing them and their legacies in spiritual families. When they grappled with questions about a woman’s place and a woman’s duty, He affirmed that it is first and foremost being discipled at His feet among the men, sitting still and enraptured by His Word.

And my personal favorite: when women collapsed at His feet, too overcome to realize they were being too emotional and too weepy and just too much for the masculine atmosphere… when they cleaned His feet with their hair, their glory, their covering, the symbol of their femininity… when they broke open what was likely their dowries and forfeited their marriage insurance to honor Him… Jesus praised that vulnerable, undignified, seemingly rash outpouring. He set them as examples of surrendering power and pride in recognition of the Savior for the disciples and all posterity to learn from. And even when a woman He had in mind didn’t come to Him, turning instead to man after man for fulfillment and peace, He still went to find her. He left the 99, took His offering of rest directly to her, and re-instituted her into the community as an evangelist, of all things.

When the women of the Bible brought the things that drove them — their idols, their worries, their bargaining chips — and laid them at Jesus’s feet, He didn’t see them as clamoring hindrances. He recognized them as coming forward with an offering of humility, laying down their tools and tactics for navigating their world (the tools Genesis 3:16 warned we’d pick up), and offered them far better ones in exchange. In place of romance and marriage, in place of fertility and children, in place of impressive dowries and sexual prowess, Jesus equips us with His forgiveness for peace, His intercession for protection, and His Spirit for gumption and guidance.

And since Jesus is always up to something, when He declares humanity’s rescue— when he graffitis a giant “VIVA LA REVOLUCIÓN” over human history— He very intentionally chooses Mary Magdalene of all people to deliver the message. As weird and hard-to-digest and vitally important as His news was, Jesus first revealed it to and sent it out with a woman in a setting where women went unnoticed. And not just any woman either– He relied on a female mouthpiece who had a past reputation of being unstable and demon-stricken that should’ve ruled her out as a reliable witness. Except… of course… the Lord’s standards are not our own. Even though she’s just one woman with just a handful of women for backup… even though females weren’t even reliable to testify in the courts… even though none of the male apostles who were present at the tomb at nearly the same time could corroborate her story… Jesus rewarded her faith. How completely on-brand. He chose not huge public appearances… not mass conversions or I-told-you-so’s… not reputability or air-tight historicity… He chose to honor the persistent, smitten hearts of the women who bore witness trial to tomb, and especially the one that sought Him more fervently than the rest.

And by honor, I mean activate.

We find woman yet again hunting through an infamous, angelically-guarded garden for the key wisdom and life eternal (hear the Genesis echoes here). She ends up conversing with a supernatural being who reconfigures her ideas of God and activates her to carry the new way of relating to Him to her male counterparts, who completely miss the boat. And how we commend Mary Magdalene for this! She does not pass Go, does not collect $200— she pursues, learns, and hustles back to share her revelation with a boldness not unlike Eve’s. So how consistent are we prepared to be with the prescription of headship? Not very. We prescribe Eve more supervision, yet don’t critique Mary for not calling in backup to somehow lead her or double-check her conversation with Christ.

A conversation that called her to something problematic in our conservative, headship-driven churches: preaching.

Y’all, Mary Magdalene preached!

She testified what she’d experienced, delivered the word of God, and in conjunction with her girl friends, told some very important men to get off their hindquarters and GET MOVING to Galilee. I imagine her message points would sound very familiar: “Our God is bigger than any worldly authority — He is defeater of death and vanquisher of every dark thing that plagues us. I came face-to-face with Him, and He was so, so good to me. Here are the precious things He says about who you are… See?! He’s deeply fond of you too! If you want to find Him and see for yourself, here’s what He needs you to do. He’s waiting for you.”

Mary Magdalene preached the same gospel message we cradle Christians have heard countless times, complete with speaking authoritatively on behalf of God and demanding that faith manifest in real action. I can’t imagine there was any room for mousy, suggestionish wording when delivering a message from the risen Messiah. And I can’t think of a better term for this presentation than a sermon.

From a woman. Commissioned directly by Jesus. What in the world are we supposed to do with that?

My best advice?

Let’s let Jesus be our filter.

There’s so much more Scripture to filter on for men’s and women’s roles that I won’t even touch in this series, and I know seekers on this topic pore over it heavily. We don’t approach the Word lightly because we esteem the authority of Scripture. We love the Word’s authority because it reveals the perfect will of God for us. We pursue, in trusting God’s will, unity in the Spirit as the Body, the covenant people. We pursue early church structure as the healthiest for the Body. We pore over Paul’s letters as instructions for that structure. I so admire this tradition and its intentions.

But as we strive to be the first-century church, remember the first-century church strove to be Jesus. The Body we are is Jesus’s, the Spirit who binds us is Jesus’s, and the will of God we pursue is Jesus’s. It’s His Word we esteem, telling His mission of redemption. It was His design that willed us and our home into being. It’s His mind that conceived of male and female.

When we come to sticky junctions where Jesus’s example clashes with Paul’s instruction (and I’m so grateful to fellow writers for tackling these) let’s let our Emmanuel and Maker take precedence. If He is Lord of our lives, then let’s also make Him Lord of our study and take a very critical look at any ideology that requires us to twist His actions to conform to the instruction another. Especially when the other identifies as “a slave of Christ.”

Let’s make Jesus the standard, not the exception.

When we need consistency across Scripture, especially on such a tender subject, may our dearest Friend be the filter.

The first Christian heresy was an idea called Gnosticism.  It held that a human is a divine soul trapped in an evil, material world and body. In order to free yourself from the evil matter of the world, you had to acquire special knowledge that was available only to a chosen few.  If you were one of the “enlightened ones,” after you died, you would escape this world and turn into a spiritual being finally freed from the sinful and evil flesh. Simply put:  all matter is bad, spirit is good.

For the Gnostics, the flesh was the product of a bad creation.  They viewed God’s creation as such a bad thing that they began the narrative that  Jesus didn’t actually come in the flesh – that He was, in fact, just a spirit…since the evil, material world was bad, God obviously wouldn’t have come to earth in physical form.  This world, our bodies, and how we live our lives become irrelevant, because the real human mission and purpose of God are somewhere else – in the future after we die.

That is the heresy of Gnosticism. 

The Scriptures vehemently teach us this as absolutely false, like John writes:

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:2-3, ESV)

To the contrary, Scripture teaches us that God entered this world to redeem it, in the flesh, as matter, physically, as a human.

Gnosticism was, in fact, a form of escaping reality by completely (and psychotically) pretending it didn’t exist. For example, the Gnostic view and idea of afterlife was that one day we will become liberated spiritual beings because we have this secret knowledge, and start living outside this world as spirits in another realm…

…sound familiar…like “going to heaven?”

Remember…this was the firstt major heresy of Christianity.

Thank God we have the Scriptures, which start with a God who repeatedly says that Creation is “good.”  He even says, “It is very good.” God loves the creation.

Moving through the Bible, the writers and prophets never wrote about heaven as a kind of recondite realm beyond Neptune.  Rather, they spoke of a new heaven and a new earth, speaking of a time in the future when this earth would be restored and renewed. Isaiah writes:

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind
. (Is. 65:17, ESV)

It is followed up by a litany of amazing promises that run identical to Revelation 21. At that time, all things and people would be reconciled to one another and to God, and the creation will again be “very good.”

Jesus Himself spoke of Heaven in a like manner.  In Matthew 19:28 he says:

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matt. 19:28-30, ESV)

Another translation of “in the new world” is “at the renewal of all things” and the word is fascinating in the Greek:  “Pali-Genesis.”  Genesis meaning beginning and Pali meaning “again.”

Literally “Genesis again.” 

We have to understand that God has never given up on His original creation, but we have often overlooked the vocabulary of Scripture that describes God’s plan for us. This includes words like redeemrestore, resurrect, renew, recover, reconcile, and regenerate.

Every one of these words in Scripture means to “restore to a former state.”

That shows us a HUGE piece of God’s character – that He is the ultimate American Picker…the ultimate salvage restorer…that He loves to renew and restore the things everyone usually calls  junk or dead. God loves resurrection…He showed us by the empty tomb, right?

But certain teachings downplay this legitimate biblical teaching in favor of the coming destruction of the world.

For almost 200 years now, Christians have been influenced by the end-times teaching called “the Rapture.” This is not a word that appears in the Bible, by the way, but the idea it infers has garnered great appeal in American churches.

We should understand that this idea has been around only a very small portion of church history.  Prior to that, the accepted theology and eschatology (study of last things) of the church was that Jesus would return and restore the world back to its perfection at the end of time after the Judgment.

Revelation is a complex and robust book. I believe it a great misnomer to look at a passage and insert a “rapture”  into it that has prevented Christians from engaging and participating in the very world God says is good.

When Christians believe that God will judge the world but that they will be removed from the worst judgments, it moves their focus off of God’s restoring work on earth.

This whole idea began with a guy named John (J.N.) Darby who taught that Jesus would come back again…twice…the first 2nd Coming would be in secret to “escape” or “rapture” the church, and the second 2nd coming would be to destroy the world. He gained favor with a Bible editor named Scofield, and coincidentally, this teaching wound up in the early editions of the Scofield Reference BIble.

Though this idea has NO biblical precedent, nor was it taught until 1830, it caught on like wildfire.

Here’s why this matters: A belief that emphasizes the stealthy escape of believers from earth before a global, end-times cataclysm that destroys what God created is not consistent with historical, biblical Christian doctrine. At all.

Why should Christians care for anything if God is just going to zap us all to heaven to get out-of-the-way before he nukes the universe?  Why should we fight for justice and compassion on earth if God’s bigger plan is to wait until eternity before anyone can actually live or achieve it? Why should we seek mercy and reach out to help the hurting of the world if the world is just getting microwaved? This escapist theology contradicts not just Jesus’ teachings, but also His earthly life and practices.

Jesus taught his closest disciples that He would return to His Father. Meanwhile, He emphasized their role and involvement in God’s Kingdom on earth.

He did not minimize the needs of people by pointing to a future paycheck in heaven.  Working for justice, being guided by compassion, sacrificing yourself for the good of others in this life – all of these were modeled by Jesus and manifest in the lives of the first Christians.

So, then, is heaven a place that is far removed from earth?  An ethereal, otherworldly realm that has little resemblance of this world?  Let’s look at Scripture to see.

Jon Storment and Josh Ross write:

“Paul talked a lot about the resurrection of Jesus…and most of the time, he framed it in the context of the Exodus story.”

In Romans 8:26, he writes that creation is groaning, longing for its redemption from slavery.

In 1 Corinthians 15, the longest discourse in Scripture about the resurrection, Paul wrote that the resurrection of Jesus is the “first fruits” of a larger thing God is going to do.

First fruits is reference to a holiday the Jews celebrated, one that centered around the Exodus Narrative

“This is really important b/c after the Israelites were freed from slavery, they went up to meet w/ God on a mountain:”

16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. (Ex. 19:16-20, ESV)

God met w/ Israel on a mountain, in a cloud, and there was a trumpet. If we keep that in mind, 1 Thessalonians 4 has completely different ring to it:

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess. 4:13-18, ESV)

When you read that passage with the Exodus narrative in mind, you’ll be less likely to hear something that Paul isn’t saying.  We too often act as if Paul said, “Just hold on until God gets us out of here.”

Are we in danger of falling back into the very heresy the Apostles and church Fathers began to stamp out?  Are we in danger of embracing an “escapist” theology that not only endangers the very good creation of God, but also our own souls?  Will it cause us to forfeit the God-given mission of being “ministers of reconciliation” and “ambassadors for Christ?” I think it bears thinking about, especially a teaching such as the Rapture that has led so many astray through something that’s not even in the Bible at all?

We were not meant to “escape” the world, but to redeem it in the Church through Jesus Christ!  That’s something we can live for!

The church has heard some rather ominous words in the past two chapters (12 & 13). A powerful dragon is making war against God’s saints. The dragon has empowered two monsters—one from the sea and the other from the earth—to exercise the dragon’s authority upon the earth. They are given the power to conquer or overcome the saints, that is, to kill them. While the dragon cannot dethrone God’s Messiah or destroy the church as a whole, the saints are vulnerable. The church is suffering and will continue to suffer from the dragon’s war.

As previously in chapter seven, Revelation 14 answers the question that must have dominated the minds of these persecuted saints. Where is the victory in this suffering? It appears that the unholy trinity of dragon and two beasts has the upper hand. They are conquering (overcoming) the people of God. But that is a limited perspective. It is blinded to the reality of the throne room of God. And John now sees that reality…he looked, and “behold”…he sees an amazing scene.

On Mount Zion, the heavenly throne room, John sees the Lamb standing with the 144,000 who had been previously sealed in Revelation 7 with the name of the Lamb and the Father on their foreheads. These are those who refused the mark of the beast and welcomed the mark of the Lamb and his Father. Their refusal to receive the mark of the beast entailed suffering, including economic and social marginalization as well as martyrdom.

The 144,000 are no longer on the earth as they were in Revelation 7. They are now “before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders.” They have been ransomed or redeemed “from the earth” and “from humanity” as “firstfruits for God and the Lamb.” These are those who, having emerged from their earthly trials through suffering and martyrdom, are now present in the heavenly throne room praising God. They have joined the great multitude. They have been redeemed through suffering rather than from suffering. Redeemed from the earth, they now inhabit the God’s dwelling in heaven and John hears their singing.

Their praise thunders across heaven. It is loud and chilling. The sounds were like rushing waters and cracking thunder. The sound is musical–the song is accompanied by harps. The sounds of harps and voices reverberate throughout the heavenly throne room. It is sung by redeemed humanity. Their singing is harmonious, like a single voice (sound) even though sung by 144,000. The number is, of course, symbolic, but they sing a new song as if they were one voice (not voices). They sing about their redemption. Though martyred, they have overcome, just like the Lamb who was also slain by the dragon.

John’s description highlights their faithfulness. Like a mighty army raised to defend the kingdom of God, the redeemed are “virgins” and truthful. The reference to virginity probably alludes to the practice of readied armies avoiding sexual liaisons as they prepare for battle. The parallelism in the text indicates that the point is faithfulness.

Those redeemed from the earth were virgins who did not defile themselves.

These are those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes.

Those redeemed from humanity are those who were blameless because they did not lie.

“Redeemed” from the earth or humanity parallel each other just as “blameless” and “virgins” parallel each other. So also, “did not defile themselves” parallels the fact that they did not lie. The central point is that they follow the Lamb.  They are the Lamb’s army that follows the Lamb into battle, and they do battle through suffering. The defeat the dragon and his beasts through martyrdom. They overcome the enemy when the beasts overcome them. They win the battle, and consequently sing a victory song on heavenly shores, because they follow the Lamb to death. They suffer just as the Lamb suffered. They are faithful witnesses like the Lamb.

The martyrs, and other suffering saints, are the firstfruit of a harvest dedicated to God and the Lamb. The firstfruit is the first of the harvest. The harvest is the full number of the saints whom God will receive into the heavenly throne room, and they are a number that cannot be counted (cf. Revelation 7:9-17). As history proceeds, more will join their number. The 144,000–the suffering saints of the seven churches of Asia or the church in the Roman empire–is the firstfruit of a larger harvest to come.

As a harvest, they are offered to God and the Lamb. They are, in effect, a sacrificial offering. They sacrifice their lives for the sake of the kingdom of God, and now they sing their victory song standing by the slain Lamb in the throne room of God.

Despite appearances, then, the beasts do not win. They may overcome and kill saints as the dragon wages war through them, but the martyrs find themselves in the throne room of God singing redemption songs. They inhabit Mt. Zion. They sing before the throne. They stand with the Lamb that was slain. They wear the victory wreaths, not the beasts.

Martyrs continue as even now Iranian Christians are persecuted by the powers. Martyrs abound in Pakistan where assemblies of believers are violently assaulted. The harvest is not yet complete. The conflict between the dragon and the people of God continues. May God have mercy.

Don’t miss the first two parts of this series
Part 1 – Where are the Dead? Before the Throne!
Part 2 – Where are the Dead? The Church Bears Witness Before the Empire

On the heels of John’s prophetic commission in Revelation 10:8-11, he is tasked with measuring the temple of God but not its outer court (Revelation 11:1-13). The prophetic message of Revelation 11 envisions a period of time when God’s people will faithfully witness before the nations. Indeed, the “two witnesses” will imitate the pattern of the Lamb–they will prophesy, they will be martyred, and they will be vindicated through resurrection and ascension. The faithful witness of the church follows the pattern of the Lamb, and God does not abandon the witnesses.

Just as the interlude between the sixth and seventh seals focused on sealed but suffering believers (Revelation 7), so this interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpets reveals a  suffering church. The interludes address the situation of the church in the midst of a hostile but collapsing empire. The hope of believers is victory, and their role is faithful witness.

There are some difficult problems of interpretation in Revelation 11. What is the temple? What is the outer court? Who are the “two witnesses”? What is the “great city” that, in part, collapses? One’s general approach to Revelation will, in large measure, determine the answers to these questions. There is little need to argue this in detail here, but it is important to understand the flow of the drama pictured.

The first moment in the drama is the measurement of the temple. This imagery is drawn from Ezekiel 40:3 and Zechariah 2:1-5. God declares ownership; the temple belongs to the one who sits on the throne. The owner measures the temple. But where is this temple? The other use of “temple” in Revelation 11:19 which places the temple “in heaven.” Temple imagery in Revelation is always located “in heaven,” that is, in God’s throne room. Much like Revelation 7:9-17, God’s temple and its worshippers are protected and victorious. Nothing will assault the throne room of God. The temple, then, are–analogous to the great multitude in Revelation 7–the people of God gathered before the throne of God.

However, the “outer court” of the temple is unmeasured. Rather, it will be given over to the nations who will trample not only it but the whole “holy city for 42 months.”  The adjective “holy” indicates that we are still talking about the people of God. In one perspective, they are protected (sealed upon the earth in 7:1-8), but from another perspective they are under attack.  Indeed, the beast from the Abyss kills the two witnesses (11:7). The imagery is drawn from Daniel 7:21-25. In the second century B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes waged war against the saints and trampled the temple in Jerusalem for a “time, times, and a half” (or 3 and 1/2 years; cf. Daniel 12:5-6). In Revelation 11 the beast makes war against the outer court and the holy city, including the two witnesses. This war will only last for a limited time (1260 days or 3 and ½ years). The powers wage war against the church and are able to inflict suffering (martyrdom). The beast (the nations) trample the people of God (the outer court) but the beast cannot destroy the temple (the inner court or sanctuary).

The “two witnesses” are prophetic figures (11:10). Their description draws heavily on prophetic images in the Hebrew Bible.  Like Elijah, and John the Baptist, they wear sackcloth. Like Moses, they turn water into blood and strike the earth with plagues. Like Elijah, they stop the rain. Like Jeremiah, they breathe fire (Jeremiah 5:14). Like Zerubbabel and Joshua the High Priest, they are God’s anointed olive trees to serve the whole earth (Zechariah 4). They are lampstands. The two prophets represent the church. The Torah requires two witnesses for convicting testimony (Deuteronomy 19:15). The church has a prophetic role in the world.

Their testimony, however, comes at a cost. The two witnesses are killed by the beast and their bodies are left exposed in the “great city.” Every use of the “great city” in Revelation refers to the hostile empire that oppresses the followers of the Lamb (16:19; 17:18; 18:10, 16, 18, 19, 21). This “great city” is not the “holy city.”  The “holy city” is the church which is trampled by the nations while the “great city” is the hostile empire–empires like Sodom, Egypt, and Rome. The reference to “where also their Lord was crucified” does not mean the literal city in which Jesus died but rather the “great city” that killed Jesus, that is, Rome. The two witnesses will suffer the same fate as their Lord; they will die at the hands of a cruel empire, Rome. Just as Rome crucified the Lamb in Jerusalem, so Rome will display the death of Christian martyrs as spectacles of its power within the empire (the “great city”).

“The inhabitants of the earth,” that is, the followers of the beast, who come from every “people, tribe, language, and nation” (like victorious believers in Revelation 7 who also come from the same) rejoice over the death of the two witnesses. They glory in the death of the martyrs. It is part of their festive activities as they give gifts to each other. In this, one hears an allusion to the games in which Christians were martyred during the Roman empire.

But the church itself–the two witnesses who are martyred–is vindicated. The dead witnesses are raised and ascend into heaven in a cloud.  The witnesses follow the pattern of the Lamb–witness, death, resurrection, and ascension. In other words, like the 144,000, as they pass through the trials and overcome through faith, they are received into the throne room of God as victors (cf. Revelation 7:9-17). The witnesses defeat the empire through martyrdom. The witnesses join the assembly around the throne in God’s heavenly temple. This is their “resurrection.” This is not a picture of their literal bodily resurrection, but–like Revelation 7–the movement of the witnesses from earth to heaven, from suffering to victory in the throne room of God (that is, the heavenly temple).

The church is God’s prophetic witness against empires. This is part of its role in the present chaotic world. The witness is not about predicting specific facts or imperial history about the future, but it is a witness that proclaims that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of God. It is a witness that opposes violence, idolatry, and immorality. It is a witness that God will judge the empires because of their greed, violence, and oppressive power.

But empires kill peacemakers. Rome crucified Jesus and martyred his followers. Empires still kill peacemakers. Empires still oppose the church’s witness. Unfortunately, the church often silences its own witness in the wake of imperial holidays, pledges of allegiance, and imperial benefaction (giving credit to the empire for peace and safety rather than to God). Followers of the Lamb oppose empires and bear witness against its imperial designs. Like the Lamb, they may suffer and die for that witness, but like the Lamb, God will vindicate them and receive faithful witnesses into the throne room as victors in the conflict between good and evil.

If you missed part 1: you can read that here “Where are the Dead? Before the Throne!”

The apostle John is writing to a nervous church. A mad man sits on the throne in Rome, demanding to be acknowledged as Dominus et Deus — Lord and God. At least one church member, Antipas, has already been killed for standing up for his faith (Revelation 2:13). John himself has been arrested and exiled to the island of Patmos. Church members need to know how to react.

They could fight. I hear people say that the church didn’t stand up to the Roman Empire because it would have been impossible to defeat them militarily. Seriously? Might I recommend some time spent reading in the Old Testament? If God had wanted His people to fight, He would have enabled another Gideon, another Deborah, or another Samson. Just as He allowed Jonathan and his shield bearer to take on an entire army, God could have driven out the entire Roman army with the twelve apostles alone. If fighting had been the answer, it was a viable option.

They could flee. There doesn’t appear to be any condemnation for the disciples who fled Jerusalem when facing persecution. In Acts 9, Paul twice leaves a place after his preaching puts his life in danger. There are times when it is appropriate for Christians to flee.


What did God want them to do?

God sends a message to John, a message for the churches of the Roman province of Asia (part of what is today Turkey). It’s what we know as the book of Revelation.

The key to understanding Revelation is the throne room scene in chapters 4 and 5. It’s one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture.

John is transported to the foot of God’s throne in chapter 4. He describes the scene in wondrous terms. Don’t get lost in the details; just let it all make you say “Wow!”. John sees God sitting on His throne. Then in chapter 5, John notices that God holds a scroll in His right hand.

The scroll is bursting with information, “written within and on the back” (Revelation 5:1). It’s sealed with seven seals. Seven is a special number in Revelation, used over and over throughout the book. We see seven churches, seven spirits, seven lampstands, seven stars, seven seals, etc. “Christ” is mentioned seven times, “Jesus” fourteen times and “Lord” twenty-one times. In the ancient world, seven was considered the number of perfection or completeness; we should understand it in that way in Revelation.

In ancient times, an important person would seal a scroll with wax; the scroll could only be read if the seal was broken. This kept prying eyes from sneaking a peek at the contents. More important messages would have more seals; only a person of great authority could read a message like that.
This scroll is perfectly sealed and only one with perfect authority can open it.

“And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it,” (Revelation 5:2–3)

If a command is given yet no one receives it, that command will never be carried out. If God’s scroll isn’t read, the instructions it contains won’t reach His people. So someone must be found who can read what God has in His hand.

They looked high. They looked low. They looked every possible place. And no one had enough authority to open the scroll. Except for One.

“And one of the elders said to me, “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.”” (Revelation 5:5)

The lion is a symbol of strength. It’s also a symbol related to the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:8-10). Judah was the tribe of kings. David’s family was the specific line from which God had said the Eternal King, the Messiah, would come. This is highly symbolic language, full of meaning for people who know the Old Testament.

The image of a conquering lion is clear enough for everyone. This is victory through power. This is the triumph of the strongest. It was what everyone expected a king to be.

But it’s here that we see one of the interesting characteristics of Revelation. John often sees a vision and hears the explanation of that vision, or he hears something and later sees the reality of the something he has heard. John has heard that he is going to see the Lion of Judah. But he then sees the real conquering One:

“And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” (Revelation 5:6)

The Lion is a Lamb. A slain Lamb. Sacrificed. Murdered. The Lamb of God who died on a cross.

“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.”” (Revelation 5:9–10)

This is big. This is really important. Don’t miss it!

Jesus conquered by dying on a cross.
The Lion is a slain Lamb. The Lion of Judah conquered by giving up His life. He is worth, not in spite of being slain, but because He was sacrificed.
Never again is Jesus called the Lion. The reality is the Lion is a Lamb. And we only need speak of what is real.

What does that mean for His people? That they are to walk to the same path. They aren’t to fight the Romans like lions; they are to triumph through sacrifice, like lambs. Yet the Lamb has perfect vision (seven eyes) and perfect strength (seven horns); this is not a weak Lamb! He is as strong as a Lion but has chosen the path of the Lamb.

The first century church was called to follow the path of the Lamb, to triumph through voluntary sacrifice. Their bravery would be shown through unwavering faith, not ruthless fighting. (Christians have long used the Latin slogan: Vicit agnus noster eum sequamur — Our Lamb has conquered; let us follow Him)

Their victory was assured because the Lamb had already triumphed:

“Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” (Revelation 12:10–11)

The Lion is a Lamb. Now and forever. He has marked the path to victory. Faithfulness. Even to the point of death. Triumph through sacrifice.

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:35)