The Daily Word

The Radical Impermanence of the World and the Permanence of Christian Love


9-11-twin-towers

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. The Friday after 9/11, I wrote this devotional for my church. Providentially, in this devotional, I was working my way through 1 Corinthians 13 that week, Scripture’s “love chapter.” I’m reposting that devotional today because, fifteen years later, it still expresses my heart and mind in the light of that horrific event.


OPENING PRAYER

This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

O God, grant us a vision of this city, fair as it might be: a city of justice, where none shall prey upon the other; a city of plenty, where vice and poverty shall cease to fester; a city of brotherhood, where success is founded on service, and honor is given to nobleness alone; a city of peace, where order shall not rest on force, but on the love of all for each and all. (Walter Rauschenbusch, 1861-1918)

SCRIPTURE READING

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-13, NIV 1984)

DEVOTIONAL MEDITATION

The events of this week remind us of the radical impermanence of the world.

Who would have thought – on Tuesday, September 11, before 8:45 a.m. – that the day would end with the deaths of nearly 5,000 victims and the total destruction of the Twin Towers and the partial destruction of the Pentagon? Who would have thought that a peaceful nation would, within minutes, be transformed into a nation gearing up for war? Who would have thought that the terror visited upon other, distant nations would be visited upon us?

Life, strength, peace – gone in minutes. Sic transit gloria mundi. Thus passes the glory of the world.

In 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, Paul articulates the permanence of Christian love in contrast to the impermanence of everything else. The Corinthian Christians needed to hear this message because they had elevated impermanent things – the gift of tongues – onto a pedestal that one day would topple over. Life passes. Strength passes. Peace passes. The gift of tongues passes, as do the gifts of prophecy and knowledge. But love remains.

We are like children, Paul writes, who grow up. Activities appropriate to youth are inappropriate for grown men and women. Privileges reserved for adults are unavailable to children. Our very speech reflects the change; the halting lisp of childhood gives way to confident talk of serious adults. Our thinking matures. We are born, we grow, we live, and we die. Life passes. But love remains.

Faith itself passes away, as does hope. They are necessary only as long as God delays the final establishment of his kingdom and we enter into his rest. We believe in and we hope for only until our faith becomes sight and our dream a reality. When that happens, we no longer know partially, we know fully, and are fully known. Faith and hope pass. But love remains.

Why? Love remains because God is the only permanent reality, and God is love. Classical theology defines God as the unmoved mover, the being who shakes the heavens and the earth without being shaken. More recently, Clark Pinnock has called God “the most moved mover,” in recognition that his heart of love beats for suffering humanity. God remains, and so love remains.

At this moment in our nation’s history, love is – at the very same time – both close to and far from our minds. When we consider the victims of these terrorists’ attacks, our hearts go out to them and to their families. Throughout the nation, citizens have generously donated their prayers, their time, and even their blood to help those who are suffering. This is good. This is human life as God intended it to be lived.

And yet, I have also heard voices raised in anger. Calls for merciless and indiscriminate war against the citizens of Muslim nations, regardless of whether they perpetuated or supported the men who terrorized us all on Tuesday. This is bad. This is human life as Satan intends it to be lived. Love for our enemies, which Christ commanded, is far from our minds.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for justice, and if justice must come through the prosecution of war, then so be it. But after war, then what? In his second Inaugural Address, at the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln expressed thoughts that we must keep in mind when we are done with our war: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Charity for all. A just and lasting peace with all nations. That is what God is calling us to help establish once the coming war is justly prosecuted. The battle passes away, but love remains.

Sic transit gloria mundi. But not the glory of God.

CLOSING PRAYER

O heavenly Father, at whose hand the weak shall take no wrong nor the might escape from judgment; pour your grace upon your servants our judges and magistrates, that by their true, fruitful and diligent execution of justice to all equally, you may be glorified, the commonwealth daily promoted, and we all live in peace and quietness, godliness and virtue; through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Thomas Cranmer, 1489-1556)

The Great Day of Their Wrath (Revelation 6.12–17)


It has been said that God is slow, but never late. God’s slowness to fulfill his promise of a just world order redounds to the benefit of us sinners, who are given ample time to repent of the error of our ways. But God’s patience is not limitless. As C.S. Lewis somewhere puts it, there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who say to God, “Your will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Your will be done.” When God determines that more time will not result in another change of heart, then he will usher in his righteous kingdom—not a day late, but at just the right time.

Revelation 6.12–17 describes the onset of God’s judgment of the world in terms of natural disasters so great that the cosmos itself is shaken and destroyed: “I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.”

John intends his description of these great natural disasters to shake our faith in the things we take for granted: a solid earth, a shining sun, a luminous moon, the stars fixed in heaven, and mountains that do not move. The great decision all of us must make in life is whether our hearts are fundamentally oriented toward earth or heaven, toward ourselves or toward God. The seeming permanence of the earth lulls us into thinking that it and our worldly affairs are what matters most. God’s judgment shatters this illusion.

No wonder, then, that precisely those most invested in the old world order are terrified by its passing. “Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains.” Having lived off the benefits of the earth for so long, with nary a thought of God, heaven, or eternity, they vainly seek earth’s protection from God: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” How very different is this response from the promise John gives those who put God first: “They will see his face” (22.4)! Divine judgment means fearing the face of God; salvation means seeing it and loving it.

Does the language of wrath in verses 16–17 make you uncomfortable? I freely admit that I am more comfortable with the abstract nouns “justice” or “righteousness” than with the psychologically provocative “wrath,” even though all three describe the same facet of God’s personality. But John intends to be provocative. He wants to make us uncomfortable. For only if we envision the harrowing effect of God’s judgment can we rightly understand the graciousness of God’s love for us. In the end, there are only two options for us: judgment or salvation, hiding from or seeing God’s face, bad news or good news.

Which do you choose?

O Sovereign Lord, How Long? (Revelation 6.9–11)


Submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality all require patience: Patience with a corrupt government to reform, with the violent to act peaceably, with the poor to move from dependency to productivity, and with the sick to heal. The last two items are borne with comparative ease. The first two items? Not so much.

It is fascinating to me that after describing the devastation wrought on earth by the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rev. 6:1-8), John turns again to a scene in the throne room of heaven (6:9-11). There, he sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” They are martyrs, in other words. (That this altar is a heavenly one rather than an earthly one may be ascertained by comparing 6.9 with 8.3, 5.)

What fascinates me is not the heavenly scene, but the cry of the martyrs: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?” Until I read Revelation 6.9–11, I had always thought that those whose souls had entered heaven existed in a state of uninterrupted bliss. This is not the picture John presents. Rather, those souls cry out to God for justice in no uncertain terms. Indeed, the absolute certainty of their cries is unnerving. “Avenge our blood” is not a request uttered in polite company, after all. (Perhaps we would think otherwise if we had been martyred.) Whatever the particular terms used, we understand the martyrs’ request. Is it too much to ask God that right be done on earth?

What I have written above about submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality may have struck you as, well, a bit unjust. Why should we submit to corrupt politicians? Why should we strive to make peace when our enemies are making war? Because, quite frankly, God commands us to. And because we recognize that we live in between Christ’s first and second coming, when God offers grace to sinners like you, me, and our enemies. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise,” Peter writes, “as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3.9).

That reason is why, I think, the martyrs were “given a white robe and told to rest a little longer.” The white robe is a symbol of sins forgiven, of being justified by Christ before God. Just as they had been made right through God’s patience with them, so now the martyrs are asked to exercise patience toward others, even if that patience results in the martyrdom of other believers. Until Christ returns, God asks us to be witnesses through our words and with our lives.

Justice and patience. Martin Luther King Jr., who knew both in equal measure, rightly said that while the arc of the universe is long, it bends toward justice. So, as we wait for God to do the right thing at the last, let us do what God is doing now, and patiently extend to sinners his gracious love.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (6.1–8) 


There are many believers enduring tribulation all around the world right now. Enduring tribulation raises the question, how shall we then live?

The answer to this question depends on “then.” It depends, in other words, on the environment we are called by God to inhabit. As we read Revelation 6.1–8, it becomes clear that God calls some of us to live in an environment of conquest, war, scarcity, famine, pestilence, and death—or at least to be prepared to do so.

Consider three facts: First, conquest, war, scarcity, and the like describe the actual conditions of many Christians around the world at the present time. Surely, they are justified in reading Revelation in such a way that helps them live godly lives in their environment. Second, many futurists teach that some Christians will endure the great tribulation, namely, those who convert after the rapture. Third, other futurists and all preterists, idealists, and historicists teach that Christians will go through the great tribulation. All Christians should take Jesus at His word that His coming will be like a thief in the night, that it will be so sudden some will be taken and others left. Our best response is to live in such a way as to be watch and be ready at any moment. We all should live knowing that Christ’s return is imminent. Additionally, while waiting for that return, Christians must learn how to live in a time of conquest, war, scarcity, and the like.

Now I know that the mention of these evils—which John portrays as four horsemen—is not the kind of thing that will brighten your day. It is not supposed to. John reports his vision of the four horsemen in order to stiffen our spines, not bring a smile to our faces. His is a realistic counsel: Whatever good we might expect in the future, we must prepare for the worst in the present.

How? By cultivating the virtues of submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality, among others. The rider on the white horse, we are told, “came out conquering and to conquer.” His sole purpose was domination. We might meet this rider with resistance, but Scripture tacks the opposite way. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” Jesus taught us, “and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12.17). Christians can be good citizens even when their state is corrupt.

The rider on the red horse “was permitted to take peace from the earth,” and war ensued. In such an environment, the Christian who makes peace is blessed (Matt. 5.9). Peace, in the Bible, is never merely the absence of conflict. It is also always the presence of the harmony that results from justice. To make peace, then, we must act justly at all times.

The rider on the black horse brings economic scarcity and inflated prices. In the great tribulation, a day’s ration of wheat costs a day’s wage. One can hardly get ahead with prices so high. While the natural tendency under such circumstances is to hoard and save, the truly Christian response is to share. In the early days of the Jerusalem church, believers pooled their resources so that none would be left behind economically (Acts 2.44–45, 4.32–37).

Death, which rides a pale horse, is followed by Hades and brings famine, pestilence, and cruelty in its train. Confronted by the horrors of disease, we often retreat into safe enclaves, excluding from our midst those who might be infected. The proper Christian response is hospitality, the welcoming of strangers into our midst. Such is a distinguishing mark of the disciple (Matt. 25.31–46).

In an environment of conquest, war, scarcity, and death, Christians are called to exhibit the virtues of submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality. That, then, is how we should live.

When Will the Great Tribulation Take Place? (Revelation 6:1-8:5)


In Revelation 6.1–8.5, John turns our attention from heaven to earth, from the Lamb to the seven seals that he alone is worthy to open. The turn is abrupt and unpleasant, for the earthly scene John portrays is the polar opposite of the heavenly scene he has just revealed. Instead of the unending worship of heaven, we see unceasing warfare on earth, as successively greater disasters—manmade, natural, and divine—befall the planet upon the opening of each seal. This is “the great tribulation” (7.14; cf. 2.22, Matt. 24.21) whose intensity forces the question: “And who can stand?” (6.17).

Obviously, we would like to know when this great tribulation takes place.

Many American Protestants believe that it lies in the future, just after Jesus Christ secretly returns to earth to rapture believers to heaven. Those left behind endure the depredations of the Antichrist and False Prophet for seven years. During that period, many convert, including Jews who acknowledge Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. At the end of the seven years, Christ publicly returns, subdues the devil, and inaugurates a one-thousand-year reign of peace. This is the end-times scenario popularized by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ best-selling series, Left Behind.

It is not the only scenario, however. As we survey church history, in fact, we find four basic schools of interpretation of the meaning of the seven seals.

The first is the preterist school of interpretation. For preterists, according to Steve Gregg, the “unsealing of the scroll represents the judgment of God upon Jerusalem (A.D. 66–70); 144,000 Judean Christians escape to Pella [in modern-day Jordan].”[i] Thus, in the preterist interpretation, the events of Revelation 6.1–8.5 are basically past.

The second school of interpretation is the futurist one. Obviously, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, and others like them are students of this school. It should be noted, however, that not all futurists subscribe to the rapture of the church. A basic issue that divides futurists is whether Christians who converted prior to the great tribulation will be spared its violence entirely (by means of the rapture) or given sufficient strength to endure it utterly (through the sealing of the Holy Spirit).

Idealism, or spiritualism, is a third school of interpretation. Whereas preterists interpret the seals as describing past events and futurists as events yet to come, idealists interpret them in terms of the ongoing present. “The scroll and its unsealing represent God’s dealings with mankind, seen in cycles of war, martyrdom, and judgment recurring repeatedly throughout history.”[ii]

Historicism is the fourth school of interpretation. Although not common today, it is “the historic Protestant interpretation” of Revelation and sees the book as “a prewritten record of the course of history from the time of the apostle to the end of the world.”[iii] For historicists, the “unsealing of the scroll represents the beginning of the fall of the Roman empire.”[iv] The seven trumpets (8.6–11.19) and seven bowls (15.1–16.21) unfold the remaining events of end-times history.

We return to our initial question: When will the great tribulation take place? Church history provides at least four answers: it is past, future, present, and unfolding. But which should we believe? I am not sure we must come to a definitive conclusion one way or another. Rather, it seems to me that John reveals these events to inspire the appropriate response in us. “How shall we then live?”—rather than “When will this take place?”—is the most important question for us to ask.

 

[i] Steve Gregg, ed., Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 83.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid, 2.

[iv] Ibid, 83.

Worthy! (Revelation 5.7–10)


John wept because no one was able “to open the scroll and break its seals.” Then one of heaven’s twenty-four elders comforted him with the arrival of God’s Lion-Lamb, who approached the throne and took the seven-sealed scroll. With that action, worship once again breaks loose in heaven.

Look, for a moment, at what takes place (Rev. 5:7-10): “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” I have sometimes heard an alcoholic referred to as a “stumble-down drunk.” It seems to me, based on how often the denizens of heaven fall on their knees in adoration, that we might accurately describe them as “stumble-down worshipers,” although they are of course filled with the Holy Spirit, not with wine (Eph. 5.18).

Somehow, in spite of their prone position, they manage to sing and pray. And what a song it is!

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 earth.

Not only does this song express the elders’ and angels’ adoration, it also manages to instruct us in the saving work of Christ.

We are informed, first of all, that Jesus Christ is worthy to reveal God’s plan for the ages because of his death on the cross. We have already pointed out the connection between cross and crown, but it is worth reiterating: The regal lion is worthy to open the scroll precisely because he is also the sacrificial Lamb of God.

Second, we are told that Jesus Christ ransomed people by his blood. This introduces a new element. The idea of a ransom is the price given to a kidnapper to free a hostage. Spiritually speaking, we have been kidnapped by the devil, but so greatly does God love us that he willingly pays a hefty ransom in the death of his own Beloved Son that we might forever be with him.

Third, we are told that God’s love for people is universal in scope. God’s mercy is not limited to his chosen people Israel, nor to those who have grown up in a Christian church. “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” Do we really need a children’s song to remind us of such a simple truth? No, we need the song of Israel’s patriarchs, the church’s apostles, and the seraphim of the throne room. The universal scope of God’s love is a message too important to be left to little children.

And finally, we are told that there is a purpose in our salvation that extends beyond putting away sin. God created us to be kings and priests, to reign on earth and to enter God’s presence in heaven. It is never enough for us to escape the devil’s clutches. We must be prepared to be enfolded in God’s embrace and to do his work.

The Lamb Who Was Slain (Revelation 5:6)


So far, what John has seen and heard has prepared him to expect great things. He has seen the throne room of God. He has heard that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered” (Rev. 5:5) He therefore expects to see the procession of a king, filled with pomp and circumstance.

What he sees instead is a sheep with its throat cut.

In his own words: “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” (Rev. 5:6).

We fail to understand both John and the entire New Testament if we fail to understand the interplay between John’s images. John does not say that he saw a sacrificial lamb instead of a regal lion. Instead, both animals represent one person, Jesus, who died for us and therefore reigns over us. Christ wears the crown because he bore the cross, not in spite of it.

This is a revolutionary understanding of kingship. Usually, given the calculus of power that prevails among those who rule, the king sends his enemies to their crosses. Christ is the one and only king who went to the cross for his enemies.

No doubt Christ’s revolutionary kingship accounts for both his popularity and his abandonment by the masses. His proclamation of the kingdom of God, accompanied by the performance of miracles, marked him out as great man, perhaps the Messiah. So the crowds flocked to him.

But he resisted their demands for a typical kingship. At one point in his ministry, the crowd rushed forward to “take him by force to make him king” (John 6.15), but he eluded them. Instead, he called them to follow his example: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 8.34). Why was this so hard? Because the cross was deeply shameful; “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3.13, citing Deut. 21.23). The crowds did not like Jesus’ command. They wanted a regal lion only, not a sacrificial lamb; they could not find a place for crucifixion in their religion.

But God finds a place for the Crucified One in his throne room. Notice how John lays out the floor plan of heaven. In the center is the throne. Around the throne are the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders (Rev. 4.4, 6). Between God’s throne and the elders’ thrones is where the Lamb stands (5.6), as if to mediate the grace of the former to the needs of the latter, which he in fact does: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim. 2.5, 6).

Christ’s death is thus central to God’s plan. It should be to our lives as well. Jesus Christ is Lion and Lamb, victor and sacrifice. So, if we want his crown, we must bear his cross.