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The Good News

The word “gospel” simply means “good news.”  The gospel is the historic, revealed message concerning Jesus Christ. It is that record of events which focuses upon Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for sinners. It is important to understand this as some Christians with good intentions maintain that believers should “live the gospel.”  Technically, one cannot live the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for sinners – it is a message, it is a declaration, it is good news. One can live in light of it or one can let his conduct be worthy of it or one can pursue holiness; but to live out the events of Christ’s redemptive work on behalf of sinners, is simply not our calling. J. Gresham Machen said,

 We can preach the gospel, they tell us, by our lives, and do not need to preach it by our words. But they are wrong. Men are not saved by the exhibition of our glorious Christian virtues; they are not saved by the contagion of our experiences. We cannot be the instruments of God in saving them if we preach to them thus only ourselves. Nay, we must preach to them the Lord Jesus Christ; for it is only through the gospel which sets Him forth that they can be saved.[1]

In 1 Cor 15, the Apostle Paul addresses the doctrine of the resurrection. In verses 1-4, he sets forth the gospel of Jesus Christ as the foundation for the argument that follows. We note several things concerning the gospel in this section of Scripture.

In the first place, the gospel is rooted in history. Before the foundation of the world, God decreed to save a people by His Son Jesus Christ. The gospel is the execution of that decree in history. Paul says that Christ died, was buried, and rose again. These are historic, dateable and non-repeatable events. In fulfillment of the Old Testament word of promise, Christ came in the fullness of the times, was born of a woman, and born under the law. He lived in obedience to the law of God, died to satisfy divine justice in the place of sinners, and rose again.

Secondly, the gospel is revealed by God. The Scripture speaks of two types of revelation, general and special. Ps 19 and Rom 1 set forth the truth that God reveals Himself to His image bearers through the created order. The heavens declare the glory of God (Ps 19:1) and what God has manifested of Himself to man leaves man without excuse for his sin and disobedience (Rom 1:19-20). However, general revelation does not communicate the necessity for blood atonement. It does not reveal the work of Christ on the cross for sinners. Special revelation is God’s having made Himself and His ways known through the Scriptures. Paul highlights this in 1 Cor 15:1-4 by indicating that Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection happened “according to the Scriptures” (vv.3,4). The work of Christ was not an after-thought or a reaction in the mind of God; the Old Testament conspicuously promised a coming Redeemer who would crush the head of Satan through His redemptive work which Christ carried out in His first coming.

Thirdly, the gospel is the record of Christ’s work for sinners. The Triune God is actively involved in salvation (Eph 1:3-14) and the gospel message is the outworking of the Father’s decree to save the elect. As well, it is the gospel that the Holy Spirit brings to bear upon the elect:  when sinners are born again by His power, they believe the gospel of Christ.  Because of this, the church and her preachers must set forth Christ in His person and in His work to all mankind. Paul determined to know nothing among the Corinthians “except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2); the modern church does well to imitate the Apostle.

Fourthly, the gospel is received by faith alone.  Christianity is not moralism; it is not a message of “try-harder” and you will be accepted by God.  The gospel addresses the root of the matter:  man before God is completely undone because of his sin.  There is no ability in the sinner to gain acceptance with God. The gospel is the revelation of the One who kept the law; who always did what pleased His Father; who died as a sacrifice and a substitute for His people.  The means by which His people are justified is through faith alone.  Paul highlights the role of faith in 1 Cor 15 — “which also you received [by faith] in which you stand” (v.1), “by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (v.2) and “so we preach and so you believe” (v.11).  Verse 2 also indicates the absolute necessity of the gospel for salvation, for if one does not believe and hold fast that word, one is not saved.[2]

The final observation is a very practical one:  the gospel is powerful to save the worst sinners.  In verse 9, Paul writes, “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”  Paul declares in Rom 1:16 that the gospel “is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.”  He highlights his own sinfulness in Gal 1:13 and makes a wonderful declaration in 1 Tim 1:15, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”  In light of these observations, we should praise God Almighty for His wonderful gospel!

 

[1] J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity, and the State (Jefferson: MD, The Trinity Foundation, 1987), p.21.

[2] Other passages speak to the absolute necessity of Christ and His gospel for salvation.  See for example, Jn 14:6; Acts 4:12; Rom 1:16-17; Eph 1:13-14; Jas 1:18; 1 Pet 1:23.

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The Day of Atonement

In Leviticus 16, the Lord God commanded Old Covenant Israel to observe the Day of Atonement on the 10th day of the 7th month as a perpetual ordinance. The Day of Atonement was a type and shadow that pointed forward to New Covenant fulfillment in and through the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The stated purpose of the ritual of Leviticus 16 was “to make atonement for the children of Israel, for all their sins, once a year” (v.34). The word ‘atonement’ means ‘to cover’ and is used in other contexts to refer to ‘forgiveness’ and ‘ransom’ and ‘cleansing.’ The ritual was also designed to teach Israel several lessons concerning atonement.

In the first place, the Day of Atonement demonstrated the holiness of God. The historical occasion for the instruction given in Lev 16 is found in vv.1-2 which refers to the death of Nadab and Abihu when they offered strange fire before the LORD (Lev 10:1-2). After the death of the two priests, the Lord nailed down a fundamental lesson that Israel needed to learn, “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified” (Lev 10:3). The floor plan in the tabernacle (where the ritual was conducted) further demonstrated the holiness of God: there were two rooms and the room behind the veil (the Holy of Holies) was where God manifested His presence. Access to the second room was guarded, restricted, and further revealed that sinners do not just wander into the presence of God without mediation.

Secondly, the Day of Atonement reminded Israel about their sinfulness. When the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, he did so in order to make atonement for sin. The ritual demonstrated the pervasive power of sin: the high priest made atonement for himself, his house, and the children of Israel. It is interesting to note that atonement had to be made even for the Holy of Holies, the holy place, the tabernacle of meeting, and even the altar. The lesson is obvious: even holy things are defiled when they come into contact with sinful man (cf. Hag 2:10-14). Andrew Bonar commented on atonement for the altar in this way,

Strange that the altar should need to be purified! And yet what spot had more connection with sin? Was not ever sin confessed there? Was not every sin laid down there? Was not that the spot where wrath was ever falling? Here is a strange combination – sin, and the atonement for sin. It may have been typical of the fact, that the foulest sin and the fullest atonement were found at the cross.[1]

Thirdly, the Day of Atonement taught the children of Israel that “without the shedding of blood, there is no remission” (Heb 9:22). The high priest did not enter behind the veil without blood. He brought blood to atone for his sins, his house, the children of Israel, and the tabernacle. Lev 17:11 indicated the significance of the sacrifice of blood, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” The Christian church ought not to reduce (destroy?) the gospel message by portraying it as a self-help message, a moralistic message (be like Jesus!), or one message among many. Furthermore, the Day of Atonement taught the children of Israel (and us) that we are not free to be innovative in our approach to worship; God alone determines how we may approach Him. While modern man seeks signs or wisdom like the Jew and the Greek before him, we must echo the Apostle Paul, “but we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23). Blood atonement through Christ the Lord is what sinful man desperately needs if he is to gain acceptance with a holy God.

Finally, the Day of Atonement instructed Israel in how blessed atonement really is. The high priest brought two goats for sacrifice on behalf of Israel (not for the nations surrounding Israel: it was a particular atonement). One of the goats was killed and the other served as a scapegoat. The children of Israel were forbidden from entering the tent of meeting while the priest offered the blood of the first goat, but the ritual concerning the scapegoat was witnessed by the children of Israel. The high priest laid his hands on the goat, confessed the sins of Israel, and then drove the goat into the wilderness. The action demonstrated substitutionary curse-bearing and the removal of sin. If the children of Israel had would have had Horatio Spafford’s famous hymn “When Peace Like a River,” perhaps they would have sung the third stanza in this way,

My sin – O the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part, but the whole, is laid on this goat and I bear it no more; praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul![2]



[1] Andrew Bonar, Commentary on Leviticus, (Carlisle:  PA, Banner of Truth Trust, re. 1998), 310.

[2] Horatio B. Spafford, Trinity Hymnal – Baptist Edition (Suwanee: GA, Great Commission Publications, 1995), #580.

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The Worship of the Lamb, Revelation 5

Worship and adoration are the appropriate responses to the revelation of the Lamb who has prevailed to open the scroll of God’s judgment. In fact, falling down before the Lamb, presenting prayers before the Lamb, singing to the Lamb, and worshiping the Lamb are all consistent with the revelation of His glory. This activity is not confined to the twenty-four elders (representatives of the church), but extends to “many angels around the throne” along with the “living creatures” and encompassing a great number of worshipers, “and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands” (Rev 5:11).

Christ is praised with a “new song” because He is “worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals” (Rev 5:9a). Notice one significant difference between the worshipers in heaven and worshipers on earth. Some of God’s professing people on earth do not often talk about God’s judgment and some even seem embarrassed by the Lord’s judgments and try to explain them away. They do not usually admit embarrassment, but their words and actions evidence the disposition of their hearts. Contrary to that attitude the worshipers in heaven see Christ’s execution of vengeance as a reason to sing a new song to Him and praise Him. There is need for the church today to recover this attitude; not with a petty and vindictive spirit, but with a desire to see the justice of God manifested.

Christ is praised because He “was slain, and [has] redeemed us to God by [His] blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5:9b). This is the Christ of v. 5 who is described as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” who interestingly appears to John as “a Lamb as though it had been slain” (v.6). The King-Priest of Psalm 110 has accomplished the work the Father had given Him, ascended to heaven, and now receives praise from His people. Revelation 5:9 also indicates another difference between the worshipers of heaven and the worshipers on earth:  the multitudes in heaven do not have a problem with particular redemption. Christ did not come to make redemption possible, He came to actually redeem the elect of God by His blood and this glorious truth elicits the praise of the “ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands!” The “Five Points of Calvinism” are not only a soteriological formulation; they are also a doxological foundation. The knowledge of a Holy Redeemer who crushed the head of the serpent ought to promote praise and worship for Christ by His church.

Christ is praised because He has “made us kings and priests to our God; and [has enabled us to] reign on the earth” (Rev 5:10). This statement highlights something of God’s covenantal plan:  the nation of Israel was to function as a kingdom of priests in order to mediate God’s blessings to the rest of the earth (Ex 19:6). Of course, Israel failed to execute this because of their sin. Christ as the true Israel fulfills all of His covenantal obligations, saves His elect, and enables them to function as the Israel of God by virtue of their union with Him. The church’s calling is a glorious one because of the redemptive work of her Head, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Christ is praised for having received “power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev 5:12). In Daniel’s description of Christ’s ascension, he writes “Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him” (Dan 7:14). Christ as victor receives great blessing from His Father and the worshipers in heaven ascribe worthiness to Him “who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing” (v.12). This is not a potential Savior or one who helps His people save themselves; Christ saves to the uttermost and is worthy of the praise of His people.

Christ is praised as the One who sits with His Father on the throne “forever and ever” (Rev 5:13b).  This praise comes from “every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea” (Rev 5:13a).  This is a vivid application of Ps 103:  David calls on the entirety of the moral universe to bless the Lord (Ps 103:20-22). The church militant ought to join the church triumphant in that blessed refrain, “Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb, forever and ever” (v.13).

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What is the Gospel?

The word “gospel” simply means “good news.”  The gospel is the historic, revealed message concerning Jesus Christ. It is that record of events which focus upon Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for sinners. It is important to understand this as some Christians with good intentions maintain that believers should “live the gospel.”  Technically, one cannot live the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for sinners – it is a message, it is a declaration, it is good news. One can live in light of it or one can let his conduct be worthy of it or one can pursue holiness; but to live out the events of Christ’s redemptive work on behalf of sinners, is simply not our calling. In 1 Cor 15, the Apostle Paul addresses the doctrine of the resurrection. In verses 1-4, he sets forth the gospel of Jesus Christ as the foundation for the argument that follows. We note several things concerning the gospel in this section of Scripture.

In the first place, the gospel is rooted in history. Before the foundation of the world, God decreed to save a people by His Son Jesus Christ. The gospel is the execution of that decree in history. Paul says that Christ died, was buried, and rose again. These are historic, dateable and non-repeatable events. In fulfillment of the Old Testament word of promise, Christ came in the fullness of the times, was born of a woman, and born under the law. He lived in obedience to the law of God, died to satisfy divine justice in the place of sinners, and rose again.

Secondly, the gospel is revealed by God. The Scripture speaks of two types of revelation, general and special. Ps 19 and Rom 1 set forth the truth that God reveals Himself to His image bearers through the created order. The heavens declare the glory of God (Ps 19:1) and what God has manifested of Himself to man leaves man without excuse for his sin and disobedience (Rom 1:19-20). However, general revelation does not communicate the necessity for blood atonement. It does not reveal the work of Christ on the cross for sinners. Special revelation is God’s having made Himself and His ways known through the Scriptures. Paul highlights this in 1 Cor 15:1-4 by indicating that Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection happened “according to the Scriptures” (vv.3,4). The work of Christ was not an after-thought or a reaction in the mind of God; the Old Testament conspicuously promised a coming Redeemer who would crush the head of Satan through His redemptive work which Christ carried out in His first coming.

Thirdly, the gospel is the record of Christ’s work for sinners. The Triune God is actively involved in salvation (Eph 1:3-14) and the gospel message is the outworking of the Father’s decree to save the elect. As well, it is the gospel that the Holy Spirit brings to bear upon the elect:  when sinners are born again by His power, they believe the gospel of Christ.  Because of this, the church and her preachers must set forth Christ in His person and in His work to all mankind. Paul determined to know nothing among the Corinthians “except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2); the modern church does well to imitate the Apostle.

Fourthly, the gospel is received by faith alone.  Christianity is not moralism; it is not a message of “try-harder” and you will be accepted by God.  The gospel addresses the root of the matter:  man before God is completely undone because of his sin.  There is no ability in the sinner to gain acceptance with God. The gospel is the revelation of the One who kept the law; who always did what pleased His Father; who died as a sacrifice and a substitute for His people.  The means by which His people are justified is through faith alone.  Paul highlights the role of faith in 1 Cor 15 — “which also you received [by faith] in which you stand” (v.1), “by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (v.2) and “so we preach and so you believe” (v.11).  Verse 2 also indicates the absolute necessity of the gospel for salvation, for if one does not believe and hold fast that word, one is not saved.[1]

The final observation is a very practical one:  the gospel is powerful to save the worst sinners.  In verse 9, Paul writes, “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”  Paul declares in Rom 1:16 that the gospel “is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.”  He highlights his own sinfulness in Gal 1:13 and makes a wonderful declaration in 1 Tim 1:15, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”  In light of these observations, we should praise God Almighty for His wonderful gospel!

 



[1] Other passages speak to the absolute necessity of Christ and His gospel for salvation.  See for example, Jn 14:6; Acts 4:12; Rom 1:16-17; Eph 1:13-14; Jas 1:18; 1 Pet 1:23.

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The Peace of Christ

In John’s gospel, the Lord Jesus spends time with His disciples in an upper room prior to His crucifixion and resurrection. He encourages His disciples and readies them for the battle that lay ahead. In Jn 14:27 Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.” This is a most blessed legacy to leave to His disciples. Matthew Henry commented, “When Christ left the world, He made His will. His soul He bequeathed to His Father and His body to Joseph. His clothes fell to the soldiers. His mother He left to the care of John. But what should He leave to His poor disciples, who had left all for Him? Silver and gold He had none; but He left them what was far better, His peace.”[1] The peace of Christ is a precious commodity that flows from His redemptive work on behalf of His people. Herman Ridderbos wrote, “Jesus’ ‘shalom’ is not a cheap wish. He is now at the point of going away on a journey in which He will have to fight for that peace against the powers of darkness and violence…a peace that He will have to bring back from the depths of death.”[2]

The Apostle Paul writes of the peace of Christ in several places in his epistles. In Eph 2:14-18, he declares that Jesus Christ is our peace (v.14), that He has made peace at the cross (v.16), and that He preached peace to the Ephesians through the apostle’s ministry (v.17). In the book of Colossians, Paul connects the peace of Christ with His reconciling work on the cross, “and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (1:20).  Gordon H. Clark commented on Col 1:20, “Now, when we pause to consider, this is staggering.  The preceding verses have described Christ in transcendent terms.  He was the Creator, in whom all the fullness dwells, the heir of the universe, for whom indeed it was created.  When now the Creator of heaven and earth, the Creator himself, voluntarily suffered on the cross for our sins, we can only stand in awe and worship.”[3]

In conclusion, it is important to understand that our subjective peace is grounded upon objective truth. Paul writes in Rom 5:1, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  The believer knows peace because of what Christ accomplished in His life, death, and resurrection.  The believer’s peace is not the outflow of a moral life or of consistent religious observance; rather, the believer’s peace is inseparably connected to the cross of Jesus Christ.  The theological truth of justification by faith alone is not simply a concept that differentiates Protestantism from Roman Catholicism; it is the foundation of the believer’s peace with God.



[2] Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel of John:  A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 511.

[3] Gordon H. Clark, Colossians (Jefferson, MD:  The Trinity Foundation, [1979] 1989), 50.

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The Preface to the Lord’s Prayer

In Mt 6:1-18, the Lord Jesus addresses the issue of man’s approach to religious observances (almsgiving, prayer, fasting). He cautioned His disciples against praying like hypocrites and heathens. The Lord then gives His disciples a model to use for prayer. Calvin comments on the prayer:  “[Christ] embraces, therefore, in six petitions what we are at liberty to ask from God. Nothing is more advantageous to us than such instruction. Though this is the most important exercise of piety, yet in forming our prayers, and regulating our wishes, all our senses fail us. No man will pray aright, unless his lips and heart shall be directed by the heavenly Master.”[1] It is important to note that Jesus says, “In this manner, therefore, pray” – He doesn’t say “repeat after me with blind repetition” – that would be tough to sustain in light of vv.7-8. It is also important to note that after the preface, there are six petitions with a specific order:  God comes first. The Bible is conspicuously God-centered and while the unbeliever balks at such a truth, the believer delights in it. Prior to the petitions, the Lord Jesus highlights another important truth concerning prayer:  the believer is not to rush into the presence of his Father and immediately start asking for things; but rather the believer is to ponder who God is and ascribe praise, worship, and adoration to the Father. There are obvious exceptions to this general rule (the moment before a car collision, a fall from a high place), but the pattern ought to be reflected in the believer’s prayer life.

The Lord Jesus instructs His people to address God as “Father.” This title is loaded with meaning. In the first place, the Christian does not address blind fate or impersonal power, but rather a personal Father. Secondly, the title indicates the gracious character of God’s relation to us.  We are dead in trespasses and sins and completely alienated from God, but He “predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will” (Eph 1:5). This also indicates that this particular prayer is the possession of believers only. Carson notes, “The early church was right to forbid non-Christians from reciting this prayer as vigorously as they forbade them from joining with believers at the Lord’s Table.”[2] Thirdly, the title indicates that God our Father hears us. A fundamental problem with heathen idols is that “They have ears, but they do not hear” (Ps 115:6) – not so our God! The Lord Jesus said that when we got into our secret room, the Father who sees in secret will hear us and reward us openly. Fourthly, the title demonstrates that our Father cares for us. Peter encouraged his readers that when they pray, there are to do so by “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7). Finally, the title reminds the believer that our Father loves us. Thomas Watson wrote, “He loves His children with such a love as He loves Christ (Jn 17:26). It is the same love, for the unchangeableness of it. God will not more cease to love His adopted sons than He will to love His natural Son.”[3]

The Preface to the Lord’s Prayer not only calls the believer to address God as Father, but it also encourages the child of God to remember that the Father is “in heaven.” God occupies a position of authority over His creation. In theological terms, this means that God is transcendent.  While God is omnipresent (is always present with His people), He is also independent of His creation and over His creation. Secondly, the position of God in heaven reminds the believer that God is sovereign. The Psalmist demonstrates a fundamental difference between the gods of the nations who cannot speak, see, hear or smell, with the God of heaven and earth who is in the heavens and therefore “He does whatever He pleases” (Pss 115:3; 135:5-6). Thirdly, the position of our Father encourages the believer by reminding him of God’s omnipotence. God may love His people, hear them when they call upon Him, and care for them, but stripped of His ability to come to their aid, He would be reduced to an impotent, albeit sentimental being, who cannot undertake on behalf of His children.

The Preface to the Lord’s Prayer further teaches that prayer is to be intelligent. The heathen are known for multiplying words in order to be heard; the believer is to pray with intelligence to his prayer hearing God. Intelligence here should not be misunderstood; intelligence means knowing the Bible, knowing good theology, and praying God’s thoughts back to Him. The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 puts it this way, “prayer… [is to be with] understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance…” The practice of Christian prayer is not an exercise wherein the believer empties his mind and approaches an idol in a spirit of ecstasy and carnality; but rather it is an exercise where the believer understands who God is and approaches Him accordingly. Because this is the case, the believer must know God and must address Him accordingly. Prior to rushing in to the presence of God and telling Him all the things He can do for you, take some time, reflect upon the written word, understand who your Father is, delight in the position of absolute sovereignty He occupies, and then worship through prayer.

 



[1] John Calvin, A Harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke (trans. William Pringle; Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1840; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), XVI, p.317.

[2] D.A. Carson, Matthew, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary:  Matthew-Mark (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2010), p.204.

[3] Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (Carlisle:  PA, 1890 [1993]), p.17.

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Revelation: The Vision of the Son of Man

The first thing to notice about John’s vision is Christ’s location.  He is “in the midst of the seven lampstands” (Rev. 1:13).  The lampstands are the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev. 1:20).  Christ is present with His church!  He is not an absentee king, ruler, head, or prophet, but He fulfills all of these functions within the context of His churches.  This is not an isolated theme in the NT but is repeated for the encouragement of the people of God.  In commissioning His church to make disciples, Christ promises “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20).  In Acts 1:1, Luke highlights that his previous book (the gospel) was a record of “all that Jesus began both to do and teach.”  The implication is obvious:  Acts is a record of all that Jesus continues to do and teach in His church.

When John reports Christ’s location, we 21st century readers are not to miss the significance.  It is especially encouraging when we consider the makeup of the churches addressed in Rev. 2-3.  Not only does Christ not de-church some of those less-than-perfect churches in Asia Minor, He is actually found among them!  This should encourage us to come to church in order to meet with Christ.  Secondly, we ought to see the centrality of the church in God’s redemptive plan.  And thirdly, we must recognize that Jesus really is the ruler over all things and that He has a special concern for His body.

The description of Christ given in Rev. 1:13-16 is symbolic.  When we compare Dan. 10:5-6, we note several things.  Firstly, Daniel’s messenger had His “golden band” around His waist, whereas Jesus here has His about the chest (Rev. 1:13).  Secondly, the “voice” in Daniel was like a multitude; here it is compared with the sound of many waters (Rev. 1:15).  Thirdly, the “countenance” in Daniel had the appearance of “lightning” but here it is “like the sun shining in its strength” (Rev. 1:16).  Absent in Daniel are references to “white head and hair” (Rev. 1:14), a sword coming from His mouth (Rev. 1:16), and “seven stars” in His right hand (Rev. 1:16).  What do we make of this description?  Steve Gregg writes,  “The general character of the vision is one of the glory of Christ, the shining face being reminiscent of that which John had seen on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:2).  According to the various expositors, the golden band worn across the chest is an emblem of high rank in the ancient world, and the long, linen garment is probably priestly.  White hair is the emblem of age and honor – and possibly wisdom.  The flaming eyes convey the idea of piercing vision, and the feet like fine brass suggest the irresistibility of His judgment as He will later tread the “great winepress of the wrath of God” (Rev. 14:19).” So, we have a glory-filled Christ who possesses the highest rank who is also a priest and who is from everlasting and who is the embodiment of wisdom and who is sovereign and who will execute judgment upon His enemies – hallelujah, what a Savior!

It is important to recognize the weapon employed by Christ:  “out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword” (Rev. 1:16).  He rules and reigns and saves and damns by His word.  This is not surprising for students of the Bible (compare Is. 11:1, Hos 6:5, and Heb. 4:12 for illustrations).  In Revelation, Jesus calls the church in Pergamos to repentance and threatens His coming to them and fighting against them “with the sword of My mouth” (Rev. 2:16) if they continue impenitently.  And of course, the Rider on the white horse of Revelation 19 makes war with the sword that proceeds from His mouth (Rev. 19:15, 21).  Is there not a present temptation to de-value the weapon of Christ’s warfare?  We need to give heed to John’s description:  Jesus reigns now and wields almighty power now and that power is wielded through His word and Spirit.

John is not novel.  He is very Old-Testamentish, not only in the way he writes, but in the way he responds to God.  In Rev. 1:17, he says “And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead.”  John differs from those in our generation who have claimed to see Jesus but were not moved to tremble.  John is just like Ezekiel, “So when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard a voice of One speaking” (Ez. 1:28).  John is like Daniel, “Therefore I was left alone when I saw this great vision, and no strength remained in me; for my vigor was turned to frailty in me, and I retained no strength” (Dan. 10:8). John is like Isaiah who was ushered into the throne room to behold the glory of the pre-incarnate Christ and his response was “Woe is me, for I am undone!  Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Is. 6:5).  Whenever sinful man is given a view of the holiness of God, humility is the biblical response.

Christ’s response to John is also typical of the God who is seen.  Jesus laid His right hand on John and said “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last.  I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore.  Amen.  And I have the keys of Hades and of Death” (Rev. 1:17b-18).  Is this not the Lord’s way in dealing with His servants?  He comforts and equips them for service.  His holiness humbles them; His mercy enables them.  He comforts John with a declaration of His eternality.  He comforts John with a declaration of His death and resurrection.  He comforts John with a declaration of His absolute authority over all things, including Hades and Death.

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Revelation: The Commission of John

John’s Relationship With His Audience

John writes in Rev. 1:9, “I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island of Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.”  John identifies with his audience in three important aspects of Christian living:  tribulation, kingdom, and patience.  John spoke as one who shared in the sufferings of Jesus Christ.  He was not immune from the tribulation facing his audience; he shared in it.  D.S. Clark writes, “He stood with them on common ground.  Every hardship they bore, he endured.  Every prospect of martyrdom they faced, he had already contemplated.  He was even in the vanguard bearing the first baptism of fire and blood.  They would listen to the words of one who suffered in their sufferings, and stood in the forefront of their dangers.”

It is important to notice that John’s worldview does not involve tribulation only, but he is a partaker along with his audience of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.  From John’s vantage point, the kingdom of Christ is not a future event waiting to happen; it is a present reality that God’s people currently enjoy.  The kingdom of Christ was inaugurated at His ascension (Acts 2:30ff and Rev. 12:5) and was in place in the first century when John wrote.  While he sat exiled on Patmos, John was a partaker of a glorious kingdom!  The church today needs to recover the vision promised in the prophets (see for example Is. 9:6-7 and Dan. 7:13-14), celebrated in the Psalter (see Pss. 2, 22, 45, 72, and 110 for a sampling), and fulfilled at the first advent of Jesus Christ (see Mt. 28:18-20; Acts 2:29-36; 1 Cor. 15:20-28; 1 Thess. 2:12; Eph. 1:20-23; Col. 1:13).  The Lord Christ bestowed a kingdom upon His disciples (Lk. 22:29) and we ought to proceed as loyal subjects.

A fitting summary statement of the book of Revelation is Jesus’ words in John 16:33, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Revelation addresses the tribulation Christians face in the world.  God does not lie.  He tells it like it is.  He does not hide the difficulties associated with following Christ in a hostile world.  The Christian life can be a life punctuated by suffering and trial and tribulation and torture and persecution and imprisonment and death.  But Revelation always directs us back to the throne of Christ who has overcome the world and therefore bids us to “be of good cheer.”

This participation in tribulation and kingdom produces patience.  John says he is a brother and companion in the tribulation, and kingdom, and patience of Jesus Christ.  The patience John refers to means “patient endurance; bearing up under pressure” and is translated “perseverance” in Rev. 3:10 (cf. also Rom. 5:3-4).  Is this not God’s way?  He gives us a kingdom but we dwell in a hostile land.  This promotes perseverance on the part of His children as they strive to be faithful and imitate their Master who was tried while a King.  G.K. Beale writes, “This is a formula for kingship:  faithful endurance through tribulation is the means by which one reigns in the present with Jesus.  Believers are not mere subjects in Christ’s kingdom.  ‘Fellow partaker’ underscores the active involvement of saints not only in enduring tribulation, but also in reigning in the midst of tribulation.”

John’s Commission

While John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day,” the glorified Christ commissioned him to write the book of Revelation.  Commenting on the phrase “in the Spirit,” D.S. Clark writes, “We cannot describe this psychological state other than to suppose that all the channels of his being were open toward God, ready for the reception of any divine communication.”   The reference to the “Lord’s Day” is commonly understood to be a reference to Sunday, the Christian day of worship.  As James Durham noted, “As the Lord’s Supper is for the remembrance of His death till He come again; so is this day for remembering the work of redemption, and His resurrection, till He come again.”

The nature of John’s commission is consistent with much of what occurred in the Old Testament when a man of God was called to proclaim the message of God.  G.K. Beale and Sean McDonough state, “The introduction of John’s commission is coined in the language of the prophet Ezekiel’s repeated rapture in the Spirit, thus identifying John’s revelation with that of the OT prophets (cf. Ezek. 2:2; 3:12, 14, 24; 11:1; 43:5).  His prophetic authority is enforced by the description of the voice that he heard as “a great voice as a trumpet,” evoking the same voice that Moses heard when Yahweh revealed Himself to him on Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:16, 19-20).”

The commissioning of John was enjoined with a vision of the Commissioner, as was the case in the OT.  John is given a vision of the glorified Christ who has come to use John to set forth His word to the tried and troubled churches in Asia Minor.  John’s message is relevant for us today as we are still called to tribulation, kingdom loyalty, and perseverance to the end.

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Why Pray if God is Sovereign?

In Matthew chapter 6, the Lord Jesus Christ cautions His disciples against praying as the hypocrites (v.5) and the heathen (v.7).  He then prescribes a model prayer for His disciples’ use.  Prior to the model prayer (or, “Lord’s Prayer” as it is commonly called), Jesus makes this statement in v.8, “For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.”  This statement is a corrective to the technique employed by the heathen:  use many words so that God (or the gods) will hear you and answer.  Jesus is saying that you cannot manipulate God or control God or exercise certain formulas in order to make God perform; rather, He knows what you need before you ask Him.  It is important to notice what Jesus does not say; He does not say, “Your Father knows the things you have need of so don’t bother asking Him.”  No, the Lord Jesus says “He knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” – the Lord assumes we will present our petitions before God.  This is consistent with the Prophet Isaiah in chapter 65:24, “It shall come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear.”  God is a sovereign God and therefore knows the end from the beginning and has certainly decreed all things that come to pass.  If God were not sovereign; if God did not decree all things; if God did not possess absolute authority over all things, prayer would be useless.

In light of this biblical truth, people often ask, “Why pray if God is sovereign?”   The Scripture gives several reasons why believers ought to pray to a sovereign God.  Here are just a few of those reasons.  In the first place, prayer is a natural response from the born again child of God.  In the discussion concerning prayer in Matthew 6, Jesus does not command believers to pray, He assumes that they will pray.  When the Lord speaks to Ananias and tells him to make contact with the newly converted Saul of Tarsus, He describes Saul this way, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying” (Acts 9:11).  It is true that hypocrites pray (remember Mt 6:5) and therefore we can say that “not all that glitters is gold.”  However, it is equally true that gold does in fact glitter and therefore a man who has been brought out of darkness into marvelous light by the sovereign grace of God cannot help but pray.  Secondly, prayer is commanded.  While Jesus assumes believers pray in Mt 6, the rest of the Bible contains various commands to pray.  We might be tempted to think, “if it is part of my life as a new man to pray, why would I have to be commanded to pray?”  There are a whole host of things Christians ought to do, but nevertheless they also need to be commanded to do them; such is the way with remaining sin.  Thirdly, prayer is an act of worship.  God has ordained prayer as a means by which the believer submits to his Father and expresses praise and adoration for His goodness.  This facet of prayer is displayed in the life of Job.  After having experienced the loss of most everything that was near and dear to him, Job did not seek solace in worldly comforts or books with catchy titles like “Ten Principles on Dealing with Grief.”  No, the Scripture says, “Then Job arose, tore His robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped.  And he said, ‘naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there.  The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.  In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong” (Job 1:20-22).  Our difficulties do not lessen the beauty and glory of God.  Our difficulties do not remove the obligation or privilege of worshiping God.  Upon later reflection, many seasoned saints have witnessed how difficulties drove them to a more earnest worship of their heavenly Father.  Fourthly, prayer to a sovereign God is an exercise of the believer’s faith.  From time to time books appear or sermons are preached which maintain the unbiblical notion, “prayer changes God.”  Prayer does not change God, but rather prayer changes us.  God is our Rock, He is unchanging, and He is all powerful.  It is not God that needs to change; we need to change.  In prayer, the believer’s faith is exercised, his dependence upon God is strengthened, and slowly but surely, the believer is conformed to God’s will.  Finally, prayer is a means by which the believer may unburden himself with One who cares for him, as Peter writes, “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7).  Calvin summarizes in this manner,

 “Believers do not pray, with the view of informing God about things unknown to Him, or of exciting Him to do His duty, or urging Him as though He were reluctant.  On the contrary, they pray, in order that they may arouse themselves to seek Him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on His promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into His bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from Him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things.”[1]

 

In conclusion, the believer must also realize that prayer does not exist in isolation from the Bible.  The Bible informs us concerning God, His being, His attributes, and His purpose in the world and with His people.  We must know Him as God through our Lord Jesus, trust Him as our heavenly Father, and realize that He has purposed to work all things for good for His people (Rom 8:28) which even includes difficulties, trials, and tribulations.  With this understanding of prayer, perhaps the more legitimate question is, “Why pray if God is not sovereign?”

 



[1] John Calvin, A Harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke (trans. William Pringle; Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1840; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), XVI, p.314.

 

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Revelation: A Theological Greeting to the Churches

The Apostle John begins the book of Revelation with a theologically rich greeting to the seven churches of Asia Minor.  In many ways, the greeting sets the foundation for the remainder of the book.  The people of God are experiencing trials and they need to be reminded of the source of their comfort:  the triune God who dwells in heaven and rules the nations.

John begins with a statement concerning the triune God.  In a time of tribulation and suffering, God’s people stand in need of grace and peace.  John highlights the source of all grace and peace:  the triune God.    The glory of our eternal Father is referenced in the words, “from Him who is and who was and who is to come.”  The Holy Spirit in His manifold glory is referred to:  “and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne.”  John then describes Jesus in a biblically familiar manner:  His threefold office as prophet, priest, and king.  We learn from this greeting that the doctrine of the Trinity is not an abstraction for infrequent consideration, but it is “the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on Him” (LBCF 2:3). May the church imbibe something of Gregory Nazianzen’s trinitarianism,

“No sooner do I conceive of the one that I am illumined by the splendor of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one.  When I think of any one of the three I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me.  I cannot grasp the greatness of that one so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest.  When I contemplate the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.”

John proceeds to the threefold office of Christ.  The Apostle communicates the fullness of our divine Savior.  He satisfies every demand of His Father and every need of sinful man.  His prophetic office is in view with the words “the faithful witness.”  Christ identifies Himself in like manner when speaking to the church in Laodicea (Rev. 3:14).  The people of God are to be faithful in the midst of all things as is their Savior.  In Rev. 2:13 the church in Pergamos is commended for holding fast “My name” and in Rev. 6:9 the martyrs are described as those who “had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.”  In Rev. 12:11, the people of God are those who “overcame him [the devil] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.”

John describes Christ’s role as priest with the statement “the firstborn from the dead.”  The word “firstborn” does not mean that Christ is a creature; it means He is the preeminent One.  The word is used in the Septuagint in Ex. 4:22 and refers to the preeminence of Israel over the nations of the earth.  It is used by Paul in Col. 1:15-18 where he sets forth the supremacy of Christ in all things.  The primary background the use here is Ps. 89, especially verse 27:  “Also, I will make him My firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.”  This is the “majestic covenant Psalm” according to C.H. Spurgeon and all three descriptions of Christ used in Rev. 1 are found in Ps. 89.  G.K. Beale comments, “John views Jesus as the ideal Davidic king on an escalated eschatological level, whose death and resurrection have resulted in His eternal kingship of his ‘beloved’ children (cf.v.5b), and this idea is developed in v.6.”  David was not the first king of Israel in terms of chronology, but rather he was the first king in terms of preeminence; this is John’s point regarding Jesus.  The fact that He is the firstborn from the “dead” points to His priestly role:  Christ was both priest and victim in the sacrifice at Calvary.

John further describes Jesus as “the ruler over the kings of the earth.”  Sometimes the church operates as if Christ is waiting to reign or as if He is an absentee king.  John says that Jesus currently possesses all authority in heaven and on earth.  He has sovereign control over all earthly rulers.  This perspective is foundational for the book.  Throughout Revelation, John shifts from the earthly perspective to the heavenly and his instruction is clear:  we must learn to interpret the earthly by the heavenly and not the other way around.  While people rage against the church (chapters 2-3), Christ sits in the heavens and holds them in derision (chapters 4-5).

John moves from who God is to how we should respond:  worship.  The doctrine of God should lead to doxological praise.  In Rev. 1:5b-6, John praises Christ for who He is and what He has done in saving His people from their sins.  John addresses His praise “to Him who loved us.”  This is one characteristic of our Lord Jesus, He loves sinners!  John indicates this in his gospel at Jn. 13:1.  Jesus exhorts His disciples to love one another in the Upper Room discourse and uses His love for them as the standard (Jn. 15:12).  Paul prays for believers to comprehend the love of Christ that “passes knowledge” in Eph. 3:18-19.  We learn from John that Christ’s love should be a means of promoting praise, worship, and adoration.

John moves from Christ’s love for His people to the grand demonstration of that love for His people:  redemption through His blood.  John praises Jesus because He “washed us from our sins in His own blood.”  The book of Revelation refers to Christ as the “Lamb of God” twenty-nine times.  This is consistent with John’s Gospel wherein the Lord Jesus is identified as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29).  The point is clear:  we are to worship, praise, and adore the One who died for us in order to cleanse us from our sins.  The atonement produces worshipers!

John continues in his praise for Christ for His role in the new creation, “and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father.”  Ex. 19:6 is the background for this assertion and indicates that the church is the new or true Israel because of her Redeemer.  What Israel of old failed to accomplish, Christ accomplished perfectly and in Him, believers share that blessed privilege of being a kingdom of priests.  G.K. Beale comments, “Christ’s death and resurrection (v.5) established a twofold office, not only for Himself (cf. also vv.13-18) but also for believers.  Their identification with His resurrection and kingship (v.5a) means that they too are considered to be resurrected and exercising rule with Him as a result of His exaltation.”

John closes this greeting with the words of praise, “to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever.  Amen.”  May the wonderful description of Christ given in these verses cause the church to worship Him in like manner.