God’s Good News

There’s a lot of bad news in our world. Poverty, disease, violence, injustice, cruelty, war, famine, fire, flood—each day the news seems to be filled with these things. It’s easy to be discouraged by all this, even to despair for our future. It can also be easy to blame God for it all—after all, God’s in charge, right?

But this is not who God is, and this is not what God wants for the world. In fact, God has some very good news for us.


God loves the whole world and has a beautiful vision for our future.

God our Creator loves all creation—you, me, every person, all living things. Because of this, God wants true justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life for all people together, where every person has their deepest needs met, no exceptions. God wants the earth and the water and the sky to be healthy and whole, so that all living things can thrive. This vision for the world is what Jesus called “the kingdom of God,” or “the kingdom of heaven” come down to earth. It’s what the Bible also calls “salvation” and “eternal life.”

“God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

“I praise you, God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

“God is love.” (1 John 4:8, 16)

“The kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy.” (Romans 14:17)


We are under the sway of powerful forces that keep us from fully realizing God’s vision for the world.

The Bible talks about “sin”—it’s what we need “salvation” from. Sin is the harmful  things  we think  and say and do, but it is also harmful patterns of thought or behaviour, deep ruts of dysfunction we fall into and can’t seem to escape from.

These harmful patterns of thought or behaviour also show up in groups of people, even whole societies. A group can do terrible things that none of those people would do individually. Sometimes these harmful patterns become a part of the very structures and systems of a society—in unjust laws, for example.

The result of all this is what the Bible often calls “death”: not just physically dying, but also living in guilt, shame, fear, hostility, violence, oppression, and more. The Bible talks about all these manifestations of “sin” and “death” as “powers” that control us, that we seem to have no control over. They keep us from experiencing the life God wants for us.

“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood enemies, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against cosmic powers of this present darkness, against spiritual forces of evil.” (Ephesians 6:12)

“All people are under the power of sin.” (Romans 3:9)

“Sin pays us death as wages, but God gives us eternal life through Jesus.” (Romans 6:23)


Jesus came to liberate us from these powerful forces and to bring about God’s vision for the world.

Jesus of Nazareth showed us God’s vision for the world. He taught God’s way of love for all and of peace through nonviolence. He freely healed and forgave people. He shared meals with those considered “sinners” and denounced those who oppressed the vulnerable. He was killed by the powers-that-be for living out God’s vision, but God raised him from the dead to a new life untouched by sin and death. In doing so God declared Jesus to be “Lord” over all powerful forces.

“Jesus came proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15)

“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Messiah Jesus—he is Lord of all…God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day…” (Acts 10:34-43)


If we resist these forces at work in us and in our world, and we commit ourselves to Jesus’ way of love, God’s vision for the world will become a reality.

Jesus calls us to “repent”: to resist our own sin, all those ways we harm others, and to resist the evil we see in the world through love, without violence. Jesus calls us to “believe in God’s good news”: to trust in God’s love for us and to commit to Jesus’ way of love in solidarity with others. When we do this, God’s presence is with us to make real God’s vision for the world: true justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life for all. We will share in Jesus’ new life—even his life beyond death.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.’ And ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-34)

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27-36)

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

“We know that we have passed from death to life when we love one another.” (1 John 3:14)


“The kingdom of God is like the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)

Will you allow God’s vision for the world to be planted in your own life, in your own small corner of the world? Will you trust in the God who loves you far beyond what you can even imagine? Will you commit to living out Jesus’ way of love?

If you want to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him in his way of love, here are some suggested first steps in the journey:

  • Join a faith community that is committed to following Jesus. In North America check out home.mennonitechurch.ca/churches or mennoniteusa.org/find-a-church.
  • Read the Bible to learn more about Jesus, his teaching, and his way of life. Try starting with the Gospel of Mark, and then read the other Gospels. Read online at biblegateway.com.
  • Pray regularly—being aware of God’s presence, communicating with God—in a way that works for you. Check out the “Take Our Moments and Our Days” (Android, Apple) and “Common Prayer” (Android, Apple) apps for your smart phone.

Here is this tract as a PDF. Here are instructions for printing and assembling it. Feel free to use, just use responsibly! For some background on how this tract came to be developed please see here.

What’s up with Paul’s language of “the flesh”?

Last night our church held a prayer service in which I invited the congregation to listen for God’s voice to us as I read Scripture. We then responded to this “word of the Lord” through silence, prayer, and song. It was a wonderfully simple service.

One of the extended Bible readings we did was Galatians 5:13–6:10. This is a “how should we then live” passage, the kind found in many New Testament letters sketching out what it looks like for followers of Jesus to live in community with one another in light of the great theological truths just expounded.

As I read this passage, I stumbled over Paul’s use of the word “flesh.” This happens sometimes when I read Paul’s letters publicly. The reason? I fear that people will get the wrong idea.

“The flesh” is a common expression, especially in Paul’s letters, and especially in Romans and Galatians. Just a few examples:

  • “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Rom 8:5).
  • “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:14).
  • “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want” (Gal 5:16-17).
  • “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit” (Gal 6:8).

Many Christians have taken “the flesh” in these and similar verses to mean quite literally “the physical body”: our eyes and ears, our feet and hands, even (or even especially) our genitalia. All the language about “not living according to the flesh” or “making no provision for the flesh” or “not sowing to the flesh,” is about denying our physical body in some way in favour of some inner spirituality (“bodies are bad, the spiritual is good”). Often this is expressed as downplaying or even rejecting our bodily desires, our desires for food, drink, sex, intimacy, and more.

But this doesn’t quite work. It’s true that the Greek word sarx in common usage meant “flesh” or even “the fleshy parts of a body.” But it could also take on a variety of figurative uses. “All flesh,” for example, means “all living creatures.” “Flesh and blood” can mean “human beings,” or even “one’s own kin.” “One flesh” refers to “shared kinship.”

Paul can use the word “flesh” in these sorts of ways, none of which is inherently negative toward our bodies. Paul can even say, positively, that “the life I now live in the flesh (sarx) I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

Paul also uses the word “body” (sōma) quite a bit, and many of these uses are positive. Paul describes the believer’s “body” as “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19). He calls on Christians to offer our “bodies” to God as an act of worship (Rom 12:1). He insists that our future resurrection state—imperishable, immortal, untouched by sin and death—will still involve a sōma, a “body” (1 Cor 15:35-44).

In other words, it’s complicated.

I think we can get at what Paul means in verses like those I quoted above if we dig into the contrast Paul makes between “the flesh” and “the Spirit” (stick with me here, it’s worth it).

Paul likes these kinds of binary contrasts: “flesh” in contrast to “Spirit”; “Law” in contrast to “Christ” or “faith”; “this present age” in contrast to “the coming age.” It’s this last one—“this present age” in contrast to “the coming age”—that helps make sense of the rest of them.

You see, Paul held to a common Jewish notion that human history was divided into two “ages.”

The “present age” is the one we’re in, and it is characterized by “powers” that have influence over us, even control over us. Human kingdoms and rulers and authorities. The internal forces that animate these groups and leaders. The structures and systems they create. These “powers” are not necessarily bad, but they can become “evil powers,” perpetuating injustice and oppression, committing violence and bringing destruction. Behind these “evil powers” is the worst of them all, evident in each and every human life: “sin” and the wide-ranging “death” that accompanies it.

The “coming age,” by contrast, is the promised “kingdom of God,” the “new creation,” in which the powers of sin and death are eradicated and all things are brought under God’s liberating, loving reign. The end result? Life: abundant, eternal, harmonious, flourishing life. Shalom, you could also say.

Here’s the thing: because the Messiah has come, the “coming age” is already here, though it is not yet fully here. The kingdom of God, God’s new creation, has entered this present age in anticipation of its future fulfillment. As followers of Jesus the Christ we are called to live out God’s reign, to live out God’s new creation, resisting the evil powers of this age which are over us, among us, and within us.

This is what the contrast between “the flesh” and “the Spirit” is all about. These are, effectively, contrasting ways of being human in the world.

“Living according to the flesh” means “living according to a self-centered, selfish way of being human,” which is at the root of our sin and all its deathly consequences. Indeed, this “self-centered, selfish way of being human” is what lies behind all the evil powers of this present age: corrupt governments and corporations and presidents and CEOs and more, animated by a spirit of greed or vanity or domination, creating oppressive structures and unjust systems within society.

“Living according to the Spirit,” by contrast, means “living according to a God-centered, other-oriented way of being human” which Jesus taught and lived out among us. The “Spirit,” after all, is “the Spirit of Christ,” shaping us into the image of Jesus. When we “live according to the Spirit,” or we “walk in the Spirit,” we are choosing to walk in the way of Jesus, Jesus’ way of love: a deep devotion to God expressed through humble compassion and care for others.

When Paul talks about “the flesh” in these passages, then, he is not talking about our natural, bodily desires for food, drink, sex, and more. He’s talking about those desires turned inward, distorted through our self-centered selfishness.

The antidote is not to deny our bodily desires. These are part and parcel of what it means to be human. They are God-given, a part of God’s “very good” creation.

Rather, the antidote is to rightly order those natural desires around love for God and others, seeking the common good. It is to strive to fulfill those desires through this God-centred, other-oriented way of love, empowered by the very presence of the resurrected Jesus in us and among us.

It is, in other words, to “live by the Spirit.”

Niebuhr or Wink? “The Paradox of Progressive Political Theology,” Yes—But “The Powers Can Be Redeemed”

Richard Beck has written a series of blog posts that have been churning in my thoughts for many days. The essential thrust of his posts is that progressive Christian political theology thinks it is Anabaptist when in actual fact it is Niebuhrian—or perhaps should be. Here’s how he states the paradox:

Rhetorically, the political theology many progressive Christians espouse is Anabaptist. The rhetoric is anti-empire. Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.

But in practice, the political theology of many progressive Christians is Niebuhrian. That is, Christians must take and use the power of the state to address our social and international problems. The focus is upon electoral politics and democratic engagement: voting, calling Congress, etc. Jesus may be Lord, but in this unjust world Caesar is how we get stuff done. That’s Niebuhrian realism.

In short, it seems to be that a lot of progressive Christians want to be Anabaptist and Niebuhrian at the same time. Or adjust our position when it suits us. Anti-empire when you need to denounce an administration. Niebuhrian when you need to win an election.

I commend the whole series highly (firstsecondthirdfourthfifth).

I don’t dispute Beck’s central insights. I think Beck is onto something important, and he has stated the matter well, with his usual probity and clarity. Nevertheless, something about the posts hasn’t felt quite right to me, and it’s taken me several days to put my finger on it. The question that has been stirring in my mind is whether he has captured the full range of Anabaptist theology related to political engagement.

I think he has accurately described a common Anabaptist political theology, probably the most common Anabaptist political theology. Essentially, this is the idea of “the church as the locus of life and political witness,” to use Beck’s words. In this common Anabaptist perspective, the church and the world are utterly distinct. The world will do whatever the world does. The church’s call is to bear witness to an alternative political reality shaped around the life and teachings of Jesus.

There are variations on this Anabaptist perspective, though, that have a more positive view of the world and thus a more positive view of political engagement in the world. Some of these might well be an accommodation to non-Anabaptist ideals (Niebuhrian realism, perhaps). However, at least one of these variations grows out of a more distinctly Anabaptist theological framework: Walter Wink’s notion that “the powers can be redeemed.”

Walter Wink has been profoundly influential in Anabaptist circles, in particular for his description of the powers-that-be in the world and how Christians should engage these “principalities and powers,” to use some of the New Testament language. For Wink, this biblical language is not describing independent, personal spiritual beings that mess with our world like malevolent poltergeists. Rather, this biblical language of “powers” is describing the forces at work in our world that seem beyond our control yet have control over us: the systems and structures of power in the world, including the humans who direct them and the internal “spirit” or ethos that drives them. In Wink’s view, three things are equally true about these powers-that-be: 1) they were created good, but 2) they are fallen—yet 3) they can be redeemed.

In Winkian Anabaptism, this is where political processes fit, among these “powers-that-be.” Political processes are intended by God to be forces for good—we need good ways of organizing ourselves as human societies, and that means politics. Our political processes, though, are fallen—they inevitably get abused as people with power are corrupted by that power. However, these political processes, like all the powers-that-be, can be redeemed—they can again become forces for good in human societies.

Wink is clear that we cannot simply use the outer shell of the world’s political structures and systems; the internal spirit that drives these must also be changed. However, Wink holds out real hope that this can happen at least to some extent, and not simply as an ultimate eschatological event or only within the church-as-alternative-society. He speaks, for example, of political systems such as democracy as, in their best forms, reflecting kingdom values. Democracy, he even says, is in principle an outworking of “nonviolence,” a core Jesus-and-kingdom-of-God reality (Engaging the Powers, 171-172).

With Walter Wink we have an Anabaptist approach that is more positive to the world than many other Anabaptist approaches—and, one might say without irony, more “realistic” about the world. It is realistic both in the acknowledgment that every human group, every community, every society, needs structures and systems in order to function, as well as in the recognition that these social structures and systems are always prone to abuse of power. It is positive in the sense that it holds out real hope even within this age for social structures and systems that reflect, at least in part, the upside-down reign of God revealed in Jesus.

All this raises a question for me related to Richard Beck’s “Paradox of Progressive Political Theology”: when does political engagement remain “Winkian Anabaptist,” and when does it cross the line into “Niebuhrian Realism”? To put this another way, using Beck’s own examples, is “voting” and “calling Congress” really Niebuhrian realism, or do these non-violent political actions actually reflect some measure of redemption of the powers-that-be, à la Walter Wink?

I’m an Atheist

Okay, it’s confession time: I’m an atheist.

It’s true. But probably not in the way you’re thinking.

atheistEarly Christians were sometimes called “atheists,” did you know that? Not because they didn’t believe in God, but because they didn’t believe in the Romans’ gods. In a world in which there were many “gods” and “lords,” for Christians there was only the one true God, the Creator, and one true Lord, Jesus.

So this is what I mean when I say I’m an atheist. I’m using the word in its ancient sense. I mean there are plenty of “gods” that I don’t believe in—even some that are popular among Christians. Some of these are “gods” that I simply do not believe exist. Others are “gods” that, even if they do exist, do not hold my allegiance.

Here are a few of these gods I don’t believe in:

I don’t believe in a god who is a “supernatural being.” That is, I do not believe God is a bigger, stronger, and smarter version of ourselves—who also happens to be immortal and invisible. In fact, I do not believe God is “a being” at all, as if God is merely one being among many in the universe, albeit the most powerful one. Instead, I believe God is being itself, the One “in whom we live and move and have our being,” the One “from whom and through whom and for whom are all things.” God is that without which nothing would exist. God is being, not merely a being.

I gave up looking for “evidence” of God a long time ago, or denying God’s existence for lack of such evidence: “a being” might leave traces of its existence, but “being” just is. I also no longer look to God as an all-controlling chess master, or a benevolent grandparent, or a strict police officer. Some of these sorts of projections of ourselves are helpful metaphors, useful analogies for God (like God as “father” or “mother”). Others, I’m convinced, are distortions of the true and living God (like God as all-controlling chess master).

I don’t believe in a god who is simply a force, some kind of energy field or “higher power.” (Great, I just ticked off two groups I like: Star Wars fans and Alcoholics Anonymous.) Rather, I believe God is person—not only “personal” but personhood itself, consciousness itself, awareness of self in distinction from other and in relation to other. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, so also there is consciousness in the universe because God is.

I don’t believe in a god who commits violence, or commands it, or even endorses it. I believe “God is love”—not only “loving” but love itself, the giving of self for other, for the good of the other. God cannot be other than love; God cannot not love. God always and only works for the good of the other. That which brings flourishing life and well-being: this is God. That which damages or degrades or destroys: this is not-God. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, and there is consciousness in the universe because God is, so also there is good in the world because God is.

This is a hard thing for most Christians to accept, partly because many passages in the Bible don’t reflect this view of God, and partly, I think if we’re honest, because we like having a way to justify our own violence. Not outlandish, over-the-top violence, of course. Just our civilized violence, our sanitized violence: the death of vicious enemies over there, or of condemned criminals among us here, demons all. Yet because of Jesus I am convinced that God is love, not harm, and that God brings life, not death—even for enemies and criminals. Isn’t that the gospel?

I don’t believe in the gods “Prosperity” and “Security.” “Prosperity” goes by other names: “Wealth,” “Profit,” or simply “Success.” Jesus called it “Mammon,” and he said one cannot serve both this god and the one true God. Then there’s “Security,” also known as “Comfort” or “Safety.” Prosperity and Security are the twin gods of the modern nation-state. Listen to any political campaign, and these gods are sure to be invoked: “The Economy” and “National Security,” they’re often called. These twins are sacrosanct: they are so obviously good things, who would dare to question them? Who doesn’t want prosperity and security for themselves and those they love?

Yet Jesus never promised prosperity and security to his followers, and he so dramatically gave these up himself. The problem with them? When prosperity and security hold our highest allegiance, whether as individuals or as a society or as a nation during an election year, then we pursue them at the expense of others—including the ailing earth, the needy neighbour, the suffering stranger, and the enemy “other.” The end result is only loss for us all.

There’s a whole pantheon of gods I don’t believe in: the powers-that-be, or the “powers of this age.” These are all our social and political and economic structures and systems, along with the human leaders that support them and the internal “spirit” or ethos that drives them. Presidents and prime ministers, governments and administrations, nations and nationalism, kingdoms and empire, colonialism and racism, theocracy and democracy, capitalism and socialism and so many more.

These, too, are not all inherently bad. Some can bring social order out of chaos, after all. Many even originate out of a desire for the common good. But when we put all our hope in these people and processes, when we give our total allegiance to a nation or an ideology, we’re giving them a power that only belongs to God. Then we’re sure to be disappointed and that power will probably be abused. And when these powers-that-be perpetuate structural evil or systemic injustice, they become “evil powers.” And then they must be resisted, not followed; they must be defied, not deified. Some can be redeemed, but only through deep, collective repentance.

I admit it, I’m an atheist. But by that I simply mean I’m with the Apostle Paul: “There is no God but one. Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:4-6).

Related to modern atheism is another term: humanism. Check out Humanist Canada’s website to learn more. Many Christians have been “humanists” since humanist ideals were first formulated in the late Renaissance. I consider myself to be in the tradition of “Christian humanism.”

The Horrors of the Apocalypse

Revelation 6, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: domination, war, economic injustice, and death.

Revelation 8-9, the Seven Trumpets and Three Woes: volcanoes, earthquakes, plagues of insects and disease, and war, always more war.

Revelation 12-13, the Dragon and his Two Beasts: persecution, suffering, martyrdom for those who follow Jesus.

Revelation 15-16, the Seven Bowls of Wrath: the earth, the rivers, the seas, the skies, all touched with degradation and devastation, and death, always more death.

Awful, terrible, horrific things. Things almost too monstrous to mention.

War. Poverty. Drought. Famine. Disease. Climate catastrophes. Natural disasters. Religious persecution. Overwhelming death.

It’s only in the White West where we have had the luxury of being able to imagine these horrors as something still future, some future seven-year tribulation. But tell that to the 40 million who died in ancient China’s Three Kingdoms War, or the tens of millions—half Europe’s population—who succumbed to the Black Death in the Middle Ages, or the millions of indigenous persons swept under the first waves of conquering Europeans, or the millions who perished in the Bengal Famine of 1770, or the tens of thousands of Christians killed for their faith each year around the world.

There is no need to imagine all this as some future tribulation. This has been the human experience throughout our history. It was, it is, and it is to come.

This can be hard to accept on its own, but there’s something else that makes all this even more difficult to accept for us as Christians: Revelation, and indeed several passages in the Bible, describe many of these horrific realities as divine judgment.

But does God, in righteous wrath against sin, actually employ violence and destruction and death to exact judgment, to bring about justice? If so, how do we reconcile that with Jesus’ call to nonviolence, to love our enemies, to forgive seventy times seven times? And if not, how do we make sense of this kind of language in Revelation, or even elsewhere in the Bible?

There are several things in Revelation that suggest that all this is more complex than it first seems, and that notions of God seeking “retributive justice” or using “redemptive violence” are missing the point of Revelation’s language of divine judgment.

Yes, God judges human sin—but not by zapping us with lightning bolts of violence, not by doling out destruction with one hand and death with the other.

Lion-Lamb 2Let’s start with the first major vision of Revelation, Revelation 4-5. This vision sets the stage for everything else that follows in Revelation. It sets the tone for how we should imagine Jesus and God. And there God reigns through Jesus, and Jesus is the Lion of Judah—Israel’s Messiah—who reigns as the Lamb who has been slain.

Jesus does not reign as a tyrant, as a bully, as a cruel and violent despot. Jesus reigns as the one who is willing to die rather than kill, who rejects violence and coercion as the path to justice and peace.

This should sit like a burr in our brain, making us uncomfortable with connecting all these horrific things on earth with God’s reign from heaven.

Then look ahead to one of the last major visions of Revelation, the judgment scene in Revelation 20. There we have another clue that things are not as they seem. There, at the end of God’s judgment of all things, we are told that “Death and Hades” are themselves condemned and eradicated. To put this into Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

God does not deal in death; God is out to destroy it.

In short, both the first major vision of Revelation and one of the last visions highlight one crucial fact: violence and injustice and suffering and death are not the way of God, but they are the very enemies of God which God is seeking to eliminate.

So how do we make sense of all the visions in between that seem to say the opposite?

Think of those Four Horsemen of Revelation 6: domination, war, economic injustice, and death. Although these are portrayed as coming at the call of heaven, they are thoroughly human evils, originating in our own human greed and cruelty and reflecting a pattern seen throughout human history.

The same assessment could be made of all the expressions of “God’s wrath” in Revelation. Not just the killing and wars, but even the famines and diseases and degradations of the earth, the sea, and the skies—these are caused by human action, human harm, human sin. These are not “God directly inflicting punishment,” but rather “God giving people up to the consequences of their sinful actions.”

This is exactly how Paul describes “God’s wrath” in Romans 1. Paul says that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness.” And how is that “wrath of God” revealed? Paul goes on: by God “giving us over” to our sins, to experience the full impact of our own destructive attitudes and actions.

No wonder Revelation repeatedly calls on humans to repent.

Then take a look at the two beasts of Revelation 13. Revelation scholars agree that these beasts do not represent specific human leaders (e.g. Nicolae Carpathia) but rather the Roman empire and its imperial cult. These beasts, in other words, are human structures and systems of power gone wrong.

Our human structures for organizing society—our political structures, our economic systems, our religious structures—these can become inhuman, corrupt and cruel, perpetuating injustice and bringing more death than life. At that point, these “powers that be” become “evil powers.” They become beasts.

These beasts, then, and the diabolical ethos that animates them, are not God’s creation. God does not make them. They are not God’s instruments. God does not use them. They are God’s enemies. In fact, we discover by the end of Revelation that the devil and his beasts, all these evil “powers that be,” face the same fate as “Death and Hades”: they are condemned and eradicated.

Evil is not God’s instrument; it is God’s enemy.

God does not deal in death and destruction. God does not stand behind oppressive governments and unjust economic systems. All these things—all the horrors depicted in Revelation, all the horrors experienced in human history—all these things are the very things God condemns, the very things Jesus came to deliver us from.

This way of understanding Revelation is both comforting and disturbing.

It is comforting to know that God does not use violence and destruction and death at all, even to bring about good. As John 10 says, it is the thief who seeks to steal and kill and destroy, not Jesus—Jesus brings life. If there is anything that brings hurt or harm, damage or devastation or death, that thing is decidedly not-God.

SeraphAnd this means there is more than meets the eye in Revelation. All those depictions of God’s judgment being a sort of violent vengeance, a kind of retribution, cannot mean what we think they mean at first glance. God is out to eliminate human sin, evil powers, even death itself—but not human persons. As Ephesians 6 puts it, “our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”

Yet in another way, all this is very disturbing. For it means that we are our own worst enemy. Our selfishness, our self-indulgence, our unbridled aggression, our prejudice, our capacity for cruelty, our political oppression, our corporate greed—this is what lies behind so much of the violence and death our world experiences, the degradation and devastation even of the earth itself.

This is the judgment of God. This is God’s assessment of the human predicament.

Hear, then, what the Spirit is saying to us. Hear the call of God for us to repent, to “come out of Babylon and not take part in her sins,” to resist the lure of our world’s “powers that be” gone wrong, to say a firm “No!” to the corruption and injustice and oppression of human structures of power gone bad. Hear the call of Jesus the Lamb to follow him in his cross-shaped footsteps, his footsteps of selfless self-giving for the good of the other, for the good of all, even in the face of death.

In this is the salvation of God. This is the path to the kingdom of God, God’s reign of justice and peace and flourishing life.

Here’s the next post in this series on Revelation: “The (S)Word-Wielder”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 17, 2016. The first image is a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. All other images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Entering the Apocalypse

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Revelation,” as in the last book in the Bible?

Chances are pretty good you think about “end times prophecy” in some way, Revelation as depicting the end of the world at the end of human history. Probably a “rapture” comes to mind, with all the Christians being snatched up to heaven. There’s likely an “Antichrist” in the mix along with some “tribulation”—you know, with the “mark of the beast” inscribed on people’s foreheads (or micro-chipped under their skin). Almost certainly there’s an all-out “Armageddon” of war and a cataclysmic destruction of the world or “apocalypse” involved.

But these popular ideas about Revelation—and there is no easy way to say this—are simply wrong.

New Testament scholars have pretty much come to consensus on this: while Revelation may well culminate in a vision of a future new creation, the book for the most part is describing realities that were present at the time it was written in the first century Roman Empire. How do they know this?

Lion-Lamb 2First, Revelation is written as a letter: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace…” A man named John wrote this as a letter to seven actual churches, seven ancient churches in Asia Minor or what is now western Turkey (1:4). It is, in other words, much like all the other letters we have in the New Testament—written as a message for specific people at a specific time long past.

And Revelation directly says as much. In describing what John “has seen” in his visions it is portraying both “what is”—realities during the time he was writing at the end of the first century—and “what will happen after this”—in the time that immediately followed (1:19).

Second, Revelation is a kind of ancient literature that historians now know quite a bit about, what is called “apocalyptic literature.” These ancient Jewish writings have similar kinds of images in them: terrifying multi-headed beasts, unusual heavenly creatures, and significant numbers like 3 and 4 and 7 and 12. And all of these are symbolic. This doesn’t mean they are not true—they point to something real, something true, but they do so through symbol and metaphor. All these images and numbers mean something.

And in all these ancient Jewish apocalyptic writings—whether it’s 1 Enoch or 4 Ezra or 2 Baruch or Revelation itself—what these images and numbers point to are realities before or during the time the particular apocalypse was written, with at most a glorious glimpse of an anticipated final future.

So if Revelation is not about some future end-time tribulation and antichrist world leader and total cataclysmic world destruction, what is it all about? What can we expect to find when we read Revelation responsibly? Here are three broad themes that tie in to the original purpose of the book and have profound relevance to us today.

Revelation gives us a critique of power and evil in the world. Structures and systems of power—political, economic, religious, and more—can become inhuman, corrupt and cruel, perpetuating injustice and bringing more death than life. (That’s what the “beasts” are all about.) And we can ourselves participate in these “evil powers” by turning a blind eye to their corruption and injustice in order to maintain our way of life. (That’s what the “mark of the beast” is all about.)

Elder 1Revelation gives us a vision of God’s reign over all things. God reigns as Creator and Sustainer and Redeemer, working out God’s purposes even through all the chaos and conflict on earth. God’s reign of justice and peace through the crucified and risen Jesus is the alternative to the evil powers of our world. (That’s what the “divine throne” and “Lion/Lamb” stuff is all about.)

And so Revelation invites us to worship God, to be devoted to God and God’s ways, and not to swear allegiance to the ways of the world. Revelation calls us to live under the reign of God, seeking justice and mercy even if it means our own suffering, even as we live in a world of human rulers and authorities and powers that often go astray. And Revelation calls us to trust in God, even through our own suffering, even through our own death, that God will bring about true life.

Revelation gives us a unique encounter with Jesus. The word “apocalypse” actually means “revelation,” an “unveiling” of something previously concealed, and this is what the book’s opening statement announces it is: “A revelation of Jesus Christ.” From this opening declaration to the book’s closing benediction, Revelation shows us Jesus—in ways unlike any other portrait of Jesus we find in the New Testament.

We see Jesus as a majestic Lion that rules as a slaughtered Lamb. We see Jesus born as a child-king on earth while all hell breaks loose in the heavens. We see Jesus as a terrifying warrior on his warhorse, wielding a sword which turns out to be a word. We see Jesus as the light of heaven come down to earth, illuminating the nations in a never-ending festival of celebration.

It is Jesus who shows us who God is. It is Jesus who brings about God’s kingdom on earth, who shows us what it means to say “our God reigns.” Jesus, as Revelation states at its beginning and repeats at its end, is “the first and the last.”

Join us at Morden Mennonite over the coming Sundays as we dive into a few key chapters of Revelation, drawing these three threads together: the evil powers of the world, replaced by God’s reign of justice and peace, through Jesus the crucified Lamb and risen Lord. Join us as we join heaven and all creation in worshiping God and the Lamb, who are worthy of our praise. And join us as we seek to follow Jesus more faithfully, witnessing in word and deed to the Lamb who has been slain.

Here’s the next post in this series on Revelation: “Why Worship? Why Worship Together?”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 3, 2016. All images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.