The Lord’s Prayer Fulfilled

What do we see when we read Revelation 21-22?

“Streets of gold,” “no more tears”—sounds like “heaven,” by which we mean “where we go when we die, where we will spend eternity.” But is that what’s really going on here?

What do we see in Revelation 21-22? What should we see?

In Revelation 21-22, we see the Lord’s Prayer fulfilled.

You probably know the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed by your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

There it is, the overarching desire of the whole prayer. Not, “May we enter your kingdom in heaven.” But rather, “May your kingdom come on earth.” God, may you fully reign, may your will be fully realized, here on earth just as it already is in heaven, in your immediate presence.

That’s the goal of all things: God’s kingdom coming on earth, God reigning over all things on earth, God’s good desires for all things being brought about on earth.

Put another way: God does not want to take us from earth to heaven; God wants to bring heaven down to earth.

And this is in fact what we find in Revelation 21—here are the opening verses:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.

In Revelation 21 and 22, we see God dwelling among us on earth, God’s immediate presence among us on earth.

In other words, we see heaven come down to earth. We see God’s kingdom come on earth.

We see the Lord’s Prayer fulfilled.

In Revelation 21-22, we see God’s people beatified.

Okay, that word might seem a little strange—but I use it intentionally. The word “beatitude” means “divine blessing,” and it’s usually associated with the eternal blessing of God’s people in God’s glorious presence.

Elder 2And this vision of Revelation is loaded with language and imagery that points to the people of God in the presence of God.

The new Jerusalem, the city of God come down from heaven, is described as “the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” It is prepared as a bride on her wedding day, arrayed in beautiful gems and sparkling jewels and glittering gold.

The bride of Christ? This should be enough of a clue what’s going on.

But then we’re told that the city has 12 gates named for the 12 tribes of Israel; its wall has 12 foundations named for the 12 apostles of Christ.

All Israel and the whole Church represented? That clinches it.

The city is not a literal city. The city is not where God’s people live—the city itself is God’s people, Jews and Gentiles together united with Christ.

There is no temple among God’s people, no special place where God meets with them—because God dwells among all of them, among all people on earth. God is immediately present among God’s people, God’s glory shining like a light for all the earth.

And God’s people “will see God’s face,” Revelation 22 says. Think of that: throughout Scripture we’re told we cannot see God’s face, at most we can catch glimpses of God, until Jesus comes and we see the face of God in Jesus. And here, in this new creation, God’s people see God’s face—they are eternally blessed by God in God’s glorious presence. They are “beatified.”

But there’s another reason I use the word “beatified” to describe what’s going on here. I want to recall the “Beatitudes”—Jesus’ specific promises of divine blessing in the Sermon on the Mount. Here at the end of Revelation, we see God’s people “beatified”—experiencing the fulfillment of those Beatitude promises.

Those who were lowly and poor in spirit—God’s kingdom is now theirs.

Those who mourned—they are now comforted.

Those who were meek—they have now inherited the earth.

Those who hungered and thirsted for justice—they are now eating and drinking their fill of it.

Those who were pure in heart—they are now seeing God.

Those who were peacemakers—they are now pronounced God’s children.

Those who were persecuted and oppressed and unjustly treated for the sake of justice—God’s kingdom is now theirs.

In Revelation 21 and 22, we see God eternally blessing God’s people in God’s glorious presence.

In other words, we see all wrongs made right, all injustices overturned, all oppression ceasing, all who have yearned for God’s kingdom being finally and fully satisfied in the immediate presence of God.

We see God’s people beatified.

In Revelation 21-22, we see the nations of the earth healed.

After the people of God are described as this beautiful city, with God’s glorious presence immediately among them, we hear these words:

The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

“Nations” here doesn’t mean “nation states,” but more “peoples,” “tribes,” all the different ethnic groups of the world with their distinctive languages and cultures. In this new creation, the “nations,” all the “peoples of the earth,” live by the light of God and the Lamb. In this new creation, the peoples of the earth bring their glory and honour into the city of God—the cultural riches of all peoples are woven into the life of God’s people.

And so the nations of the earth are healed.

Listen to the way Revelation 22 starts:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Lion-Lamb 2The tree of life hasn’t been seen since the city was a garden, back at creation, in Genesis 2-3. There humans were banned from eating of the tree of life because of their sin. But here again, in this new creation, the tree of life is accessible once more—and its leaves are for the healing of the nations.

In Revelation 21 and 22, we see God dwelling gloriously among God’s people—yet this is not just for our benefit. It is for the benefit of all peoples of the earth, who are made whole by the tree of life sustained by the waters of life.

In other words, we see justice and peace and flourishing life for all the peoples of the earth, every tribe and language, from Anishinaabe to Chokwe to Faroese to Han to Kurds to Maori to Tatars to Zhuang—and everyone in between.

We see the nations of the earth healed.

In Revelation 21-22, we see all creation renewed.

Revelation 21 opens with the vision of a “new heavens and earth,” a brand new creation. The “first heaven and earth” are no more—the world saturated by human sin, the world permeated with powers that be gone wrong, that world is gone. Creation needs a new start, a new beginning.

In this new world, Revelation 21 says, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” In a nutshell: “There will be no more curse.” All the harms we inflict on one another, on ourselves, on our world, all the devastating consequences of our human sin and evil—all this will be done away with.

“Behold,” God says, reigning from the throne, “I am making all things new.”

All things. Humans and nations, persons and peoples. But also rivers, lakes, and streams. Oceans and seas. Mountains and trees and valleys. Fish and fowl, flora and fauna. All renewed, entire ecosystems cleansed from the tragic effects of our human selfishness, pride, and greed.

All creation, made whole again.

What a vision! This is so much more than “where we go when we die, where we will spend eternity.”

This is a vision of heaven come down to earth, God’s kingdom come on earth, the Lord’s Prayer fulfilled.

This is a vision of God’s people eternally blessed in God’s glorious presence, God’s people beatified.

This is a vision of all peoples experiencing justice and peace and flourishing life, the nations of the earth healed.

This is a vision of all creation made new, restored to glow with the glory of God.

And as Revelation 1:19 promised, this is a vision of both the present and the future, both “what is now, and what will be.”

What is now—because, as Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is among you.”
What is now—because, as Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”
What is now—here, right now, heaven can come to earth if we seek it, if we let it.

What will be—because, as Jesus teaches, we continue to pray, “May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
What will be—because, as Paul teaches, we groan along with all creation, along with God’s Spirit, for creation’s full liberation and our complete redemption.
What will be—when Jesus comes to finish what he started, to renew all things.

May God give us the strong assurance that we will always be with the Lord, both in life and in death. May there be no doubt about that.

But may God give us an equally strong assurance, an assurance of faith that gives birth to the yearning of hope, that God is at work even now to bring about God’s new creation, God’s reign of justice and peace and flourishing life, heaven come down to earth.

“The one who testifies to these things”—Jesus the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the end which is a new beginning—“The one who testifies to all these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on May 8, 2016. All images are
from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.


The (S)Word-Wielder

Jesus, coming as a divine warrior to slaughter God’s enemies.

How do we make sense of this vision of judgment in Revelation 19?

Let’s sharpen the question: How can we reconcile this Jesus with the Jesus of Revelation 5, where Jesus the Lion reigns not by slaughtering his enemies but by being the Lamb slain by his enemies? Or the Jesus of Revelation 12, where Jesus the King comes not as invincible and all-conquering but as a vulnerable child?

SeraphOr, to sharpen the question even further: How can we reconcile the Jesus of Revelation 19 with the Jesus of the Gospels? What happened to “Love your enemies” and “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”? Does God get to the end of human history and say, “Just kidding!”?

Keep these questions in mind. Let yourself feel some inner tension. Allow yourself to be made uncomfortable by this image of Jesus.

But to help make sense of this vision of Jesus the divine warrior, let me give two things: a thought, and a story.

Here’s the thought: think of the power of the spoken word.

A simple word, like “Thanks.” A phrase, like “I’m sorry.” These can be powerful words.

Or something more, a fuller statement of some kind: an invitation, or a pledge, or a confession, or a command, or an assessment, or an entreaty. These can be powerful things in our lives.

Now expand that thought: think of the way in which a single statement—a declaration, a pronouncement, a promise—can cut two ways, the way a single statement can be received in two completely different ways by different people.

A judicial declaration—“You are acquitted of all charges”—can bring relief and happiness to the person so acquitted, but bitterness and anger to an injured person still seeking justice.

A marriage pronouncement—“I now pronounce you husband and wife”—is a cause for great rejoicing for the couple, but might be a cause of deep anguish for a former spouse who had hoped to be reconciled.

A parental promise—“We will go for ice cream after your concert”—will probably bring excitement to the child, but might cause resentment by another (“Why didn’t we go for ice cream after my concert?”).

The power of the spoken word—and the ways in which a single word can cut two ways. Keep that thought planted in your mind as I tell the story.

It’s a familiar story—the story of Jesus. But it’s the story of Jesus through the lens of the spoken word that cuts two ways.

Here’s the story.

In the beginning was the Word, the Word of God, God’s powerful, spoken message. And this word was light and life. This word was love. This word was good news for all creation.

God spoke this word at many times and in various ways through history, including through the prophets of ancient Israel. Isaiah was one of those prophets.

Isaiah assured God’s people that the divine word, God’s powerful, spoken message, would go out into the world and accomplish God’s purposes—like rain falling from the heavens. God’s word of light will bring light. God’s word of life will bring life. God’s word of love will flood the earth with justice and peace.

Isaiah had a name from the one who would bring this “word of God” to the world: he calls him the “Servant.” Here’s how Isaiah puts it—in the Servant’s own words:

The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word

And what is this spoken word that cuts like a sword? What is this spoken word that sustains the weary? It is the “good news” of God’s kingdom, God’s reign over all things. Here again is how Isaiah puts it:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

This word of God, this spoken message of God, sustains the weary. This gospel of God’s kingdom is good news for the oppressed, comfort for the brokenhearted, freedom for all held captive by the dark powers of this world.

Lion-Lamb 2This word of God is a powerful word—but it cuts two ways. The message of good news for the oppressed means judgment on the oppressors. The word of comfort for the brokenhearted is a denunciation of all who break those hearts. The promise of freedom for all held captive is a blunt warning to their captors.

God has spoken this double-edged message at many times and in various ways through history, including through the prophets of ancient Israel, including Isaiah.

But now, finally, in our own day and age, God has spoken this message through Jesus, the dedicated Servant of God. The Word of God, the very message of God from eternity past, was enfleshed among us and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth.

Think about how Jesus defined his mission in Luke 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

That’s Isaiah again, which Jesus says he is in the business of bringing about.

And this is indeed what Jesus does: Jesus speaks the word of God, the message of God from the beginning of the world, the good news of God’s reign. And this word cuts two ways.

Think of how Jesus’ message is summed up in Mark’s Gospel:

Good news! God has come to reign!

But repent! Repent, for God’s kingdom is here!

Trust in God, for God is bringing justice and peace and life! But this means you must repent of your harmful and destructive ways.

A powerful word that cuts two ways.

Or think about how Luke’s Gospel presents Jesus’ beatitudes:

You who are oppressed by rich landowners,
you who are impoverished by greedy tax-collectors,
you who are dealt death by sword-wielding soldiers—
you are the truly blessed by God, and God will make things right.

But that means woe to you wealthy 1%,
woe to you privileged white males,
woe to you nuke-wielding powers that be—
your time is up, for God will make things right.

Words of comfort, words of healing, words of hope. Yet those very same words: challenging words, disturbing words, words of judgment.

A powerful word that cuts two ways.

Jesus carried no sword. He used the metaphor of the sword in his teaching, but that’s what it is: a metaphor. The one time Peter took him literally about carrying a sword, Jesus ended up rebuking him for actually using it and healed the man whom Peter had injured. No, Jesus was not speaking of literal swords.

Jesus carried no sword. To use Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 10, Jesus did not use the weapons of this world, because he was not waging the war of this world. Rather, he used powerful and persuasive speech, seeking to (as Paul puts it) “destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, to take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

Jesus carried no sword. To borrow from Paul again, this time in Ephesians 6, Jesus did not fight against flesh and blood, against any human persons, even his enemies. Rather, he was waging war on the oppressive powers of this world, the rulers who wielded their power for their own gain. He was waging war on (as Paul puts it) “the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil.”

Jesus carried no sword. Rather, his word was his sword: the eternal message of God, the good news of God’s reign, the word of love, the word that brings light and life.

This word is a sharp sword: “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Menno Simons echoed this when he declared that “We know of no sword, nor commotion in the kingdom or church of Christ, other than the sharp sword of the Spirit, God’s word.”

This spoken word of God cuts to the heart—and it cuts two ways. The gospel proclaimed and embodied by Jesus comforts the disturbed but disturbs the comfortable. It is blessing for the poor and oppressed but judgment for the wealthy oppressors. It is light for those in darkness and life for those walking in the shadow of death, but it is condemnation for those who dole out darkness and deal in death.

Once we’ve grasped this thought set within the story of Jesus, we can step back into Revelation 19 and make sense of this difficult image of Jesus the divine warrior.

Heaven opens, and out comes Jesus, “Faithful and True,” riding on a white horse to bring “justice.”

He himself is called “the Word of God.” He is himself God’s message, spoken from eternity past, God’s message of light and life, God’s message of love—and so God’s message that condemns all hatred and violence and darkness and death.

And from his mouth comes a sharp sword, by which these enemies are defeated. He speaks God’s message, and the evil powers of this world—beasts of empires, beasts of oppressive systems and unjust structures, followed slavishly by the powers that be, the kings of the earth—all these evil powers are condemned in one fell swoop.

This, then, is Jesus the divine warrior. This, then, is the judgment of God.

Not a sword, but a word: a powerful word, a word that names and condemns evil among us while also bringing justice and peace and flourishing life for all.

Not a sword, but a word: the word of the gospel, the Word which is Jesus himself.

Here’s the final post in this series on Revelation: “The Lord’s Prayer Fulfilled”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on May 1, 2016. All images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.

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 © Michael W. Pahl.

Why Worship? Why Worship Together?

It’s Sunday morning, and we gather together as Christians to worship God.

The specific experiences are as varied as the number of churches, but most worship services have a few things in common.

We sing together—sometimes off-key, sometimes hymns too slowly, sometimes choruses too repetitively, too repetitively, too repetitively.

We pray together—sometimes faltering, sometimes mumbling, sometimes with too little genuine feeling, sometimes with too much “Lord, we just, Lord, want to just ask, Lord…”

We break bread together—not all of us every Sunday, not always in a ritual, sometimes with too little ritual.

We read Scripture and reflect on it together—sometimes with poor exegesis, sometimes with too little Jesus, sometimes going past noon with dinner waiting in the crockpot.

Why exactly do we do all these things, worshiping in these and other ways Sunday morning after Sunday morning? And is this “worship” really all that important?

Revelation 4-5 speaks directly to these kinds of questions—and gives us some surprising and challenging answers.

Let’s start with the big picture, stating the obvious: Revelation 4-5 is all about worship. (That much at least everyone can agree on.)

But notice where this vision is in the book of Revelation. Revelation 1 is introduction, setting up the rest of the book. Revelation 2-3 are specific letters to the seven specific churches Revelation is written to—in a sense still introduction, setting the stage for the main act. And then we hit Revelation 4-5—the first major vision John sees, determining the course of everything else that follows.

The first major vision at the heart of the book—and it’s all about worship.

This tells us that worshiping God is an essential activity. And not just worshiping God individually—worshiping God collectively, gathering together with others in worship, is essential. It grounds our way of life. It sets the tone for everything else.

But why is this? And how exactly does this work?

Let’s focus in on some of the details of this vision.

At the centre of it all, the object of all this worship, is God, seated on his heavenly throne, ruler over all creation. God, the Indescribable One, only imagined in colours and light.

Elder 2Four “living creatures” are immediately around the throne, one on each side: a lion, an ox, a human being, and a flying eagle. These represent all living things—later they are heard saying “Amen” to the declaration of “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them” (that’s pretty comprehensive). All creatures of our God and king, giving honour and praise to God.

Twenty-four “elders” surround them, seated on thrones, dressed in white robes with golden crowns on their head. These represent all God’s people, the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of Christ—as we hear later when the twelve tribes and twelve apostles are brought together in the gates and foundations of the New Jerusalem. All God’s people, bowing in reverence to God, singing God’s praises.

All creation, all God’s people, from the beginning of the world until its end, worshiping God.

So here’s one answer to our question of “why worship God”: Our collective worship is a participation in something fundamental to all creation, something that all creation is intrinsically engaged in.

The birds of the air, the flowers of the field—they honour their Creator simply by being what God created them to be, doing what God created them to do. Simply by being as God made them to be, existing as God made them to exist, all living things worship God.

Likewise, humans honour our Creator simply by being the way God made us to be, living the way God made us to live. We glorify God in our humanness, by being fully human. Simply by being as God made us to be, existing as God made us to exist, we worship God.

This ceaseless praise of God is intrinsic to creation; it is the very grain of the universe.

And so we are encouraged to see our worship together as a participation in this eternal, ceaseless worship of God by all creation and all God’s people. We are encouraged to see our worship together as giving voice to this never-ending, underlying rhythm of worship that is happening all around us.

But there’s more.

As we keep moving through this vision in Revelation 4-5, we hear some very specific declarations of praise. As the elders and living creatures give voice to the worship of all creation, their voice says some specific things.

God is holy. God is other. God is unlike any other. God is unique.

God is almighty. God is the source of all true power, power that creates and gives life.

God is eternal. God was. God is. God will be.

God is Creator. All that is, is because God is.

God is Redeemer. All that is good, is good because God loves.

Elder 1Here, then, is a second answer to our question of “why worship God”: Our collective worship is worldview-shaping, crafting the lenses through which we see our world and understand our place in it.

Good worship—worship in both spirit and in truth—is instructive. It teaches us; we learn from it.

Through our worship together we understand God’s role in the world as Creator and Redeemer. All things exist because God is. And although there is hurt and brokenness in our world, and in ourselves, all things can be redeemed because God loves. We learn this in part through our worship together.

Through our worship together we understand the world as God’s beloved creation. God does not hate us. God does not despise the work of his hands. God loves all creation, and imbues it with his grace and glory. We learn this in part through our worship together.

And through our worship together we understand our role as redeemed priest-kings and priestess-queens extending God’s reign throughout the earth. God calls us as God’s people to a particular task, a particular way of being in the world. God calls us to faith, to hope, to love. We learn this in part through our worship together.

Revelation 4-5 gives us a third answer to the question of “why worship God,” and it’s the most surprising one of all: Our collective worship is a profoundly political act; it is a powerful statement about how we should order our lives as human societies.

It’s all too easy for us to pass over the significance of the “throne.” For us, thrones are something from ancient times or fairy tales, or from the Bible. Of course God sits on a throne! God is king, after all!

But when was the last time you saw a king or a queen or an emperor or empress actually sitting on a throne, wielding some real power?

The “throne” doesn’t really mean much to us. But no one in the time of Revelation would miss the significance: the throne was a thoroughly political symbol, even the most potent political symbol one could use. And, in a world filled with absolute claims to absolute power, it was also about as subversive as you could get.

“Worship” is about “ascribing worth”; it is about declaring value. Worship is an expression of devotion and commitment, an expression of allegiance. When we come together and “worship God,” then, we are declaring our allegiance to God above all other claims to power and authority in the world.

But this vision is even more politically subversive than that.

Lion-Lamb 2In Revelation 5 we see a scroll, and we’re told that “no one can open the scroll”—no one in heaven or on earth or even under the earth, no creature, no human being, no human ruler, no angelic being. It’s not clear what the scroll represents—the title deed to the universe, perhaps, or the unfolding of human history. Either way, it’s the kind of thing that any good Roman would expect the emperor to rightfully possess and be able to open at will.

Yet it is the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” who alone can open it—Israel’s Messiah, Israel’s promised king from the tribe of Judah, descendent of king David. This is as any Jew in Revelation’s day would expect—but there’s another twist.

The “lion” is in fact a “lamb,” a “lamb who has been slaughtered.” The Messiah, Israel’s king, has not gained the right to rule by crucifying his enemies, but by being crucified. The true Lord and Ruler of the cosmos has not changed the tides of human history by killing his enemies, but by being willing to die for them.

God reigns not as a tyrant, not as a bully, not through coercion or violence or any other form of raw power. God reigns through the humble, self-giving, suffering servant, who gives himself for the world. God reigns through forgiveness and compassion. God reigns in love.

When we come together and worship God, then, we are saying “no” to any other way of being in the world, any other way of ordering our lives as human societies. We are saying that no human society that will stand the test of time, no civilization that will last, can be built on deceit or corruption or coercion or violence or injustice of any kind.

When we come together and “worship God” we are worshiping the God who exercises power and authority through self-giving love. We are declaring our allegiance to this God above all other claims to power and authority in the world.

So the next Sunday you’re in church and the person next to you is singing that hymn a little off-key, or the organist is dragging a little, or you’re on your twenty-fourth time through the chorus of “Oceans,” or the Scripture reader stumbles over “Melchizedek,” or the preacher is droning on while the roast is drying out, remember this: there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

You are participating in the worship of all creation. You are giving voice to the wordless praise of all living things.

Your mind and heart, your very soul, is being shaped by God. God is training you to see the world differently, preparing you to step out and find your God-ordained role in this world.

You are making a declaration of allegiance. You are standing unequivocally with the God who loves, the God who brings life, the God who gives his life in love.

Come, let us sing to the Lord. Come, let us worship and bow down.


Here’s the next post in this series on Revelation: “The Horrors of the Apocalypse”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 10, 2016. All images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from © 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 © Michael W. Pahl.

A Very Different Christmas Story

When we think of biblical Christmas stories, we naturally think of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. In fact, based on lifetimes of Christmas pageants and nativity scenes, in reality we probably imagine a harmonized Christmas story, bringing together various elements of each of these Gospels (Magi and shepherds together?).

P P Rubens Women of the ApocalypseBut these are not the only stories of Jesus’ birth in the Bible. There’s also a rather disturbing version of the story in that enigmatic book at the close of the canon: Revelation. Revelation 12 provides a third Christmas story, couched in the imagery of ancient apocalyptic literature and still more ancient myths of cosmic conflict: a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head,” gives birth to “a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter,” while “an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads” waits to devour the child as soon as it is born.

As you might imagine, the meaning of all this symbolism is well-debated, but, as I note in my book, The Beginning and the End, the basic contours seem fairly clear:

The “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (12:1), who gives birth to the “male child,” is most likely, in some sense, Israel. The number twelve here reflects the twelve tribes of Israel descending from the twelve sons of Jacob, and the image of the sun, moon, and twelve stars recalls Joseph’s dream of himself and his brothers as these patriarchs of Israel (Genesis 37:9).

The “enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads” (12:3), who tries to devour the “male child” after his birth, is openly identified as “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (12:9)—a clear reference to the serpent, the embodiment of evil in the world, in the curse story of Genesis 3.

And the “male child” himself is clearly Jesus: he is the one who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter” (12:5). This is a brief quotation of Psalm 2:9, a royal song for the ancient Israelite kings descended from David, a psalm that was taken in at least some Jewish circles as referring ultimately to the future Messiah from David’s dynasty, and was consistently understood by the earliest Christians as referring to Jesus as Messiah (see, for example, Acts 4:25–26; 13:33; Hebrews 1:5). (The Beginning and the End, 55)

So what we have, then, is an apocalyptic depiction of the coming of the Messiah into the world—the birth of Jesus, a Christmas story. But this Christmas story is not all angels singing and peace on earth. Like Matthew’s story of the Slaughter of the Innocents by Herod, this Revelation Christmas story highlights some deeper, darker realities of our world in light of Christ’s coming:

The world is a strange mixture of order and chaos, life and death, beauty and abomination, truth and falsehood, goodness and evil. As soon as we see some good effort bearing life-giving fruit in the world, it seems we immediately see another good work destroyed by self-exaggerated pride or self-serving greed—sometimes even by Christians. And we experience this same tension in our own selves, don’t we? We struggle to do good, to avoid sin and evil, in a daily battle of the will. As described in an earlier chapter, these sorts of tensions go right back to the “knowledge of good and evil” we so inappropriately possess, as well as the curse of sin in the world, the widespread, deep death we experience as sinning humans.

The vision of a cosmic conflict in Revelation 12 highlights for us a strange paradox: the coming of Christ helps us in this struggle, bringing redemption from the enslavement of sin, salvation from this wide-ranging death, and power to resist the world’s evil (12:10–11); yet the coming of Christ has also provoked even greater evil in the world—“woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you!” (12:12). Thus, we should not be surprised to struggle so intensely with sin in our own lives, or to find evil so difficult to root out in the world. Jesus has come to uproot greed and pride, to overthrow injustice and oppression, to defeat sin and death—and this emboldens evil all the more. (The Beginning and the End, 62-63)

Hard to say “Merry Christmas” after that, isn’t it? But all is not grey and grim. Here’s the way I close that chapter:

In reflecting on all these implications of this vision of cosmic conflict, perhaps we can now see an answer to a question that was suggested near the beginning of this chapter: why does John use elements of non-biblical mythic stories to help describe his vision here? The answer we might propose is this: all the great myths of the world—all human stories that attempt to make sense of what is wrong in the world and how things can be made right—find their home in the story of Jesus.

This is certainly not to say that the story of Jesus is itself a “myth” in the sense of being “unhistorical”—remember the way that apocalypses work, using language and imagery symbolically, pointing indirectly through these strange pictures to real events and persons and entities in the world. Rather, this emphasizes that the very real Jesus who came into the world to make right what has gone wrong with humanity and all creation catches up all the hopes and fears of humanity into himself, fulfilling all humanity’s deepest longings and most desperate needs. (The Beginning and the End, 63)

Amen, and amen!

Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.