I grew up in a Christian home, but I was far from God until I read the story of Jesus’ death on the cross. Then, everything changed. I tell about it here.
I had known a lot about God and the Bible, but my knowledge had not changed me. In fact, while outwardly religious, I was moving farther and farther away from God, all the time feeling better than others because of what little good I was and did.
But sin and my human nature were constantly getting the better of me, until, as I tell in the link above, the death of my sister plunged me into an existential crisis of grief and meaning. Looking for comfort and hope, I began to read the Bible for answers.
Reading one night after work, I came to the story of Jesus’ Passion in the Gospel of John. As I read, His story came alive in a way it never had before. If you had asked me before that night why Jesus died on the cross, I could have given you a factual answer.
But this night, God opened my eyes to see how much Jesus (and the Father) loved the world, and how much they loved me personally. I have often said that it was like a floodlight shining into my heart and mind.
Suddenly, the immensity of God’s love and Jesus’ willingness to suffer for our sins became crystal clear to me. Their love was so amazing, I immediately knew I needed to make a choice of whether to follow Jesus, or not. Getting down on my knees, I said, “Jesus, I don’t know how to follow you; but if you will accept me, I will.”
I know He accepted me and changed my heart because in the days and weeks that followed, many things changed in my life–my desires, my motives, what I enjoyed, how I lived. It was a change from the inside out. I did not become perfect, but my heart was changed. I began to love what I had no interest in before and dislike the sin I loved before.
The Power of the Cross
Why does the story of Jesus’ death have this power to change our lives? I didn’t know much about why Jesus died back then. All I knew was that He suffered and died because He loved us and that He died for sin. But that was enough.
The reason it was enough for God to accept me and change my heart is what I am going to explore in several blog posts over the next few weeks. But here is why God can exercise His power to save through Christ’s death:
He Earned the Right. Jesus died for all human sin (1 John 2:2), and by doing this He earned the right to forgive, accept, and change us. “He (Jesus) has died as a ransom to set (us) free from. . .sins” (Hebrews 9:15).
He Gained the Authority. Through Jesus’ suffering and death, He defeated Satan. How? He resisted the devil’s efforts to get Jesus to sin in His humanity, and He showed that Satan’s arguments that it was impossible to obey, were false. God helped Jesus be faithful. So now Jesus has authority to help us too. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil. . .Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:14, 18 NIV).
The Cross is His Power Station. So much happened at the cross that allows Jesus authority and power to change our lives when we turn and put our trust in Him. Workmen are installing towers and high voltage power lines near our neighborhood. When they are finished, they will charge the lines and power will flow for miles to meet the needs of thousands. When Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” on the cross (John 19:30), He meant that God’s plan to provide forgiveness and salvation was completed. At that point, the power of the Spirit was released to change people through the story of Jesus’ death. “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).
Come to Jesus’ Cross
The cross is especially where God gets access to our hearts to change and empower us. That is so because He earned the right there. This is why the Bible calls us consider the cross, teach about it, and meet Jesus there, as these verses show:
“‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” John 12:32-33 NIV
“We preach Christ crucified: . . .the power of God and the wisdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:23, 24 NIV
“Christ (sent me) to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” 1 Corinthians 1:17 NIV
Will You Consider Jesus’ Cross with Me?
Would you like to experience more of God’s power in your life? Would you like to know and love Him more? I would like to invite you to consider Jesus’ cross with me as I blog about it over the next few weeks.
I have learned so much more about why Jesus died than I knew at first, and because of that, I love Him even more. I want to share these amazing things with you. The more we see and understand, the more we will love Him; and the less power sin and Satan will have over our lives.
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This blog is an urgent call, in light of the times we are living in, to study the Bible carefully, not just devotionally–and some basic “how to” steps to do it.
Many Christians make time for devotional moments with God, but fewer set aside space to regularly study the teachings of Scripture more deeply. Maybe it is an issue of time, not knowing how, or thinking that deeper Bible study is primarily for teachers and pastors.
In any case, we lose out on much spiritual growth and many rich insights in our relationship with God when we miss this kind of study. Also, our faith and relationship with God could very much be at risk, as I’ll explain later.
There has been a major trend in Christianity that “doctrines aren’t important; it is one’s relationship with Jesus that counts.” The idea of “doctrine” (the teachings of a Bible on a given topic) has become suspect to many. Doctrinal fights and judgmental attitudes within or between denominations helped birth this “Jesus only” trend. But it is a huge mistake and a serious spiritual danger. Here’s why:
1. You Need a Solid Foundation for Your Faith
The doctrines of the Bible work like the frame of a building, or the skeletal structure in the human body. They give stability, strength, and form. A broken or missing member causes major challenges. We’ve heard of buildings collapsing, with tragic loss of life, because codes were not followed. Paul pionts to this role of Biblical truth when he calls the church “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 NIV). The Church–and our spiritual lives–are built with a foundation and superstructure of Biblical truth.
The teachings of the Bible describe the truths that form a Christian worldview and inform our concept of God and reality. They are not just like boards or dry bones. Bible teachings fill out the beauty of depth of God’s character and reveal His plans and purposes for us. The nature of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit; the nature of humans, the truths related to salvation, judgment, heaven, the afterlife, the Last Days, the Second Coming, and so many more, make up our belief system and give us stability and hope.
The bottom line is that Jesus is fleshed out by the truths of Scripture. Bible doctrines tell us more about Him, and about God’s amazing, beautiful character. To ignore doctrine is to diminish God and all that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are to us.
2. To Be Secure in Jesus and Safe from Deception
Years ago, I knew two young women who got caught in a cult. Both died as a result. The grief for their family and church was gut wrenching. Ever since, I have been cautious about leaders who exhibit cult-like personalities. While this is an extreme case, false teaching is nevertheless destructive.
Bible writers sound many warnings about false teachers and distorted doctrines, both in their day, and the Last Days. They warn that the goal of these misguided people is often to recruit followers and make money. Ego is foremost, rather than the glory of God. In my early pastorate, a man began to produce videos criticizing leaders and presenting his take on truth. He eventually began accepting donations and became quite wealthy. Later, he confessed to his wrong motives. Here are two cases from the Bible:
“For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain.”
Titus 1:10-11 NIV
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter (false teaching), because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.”
2 Timothy 2:15-18 NIV
Be cautious of people claiming to bring you a new message or truth from God, especially if they have attitudes of criticism, or self-promotion. There are many false teachers today, as in Bible times. Following them can be damaging to your faith and even dangerous. On the other hand, take time to prayerfully and carefully study out what they are saying, in the ways I’ll describe later. It is an opportunity to grow and see real truth more deeply. You may be able to help others as well.
3. To Keep Safe in Our Relationship with Jesus Through the Last Days
Bible writers left us urgent warnings about deception and false teaches in the Last Days of earth’s history. Satan knows that His time is short. He hates God and everyone connected with Him, so he wants to destroy our belief structure and collapse our faith. He gets demonic pleasure out of tearing down what God has built up. He delights in attacking and troubling us as he pokes a finger in God’s eye.
Corruption of truth come from challenges outside the faith, such as when social or political movements co-opt and misapply, or redefine, thought categories. They can also originate from inside the Church when teachers distort key doctrines, sometimes with apparently well-meaning motives. John urges us: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits (people, teachings) to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1 NIV). I have seen so many distortions of Scripture in my years as a pastor. Fact check everything you aren’t sure about.
Paul tells us he received his gospel directly from Jesus, probably through visions (Galatians 1:11). This included revelations of what would happen in the last days. Here are two of his serious alerts about the Endtimes:
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
2 Timothy 4:1-4 NIV
“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.”
1 Timothy 4:1-2 NIV
Paul wasn’t alone in warning about spiritual dangers in the last days. The apostles were all aware this will happen.
“Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’ But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.”
2 Peter 3:3-7 NIV (See also Jude 3-4)
Revelation, Jesus’ message to the Church about what would take place between His Ascension and Second Coming, especially in the Last Days, warns about the false teachings of Balaam (Revelation 2:14), the Nicolaitans (2:15), and Jezebel (2:20) that had infiltrated the Christian Church.
In Revelation 12-18, Jesus describes the deceptions and false miracles that will become nearly universal in the world. Paul refers to the same thing:
“Then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.”
2 Thessalonians 2:8-12 NIV
Jesus told a powerful parable about building a solid faith. He described two men building homes. One built his house on sand, without taking time to dig deeply and build a solid foundation. The other chose solid rock to build on. When a torrential flood came, the house built on the rock was able to withstand the storm while the house built on sand collapsed.
Jesus’ crucial lesson is that we must take time to dig deeply and build our faith on Jesus (our Rock) and His word. Character and faith built on the word will survive the many kinds of storms that come against us.
How to Study Doctrine (Bible Teaching)
By now, it is clear how important it is to study God’s word more deeply, for our own spiritual growth and for our spiritual safety. I’ve had the privilege of theological training and being a pastor for many years, so I want to share a few things that have helped me. Here are 7 simple suggestions:
1. Accept questions and challenges as an opportunity to learn and grow.
When a question comes up, perhaps in a sermon, Bible teaching, or in your devotions, make a mental note of it. Keep a notebook or computer document of topics for future study.
2. Set aside time for Bible study in addition to your devotions.
If you want to study more deeply, you must set aside time for it. Even 30 minutes of study each day will begin to yield great dividends. Some combine their devotions with deeper study by keeping their focus on God. Choose a place with comfortable seating, good lighting, and fresh air for brain oxygenation. Take breaks every 25 minutes or so and walk around to keep the blood flowing.
3. Collect a notebook or computer doc, your Bible (or Bible App), a concordance, and a Bible dictionary.
A concordance lists all major words and where they are found in scripture; an online site like Biblegateway.com has a concordance search box that allows you to look up a word, words, or phrase, and with click of your mouse see all the verses in the Bible where they are used. A Bible dictionary will give definitions for Bible words, names, or places. A good search engine can substitute.
Bibles come in all varieties and levels of accuracy today. A “formal” translation which more literally follows the Greek and Hebrew is preferable for accuracy in Bible study. The King James Version (and New KJV), The New American Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version are formal translations. The later are easiest to understand. I prefer the New American Standard Bible for readability and accuracy.
Dynamic equivalency Bibles are good for devotional reading, but are not as accurate in some places. The Message, the Living Bible, and the New Living Translation are examples of this kind of Bible. The New International Version tried to strike a balance, but is not as literal as the formal translations I listed earlier. Don’t stress over this. Better to begin with the Bible you have than not begin at all.
4. Begin with prayer for the Holy Spirit to guide you in your study.
Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to “guide us into all truth” (John 16:13). He said the Father is more willing to give us the Spirit’s help than an earthly father is willing to give good things to his child (Luke 11:13). When we ask humbly in dependence on Him, He will always help us. Jesus died to fulfill the promise of the Spirit’s help in this, and every aspect of our lives.
The Bible was prepared by God to be an inspired and sufficient guide for our lives. It tells how to have a relationship with God and ultimately spend eternity with Him. The Spirit “inspired” Bible writers, and He will open it up (reveal the meaning) to you as you ask His help and depend on His guidance.
5. Write down key words, phrases, and concepts in your question. Research these.
In your concordance, look up key words or phrases in each verse they are used. Using Biblegateway.com (described above), you can scan the verses it lists for the most relevant. The Bible often defines its own terms, either in the immediate context or related passages. Write down what you find as you go. Use a Bible dictionary as a help, if you wish.
Doing this kind of study is building a conceptual framework made up of definitions and ideas. It is like constructing something piece by piece, painting a picture one stroke at a time, or putting a jigsaw puzzle together. The end product will emerge little by little. The joy is in seeing it come together and having the Divine Teacher at your side guiding you.
Scripture itself calls us to this kind of study: “From infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-17 NIV)
6. As you study ask what this tells you about the God’s character, His plan to save you, and what He wants you to do about what you learned.
When Jesus revealed Himself to Saul (later Paul) on the Damascus Road, Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” and “What do you want me to do?” These are good questions to ask as we study.
We should relate everything we study to the great central truth of Jesus’ atonement for our sins on the cross and the gift of salvation. This will draw our hearts to Him. “If I be lifted up, I will draw all people to myself,” He said (John 12:32).
Currently, I am studying words that describe what Jesus’ death means. It has helped me see His love even more.
7. God’s greatest desire
God longs for us to love Him with our whole heart and mind. Understanding things logically and intellectually without seeking to know God’s heart can be spiritually self-defeating. Ask God to show you His love and heart for you as you study.
A Wonderful Promise of Spiritual Treasure
The Wise Man, Solomon promised that if we do this kind of study, with the same intensity of purpose as if we were looking for say treasure buried in our back yard, we will be richly rewarded. Indeed, we are searching for eternal, spiritual treasure which will fill our hearts and minds with God’s truth and goodness. We will build a house of truth on the Rock, Jesus, He will keep us safe in the coming storms of life.
“My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding— indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” Proverbs 2:1-6
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Very little, as it turns out; but an essential minimum. Even if you believe a lot of wrong things, God can still accept you and do what He does best. We see this clearly in the ministry and teachings of Jesus.
A Canaanite Woman
Matthew and Mark tell us about a trip Jesus took from Jerusalem to the mostly gentile region of Tyre and Sidon where He met a woman who knew very little, but just enough to receive Jesus’ help.
This story actually begins in Jerusalem with a debate between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees about a technical question in their law. These leaders had a LOT of religious knowledge. They knew the Hebrew Bible back and forth, and volumes of theology too.
But Jesus ended up telling them: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:7-9). Jesus’ point is that we can have a lot of religious knowledge, but be far from God.
It is at this moment Jesus leaves the center of learning and culture and travels with his disciples to Tyre and Sidon (northern Syria today, quite a journey on foot). From the center of religious knowledge in Judaism, Jesus led His followers to an area known for its superstition and false gods. From great knowledge to little knowledge. It was a cross-cultural mission trip; and I think Jesus was trying to teach His disciples a lesson.
There, a Canaanite woman came begging Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30). She cried, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly” (Matthew 15:22).
A pathetic situation, one which should have aroused the disciples’ compassion. Instead, they complained to Jesus, “Send her away because she keeps crying out after us” (v. 23).
Their reaction is hardhearted, for sure. But a little background helps us understand their reaction from their perspective. Canaanites were gentiles, with very distorted views of God (from a Jewish viewpoint). They were the corrupt people of the land when Israel arrived centuries before, which God told Israel root out. In Jesus’ time, they were still seen as pagans, and under curse of God.
Unexpectedly and out of character, as the woman begs for help, Jesus ignores her. When He finally speaks, He tells her that it wouldn’t be right for Him to take the children’s (Jews’) bread and give it to their dogs (gentiles).
I can hear His disciples muttering, “Right!” Some Jews referred to gentiles as dogs in Jesus’ day. So Jesus is treating her as some of His people might do. He is giving His followers a lesson–one we also need today.
The woman’s desperate and persistent response is, “True Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (v. 27). Jesus immediately replied, “‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed at that moment” (v. 28)
What gave her this persistence? Was it Jesus’ expression of sympathy, His tone of concern, a twinkle in His eye? Was it her own desperation? Something made her keep trying.
How much did this woman know? Not much; but enough. When she first called on Jesus, she cried, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (v. 22).
Clearly, she had heard of Jesus. She believed He was the Jewish Messiah, descended from David. Jesus had learned about His willingness to extend mercy and love to those who did not deserve it. She had heard of His miracles, and perhaps a few rumored teachings. Where had she gotten this sparse, but important information?
Much earlier Matthew reports that news about Jesus had “spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them” (Matthew 4:24).
The woman may have talked with some who heard Jesus teach or received His healing touch. Her knowledge was limited, but it was enough. She believed Jesus had come from God and that He extended grace and mercy to those who needed it. Putting her trust in Him, her daughter was healed.
Jesus disciples were amazed. God loves everyone the same? He has no favorites? He will love and give race and blessings to even the “heathen?”
The people God entrusts with a knowledge of Him are blessed so they can bless others, not horde His gifts. Jesus died for all, bearing the sins of every human on the cross, so all who wish may receive mercy. How much knowledge is necessary for that?
At Jesus’ Birth Too
We see this illustrated at the beginning of Jesus’ life. Poor shepherds, considered unclean and low class by the Jews, and the gentile Magi, both groups slim on Jewish religious knowledge, are the ones to come to the welcome Messiah. His own people who should know the prophecies, are oblivious, or preoccupied. Even at Jesus’ birth, God was signaling that His love and mercy were for everyone.
First Sermon Nearly Ends in Death
Later, we observe it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In his first sermon at his home town of Nazareth, He reminds the worshipers that God’s heart is bigger than Israel. Elijah had been sent to provide food for a heathen widow in Zarephath. Namaan, an Aramaean (Syrian) army officer in the time of Elisha, had been healed of leprosy. God’s own people had not asked, but these “non-believers” had.
If you’ve read the story, you might have been shocked that Jesus home-town people tried to throw Him off a cliff when He said this. Why?
When we grow up in a religious community, it is easy to believe that God’s blessings are restricted to those who believe the right things, those who have the “correct” theology. It is possible to look down on others.
With that perspective, we may feel we don’t “know enough” for God to accept us. But God’s love and mercy and acceptance are as wide as the world, and He gives them freely to those who simple believe and ask.
At the Cross
We see this again at the cross.
A young man hangs from nailed wrists, mouth dry as cotton, flies buzzing, body and brain exploding with pain. He is in agony, slowly dying. He has lived a life of crime, led on by bad associates. A lapsed Jew, he may have had some religious knowledge, but he had tossed it aside like a crust of stale bread years ago. It was like a hazy memory now.
Yet strange, hopeful thoughts are going through his mind. He has heard Jesus’ followers say they had believed the crucified Man on the center cross was the one who was going to deliver Israel. He heard the religious leaders mock, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ of God, the Chosen One” (Luke 23:35).
He remembered his mother telling him about the sacrifices and how they pointed forward to a Messiah deliverer who would die for others. He watched Jesus’ behavior, heard His few words, and as the Spirit spoke to his heart, slowly the realization dawned on him that this was the Messiah, dying for the world’s sins, his sins. Did Isaiah 53, the prophecy of Messiah’s suffering and death come back to him?
This life held nothing for him now; it was almost over. But what about his eternity? In a parched voice, he called out from the depths of his heart, “Lord, will you remember me when you come in your kingdom?” (Luke 23:42). And immediately, Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43).
This backslider, with faint religious memories, sees in Jesus a gracious, loving Savior, puts all his trust in Him, and is assured of eternity.
I have heard stories of addicts, incarcerated persons, and people from all walks of life who had little religious knowledge, but called out to God in their time of need; and God responded and gave them a new spiritual life. It turned their lives around. Why is this possible?
Because, simply, Jesus died for the whole world and every person in it. God’s love is not restricted to a chosen few; it is for everyone. That is wonderful news. God’s grace and love are as free and available as the air we breathe because of the cross. If you realize your need of God, you can call on Jesus today and put your faith in Him as your Savior. He will accept you because He paid for the right to do so.
A Place for Knowing More
I am not saying here that religious knowledge and education is unnecessary. It is extremely important. The Bible encourages parents and the church to teach this as the foundation of faith for children and believers. And once we come to faith, Peter says we should “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
The more we know about God and the One He sent, the more we love them. And the more we know about God, the more we can become like Him. Truth describes God’s will and path for us. It helps us avoid spiritual deceptions and stay in the center of God’s will.
What I am asserting is that it is wonderful news that God’s love is so broad and Christ’s grace is so free that anyone in the world can call on them, no matter how much or how little they know, and God will forgive and receive them as His children.
Jesus did the really hard work of overcoming Satan in our flesh and then dying for the sins of the world–so God can accept absolutely anyone who comes to Him in need and faith. Knowledge is no barrier. Your wandering, sinful past will not stop Him.
That is really good news. And so the saying is true, “It’s not how much you know, but Who you know, that counts.” “This is life eternal that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ, Whom You have sent” John 17:3.
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I grew up knowing a lot about God. My family attended church regularly. I was in children’s classes every week. My dad and mom were both Christians. Dad, especially seemed to have a personal relationship with his “heavenly Father,” as He called Him. I could tell by the way he talked about God and the way he prayed. He had grown up in the back alleys of Denver in a home where his dad was mean and abusive when he drank. It came as a relief to my dad when he learned about a heavenly Dad who was full of love and kindness.
I went to Christian schools for fifteen years and denominational summer camps nearly every summer. Christian clubs and extracurricular activities added to my knowledge and religious acculturation. I knew a LOT about God and His Book and could answer many questions in a Bible trivia game. But I didn’t know either God or Jesus, personally. In fact, I didn’t feel a need because I somehow equated knowing “about” God and participating in religious services and activities with what I thought was real religion.
However, this did not “work” for me. Throughout my high school and college years, I struggled with personal sins, often violating what I knew was right. There were many cycles of giving in to temptations of various kinds, experiencing religious guilt, yet failing again. I seemed to have no power in areas where I was weak.
Yet, somehow, I thought of myself as quite a good person, better than some, maybe most, because of the right things I knew and did. . .and didn’t do (and that list was pretty long). I was sometimes miserable, and certainly self-deceived. But I didn’t know what to do about it.
In college (a Christian one), I majored in theology (because I liked my high school religion teacher, also my coach, and I wanted to “help people). I joined a summer ministry team and became religious vice president of our student association, all the time struggling privately with pride and sin. My religious pursuits and the good feelings that came from serving kept me from seeing my need, and the solution to my problems.
In my freshman year, some students on my campus began to talk a lot about having a personal relationship with Jesus. They had been trained at Campus Crusade for Christ, which made them a bit suspect in my mind, because Cru was a non-denominational ministry, and I almost equated salvation with being in the “right” church.
At the same time, I was intrigued and a bit troubled by what these young men were saying. The “relationship” they talked about seemed real. On one level, it reminded my of my dad. But, I didn’t have what they were describing. I was weirdly uncomfortable for a religious kid.
I went to their meetings, attended a prayer gathering or two in dorm rooms (where they prayed conversationally with God) and got to know some of the guys personally. What they were saying was shaking what I had been trusting in. They said religious knowledge and doctrinal beliefs were not enough. Knowing “about” Jesus was not the same as knowing Him personally, and good works could never “save” anyone for eternity. The foundation I had been trusting in for acceptance with God was getting rattled, but not enough to topple my house of cards yet.
In the meantime, a friend began asking me questions like, “Who do you think Jesus Christ was?” And, What do you think having eternal life means?” I could give theological answers, but not relational, experiential ones. Rick was finding a relationship with God and wanted to nudge me in that direction too.
Looking back, what was keeping me from trusting Jesus as a personal Savior was my false belief that religious knowledge and good works were enough to earn God’s favor. My pride and sins also got in the way too, though, as it turned out, they were the result of my condition, not the cause of it. The root cause was that I didn’t know how lost I was without Jesus as my personal Savior, and my failure to trust and surrender my life to Him.
In the summer of my Junior year, my sister Susan was killed in a car accident. She was a sunny, cheerful, likable girl of seventeen. This shattered my world. My deep grief led me to read the Bible. I had to see for myself if the things I had believed were true. Was there a heaven? Would there be a Second Coming of Christ and a resurrection from the dead? Would I get to see my sister again? I wrote the date of Susan’s death beside meaningful verses. At this point, I was seeking comfort and assurance about things I had only known in my head, not my heart.
One evening after work, I found my self reading John’s description of Jesus’ passion–His struggle to surrender in Gethsemane, His trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. I have often said it was like God shined a floodlight into my mind and heart, and I saw clearly, as I’d never seen before, how much He loved the world–and how much he loved me personally. Immediately, I knew I had a choice to make; it was clear and obvious: to give my life to Him and follow Him.
It was an easy choice in some ways. I saw a love like I’d never understood this deeply before, and Someone who loved me like I had never been loved. I wanted to follow this Jesus. I knelt down and prayed a ridiculously simple prayer for a third year theology student and life-long “religious” person: “Jesus, I don’t know how to follow you, but if you’ll accept me, I will.”
It was a prayer of repentance (turning to God), surrender, and desire–to know God personally in the way I had never known Him.
I know without any doubt that He accepted me and changed my life. I became voraciously hungry to read the Bible–to know as much about God and Jesus, and what they had to say,as I could. The power of sin was broken in my life, and my heart and behavior changed. I learned later, this was the new birth Jesus told Nicodemus about (John 3). Now I went to class and worship to know God better.
In case you are wondering, did I ever struggle with temptation again? Did previous sinful patterns suddenly evaporate? No. I found that as time went along that there were areas God needed to address in my life, but this happened in a growing relationship with Him, over time–learning how the Christian life worked and what He offers to help. In a word, He offers the power of His Spirit and His work of grace in our hearts. This happens as we read and accept His words and walk in a trust relationship with Him.
Jesus offers us so much when we give up depending on ourselves and our own goodness and knowledge. He can do this because He died to earn the right, and He freely forgives and accepts whoever puts their trust fully in Him.
So, why won’t religious knowledge and good works save you, and what can you do about it?
Knowledge and human goodness can be a trap. The biggest illusion in Jesus’ day was that religious knowledge and belonging to a certain group could save you. It felt so complete being full of information about God and worshiping with large groups of people. It felt so right to believe the “right” things. But theoretical knowledge is not enough. It is like describing the sun without moving into its light and warmth, or explaining a cold drink on a hot day without sipping it. Being a fine, upstanding person; having some morality and good works in your life; and being religious, can actually prevent you from feeling your need of God to rescue and change you. It is not even enough to see God’s love and believe it intellectually. Jesus came, lived, explained God, and died for our sins, then rose for one purpose: to make it possible for us to choosearelationship with Him. We must choosetotrust in and follow Him in order to have a religion that really works. No Jesus, no life. Know Jesus, new life.
Without Jesus, we’re dead. We are born with a nature that is dead to God, spiritually blind to our own need, and naturally resistant to God and the life of God. Romans 3:9-18 is a description of human nature. It is not hard to see oneself in the list. Galatians 5:19-21 has a similar list of what our natural sinful nature produces. Not only are we spiritually dead by nature, but sin in all its forms deadens our hearts and prevents us from seeing God clearly. “The god of this age (Satan) has blinded (us). . . , so that (we) cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). This is why we need the new birth, in which God supernaturally, through the Holy Spirit, gives us a new nature. We receive the new birth when we give up trying to be good in our own strength and trust Jesus to be our Savior from sin. When we do, He sends the Spirit to live in our hearts to rebirth us and change us over time. The veil which has been shrouding our minds is removed, and we see Jesus and His new life clearly (2 Corinthians 3:14).
You can’t have a relationship without a relationship. A good mutual friend told me about the woman who is now my wife. The way he described her certainly made me interested in getting to know her. I emailed her, and we began a three month correspondence. We share many things about our life and got to know each other very well. Sending that first email opened the possibility of knowing her, and the more I knew her, the more I loved her. We were created for a relationship with God. There is a God-shaped vacuum in each of us, as one writer said. The First Sin changed human nature and separated us from God. Jesus came to show us what God is really like and to build a bridge (His death on the cross) to give us the right to be forgiven and have a personal relationship with God as our Father. Jesus died to pay the price for all human sin, and when we admit our need and trust Him to forgive and receive us, accepting Him as our personal Savior, our relationship with Him and heaven begins. Why not tell Him now that you would like to know Him? He will certainly take you up on it. Then begin reading things to help you know Him personally. The Gospel of John in the New Testament is a good place to begin. When you are ready, ask Him to be your Savior and God. He died for the privilege of accepting you. Don’t ever doubt He wants you and will be so glad to receive you.
I want to urge you not to take what I’ve written lightly. Accepting Jesus is the only way to the new life He offers. It is like being resurrected in this life. By the power of His Spirit He changes our hearts and raises us spiritually from the dead. The reason many people have no power over sin in their lives is that only Jesus can free us from our old nature and give us a new heart. He says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). To reject or delay turning to Jesus is to live defeated and miss the assurance and amazing love that come with surrendering to Him.
Please think deeply about what I’ve written. Talk it over with God. Tell Him your fears and concerns, and ask Him to help you to make this decision.
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
John 1:12 NIV
“For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”
Yesterday, I shared how the COVID Quarantine has given me, and perhaps you, time to reflect on and pursue a deeper relationship with God. Today, I am asking what God might wish for as a new spiritual normal for us.
The Old–Afraid and Confused
Twelve men and some women were living behind locked doors. They were afraid– afraid of death. Their world had been rocked. Everything had changed suddenly. Dreams dashed, future dark with doubt and uncertainty.
The last three years had been like a dream. Sure, they were often confused and slow. They slept when they should have prayed. They feared instead of having faith. They questioned when they could have dug deeper.
But they had their Messiah. They saw the miracles. No one had ever done what He did. They heard His words. No one had ever taught like He taught. He was in control. They could slack a little.
Now He was dead. And their had hopes died with Him.
So here they were, behind locked and barred doors, afraid. Then, everything changed.
“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”
John 20:19-20 NIV
Waking to the New
Jesus’ appearance to His disciples was the beginning of an amazing awakening. I believe it is an awakening God can give each of us if we wish, ask, and pursue.
Over the next forty days, Jesus patiently explained what they had missed. He graciously forgave their failures. With unstoppable purpose, He prepared them for their future mission.
During this time, they remembered what they had forgotten. They understood what they hadn’t grasped. They became strong where they’d been weak. Like a plant in warm sunshine, their faith grew quickly.
Then Jesus left, ascending to heaven to carry on His work there. But not before promising to send a Helper like Himself, the Holy Spirit, to be with them always.
“On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.'”
Acts 1:4 NIV
They did not wait idly. They worshiped the Lord they had just been with. They lamented their shortcomings and sins and resolved, by God’s grace to change. They put away differences and became unified. They grabbed hold of the promises Jesus had made, stretching their hand of faith higher and higher. They prayed intensely for a fitness to share the message of salvation. Then, the answer came.
When the Holy Spirit was poured out, it was like Heaven’s floodgates opened, as if a floodlight was shined into their minds. Everything was clear as noon. Unbelief was swept away. They spoke powerfully about Jesus and their faith in Him.
The book of Acts emerges like a Phoenix out of the ashes of these disciples’ former lives. Out of confusion, confidence. Out of fear, faith. Out of dim wits, bright clarity.
In the power of God’s spirit they proclaimed the resurrection of Christ, healed the sick, raised the dead, traveled to the ends of the earth. The “Sun of righteousness” had truly “arisen with healing in His wings” (Malachi 4:2).
But the greatest miracle was their own spiritual resurrection. Christianity is a religion of power–God’s power to change our hearts, make us new, help us overcome what holds us back. Read these verses:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” 2 Corinthians 5:17 NIV
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 36:26 NIV
“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:36 NIV
“And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” Romans 8:11 NIV
In the last verse, Paul likens our personal spiritual resurrection–the awakening of our mind and heart to the realities of God–to the resurrection of Christ.
In other words, God is willing to exert the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, to raise us from the dead, spiritually speaking, and give us new life. He is not talking only about the resurrection at Christ’s coming, but our spiritual resurrection now.
This was the spiritual awakening the disciples experienced from Resurrection to Pentecost. And God is just as willing to give it to us as to them.
There is no need for us to live in the shadow-lands of faith. We can ask Jesus to give us new birth–new hearts–and new eyes. That is a prayer He loves to answer. To start over. Begin with a clean page. Ready for God to write new things into our hearts and lives.
A new (spiritual) normal
During the Pandemic and Quarantine, have you had some serious thoughts about what is really important in life? About where this world could be headed? About your need of deeper faith and a closer walk with God?
If you have, that is most likely because God is calling you. Recognize this as His personal invitation. Tell Him what you desire and ask Him to do for you what you can’t do for yourself: to give you a new heart, the ability to understand Him and His words, victory over what holds you back.
Like Jesus’ first disciples, you can awaken to a new life. Because this same Jesus is alive today, and is just as powerful and present as before.
Everywhere we are hearing the phrase, “The New Normal.” Government and health officials, even church leaders, are saying the effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic have been so impactful, they will likely transform the way we do things in the foreseeable future.
The Quarantine has certainly been hard in many ways, but some results will be beneficial.
Yesterday I was talking (properly distanced, of course) with a neighbor who is a teacher. He told me state schools have been planning to use technology more creatively, but the pandemic forced them to implement it and work the bugs out immediately. In his opinion students and schools will be much better equipped for the future by what they have gone through and learned as a result.
Utilizing social media and online platforms, churches have created many new ways for members to connect with each other for prayer, study, and fellowship–and to reach out supportively to their communities.
I joined a morning prayer group begun by our church prayer leader, to worship and pray for our members, our community, and our nation during the pandemic. We have called in at 7 am each morning for over a month so far. My wife and I are new to this church and do not know many people, but listening to these folk pray each day has drawn us closer to God and to them. We feel more a part of the church community as a result.
How is your new normal?
How have you grown during the pandemic? Have you gotten closer to people you love? The Quarantine forced us indoors, meaning we ended up spending more time with our family. Were you able to work through some things in your relationships and come through stronger? Have you identified things you can work on with God in this area? I have.
How has your relationship with God grown? I have heard many are taking stock of their connection to God and church and making changes during this time. Joining the prayer group I mentioned above was because I wanted to deepen my faith and connection with God through community.
Some really special things have happened for me as a result of this prayer time. My faith has grown stronger. I have been less worried about the news and the potential fallout from the pandemic. And even though I still don’t know most of the people by sight, I feel very close to them because of opening our hearts to God and each other.
Getting back to normal
There is a natural desire to get back to normal. We need the income from work; our children miss the structure of the classroom and their friends; we long for the end to disruption and a return to normality.
But are there ways in which you don’t want to go back to the way it was? Maybe you fell more in love with your spouse and family, and you don’t want to slip back into the humdrum again. Maybe you felt called to something deeper with God and found it; and, you don’t want to lose that.
In that sense, we want a “new normal.” We can tell God that, and determine, with His help to pursue it. God is longing for a new normal for you too. The Bible describes Him has a kind, loving Father who deeply wishes for a relationship with us. Though He certainly didn’t cause this pandemic, I imagine He has been wishing that many of his children would turn to Him and come home to His heart. He told Isaiah during a similar time:
“See, I am doing anewthing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
If we feel the desire, that is evidence that God is drawing us to His heart. We can say, “Yes, God I want you to do a new thing in my heart and life. I ask you to make a road in the wilderness of my world and refreshing streams in the wasteland of my life. Renew my relationship with you. Restore my relationships with my loved ones.”
These are prayers He loves to hear and answer.
Seeing with New Eyes
How about asking God for 20/20 spiritual eyesight in 2020? The pandemic has forced us to look at our lives and re-evaluate things. Why not ask God to open your eyes to see what you need spiritually? I have been doing this. That is a first order of magnitude prayer He will answer.
We have been hearing so many stories of trouble related to the COVID-19 Pandemic and Lockdown. Hard stories of economic hardship, health crises, and losses of loved ones. Difficult stories of the chaos caused by the disease and the impacts triggered by trying to manage it.
Trouble. People are caught in trouble of all kinds. Mentally taxing, emotionally draining, soul trying, trouble.
Psalm 91 is a prayer for God’s protection and deliverance from trouble. I wrote in detail about it here. But today, I want to focus on one phrase in it: “I will be with him in trouble” (Psalm 91:15).
When trouble comes, we pray to be delivered from it. Psalm 91 promises faithful believers will be spared in the great Time of Trouble before Jesus comes. But between now and then, we go through trouble. Jesus said we would: “In this world you will have trouble, ” He said; “but take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
So we live in the in-between reality that Jesus overcame sin in all its forms, resisted the devil, and died victoriously. He had revealed that God is good, infinitely self-sacrificing, and that Satan is a liar and a murderer. Invisibly but powerfully, Jesus is winning hearts and taking back spiritual territory in this world, but His absolute reign is yet future.
In this between-the-times, Jesus is very much with us as we go through trouble, even if He doesn’t always deliver us from it. And what I want to say today is that the presence of Jesus with us in our trouble is a great gift. It is almost as wonderful, maybe better, than being rescued.
Years ago, I experienced a difficult loss. It took place over about two years, a time that was filled with grief, tears, heart longings, and many prayers. Often, I prayed to have the loss restored.
But something else was happening at the same time. My faith in Jesus was growing and deepening. He was becoming more real, and His love and presence were often palpable. The scriptures were becoming alive to me in ways that had never happened. Jesus was clearly fulfilling His promise to be with me in trouble.
He has promised to be with us many times:
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10 NIV
Jesus, before His death and Ascension: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” John 14:18-20 NIV
“Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John 14:23 NIV
Jesus during His Great Commission: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:20 NIV
“The Lord is near.” Philippians 4:5 NIV
Jesus is here invisibly, through His Spirit. He is loving us, helping us, drawing us to Himself. His promise to be in our lives is especially fulfilled when we put our trust in Him. If we accept Him as our Redeemer and Friend and decide to follow His words, He takes up residence in our hearts. Here is His promise:
“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in. . .”
Revelation 3:12 NIV
So friend. whatever you are going through, Jesus is willing to be with you. He welcomes your prayers for deliverance and He will do what is best in the long run. I know this takes faith. Sometimes, it is only years later, that can see God knew best.
But, in any case, He will be with you. He will comfort you with His love and show you more of His heart. That is ultimately what David meant in Psalm 91.
Whatever you are going through, I pray you will experience the presence of Jesus with you. May you believe His promises and trust His heart, as this song speaks about.
There is so much during the COVID-19 Pandemic that is heart breaking. As of today, more than 82,000 people have died in the U.S. and almost 300,000 world-wide. Every person represents a grieving family and community.
Hearts are breaking every day. Family members lost too soon, businesses going under, jobs lost, futures uncertain. Does God understand all this heartbreak? Does He care?
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted. . .”
Psalm 34:18 NIV
When Jesus was here in this world, He experienced many kinds of heartbreak. He was grief stricken by the rejection He experienced.
His life was one of constant sadness as the gifts He offered were refused. Isaiah wrote about His experience: “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:3).
Jesus’ experienced the ultimate anguish and sorrow on the cross when His heart was broken by our guilt and sin which separated Him from God. He cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46) just before He died.
Jesus’ disciple John noticed that water and blood flowed out of the spear wound, which was evidence of a broken heart (John 19:34).
Yes, Jesus has experienced heartbreak.
But, is He close to us in our losses and troubles? Does He care?
When He was here, Jesus said He would be very close to us. He would not leave us as orphans in this world. He would still live with us through His Spirit (John 14:18, 23).
He said we would have trouble in this world, but that He overcame it and will eventually return to more than make everything whole again (John 16:33). In the meantime, He offers to give us His peace and comfort.
Friend, Jesus understands your breaking heart. He is willing to come beside you and help you in every way possible. He knows your need and will listen to your prayers.
We live in a war zone with great trouble taking place all around us. But Jesus has come behind enemy lines to help us in every way He can. Call out to Him. Trust Him. Wait for Him to work. He feels your pain and will do all He can.
The lyrics to an old song express it well: “Tears Are a Language God Understands,” sung here by the Heritage Singers. I listened to it many times years ago when my heart was breaking with loss. God seemed very close and the words reassured me that He understood and cared about what I was going through.
Tears Are a Language God Understands
Often you wonder why tears come into your eyes And burdens seem to be much more than you can bear But God is standing near, He sees your falling tears And tears are a language God understands.
God sees the tears of a brokenhearted soul He sees your tears and hears them when they fall God weeps along with man and He takes him by the hand Tears are a language God understands.
When grief has left you low it causes tears to flow When things have not turned out the way that you had planned But God won’t forget you His promises are true And tears are a language God understands.
God sees the tears of a brokenhearted soul He sees your tears and hears them when they fall God weeps along with man and He takes him by the hand Tears are a language that my God He understands.
God weeps along with man and He takes him by the hand Tears are a language God understands.
After Jesus taught about the “signs” and events leading to His Second Advent, He pivoted to talk about how we should live, knowing about these signs.
Jesus could have said, “Now focus on ‘sign watching.’ Dig deeper into this and think more and more about signs. As my coming gets closer, spend even more time on this. Listen to all the YouTube teaching and sermons you can about this, and read as many books on the topic too.”
Actually, Jesus didn’t say that. He pointed His true followers in a different direction. Only Jesus’ way gives hope and peace and a solid foundation for our lives as we wait for Jesus’ Advent.
Focus on Mission, not Signs
Jesus definitely wanted His followers to know about the signs and events, or He would not have taught about them. In Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21, and Revelation, He told them the way the world would be before His coming (like the days of Noah) and about great celestial and terrestrial signs that would precede it.
He said natural disasters would increase in intensity and occurrence, like labor contractions before a birth. In many places, He described how society would become worse and worse before He came back. In Revelation, He clearly described the broad paint strokes of Earth’s Final events. We should understand these things.
But why did Jesus teach this? He wanted us to know that God foresaw it all. It did not catch Him by surprise. He is an all-seeing, all-knowing God; so we can trust His care. He also wanted us to understand we are on the right road toward the kingdom, and to have an awareness of the signposts along the way–that we are nearing home.
But, that is not where Jesus ended His teaching about this. He spent the next 55 verses in Matthew 24 (vs. 36-51), more than a chapter, speaking about what to do while we wait for His return.That is, He devoted more time to talking about how to wait, than to teaching about signs.
Jesus’ emphasis was on staying spiritually alert and faithfully serving others like He did, filled with His love and Spirit. That is how to be ready.
First, he spoke about spiritual alertness
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
Matthew 24:42-44 NIV
What did Jesus mean when He said, “Keep Watch!”?
We might assume He was referring to all the signs He had just mentioned, and that He meant, “Keep watching the signs of the times. Focus on that so you don’t miss my coming.” We should be aware of the signs, but I don’t think that is what Jesus wanted us to watch.
In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus told His disciples, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41 NIV). I think Jesus’ warning to Watch in Matthew 24 is more related to that. He is saying, “Stay spiritually focused in your relationship with me. Keep ready and prepared for My coming.”
It is so easy to get distracted in this world. Many things compete for our time and attention. The nature of our relationship with God is that He must be at the center of our lives. Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30, 31).
We were created for a God-centered, neighbor-loving life. God is our Creator and Savior. He gives us life and helps us with everything. It is out of this center that all good grows. When Jesus’ followers or His churches lose this focus, they drift. So in Matthew 24, Jesus is alerting His Church they will need to stay awake and focused on loving Him and loving others as they wait for His Return.
Jesus’ call to God-centered living was not an invitation to live in perpetual spiritual solitude, but rather to take up the work Jesus’ did while He was on earth. To stay connected with Him, share the good news about His love and grace, and care for the needs of others in His name.
“God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and. . .he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”
Acts 10:38 NIV
The One Way to Stay Ready: Four Stories
Jesus illustrated this with four parables: a faithful servant, ten bridesmaids, loaned money, and a sheep and goat judgment. These stories describe four aspects of how Jesus wanted His Church to live in the centuries ahead, while they waited for His return. They show clearly how to be ready for His Second Coming.
1) A Faithful or Unfaithful Servant
“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.”
Matthew 24:45-47 NIV
The best way to stay spiritually alert and ready, Jesus says, is to faithfully do the work He has given us–to share the Bread of Life (Jesus and His teachings) with others. Whatever hope, forgiveness, truth, or love He has given, He asks us to pass them along.
We will not all work in the same way. God has given each person talents and abilities, ways to bless the world and show God’s goodness and love. Whatever vocation or role we have, our mission is to bless others and show God to them.
Continuing His story, Jesus gives a warning:
“But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of.”
Matthew 24:49-51 NIV
Here Jesus showed that His Second Coming would not take place for a long time. Many in Jesus’ day expected it to be soon; but Jesus said, “Prepare yourselves; it will be longer.”
When we lose sight of our goal and mission, it is easy to become self-centered and begin pursuing our own purposes or pleasure as the highest good. In Jesus’ story, some servants gave up their dream and started living completely for themselves. When we lose God, we run the danger we will not be ready with He comes. It is in unselfishly living for others that we stay ready for Jesus to come.
2) Ten Bridesmaids: Matthew 25:1-13
In the parable of the ten bridesmaids, a wedding takes place. The groom was delayed in arriving, and all ten women fell asleep. As they slept, their oil lamps burned out.
At “midnight,” the announcement was heard that the groom was arriving. The ladies all woke up and looked for oil to replenish their lamps. Only five had brought extra oil, the rest went shopping. While they were gone, the groom arrived and the wedding started. When the “five foolish” women finally arrived, the wedding was in progress and the door was locked. When they asked for entrance, it was refused.
Bible parables usually have one main point, but several symbols. The women represent the Church. They all have lamps (God’s word) and oil (the Holy Spirit) to begin with. Their long wait depicts the the apparent delay in Christ’s coming. Their sleepiness shows spiritual drowsiness and lethargy in the Church, especially close to Jesus’ Second Advent. The announcement of the groom’s coming symbolizes the Endtime message that Jesus is coming soon.
Crucial Point: Five of the women, though sleeping, had brought extra oil, five had not. This shows that some in the church will only have an intellectual knowledge of God and the Bible, not a life-changing experience. They know Bible teachings, but they have not surrendered their hearts to Christ (In the parable, He says He doesn’t know them). The ones with extra oil have a real relationship. They have accepted Jesus as a personal Savior, received the Holy Spirit as a personal guest and been changed by that experience. When Jesus comes, they are ready to meet Him.
3) Parable of Talents (Loaned Money) – Matthew 25:14-30
In this parable, Jesus shows that “watching” and being ready to meet Him when He comes involves putting the talents, abilities, and giftings we have received to work for Him in this life.
In this story, three servants are called in by their master. Today we would say an employer called a meeting with his managers. They are each given different amounts of capital to invest while he is away. Two double their money through wise decisions. One is fearful and buries his.
When the employer returns, he asks for a report. The first two managers are rewarded with eternal life, the last loses out.
This parable shows that our abilities and wealth are gifts from God which He has given us to put to work for Him in His world. The first two managers were grateful for the opportunity and put their money to work for the good of the company. The third man had a distorted view of his employer and was irresponsible.
God is good. He cares for us and blesses us in many ways. But living in the land of the enemy, where Satan claims to rule, we often misunderstand God’s character and see Him as harsh and unfair. Satan plasters his reputation on God.
Crucial Teaching: Being ready for Jesus’ coming means having an accurate knowledge of His loving and good character and using the gifts and blessings He has given us to make the world a better place. When we do, our abilities and opportunities grow because He blesses them as we put them to work for Him. Our relationship with Him grows too, as we partner with Him and get to see His love at work through our service.
This parable can also apply to whatever work or avocation we do. We might be a “domestic engineer,” as my wife calls it, caring for family and home. We might work outside at a profession or job. Whatever we do in the name of Christ, who has blessed us with ability, can be done for His kingdom.
4) Parable of the Sheep and Goats – Matthew 24:31-46
Don’t skip this story because of its barnyard setting. This is Jesus’ parable of the Final Judgment and shows who will make it and who won’t.
Shepherds in Jesus’ day often kept sheep and goats together, separating them for market or other purposes. Jesus took this common pastoral happening to graphically portray who will be ready to spend eternity with Him and who will not.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”
Matthew 25:31-33 NIV
My wife and I got takeout at a country restaurant the other day. The owners have some small livestock pens with sheep and chickens. I was reminded of years ago when my parents kept goats. Sheep and goats are quite different, and Jesus invested these creatures with human qualities.
To the people on the right, His sheep, Jesus will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:34-36 NIV).
To the people on his left, the goats, he says they did not care for Him. In both cases, the people ask, “When did we do (or not do) these things for you; and Jesus’ answer was that what they did or failed to do was really for Him, in the person of others. “I tell you the truth, whatever you did (or did not do) for one of the least of these people of mine, you did (or did not do) it for me (vs. 37-45).”
Critical Issue: In this simple, but dramatic parable, Jesus showed that God’s decision in the Final Judgment will be based one one point–what people have done or neglected to do for Him in the person of the poor and the suffering. If our hearts have been touched by God’s love and mercy, we will give it in turn to others, especially the needy.
Being Ready: The Whole Picture
After describing what the intervening centuries would be like while His followers waited for His Second Coming; after describing the kind of events that would take place in the intervening years and some signs along the way, Jesus taught how they could be ready for that event whenever it came. Here is a composite summary:
In the Parable of the Faithful Servant Jesus says we have been called to faithfully share the Bread of Life, the good news of salvation with others. If we do that and resist the temptation to live selfishly, we will be ready. We don’t have to be a preacher or teacher to do this. If we just tell what Jesus has done for us personally and what we have learned, as we have opportunity, He will consider us a faithful servant.
In the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, Jesus shows that having a real relationship with God through Jesus will make the difference. When we accept Jesus as a personal Savior for our sin, the Holy Spirit comes to live in our hearts, and prepares us for Jesus’ coming, even if we grow a little sleepy.
In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus clearly teaches that our view of God determines how we use the gifts and talents He’s given us. If we understand His love and grace, we will put our abilities to work for Him and for the good of others. This will help us be ready for His Coming.
The Parable of the Sheep and Goats makes clear that those who have received God’s mercy and blessings and, in gratitude, shared them with the poor and suffering, visiting the sick, caring for the poor and those in prison, we will be accepted in the Final Judgment.
If we follow Jesus in the ways pictured here, we will be ready for His Coming whenever it happens. I think that was Jesus’ main point. (1)
The Devil’s Tricks
When I was in college, an outside religion teacher known for focusing on Last Day Events, had compiled a very detailed chart showing all the things leading up to Jesus’ coming, which, he was convinced, was very soon.
A group of my friends were deeply involved studying this chart and trying to “get ready” for Jesus’ coming. Some even left college and moved to New York, convinced they had to help that City get ready. There was a lot of fear and self-preoccupation.
That was about fifty years ago. The group who went to New York finally came back and finished college. The man who made the charts later confessed he was wrong in his focus–legalistic, perfectionistic, and fear-based–as if his good behavior could save him. He came to understand the good news and spent the rest of his life sharing that salvation and Christian growth are gifts received by faith and a personal relationship with Jesus.
In Matthew 24, Jesus warned about setting times for His coming and about false prophets and Messiahs who would entrap people to create a following for themselves (Matthew 24:24, 36).
Eschatological Caffeine. Some people relate to the topic of signs and Last Day events like a person hooked on caffeine. Every time some serious world event happens like the COVID-19 Pandemic, they feel a shot of spiritual caffeine. They start reading their Bibles and praying and getting ready, out of fear, for Jesus’ coming.
Some preachers and teachers play into this addiction (the news media aren’t the only ones who do it). They get out their charts and preach doom and gloom, motivating people through fear. With all this “crying wolf” people often turn off all conversation about such things and become desensitized to any good teaching on the subject.
Jesus taught that is is knowing God’s gracious, loving character and beginning a daily walk with Him is what creates a sustainable relationship that will prepare us for His Coming.
Aware of signs and focused on mission. Jesus wanted us to be aware of the signs and the times as He described them in Matthew 24, but not focused on that as if knowing it will save us. He wants us to understand Bible prophecy but be committed to God and His mission in this world, as depicted in the four parables Jesus told.
An Issue of the Heart
If we have allowed God’s mercy and love to speak to our hearts and change us, the way we live, the way we use our resources, and how we care for others will prepare us to spend eternity with Him. That is ultimately the key. That’s why Jesus says:
“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”
Revelation 3:20 NIV
Will you open the door of your heart and receive Him as your Savior, letting Him do the work in you He wants to do. That is the key the unlocks the door into a beautiful life.
Many people have been asking if the Carona Virus Pandemic is a sign of Earth’s Last Days. They are asking not just because it is a serious illness, but because of the global impact of COVID-19, closing everything down, disrupting economies, troubling international relations. Something this impactful must be a sign, they feel.
I started writing on this topic by showing what Jesus said about pandemics in his teaching about the Last Days (In Matthew 24, He calls them pestilences, another word for pandemics or plagues). You can go to what I said about that in Part 1 and Part 2.
Then I moved to the book of Revelation. Why? The Bible’s last book speaks apocalyptically about Earth’s final events. Not just that, of course; it covers the stream of time from Jesus First Advent to the Second Coming of Christ.
Jesus Himself shows up in a vision to John, one of Jesus’ early disciples. It is now sixty years since Jesus died, rose, and ascended to heaven. The Christian Church is under serious persecution, and Jesus returns to reassure His followers of His care and concern and to lay out the future in broad strokes. It was comforting and enlightening to Christians then, and has been down through the centuries.
Revelation’s First and Last Sections
In the first half of Revelation Jesus lays out what the Church will experience in the years between John’s ministry and His return. In cycles of seven (seven letters to churches, seven seals, and seven trumpets), Jesus loops through history three times to show different angles of the same story – what His Church will face ahead. I covered that here.
The last half of Revelation is a dramatic exposé of Earth’s final events; not in the detail we might wish for, but in enough broad strokes to know the outline and major events that will come, what they mean, and how to relate to them when they arrive. It was given so we can take our stand on the right side of spiritual issues that come and have God’s strength to keep us faithful.
Purpose of this Blog
My purpose in this blog, Part 5, is to give a short overview of what Jesus told John would happen in the final period of Earth’s End-time. I will not go into great depth. The details have filled many books. My purpose here is to give you an orientation to chapters 12-22 and to spotlight a few things that show where we are in the stream of time. Jesus’ coming is certainly nearer than ever before.
A Master of Divinity student I am mentoring told me the other day that some people ask, “Why study the book of Revelation? After all, we should spend our time helping people get to know God and doing good like Jesus did, not conjecturing about the future. Besides, focusing on the Last Days just creates a lot of fear, not hope and peace.”
Those are fair questions. Remember, Jesus Himself gave us the messages and information in this book. He considered The Revelation very important for at least these three reasons:
1) To Strengthen Our Faith. Jesus knew the years ahead would be a very difficult time for believers to live in. Faith would have a hard time surviving. So He gave us information and evidence that would strengthen our faith when we saw events coming to pass. Jesus told His disciples, “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am” (John 13:19). Our relationship with Jesus should not depend on “signs,” but on knowing His character and trusting His grace and promises, but signposts are a “help” he has given as part of our trust relationship with Him.
2) Courtesy Signs. “Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door” (Matthew 24:33). When friends or loved ones used to come for a visit (before The Quarantine), as a courtesy, they would call or text a few minutes away to let us know they would arrive soon. That way we could do our last tidying up, finish food prep, and be ready to meet them. Jesus loves us and has given “courtesy signs” to let us know what will happen and when He’ll be arriving soon so we can be alert. As He said about this in Luke, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28 NIV). How thoughtful of Jesus!
3) Intense Times Require Preparation. I met a young man in Russia many years ago, shortly after the Iron Curtain fell. He told me that several years earlier, he expected to be arrested for his faith, so he spent time getting prepared spiritually so his faith would not fail in prison. He spent time reading His Bible, committing texts to memory, praying, surrendering His life to God daily. Fortunately, he was never arrested. Jesus gives us “signs” to remind us along the way we need to stay ready. Before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus warned His disciples, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Jesus has laid out final events in Revelation to encourage us to “Watch and pray. . . .”
Introduction to Earth’s Climax – Revelation 11:19
Revelation 11:19 introduces the Last Days. It describes the Inner Sanctum of God’s temple in heaven being opened. John sees the “ark of his covenant,” containing the Ten Commandments and covered by the “mercy seat.” Lightning flashes, thunder rolls, the earth quakes, and more. Something awesome is about to happen.
The Hebrew sanctuary or worship center illustrated God’s way of saving us and also a timeline for God’s salvation plan. Jesus’ death, His ascension to be our Mediator, the Judgment, and the Second Coming were all pictured.
This scene in chapter 11:19 initiates the Last Days, the Day of Atonement, the heavenly Yom Kippur. While this takes place in Heaven, Satan will ravage the earth like a wounded animal, knowing his days are numbered.
“Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.”
Revelation 12:12 NIV
Revelation 12 – 13:1-10: Cosmic Conflict
In Revelation 12 and 13:1-10, Jesus describes the Final Scenes in the long spiritual conflict between God and Satan. He does this by picturing the history of the Christian Church from the perspective of this cosmic conflict.
Revelation 12, like other parts of Revelation, contains several scenes. It begins with the birth of Christ. He is is born through the “woman,” God’s covenant people in the Old and New Testaments (Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Salvation is from the Jews.” John 4:22). Her tiara of twelve stars represents the twelve tribes of Israel. Her standing on the moon while clothed with the sun is a picture of the old covenant (moon) with its symbols giving way to the realities of the New Covenant (sun) and “Jesus, the True Light who gives light to everyone.” John 1:9; 2 Corinthians 3:7-18).
But then, an enormous red dragon swoops in, landing in front of the woman to devour her child as soon as it is born. This dragon is Satan (verse 9), but he is works diabolically through a human government to try to kill Jesus before He accomplishes His mission to save us (Satan acted through King Herod. See Matthew 2:13-18).
Christ is eventually snatched up to God’s throne (after His life, death, and resurrection; verse 5), so Satan now turns his wrath on Jesus’ followers, the Church. She flees into the wilderness, trying to escape persecution by Satan through Rome and its successors. Revelation often skips over details as it describes a larger narrative.
Why all this suffering? After these scenes, Jesus pulls the curtain back to show why the Church will suffer so much down through history (of course other persecuted minorities have suffered too). Revelation 12:7-12 shows is because Satan is carrying on a long war with God. His hatred for Jesus and the Father lead him to harass and kill their followers. He diabolically delights in suffering and death and brings suffering on the whole world.
This rebellion began in heaven where Satan gradually changed from the Angel Leader, Lucifer (Light Bearer) to Satan (the accuser) through pride and coveting God’s throne. Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 tell the story, veiled in prophecies about human kings. Through brilliant propaganda and cunning lies, Satan persuaded one third of the angels to join his side (Revelation 12:4).
Revelation 12:7-17 describes this revolution in heaven, Satan’s and His angel followers’ eventual expulsion, and their long war on Jesus’ Church through the centuries. Most importantly, Jesus tells how His followers can be victorious in this war:
“They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”
Revelation 12:11 NIV
The woman (Jesus’ true followers) will be the “Church in the Wilderness” always persecuted, through the Dark Ages (verses 14-16).
The transitional verse which opens the curtain on the final conflict described in Revelation 13 and 14 is very significant.
“Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.”
Revelation 12:17 NIV
In the Time of the End, the period of the heavenly Yom Kippur, Jesus is finishing His work of intercession and Judgment in heaven. Satan knows that his time is short. So he turns his fury on the Woman’s (the Church) final descendants. Chapters 13 and 14 will describe how he does this through earthly powers.
The Last Act: Cast of Characters
Previously, I said that Jesus gave the Revelation so His people, the Church, would understand the scope of what they would face from John’s day to the Second Advent. But now, Jesus focuses in on the last period of time in this cosmic spiritual struggle.
In Revelation 13, he identifies two kingdoms or nations that will especially persecute God’s people. They are pictured as “beasts.” This was an ancient way of identifying kingdoms. We do this today as well. School sports teams have their mascots, often an animal.
The First Beast of Revelation 13
At the close of Revelation 12, the dragon (Satan) stands on the shore of the sea in John’s vision. The sea represents the nations and people of earth. As he stands there, a beast emerges from the sea.
It becomes clear as we read Revelation 13:1-10, that Jesus is describing the ruling power that has been persecuting the woman in chapter 12. The dragon is going to work through this beast to persecute some of Jesus’ followers.
This first persecuting beast is actually a composite of the kingdoms in Daniel 7, Revelation’s companion book in the Old Testament: a lion (Babylon), bear (Medo-Persia), leopard (ancient Greece, and dragon (Rome). Animals in apocalyptic literature represent kingdoms; see Daniel 7:17.
This combination animal gathers the kings and nations of Europe and Western Asia into his reign. As the kingdoms of ancient Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome all persecuted God’s people, this beast does the same in the Christian era, from the time of Christ through the middle ages, to the End of Time.
Notice that he has a throne and great authority. So, he reigns as a monarch. He is wounded, but survives, and the whole world follows him (vs. 3, 8). He persecutes some of God’s followers for the same period of time (forty-two months) as mentioned in Revelation 12:6.
Second Beast of Revelation 13
As John watches amazed, he sees another animal emerge, this time from the earth. This beast looks lamb-like. A lamb is a symbol of Jesus in both Old and New Testament, so this is a nation with Christian roots. However outwardly Christian it is, it sometimes speaks with the voice of a dragon and becomes more and more dragon-like. This nation comes after the first beast in history because he leads the world to reverence and worship the first beast kingdom.
By working miracles, the second kingdom gains world-wide allegiance and leads all nations to set up an image of the first beast. He gives this image life so it can speak with authority and cause all who refuse to worship the first beast to be killed. So there is a collaboration between the first beast, which continues to exist, and the second beast. As John watches these two beasts in their dragon-like work, his attention is suddenly riveted by something happening in the sky.
Three Angels of Revelation 14
As chapter 14 begins, John sees Jesus’ faithful followers at the end. They are the “sealed” people of Revelation 7. They have a pure faith, follow Jesus faithfully, and have God’s character in their minds. While he is watching them, three angels fly through the air loudly announcing a three part message to the whole world.
Their message comes directly from God as a response to the activity of the two beasts as they fight for world-wide attention and allegiance. The angels’ proclamation is a universal warning not to worship the beast or receive the “mark,” or sign of his authority, on their forehead or hand.
What Does All This Mean?
There isn’t time to go into every detail, but here are some important things to notice:
It’s Who You Worship. The beasts are doing everything they can to gain world-wide worship and authority. Satan, who has wanted worship from the beginning of his apostasy (Isaiah 14:13, 14; Ezekiel 28:17) , works through them to get the worship he wants. Paul predicted this would happen in 2 Thessalonians 2. The Three Angels remind everyone that only God is worthy of worship because He is the Creator, Savior, and Judge of all.
It’s Who You Obey. The Last Day cosmic struggle will be about who to obey. The beasts and their image will try to force obedience and worship on pain of death. At the same time, Jesus invites all to obey and follow Him because He is the true God. Two key statements are made which show this.
“Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.”
“This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.”
Revelation 12:17; 14:12 NIV
Jesus’ Last Day followers will obey all of God’s Ten Commandments (James 2:10-11) and hold on to their testimony about Jesus, that He is their Savior and Lord. They don’t just believe, they obey. They are grateful for saving grace, and through Jesus’ help they keep God’s commands. That’s why Satan hates them and is trying to get rid of them. They are the opposite of what he has become. They are faithful and, through grace, are becoming more and more like Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Final Call. This is earth’s spiritual Endtime crisis, Jesus’ final invitation to accept and follow Him. How do we know? Immediately after the Three Angels give their message, Jesus comes. His Coming is described as the earth’s harvest. The Seven Last Plagues take place, the judgment on the beasts and their followers (also called “Babylon”) occurs, and Jesus comes.
Who is Babylon? Babylon plays a prominent role in Revelation 14-18. Who is this Babylon? Ancient Babylon was originally made up of God’s followers, the family of Noah who were faithful to God and survived the Flood.
After the Great Flood, some of Noah’s family lost their faith, gave into doubt, turned against God, and established a religious philosophy of salvation through personal effort, instead of trusting God completely (Genesis 11). This group of Noah’s descendants became the ancestors of ancient Babylon, which in turn became a major antagonist to God’s people, Israel, in the Old Testament.
In Revelation Jesus draws on Old Testament names and places to symbolize what will take place in the Last Days. People that historically followed God, but turned away, will become the persecutors of those who humbly trust and obey Jesus’ teachings.
Miracles and Authority. In Revelation, Jesus warns us not to base our faith on the teachings of people or miracles, but on Jesus and His word. While genuine miracles will take place, Revelation warns strongly against false miracles. This is in line with Jesus’ earlier teaching:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Matthew 7:21-23 NIV
Conclusion: What’s It All About?
Revelation begins with Jesus. Chapter 1 is dedicated “to Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood,” and who “is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him. . .” (Revelation 1:5-7).
Jesus appears to John in symbols, showing that He has kept His promise to be with His Church “until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Revelation shows that our crucified, resurrected, and living Savior has led the Church through the centuries since His First Advent, and will lead us through the Last Days before He returns at the Second Coming.
We can trust this and love Him even more for His faithfulness.
So, is COVID-19 a sign of the End? Not by itself, though something like this could certainly help trigger the things described by Revelation. When we examine what Jesus taught about the Last Days, we see a coming together of many influences and events. It is world-wide in scope. Like a painting is made up of hundreds brush strokes, the Last Days will involve many things.
In times of crisis, people sometimes turn to God out of fear. Nationalism and majoritarian religion can create a climate of xenophobia and racism, which leads to persecution of minorities. In a crisis, leaders sometimes over reach in power. Constitutional liberties are overlooked in the interest of personal and national security.
Revelation predicts a time when this will happen on a world-wide scale.
Signs Visible Now – Questions to Ask
Looking over Revelation 13-19, what do we see now that might show Jesus’ Coming is very close?
Nations with World-wide Authority and Power. Ask yourself, what nations have the influence and power described in Revelation 13? What kingdoms and powers are collaborating to force obedience to non-scriptural laws. This may still be in the future, but it is important to be alert.
Miracle Movements. What movements focus heavily on the miraculous, and how broad is their influence? Do they accurately teach the Bible? When miracles are used to justify false teaching, as often happened in Old and New Testaments, those leaders and miracles are not from God.
Power and Force. What tendencies do you see to grab power and ignore the principle of freedom of religion and conscience? What movements exist to undermine human rights in major countries. In our nation, we must protect the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.
Economic Problems. Revelation 18:17 and James 5:1-6 predict a time when wealth will disappear through economic trouble or collapse. What trends in our world indicate this could happen?
Battle over God’s Law and Jesus’ Gospel. Revelation 12:17 and 14:12 say clearly that the final spiritual issue will be whether people hold to their faith in Jesus and keep God’s Ten Commandments. We are saved by grace to live a life of holiness and obedience as Romans shows. In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus said He did not come to abolish the Ten Commandments. In other words, grace does not void out God’s Law. What efforts and movements do you see growing who distort these truths?
So, what should we do?
This is such an important question. When Jesus gave His teachings about Church history and the Last Days in the Gospels, He concluded by showing how we should live while we wait for His Second Coming.
Interestingly, He did not teach that we should focus all our attention on signs and events, but on living His life and serving others in His name. While we should be aware of all Jesus taught about signs and events, it is the mission He gave us that we should concentrate mostly on. I will conclude this series on COVID-19 and the Last Days by looking at what Jesus taught about this in Matthew 24:36-51 and 25.
“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
Hebrews 4:16 NIV
In the Bible and in Christian teaching, God’s grace is defined as His mercy, kindness, and favor toward we who are undeserving. We usually think of grace in relationship to sin–disobedience of God’s will and human failing in general. God extends His grace to us when we realize our shortcomings and ask His forgiveness.
In the middle of the COVID-19 Pandemic and all its fallout, we are all struggling in many ways. Couples and families cooped up in Quarantine. Employers struggling to understand government requirements and getting needed supplies. Employees asked to do additional work, or let go indefinitely. Children being educated on Zoom or video chat, frustrated by the new ways. And so much more.
Personal and societal stress results in much need of God’s forgiving grace. In this short blog, I want to describe the two kinds of grace God offers us and how they can help us.
Two Kinds of Grace
1) Justifying, Saving Grace
God’s first gift of grace is amazing, almost unbelievable; but it is the foundation of every other dispensing of grace He gives us. It is the grace that saves us.
God offers me this grace when I realize how broken I am as a human being and how sinful attitudes, thoughts, words, and actions keep bubbling out of me, no matter how hard I try. When I realize there might be help from God and turn to Him, admitting my need for His forgiveness and help, He forgives me, justifies me, and changes my heart. Paul describes this in his letter to Titus.
“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
Titus 3:3-7 NIV
What allows God to do this for us is this: Jesus came in human form, lived our life without sin and died for our sins on the cross. In His life, he did what we had failed to do. By depending deeply on God (it was a daily battle fought by prayer and self-surrender), He resisted every from of temptation and lived a sinless life. Then on the cross, He willingly accepted the guilt and punishment of every human being (1 John 2:2; 1 Peter 2:24; Isaiah 53:5-10). Our sins broke His heart and crushed out His life.
When I understand this, and put my trust in Jesus to help me, He does several things.
He forgives all my past sins because Jesus liquidated my moral debt on the cross. He justifies me, a legal action, which means He pardons me and erases my guilt because Christ took it on the cross. At the same time, He credits Jesus’ perfect life to me, covering my past life with His perfect life, so I stand before Him faultless.
He also changes my heart in a supernatural “new birth” experience, so now, from my heart, I desire to love and follow Him and His path instead of my former selfish ways. Now, I am a child of God by spiritual rebirth, and He sends His Spirit to live in me to help me live a new and different life. The Spirit helps me become more and more like Him and grows the fruit of true goodness and holiness in me, more and more, as I learn how to walk with God.
Many people look at Christians and think they are living through self-effort, that they have accepted certain behaviors and practices and do this hard work to earn God’s favor. Probably many do. But real Christianity is a supernatural experience. God changes our hearts, and we live differently because He loves us and lives in us.
We have peace because we have been forgiven and justified. We have been accepted by God and are His loved children. We are pictured as “standing in grace,” in God’s favor and mercy, no longer under guilt and condemnation.
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.
Romans 5:1-2 NIV
How would you like to have God take all your failures and forgive them? How would you like Him to take your life history with all the dark places, and cover it all with Jesus’ perfect life? How would you like Him to change you from the inside out. If you will admit your need and confess you sins to Him, surrendering your heart and life to Him, He will. The Bible describes this as being covered with a white robe of righteousness, Jesus’ life.
2) Helping, Growing Grace
God not only justifies us and takes us into His family, but He gives us daily grace to help us live a different, new life.
This grace is a different expression of God’s kindness than justifying grace, but it comes from the same place–God’s kind mercy. It is also based on Jesus’ death for us. But the first kind of grace is forgiveness, the second is God’s help to lives a different life. The second is based on the first.
This is the grace we need for patience with our spouse and children. We can ask for this grace when we have not been treated fairly. This grace is needed when we face inward brokenness and sin of any kind. God gives us this grace to grow and become more like we were intended to be.
Because we have been forgiven, justified (#1 above), God can now help us whenever we ask. We can request for this grace whenever we need it as our opening scripture said, Hebrews 4:16.
“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
Romans 8:32 NIV
This second gift of grace is known by different terms: inward grace, assisting grace, strengthening grace, sustaining grace, sanctifying grace, grace to help us in our times of need, grace that matures us, grace for obedience. This shows that God has grace for us for every situation in life. All we need to do is humbly ask in faith, depending on God for His help. His grace is sufficient for every need.
Here are a few scriptures that describe this helping grace God is so willing to give us:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9
“It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace.” Hebrews 13:9
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” Philemon 1:25
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. . .” 1 Corinthians 15:10
“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Hebrews 4:16
One sad effect of the COVID-19 Pandemic and Quarantine is the loneliness so many are feeling. Many kinds of loneliness.
Probably the worst kind is the loneliness thousands of sick people are feeling as they are quarantined in hospitals or nursing homes, unable to received the love and support of family and friends. The the Pandemic first began, our pastors went to visit our members in their retirement homes, but for safety, visitation from outside people had been curtailed. Loneliness.
We have seen the pictures of elderly spouses waving to their loved ones through hospital windows, unable to speak to them and give the gift of loving touch. We are grateful for healthcare workers who are doing their best in such circumstances, but being very ill and dying without family around you must be so very hard.
And there are other kinds of loneliness. Not being able to gather as families. Grandparents who can’t be with their grandchildren. Being suddenly isolated from our social and work networks, the people we love to be around. Missing up-close, personal human interaction. Social media, Skype, and Zoom, help; but they are not the same.
Sometimes we are lonely even with others, if we feel unloved or unappreciated. That is a difficult kind of loneliness. The Quarantine may bring out the brokenness in our close relationships.
Then, someone pointed out the other day how dehumanizing it is to relate to people through masks. We communicate so much below the level of our eyes–affirming smiles, expressions of agreement, acknowledgment, and more. Wearing masks is important, but we lose so much of human warmth in doing so.
In the middle of all this, God can help us with our loneliness. That is what I want to share with you today.
“Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.”
Psalm 25:16 NIV
King David wrote this at a time when he was facing attacks by political enemies and people who wanted to do him harm. He felt alone. Who could he trust? Who could he turn to in such circumstances? Only to God.
The truth is, God promises to be with us in our troubles, our isolation, our loneliness. Whatever circumstances are causing us to feel alone, He is there for us.
When Jesus was preparing to go back to heaven after His resurrection, he acknowledged that His followers would feel alone; so He made a wonderful promise we can take to heart now.
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. . .Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
John 14:18, 23 NIV
This promise was not just for those disciples. It applies to everyone who accepts it. God offers to make His home in us.
This is not a replacement for human love and presence, but it is a deep help with the problem of loneliness. Having a God who loves us so much, a Jesus who lived, died, rose, and always lives for us be willing to be with us at all times an in all circumstances is a wonderful blessing.
Jesus experienced His Father’s presence with him in this way. He said, “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me” (John 16:32).
Friend, if you accept Jesus as you Friend and Savior, and God as your Father, you can have the comfort of their presence with you all the time. You don’t need to ever be lonely in the sense of being completely alone.
Since I accepted Jesus, I want to tell you I have never been lonely, because He has always been with me. Yes, I have missed family when I couldn’t be with them. In some situations, there was a sense of being alone. But I have never felt truly alone because God has been with me. This is a gift He offers to everyone.
What about those who are dying alone? This is so tragic. My heart goes out to families who long to be with their loved one and cannot, and the sick person who so much would like to have their family with them.
I believe that in ways known only to God, He has been there for them. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted. . .” “the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down” (Psalm 34:18; 146:8).
When my wife’s late husband died of cancer, they were alone at home together. My wife had prayed that her trust in God would not fail when the moment came.
After her husband took his last breath, and she realized he had died, she prayed, thanking God for His help and faithfulness during their difficult journey. She thanked God she still trusted Him. Suddenly she felt a physical touch like someone pressing on her back, hugging her. She knew instantly that God was truly with her and would be with her always. This reminds me of Jesus’ promise when He left:
“Surely I will be with you always, to the very endof the age.”
You can take hold of these promises from Jesus that I have shared today. We may not feel we deserve this, but He loves us more than we can imagine. In His eyes, we were worth enough to give His life for. He wants to be with us, to be a Friend and Companion. You can invite Him if you choose.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has presented many challenges at all levels of society. Government, business, healthcare, education, and finance have had to make huge adjustments in how to operate, often on a daily basis.
Teachers have had to re-tool how they educate. Hospital administrators have had to completely re-configure their hospitals. Businesses have had to build protection barriers and establish distancing requirements and customer flow. And the list goes on and on.
To complicate things, conflicting mandates come from different levels of government making decisions difficult. Resources are scarce. Income is drying up. Employees are being furloughed, or let go. This affects all of us, on a very personal level. Parents who work and home school. Healthcare givers who have to quarantine from family, and more.
In the middle of all this, God offers to give wisdom for all the situations and decisions we face. He makes this promise in James 1:5. It is a promise you can “take to the bank.” You can rely on it because a caring and grace-filled God stands behind it.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”
James 1:5 NIV
Without finding fault. I appreciate so much that this says, “God gives generously to all without finding fault.“
This promise comes to us from a gracious God. A God who is full of sympathy and grace. (Biblically, grace is an act of favor or kindness toward someone who may not deserve it. But it is given because the heart of the Giver is full of compassion and understanding.) James is saying that God gives wisdom in that spirit when we ask.
We have a lot of faults, right? We have probably made a lot of mistakes. In the pressure of this situation, we might have lost our temper (more than once), hurt those under our leadership, failed in many possible ways. But God is saying here that He doesn’t scold us for past failures, when we come sincerely, with our needs. He doesn’t hold back because we have ignored Him. He gives it without finding fault. Because He is a God of inexplicable love and grace. That is the way He is.
He also “gives it generously.” He is a large-hearted God who pours out his blessings on everyone. According to Jesus, “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45 NIV). How do you see God? As judging, condemning, or selective in who He helps. He invites us to know Him as loving, gracious, and generous.
A Promise for Troubled Times
This promise of generous help is given in the context of trouble, which is what we are certainly dealing with now. Here is what James says before verse 5.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
James 1:2-4 NIV
We are facing trials of many kinds now. God’s promise of wisdom is for such times. He invites us to ask for it when we are faced with tough or complicated decisions. Decisions that affect our business, our employees, our families. Corporate decisions and personal ones.
James also reminds us of a benefit that comes to us in our trials. The testing of our faith in trouble develops perseverance which leads to spiritual maturity.
This perseverance is not human grit, but rather the perseverance of faith. Faith stretching out to grab hold of God’s help and wisdom in times of trouble. Faith growing stronger as we claim His promises and experience His faithfulness in giving us the help we need.
Yesterday, I was digging around a young citrus tree in my back yard. It hasn’t fared so well in the high winds of our area, losing most of its leaves. Most of Spring, it has looked dead. But as I dug, I found a long, thin root that had stretched out looking for moisture. New leaves are sprouting now, and it will be fine.
James is describing this kind of perseverance and faith that, weak as it is sometimes, stretches out to ask God’s help, perhaps find more of God Himself. Confessing one’s lack of faith and need of wisdom, and asking God for His faithfulness, is what he means.
That Kind of Help
So, when James invites us to ask God for wisdom, He will give us that kind of help. He will give it generously, with grace, without finding fault. We will experience His love and help in practical ways as we see our prayers answered. And our faith will grow as we persevere.
On One Condition
When we ask God for help, we must come in faith, trusting He is able to help us, and believing that He will give us the answers we need when it is best. James says it this way:
“But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”
James 1:6, 7 NIV
Is God switching from kind to demanding? From generous to stingy? No, faith is the condition which allows God to help us.
In the beginning, humanity turned from God by through doubting His word and distrusting His heart. This led to disobedience of a clear command. And this allowed Satan to claim us and this world as his. We chose his way.
Trusting God allows Him to do what He could otherwise not do.
A man came to Jesus asking for help. His son was possessed by a demon who had often thrown him into the fire or water to kill him. The family was tormented by the constant suspense and danger. The father said to Jesus, “if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“’If you can?’ said Jesus. ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’
“Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief’!”
Mark 9:22-24 NIV
Immediately, Jesus commanded the evil spirit to come out of the boy, and he was freed.
Jesus invited people to put their trust in Him; to have faith, to believe. And when they did, He was able to help them. But as Jane pointed out in a comment below (and I agree), the point of this story is that God knows we often have weak faith, or no faith at all. But when we admit our need, God can help us. Admitting our need is the key that allows Him to work. There have been so many times in life when I came to God weak, in need of faith, asking for help and wisdom; and He was always there to help me.
So you see, James is right. Faith is a condition of receiving God’s help. Even struggling, weak faith. Not that God is trying to withhold His blessings. It is a ground rule for His action in the face of the cosmic war going on now.
Now that you understand, whatever role and responsibilities you have in your life, I pray you will take God up on His offer and experience His kindness and help. The answer to your prayer may not come immediately. But it will come when you need it most. God somethings allows our faith to stretch and grow stronger as we wait. It is a growth process, and it clarifies our motives and purifies our desires. So pray and trust. God is faithful.
The last few years of my pastoral career were extremely busy. I learned more than ever before in my life to depend on God for wisdom. Projects, counseling, sermons, leadership–things came at a fast pace. I learned to lean on God constantly. I was praying many times a day for wisdom, sometimes just breathing a prayer as I worked. God’s promise in Isaiah became a reality: “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).
This can happen for us because God loves us so much. He really cares and wants to walk beside us as we do life. He proved this by sending Jesus to walk with us. And when Jesus left to go back to heaven, He said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. My Father and I will make our home with you” (John 14:18, 23 NIV).
So, if you need wisdom, guidance, or support, ask. He loves to help.
Years ago I attended a large pastor’s conference. One speaker was the well known counselor and author, John Townsend. His topic very much spoke to where I was in life at the time, and I wanted to have more conversation with him.
I found him later on campus, and as we talked about his presentation, he asked, out of the blue it seemed to me, if I was depressed. His question caught me off guard. But after reflecting a moment, I said, “No, I don’t think so.” He replied kindly, “You might want to give it some thought.”
Who me? Depressed? I was a pastor with answers for others. I was a source of wisdom and help to many under my care. I was a healer. I didn’t need to be healed.
But his question stuck with me, and I thought about my life. A pastor in a challenging position in a large church with an attached school. ministering to youth, college students, and young adults. Three young children. Married and each of us working long hours in leadership. Who me; depressed? In retrospect, I think I was.
Discouragement and depression develop in situations that are overwhelming, where we are taxed beyond what our conscious coping mechanisms can handle. When life challenges are unrelenting, with no solution in sight, hope begins to fade and discouragement and depression sneak up, settling like a fog on our mind.
In this time of the COVID-19 Quarantine, with all its personal and national fallout, discouragement and depression are real for many.
King David struggled with depression and wrote about it several times in the Psalms. As monarch of Israel, he often faced overwhelming challenges–administrative, political, and military. He also grappled with his personal failings.
In Psalm 40, he describes some of what he faced:
“For troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me. . .May all who seek to take my life be put to shame and confusion; may all who desire my ruin be turned back in disgrace. May those who say to me, ‘Aha! Aha!’ be appalled at their own shame.”
Psalm 40:12, 14, 15
So, how did David cope? I believe his psalms hold solutions for us. In Psalm 42 he writes:
Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
I once heard the pastor of a very large church describe his struggle with depression. He had a young family, a child with mental health challenges, and a large, growing congregation with multiple staff. He slipped into depression and couldn’t find a way out.
One day, the idea came to him to write down encouraging things from Scripture and memorize them. He wrote these out on cards and read through them each morning and evening. Promises of God’s care. Passages about His goodness and love.
He shared with us that after three weeks, his depression lifted and joy returned.
What was it that helped him? Reading his cards shifted his focus from His problems to God’s goodness and promises of help. His faith strengthened. No doubt, God was at work in him too.
King David had learned that when he felt down, He could remember God’s goodness and guidance in the past. He could recall stories of His care, His promises to assist. And this became like a strong hand that lifted him out of quicksand and set his feet on solid ground again.
There are times when when we may need to see a counselor, or take medication for a while. Some depression has a physiologic or brain chemistry source. But God is a personal, caring God. His word is full of more than 3,000 promises which describe how He is willing to help us in a variety of life situations. This may, indeed, be the best medicine. While it may be hard to see a counselor or doctor during the quarantine, this remedy is as near as your Bible and your sincere prayer for help.
In Psalm 40, David describes how this prescription helped him with his discouragement and depression. “Waiting” for David meant trusting God, putting his hope in God’s character and promises while He waited for God to help.
I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.
This morning, a lady reported to our online prayer group, that she had received the dreaded letter. The hospital she works for had furloughed her. Another woman told how a friend, a sole provider with children in college, has also been furloughed. Of course, this is happening to thousands, probably millions, of people across our country and around the world.
I want to encourage you with a story from the first book of the Bible. Hagar, an Egyptian servant to Sarah, Abraham’s wife, has been mistreated by her mistress. It’s a complicated story, which you can read in Genesis 16; but we pick it up where Hagar has had enough abuse and has run away.
She’s out in the desert, alone, wondering how she is going to survive. Support gone. Resources dried up. Fearful for the future. Tears in her eyes.
That’s where an angel from Heaven finds her and gives her some guidance and a very encouraging message.
What is interesting is that Hagar probably didn’t follow Abraham’s God. Being from Egypt, she likely had her own national gods. Also, if you read the story, she had not been behaving especially well. But God didn’t hesitate. Because He has a heart for those in need. For the weak, the oppressed, the fired or furloughed.
When the angel finished, Hagar did and said something which speaks to my heart. I hope it will encourage you.
“She (Hagar) gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.”That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi (well of the Living One who seese me); it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.
“You are the God who sees me.” I didn’t know you, but You knew what I was going through. You saw me here beside the spring. In my home. On my knees. Collapsed on the couch. At a bar. Far from town. Tears in my eyes and fear in my heart.
If you are reading this, I want you to know that God sees what you are going through. He knows your circumstances and your need. If you cry out to Him, He will hear your prayer and help you in ways only a powerful, loving God knows how to do.
There are many promises He makes about this in the Bible, the record of His interactions with us humans. I want to share a few to encourage you. You can take them to Him and ask Him for help, because He is faithful. He is loving. And He sees.
“He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea.” Psalm 102:17
“The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys.” Isaiah 41:17-18
“The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him.” 2 Chronicles 16:9
“Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits enthroned on high,who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes, with the princes of his people.” Psalm 113:5-8
“I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.” Psalm 140:12
“I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.” Psalm 37:25
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10.
“Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” Psalm 62:8
So, friend; tell God your problems. Pour out your heart to Him. He will listen, and in His own time and way, He will act.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
John 16:33; 14:27 NIV
Can we have peace in the middle of our troubles? Can our minds and hearts be at peace in the center of a storm, whatever kind of storm it is? Peace in stress? Peace in problems? Peace amid fear and worry?
I believe the answer is Yes. Because someone named Jesus can give us that peace. Because it is a supernatural peace. Because God has power to give it.
In both verses above; in each instance, Jesus was speaking about fear, separation, and trouble. And He was offering peace in the middle of it.
In the first verse, John 16:33, He has just told His followers that the time is coming shortly when they will be scattered to their own homes, like frightened sheep chased by a wolf. And they will leave Jesus alone. He is predicting His arrest and crucifixion, and the disciples’ failure to keep faith in that traumatic moment.
In the face of that reality, as frightening and discomforting as it will be, He is promising to give them peace.
Jesus is saying that experience is symbolic of what life will be like for them going forward, as His followers. “In this world you will have trouble; but I have told you ahead of time, so that in me you may have peace.”
Jesus pulls no punches. It is going to be hard. There will be trouble. But “in Me you may have peace.”
Jesus is the Peace Giver. He stilled the storm on Galilee by saying, “Peace, be still.” He stilled the demon possessed men by speaking the word of deliverance.
He can still our hearts and give us His peace. Because He has overcome the world.
His mission was to reveal the Father’s character and to do what humans failed to do. To trust, to obey His Father whatever the personal cost. To reveal self-sacrificing love. He did it perfectly by surrendering to and depending on God. Even to the cross.
So, He has the right to forgive us, the right to help us, the right to sustain us in our storms.
In the other verse, John 14:27, Jesus is telling His closest followers that He is going to leave them and go back to heaven (verse 28).
This was not at all what they were expecting. Not in their plans at all. In Jewish theology of the day, the Messiah would come as a super-human being, defeat all foes, and take the throne of David to reign forever. This left out the suffering servant teachings of the Old Testament, the dying for sin and resurrection of Isaiah 53.
So, a dying and leaving Messiah was not in their cards. No way!
Anxiety producing without question! But this was the reality, the truth of what they would experience.
So Jesus promises two things in John 14. He is going to send them a Helper, a Person very much like them–the Holy Spirit who will be with them forever. He will comfort them, teach them, bring Jesus’ words back to their minds when they need them, and more.
And He is going to give them His peace, a calmness, an assurance that is beyond anything the world can give. Look at His promise again. It is for you.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27 NIV
It is from Him. To summarize, Jesus offers us to give us peace in a world filled with trouble, whether personal or in our world. It will be a peace HE gives us. Not something we concoct or think up ourselves. A peace from Him.
It is supernatural. It will be a supernatural peace, a peace that only He as God can give us. He IS the Peacespeaker, the Calm Maker, as this old song beautifully says.
It will calm your mind. And it will be a peace of mind because the Spirit will bring back Jesus’ teachings and promises.
It will be peace in your Storm. All this doesn’t mean your storm will go away, always. But it means He will give you peace in the middle of your storm.
Tell the Peace Giver
Do you need peace, friend? Do you need it especially now? I want to encourage you to tell Jesus directly. He died for the right to help us, and He is faithful to His promises. He has helped me so many times in this. He is the Peace Giver.
For the last twenty-two days, I have joined an online group of people who are praying for God’s intervention and guidance during this Pandemic. It has been a true blessing and has really strengthened my own faith during this time.
I found that my general outlook shifted after a few days of listening to other people, many of whom have clearly been tested in life and learned a deep faith. I realized I was not so worried or preoccupied with the problems of COVID-19 during my day, because I had been in the presence of people of great faith who trusted a big God
When trouble comes to our lives in any form, it is easy to react in with fear, worry, a sense of foreboding. These rise up like a great monster from the deep, towering over us (imagine a Disney animation).
We might be tempted at such times to turn to gods of our own creation to handle our problems. As good and helpful as they are: scientists, intelligent people, news anchors, human leaders, even religion; they are not God. It is God himself we need at times like this. And of course, always.
That is when we need to remember how big our God is. He is our Creator. He keeps the universe going, “sustaining all things by His powerful word” Hebrews 1:1-3). He is the real Problem Solver, Help Giver, and Overseer.
We have begun each prayer session with a time of thinking about Who God is and praising Him for His character attributes–love, faithfulness, mercy, kindness, power, ability to rescue and help us, etc.
Like most people, I have tended to come to God with my list of needs first. I have a prayer list made up of many deep concerns for family, friends, and others I hear about. It is easy to go right to those.
Of course, God wants to hear our personal needs and our prayers for others. But being in the prayer group has reminded me to think first about the God I am praying to and to be grateful and praise-full for who He is. That shrinks my problems, as serious as they are, to their proper size before a big, strong, loving, personal God.
That is what Asaph, one of the Psalmists, is reminding us through his own story, in Psalm 77. Notice how he begins, overwhelmed by his problems. Then he begins to remember who God is and what He has done in the history of God’s people. He ends his prayer in a much better place than when he began. Now, his faith and hope are stronger.
Notice, that this psalm ends abruptly. Perhaps Asaph is placing an ellipse at the end, so we can continue with our own memories, our own personal story of what God has done. Blessings He has given, times He intervened, comfort received, prayers answered, rescues provided. . . . Try writing your own list, even just a quick mental tally, at the end of this psalm.
Your faith will grow because we have an awesome, loving, capable God.
For the director of music. For Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A psalm.
1 I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. 2 When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted.
3 I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I meditated, and my spirit grew faint. 4 You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. 5 I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; 6 I remembered my songs in the night. My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
7 “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? 8 Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? 9 Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
10 Then I thought, “To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand. 11 I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. 12 I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”
13 Your ways, God, are holy. What god is as great as our God? 14 You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. 15 With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.
16 The waters saw you, God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. 17 The clouds poured down water, the heavens resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. 18 Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. 19 Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.
20 You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. Psalm 77 NIV
Continue with your memories of God’s leading and helping. . .
Thank Him for Who He is and for His faithfulness and involvement in your life, or the lives of those you know.
I am writing this morning out of great sadness. . .and yet hope. I want to offer you a gift–the knowing that God loves you and is with you in what you are going through.
This week a leading emergency room doctor, Dr. Lorna Breen, took her own life in the face of this Epidemic. I don’t know the whole story, but one report said health care workers in New York are feeling very defeated by this disease.
They have trained and given their lives to help people get well, but so many there are dying, despite their heroic efforts. The best medicine can provide is has often not been enough. Bone tired fatigue, lack of resources, failure despite best efforts, frustration of family members, the pressure and stress of overwhelming odds, and more, can lead to a loss of hope.
Even if you are not a front line worker, you may be feeling some of this too.
Where is God?
Many ask at a time like this, “Where is God? If He is a God of love, why does He allow things like this?” It is an ancient question I would like to give an answer to–one that has satisfied me and given me hope.
I have had more than one devastating loss in my life, but what I am sharing with you held me up and filled me with hope in the middle of despair. God’s love sustained me and carried me through.
Here is the summary. Read on if it interests you.
God is love. He is all powerful; Creator, Savior, Friend.
But His hands are somewhat tied.What He can do is limited. But He is not stopped. And in His love and power He never gives up–being present, helping, comforting, fighting back evil, sometimes working miracles.
Perfection and love was what what He created. But the old story, retold and confirmed, is that the first humans were seduced and deceived; an angel created perfect by God, but with free will. Love cannot thrive absent freedom.
Lucifer, leader of angels, began his rebellion in heaven. It started with pride, then self worship, followed by criticism and questioning everything about God, His love, His ways. Many angels were deceived.
Finally, open revolution. War. And they were sent away from heaven (Revelation 12:7-9). War in heaven? Yes, but probably not like ours.
Lucifer (Light Bearer) who became Satan (The Accuser), came to this world in an infuriated, jealousy-driven attempt to take over a world God had just created. To make it is own kingdom, a place where He could rule and reign like he wanted.
The first humans were created “in God’s image,” with free will. They were intelligent. They had been warned, but the devil deceived them. Led them to question God’s love, doubt His words, and disobey His instructions for happiness.
It is called “The Fall.” It happened. It opened Pandora’s box. Disease, death, human trouble of every kind.
You might be thinking, this story is a myth. It is too old to be believed. In the class of every other ancient religious legend. Let me offer an answer.
Jesus. He was born, lived, died, and rose from the dead. Over 500 people saw him after His resurrection and traveled the world to tell about it.
Saul of Tarsus, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin (ruling council), thought Jesus was a Jewish false messiah. He went everywhere imprisoning, torturing, and killing Christians. Until the risen Jesus appeared to him as he neared Damascus on a mission of death.
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
“Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9)
In an instant everything changed. Clarified. Scriptures understood. Life mission altered. From martyr maker to missionary, to authoring much of the New Testament.
Here was Saul’s and the others’ message: God came to earth as one of us. He entered our darkness, our suffering. He invaded Satan’s kingdom as a Baby. Weak, vulnerable, out of love for a lost and suffering planet. He learned to depend on God, was filled with power; went everywhere teaching and healing. But He was killed. No, He gave His life as a remedy for our sin. To give us options: the option to believe, trust, follow again. The most sinful can be forgiven; the most questioning receives patience; the weakest can get all the help needed–to be a child of God again. To believe, to love, to serve.
The Jesus who died and rose again had confirmed the story. There was a devil, a fall, a history of God’s beach head of love in an occupied world. The story of a God who has never given up. All through history. Pursuing, helping, loving. God wouldn’t resurrect a liar, would He? What Jesus said can be believed. If there are things we don’t understand; well, we can trust.
God could have taken it all back by force. But force is not His way. His way is love, reason. “Come let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins are as scarlet, they can be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they can be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18).
In France and other countries, during World War 2, resistance movements formed–to spread the truth, to empower, to free where possible. Resistance in the face of tyranny. Love for truth and freedom and human dignity in the face of evil.
Since humans turned away, God has been mounting a resistance of love and truth. He invades quietly. Jesus came as a helpless Babe. He sends His Spirit, angels, changed people. He does everything in His power to change hearts and minds through love and reason.
When a mind opens, He has the right to work a miracle. Change a heart, replace fear and doubt with love and certainty.
So yes, God is love. God is powerful. But He is limited in only this world until Jesus comes again.
In Tragedy, Love
Jeremiah lived through the destruction of his nation. He saw death in the streets. He witnessed cruelty and evil on a massive scale. But he didn’t give up His faith in a God of love. Here is his witness.
“So, I say, ‘My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord.’ I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: It is because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore, I will wait for him.’”
So friend, I have an invitation.
Believe God is real. Believe He loves you. Believe He loves this world and is doing all He can. Believe in the middle of this devastation and loss.
Trust Him. Become part of the resistance. Fight for a higher purpose. We may lose some in this life, but there is a kingdom of love to restore. Serve in love, in His strength. If you choose this, He will help you. Everything inside will change. You will have hope, peace, purpose, strength to keep going. Believe the story. There is love. There is hope. There is a Kingdom. It is here, and it’s coming.
How does prayer bring peace in the middle of a crisis like the COVID-19 Pandemic? How does prayer work? How can we pray to find relief and help?
Sometimes we are so worried, we find it hard to pray. I’ve had more than one concern like that recently. The what ifs and worries buzz around in our heads like infuriating flies. We find it hard to pray without anxious thoughts interrupting.
As I write, scientists say the COVID infection curve is flattening in many states, but many uncertainties remain, both nationally and personally. So, we worry.
Will my job or business survive? Am I safe? What about my vulnerable loved ones? Will there be a second wave of the virus? When will school open again? How will my children do with dropped months of learning? Will the economy bounce back, along with my retirement account? Are our leaders handling this correctly to keep us protected and save businesses and jobs?
We worry especially when things seem beyond our control, or our resources are limited.
So, how can we find peace in a crisis? Philippians 4 gives us the answer. Seriously, it is the solution. It is God’s spiritual guide for peace through prayer. It tells us how to pray when we are anxious and why prayer works to calm us.
“The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 4:5b-7 NIV
You may have heard this before. You could repeat it by memory, flying through the words without thinking. Or its wisdom may be new to you. Either way, I want to invite you to work slowly through it with me, so we can unpack its treasure and find the peace it promises.
The Lord Is Near
First, Paul reminds us that Jesus is very close to us. As we start to pray, we should remember His promises: “I will be with you always, even to the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:20); “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. . .My Father will love you, and we will come and make our home with you.” (John 14:18, 23)
Those are amazing promises when you stop to think about it. God is with us; Jesus is with us. They are not far away, unaware of what we are going through. They are close. This has always been true, but is even more true now that Jesus came as one of us, to share our lives.
“For this is what the high and exalted One says— he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.'”
Isaiah 57:15 NIV
Yes, Jesus is in heaven, but through his Spirit, He is also very much with us. Jesus is near. He is close enough to know our circumstances and our thoughts. He is close enough to care for and comfort us in trouble or tragedy. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1 NIV)
Did you notice, Paul said, “Do not be anxious about anything.” It is almost like a command, but probably more like a strong statement of permission. We don’t have to worry. We can stop worrying because Jesus is near. Remember those stories from the New Testament? He is the storm-stiller, the disease-defeater, our protector and provider. He did all those things when here on earth, and He still does.
So don’t worry. Pray.
Have you heard the phrase, “turn your worries into prayers.” That’s what Paul is inviting us to do. Don’t worry; instead pray. Then, he tells us how.
“In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (v. 6)
In Every Situation
We face lots of situations in life, right? Relationship situations, financial situations, life circumstance situations, situations beyond our influence and control.
What do we do with those situations? I’ll admit what I do, all too often. I turn it over and over in my mind, like a slow-cooking pancake. I try to figure it out on my own. I toss and turn over it in bed. Then I remember. “Pray.” In any “situation,” pray. If I can worry, I can pray.
By Prayer and Petition
Interesting Paul would divide prayer into two aspects. Sometimes we think prayer is all about asking.
Perhaps we have an incomplete picture of prayer. Prayer is remembering who God is to us, what He is like. Prayer is a relationship. It is talking things over with God as we would with a friend of close relative. Not because He doesn’t know, but to open up to Him. He wants to know us. He welcomes our heartfelt conversation about everything important or trivial in our lives.
I love this; a little long, but really good:
“Keep your wants, your joys, your sorrows, your cares, and your fears, before God. You cannot burden Him; you cannot weary Him. He who numbers the hairs of your head is not indifferent to the wants of His children. . . . Take to Him everything that perplexes the mind. Nothing is too great for Him to bear, for He holds up worlds, He rules over all the affairs of the universe. Nothing that in any way concerns our peace is too small for Him to notice. There is no chapter in our experience too dark for Him to read; there is no perplexity too difficult for Him to unravel. No calamity can befall the least of His children, no anxiety harass the soul, no joy cheer, no sincere prayer escape the lips, of which our heavenly Father is unobservant, or in which He takes no immediate interest. ‘He heals the broken in heart, and binds up their wounds’ (Psalm 147:3). The relationship between God and each person are as distinct and full as though there were not another soul upon earth to share His watch care, not another soul for whom He gave His beloved Son.”
Amazing Grace, p. 116
Petitions are another kind of prayer. Petition means asking. Lodging a request. “Ask,” Jesus said in Luke 11:9-11. Ask for what you need. If you can get anxious, you can ask.
Asking involves trust. God is a loving and good Father, and He will do what is best. He knows everything about us and what would be the finest for us in the long run. He invites us to keep our wants and needs before Him. Whenever we are anxious, or have a need, we can ask. . .and trust.
My sister, who has faced her share of trials, but has a great attitude of gratitude, reminded me of an old song last night as we were texting. The words to “Trust His Heart,” say beautifully that we can trust Him, even if we can’t understand what is happening to us. You can listen by clicking the underlined song title.
With Gratitude, Say Thank You
Have you ever left out an ingredient while cooking or baking something, only to have it turn out flat or taste wrong? The next ingredient in prayer that brings peace is crucially important. You can’t leave it out and have a good result.
When we pray, Paul says, we should always remember to be grateful and thank God for what He has already done for us. Blessings received, guidance given, requests responded to.
A story from Jesus’ life has always impressed me about gratitude. Ten lepers came asking Jesus for healing one day. Dr. Luke tells us, “They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!'” (Luke 17:12)
Lepers were banned from society, and had to live alone or in groups. The fear of contagion led society to set up fear-based restrictions. Ill-informed medical and religious ideology taught that all leprosy was a curse from God and the result of sin.
Lepers who traveled around had to cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” as they got near people. From all this, lepers had a deep sense of isolation and shame. People who live in Hawaii and know the dark history of Kalaupapa, an old leper colony on the Island of Molokai, understand this experience.
Jesus told the ten lepers to “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed by God’s power.
“One of them,” Luke says, “when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.”
“Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.'”
When I first heard this as a child, it impressed me deeply about the importance of gratitude, especially to God.
If you know God, or have heard the stories of those who know Him, you know He does a lot for us. Many times we don’t even realize what He is doing. But as we remember, it strengthens our faith and hope. “We don’t have anything to fear for the future unless we forget how God has led us in the past,” an old saint once wrote. I have found this is true.
When when you pray, thank God for His past help and blessings. For all the times He has been with you and the things He has done.
Supernatural Peace Will Come
Prayer is a conversation with God. We are not just launching our requests into the “vaposphere.” God is listening. Remember, “the Lord is near.”
So, when we pray like this, in trust, thanking Him for His love and care in the past, and leaving our requests at His heart, He promises to give us His peace. Here is the promise in Paul’s words:
“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 4:7 NIV
“Transcends all understanding.” It is a supernatural peace that God gives. “Peace will guard your heart.”
Peace will guard your heart, because He will guard your heart. He is with you, helping you.
This is the core of what God is saying about how to find peace through prayer in Philippians 4. However, I left the bread off this tasty sandwich filling.
Sandwich filling is great, but it’s not complete without the bread. A while back my wife came home with some delicious herb bread. It made wonderful sandwiches. So now I want to show you how Paul begins and ends his teaching on prayer and peace.
The Top Slice – “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice. Let your gentleness be evident to all.” (Phil. 4:4-5a)
We can rejoice, which means to overflow with joy, because God is near; He hears our prayers; He will give us peace. Having a personal God who hears and helps us brings deep joy. Someone once said, happiness is based on circumstances. Joy comes from something much deeper–knowing a God who cares and is there for us in our lives.
Bottom Slice – “Finally, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or worthy of praise–think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me–put it into practice. and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8-9).
Peace comes through prayer, but it remains with us because of a well-managed mental environment. There is a lot we can watch, read, or think about that really doesn’t promote peace. If we fill our minds with good, uplifting, ennobling things, peace will flourish there too.
So, Paul encourages his readers to remember all the things he taught them and fill their hearts and minds with it. Those things are found in Scripture. Reading, understanding, and taking in the words of Scripture will promote and grow peace.
God’s recipe for peace is: Be joyful, be aware of Jesus’ presence, don’t be anxious; rather, pray and ask for what you need; be thankful; and fill your heart with good.
Are you hungry for peace? That is a recipe that will always work.
It was a time not unlike ours, though it was long ago. Circumstances were different, but we can draw so much hope from it.
God’s people had been attacked and devastated by their archenemy, Babylon. Families had lost loved ones, the economy was devastated, farms and businesses ruined. Many had been carried off into captivity, socially distanced by many hundreds of miles with no way to communicate. Fear, uncertainty, and despair were ravaged their hearts. The future looked very bleak.
It was then God sent a message of explanation and hope to His people.
“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.
God said He still had plans for them. He wanted to prosper, not harm them. He had plans to give them a home and a future. Really? After all they had been through? Yes, God still cared. In fact, He loved them all along. Even though they had turned away for years, and trouble had come to them. He still had plans for them.
He wanted to restore hope to their hearts, by letting them know He knew exactly what they were going through. It hadn’t caught Him off guard. He had good plans for their future. They could hope again.
You may be wondering, Does God know what I am going through? Does He care? Does He still have a plan for my life? I can tell you He does, friend. No matter what losses you have experienced, or what fears you have now. God knows each of us. We are all precious to Him. He made us, and He died for us.
In the Bible, He often sent angels or messengers to an exact address. He knows where you live and what you are going through.
“The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.”
2 Chronicles 16:9 NIV
What may be different in this story in Jeremiah 29 is that God was in a direct relationship with Israel at that time. He had taken them into a covenant as a nation. He promised to protect and bless them when they were faithful, but told them He could not when they turned to other Gods or became faithless (see Deuteronomy 27-30).
They had rebelled and turned away. God patiently sent messengers to call them back. For hundreds of years. Finally, he honored their choices and let them go.
God’s promise in Jeremiah 29:11 was originally given to Israel in that setting. He had foretold their captivity hundreds of years earlier if they turned away (Deuteronomy 28:49, 50). Jeremiah 29 explains what has happened in those terms, and what God will do if they would turn back to Him.
I am NOT saying that COVID-19 has come because of our sins, though the world certainly seems ripe for judgment sometimes. My blog on Revelation is looking at signs Jesus told about the last days.
What I am saying is that when we go through loss or trouble, we have a compassionate God Who is more than willing and able to help us when we turn to Him. He is willing to enter a relationship with us now. Jesus died to build a bridge between us and God, because they both loved us.
In all His working with us, God has an overarching purpose–to save us and bring us home to His great heart of love where He can help and bless us as He wants to.
I don’t know what you are facing personally. You may have lost a loved one, or your job. Your business may be in danger of folding. Maybe you feel paralyzed by worry and fear about the future. There is plenty to be concerned about.
God invites us to turn to Him, and bring all our needs and anxieties. He invites us to bring everything. He can comfort us with His love and provide for us. If we have not known Him or wandered away, we can admit our need, or our sins, and ask His forgiveness. Because He loved us, Jesus died to forgive and restore us.
If we know and are trusting Him, we can claim His promises for sure. His heart is always open to us. His answer may seem delayed, but don’t give up. Faith grows stronger in trials. His eye is on you.
Take time to read all of Jeremiah 29. You will see a God who cares, who keeps His promises, who loves. Yes, you will see a holy God who cannot always bless us when we turn away from Him, but is waiting for us to return. He has plans to restore and help us when we do.
Here is a wonderful promise:
“Worry is blind, and cannot discern the future; but Jesus sees the end from the beginning. In every difficulty He has His way prepared to bring relief. Our Heavenly Father has a thousand ways to provide for us, of which we know nothing. Those who accept the one principle of making the service and honor of God supreme will find perplexities vanish, and a plain path before their feet.”
The Desire of Ages, p. 330
I am taking this time to deepen my relationship with God through prayer and reading His word, the Bible. I invite you to set aside time to do this too. Your faith will grow stronger, and you will grow in hope and awareness of His love. Let’s look up and see Him looking at us with hope and love.
Many are asking if the Carona Virus Pandemic is a sign of Planet Earth’s Last Days. Jesus did mention pestilences (pandemics) in his teaching about events that lead to His Second Coming, which is why people are asking this, plus the universal disruption it has caused.
The first two in the series look at Jesus’ teaching about Last Day events in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. Part 3 gives keys for understanding the book of Revelation.
In today’s blog, we will look specifically at what Jesus taught about Earth’s Final Events before His Return in the first half of Revelation. This will be an overview. In the next blog, I will unpack the second half of The Apocalypse, as it is sometimes called. That section deals entirely with what Jesus said about events at the End.
Jesus and Revelation
Sixty years after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, He returned in vision to John to show His Church what lay ahead in the centuries to come, and in the Final Events before His Second Coming.
With the passage of time, some Christians had begun to wonder if Jesus’ promise to return was still good. Some were losing their faith. Now Jesus comes to reassure them and teach important things about the future, and what was taking place in the spiritual world, behind the scenes.
Revelation covers the time between Jesus’ Ascension and His Second Coming which, in turn, leads to the restoration of Earth as God’s dwelling place and the eternal home of His people.
Revelation’s Structure and Purpose
Revelation is made up of a series of visions, or vision scenes. The visions move forward in time, but also dip back in history to pick up past events. The visions also move in focus from the earth to heaven where God’s throne is. In this way, God shows that events here on earth are related to what is taking place in heaven. There are spiritual powers and forces at work behind the scenes in this world. Not everything is due to the laws of nature or human choices and actions.
The general purpose of Revelation is to show God’s love and faithfulness, and how He stays connected and involved with what is happening on earth, because of His love for us. A cosmic spiritual battle is raging between God and Satan, a fallen angel. The devil works through those who follow him, including nations and leaders of all kinds, to persecute Jesus’ followers while they, in turn, remain faithful by following God’s word and will. It is an old story, but Revelation describes it in riveting detail.
Revelation may be outlined this way:
Revelation 1-12. The first section is historical. It spans time from the period of the Early Church until the beginning of the Last Days. In Daniel’s book, this is referred to as “The Time of the End,” a period of time before Jesus returns when Earth struggles on its last legs. “But you, Daniel, roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge.” (The “knowledge” referred to is understanding Bible prophecy, God’s purpose and character, and the End Times. See Dan. 12:4, 9 NIV)
Revelation 13-19 introduces the major characters and describes final signs and events leading up to and including the Second Coming of Jesus. Dramatic symbols and worldwide action show that everyone on the planet will be called to make a decision to follow God or the “Beast” powers.
Revelation 20-22 describe what will happen after Jesus comes, a great final showdown between Satan and his followers and the Ruler of the Universe. This will be a triumph of love, not an exercise of arbitrary power on God’s part. A movie should be made of this. After that, the earth is recreated in pristine beauty and perfection, and the New Jerusalem, God’s dwelling place in heaven, is transported to Earth, where God sets up His eternal capital. The New Earth is briefly described, with a final invitation to accept Jesus and plan for eternity.
Final Events in Revelation’s 7’s
In vision, John sees several series of seven events play out: 7 letters are read to 7 churches; 7 seals are opened and 7 action figures emerge; 7 angels are given 7 trumpets to blow, and when they do, cataclysmic events occur. Later, there are also 7 angelic messages for the world and 7 last plagues before Christ comes.
The first three series of seven, 7 letters to the churches, 7 opening seals, and 7 sounding trumpets, all end with the Second Coming of Christ. So we could expect to see some events and signs of Christ’s coming also listed. In fact, we do, especially in the fifth and sixth items of each series. The seventh is the actual coming of Christ.
The Seven Churches (Revelation 2, 3)
Jesus tells John to write letters to seven different churches. These were literal congregations in Asia Minor. However, it is widely accepted that these churches represents seven periods of time stretching from the Apostolic Age to the Second Coming.
In the letter to the Sixth Church, Jesus seems to be describing a period just prior to the Last Days. He makes this time-related promise that helps us locate where it is in the stream of time:
“Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.”
Revelation 3:10-11 NIV
Jesus promises believers in this sixth period that because they have been so faithful, He will let them pass to their rest without going through earth’s Final Crisis. Believers in the seventh period will go through them. They must take Jesus’ diagnosis and remedy seriously to be ready for His Coming.
The Letter to the Church of Laodicea (the Seventh Church) describes the condition of God’s professed followers near the end of earth’s history. They will be lukewarm says Jesus; spiritually wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. He offers a prescription and a divine remedy that will heal them and prepare them for Jesus’ coming (verses 18-22).
Jesus’ portrayal of Christianity in this final phase is very similar to what Paul and Peter described about the Church in the last days. Read 2 Timothy 3:1-9, 4:1-5, and 2 Peter 3:1-9, and you will see striking similarities. These passages describe a Christianity that, while wealthy in finances and programs, has largely lost its power and fallen into spiritual decay.
The Seven Seals (Revelation 5 – 8:5)
The letters to the seven churches are followed by two wonderful visions where John’s eyes are directed to worship taking place in heaven. In chapter 4, God is worshiped as Creator of all. In chapter 5, Jesus is worshiped as the Savior who died for human sin.
Through these visions, Jesus is gives us the solution for sin and spiritual lethargy. It is to have a renewed realization that God is our Creator, and Jesus is our Savior. We are ushered into heaven with John where we see thousands of angels and heavenly beings overwhelmed with Who God is and the sacrifice He made so sinners could be forgiven and spend eternity with Him.
In Revelation 5, John sees a 7-sealed scroll in God’s hand.
Sealed scrolls like this were often used as title deeds, as evidence of ownership. A powerful angel asks, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” John laments that no one could be found in heaven or on earth who was worthy enough to open the scroll and claim ownership. He says, “he wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.” Then one of the elders said:
“’Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.’ Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. . .He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. . .And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.'”
Revelation 5:5-9 NIV
Jesus is this sacrificial lamb because He has taken away the sins of the world by dying in our place (See Isaiah 53 and John 1:29). Because He did this, He can reclaim the world as His own eventually.
Jesus’ act of successively opening the seals pictures how He restores God’s kingdom in this world the teaching of the good news of salvation and inviting people to accept Him. It depicts the experience of the Church as it carries the Gospel to the world through seven ages. Sometimes it goes well; often there is great suffering, and even spiritual failure in the mission.
When the fifth seal is opened, Christian martyrs symbolically ask how long it will be until Christ returns. Jesus gives each of them a white robe and tells them to wait a little longer until more martyrs die. The fifth seal is a time of great martyrdom which corresponds to the Middle Ages.
The sixth seal dramatically portrays the celestial End Time events Jesus predicted as signs of His near coming in Matthew 24:29-31.
“I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?’”
Revelation 6:12-17 NIV
Jesus lists five signs in the heavens that will precede His coming: a great earthquake, blackened sun, the moon turning blood red, and a huge shower of stars, followed by the heavens rolling back to reveal the coming of Jesus, as mountains and islands move out of their places. The first four have already happened, though they may take place again just before Christ’s coming. To read about them, click here.
It is clear in Matthew 24 and Revelation 6, that Jesus predicts these as significant signs of His soon return.
Who Can Stand?
The leaders and people pictured as witnessing Jesus’ Advent, cry out, “The great day of God’s wrath has come; who will be able to stand?” That is the question we might be asking as well. Who will be able to stand before Christ when He comes? Who will be ready for His coming? How can I be ready?
Jesus answers that question in Revelation 7. Four angels are pictured holding back the winds of war and calamity about to devastate the earth. Another angel appears holding the “seal of the living God” which will identify who belongs to Him. This angel travels through the world sealing people for heaven, before the four winds of final trouble are let loose. This is a direct allusion to Ezekiel 9 where God’s people are marked safe before destruction.
What is this seal? I believe it the experience of settling into trusting God and knowing the the truth about Him intellectually and spiritually so we will never turn away. The Bible says we are “sealed” initially when we accept Jesus (Ephesians 4:30), and Paul says:
“Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.’”
2 Timothy 2:19 NIV
I believe now is the time we need to be getting solidly settled into our relationship with God, through the grace and help of Jesus. Only Jesus can help us do that. We cannot do it in our own effort.
When Jesus opens the Seventh Seal, in Revelation 8, three things happen. There is a brief period of silence in heaven. An angel with a golden censer comes to offer incense at the altar with the prayers of God’s people. Then this angel hurls the censer to the earth in judgment.
When Jesus ascended to heaven after his death and resurrection, the Bible says he went there to intercede for us. The book of Hebrews explains this in detail. This intercession, in part, is to claim all He won on the cross, draw people to salvation, defend us against the accusations of Satan (Zechariah 3), forgive our sins (1 John 1:9-2:2), and empower us to live as His people (Ephesians).
Our part is to pray and work with Him, as the “saints” are pictured doing in Revelation 8:3-4. When Jesus finishes His intercession, the door of salvation closes, and judgment takes place in stages. Judgment begins with the Seven Trumpets described in Revelation 8-11 and the Seven Last Plagues of Revelation 15-16.
As you read this, do you get the sense we are living near the end of earth’s history? I believe we are. God is calling us in the book of Revelation to see where we are in the stream of time and realize how important it is to commit our lives to Christ and follow Him. That’s why He has given us these signs.
The Seven Trumpets
In Bible times, trumpets were used in worship, warfare, to announce God’s appearances (theophanies), in the enthronement of a king, and before God’s judgments on the earth.
The Seven Trumpets of Revelation announce calamities which signal God’s approaching enthronement as King of Kings and Judge of Earth.
When the Fifth Trumpet sounded, the catastrophes were told “not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” (Rev. 9:4)
When an angel blew the Sixth Trumpet, a voice from the altar in heaven commanded, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great River Euphrates.” These are the angels who had been holding back the Four Winds in Revelation 7.
The Seventh Trumpet is blown in Revelation 11, after an interlude of almost two chapters. In chapter 10, an angel announces, “Time has run out. Whenever the days arrive and the seventh messenger sounds his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished just as He announced to His servants, the prophets” (The VOICE). God’s longest time prophecy in Daniel 8, 9 was expiring. The Time of the End was beginning and the mystery of God (giving the good news of salvation to the world) was going to be completed soon.
When the Seventh Trumpet sounds, loud voices in heaven, say:
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He will reign for ever and ever. . .You have taken your great power and have begun to reign. The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”
Revelation 11:15-18 NIV
The Seventh Trumpet clearly announces the Final Judgment and the Second Coming of Christ. However, the visions are not finished yet. I said in an earlier blog that Revelation is divided into various scenes by Hebrew Sanctuary imagery.
This was the ancient worship center or temple where God’s plan of salvation in history was acted out. The sacrifice of Christ, the Judgment, and the final destruction of Satan was depicted in a yearly sequence. The final service took place on Yom Kippur, or The Day of Judgment, when the high priest went into the Most Holy Room There, before the Ark of the Covenant, the Mercy Seat, and the Law of God, he performed a service of final atonement and judgment for Israel.
In the first half of Revelation, Jesus gives three series of seven. Each of these series cover history and reach to the Second Coming of Christ. The sixth period in each series, Jesus gives signs that precede His coming. In the seventh, He describes some aspect of His return.
So, as we finish Revelation 11 and move into the second section of the book, Jesus indicates in sanctuary imagery that He will now go back and explain in more detail about Earth’s final events and the Judgment. That is the purpose of Revelation 12-19.
“Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a severe hailstorm.”
In my next blog I will introduce you to the dramatic characters and major events in Earth’s final period. These are major signposts Jesus gives us about His soon return.
Last night I watched a video about a family in South Africa who owns a lion and tiger reserve. They have rescued and raised many in their own home. It was really special to see the family having fun with a lion or tiger. It reminded me that God has a wonderful future planned for us in heaven. Because Jesus died for us, someday He is going to remove all suffering, conflict, and sin and make Earth new again. Revelation is pointing toward that wonderful time.
So many are carrying extra responsibilities now, during this Quarantine. Heavy burdens, roles and duties added to what we were already doing; parents who now home school their children in addition to trying to keep up with more-demanding work; health care workers who have longer hours with a heavier case load, sometimes quarantined from their own families; business owners who are having to seriously retool operations to stay afloat; government leaders trying to figure out the best path forward. . .and so many more.
Then there are the millions who have lost jobs and wonder who will support them–and millions more who worry about it all.
Wouldn’t it be helpful to know there is a Higher Power who stands ready to support us, even carry us through this time? God has done this in the past and is willing to do it now, if we ask.
“In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”
In this scripture, God is describing how He helped His people in ancient times. It says He was distressed by what they were experiencing. Sometimes it is helpful just to know that someone feels what we are going through and is there for us. God feels our distress, and He is distressed with us.
It says here that it was in His love and mercy that He redeemed them. They were trapped in a life of slavery, and God came in love and mercy to delivered them. Can you relate to that? Does life sometimes feel like slavery now? Maybe you don’t feel worthy of God’s help; can’t see why He should even pay attention to you. But the truth about Him is that He is very compassionate, merciful, and kind.
Then it says, “He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” The picture is of a tired lamb being carried by a shepherd, or a child lifted up by a parent.
What does it mean God “carries us?” I think it implies that He supports us, gives us strength, wisdom, patience, whatever we need in our circumstances.
It does not mean He does our work for us, or makes our decisions. He has given us a mind, skills, abilities. But He loves to have us collaborate with Him. We grow by using what we have been given. Life and work are even better when we work interdependently with a powerful God. He will give us wisdom and strength. It is not all up to us.
We may not even be aware He is doing it, but He is, if we have asked Him to; maybe even if we have not. He was carrying His people in ancient times, even when they were not consciously trusting Him.
But, here is the point: We can be aware. We can choose to accept the help. We can be grateful. We can sense His lifting. This will bring us reassurance and peace.
“Save your people and bless your inheritance; be their shepherd and carry them forever.” Psalm 28:9
I have often had a huge sense of relief when I remembered God was carrying me in this way. Maybe it was just me, but in the busyness of parenting and work, I often forgot that God was lifting my burdens, and worked like it was all up to me.
When a scripture text or words from a family member or friends, reminded me, I was able to release the sense of pressure into God’s hands, and trust again that He was there.
Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carryyou; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.
I am really thankful for this promise, because I have quite a few gray hairs these days, and many years of life down the path behind me.
Here God is saying, “I won’t give up; I won’t slack off; I won’t let you down as you get older. I will be there for you just as much as when you were young. Your concerns and challenges may be different in your old age, but I’ll be right there with you, even in your later years, as mind and body grow older.
“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
Psalm 73:26 NIV
I want to share a beautiful song wit you, by Lynda Randle: “He Will Carry You.” As you listen, may you be filled with hope and reassurance.
Here are some of the words:
There is no problem too big God cannot solve it There is no mountain too tall God cannot move it. There is no storm too dark God cannot calm it There is no sorrow too deep He cannot soothe it.
Oh, if He carried the weight of the world upon His shoulders I know my brother that He will carry you Oh, if He carried the weight of the world upon His shoulders I know my sister that He will carry you. He said, “Come on to me all who are weary And I will give you rest. . .”
“And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 4:19 NIV
As a pastor, I called on an older couple. The husband was going in for surgery, and I had come to pray with them. As often happened, I was also blessed.
As we visited, the wife told me a story from her childhood in England. Her father had become a Christian and decided not to work on God’s rest day, losing his job as a result.
No other employment was available in their town, so father moved the family to a new city hoping for better opportunities.
After securing a place to live, they were out of money and food. They knew no one, and had nowhere to turn but to God.
The father gathered his family for prayer and poured out his heart about their situation, reminding God they had chosen to follow His word, and asking for help.
The next morning there was a knock on the door. When they answered there were bags of groceries on the porch–enough to keep them supplied with food until Dad found work.
Because they knew no one, they believed that God heard their prayer and helped them directly.
I have heard many stories like this; some in my own family. Perhaps you have, as well. Many times God uses other people to meet our needs; sometimes He does so miraculously.
This morning, on a phone prayer line, I heard again about people in need during this Quarantine. Many have lost jobs, or had to close their business.
At times like this, it is reassuring to hear how God promises to hear our prayers, care for us, and meet our needs.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Matthew 6:25-34 NIV
It is Jesus who is speaking here. He is inviting us to a life of trust in a Heavenly Father who knows our needs and will supply them. But notice, the promise is conditional here: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (v. 33)
Those who place themselves under the Father’s care, accepting and seeking His kingdom ways, choosing Him as their Savior and Leader, will be cared for.
But is God stingy with His love? No, our next verse shows that He pours out His blessings on all.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 5:43-48 NIV
Jesus’ invitation is to be as loving as God is, who pours His natural blessings on all alike.
“I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. They are always generous and lend freely; their children will be a blessing.”
Psalm 37:25-26 NIV
King David is writing as an old man, and he reports that all during his long life, he has never seen a time when God has failed to take care of His followers, those who trust and obey Him. In fact, they are a blessing to others, always looking for opportunities to help others as they have been helped.
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
1 Peter 5:7 NIV
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”
Matthew 10:29-30 NIV
God invites us to bring all our needs to Him, because He cares for us. How much does He care?
“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
Jesus mentioned pandemics (pestilences) when he described what would happen between His first and second Advents (Matthew 24).
However, as I wrote in Part 2, we need more information to answer the question, “Is the Carona Virus Pandemic a sign of the end of the world and Jesus’ Second Coming?”
Jesus gave us those answers in the book of Revelation. About sixty years after He rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, Jesus returned to visit with his aged disciple, John, who was now a prisoner for his faith on the Greek Island of Patmos.
In amazing color and detail Jesus filled in more elements about what would happen in the centuries going forward until He finally returned. He had told His disciples six decades previously, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.” (John 16:12). Now He comes to reveal it.
Put yourself in John’s shoes. Most of the first followers of Jesus have died, many by a martyr’s death. Jesus had promised, when He left, He would come back, but time has dragged on, with much persecution and trouble.
Jesus had left some clues about when He might return, but the hints were sparse. His emphasis had been more about what to do while they waited and His promise to be with them always through His Spirit. He never gave a date and time, only signs.
Now, Jesus comes to reassure the Christian community and to fill in more information. What He gives makes up the last book of the Bible, Revelation.
The first time I tried to read Revelation was after my seventeen year-old sister died in a car accident. I was grieving, looking for comfort and hope. I had heard Revelation talked about Jesus’ return, so I opened my slightly used Bible to the last book and started reading hungrily.
As I wrestled with the symbols, here and there were words of encouragement I needed. My faith grew stronger that I would see my sister again. Also, I came to know God and His Son Jesus in a more personal way.
Now, many years later, I understand some keys that unlock this mysterious book and pour out its treasure. My purpose in writing today is to share ten of those keys. You will understand Revelation better as you use them.
Please don’t be intimidated by this. Each key will be helpful in its own way and time. At the last church I pastored, I was given many keys. Each one opened a space I would need access to–the office, library, classrooms, AV room, etc. Though I always carried all the keys, I used them only when necessary. Read these over, and use them as needed. They will open wonderful treasures to you.
Keys That Unlock Revelation’s Meaning
1. It’s Name Means “Revealed”
The book of Revelation was not meant to be a closed book, too mysterious and complicated to understand. The title means “open, or revealed.” God wants you to understand it. He even pronounces a blessing when you read and take it to heart: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it. . .” (Revelation 1:3). As you read and study, remember it is God’s will to open it to you.
2. A Revelation of Jesus
The first five words tell us it is a revelation (revealing) of and by Jesus: “The revelation of Jesus Christ. . .” (Revelation 1:1). Jesus came to show us what God is really like, His amazing character and love. He showed it by how He lived and what He taught about His Father. If we only read the book like a guide to signs and events, we will miss its central message. Revelation is about Jesus and how He interacts with people and powers through history.
The Bible teaches that when we open our hearts to God, He unlocks our mind to understand His message. Jesus is truly the main “key” in Revelation. When we believe the good news of salvation He taught and put our trust in Him as Savior, He unlocks the door of our understanding and shines His light in.
3. Hidden Keys
Recently we visited my wife’s son in another state. As we left the house one day, I forgot to turn the door knob lock to the unlocked position, locking us out. Everyone else had left for the day. A bit embarrassed, I hoped our son was carrying or had hidden an extra key somewhere. But when he got home that night, we learned he did not, and there was no way in. Keys open spaces important to us. Without a key, we are locked out. Finally, I called a locksmith who produced his tools and got us in quickly.
God gave Revelation at a time when Christianity was under vicious attack. So, like secret battle code, He placed much of its meaning in symbols, effectively locking unsympathetic enemies out.
Revelation’s images are created from over 400 names, places, and allusions drawn from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. Names such as Jezebel, Babylon, and Balaam. Nouns like dragon, sanctuary, lamp stand, and lamb. Concepts such as seal, plagues, and white clothes. When you understand a symbol’s meaning in the “First Scripture,” the Bible Jesus used, it helps unlock its meaning in Revelation.
4. A Cosmic War
Revelation pictures an epic Star Wars-like battle between Heavenly powers and the powers of evil led by a fallen angel and his army of rebel angels (Revelation 12:9-11). The fighting ranges between heaven and earth and on the planet over many centuries. Humans, leaders, and governments choose sides and join the fray. The side we choose determines our involvement and destiny.
“The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. . .When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach.”
Revelation 12:9, 13-14 NIV
5. Understand the Literary Style
Understanding what style a book or movie uses helps us get its message. Revelation is a particular kind of literary style which God used in Bible times–apocalyptic writing. It was made up of visions, symbols, and predictions about the future, with a focus on the cosmic battle and ultimate the end of the world.
As in a book or movie, sometimes the action moves back in time, then forward, then back again, as it builds its message. In Revelation, visions move back and forth between heaven (where God leads and guides) and earth (where the battle rages). Often there is repetition of the same message using different symbols.
For example, one symbol in revelation is “sanctuary” imagery. The Old Testament sanctuary, or worship center, was a symbol of God’s plan to bring salvation to humanity. Its yearly cycle happened in phases utilizing different spaces in the sanctuary, from the sacrifice of a lamb to bring salvation to, ultimately, Divine judgment and restoration of this earth to a renewed state.
God uses the sanctuary symbols and services to introduce each new section of Revelation. (Rev. 1:10-18; 4:1-2; 11:19)
6. The Holy Spirit’s Help
Before Jesus’ death, He promised His followers He would send the Holy Spirit to help them remember everything He had taught, and, lead them into deeper understanding. We need the Spirit of God and as we try to understand God’s heart and message in the Bible. We can ask God for this Gift as we read and study His word.
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.”
John 16:12-14 NIV
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Luke 11:9-13 NIV
7. Revelation Moves Through History
As you read Revelation, you will generally be moving through history from the time of Christ to the Second Coming (and beyond). As I said earlier, the scene sometimes moves backward or forward in time, as in a movie or book. There are several series of seven in Revelation. Often, these seven-fold series begin with early Christianity and move through time to the End. As you read, you will notice this.
8. Lost in Unfamiliar Territory?
Imagine that are lost on a walk or drive. What would be the first thing you’d do? Of course, you might check Google maps, but play along. Let’s say you don’t have your phone. What would you do? I would look something familiar: a landmark, a street name, something in the skyline. As soon as you identified something, it might help you pinpoint your location and how to find your way home.
Think of this as a helpful tip when you read Revelation. You find yourself in a maze of strange metaphors, unfamiliar symbols, and mysterious narrative, look for something familiar. Remember you are moving through history, sometimes in cycles. Look for references to significant events, or familiar names and places. These will help you pinpoint your location and find your way.
9. Apocalyptic Cross References
I said earlier that there are more than 400 references in Revelation to the Old Testament: names, places, allusions. Many of these are found in other Apocalyptic books, primarily the Old Testament book of Daniel.
Daniel has many characteristics in common with Revelation. It moves from its time (600 B.C.), through the centuries to the Second Coming of Christ. It is composed of several visions and makes use of many symbols. Many of these symbols are used by God in Revelation. The material covered by Daniel is also taught in Revelation.
So, if you understand Daniel, it will help you sort out Revelation. The book of Daniel is a big key for understanding Revelation.
10. The Main Purpose
The last key is one of the most important, closely related to keys 2 and 6. God gave us Revelation to know Him personally and to experience a relationship with Him. He gave it so we could experience His gift of salvation, receive Jesus as our Savior, be ready for His Coming and prepared to enjoy eternity with Him.
We must not study Revelation primarily to understand End Time Events, or how to survive them, but to come close to a loving, good God Who is full of mercy and willing to accept and help us. If you read Revelation in that way, you will be truly blessed.
These ten points are some of the crucial keys that unlock the wonderful treasure found in Revelation. Now, I would suggest you just begin to read it prayerfully, using these keys as they come to your mind. God’s Spirit will open your understanding as you do.
Tomorrow, God willing, I will highlight some of the events, movements, and signs in Revelation which shows Jesus’ Coming is Near.
Yesterday I wrote that Jesus included pandemics (called pestilences in some translations of the Bible) in His list of troubles that would happen before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. He warned His followers at that time not to see these things as signs of His immediate return, as that would occur much later.
However, He went on to say that these troubles would be like “birth pains,” intensifying over many centuries until He came back to get His followers.
Jesus divided his teaching about “signs” and being ready for His coming into three time frames: signs before the destruction of Jerusalem, events during the intervening centuries, and signs pointing directly to His Second Coming. The three chapters that deal with this are divided this way:
Before Jerusalem’s DestructionIntervening Years Signs Before Jesus’ Coming
Matthew 24:1-21 Verses 21-27 Verses 29-35
Mark 13:1-19 Verses 20-23 Verses 24-37
Luke 21:5-23 Verse 24 Verses 25-38
Why did Jesus give His followers this teaching about what would happen in the world in the years ahead?
Out of love and concern. He wanted them to have a realistic faith. They should not look for immediate deliverance because many things had to happen in this world before He could come back. Primarily, the good news about His love and saving power would need to be taken to the whole world. (Matthew 24:14 NIV)
To strengthen faith. He wanted to strengthen their faith in His teachings and His power to know all things. “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am He” (John 13:19 NIV). It deepens our trust when we see that Jesus was right. What He predicted happened just the way He said it would.
To strengthen End-Time believers. Looking down through time, Jesus especially wanted to help us who live before His Second Coming. He knew it would be a time of trouble and skepticism and questioning. He said, “When the Son of Man comes to the earth, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8 NIV). He wanted to encourage our faith so He told us many things ahead of time. We call this “prophecy” in the Bible.
Signs before Jesus’ Return
Here is a partial list of predictions and signs Jesus and His followers left us.
“Immediately after the distress of those days (the Middle Ages), the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”
Matthew 24:29 NIV (Jesus was describing some celestial sign-events that would usher the world into a period known as “the Time of the End” before Jesus returns. See Daniel 12:4, 9). For more info click here.
Natural Disasters, Famines, Pandemics, Wars, False Messiahs and Prophets
“On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world. . .”
Luke 21:24-26 NIV
“Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ, and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. . . .Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. . . .False Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect. See I have told you ahead of time.”
Matthew 24:4-7, 24 NIV (Even though these are listed in the prophecies leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 A.D., I include them because Jesus said such things would increase in power and scope until His return, like a pregnant woman’s labor pains grow increasingly strong.
Preoccupation with This Life; Putting Off Attention to Spiritual Things
“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.”
Matthew 24:37-39 NIV
Moral Collapse in Society
“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
2 Timothy 3:1-5 NIV (New Testament writers saw themselves as living in the “last days,” the days at the end of the age when Messiah would appear. They believed Jesus was that Messiah. However, their words often also apply prophetically to the End Time last days we live in. It is not hard to see how their words apply today.)
Loss of Faith in the Bible as God’s Reliable Word
“The time will come when men will not put up with sound teaching. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”
2 Timothy 4:3, 4 NIV
“First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation. But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water. . .”
2 Peter 3:3-5 NIV
Large Scale Apostasy in Christianity; the Rise of Antichrist
“Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction.He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. . .The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.”
2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, 9-10 NIV
Many of the things listed above have been fulfilled historically. Only a few remain.
Jesus and the Revelation (Apocalypse)
Some sixty years after Jesus ascended to heaven, He appeared to His disciple John in a vision on the Greek Island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. John had been one of the youngest disciples of Jesus, probably in his teens or twenties. Now, he is an old man, banished to a government slave quarry because of his Christian faith. Most of the disciples had been martyred by this time, and the church was living under persecution, wondering how long until Jesus would return, as He had promised.
The Revelation, or Apocalypse, was given by Jesus to reassure His Church that He was still with them, watching over them, and to describe what would happen in the centuries ahead until His Second Coming.
Tomorrow, I will write about this amazing prophecy, which is mysterious to so many, and so often misunderstood by others. Revelation adds to our understanding of the events and signs before Christ’s coming. It strengthens our faith and helps us prepare.
Many people are asking if the COVID-19 Pandemic is a sign of the End. Seeing how it has affected the whole world, bringing rapid infection and death, shutting down economies, affecting much of the planet, prompting government intervention, raising concerns about civil liberties–all these and more, has stirred up the recurring question, “It this a sign?”
Christians believe Jesus predicted signs that would alert us to His Second Coming. But I am guessing people of other faiths, or no particular faith, are wondering too. No religion or philosophy has a corner on this question.
Since I am writing as a Christian, I am going to answer from that perspective.
Jesus did describe many signs and events in His teaching about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world. His explanation is found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, repeated in different ways by three New Testament writers. One of these signs was “pestilences,” or pandemics.
“There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.”
The COVID-19 certainly qualifies as a great pandemic when we think of how many have died and the disruption caused to our world and global economy. Was Jesus referring to this, specifically?
Jesus’ teaching about signs was given in response to a question asked by His twelve close disciples. Their question and Jesus’ answer gives us an crucial clue to understanding “signs.” So, let’s join their dialogue:
“Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. ‘Do you see all these things?’ he asked. ‘Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.'” (Matthew 24:1-2 NIV)
Jesus had just finished His strongest warning ever to the religious leadership in Jerusalem. It is sometimes called “The Seven Woes.” He excoriated them for their hypocrisy and double standards. But He ended with an impassioned, loving appeal”
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. . .”
What an appeal! It was only days now until Jesus would be arrested, tried, and crucified. Israel’s opportunity to accept her Messiah was rapidly coming to a crisis.
The disciples heard Jesus words about the Temple being left desolate, and it created an uneasy fear. Was Jesus’ pronouncing judgment against their beloved Temple? Would it really be destroyed. That’s when they asked their question.
“As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives (they had hiked up from the temple to the Mount), the disciples came to him privately. ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?'”
Jesus had just said something shocking–that all the buildings on the Temple Mount were going to be destroyed. Not one stone left on top of another. The Romans had spent years building this beautiful religious complex for the Jews. It was their pride and joy, and to them, evidence of God’s blessing. The stones of the temple mount were massive, some as large as a school bus. It was unimaginable it would be destroyed.
However, Jesus was predicting this would definitely happen, and the prophet Daniel had also prophesied it hundreds of years earlier (Daniel 9:26). Jesus cited this prediction by Daniel in Matthew 24:15.
Two Questions in One
Jesus’ followers had asked, “When will this happen, AND what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
People in Jesus’ day expected the “End of the age” to take place in their time. They did not understand that the Messiah would come, die, rise from the dead, and return to heaven, followed by His Second Coming many centuries later.
Because Jesus understood this two-part coming of Messiah: 1st Advent and 2nd Advent, He answered His disciples’ question in two parts: things that would happen before the destruction of Jerusalem and events and signs that would happen before his Second Coming. You will see this as you read the three chapters mentioned above.
Jesus told them that before the destruction of Jerusalem (by Titus in 70 A.D.), many things would take place: false Christ’s would appear, wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, and pestilences in various places. (Dr. Luke is the only one to mention pestilences, in Luke 21:11. His trained ear picked up Jesus’ mention of disease pandemics.) All these things happened just like Jesus predicted.
However, Jesus’ point to them was that when they saw these things, they were not to interpret them as signs of His near Second Advent. Here are His words: “Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. . .All these things are the beginning of birth pains.” Matthew 24:6, 8.
“The end is still far away,” Jesus was telling them. “These troubles will be like the beginning of a long birthing process, taking place over many centuries, until I finally come back. The earth will be writhing in labor pains, so to speak, until I come.”
Many years later, Paul wrote, “The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8:22)
To summarize so far, Jesus divided His teaching about “signs” into two parts: events before the destruction of Jerusalem: and, signs that would show His Second Coming was getting closer.
Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D., precisely as Daniel and Jesus predicted. It was a terrible time for the Jewish people. Thousands upon thousands lost their lives. But Jesus had prepared His followers to understand that not even this terrible event, as earth-shaking as it was for Christ’s followers, was the End. There was more history to come, and more signposts.
Taken by itself the COVID-19 pandemic is not necessarily a sign of Jesus’ immediate (or close) return. Jesus told His followers that these things would happen, but the end was not yet (Matthew 24:6). There have been many pandemics down through history. For a fascinating list, read here.
By using the metaphor of the birthing process Jesus was teaching there would be an intensification of sign events that this world needs the deliverance only God can give: false Messiahs, wars, natural disasters etc. When we think of the wars in the 20th and 21st Centuries, the invention of nuclear bombs, the increasing power of storms, the weird messianic movements, we have certainly seen that.
In that sense, a world-wide pandemic of this magnitude could be a sign of Jesus’ soon coming, but there are many more things to consider.
Jesus’ teaching about the End of Time and His Second Advent is much bigger than one event, as serious as it might be. His teaching about this is like an artist’s painting. It takes many colors, many details to make a portrait complete.
When He predicted events leading to His Coming, Jesus pointed to sign events in the natural world, the geopolitical area, the economy, the religious world, and more. It is a coming together of many forces and occurrences.
Something like the COVID-19 Pandemic could trigger other things leading to final signs and events, but we won’t know for sure until it happens. It might only be another pandemic like many we have had, or it could morph into something more.
Jesus did present clear teaching about some specific things that would happen before He returns. But even more importantly, He explained what our focus should be and how we can be ready for that and live as we wait for His return. I will write about these in future blogs.
In the meantime, I invite you to read the three chapters mentioned above, Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, and reflect on what we have seen there. Next time, I will discuss what all these things mean for us, living closer to Jesus’ return.
In this time of the COVID-19 Pandemic and quarantine, I have heard so many describe the stress and concern they are feeling. For some, it has been almost overwhelming: worry about their health, family, finances, a job or business, employees or students under their care; worry about the nation, the economy. So many concerns.
In Psalm 62, David invites us to pour this all out to God. Everything that burdens our heart or worries our mind–to just pour it out to God.
“Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.”
There are two reasons why the psalmist knew he could safely open his heart and release all his worries and concerns to God.
First, God can be trusted. He has proved Himself to be faithful in history and in the lives and experiences of so many people. He has always been faithful. In the middle of war, famine, trouble, He has cared for His children. Evidence and stories of this abound. Prayers answered, miracles done, hearts sustained. I know, not always the way we ask, but enough to trust Him.
He can be trusted because He loves us. His love is as strong as His sacrifice on a cross, as enduring as a Savior, Who never stops serving us, helping us, down to the present.
So we can always trust Him with our “stuff.” Everything that annoys us, perplexes us, or makes us afraid. Every problem we can’t solve, every burden that seems to heavy to carry.
Second, God is our refuge. People who have known God have said that He was a refuge to them. He was a safe place for their hearts and minds. He protected them, comforted them, welcomed their weary souls, their worn out selves.
An old hymn says, “The Lord’s our Rock, in Him we hide, a Shelter in the time of storm; secure whatever ill betide, a Shelter in the time of storm.”
God has been a refuge to me in times of loss, fear, and worry. And I am so grateful. I could tell you so many stories.
Why do we bottle it up, hold it all inside, try to figure it out on our own? We don’t have to. We can pour it all out to God.
We can do this. And when we pour our hearts out to Him, we will find such release, such support, such a sense of comfort and being heard and loved. Open the floodgates and pour it all out. He invites us to do it.
Would you like to know how to rise above what is getting you down during this crazy time caused by COVID-19 and the quarentine? Whatever it is: fear, stress, worry, boredom, malaise, not knowing. . .There are some wonderful, encouraging promises from God in Isaiah 40.
A little background:
Judah (part of ancient Israel) has just experienced devastation. Because of their moral and spiritual decline, God allowed Sennacherib, King of Assyria (today’s northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey), to attack and capture Judah’s fortified cities. . .His depredations continued almost to the capital.
Then King Hezekiah came down with a deadly disease. A prophet said to get his house in order.
But then Hezekiah turned to God; and God spared the city. . .and Hezekiah’s life.
It is at this time the prophet Isaiah penned his beautiful words of comfort and hope to the devastated and discouraged people of Judah.
“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her sad days are gone, and her sins are pardoned.” Isaiah 40:1-2
What follows in Isaiah 40 is advice about how to get back on track; how to receive inner strength; how to rise above weakness, depression and the disordering of life caused by the recent troubles. We can take these promises to heart for ourselves now, too.
Verse 11: God Himself will, “feed His flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in His arm, holding them close to His heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.” Jesus has the heart of a shepherd. We can choose to come under His tender care and guidance.
Verse 28:“Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding.” God is strong. He never gets tired. He sees and knows everything. He can give you wisdom.
Verse 29:“He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.” Do you feel overwhelmed, disorganized, weak in face of the challenges? God can give you strength and inner fortitude.
Verses 30, 31: “Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.”
I have been encouraged many times by these last two verses. When I thought I didn’t have strength for the tasks at hand, or didn’t know what to do, I prayed these verses to God and asked His help. He never failed.
In fact, the longer I live, the more I am aware how He constantly does what He promised. He lifts us up and helps us soar on eagles wings.
Take a minutes to listen to this beautiful old song and put your trust in the eternal God to do what He has promised, for you.
When I was a kid, I was afraid of the dark. I imagined all kinds of creatures and dangers that lived there. When I went outside at night, I just knew some kind of monster would grab me. Of course, they all lived in my imagination; they were not real.
Fear is often like that. Bigger than reality.
But try telling that to someone who is caught in the jaws of fear. Try telling yourself. It is hard to talk ourselves down from the ledge of fear–unless we see a greater power. When dad or mom joined me in the dark, fear evaporated.
Of course, some of our fears are based on reality. It is unreasonable fear I am speaking about–the kind that engulfs our minds, steals our sleep, triggers bad decisions, breaks relationships. During the COVID-19 Pandemic, there are many fears.
It is a well known story, but it speaks to both kinds of fear, real or imagined.
Jesus and His disciples had just finished a long day of ministry. They got into a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee, and an extremely tired Jesus soon fell asleep.
Suddenly, a “furious storm” came up, the kind that makes even experienced sailors afraid. Waves were crashing over the boat. Winds pummeled it. Giant swells threatened to capsize it. Jesus’ followers literally thought they were going to die.
Suddenly, a flash of lightning revealed their sleeping Teacher. In their efforts to save themselves, they had forgotten He was with them. Desperately, the disciples shook him awake with, “Lord, save us! We are going to drown!” (Matthew 8:25).
“He replied, ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!’”
Matthew 8:26, 27
When I read this, I am tempted to answer Jesus’ question. “Why was I so afraid? Uh, Jesus did you see how big those waves were? How strong the wind was? Didn’t you feel the fear of death we felt? Didn’t you see the sea monsters who were trying to swallow us up?”
Then I remember. He just stood up calmly and commanded the wind and waves to stop, and it became completely still. “What kind of man is this, indeed!”
In the middle of our fears, we are invited by this story to remember a few things:
First, God is with us in our storms and fears. He might appear to be unaware of what we are going through, but reality is, nothing escapes His attention. In His human weakness, Jesus was sleeping; but His Father wasn’t. And Jesus rested in His Father’s love and care. Now, He teaches His followers, they can too. If He allows us to go through a storm, He will be with us.
“He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”
Second, our God is big, and He is strong. He is more powerful than any storm we find ourselves in. He can stop the wind and waves at the time of His choosing–or He can sustain us through the storm with His loving presence.
Third, God loves us. He is not going to let anything happen to us that He doesn’t permit. In His love, He has a bigger purpose: to teach us faith, to help us know Him, to save us for a forever life with Him. Whatever doesn’t fit into that plan, He stops. Our lives are in His hands. We can trust Him. He loves us, and He is a big God.
Fear lies to us. It blows things out of proportion. It creates monsters in the dark. It makes us forget that Jesus is on board, that He loves us, and that His plans for us are perfect.
Please listen to this great song by Zach Williams, “Fear Is a Liar” by Zach Williams. Click on the title. You can skip YouTube ad after a few seconds by clicking on “skip ads.” Be blessed.
When we were small children, our parents carried us. It was natural. Small legs couldn’t keep up. As we became toddlers, we were still carried when we were tired, stressed, or just needed a little love.
As we grew, we became increasingly independent, then autonomous. As adults, we walk on our own, solve our own problems, and now care for others.
But there are times when we sure feel the need of being carried–at least to know that someone cares.
God cares for us and is willing to help us carry our burdens. Sometimes, even carryus.
Here are some wonderful scriptures about this:
“Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens.”
God is willing to help us carry our burdens every day. We may not see Him lifting the load, but He is there giving us wisdom and strength. We can ask Him for this.
In the Old Testament, the high priest wore an ornate breastplate set with twelve precious stones. Each gem was engraved with the name of one of Israel’s tribes. In this symbol, God was picturing that His people were always on his heart.
“Save your people and bless your inheritance; be their shepherd and carry them forever.”
In ancient times is was common to see a shepherd carrying a young or weak lamb. God often likens Himself to a shepherd who carries us. In this scripture He promises to shepherd and carry us forever when we agree to come under His care.
“Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” Isaiah 46:3
Here God promises to be with us all our life, even into our old age and to tenderly help and care for us. He wants to do this because He gave us life. He has been with us since birth, and He loves us. He knows all about us. He knows the burdens we carry and is willing to help. Nothing escapes His notice. You can trust that about Him.
Even if we have wandered or strayed, He still loves us and longs to bring us under His love and care. Why not thank Him for that now and ask for the help He is so willing to give.
Uncertainty is really hard, especially when so much is at stake.
As I write this, the COVID-19 Pandemic seems to be peaking in some areas, but still climbing in others. Eastern and Western state governors are collaborating to figure out a way forward to open their economies.
But many things are still uncertain. How long will it be? How much can open? What stays closed? How will it impact the overall economy? When will tests and vaccines be ready? HOW WILL IT ALL AFFECT MY LIFE? When will my kids be able to go back to school? When I will be able to go back to work, start up my business? Visit my sick loved ones in the hospital or nursing home?
As reality sets in that this is complicated and may take time, uncertainty and fear can grab at our hearts.
Jesus left us a promise for times like this. He had been telling His disciples He was going to die and leave them. This was not in their plans. They didn’t sign up to follow a dead leader. They were looking for a King; advancement, thrones, forever-security and happiness.
But now, this: death, separation.
Uncertainty gnawed. And uncertainty spawned collective fear.
But Jesus wasn’t afraid. He saw the big picture and gave two anchoring promises: “The future is certain, and I will be with you.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
In this familiar promise, Jesus was using a Middle Eastern wedding metaphor. A groom would build an apartment on the family home, perhaps one of many, built by other siblings; then go get his beloved to be with him.
Jesus is saying, “I love you more than you know. When I leave, it is to go get our home ready so we can live together forever. You see, there is a greater purpose in my leaving–a purpose of intention and love. The future is very certain, not uncertain. There are some things you didn’t see; but I saw them, and they haven’t caught me by surprise. I love you. Trust my love. Trust my Father’s love. We have a plan–and it is to bring you home to our house.”
Love reassures. There is a plan, created in love.
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.
What Jesus says here is connected to what He said earlier. But it gets less attention, unfortunately. Because it is greatnews.
He is not only the Ascended Christ who went to heaven to get our home ready. He lives with us and in us through His Spirit.
I love His words: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” We do not have to feel lost, abandoned, alone. Jesus is with us. He really is. He promised. Invisibly, yes; but truly with us through His Spirit.
God is One, and where His Spirit is, there He is too.
In this time of uncertainty, we can place our trust in the living Jesus who is planning for us and dwelling with us. We can believe it, trust Him, welcome Him, rely on Him.
“I will be with you always, even to the end of the world.”
In Hawaii, where I spent ten years as a pastor, it was common to see bumper stickers, car decals, and T-shirts, encouraging, “No Fear!”
“No Fear” to the Hawaiian means summoning one’s internal “mana” (spiritual energy, strength) to face his foe. To other locals, it simply means to be brave in the face of any danger or challenge.
There is so much that is beautiful about Hawaii and its people. But worry and fear has to be faced too–from many causes.
History. The native Hawaiian people have faced many fears. They easily recall the Inter-Island wars in which many brave warriors died, and final unification under Kamehameha I (1758-1819).
They remember how their Islands were taken by American business and political powers on January 17, 1893 (1), and how the “Price of Paradise” has driven the cost of living higher for “kanaka” (natives) and “Kama’aina” (long time residents) (2). For some there is resentment toward the “haole” (people from outside).
Beyond this, people who live in Hawaii face the power of natural elements regularly.
Hurricanes. I still remember Hurricane Lane in 2018. It was headed directly for us on Oahu packing 160 MPH winds and torrential, flooding rains. Honolulu was facing catastrophic damage. Our youth pastor Kraig and I hurriedly brought in everything that could become a projectile, secured windows, covered pews with plastic, and prayed, with many, that God would avert the storm.
Almost the last minute, Lane disintegrated into a tropical depression, still causing $250 million in damage, pouring down 58″ of rain in one place. One year, fifteen hurricanes encircled the islands over a few months, but none struck. Locals remember HurricaneIniki (1992), which caused $1.8 billion in damage and claimed several lives, Iwa (’82), Dot (’59) and Nina (57).
Supplies and Distance. The Islands are the furthest from a continent (1,860 miles) of any islands in the world, making supply an issue in crises. In the current Pandemic, medical and food supplies are a concern. People who live there are worrying about their family on the “Mainland” and those of us who live on the mainland worry about them. Fear.
Defense. Because the Hawaiian Island chain is an outlier, it is defended heavily, but still feels vulnerable in a crisis. I vividly remember Hawaii’s “False Missile Alert” in 2018. This was during the heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Each were threatening to attack the other with nuclear weapons, leading to the most serious defense preparations in Hawaii since World War 2. My wife and I were vacationing in Maui when the text alert came that incoming missiles were headed toward us, followed by the words, “THIS IS NOT A DRILL!”
I thought of my two children and their families, our dear grandchildren, who lived near Honolulu–and prayed for their safety. In the end, it was a false alert. But fear? Yes. We felt it.
So people in Hawaii get to face their fears on a regular basis.
And now we all are facing our fears in the COVID-19 Pandemic. Fear of the illness. Fear of job loss. Fear of national trouble. Fear of death. Fear of the unknown.
Most of the time in life, we are brave, or complacent. It is when we face things that are clearly beyond our control and threatening to undo our lives that fear appears. What can we do?
“DON’T BE AFRAID”
Jesus had a lot to say about fear. He doesn’t want us to be paralyzed by it. Overcome with it. He is the Lord of “No Fear.” Here are a few that have helped me:
“Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Jesus was speaking about how to react when people mistreat us. He reassures us that He knows everything about us–even the number of hairs on our head–and that we are of great worth in His eyes. We mean the world to Him. We don’t need to fear. He invites us to believe this about Him.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
1 John 4:18
God loves us more than we can ever imagine. The measure of His love is that He agreed for Jesus to come live here and then die a terrible death for sin. When we truly believe that our powerful Savior knows us and loves us deeply, it melts our fear. But how powerful is He?
“Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.'”
Jesus’ disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee when a storm came up that was rough even for these experienced fisherman. They were struggling the keep the boat afloat when they saw what they thought was an omen of their destruction–a ghost. But it was Jesus walking toward them on the waves. “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
Jesus is watching over us in our storms. He can come to us when we need Him. You can pray for Him to come to you. “When I am in distress, I call to you, because you answer me.” (Psalm 86:7) “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.” (Isaiah 65:24)
“So do notfear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
I have read this text at many hospital beds, before many surgeries. I have prayed it myself because it is a sure promise from a God who is willing and able to be with us in our most challenging moments.
Right now, in the middle of whatever storm or overwhelming situation you’re facing, Jesus invites you to trust His promises, to turn to Him, and to tell Him what you need most. He is strong. He is aware. He is present. And He can help.
(1) Dougherty, Michael. To Steal a Kingdom. Waimanalo: Island Style Press, 1992.
(2) Rother, Randall W., (Ed.) The Price of Paradise, (Vol. II). Honolulu: Mutual Publishing, 1993.
Yesterday was Good Friday, tomorrow, Resurrection Sunday. But today, Sabbath, Jesus is in the tomb. Arms folded across chest, still.
That Sabbath of Passion weekend doesn’t get a lot of attention. For Jesus’ followers, it was a dark day. Devastation, depression, confusion, and fear is what they felt. Their Rescuer was dead.
But in heaven, far away from the gloom, there was a huge celebration. Angelic high fives. Fireworks. Hallelujah choruses. Jesus had conquered Evil, paid for sin, won back the Kingdom, redeemed this world.
“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
On the cross, had cried out, “It is Finished!” before he died. Plan accomplished, forgiveness provided, universe secured, this world bought back.
Today, we hunker down in the Pandemic, but Heaven already won. We are stressed, afraid. But Paradise has a plan. There is optimism there. They see what we cannot. They are already celebrating the future.
We can believe it. The resurrected Christ is Lord. He reigns. Happy Sabbath, indeed!
“Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’ When he heard this, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.’ Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was for two more days. . .”
This morning Pastor Joey Oh (LLUC.org) shared a devotional message in a prayer phone call for the Pandemic. I am sharing his thoughts and words here because they were so encouraging.
If you have heard this story before and know its ending, it may be hard to feel the tension in it. One of your best friends is dying. His sisters, also good friends (in fact one was rescued from a degrading life by Jesus), send word to Him to come quickly.
They had seen him heal the sick; they had felt His power in their own hearts. 9-1-1! Call Jesus!
Yet, when he heard the news, “He stayed where He was two more days.” Nothing urgent was happening there; He just delayed leaving.
How would you feel? You are deathly sick in the hospital and call for the pastor. He doesn’t show up for two days. Would you be frustrated, angry, Infuriated? Would you doubt He cared about you?
In the hour of His friends’ greatest need, Jesus fails to show up. When His best friend is sick, Jesus lets him die. When Jesus finally arrives, it is understandable that Martha says in deep disappointment and tears, “Lord! If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Can you feel her hurt, her confusion, her questions?
Why did Jesus do this? Why does He sometimes seem absent in our troubles? In our losses? Have you experienced this? I have. Prayer seem to go unanswered. Silence.
In this story, Jesus withholds something good to give something great. Sometimes he withholds what we want in order to give us something better. “This sickness. . .is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be gloried through it.” (v. 4)
Jesus gives Mary, Martha, and Lazarus an experience that transforms their lives. He gives them a resurrection. He deepens their faith and gives them hope.
In fact, He gives them absolute evidence of who He is that will sustain them through His own crucifixion and death on Good Friday–and energize their faith on Resurrection morning.
They didn’t know when Lazarus fell sick and died that their own pain and suffering and struggle with faith would give hope to millions who would read their story in ages to come.
They couldn’t see the countless gravesides where their story would be read to give hope amid tears, in a coming Savior and the Resurrection.
Today, in this Pandemic, we live in the time between our heartfelt, sometimes agonizing, prayers to God. God, save my loved one! Save my job! Save my business! Save my family! Save my faith!
The lesson of this story is that for those who trust Him, for His redeemed friends, Jesus always has something better in store for us. We hardly ever know what the future holds. We may get released from this pandemic. It may go on. We can’t see through the fog. . .
But we can trust Jesus. He knows what He is doing. He sees you; He sees me, and he has a plan for each of us. He is strong enough and loving enough to watch over each of His family and do the eternal best for us.
I have written three blogs about Psalm 91. It is a psalm for times of disaster and trouble, which we are certainly facing now. Loved ones sickened and dying. Our nation shut down except for essential services. The economy staggering; leaders conflicted about what to do.
David certainly faced disasters in his own lifetime, even judgments from God. He often prayed humbly for deliverance, and was spared. He lived Psalm 91. These promises have been claimed by God’s people for centuries, and there are many stories of God’s intervention. But not all who prayed were delivered (See Hebrews 11:35-40).
Yet, when I read Psalm 91, its promises seem quite absolute. Why? There is no question in this psalm they will be fulfilled. Those who trust God WILL be saved from pestilence (pandemic), plagues, harm, and the ravages of war. But not all have been.
This riddle is solved when we realize that Psalm 91 applies ultimately to a future period just before Jesus comes. David often wrote under inspiration about the future. This was one such time. Though God’s promises in Psalm 91 apply to all ages, they ultimately apply to the Time of Trouble spoken of by Daniel (Dan. 12:1-4), Jesus (Luke 21:25, 26), and The Revelation (chapter 15, 16). Psalm 91 is a psalm for the Great Tribulation.
It is during this time–close to the coming of Jesus, after He finishes his work of intercession in heaven, when everyone has made their decision for eternity–that the earth falls apart. Nature collapses, civil society explodes, and evil and judgment are unleashed.
It is then that those who have put their faith and trust in God, will be absolutely protected. There would be no purpose for their witness. Their deaths would no longer bring people to Christ. Then, it will be unequivocally fulfilled:
“You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.”
Now is the time, dear friend, to make our home, our dwelling, in God. Now is the time to make sure of our relationship with Him. “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart.” Hebrews 4:7. Jesus’ heart of love longs for you, with eternal desire. And there is never a better time than now.
When you sign a contract, read the fine print, they say.
Do God’s promises have fine print? Specifically, does Psalm 91, a scripture that promises God’s protection for times of trouble like our COVID-19 Pandemic, have fine print? People talk about God’s blessings. What about job loss, illness, worry, and fear?
“Surely He will deliver you from. . .the deadly pestilence. . . .You will not fear. . .the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.”
Psalm 91:3, 5
I don’t believe God is trying to hide anything from us, or keep us from receiving His help when we so desperately need it. He loves us and wants to help–even more than we desire, if that is possible. (I believe He already is helping.) But, might we miss important things when we read God’s promises, because our need obscures the full intent of His heart?
In Psalm 91, God is inviting us to come under the shelter of His wings, where He can protect us from harm. But what brings us into that relationship? And what is the nature of it?
This is an important question. God is limited by what has happened in this world. We humans have misused the gift of free will, releasing Pandora’s powers and coming under the spell of malevolent forces. This first sin continues.
It is not myth or superstition to acknowledge that God must draw us willingly into the realm of His good will and love, through the door of forgiveness, before He can help us fully. Psalm 91 teaches this.
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” vs. 1
“If you make the Most High your dwelling–even the Lord, who is my refuge. . .” vs. 9
“Because he loves Me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him. . .” vs. 14
When Satan tempted Jesus to throw himself down from the highest point of the temple, he quoted Psalm 91:11, 12: “For it is written (the devil said): ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in your hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”
The problem was, the evil one left an important condition out of God’s promise: “If you make the Most High your dwelling.” In other words, If you come under the loving and righteous rule of God, letting Him truly lead your life; then, He can protect you. If you trust His mercy and accept His ways, He can gather you under His wings, as a hen gathers her chicks. If you choose His love, He can cover you.
Verse 1 is telling us this: “He (or she) who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” The shelter of God was the inner room of Israel’s ancient worship tent, where God came to meet with His people, through their high priest. The Ark of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments, and the mercy seat were all there, picturing important aspects of God’s character and rule.
God is saying, if you come into harmony with my character and law through my grace, I will take you under my special protection and care.
“For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of His tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.”
Does this mean that nothing bad will ever happen to God’s people? No, as I mentioned in another blog, Jesus predicted even His followers would suffer in this world. Job did. David did. Jesus did.
I still remember my grief and spiritual disappointment when a beloved pastor colleague’s young adult daughter was murdered. (1) She was not much older than my own children at the time. I felt it deeply. I grieved for him and his family; and I struggled with my faith.
Not long afterward I was in a religious book store where I picked up a book about angels hoping to find some explanation. Were there not enough defensive angels to go around that day? Is their shielding us from harm hit and miss? Couldn’t I trust this childhood memory verse anymore (Psalm 91:11)?
As I leafed through the book, I read only what felt like platitudes. Angry, I threw it back on the table, muttering in complaint to God, “Where were the angels!”
Since then, I have learned that great love and amazing protection co-exist with great evil in this world. Sometimes the hour of darkness reigns (Luke 22:53). But God never sleeps, and He always brings good out of our suffering.
The father of the young woman I mentioned was a reserve military chaplain who was later called by our country (as one who understood loss) to minister to grieving families after 9-11 and other disasters. Stephanie Fast, a homeless Korean War orphan who suffered great abuse and deprivation, has become a champion for orphans and inspiration around the world. (2) God is with us in our troubles. He brings good out of evil. His love sustains us, even when we don’t understand.
“If the foundations (of society) be destroyed, what can the righteous do? The Lord is in His holy temple, the Lord’s throne is in heaven: His eyes behold, His eyelids try, the children of men.”
“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called (into a relationship with Him) according to His purpose.”
Psalm 11:3, 4; Romans 8:28
Psalm 91 is a wonderful psalm. It is full of hope and promises of God’s care and protection. If we accept the invitation to trust Him, to receive His mercy and come under His leadership, God will care for us and often protect and provide for us. Even if we suffer, His love will be our fortress and comfort. His purpose will always win out for us. Like the woman I know who felt the arms of God around her when her husband died of cancer and has become a help to others who grieve.
Yes, there will also be times when we suffer. But this does not disprove or invalidate that God is loving and real. Psalm 91 pictures a God we can trust and promises we can claim. We can trust His love and find protection under His wings. especially now.
“He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
(1) Bigger, Darold. A Time to Forgive; One Family’s Journey After the Murder of Their Daughter. Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2015.
(2) Fast, Stephanie. She is Mine; A War Orphan’s Incredible Journey of Survival. D & S Publishing, 2014.
As we hear daily news reports of loss of life and jobs from the COVID-19 Pandemic; as we think about our own vulnerability and the risk to those we love; as we experience the wide-ranging disruption, we struggle with worry and fear about many things.
Psalm 91 was written for times like this. It is filled with hope and promises of God’s love and protection for those who trust and seek Him. As I mentioned yesterday, my dad helped us children memorize Psalm 91 and then share it with sick and elderly people we visited. It became very meaningful to me then. Now, many years later, I see even more reasons for hope and faith. Today, I will share what speaks to me, hoping it will bring peace and trust to you as well.
An Invitation to Trust
The psalmist, David, is writing from his own life’s story. Through many challenges, he has learned to trust God. God has helped and protected him many times–as a young shepherd from a lion and bear; as a young adult from his archenemy King Saul; as a warrior, in battle; as a monarch from palace intrigue, treachery, and rebellion; and even in his own failings and sin. He has come to believe deeply that God is loving, faithful, and good. He can be trusted. David trusts Him completely now, and with beautiful word pictures drawn from his life, invites us now to do the same.
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust. . .His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.'” Psalm 91:1-2, 4
Invitation to a Relationship with God
David’s invitation to us is rooted in the ancient worship center, the Hebrew tabernacle where a person came to God through the sacrifice of a lamb for sins. Asking God in faith to forgive and accept them in this way, looking forward to a Savior, brought pardon and full acceptance with God. Today, we come to God through Jesus, “The Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). No matter how long we may have been away from Him, how much we have sinned, or strayed, or ignored Him, He will accept us. Even though our lives are broken and messy. Even if it is in the middle of a pandemic, a time of emergency. He paid a heavy price. He loves and wants us, in any case. He wants us.
“If you make the Most High your dwelling–even the Lord, who is my refuge–then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. . . ‘Because he loves me,’ says the Lord, ‘I will rescue him; I will protect him because he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.” Verses 9, 10, 14, 15
Promises to Claim
I have learned many things about God’s promises in the years since I first memorized Psalm 91. It is full of wonderful promises like angels delivering from accidents, being rescued from pestilence, plague, and punishment. But, does God always do what we ask? What can we know for sure as we read Psalm 91?
First, we can trust the Promiser. He is trustworthy and faithful. He has given us His promises to help us form a relationship of trust with Him. There are over 3,000 promises and clusters of promises in the Bible. God wants us to relate to Him through these. Many have cut their teeth as new believers asking God to fulfill some promise and seeing how attentive and faithful He was to their prayer.
Second, some promises are always Yes. As we come to Him humbly in faith, he always is willing to forgive our sins, be present with us in any situation, give us peace and faith in trouble, and grant the Holy Spirit’s help. Any promise concerning our relationship, He will definitely fulfill. Paul is thinking of this when He wrote, “No matter how many promises are made to us, they always Yes to us in Christ.” 2 Cor. 1:20.
Third, some promises are “God’s will be done.” God’s other promises are not a blanket coverage for every situation, or every circumstance in life. Sometimes God delivers, heals, or provides; sometimes He allows trouble. Job suffered; Paul didn’t get his thorn removed (2 Cor. 12:7); Christ experienced the Cross. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). We must always pray, as Jesus did in Gethsemane, “May your will be done,” trusting in a God who loves us and knows what is best for our eternal good.
Last, ASK! We can always ask because a loving, caring God’s heart is always open to our prayers. God HAS often protected and delivered His people from danger; He HAS supplied financial and physical needs many times; He HAS healed people of disease. We can claim his promises and trust His love, even if the answer is Yes, No, or Wait (perhaps until Jesus comes).
“Keep your wants, your joys, your sorrows, your cares, and your fears, before God. You cannot burden Him; you cannot weary Him. He who numbers the hairs of your head is not indifferent to the wants of His children. . . . Take to Him everything that perplexes the mind. Nothing is too great for Him to bear, for He holds up worlds, He rules over all the affairs of the universe. Nothing that in any way concerns our peace is too small for Him to notice. There is no chapter in our experience too dark for Him to read; there is no perplexity too difficult for Him to unravel. No calamity can befall the least of His children, no anxiety harass the soul, no joy cheer, no sincere prayer escape the lips, of which our heavenly Father is unobservant, or in which He takes no immediate interest. . .The relationship between God and each soul are as distinct and full as though there were not another soul upon earth to share His watch-care, not another soul for whom He gave His beloved Son.”
Amazing Grace, p. 116
An Invitation to be Loved
I love the closing words of Psalm 91:
“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation.” Verses 14-16
Friend, God is inviting you and me to a relationship with Him. He loves us more than we can ever imagine. We can ask His help trusting Him to do the best for this life and eternity. Won’t you take that step, or reaffirm that choice now?
Psalm 91 has a special place in my heart. My father and mother helped us five children memorize it when we were young. It was our longest “memory verse,” and memorizing it took a while. Then dad would take us to elder care homes and invite us to share it from memory with the residents. I still remember the faith in God and feeling of confidence I felt as I recited this psalm, and the smiles of appreciation from staff and clients.
Psalm 91 is a psalm for times of trouble and especially applies to the final Time of Trouble before Jesus’ return (Dan. 12:1). It lists various kinds of trouble God will help us in, including “pestilences” (v. 5) like the COVID-19 pandemic. It promises God’s special care and protection to those who trust and follow Him. In times of trouble in my life, this psalm has been very precious. It comforted me in tragedy and loss.
In beautiful poetry verse 1 says, “Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” The shelter (KJV: “secret place”) of the Most High refers to God’s dwelling place. The worship place of the early Hebrews was modeled on His dwelling place in heaven, and functioned as a teaching device about the plan of salvation. It was called the “Tent of Meeting” (Exod. 33:7-11), seen in the painting below.
This tent of meeting, or sanctuary, had two rooms, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. The Most Holy Place housed the Ark of the Covenant, the agreement God had made with Israel at Mt. Sinai. The Ark was constructed of two golden angels, a “mercy (grace) seat” under their wings, and a box below them which contained God’s Law. This all symbolized God’s throne in heaven which is based on divine law, love, and grace.
The pre-incarnate Christ actually stayed in the Most Holy Place as He led Israel through their wilderness journey (1 Cor. 10:3). Only Israel’s high priest was allowed in there to meet with God. For that reason, it was a “secret” place. Believers could not go in. Instead, they were taught to enter by faith, through the representative function of their high priest, who went in to request forgiveness and help for them from God.
When Jesus went to heaven after his resurrection, Hebrews tells us he “serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man.” (Heb. 8:1-2). Hebrews chapter four comforts us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.” So, it encourages us to “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Heb. 4:15-16 NIV). This pandemic is certainly a time of great need, isn’t it?
When Psalm 91 says “those who dwell in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty,” it means that when we trust in our Mighty Savior and High Priest Jesus, and surrender our lives to His care and keeping, He will be a “shadow” in the heat of life’s troubles. We will come under His personal love and care. We can pray to Him, and He will hear every word.
In Psalm 27:5, David says, “For in the day of trouble He will keep me safe in His dwelling; He will hide me in the shelter of His tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.” (NIV).
I don’t know what you are facing in his pandemic. You might feel very vulnerable to the disease itself. You may be facing financial loss and uncertainty about your employment. Like me, the daily news with its reports of deaths and jobs lost, may really trouble you at times. You might be wondering where all this is taking us as a nation and as a world. Will things ever get back to normal? What will that normal be?
In Psalm 91, Jesus invites us to come under His personal love and care. He is powerful, and He is good. Nothings escapes His notice. I invite you to read all of Psalm 91, and trust the God it describes. I will write about it more in days to come.
What I am offering is not platitudes. That would be inappropriate in a Pandemic. They would be cheap comfort now.
What I am telling you today is something true and tested. It works for me. It has worked for every person who trusted the words. What words?
“Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. . .You will find rest for your souls.”
Jesus, Matthew 11:28-30
Could you use a little support? A little help with your burdens? How about rest for your soul?
I am hearing countless stories about front line workers in healthcare, first-response, nursing homes, education, janitorial services, grocery stores, trucking, parents working while homeschooling, and many more. All burdened, stressed, overwhelmed.
Does what Jesus offer apply? If you understand His point, you will find a strength beyond what you could imagine.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Jesus was using an illustration from ancient farming. Two oxen or cows were joined together with a wooden appliance called a yoke.
To find rest, lift a yoke? To get relief, take another burden? Just the opposite!
You see, Jesus was saying, “Take MY yoke on you. Get in the yoke with Me. You are weak? I am strong; I will help pull your load. You are tired; rest in Me, I will strengthen you. You are fearful and worried; I’ve got this.
A farmer would often yoke a younger ox with an experienced one, a weaker animal with a strong one.
Can you hear the older ox saying to the younger one, “Let me give you some tips; I’ve been at this a while.” Can you hear another saying, “I am afraid. I don’t know what will happen. I am not sure I can handle this.” The strong one says, “When you are stumbling, I will hold you up. When you grow weak, I will pull harder. Trust me.”
Jesus is strong. He stilled at storm, healed the sick, raised the dead. Can you picture Jesus next to you in His yoke? Smiling, helpful, friendly? Yes, friendly. He will not scold you. He’s just glad you came.
I love it that Jesus said, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.” (v. 29). He is not arrogant, demanding, a slave driver. We do that to ourselves. He is gentle and humble; easy to be with; a gentleman–and so willing to help.
What did He mean, “My yoke is easy.” The original word is “well-fitting.” Jesus was a carpenter. He made yokes. He knew how to shave the wood to fit each creature just right. He knows your situation exactly. He can smooth your yoke.
So, what do we do?
Come. He is inviting you. Come weary, come tired, come overburdened, come fearful. But come. He will give rest–because He can. He was human, and knows what it is like “to be us.” But now He is God, with “All power in heaven and earth.” (Matthew 28:18 KJV).
Believe. I know, it is hard to believe sometimes. Just admit it to Him. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24). That is a prayer He will always answer. He’ll strengthen your faith and will. Then consciously realize He is beside you, helping you. You are partnering with the once-human, but now risen, all-powerful Christ.
Take His Yoke. Jesus’ yoke is the way He is. He came to serve and help us. Serving others in love is the core principle of God’s character and His kingdom. Jesus’ teachings show the ways of His kingdom. It is not complicated. It is a matter of the heart. Are we willing to get in His yoke and serve with Him, to learn from Him?
You care for patients. Do it with Jesus. You clean nursing homes. Trust Jesus to be beside you. You truck essentials. Jesus is a great team partner. You are trying to save your business and your employees jobs. Jesus is willing to help. You are new to home-schooling your children AND trying to hold down your job. Jesus is available.
He is inviting you now to accept His invitation. It does not hurt to admit we are weak. Of course we are. That we have a need. Of course we do. We’re human. He gets that. That’s why He came.
It’s hard to admit. I get it. All our lives, we felt it was up to us. We have studied hard, worked hard, depended on ourselves (who else was there sometimes?). To admit our need and fear and overwhelmed feelings is hard.
But it is just what we need to do. He loves us and doesn’t mind. Not at all.
Try it. Try Him. He is gentle and humble in heart. . .you will find rest for your soul. And your work will be lighter too, because He is a heavy lifter. He lifted a heavy wooden beam and died for the privilege of helping us.
This morning on my walk, I saw a man riding his bicycle with a small dog running after him. I’ve seen them before, getting their morning exercise together. The man rides all over the Manoa Park and Rec area, and his doggy friend chases him. It’s great fun to watch.
About ten minutes later, I saw them coming toward me on a walking path–the man on his bicycle and his dog about a hundred feet behind, still running. As Doggy passed me, he made eye contact and slowed a bit; but I wasn’t the one he was after, and he sped up to catch his friend.
I got to thinking, why does this dog run all over the park chasing his owner? There are plenty of other things to chase–birds, other bicycles, people, best of all, other dogs (lots of them; even lady dogs). But he runs as if on an invisible leash, attached to the man on the bicycle.
Clearly, the reason he chases this bicycle is because his friend is riding it. No doubt he has bonded with the man since puppyhood. Now, he has a heart and eyes for no other. Maybe at first, there were treats for following. Now, he just follows for the joy of following. At the end of the chase, I’m sure there are joyful embraces, puppy kisses, and loving words.
You might guess where I am going with this. God longs for us to chase after Him, to long for Him, to have eyes for no other, to follow him on an invisible leash of love.
Speaking to His people in Bible times, God said, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert. . .” Jeremiah 2:2.
What would it take to become a God-follower, a God-chaser, as it were?
First, simply seeing what is so good about Him, what is worth chasing. That is why He has revealed Himself in the Bible, and also so often in our lives–so we can get to know Him. To know Him is to love Him. It is as simple as that. Reading the Scriptures regularly can help us form that invisible attachment.
Truth is, the chase is not just ours to make. God has been chasing us. He chased His people (and others) all through the pages of the Old Testament, calling them, longing for them: “All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations. . .” Isaiah 65:2
Then in the greatest chase of all time, He sent Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to seek and save us. He lived among us, showing us the heart of God for broken people like us. Then He made the ultimate Sacrifice by dying for our sins, to win our hearts and set us free and restore us.
So the reality is, we who chase God are those who have seen how passionately He has chased after us. His pursuit has won our hearts.
As a famous God-chaser once wrote: “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:12-14. The prize is spending forever with our Friend, Jesus.
If we are not chasing after God, it might be because we are distracted by other things in the park. We are tempted to chase all kinds of things: our profession or trade can be very satisfying; and rightly so. Relationships; God made us for relationships. Amusement and recreation. Nothing wrong with having fun and enjoying beauty. God made us for that too. But are we chasing these things to the exclusion of chasing Him?
Francis Thompson wrote about it in his famous poem, The Hound of Heaven: “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the midst of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter. Up vistaed hopes I sped; and shot, precipitated, adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears, from those strong Feet that followed, followed after. But with unhurrying chase, and unperturbèd pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy, they beat—and a Voice beat more instant than the Feet. . .”
God never gives up.
Have you let Him catch you? I have. His love is better than life. It is the ultimate love because He is so amazing, so wonderful. But I still chase after him. I am not perfect. There is still so much I want to see and know about Him. So much to learn.
But the Man on the Bike, longs for us to chase ultimately after Him, above all, in all, and through all we do.
Why is it important to read the Bible? Have devotions? Internalize Jesus’ words? Live by them?
Because God’s word is powerful. It is life changing and sustaining. The same power that created the world is in the Bible and goes to work in us as we read, believe, and follow God’s word. He (the Spirit) works in us and grows us. He draws us to Jesus and God’s heart. He changes us, makes us more like Jesus. Miraculously, silently, He works in us.
Remember? Jesus was called “the Word.” He was God’s heart and thoughts made flesh. We know God by knowing Jesus and reading His words.
Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life.” John 6:35. We cannot live without God’s word any more than we can live without eating.
Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” John 6:63-64. Jesus words are life for us through the Holy Spirit. We must believe and follow them. That’s when His life moves in us.
Have you been too busy to spend time with God reading His word, lately? (Life is really busy). I would like to suggest something: Ask God to give you time. If you have that desire–even if you just know you should, and you ask Him, He will work something out for you.
You might find yourself waking up early (unexplainably), or finding a few minutes somewhere in your day to pray and read for a few minutes. It’s a prayer He loves to answer. You will find new life, refreshing, peace-giving, reassuring–and a growing sense of God’s presence and reality.
In my last blog, I said that God was speaking to us by sending Jesus to our world. Jesus was the “Word” of God and He became human so He could speak God’s words, with human heart and lips, to us. But as the writer of Hebrews points out, Jesus wasn’t the first person God spoke through.
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son. . .” Heb. 1:1-2 NIV
The point is, God wants to talk to us. He loves us so much, no matter how messed up or far from Him we are, that He wants to speak to us. All down through the history of earth, He has been speaking, drawing people to His heart. Often we haven’t been listening.
So the first step in understanding God’s word is the right mental set: God loves you and wants to speak to you. He is actually drawing you to Himself, trying to make an appointment to visit you through His word.
Pray before you read. Thank God He loves you and wants to speak with you. Ask Him to help you understand and to be receptive to what He wants to say.
Then start reading. The Bible was written to be read by a reader to an audience. In ancient times, a prophet, or priest, or reader would simply read the Bible, and people would listen. God had a message and He sent it to be read.
Listen with your heart to hear God’s heart to you. Don’t try to read a certain amount. Just read until you feel fed by the Bread of Life for that time.
God’s word was created to feed us. In its stories and teachings, it has all the nutrients we need for life. Read it regularly, and you will be well nourished. Neglect it, and you will a little bit starved. That empty place you feel in your soul needs to be filled with God’s word.
Blaise Pascal, a seventeenth century scientist/philosopher wrote: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.” He was right.
If you just start reading the Bible, God will speak to you through His word. His Spirit will speak silently to your heart. If you haven’t been reading lately, give it time. It takes time to tune our hearts to God’s frequency. Ask Him to help you. He will–because He loves you. Just start reading. . .and listening.
Thanks for joining me! I plan to write here often about life and faith from a Christian perspective. Today I begin with something very basic, but oh so critical for life.
“The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14 NIV
Jesus is called the “Word” because He was God’s heart and thoughts made audible. He became human so he could form into words the love and grace that was in God’s heart for us and describe the truths that life is really built on.
Every word Jesus spoke, every truth He taught was crafted for us from the Father. These words are designed to prepare us for life and eternity. When we take them into our hearts and minds, we are built up into God’s likeness.
When tempted by Satan to turn stones to bread, Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:4 NIV.
“Every word.” Jesus is saying that every word in Scripture is necessary for our spiritual nourishment, for building us up–every promise, every teaching, every story, every command, every word of grace; each in its proper context, of course.
Some diseases come to us because of a missing nutritional ingredient. Scurvy from a deficiency of vitamin C. Fatigue, bone loss, recurring infections from too little vitamin D. When Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” (John 6:35) He meant, among other things, that His words are designed to give balanced spiritual nutrition and good health. Neglect them at our peril.
In our busy lives, we often try to live without eating in a spiritual sense. And we struggle with all kinds of spiritual deficiencies as a result: lack of patience and love, anger, lust, etc. Thinking about Jesus’ words and applying them, creates calmer, truer qualities of heart.
Using another metaphor, Jesus said that people who don’t listen to His words and put them into practice are like people trying to build a house on sand. When the waves come, the house collapses. But those who dig deep and build their house on a rock stand strong when the pounding swells hit. (Luke 6:46-49).
So, what are you doing to listen to God’s words and take them in? This month I started a yearly Bible reading plan. Ten chapters a day; some from the Old Testament, some of the New. But you might choose something different like reading through the Gospels or Psalms or subscribing to a verse a day on your mobile device. The important thing is to hear God’s heart by listening to His word, spend time meditating on them, and applying them to your life.
When I was a campus minister, I met a former submarine officer who was doing a graduate degree in engineering. He told me life in the confined quarters of a sub was hard. But one day the thought came to him, “You call yourself a Christian, but you’ve never read His book.” He decided to start, and he told me that practice had made a big difference in his life. His life was really changed. The same has been true for me.
In coming days, I’ll share a few practices that have helped me and others be blessed by reading and meditating on Scripture.