Wednesday, July 29, 2009

When God answers prayer – Revelation 8-11


When reading the book of Revelation, it is easy to get caught up in trying to interpret all of the details. Perhaps this is why so many either become obsessed with the book or, alternately, despair over ever understanding its message and avoid reading it.

The best counsel I can give on how to avoid either extreme is to follow the admonition of the book itself and to read it as it was intended to be read. Revelation 1:3 says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” Revelation is meant to be read out loud and listened to rather than dissected word-by-word. It is meant to be experienced and visualized.

As we approach chapters 8-11 in our study this month, this becomes especially important. So, before you read any further, may I ask you to stop and read these chapters out loud?

It is vital that we understand the context of Revelation 8-11. In 8:1-5 we read:

When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.

Everything that follows from 8:6-11:18 is the result of God’s responding to the prayers of the saints in 8:4. What prayers are those? The answer is found back in 6:10 where the saints cry out from under the altar, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"

At that time, they are told to be patient. God will respond. Their prayers have not gone unnoticed or unanswered. Indeed everything that occurs in Revelation 8-11 is God’s response to that prayer. But whereas the seals in chapters 6-7 result in the persecuted church pleading for justice from God (6:10), the trumpets in chapters 8-11 result in the persecuting world being offered mercy from God.

Yes, terrible things take place in chapters 8-9--hail, fire, poisoned waters, death and destruction, plagues and war. But the destruction is limited. There is mercy being offered; God’s hand is being held back. Then in chapter 10, God provides a message that is both sweet and bitter. It is sweet because it is a message of salvation and hope but it is bitter to those who eat it because of the inevitable persecution that will result from the proclamation of this message.

This is illustrated in chapter 11 as two messengers bring a message from God to a hostile world. Some repent and give glory to God (11:13) but only after the messengers have been killed for their witness (11:7). Revelation 10-11 reminds us that while Christ’s death provides the means for salvation, the death of His people is often required to bring that salvation message to others.

Chapters 8-11 also remind us that suffering itself rarely brings people to Christ. The result of the calamity in chapters 8-9 actually concludes with the people not repenting (9:20-21) even though they had the opportunity. Sadly, in times of suffering when people should turn to God, they often curse and turn from Him instead. The gospel of salvation requires messengers who will bring the sweet and bitter Word of hope to a world under the judgment of God.

Lastly, these chapters remind us that while God is concerned with justice, His first priority is to offer mercy to those who need to repent. How does He do that? Through you and me. Those who are protected (sealed) from the wrath of God (9:4) are protected for a purpose--to be His witnesses (chapter 11) even though it will likely result in rejection, hostility and, in some cases, even death.

Why are there only two witnesses in chapter 11? Because in Revelation 1-3, only two of the lampstands (cf. 11: 4), Smyrna and Philadelphia, were faithful witnesses. The rest were failing in their lampstand/witness role. Only two had the oil from the oil trees still burning in their lamps.

Are you being a faithful witness in the midst of a world under the judgment of God? Are you extending God’s mercy to a world that deserves His justice?

Read more »

Monday, July 20, 2009

Job: Responding to God’s seemingly arbitrary decrees

Last week I told you about how I was reading as part of my daily devotions, a chapter or two each morning from Mike Mason’s excellent devotional commentary The Gospel According to Job. The following is a chapter that both my wife and I have wrestled with. But what the author is saying, when considered carefully, is really quite liberating, which is always the case with biblical truth.  Read it over, ponder it over and then please comment on your reaction to this.


"The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord!" (1:21b)

Job's remarkable statement here takes us back to the very primitive (and some would say pagan) concept of chance or luck. Job is basically saying that there is good luck and there is bad luck and that God administrates them both, and not only is it His divine prerogative to do so, but for every one of His seemingly arbitrary decrees He is to be praised. Whether in the casinos of Las Vegas or in the parliaments of the nations, it is God who picks up the roulette ball and places it wherever He will. It is He who shuffles the deck - even if He does not shuffle but rather arranges each card as carefully as He numbers the hairs on a head. Whether luck exists at all, from God's point of view, is a good question. But from the human standpoint, there is so much of the divine patterning that cannot be understood, that we might as well chalk it up to luck. Why does one person have red hair and another brown? Why is one sick and another well? Why does one die young and another live to see four generations - and all without any regard for individual spiritual beliefs? There are no good religious answers to these questions. There is only the nonreligious answer: the luck of the draw.

To believe in God is to accept the nonreligious answer. It is to allow for the fact that the Deity behind the strange and inexplicable facade of this world is a real, living person, and therefore a person with not only rational plans and ideas, but also with nonrational intuitions, feelings, and even whims of His own. To know the Lord in this way is, in some respects, just like knowing anybody else, for in our dealings with other people do we not inevitably run up against a large measure of pure unfathomable irrationality? People would not be people if they were entirely reasonable, and so it is with God. How reasonable is grace? Or love? Many cannot believe in God because they cannot stomach His whims. But to allow the Lord His whimsicalness - and more than that, to bless Him for it - is faith.

This topic turns out to be the crux of a good deal of the long debate between Job and his friends. The friends could never have made the statement in 1:21. It would have been too arbitrary, too superstitious for their liking. Good religious people do not believe in luck; they believe in finding reasons for everything. They are always trying to figure out why they are having a bad day, or why they are sick, or why they are not more happy or prosperous. This type of thinking, which forever tries to appease and manipulate the god behind every bush and rock, is a kind of paganism. In this tight theology there is no room for the sheer arbitrary unreasonableness of the Lord. By contrast, the mind that is able to live with unanswerable questions, letting the roulette ball spin at will and yet still seeing the Lord's hand at work - this is the mind of true faith. This is the faith that can respond, whether in good luck or in bad, "Amen!"

The moment we start thinking that we can discern some pattern to the ways of the Lord, we begin to draw dangerously near to idolatry. We come to worship the pattern rather than the Person behind it. We see patterns everywhere, as in tea leaves, and so grow preoccupied with technique rather than relationship. Patterns become molds into which we try and squeeze all of reality, whether it fits or not. In modern times the most obvious example of this is science. Certainly there are patterns in God's universe to be discovered and legitimately exploited; but no pattern can encompass all of reality. When a pattern or system attempts to be all-inclusive, the final result is that it excludes the most vital factor of all: God. This is not to say that God is not rational, only that mere rationality does not completely define His being.

To the ancient Hebrews pure chance, far from being an idea opposed to God, was one of the very things that proclaimed His sovereignty. Why else would they have cast lots and employed the device of "Urim and Thummim" to discern the Lord's will (see Ex. 28:30)? "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord" (Prov. 16:33). Luck was just one more of the enigmatic channels through which God worked. The mere fact that we are alive at all-is that not lucky? That a loving Heavenly Father has preordained every detail of human lives does not mean that there is any discernible reason why the ball lands on 7 rather than 15. While there is much about God that can be known, this is not what the book of Job is about. Job is about the incomprehensible ways of God, and about the praise that is due Him in bad luck as in good.

(Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job, Crossway Books, 1994: 39-40)

Read more »

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Is it wrong to get angry with God?

fist2 Each morning for the past couple of months, I have been reading, as part of my daily devotions, a chapter or two from Mike Mason’s excellent devotional commentary The Gospel According to Job.  I found yesterday’s reading particularly thought provoking, especially in light of the many reports we receive each day of persecution here at The Voice of the Martyrs.  Sometimes we read a story that brings us to tears, as Floyd mentioned in his blog yesterday.  Occasionally, anger rises up.  Is it wrong to be angry with God, as well as the persecutor? Read this over and let me know what you think.

The Primal Scream

"Why has your heart carried you away,
and why do your eyes flash,
so that you vent your rage against God?"

"Dialogue" is a very polite term for what happens in Job. Really it is an argument, and a hot one at that. Not only does Job argue with his friends, but he also argues with God. As for the friends, they too are engaged in a heated dispute with God, but like many people they do not care to admit this, and so their anger is directed instead against Job. A man like Eliphaz thinks that if he gets mad at God, God in turn will get mad at him and condemn him. So Eliphaz suppresses his anger and lives in continual, subconscious fear of divine wrath. He is like a hermit who prides himself on having no interpersonal hassles to upset his tranquil and ordered lifestyle. But anyone who lives in a family, in close fellowship with others, lives with tensions, complaints, disputes. Different families cope with these stresses in different ways - some quietly and some noisily, some effectively and some pathologically - but no family survives for long without some form of argument, and the family of God is no exception.

Is not the whole human race engaged in one long argument with God that is called "history"? The difference between believers and unbelievers is that while the former argue on speaking terms with the Lord, the latter do so by turning their backs and giving Him the silent treatment. Those who choose to live outside the family circle end up with no proper forum for expressing their hurts and resentments against their Heavenly Father. But those who gather around the Father's table know that such problems must be regularly aired, for if they are not, they will poison intimacy.

In our culture anger is generally frowned upon as being disruptive. But there are different ways of being disruptive. A chronically loud, critical person is certainly disruptive. But a polite, well-behaved person may also be disruptive, and in a church such a person may be using their friendly and unassuming ways to obstruct the purposes of God. A cult of niceness is as effective as heresy for destroying the spiritual life of a church. Anger, on the other hand, may be used by God to break up a spirit of complacency. Ezekiel, who when the Lord first called him to a prophetic reacted "in bitterness and in the anger of my spirit" (3:14). case the Lord used anger and bitterness to inflame Ezekiel's heart with passion for Him. If Ezekiel had insisted on remaining a mild-mannered priest (which he probably was by nature), he would have thwarted God's purposes.

Little wonder that the great believers of the Bible have also been great arguers with God - from Jacob, who actually came to blows with the angel of the Lord, to Peter who in Acts 10 answered a divine command three times with the words, "Surely not, Clearly, anger at God can be a sign of spiritual growth. It can mean we are outgrowing a concept of God that is no longer adequate for us. It could even be said that our anger is directed not at the living God Himself but at our own idolatrous concept of Him. While we ourselves may not understand this, nevertheless our anger functions to move us closer to God as He really is. Religious phonies will go to almost any lengths to hide the fact that their relationship with God is not real or satisfying. But people who truly love the Lord have a consuming hunger for reality. Freedom, truth, peace,joy: such things have a taste and a feel all their own, and we know them when we see them. If the people of God are deprived of these fruits of the Lord's real presence, naturally they grow angry and disconsolate. Is it their fault that they cannot live without God?

There are times when the Lord is actually honored and glorified by our anger at Him, in ways that He may not be by an attitude of unruffled "trust." Job provides a healthy balance to the traditional picture of the bloodless, gutless, cheerfully suffering saint. At the very least, anger means that we are taking God seriously and treating Him as a real person - real enough to arouse our passions. Angry prayer is not to be recommended as a steady diet, perhaps, but it is certainly preferable to lip-service prayer. Doesn't artificiality in relationships belie a far greater hostility than the honest expression of deep emotion? In the prim and proper prayer lives of many devout folk, a good old-fashioned temper tantrum might one of the best things that could happen. In the courts of Heaven there is a place for the primal scream.

(Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job, Crossway Books, 1994: 175-176)

Read more »