The Kingdom of Heaven

The seventeenth century philosopher and theologian Gottfried Leibniz argued that if God is good, loving, and powerful, then this must be the best possible world, because what other kind of world would such a deity create? 

The problem, of course, is that we can imagine a better world.   One of the common clichés people mutter at us in our times of grief when a loved one passes on is, “well, she’s in a better place now.”

So, if there is such a better place, such a better world, then why is there this one and why do we have to be in it, if God loves us so much?

If the Kingdom of Heaven is better than here and now, then how can this possibly be the best of all possible worlds?  And if this isn’t the best of all possible worlds, then what does that tell us about God?

But.

What if the Kingdom of Heaven can come about only because of this world?  That is, what if the Kingdom of Heaven requires this world in order to come into existence?  What if, in fact, this world creates the Kingdom of Heaven, so that the Kingdom of Heaven is a consequence of this world?  

The Kingdom of Heaven would then grow from this world and would not entirely—or even at all—be separate from this world.

Some may object to this for various reasons, but ask yourself, what is the Kingdom of Heaven? 

The short answer: it is God’s people.  It is the church.  It is the Bride of Christ.  Therefore, this world is necessary for the Kingdom of Heaven to exist, because it is the people of God living in this world who are and who become that Kingdom.  This then is the best of all possible worlds, since it is the only world that can create or become the better world of the Kingdom—which is paradoxical unless you realize that the Kingdom is co-existent with this current world: the Kingdom, in a very real sense, is now.

Jesus explained it very clearly:

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

When we ask, “is this the best of all possible worlds?” we must recognize that this world includes the Kingdom of Heaven in seed form at the very least. 

Ask yourself this when you peer at Jesus sleeping in the manger, “is this baby the best of all possible human beings?”  The baby is no less the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the World, than the resurrected Lord.  One could say that this world is the baby to the adult that is the Kingdom of Heaven.

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Coming Like a Thief



In Revelation 16:8-15 the plagues continue against the Evil Empire. The fourth plague was the sun scorching people and causing them “to curse the name of God who had control over these plagues.” Despite correctly identifying the source of their suffering, the passage explains that they still refused to repent and glorify God.

When God brought the plagues against Egypt, we hear time after time what phrase? That the pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he would not let the people go.

Whatever horrible thing came upon the Egyptians, the reaction, nine times out of ten, was the same: no change in behavior. Instead, there was only rage that such an awful thing that had happened.

Kind of like most of us, most of the time when we get caught doing something we ought not to have done.

When we were kids and our moms found us with our hands in the cookie jar, how often were we really remorseful? Mostly we were just mad that we got caught. If we get pulled over for speeding, are we remorseful about the speeding?

Probably not.

We’re just hosed that we got caught and have to pay a fine and do traffic school. And while we might drive slower, more carefully for a bit afterward, it certainly doesn’t have much impact on our attitude or behavior in the long term, and what little effect it does have is only because we don’t want to get stuck with that expense again.

This is our nature. It’s not so much that we feel bad for doing something, just that we feel bad when we get in trouble for it and especially we feel bad for the consequences that come from getting caught. A lot of our so-called guilty feelings are just our discomfort and shame that people have found out what awful thing we did. If we never get caught, do we ever feel bad?

One of the ways you can tell if you—or someone else for that matter—are actually, genuinely repenting: you aren’t mad that you were caught, you are instead desperate in your wish to undo what happened, to fix it, to do anything that is requested of you to make it right. You’re not just going through the motions: you actually have a “change of heart.” It is a remarkably rare gift. Mostly we see the “I’m mad because you caught me stealing the cookies,” as with these people here in Revelation in today’s passage, or back in the Old Testament with Esau who was simply mad at his brother Jacob. Esau wasn’t the least upset over his attitude, that he had despised his birthright and cared so little for it that he was willing to exchange it for a bowl of stew. Pharaoh wasn’t bothered by disobeying God’s request; he was only mad about whatever discomfort he was experiencing.

But occasionally in the Bible we get to witness genuine repentance. For instance, we see it with David in the Old Testament, and we recognize it in Paul in the New Testament; Paul was never the same after his experience on the Road to Damascus. The direction and course of his life were radically different.

When we contemplate the destruction caused by the plagues here in Revelation, we should understand their purpose. God is simply attempting to get those who have been persecuting Christians to repent, to change their minds, to alter the trajectory of their lives.

An obvious way to get people to stop persecuting you is to simply kill them, obviously. And there is an emotional satisfaction in that. And some people want to see the plagues against the Evil Empire as that and nothing else.

But the better way to solve the problem of persecution is the way God is doing it in the Bible: he wants to get the one doing harm to stop harming, not by destroying them, but by getting them to change. That’s what God is always trying to do: he wants not just to save us from our tormenters, but also to also rescue our tormenters. If he can save our tormenters, he also saves us. The one who is persecuting us needs saving just as much as we do, and if God can save him or her, he rescues not just us, but them as well.

That’s a much better, far more satisfying outcome than just making their faces melt off their skulls.

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Sharing the Faith

Jesus told us “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). But he didn’t tell us how to do it.

In the rest of the book of Acts we discover more than one way to share our faith. The good news we offer always stays the same, but the techniques are all over the place. You just never know.

My mom is very shy and introverted, but she didn’t let that keep her from sharing her faith. When I was in junior high, she bought hundreds and hundreds of copies of the Gospel of John, went through the phone book to get addresses, and then mailed them out with the thought “God’s word won’t return void.”

Maybe that’s where I got the idea to stuff tracts into all the lockers in my junior high one lunch hour. The principal was furious and yelled threats over the intercom that afternoon—which of course only increased how much people talked about the tracts, about the gospel, and about Jesus.

At 14, I didn’t know what I was doing.

I still didn’t know much when I was 18 and 19 and went to Israel twice to work on a kibbutz so I could share the gospel with Israelis as a short-term missionary. All I did there was plant seeds with the Israelis and with all the other volunteer workers from all over the world who were there. It wasn’t just Israelis who heard the gospel message.

The older I get, the less I think I know what I’m doing.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s favorite verse was 2 Chronicles 20:12 “Our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” We know in part and only see through a mirror darkly, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13. Not knowing the answers, not knowing what to do is part of the human condition. Proverbs 3:5-6 warns us against depending upon on our own understanding, encouraging us instead to trust God.

So I accept that I don’t know much. As desperately as I want to fix problems, I have to accept that there are some problems I just can’t fix. I can’t cure illness, and I can’t bring the dead back to life. I’m not even so good with plumbing.

We get mocked for offering “thoughts and prayers,” and sometimes rightly so according to the apostle James (see James 2:14-17). We Christians certainly don’t have all the answers to all the world’s problems. We don’t even have all the questions.

But what we do have is the simple message that Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, was happy to give. He was once asked to share the most profound thought he’d ever had. So he began softly singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

We don’t need an answer to every question. We don’t need to know very much. It’s enough that we can tell our neighbors that Jesus loves us. And there’s a nearly infinite number of ways we can do that.

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What Changes

Phariseeism is quite old; it is the default setting for the human race.  We love to disparage those who don’t agree with us.

One common format for this old Phariseeism: “you can’t possibly be a Christian if you believe that” or “you can’t claim to be a Christian and then practice that” or “you can’t possibly be a Christian if you vote that way” or “support that politician” or “participate in that activity” or “frequent that business” or “agree with that individual.”

We live in a time where people are convicted over minor infractions and tossed away with abandon.  If someone says, thinks, or does something that the in-group decides is reprehensible, not only are they vilified, they are boycotted, and they are turned into an unperson who can never, ever be forgiven. 

It’s like living in a high school that can never end.  You say something that someone dislikes or takes the wrong way on Twitter or Facebook and you will lose your job, your career, and your standing in the public arena.  You’ll never get invited to the prom.  You will never be forgiven no matter what you say, no matter what amends you attempt to make, no matter how you walk back your words. 

Love, mercy and forgiveness no longer play much role, except as platitudes.  The Pharisees are in charge and they want to see some punishment; they want to have endless power, and they demand that everyone bow to their way of thinking, and living, and being for now and ever more. 

The legalism that is inherent in the way the world works is fundamentally about power and diametrically opposed to Christianity.  And because we live in this world, Christians are easily infected by it.  Look at the power of worldliness in Colossians 2:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings.Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:16-23)

It is a mistake for the church to concern itself with joining those who wish to pass laws to prohibit evil things.  Making more rules is an ineffective approach to solving problems.  Passing a law against annoying behavior does not mean that the behavior will stop. My wife tells me to stop chewing with my mouth open.  Over and over again.  Her reminding me of the rules doesn’t stop me.  People still speed, still steal, still murder. All a law does is create the possibility of rendering punishment.  Prohibiting the ingestion of various substances does not keep people from imbibing.  Prohibiting behaviors does not stop behaviors.  Fear of my wife getting annoyed does not seem to be enough to make me keep my mouth shut.

The only way to solve bad actions is through a transformation of the human heart.  This genuine change is what the church can accomplish through the power of the Good News.  Through the power of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit enters people and they are made into something new and different.  You cannot have God living inside of you without that having a profound impact on your choices and lifestyle.  We wage war against the darkness, not by using the weapons of the world, but by using the sword of the Spirit.  God can fix what otherwise cannot be repaired.  God changes lives that all the laws in the world never will.

Even then, because we are dealing with human beings, they will still misbehave.  Misbehavior cannot be ended this side of eternity.

Remember these “elemental spiritual forces of this world” that saddle us with rules are our enemy.  In contrast, the people of this world are never our enemy; they are fellow-sufferers and victims.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)

Our struggle, as the struggle of the people to whom the Book of Revelation was written, is ultimately the same: it is against the necessary evil.

Recall who runs the necessary evil: the one who offered the necessary evil to Jesus if he would only worship him:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8-9)

And so John writes against those in Revelation who are worshipping that necessary evil that wants to keep us living in an eternal high school. In the time of John, it was personified in the Roman Empire, which required the literal worship of the Caesar.  All right-thinking Romans would gladly acknowledge him with their sacrifices and proclaim “Caesar is lord.” 

Christians then and now must affirm that no, only Jesus is Lord.  Never Caesar. And only Jesus can change lives. Caesar can go to Hell.

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Be Warm and Filled

Uttering the words “be warm and filled” provides no warmth against freezing conditions nor food for empty stomachs. The apostle James writes that faith leads to action. If it is real faith, there will be practical consequences. Faith is not the expression of kind, well-meaning words or good intentions.

In Deuteronomy 6:8-9 we read the following regarding God’s words:

“Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”

Some do this quite literally. They roll up tiny scrolls and seal them inside little boxes that they attach to the side of the doorframes on their homes. Then they strap similarly filled boxes to their hands and foreheads. Which of course misses entirely the metaphorical point: the word of God is supposed to fill our minds and be lived out in our actions.

But too many Christians are satisfied by merely distributing Jesus tchotchke around their homes. And while there is nothing wrong with having Bible verses framed on our walls, or having inspiring sayings embroidered on our towels, there is more to living out our faith than generating memes on Facebook or guilting people into reposting them to prove they really love the Lord.

Inspiring words will not put food in our bellies. Saying “be warmed and filled” does nothing to solve any actual problems. Good intentions do not end hunger. Warm words do not make a good blanket. Marching, petitioning, waving signs in the air, “coming together” in solidarity, #IBELIEVE, changing our Facebook picture and adding a ribbon to it: you haven’t actually done anything at all! You’ve heard it said “the pen is mightier than the sword” but when it comes to actually stabbing your assailant, I think the sword will do a better job of it.

Last week we ended with the phrase in Revelation 13:10 “this calls for patient endurance and faithfulness.” In the face of persecution, in the face of living out what Jesus promised, that “in this life you will have trouble” how do we embrace the second part of what Jesus said “I have overcome the world?” How do we live that sort of life? How do we embody “patient endurance and faithfulness?” How do we overcome?

By putting God’s words in our minds and then choosing to act them out with our hands.

When you have no money and the rent is due, how do you face that? How do you focus on God when your loved one is sick and in the hospital? How do you have faith when the Gestapo is at your door? How do you keep believing when ISIS has come to cut off your head?

You have to decide, with each moment, each choice, at each turning point, in the middle of each crisis to remember God and to rely on God. And how does God help us? Mostly by using the people around us.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart 
and lean not on your own understanding; 
in all your ways submit to him, 
and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

It isn’t easy. Ever. It is hard. Always. And it is ongoing. And you may be scared. And you may not have things turn out as you’d like. You may lose it all. You may die.

What good are the Bible verses in frames on your wall then? What good is “I love you” when your heart is broken? And yet, from the thought, follows the action. Saying “be warmed and filled” is fine. We need polite words, good words, encouraging words, kind words. Telling people you love them, care about them, and will pray for them is good. But if it is in your power to do something, then shut up and do something. When you see someone hungry, give them food. When someone is lonely, spend time with them. When someone is fallen, pick them up.

Okay, so maybe it is easy; just messy sometimes, and inconvenient, and sometimes it costs something. Talk is cheap. Solutions are costly.

So. Choose you this day who you will serve. Consider Isaiah’s reaction:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” 
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)

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The Great Revolt

I believe Revelation 13:1-10 is set during the time of the Jewish Revolt, between 66 and 70 AD, which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and more significantly, according to the ancient historian Josephus, the death of 1.1 million of God’s people, followed by the survivors being enslaved or scattered across the Roman Empire. The persecution of Christians increased exponentially. Things were very bad for God’s people when John was writing the book of Revelation.

So, what is the point of this Sunday’s passage?

We are not promised a rose garden. Those who preach “health, wealth, prosperity” are at best misguided and mistaken; at worst, they are just lying to you in order to separate you from your money. Captivity, death—those are not healthy or wealthy for you. The devil is seeking whom he might devour: that is, the world, ruled by the devil, is not our friend. We are here to share the Good News and to rescue people from the evil one. If we happen to live comfortably, that’s a great blessing, but not guaranteed. What Jesus guaranteed was this: “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.” (John 16:33)

We must have patient endurance: in the midst of trouble, disappointment, setbacks, horror. This is what is required of suffering. This past week hundreds of Christians died, murdered in their churches across Sri Lanke. Every week, around the world, Christians die for their faith; every week, Christians lose jobs, education, houses, church buildings and freedom for their faith. Whatever we preach, teach, believe, it must be as true for us in our privileged and prosperous life as members of a prosperous, tolerant nation, as it is for those dying for their faith, and those living in the midst of hunger and poverty in crushing oppression and heavy persecution.

We must never forget that remarkably, the church continued to grow, to gain more followers, to expand even in the midst of suffering and poverty; it has ever been so. As people saw Christians die in the arenas, some of them, many of them, decided they wanted to become Christians, too. Not so they could die, but so that they could have that which made Christians able to accept death when it couldn’t be avoided: the hope, the certainty of resurrection and everlasting life. Because the reality is: we are all going to die. Our friends and family, our coworkers and neighbors, the people we do business with and meet in the public square all want to be able to face the inevitability of death with hope, with peace, and with understanding. That’s something Christians have to offer, regardless of when or how death comes; and that’s what those who saw Christians die recognized and wanted desperately. We have the Good News of love, forgiveness, freedom and everlasting life. That’s what everyone wants, rich or poor, no matter where they happen to reside.

Sometimes I think that I could be more effective, do a better job as a Christian, do better work, if I had less stress, less worry, less anxiety, less trouble, fewer problems. If I never had any plumbing to do ever again; if the Dodgers never lost a game ever again, if I always had plenty of money, why, think how effective and dynamic a relaxed and happy me could be!

None of us live in that kind of world. God did not call us to live lives in paradise today (assuming you’re still on the green side of the grass). He called us to live lives here and now, in the world as it really is, not in the world we wish for. He called us to bear witness to, and to join in the sufferings of Christ in the midst of trial and tribulation—and so he promised us we would have trouble in this world, but he also promised us that he has overcome the world. In this world, in the shadows of dark reality, we celebrate each Sunday that Jesus overcame sin, death, and the grave. Our suffering will never exceed those three things. Jesus overcame all three horrors, and so, in him, can we.

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Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is the day when Jesus came to Jerusalem so he could die.  The disciples thought he was coming to set himself up on the throne of David as king.  They imagined that the kingdom of God was like an earthly kingdom, despite all the times that Jesus had patiently explained that the kingdom of God was like yeast, like ten virgins, like anything but a government. Despite the fact that he had washed their feet, despite the fact that he had told them that the one who wanted to be great must be the servant of all.

Later, Paul would write to the church in Philippi:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:1-8)

On this Sunday we celebrate the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, when he arrived not on a prancing warhorse, but on a donkey—that should also have been a clue:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!

Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!

See, your king comes to you,

righteous and victorious,

lowly and riding on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

As Jesus arrived on the donkey, the people threw palm branches in front of them and proclaimed “hosanna”—a word that means “Save!”—which is also a part of the meaning of Jesus’ name: “ he saves.”  And that is precisely what Jesus came to do. 

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was triumphal, but not in the way that the people on that day, in that moment, imagined.  He was triumphant, because he would triumph over sin, triumph over Satan, and triumph over death.  The kingdom of God was truly at hand.  But the kingdom of God is not a kingdom like the world knows and understands; it is not a kingdom people easily see.

What did Jesus say?

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed,nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21)

 The kingdom of God is inside of us, it is us collectively, it is us as God’s temple now, we who can now worship God in spirit and in truth, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman, because God now lives in each of us as individuals, and in all of us collectively. As Jesus told his disciple in Matthew 18:20:

 “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

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Choice

We cannot control the behavior of other people.  One of the things we briefly touched in last week’s A Mirror Darkly webcast was the question of free will and how that relates to God’s omniscience. In the movie Bruce Almighty, which is obviously fiction, God, as played by Morgan Freeman tells Bruce (played by Jim Carrey) that the one thing you can’t do is make someone love you.

And yet love—for God and others—is the core of the Bible.

But God has, at the very least, chosen to limit himself.  I’ve pointed out before a shocking truth that is very clear from the Garden of Eden event between the serpent, Eve and Adam: God would rather we be free than that we be good. 

That’s shocking for human beings because—thanks to that event in the garden—we are locked into a binary point of view regarding everything in life: is it good, or is it bad?  By our nature, thanks to the choice Adam and Eve made, we are constantly concerned with judging right and wrong.  We can’t help it.  That’s why we are so obsessed with passing endless laws. Our very nature has become legalistic.

God didn’t warn us against eating from a tree of the knowledge of just evil, but of both good and evil.  We weren’t supposed to think about such matters or even know about them; we were instead simply to love one another and God.  If everyone focused on bringing happiness to others, on loving others, then we’d always have everything we ever wanted, always be satisfied, always feel complete.  We would be in paradise. 

But it didn’t go down that way. 

Instead, we ate from the cursed tree of the knowledge of good and evil and so we judge everything.  We were never intended to become the legalistic obsessives that we have turned into. 

Nevertheless, God thought that letting us making a poor choice was better than us being denied the possibility of making a choice at all.  All of human history, all the horrors that it has produced: the existence of death, murder, rape, slavery, war, suffering, disease, starvation—every bad and awful thing you can think of—God thought it was worth it for the sake of freedom.  Freedom trumps everything, even the life of Jesus, his son, who had to die to fix the mess we made.

The philosopher Gottfried Leibniz argued that given a God that is both powerful as well as good—very good—he would necessarily design a world that would be the best it possibly could be, given the existence of this thing called freedom, the ability of human beings to make choices.

And we know that God made a good choice himself, in giving us choice. All you have to do is ask yourself: would you rather be free, or live in a totalitarian dictatorship?  Is the US preferable to North Korea?  The old Soviet Union?  The Nazi Reich?

Ask your teenager if she wants you to micromanage her life.  Can you make your children behave now?  How about when they grow up?  Can you determine all their choices for them? What music to listen to, what television to watch, which friends to have?  Would they like that?  Would you really want to be in charge of their lives for the rest of your lives?

In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, C.S. Lewis wrote:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Those who would limit freedom always argue that it is for the greater good: to protect us and to ensure our happiness.

And we know better.  We know it won’t work out like that. 

The movie The Giver, which came out in 2014 (and is based on a novel of the same name by Lois Lowry), presents a seemingly perfect community without war, pain, or suffering.  But it’s not as wonderful as it seems, and a young boy, chosen to learn from an elderly man about the pain and pleasure of the “real” world winds up rebelling against this “paradise.”

Later, as the boy’s friend and love interest is about to be euthanized in order to prevent the contagion of freedom spreading, the Chief Elder, played by Meryl Streep has a conversation with the Giver, played by Jeff Bridges:

The Giver: With love comes faith, with it comes hope.

Chief Elder: Love is just passion that can turn.

The Giver: We can do better.

Chief Elder: It turns into contempt and murder.

The Giver: We could choose better.

Chief Elder: People are weak. People are selfish. When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong. Every single time.

God knows that we choose wrong. Every single time.  But he’d rather that, and the world we now inhabit—than that we should be something other than free.

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Literally?

We do not usually interpret the Bible literally. Anymore than we interpret much of anything we encounter in print literally. Consider Psalm 91:1-4 as an example:

Whoever 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.” 
Surely he will save you 
from the fowler’s snare 
and from the deadly pestilence. 
He will cover you with his feathers, 
and under his wings you will find refuge; 
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

God has a shelter? Is this like something we might have for the homeless? Does this mean that if you reside in God’s shelter, you’ll be okay, but if you live in your own house or apartment, you’ll be hosed?

God casts a shadow? Like on a sunny day?

God is a refuge? Like a wildlife refuge?

God is a fortress? With walls and ramparts? Do people ever lay siege to him?

God will save you from a fowler’s snare? That’s a relief, since I get trapped in those regularly. I mean, who doesn’t?

God has feathers and wings? So God is a parakeet? Is this why he knows about fowler’s snares?

When we read the Bible, we should be naturally reading it with the same skill-set we use when we read anything. Most grown up human beings understand the way literature works. We have some concept of allegory, metaphor, hyperbole and the like. We realize that poetry works differently than prose. We would be startled if a cookbook were written in limericks. Taylor Swift is not going to use her computer’s warranty as the basis for the lyrics in her next hit song.

Thus, when we look at the book of Revelation, we’re going to have to pay attention and use the skills we would use in reading anything else. Taking it literally will only get us into trouble unless we’re purposely trying to be funny.

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I Don’t Know

Toward the end of Paul’s famous chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13, he comments that:

“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:9-12)”

Paul explains that our understanding and knowledge of God is incomplete. We only see a dim reflection in a mirror, or, as the old King James put it, we see through “a glass darkly.”

This is why we call our webcast that we do each Saturday afternoon at 4 PM “A Mirror Darkly” with the secondary title “unbridled inquiry.” We have to accept a very hard truth: we don’t have the answers to everything, and we will never know everything. Our understanding of God and his purposes is very limited; it can never be anything but. All we can really do is ask a lot of questions.

Socrates was told that he was the wisest of men because he admitted that he “knew nothing.” It may seem paradoxical, but you are fully educated only when you can agree with Socrates. The reason is quite simple: the more you learn, the more you become aware of all that there is to learn, the more you realize that you can barely learn anything at all, compared to the vast amount of information that is available.

Every two days humanity creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003. There is no way to absorb all of that. We cannot assimilate more than a tiny fraction of what human beings know and do in the brief span of a single human life. How then can we imagine we can understand God or give but a very fuzzy outline of who he is, what he wants, and what he does?

As Solomon said:

“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)

And our heads are much smaller than Solomon’s temple. We really are able only to “see through a mirror darkly.” We will always have more questions than we have answers. Let’s not be afraid to ask questions. And let’s not be afraid to acknowledge, “I don’t know.”

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