Thursday, April 30, 2020

Demas Syndrome: A love affair with this present world

To be “in love with this present world,” like Paul’s former companion Demas, is to be deceived by its illusions. Demas deserted Paul in his hour of greatest need, much like the disciples deserted Jesus during his hour of trial. In fact, Paul writes, “At my first defense, no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me.” All of his fair weather friends, it seems, turned out like Demas. They loved “this present world” too much to sacrifice their livelihood for the hope of the world to come. But, in true Christ-like fashion, Paul says, “May it not be charged against them!”

Paul was ready to endure whatever suffering “this present world” could inflict upon him. His wayward companions seemed lacking in perseverance. Being “in love with this present world” clouds one’s perception of things. From a “this present world” perspective, the natural is the reality, not the spiritual. Thus, one can, as Jesus says, “see a cloud rising in the west” and “say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens,” and “see the south wind blowing” and “say, ‘There will be scorching heat, and it happens.” In other words, one can discern all the natural phenomena of “this present world” but be completely blind to the true spiritual climate of “the present time.”

Jesus’ words were a stark warning to a generation blissfully unaware of its impending doom. They could judge by natural appearances, but they could not discern their own sorry spiritual predicament, punctuated by their inability to recognize who Jesus was and what his coming meant. They were all too eager to receive a Messiah who would inflict violence upon their enemies and free them from foreign rule. They were not prepared, however, for a Messiah who would bring division within their own households. But Jesus emphatically declares, “I came to bring fire on the earth,” and the first to get burned will be the household of Israel itself. His coming means not peace, but division, “three divided against two and two against three, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

This is what might be called a perfect division; the kind of division which can only come from the One who wields the double-edged sword of the Word of God. It is not what those “in love with this present world” expected from the Messiah. They expected him to take on Israel’s enemies. They did not expect him to take on the enemy within. But that is exactly what Jesus came to do. He came to cleanse the temple and drive out those who had turned it into a den of robbers. The ones he came to judge first were those who should have known better. But they were “in love with this present world” and did not realize their love affair was little more than a form of spiritual adultery.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Not one, but many

He is the ultimate end times villain: a monstrously evil one-world dictator who rules in the final days before the end of the world. Depending on your theological persuasion, believes are either severely persecuted during his reign or safely whisked away in the “rapture” before he rises to power.

That is the “antichrist” of popular Christian folklore. The real “antichrist,” as actually described in Scripture, is a a little less threatening, but far more subtle, presence.

The term “antichrist” itself appears only in the first and second letters of John. It does not appear in Daniel, Revelation, or any other apocalyptic or prophetic books. Paul does not use the term, and neither do any of the Gospel writers. When John uses the term in his epistles, he is referring specifically to schismatic elements who “went out from us [the gathered faithful], but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19). They are possessed of a spirit that does not confess Jesus as having come in the flesh, that is, they deny the Incarnation, the Word made flesh (cf. 1 John 4:3). The term “antichrist” is, for John, primarily of theological, not political, import.

It is significant to note that John refers not only to “the antichrist” but to “many antichrists” (cf. 1 John 2:18) who had already come at the time he was writing. Antichrist’s name is Legion. He is not one, but many. Unlike the truth, which is singular, falsehood comes in many forms. Thus, while the fullness of the truth is embodied in the one Lord Jesus Christ, falsehood cannot be embodied in a singular entity. Attempting to identify one person as “the antichrist,” the embodiment of all that is false, is a futile endeavor. For just as “many antichrists” had come in John’s day, so many more have come in our day. Their names, however, are of little significance. In the end, they will all be brought to nothing by him who has the Name above every name, the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus Christ.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Herod's ignominious end

Herod’s reign came to an ignominious end “because he did not give glory to God” (Acts 12:23). No doubt he gloried, instead, in his own vanity, relishing the accolades of the crowd shouting, “The voice of a god, and not a man!” (Acts 12:22). It was precisely the kind of praise Herod wanted from “the people of Tyre and Sidon” who had come to him to ask for peace. It was a coerced form of praise, however. Herod staged the event. He “put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them” (Acts 12:21)

It was the perfect setting for a king to garner the praise of his fickle subjects. “Look at me!” Herod was saying. “See my flowing robes. Look at my glorious throne. Hear my voice. Am I not a god to you? Do I not deserve your praise and adoration?”

As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Herod got the praise of the people, but his own failure to praise God cost him his life. As the people gloried in his vanity, Herod was struck down by “an angel of the Lord.” God tolerated no pretenders. To him alone belonged the glory, but his striking down of Herod was no mere act of petulant jealousy. In failing to give glory to God, Herod was failing the people. He was causing them to bow at the feet of a mere man and proclaim him a god. In pouring out his wrath upon Herod, God was showing mercy to the people who had been acting out of ignorance.

Herod’s rotting corpse was “eaten by worms.” In fact, a strict reading of the text suggests the worms starting feasting on him even before “he breathed his last.” Whatever the order of events, it was a gruesome end (cf. Acts 12:23).

“But the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24). Did the people, having seen Herod struck down, then glorify God? Perhaps some did but, as was so often the case during Jesus’ ministry, some people were hard of hearing even when God spoke through the Person of his own Son.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Through many tribulations

Those who say the church will not have to endure tribulation are not careful readers of Scripture. Paul and Barnabas told the disciples in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch that it is “through many tribulations” that “we must enter the kingdom of God.” Paul knew this all too well, having been stoned and left for dead during his first visit to Lystra.

Paul and Barnabas at Lystra Acts 14:8-18

There is an old saying that “you have to go through hell before you get to heaven.” This is not, however, what Paul and Barnabas meant when they said “that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Entering the kingdom of God does not simply mean going to heaven when we die. There is the promise of rest for those who have persevered and finished their course of faith on earth, but there is also a sense in which “the kingdom of God” is already present even in the midst of “may tribulations.”

The grace to persevere under trial, to keep focused on that ultimate destination, is itself a gift from God to the faithful. Through the example of suffering, the faithful bear witness to the in-breaking of the kingdom of God upon the kingdom of this world. As Jesus suffered before entering into glory, so the church shares with him in his suffering in order that she might share also with him in his glory. The kingdom of God is present in both the suffering of this life and the glory of the life to come.

The “many tribulations” which the faithful must endure are the birth pains of the new creation. The seed of the kingdom is there, planted and taking root, but the germination process will often be difficult. The sun may seem, at time, unbearably hot; the wind, intolerably strong; the storm, unceasing. Through it all, however, is the abiding, personal presence of of him who endured it all for the sake of his chosen ones. When those “many tribulations” seem intense and impossible to endure, it is his voice we hear, saying, “Peace. Be still.”

Where Christ is, there his kingdom begins.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The son of destruction

It is a term that appears only twice in the New Testament but has become one of several terms used by self-appointed “prophecy experts” to describe the ultimate end times villain. Synonymous with “the Antichrist,” “the Beast,” and “the man of lawlessness” is “the son of destruction” [or “perdition,” depending on your translation]. Based on the actual textual evidence, however, only the latter term, “the man of lawlessness,” is truly a synonym, for Paul uses the terms interchangeably in 2 Thessalonians 2:3. The only other reference to “the son of destruction” is John 17:12, a very obvious reference to Judas Iscariot, the Lord’s betrayer, during Jesus’ high priestly prayer. Paul’s reference seems much more obscure, leading many to create imaginative scenarios whereby an evil world dictator emerges and inflicts untold suffering on the world before finally being defeated by the returning Christ.

Kept in their proper context, however, both references to “the son of destruction” bear remarkable similarities. Jesus refers to Judas as “the son of destruction” in recognition of the fact that Judas will be the only one of the Twelve who is “lost” in order “that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” He will commit an act of rebellion, betraying Jesus into the hands of his enemies, setting in motion a series of events which culminate, after a period of suffering, in the vindication of Jesus and the undoing of his enemies.

The scenario John lays out in his Gospel, with Judas in the role of “the son of destruction,” is much the same as that laid out by Paul in 2 Thessalonians. Here, “the son of destruction,” also called “the man of lawlessness” and “the lawless one,” serves the same function as Judas. He commits an act of rebellion, setting in motion a series of events which culminate, after a period of suffering, in the vindication of “the Lord Jesus” who “will kill [the lawless one] with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming” (2:8).

In both instances, “the son of destruction” plays a pivotal role in setting in motion the classic biblical scenario of “the Day of the Lord,” a decisive moment in which God acts in the midst of human history, making plain the choice between good and evil, blessing and curse, life and death. It is the scenario that was first played out in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve committed an act of rebellion and set in motion the catastrophic series of events which could ultimately find resolution only in the coming of God’s Anointed One.

Both John and Paul were immersed in the apocalyptic worldview of first century Judaism. They were well acquainted with the numerous Old Testament references to “the Day of the Lord.” They were very intentional in connecting the events surrounding Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection with that promised decisive act of God in the midst of human history. God was, indeed, making all things new, reconciling the world to himself in Christ. But this glorious act of new creation was not yet complete. Paul is very careful to remind the Thessalonians of the tenuous time in which they were living. Just as he had with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and with Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane, “the son of destruction” would raise his ugly head yet again. Whenever, wherever, and however that happens, though, the victorious Son of God and Son of Man will, as he did at Calvary, decisively crush him.

Apostasy, resurrection, and a little common sense

In preparing them for his ordeal of suffering and death, Jesus told his disciples they would “all fall away” in fulfillment of the prophecy, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (Mark 14:27). There is an element of commons sense here which is often overlooked. In Greek, the words for “apostasy” and “resurrection” are antonyms. There is the sense that one must “fall away” before one can “stand up again.” In other words, the familiar teaching in Christian eschatology that there must first be a “falling away” before the consummation of all things, that is, before the resurrection, is rooted in this very basic premise.

Jesus cast the ordeal of his suffering, death, and resurrection against the grand backdrop of God’s plan for the redemption of his creation. In the midst of his ordeal, his disciples would “fall away.” The intensity of the conflict would be such that they would abandon the faith and look instead toward self-preservation. Peter would embody this “falling away” with his three denials “before the rooster crows twice” (Mark 14:30).

Things would be quite different following the resurrection, however. Jesus assured his disciples that “after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:28). Rising from the dead, Jesus would restore the faith of those who had fallen away. The meaning and purpose of the resurrection is intensified by the fact that it would be preceded by the apostasy. Had there been no apostasy, there would have been no need for the resurrection; but because there was an apostasy, the power of the resurrection to restore all things is all the more glorious.

In order to appreciate fully what Jesus accomplished in rising from the dead, it is first necessary to realize how far we human beings have fallen from our original state of righteousness. We are children of Adam and Eve and, therefore, heirs of the great apostasy by which we lost our standing in right relationship with God. Only the cross can atone for our sin. Only the resurrection can restore our standing with God.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Those pugnacious super apostles

Among the most pugnacious and disagreeable of Paul’s opponents were the so-called “super apostles,” those who claimed a superior knowledge of the mysteries of God and derided Paul as a novice. Two of the worst offenders were Hymenaeus and Philetus, who were propagating the outlandish claim “that the resurrection has already happened.” Paul disowned these men and their claims, noting that “They are upsetting the faith of some.”

The claim by Hymenaeus and Philetus “that the resurrection has already happened” was “upsetting” to some because it was self-serving and self-glorifying. It set these “super apostles” above those, like Paul, who humbly and freely admitted that “the resurrection from the dead” was a goal which they had “not yet attained” (Philippians 3:12-16).

The resurrection is the outcome of a life lived in obedience to Christ. Paul was correct in his attitude of humility, knowing that the closer he got to the goal, the less he should think of himself. Union with Christ was, for Paul, a lifelong journey which required dying to self in order to be fully realized. This side of eternity, he knew that he could never confidently claim to have reached this ultimate outcome without calling attention to himself instead of Christ.

The resurrection, after all, is all about Christ. Inasmuch as we experience Christ working in our lives to transform us out of a life of sin and into a life of obedience, we can experience something of the benefits of the resurrection now. But the full implications of the resurrection will not be realized until the final consummation at the last day. In Christ, the last day is brought into the present from the future. But by claiming “that the resurrection has already happened,” Hymenaeus and Philetus were projecting themselves from the present into the future, thus “upsetting the faith of some” by setting themselves above all accountability and discipline. They were free to “live and let live,” indulge every carnal passion, and look down upon those pitiful souls who had not yet realized such “freedom.”

Paul warns Timothy to avoid such persons and to go about his work faithfully, not quarreling about words but “rightly handling the word of truth.” For the truth, spoken humbly yet unashamedly, will expose every lie for what it is.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Faith that is so absolutely necessary

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God,” writes John in his first epistle (5:1). Faith, according to John, is the fruit of the new birth; a spiritual re-orientation of our whole being that enables us to love the Father and all his children, obey his commandments, and overcome the world (vv. 2-5).

True faith, faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, is not a natural human inclination. To have faith, we must be “born of God,” that is, “born again,” to use Peter’s words, “not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). For God alone is able to create faith within us, graciously drawing us away from our sins and toward his merciful, loving embrace; and it is God alone, revealed in his Son Jesus Christ, who is the beginning and the end of our faith.

It is only when we place our faith in God and God alone that our faith becomes real. A faith placed in the things of this world is no faith at all. You are not truly born of God if you still rely on your own strength, your own mind, and your own will. Neither are you truly born of God if you look to human institutions for security, protection, and livelihood. It is easy to fall prey to the temptation to trust in those things which are visible and tangible. Faith in a God we cannot see is indeed wrought with many uncertainties. But it is precisely those uncertainties which make a constant and abiding faith in the God who created the heavens and the earth so vibrant, so alive, and so utterly necessary.