Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11

10 November, 2018

It has been said that Revelation is the most biblical of books, as it alludes to stories and teaching from right across both Old and New Testaments of the Bible through its use of imagery, words and phrases. It’s worth also reminding ourselves that, in keeping with its genre of apocalyptic literature, the book of Revelation is loaded with pictures, which are just that – pictures that convey a meaningful message.

So, my reflections on the two witnesses of Revelation 11:1-14 result from reading the passage and being reminded of other parts of the Bible.

Here are my reflections, followed by some thoughts on how this peculiar passage speaks to us today. I hope it resonates with you. I welcome your thoughts.

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Measure the temple, count the worshipper. But do not measure the outer court, given to the Gentiles to be trampled upon.

  • The faithful people of God, those in the temple of God, those who overcome by continuing to follow Jesus under pressure – these are marked out, preserved and not overcome by the forces that would trample down all in its domain. (See 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:19-22 and 1 Peter 2:4-5.).
  • Those outside the temple, in the courts, will inevitably be trampled by priorities, pressures and oppression of the powers of this world and this age. Instead of overcoming in the midst of pressure, they will be conformed and overcome by it.
  • See Matthew 5:13, especially in the context of witness and faithfulness to Jesus – “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”

The two witnesses, which are the two olive trees and two lampstands:

  • Two because that’s the number of witness (see Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16).
  • Lampstands because they represent the church (see Revelation 1-3).
  • Olive trees because they were anointed by the Holy Spirit and for the task (see Zechariah 4).
  • Olive trees because they represent the multiethnic church of Jews and ingrafted gentiles (see Romans 11).

Fire comes from their mouth and consumes their enemies:

  • The Holy Spirit, symbolised by fire, will give the witnesses of Jesus the words to say that no one can resist (see Acts 2:1-4 and Mark 13:11; also Luke 21:12-15).
  • Mark. 13:11: “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”
  • Luke. 21:12–15: “But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.”

Drought and plagues:

  • These all allude to Elijah’s and Moses’ ministry to deliver people out of slavery to the world system and powers, and to call people to wholehearted faithfulness to God (see Exodus 7-12 and 1 Kings 17-18).

Finished their testimony, killed, left unburied, resurrected, taken up to heaven:

  • These witnesses follow the way of Jesus, the faithful witness and the firstborn from among the dead (Revelation 1:5) – through witness, suffering and death (carrying our cross and losing our life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel; see Mark 8:34-38), and resurrection (vindication; (see Romans 1:4 and 1 Timothy 3:16).
  • Jesus body was placed in a tomb (see Mark 15:46), these witnesses’ bodies were not placed in a tomb.
  • Jesus’ followers witnessed Jesus being taken up into heaven (see Mark 16:19). These witnesses’ enemies witnessed them being taken up into heaven.

Gave glory to God in heaven:

  • Despite all the plagues before (Revelation 9:20-21) and after (Revelation 16:8-11,21) this section in Revelation – the economic and natural consequences of living apart from God and in opposition to God’s ways – those suffering these consequences did not turn God; in fact some cursed him instead.
  • Only when the followers of Jesus testify, suffer for their faithful witness to Jesus Christ and are vindicated by God, do the people glorify God.

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Some Christian thought leaders call this the cruciform shape of Christian witness, i.e. the cross-shaped way of life that Jesus modelled and calls us into.

This is seen, for example, in the life and death of: Stephen in Acts 6, arguably a catalyst for the conversion of Paul the apostle; the many Christians killed in Romans coliseums for refusing to bow to Empire; the blood of the Martyrs of the English reformation; Jim Elliott and the five missionaries killed for their missionary endeavours in Ecuador.

All these suffered loss of life, but the history of the progression of Christian witness is also full of stories of those who died to self and carried the cross in order to love Christ by loving others, such as: Corrie ten Boom, holocaust-survivor who forgave the Nazi leaders and concentration camp guards who had effectively taken the lives of her family members; Elisabeth Elliott, who later spent two years as a missionary to the tribe members who killed her husband, Jim; Daniel MacArthur and Ashers Bakery, who with great dignity and at personal cost refused an order promoting a political message that cut across their conscience; and a whole host of more ordinary examples of self-sacrificing love in order to be faithful to Christ Jesus in word and in action.

The apostles Paul, Peter, James and John all spoke of this cross-shaped way of life and witness, helpfully applying it to a few different contexts.

2 Cor. 4:8–12: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

1 Pet. 4:12–14: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”

James. 5:10–11: “Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered.“

1 John. 3:16–18: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

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In summary, I’m suggesting that, in harmony with the rest of the New Testament, the two witnesses of Revelation 11 call us to faithfully follow the way of Christ Jesus in cross-shaped, self-sacrificial love and witness.

I’ll leave you with these words of Jesus that speak of self-sacrificing love, especially within the family of God, and the link to effective witness.

John 15:12–13: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

John 13:14-15,34-35: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. … A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

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So over to you. What do you think?

I welcome your thoughts on my reflections and application. What resonates with you? What doesn’t?

Also, are there any stories that inspire you? Any thoughts on how to live this way?

“Is that not what it means to know me?”declares the Lord

7 April, 2018

In his book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbably Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Alan Kreider identifies a number of features of the early local church that made it distinct from and attractive to the surrounding world. Despite high barriers to entry and belonging, these distinctive local communities of Christ grew patiently and persistently.

One of those characteristics was a practical care for the poor and needy, especially within the household of God, but also spilling over generously to those outsiders most in need—such as those trafficked, imprisoned, or the abandoned sick.

Today, there are Christian ministries doing remarkable works among the most destitute and vulnerable. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the local church is not broadly known for the place where the poor are welcomed to a common table of fellowship.

For many churches, ministry to the poor and needy can seem marginal—optional at best or a distraction at worst. With few exceptions, unlike the early church, care for the needy is not seen as a mark of a disciple, but a ministry program serviced by those so inclined and which may or may not be part of the central mission of a church.

But what if care for the needy is a central aspect of faithfulness to Christ as the people of God, distinctive and prophetic in the world?

In a remarkable passage in Jeremiah 22, God is explicit that the outflow of knowing God is justice and care for the poor. In contrast, exploiting others and demonstrating a lack of concern for the poor and needy is to forsake the covenant of the Lord and to be an idolater!

This article touches on the relationship between love for God and love for those in need. We will then consider how a lack of concern for the needy can be understood through the lens of covenant and idolatry.

Caring for the Vulnerable Has Never Been Optional for the Mission of God

Please read Jeremiah 22 for yourself. Here are some telling verses from the chapter:

3 This is what the LORD says: “Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place…5 But if you do not obey these commands,” declares the LORD, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin… People from many nations will pass by this city and will ask one another, ‘Why has the LORD done such a thing to this great city?’ 9 And the answer will be: ‘Because they have forsaken the covenant of the LORD their God and have worshiped and served other gods’… 13 Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor… 15 Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. 16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD. 17 “But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood, and on oppression and extortion.” (Jeremiah 22:3, 5, 8, 9, 13, 15-17, emphasis added)

These words were directed specifically to the kings of Judah, the covenant people of God. Today, I would suggest, they would apply to leaders of Christian communities in particular, and to anyone called by the name of Christ.

God makes it clear: to look out for the interests of the weak, vulnerable, and disadvantaged is the outward expression of what it means to know God. The one who loves God cares for the poor.

God makes it clear: to look out for the interests of the weak, vulnerable, and disadvantaged is the outward expression of what it means to know God. The one who loves God cares for the poor.

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“‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 22:16).

This is a powerful and provocative passage that links our heart for God with how we treat other people—especially the needy among us. This, of course, is a theme that is emphasized again and again in the Bible. Many New Testament scriptures have the same ring to them:

• Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39)

• The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 15) in which Jesus explains that our “neighbor” can be as broad as anyone in need that we come across

• John, in his first epistle, asks, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17), before going on to later state that “anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20b)

• In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus declares, “Whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers of mine [whether looking after the needs of the hungry, thirsty, poor, lonely, sick, or imprisoned], you did for me.” The converse is also true, as our Lord goes on to say, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

What a privilege and high calling, then, to love one another and our neighbor in practical and justice-promoting ways.

Challengingly, Alan Kreider in The Patient Ferment of the Early Church highlights that in the first few centuries after Jesus, a lifestyle of giving to the poor was (often) prerequisite to baptism—so explicit was the link between faith in Christ and care for the needy.

So explicit was the link between faith in Christ and care for the needy that a lifestyle of giving to the poor was often prerequisite to baptism in the early church.

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To Neglect the Poor is Idolatry

Let’s turn our attention back to Jeremiah 22. In verse 9, God equated how kings exploited their people and oppressed or overlooked the interests of the weak, vulnerable, and disadvantaged—with “forsak[ing] the covenant of the LORD their God and…worship[ping] and serv[ing] other gods.”

Wow! Forsaking the covenant! Worshipping and serving other gods! These are seriously strong words.

It seems extreme, we might think—but that’s what it says. Here are two ways we need to start understanding and teaching this in our congregations.

1. We belong to one another in God’s covenant community

Firstly, when God establishes a covenant, it alters not only the relationship we have with Him, it also alters our relationship with one another.

In other words, God does not just have a string of individual covenant relationships; he establishes a covenant community, his family, his household, a new people that belong to him and to one another.

• “In Christ, we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5)

• In Ephesians 2, Paul explains that Jesus, in his death, resurrection, and outpouring of his Spirit, not only brought us near to God, he brought us near to one another, in order to build us together to be a dwelling place of God by the Spirit (Ephesians 2)

• Paul offers strong words and warnings to the Corinthian church about the way believers were treating each other as they gathered to fellowship and share communion: “Do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?…Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord (i.e. the members of the body or Christ in the midst) eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:22, 29)

• It should not surprise us, then, to find that in the New Testament church in Jerusalem, “there were no needy persons among them because all the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had”? (Acts 4:32-34; see also Acts 2:44-45).

If we overlook the needy in our midst (in our covenant community), then we are forsaking our covenant relationships and obligations—and, thereby, hindering the community instead of nurturing it.

2. Our (lack of) care for the needy reveals the orientation of our hearts

Secondly, how we are with others is a powerful reflection of whether we are living self-centered or Christ-centered, self-preserving or self-sacrificial, a life out of our own resources and energy or a life by the indwelling life of Christ. If self is still at the centre—if materialism, greed, material security, comfort or Mammon is somehow “controlling” us—then we are effectively idolatrous.

• “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy [covetousness] person—such a man is an idolater…” (Ephesians 5:5)

• “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed [covetousness], which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3:5)

We must understand: Taking advantage of—or overlooking the needs of—our brothers and sisters in Christ doesn’t just happen. It happens because something isn’t right. It happens because the flow of the love and life of God is hindered and self-interest is at work, which is idolatry.

But here is the good news—when we’ve lost our lives and found Christ and his life, we will love one another as he loved us.

By Jesus’ own words, we know, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). This is the distinctive and attractive aspect that Kreider describes of the early church.

A Call to Recover the Lost Connection Between Love for God and Care for the Poor

How do we respond to what we see so clearly here—that love for God is inextricably linked to care for the needy?

Let me offer some ideas, mostly in the form of questions. These are a start. And I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

What if a care for the poor and needy among us was restored as a corporate Christian practice of covenantal faithfulness in the local church? What if giving to the needy was not an on-the-side, if-you-feel-passionate-about-it ministry, but a leader-led, pulpit-proclaimed, embodied practice of the local church and a mark of healthy discipleship? Individual expressions of compassion for the needy will be seen as just that—but when the local church embodies this corporately, it’s witness to what God is really like will be seen on another level.

What could this look like? According to Kreider’s account, having a common fund was widely practiced in the local church. A fund to which every believer donated, according to their ability, and from which the community leaders distributed to needy members.

What if a common fund became commonplace in the local church today, as it was in first two centuries of Christianity?

What if a common fund became commonplace in the local church today, as it was in first two centuries of Christianity?

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This sort of corporate practice of covenantal faithfulness, I suggest, cuts at the root of some of the idolatry in the West: idols of individualism, covetousness, comfort, and materialism.

Additionally, there are organizations out there that can help the local church find her way. Christians Against Poverty is a charity that started in the UK in 1996, and has since started serving in the Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It works through local churches to bring debt relief. It is a nationally recognized, award-winning charity, helping thousands of people, Christians and non-Christians alike, out of the crippling burden of unmanageable debt. In the process, many have come to faith in Christ.

Beyond considering to partner with organizations such as these, can the local church practice a fuller expression of “defending the cause of the poor and needy” among us, for “is that not (in part, at least) what it means to know” the Lord?

Whatever your reaction to this article, I invite you to respond to God by searching the Scriptures for yourself:

• See how often the Old Testament talks about God’s interest and action for the poor and needy, the orphans and widows, the stranger and the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed and those who are bowed low – for it is an expression of the reign of God through his Son Jesus, i.e. the good news.

• And explore afresh the New Testament’s call to live as an alternative, counter-cultural community, under the Lordship of Christ, i.e. the church, and what that looks like.

• Then ask yourself: Is practical care for “the needy among us” a central part of the mission of your church? How are we actively undermining the idolatry that prevents us from caring for the needy in covenantal faithfulness? What stories do you see around you of local churches doing this well together?

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This article was first published at Missio Alliance on 9th March 208 under the title “Whose Job Is It to Care for the Poor?”: http://www.missioalliance.org/whose-job-care-poor/

Photo by Lawrence OP on Foter.com / CC BY-NC


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