Killing You Softly? Unrepentant Sin as a Congregational Virus

Many Christians think their sins are a personal matter, a private affair – something that doesn’t have anything to do with their local church. This is how many of us think. We consider our private sins to be, well . . . private. Nobody’s business but ours. It certainly isn’t our congregation’s business. Our personal lives have nothing to do with our local church, right?

I don’t believe so. I’d like to re-think this, and I’m going to use what many people would consider to be an unusual source – the Book of Deuteronomy. This book has a lot to say on this matter of unrepentant and deliberate sin as community and covenant pollution. Here is my conclusion, after reading through the book again recently:

  1. If you’re a Christian
  2. and you’re in unrepentant sin
  3. and you don’t care, and have no desire to change your ways
  4. you’re polluting your entire congregation
  5. and you’re defiling your entire church

Let’s take a careful look at what the Book of Deuteronomy has to say, then build a bridge or two to our own context.

Sin contaminates the community

Moses believed that sin contaminated the congregation. It pollutes God’s people. It must be dealt with and eradicated. It must be purged from their midst. In modern terms, it’s a virus. Here is some of the data:

Deuteronomy 13:5

Moses explained what to do about false prophets. The Bible is quite clear. If a man claims to be a prophet, and he performs signs and wonders and makes predictions which come to pass, then entices you to abandon the faith and follow him to serve and worship another god – that man is a false prophet. Moses explained God would allow these people to spring forth, like pestilential weeds, in order to test His people.

Here is what Moses commanded God’s people to do with these men:

But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 13:5).

The man has to be executed, because his actions have infected the congregation. They’re ordered to “purge the evil” from their midst. That’s strong language. What would happen to Christians if they didn’t just consider the impact of their sin on their own life and circumstances, but also considered how it impacts their church?

Deuteronomy 17:2-7

In this passage, Moses gives the Israelites instructions on how they should treat apostates; professing believers who have purposely “transgressed the covenant,” and have “gone and served other gods and worshiped them,” (Deut 17:3). Here is what he said:

On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses he that is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 17:6-7).

Pay particular attention to the last phrase – by executing this apostate, the Israelites will “purge the evil” from their midst. Sin is a pollutant, a contamination; a pestilence that impacts everybody in the covenant community. We often don’t think of sin this way. We see it as an individual event, a personal defiling, a private affair. Moses (and God!) see it as something that puts a blot on the entire covenant community.

There is more.

Deuteronomy 17:12-13

Moses went on and explained how legal disputes should be settled among the Old Covenant Israelites. Criminal and civil offenses were adjudicated by the Levitical priests and “the judge who is in office in those days.” Together, they heard the matter and rendered a verdict. What happens if a man decides he doesn’t like the verdict? Is there an appeal process? Can he ignore the verdict?

No, he cannot. Read on:

The man who acts presumptuously, by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die; so you shall purge the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear, and fear, and not act presumptuously again (Deut 17:12-13).

A man who defies the judges and ignores the verdict has spit in God’s face. He’s ignored the God-ordained people and means God put in place to take care of these matters. This term “acts presumptuously” signifies a special kind of contempt and scorn for authority. It’s a defiant, spiteful kind of rebellion (cf. Numbers 15:30ff). This kind of person hates God’s law (Numbers 15:31). Do you remember the account of the man who deliberately ignored the law and decided to gather sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36)? It’s the same attitude.

In this case, Moses decreed the man who defies and ignores the verdict must die. They “shall purge the evil from Israel.” Again, this unrepentant, deliberate sin is a cancer that must be cut out, lest it destroy the entire congregation. Moses says this man’s actions impacted the entire nation.

Think about our churches; how do our individual unrepentant sins impact our congregation as a corporate body? Think about your local church, where you join together with other New Covenant brothers and sisters to worship God. Your unrepentant sin pollutes the congregation, soils the entire assembly, and defiles the entire church. Will you commit to fixing this, for their sake and yours?

Deuteronomy 19:11-13

Murder is bad news. Moses knew how wicked people were, and after explaining the purpose of the “cities of refuge,” he hastened to qualify what he meant. These cities were for people who accidently committed acts of negligence that resulted in a person dying; “if any one kills his neighbor unintentionally without having been at enmity with him in time past . . .” (Deut 19:4).

Moses provided an example about one man killing another with an ax that slipped from his grasp. This is clearly not premeditated. A man could flee to this city to have the matter adjudicated, and the victim’s kin could not pursue him there and kill him. “The man did not deserve to die, since he was not at enmity with his neighbor in time past,” (Deut 19:6).

Of course, some people would try and abuse this caveat. Not so fast, Moses warned:

But if any man hates his neighbor, and lies in wait for him, and attacks him, and wounds him mortally so that he dies, and the man flees into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you (Deut 19:11-13)

The murderer must be executed, because he has brought “the guilt of innocent blood” upon the entire nation. Again, you can’t read this without being struck by how one person’s transgression pollutes the entire community. If this man is not killed, then the entire nation remains guilty, and is defiled by this injustice.

Deuteronomy 19:15-19

False witnesses are bad. God doesn’t like liars. He especially doesn’t like liars who swear falsely, and provide false, formal testimony with an aim to wrongly condemn an innocent man:

A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained. If a malicious witness rises against any man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days; the judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.

This man has polluted the congregation and the community. He must be punished because it’s the just thing to do. If his false testimony had been accepted, an innocent man would have been punished unjustly. So, to right this wrong, the false accuser will suffer the fate the innocent man would have suffered.

There are other passages, and they make similar points (see chart, below)

What sins are we talking about?

What sins are “bad enough” that they have this impact on the Old Covenant community? This chart summarizes the offenses from the Book of Deuteronomy that required “purging” of evil or guilt:[1]

table 1

You could summarize and place these sins under a few headings:

  1. Apostasy
  2. Civil disobedience (legal and family contexts)
  3. Severe moral failure

For clarity, I’ve re-framed these headings both negatively and positively:

table 2

This data could change when you factor in Exodus 20 and onward, Leviticus and Numbers, but it’s interesting enough already. These three headings are large, umbrella categories that encapsulate a great deal of “the Christian life.” They explain man’s duty to worship God, obey God-ordained authority structures that are the bedrock of a stable, sane and orderly society, and include perhaps the two most notorious moral failings among human beings.

If a covenant member refuses to love, worship and honor God by loving obedience to His law, then that man has “cut himself off” from God’s people and from God’s family. Likewise, if there is no order to society; if formal verdicts rendered by priests and ordained judges cannot stand, and courtroom proceedings become a kangaroo court of lies and trumped up charges, then all hope of an orderly, stable and civilized society has been lost.

But, what about the moral failures? Why, of all the offenses God could have chosen, did He choose sexual intercourse and murder?[2] I suppose it is because they are the most heinous offenses a man can commit.

Murder is the great and terrible sin; the snuffing out of a God-given life on purpose. This kind of action betrays a disdain for sanctity of human life. The Bible teaches us that we are not animals, nor are we descended from them. We are unique, made in God’s image, which means we dimly reflect some of his characteristics and attributes. Human life is sacred.

Sexual deviance is the great failing of men and women. Our bodies are not our own, and God has always cared about how we act and what we do with them. In the New Covenant, Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and (by extension) the Son and the Father, too. Our bodies are therefore temples of God; He resides within us. In the Old Covenant, this is an implicit teaching, as well.[3] Even in the famous passage from the law, believers are command to love God with all their heart, soul and might – in short, with their entire being. Our bodies are a part of who we are; it isn’t an amalgamation of bone and flesh. We aren’t gnostics who believe the physical realm has no moral meaning. What we do with our bodies is an extension of our thoughts and desires (i.e. mind and heart).

Sexual purity is a major focus of God’s law. Those apostates today who advocate for unrepentant “Christian” homosexuality and perverted transgender constructs of self-identity are stunningly ignorant of the Old Testament Scriptures. Perhaps, as Brent Strawn has noted, it’s because they can’t speak the “language” of a full canon in the first place.[4]

In general terms, God’s word calls all true believers to:

  1. love God,
  2. respect and obey civil authorities, and
  3. live holy lives

These are core, general principles that transcend the Old Covenant vs. New Covenant (or, more commonly and erroneously “law vs. grace”) dichotomy. They’re basic and fundamental. These categories encompass the very sins which Moses says defile the congregation, pollute the entire nation, and must be purged from among the Israelites.

What about today?

What does all this have to do with you, today? It’s 2017. You own a smartphone, have wireless internet, and probably binge-watch television shows on your tablet when the weekend comes. What hath Sinai to do with Seattle?

More than you think.

True, there are some major differences in context:

  • The two-tiered Old Covenant has been replaced by the single-tiered New Covenant. Only true believers are part of God’s covenant people now.
  • The Israelite theocracy has been abolished, and Jesus has been crowned as King in heaven, and is waiting to return and establish His rule. Christians now are slaves and subjects waiting for their King.
  • The legal system and its judges are secular and cannot be counted on to care about God’s laws, or reverence them. Therefore, God’s civil laws have been abolished, but the basic principles can often apply today – whether the secular judge applying them realizes it or not!
  • The ceremonial laws have been abolished, because all New Covenant believers have been made permanently clean before the Lord by what Christ has done.
  • The sacrificial laws have been abolished, because Christ’s one, perfect and all-sufficient sacrifice has made fulfilled those parables.

But, the basics are still the same. We are God’s covenant people. God has not changed. Jesus has now come and gone, and will return again. We have new revelation to augment the old.

And, those three basic principles about the “Christian life” still hold true:

  1. love God,
  2. respect and obey civil authorities (see, for example, 1 Pet 2:13-15), and
  3. live holy lives

Moreover, those three headings about the “contaminating sins” from the Book of Deuteronomy are still perfectly applicable today:

table 2

What does this mean for you? It means that today, under the New Covenant, the unrepentant sins committed by the regenerate individuals who are members of local churches defile, pollute and contaminate the entire congregation. Your unrepentant sin pollutes your entire church.

How do I know this? How do I know this basic principle of unrepentant sin as community pollution carries weight in the New Covenant, in local churches? Because the Apostle Paul said so.

Paul to the Corinthians

He wrote the Corinthian congregation and rebuked them for tolerating unrepentant incest in their midst. He warned them, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor 5:6).

His point is clear enough – this one man and his blatant, proud and unrepentant sin has defiled the congregation. Just as a little yeast will have an outsized impact on a loaf of bread as it bakes, so this wicked man and his sin will pollute and destroy the congregation. This is why Paul went on and commanded the church to, “cleanse out the old leaven,” (1 Cor 5:7). He continued:

But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

Paul finished by quoting from Deuteronomy 17:7.[5] He believed this principle, and lived by it. He commanded this man to be purged, driven out, expelled and kicked to the curb. This man was disgracing the Lord’s name in the community. This sin was so unrepentant, deliberate and blatant that Paul has heard tell of it (“it is actually reported that . . .”). Think of how primitive communications were in his day, and realize that, despite the absence of Twitter, Facebook or text messages, the apostle Paul had heard rumors of this wickedness from afar. If he had heard of it, what do you think the local community had heard!?

Because this professing Christian was unrepentant, he had to be purged and driven out from the body. It was for the good of the congregation. Ultimately, of course, it was for the Lord’s sake that he be expelled.

So what? A plea for holiness

God commands His people to love Him with everything they have (Deut 6:4). Jesus said this was the greatest and most important commandment. If we love God, then we’ll want to do what He says.

His word says we need to be continually confessing and forsaking our sins. We need to be purging ourselves of evil habits, and replacing them with Godly habits. Our unrepentant sins aren’t a private matter – they’re a public matter. It impacts our churches. It’s a community affair.

For your congregation’s sake, for your sake, and for God’s sake – remember that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 Jn 1:9). This is not a one-time event, but a lifelong habit. We try our best to honor and glorify God by the way we live our lives, because He’s redeemed us, and we love Him. As we fall short, we thank God that Jesus has already redeemed us from all unrighteousness, we honestly confess our sins, determine to forsake them again, and keep on going.

We purify ourselves, day by day, seeking to be more and more like Christ, our Savior (1 Jn 3:5). Don’t pollute yourself. Don’t pollute your congregation. Don’t let the virus of unrepentant and unconfessed sin destroy you spiritually.

You have the antidote. Use it.

Notes

[1] On Deut 22:23-24, I believe the assumption in the text is that it is consensual intercourse. The Bible tells us, “If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you,” (Deut 22:23-24).

The man did not “seize her” (which is the term used to describe rape in the very next verse; Deut 22:25ff), he “meets her.” This implies some kind of consensual rendezvous. Moreover, she could have called out for help, but she did not. This also indicates their action was consensual.

Some commentators disagree, and believe this incident in Deut 22:23-24 is sexual assault; see, for example, Eugene Merrill, Deuteronomy, in NAC, vol. 4. (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1994), 304. I don’t find his arguments convincing.

[2] It’s important to note that these offenses did not include vague references to sexual immorality in general; the laws are concerned with the act itself.

[3] I don’t have the time or energy to elaborate on this theme here. For a good overview and argument for Old Covenant indwelling of the Spirit, see Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit, MI: DBTS, 2009), 2:272-280.

[4] See Brent Strawn, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017).

[5] The quotation from the LXX (Rahlfs) at Deut 17:7 (ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτων καὶ ἐξαρεῖς τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν) is identical to 1 Cor 5:13 (ἐξάρατε τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν). The verbs has a different tense-form (the former is an imperatival future, the latter is an aorist), but they are translated exactly the same.

What is Sin (Part 1)?

sinRead the series so far.

This seems to be a simple question, with a simple explanation. I’m willing to bet when you read this question, you immediately started thinking of sin as an action in contradiction to an established norm. You aren’t alone – I did the same thing. We instinctively answer this question as if sin is an act. Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the closest thing we have in America to a recognized lexical standard, defines sin as, “an offense against religious or moral law.”[1]

It is true that a sin is a transgression against a moral law. From the Christian worldview, the very idea of objective morality, and the universal human ability to differentiate between the concepts of “right” and “wrong” are proof that:

  1. there is a Creator,
  2. we are His creatures – created in His image,
  3. He defines morality and the concepts of “good” and “evil,” and
  4. all human beings are subject to His rule and, therefore, His law.

But, that’s not the whole story. It isn’t enough to craft a definition based on external actions and call it a day. Is sin just about externalism? Is it possible to think about something, and commit a sin? Is temptation still a sin, because it’s purely an internal lust? To get down to brass tacks, consider this:

  • Can you lust after a co-worker, as long as you don’t act on the thought?
  • Can you plan to murder the nosy neighbor next door, even if you don’t ever carry out this dastardly deed?
  • Can you pretend to be nice to a Christian brother, while inwardly you hate him?

If sin is simply an outward action, the answer to each of these is, “Yes!” Unfortunately, some popular theology texts do define sin as externalism. Consider these examples:

  • Charles Ryrie: “[S]in is missing the mark, badness, rebellion, iniquity, going astray, wickedness, wandering, ungodliness, crime, lawlessness, transgression, and a falling away.”[2] This is not really a definition at all; it’s a list! But, do you notice how these descriptions are more about external action than anything else?
  • Emery Bancroft: He defines sin as (1) missing the mark of the divine standard, (2) a lapse from God’s requirement, (3) a perversion of what is right, (4) a passing over of the boundaries of God’s law, (5) an affront to God, (6) unfaithfulness, (7) an offense, (7) a failure in duty and (8) disobedience.[3] Again, this isn’t really a systematic definition at all – it’s a redundant list.

Back to externals – is sin more than an act? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed the Old Covenant law as it was meant to be understood.[4] It was not meant to be a checklist; it was a Covenant to be obeyed from the heart. This is why Jesus said:

You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt 5:21-22).

You might not really shoot your nosy neighbor (or his annoying dog) twice in the chest with your trusty 9mm, but if you thought about it, you’re just as guilty. I’m being slightly silly, but you get the point. Here is a more pedestrian example:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt 5:27-28).

Yes, it is true you didn’t sleep with your co-worker. But, you thought about it. A lot. You are just as guilty.

It seems as if It seems sin is much more than mere action. Behold this good definition of sin from a conservative Baptist theologian:

Sin is any lack of conformity, active or passive, to the moral law of God. This may be a matter of act, of thought, or of inner disposition or state. [5]

There is a lot which could be written from this, but I’ll focus on a few components:

  1. Sin is an action
  2. It is also a thought
  3. It is also a matter of status (i.e. disposition or state)

The last bit is particularly important. You can commit a sinful action. You can think a sinful thought. But, sin is also described in Scripture as a state of being. “Acts of sin spring from a principle or nature that is sin.”[6] We are born by nature as children of wrath, which means we’re born as sinful people, in active rebellion against our Creator. As the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith put it:

We believe that man was created in a state of holiness, under the law of His Maker; but by voluntary transgression fell from the happy and holy state; in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners, not by constraint but choice, being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, wholly given over to the gratification of the world, of Satan, and of their own sinful passions, therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin, without defense or excuse.[7]

Consider also the Apostle Paul’s words:

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom 6:15-18).

Sin here is not an abstract action. It is a state of being. In this passage, it is a taskmaster people are naturally enslaved to – a master who only brings death. In contrast, God is the good master who distributes righteousness to His slaves.

So, when you think about sin, remember it is much more than an action. It is also a thought in your mind and heart. It is also a status which brings eternal damnation and everlasting condemnation, unending hostility and anger from the Holy God who made you, fashioned you, sustains you and calls you even now to repentance and faith in His one and only Son, Jesus Christ.

But, is there something even more fundamental, more basic, to the idea of “sin?” There is. For, now, however . . . ciao.

Notes

[1] Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003), s.v. “sin,” 1a.

[2] Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1999), 243-244.

[3] Emery Bancroft, Christian Theology, second revised ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 218-226.

[4] See Leon Morris, The Gospel of Matthew, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 112-113. D.A. Carson quibbled a bit, and wrote, “The contrast between what the people had heard and what Jesus taught is not based on distinctions like casuistry versus love, outer legalism versus inward commitment, or even false interpretation versus true interpretation, though all of them impinge collaterally on the text. Rather, in every case Jesus contrasts the people’s misunderstanding of the law with the true direction in which the law points, according to His own authority as the law’s ‘fulfiller’ . . . (Matthew, in EBC, vol. 8 [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], 148).

[5] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 596.

[6] Henry C. Theissen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 244.

[7] 1833 NHCF, Article 3, quoted in William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1969), 362.

 

Goodbye, Cruel World

t2-poster
He’ll be bach . . .

The Bible is serious about the last days. Serious in a sober sort of way. Not in a Left Behind kind of way. Not in a John “Blood Moon” Hagee sort of way. Certainly not in a FaceBook meme sort of way. We can learn a whole lot about God, the depths of our own sinfulness, and His holiness if we paid more attention to the Book of Revelation in a serious way. Consider these words:

Revelation 19:1-5 After these things I heard what sounded like the loud voice of a vast throng in heaven, saying, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, because his judgments are true and just. For he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her sexual immorality, and has avenged the blood of his servants poured out by her own hands!” Then a second time the crowd shouted, “Hallelujah!” The smoke rises from her forever and ever. The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures threw themselves to the ground and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne, saying: “Amen! Hallelujah!” Then a voice came from the throne, saying: “Praise our God all you his servants, and all you who fear Him, both the small and the great!”

Verse 1

The Apostle John has just described God’s wrath being poured out onto this wicked world. The capitol city of wickeness and evil, personified by the figure of the lecherous and decandent “woman” (cf. Rev 17:4ff), has been destroyed. In the last days, this world will be awash in a sea of wickedness and excess which boggles the mind.

Satan will have his brief period of autonomy (“for he knows that he only has a little time,” Rev 12:12). He will establish his own kingdom on the earth, patterned after the Lord’s, but every bit as evil as Yahweh’s is holy. Satan will install his own man on the throne, just as God will do with Christ. But, this man will be everything Christ is not. He will be the anti-Christ.

This shadow kingdom of doom and debauchery will not last long. God will destroy it.

Revelation 16:17-19 Finally the seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air and a loud voice came out of the temple from the throne, saying: “It is done!” Then there were flashes of lightning, roaring, and crashes of thunder, and there was a tremendous earthquake – an earthquake unequaled since humanity has been on the earth, so tremendous was that earthquake. The great city was split into three parts and the cities of the nations collapsed. So Babylon the great was remembered before God, and was given the cup filled with the wine made of God’s furious wrath.

Immediately after this event in chronology, we have our small little passage from Revelation 19. What is happening here? We hear a great chorus in heaven. It could be either angels or redeemed men and women. We don’t know. But, we do know what they’re saying.

They’re praising God. That’s what “Hellelujah” means. Is it strange that they’re praising God as thousands upon thousands of people lie dead on earth? Why is this happening? Why did God give John this vision, and move him to record it for us?

They praise God because salvation, honor and power belongs to Him:

  • The right to bestow salvation.
  • The right to author salvation.
  • To right to grant salvation to whomever He wishes.
  • Honor is due to him
  • Honor is demanded by Him
  • Honor will be granted to Him and to His Son (cf. Phil 2:10-11)
  • Power belongs to Him
  • This world is run by Him, governed by Him, controlled by Him, and His laws and commandments are the rule of the land.

Verse 2:

Why do they praise God? There are three reasons, and they’re all clearly set out in the Greek text by the word we translate “because” (ὅτι) and by one conjunction:

  1. because His judgments are true and righteous. God will judge this world, and He’ll be right to do it. People will die. Women will die. Men will die. Cute kittens will die. FaceBook will die. Even Waldo will be found out. Have you ever considered why this kind of devestation and destruction is worthy of praise? Does this disgust you? Does it go against the image you have of God, and His beloved Son, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah? It shouldn’t. Read Psalm 2 or Psalm 110. Think about it.
  2. because God has judged Satan’s world system, culture and false religion of rebellion, selfishness, wickedness and dark debauchery – personified by this “great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her sexual immorality,” (Rev 19:2). Every single person who will die on this terrible day will hate God, hate His Messiah, and love sin. They’ll deserve to die. God’s judgments are true because they’ll be poured out upon those who hate Him – their creator and sustainer.
  3. and because God is avenging His adopted children, whose blood has been poured out by this world’s wicked hands. God will avenge His own.

Verses 3-4:

The praise team isn’t done quite yet. Another “Hallelujah” issues from above. Now we have a description; “the smoke rises from her forever and ever.” Smoke from what? From the city which has been destroyed. From the bodies of those who have been slain. From the ruined ashes of Satan’s pitiful rebellion. And the chorus in heaven is praising God for this. Consider that the next time you’re tempted to reduce God to a nice, senile, doddering old grandfather in the sky. His love is never at the expense of His holiness.

To use a colloquial term, things are “gonna get real” one day. And God’s people and His angels (“the twenty-four elders and four living creatures”) will praise and worship Him for it.

Verse 5

A voice calls out from the throne. Is Yahweh’s voice? Probably not (“our”), but it’s a voice we ought to listen to. The voice commands praise to God. From whom? From His slaves and those who fear Him, whether great or small.

God is holy. God is serious about His holiness. This world is His creation. It’s governed by His laws, His commandments, His power and by His rules. God is longsuffering, but that patience has a limit. If a parent never exercises discipline, then he isn’t a parent – he’s a loser. God isn’t a loser. Discipline is coming. Judgment is coming. That judgment will be worthy of praise, because it will be right and true.

God is bigger than we often give Him credit for. This little passage demonstrates that. Goodbye, cruel world. Judgment Day is coming, and it won’t be at the hands of Arnold or the T-1000. It will be worse, and it will be just. Praise God.

The Kingdom of Darkness (Colossians 1:13)

jn812

There is a host of misinformation and lies in the world about the human condition. The Bible makes things very clear. You need to be rescued. You need to be rescued from Satan’s clutches and from his fiery orphanage of the damned. That last bit isn’t hyperbole on my part; after all, a rescue implies some kind of mortal danger, doesn’t it? What on earth do you need to be rescued from?

12Giving thanks to the Father, who made you acceptable to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light, 13who rescued us from the kingdom of the darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, 14in whom we now have the redemption, that is, the forgiveness of sins.[1]

The Bible tells us you need to be rescued and delivered “from the kingdom of darkness” (ἐκ τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ σκότους). Some translations render this as “delivered,” but I don’t think this is brutal, stark or arresting enough. It’s too dainty, too proper, too high-brow. You don’t need to be delivered, you need to be rescued from Satan’s kingdom. 

This phrase is usually translated two different ways; as “power of darkness” (Tyndale, KJV, NKJV, NET, ISV) or “domain of darkness” (LEB, ESV, NASB). The idea of darkness is very clear in Greek, but the word ἐξουσίας is expressing the idea of sphere of control or rule. Another interesting possibility is jurisdiction. Altogether, you have several good translation options, each of which paints a dark and forbidding picture of who we really are. We are, all of us, people who desperately need to be rescued from the jurisdiction, power, domain and kingdom of darkness.

Darkness is the domain of Satan. It isn’t any wonder that our popular culture depicts evil in sinister shades of black (for example, think Darth Vader and “the dark side”), and good in glowing robes of white. This is Biblical imagery.

  • People are trapped in the dark clutches of sin, their hearts and minds veiled by Satan’s cloak, and it is the “light of the glorious Gospel of Christ” which shines in unto His elect people (2 Corinthians 4:4-5), casting aside this vile net of iniquity and delusion “so as to secure our voluntary obedience to the gospel.”[2]
  • An unbeliever’s understanding is “darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart,” (Ephesians 4:18). Thus, this darkness isn’t literal; it’s spiritual. An unbeliever cannot know God, please God, or understand God because of this spiritual darkness.
  • The Apostle Paul admonished the Christians in Ephesus, “for ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light,” (Ephesians 5:8).
  • A Christian is somebody whom God has called “out of darkness into his marvellous light,” (2 Peter 2:9).
  • The Apostle John, echoing His Lord’s “new commandment” (Jn 13:34-35), wrote that external behavior revealed the true state of one’s heart. “He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now,” (1 John 2:9).
  • Jesus Christ Himself is depicted as the bright and shining light, sent from God with the precious message of salvation, redemption and reconciliation; “in him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not,” (John 1:4-5).

This is not good news. The Apostle Paul did not beat around the bush. Elsewhere, he made it clear that an unbeliever is spiritually dead, wallowing in his own trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). Every single person in the world naturally lives according to the normal course of this sin-cursed and condemned word, according to the “prince of the power of the air,” who is Satan. People are born with Satan as their spiritual father (cf. John 8:44ff), their wills, minds, hearts and souls enslaved to him and all the wickedness he stands for. It is Satan who is working right now, every moment of every day, in his children’s lives, whom Paul calls the “children of disobedience,” (Ephesians 2:2). Even worse, the Bible tells us that everybody is born, by our very nature, makeup and constitution as sinners, as “children of wrath,” (Ephesians 2:3).

This is what you need to be rescued from, and this is what Christ has, is and will infallibly accomplish (cf. John 6:37) for all those who are His. You are born under the jurisdiction of Satan, subject to his laws, his standards, his will, his character, his nature and his wickedness. You reflect those qualities, you live according to these characteristics and you echo your spiritual father’s criminal spirit. As the Bible says, you are inherently unprofitable and worthless to God the way you are (Romans 3:12). You are under his domain and power, subject to his control, his influence, his whims and his regulations. He is the rudder of the ship of wickedness, sin and rebellion that is you. You were born a citizen of his vile, unrighteous and evil kingdom – a kingdom of darkness – and you will remain a resident in that kingdom unless or until you repent of your sins and believe the Good News which Jesus Christ willingly and voluntarily suffered, bled and died to bring to you.

There is Good News (εὐαγγέλιον – “Gospel”) to combat this Bad News. Jesus Christ came to save sinners. You are a sinner. He came to save, reconcile, redeem and forgive people from every tribe, tongue people and nation on earth; to rescue them from the kingdom of darkness and transfer them to His own kingdom. You can be adopted into Jesus’ kingdom. This is why Paul told the Christians in Colossae to be “giving thanks to the Father,” because Jesus, “made [them] acceptable to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light.” Hopefully you, too, can join the saints from Colossae in thanking God for the wonderful gift of salvation in Christ Jesus!


[1] This is from my own translation; the exegetical work can be found here.

[2]  Article VII, in The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, in The Creeds of Christendom, ed. Philip Schaff (New York, NY: Harper & Bros, 1882), 3:774.

When is God Merciful?

Ps 51 (1-2)

The Psalms are a collections of songs, written by different people over many, many years. The Psalms have always been treasured because they express the most basic and fundamental human emotions in poetic form – they give voice to what so many of us experience in our lives. If you’ve ever had a favorite song on the radio that expresses emotions, fears, anxieties and values that particularly resonate with you, then you’ll understand why the Book of Psalms is such an important part of the Bible. These psalms do the very same thing, but from a spiritual perspective – which makes them much more valuable than the catchy song on the radio!

Psalm 51 has always had a treasured place in Christian’s hearts, because every Christian can see himself in David’s words. We can transport ourselves into David’s world, understand his fears, feel his anxieties and experience the aching shame of regret for our sin. This is the value of the psalms – they express the timelessness of human emotions towards God. It doesn’t matter when the Psalm was written; it conveys feelings and attitudes that are universal. Time does not and cannot render these emotions obsolete.

In this Psalm, King David is begging God for mercy:

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions (Psalm 51:1)

  • Why is David asking for mercy?

He realizes that he has done something wrong, something wicked, something that God is not pleased with, something that is disgraceful to the Lord. Only somebody who belongs to the Lord by repentance and faith in Christ will actually feel ashamed of their conduct and beg for mercy.

There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God (Romans 3:11)

Now, this isn’t to say that unbelievers will never feel sorry for foolish and sinful things they do. What I mean is that it is impossible for unbelievers to feel a sense of accountability to the Lord, and a corresponding sense of shame and sorrow for their failure to serve Him. This is why the Apostle Paul warned us that, in our natural state as lost and rebellious sinners (cf. Romans 3:9-18):

  • There is nobody who is righteous
  • There is nobody who seeks God
  • Everybody is inherently worthless to God
  • There is no fear of God before anybody’s eyes

So, it’s important to realize that the only reason why David is even begging God for mercy in the first place is because he is a believer – and he therefore feels a profound and deep sense of sorrow and shame for his sins, so he begs God for mercy. Mercy is when God decides to withhold punishment that you deserve – this is what David is begging for.

  • What grounds does David have to ask God for mercy in the first place?

There two – (1) God’s lovingkindness and (2) the multitude of His tender mercies.

David can ask for mercy because he believes in God’s promise of the coming Savior – Jesus Christ. From our perspective, Jesus has already come, lived a perfect life for our sake, been tortured and executed for our sake, and rose miraculously from the dead to prove His jurisdiction, power and authority over Satan. From David’s perspective , this is all future – and he believes that God will do it. Know this – the only basis you have for begging God for mercy in the first place is if you have obeyed Jesus’ command to repent and believe the Gospel.

David is a believer in the future Messiah, Jesus Christ, and therefore has a right to lay claim to God’s lovingkindness and His tender mercy.

  • What does David ask God to do once mercy is granted?

He asks God to “blot out” out his transgressions because of the multitude of God’s “tender mercies.” If you belong to the Lord by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, then you have a perfect forgiveness and perfect assurance of forgiveness. Only a saved person can pray this kind of prayer.

Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin (Psalm 51:2).

 

I can’t think of a more beautiful metaphor for the kind of forgiveness and mercy God shows to His adopted children. David speaks of a complete washing and cleansing from all sin, and the clear conscience that comes from knowing you’ve actually been forgiven.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

This is all present-tense, and this is the kind of forgiveness and mercy that David believes in and looks forward to – and asks God for. What Christian cannot read David’s words and reflect on his own life, his own moral failures, his own unworthiness and his own need for forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation and adoption into God’s family by Jesus Christ!?

More on Psalm 51 next time . . .

The Depths of Human Sin

I woke up to read a startling new story out of China. A mother apparently flushed her newborn baby down the toilet immediately after giving birth. By the grace of God, this poor little boy did not die. Neighbors in their apartment block heard him crying and telephoned authorities, who were able to rescue him from inside the building’s sewer pipe.

baby boy 1

God only knows if this poor boy will be all right, going forward. As I looked at these sad pictures, and thought of the terror and fright this poor baby was experiencing trapped inside that wretched pipe, I am reminded about what Scripture says about our own sinfulness.

10 as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. 13 Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. 14 Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. 15 Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known. 18 There is no fear of God before their eyes. 19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Rom 3:10-20).

baby boy 2

This tragic story is a sad testament to the corruption of the human heart. Who can look upon this poor little baby, stuffed like filth into a sewer pipe, and not believe people are sinful? Men and women, alone among God’s creations, are unique – we are made in the very image of God (Gen 1:26-27; 2:5b). This makes man special and unique before God. He was created by the very breath, or creative force, of God (Gen 2:7). This image was not physical, but relational. Just as God has authority and power over everything, man was given special authority over God’s creation (Gen 1:28; 2:15). Adam was appointed a steward of God’s creation, meant to have dominion over it all. Eve was created to be a help and companion to Adam in fulfilling this task (Gen 2:18).

Human life is therefore sacred. This why, after the worldwide flood, God commanded men to impose the death penalty for murder; “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,” (Gen 9:6).

baby boy 3

It breaks my heart to see such wickedness and sin, especially against a helpless little child. Our world is full of sin and wickedness. Praise God He provided a Savior for us in Jesus Christ. This is why Scripture speaks of the “grace of God.” We do not deserve this kind of mercy; how could sinful men who are capable of this terrible act, and so many more, ever hope to earn their salvation? We cannot. There is nothing in sinful men and women, you or I, that God can find pleasure in or accept for salvation. We are dead in trespasses and sins, and are “by nature the children of wrath,” (Eph 2:1-3).

In light of this, Christ preached everywhere for men to repent of their sins and believe in the Gospel (Mk 1:15).

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (Jn 14:6)

As we look at these sad pictures, we can see clearly how much people need Christ.

baby boy 4

baby boy 5