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Christmas Bible Reading from The Book of Revelation

Christmas Bible readings from Matthew and Luke are typical, but there are other places in Scripture that speak about Jesus’ birth. The Book of Revelation is a word from God to his people about the realities in heaven that effect and direct human history, things which we cannot see with our natural eyes, spiritual happenings. Chapter 12 uses symbols to describe a cosmic battle that rages between God and Satan. And Jesus’ birth is an important part of this struggle.

And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman dressed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of 12 stars and being pregnant, she cries out in labor pains, tormented to give birth.
And another sign appeared in heaven: Look! A great red dragon having 7 heads and 10 horns, and upon his heads 7 diadems, and his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth.
And the dragon stood before the woman, the one about to give birth, so that when she gives birth he may devour her child.
(Revelation 12:1-4)

If you have not spent time reading the Book of Revelation, it can be a strange experience at first, like stepping into a sort of theological Alice in Wonderland. The Book of Revelation is filled with apocalyptic literature, a style of writing that uses many symbols.

In this section we see several important symbols. The woman who is dressed in the sun is a symbol for God’s chosen people, Israel. God’s people are often spoken of in Scripture as God’s wife or bride. In the Old Testament Israel is God’s wife. In the New Testament the Church is the Bride of Christ.

The woman’s child is the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, the one he promised to send as savior of his people. He is Jesus.

The dragon is obviously an enemy of the woman and her child, that is, an enemy of Israel and Messiah Jesus. The dragon with his 7 heads and 10 horns and 7 diadems represents political power. The diadems on the dragon’s heads are crowns.

There are 2 kinds of crowns in the Book of Revelation. Stephanos is a crown made of a wreath. It is given to winning athletes and worn at feasts and celebrations. It is usually made of some type of greenery that fades quickly. But the diadem is made of precious metals and stones, jewels. It is worn by kings and queens. It is a symbol of empire, of political and military power. The dragon wields political power.

Nations and their leaders who are enemies of God’s people are often symbolized by giant dangerous creatures, like dragons and leviathans. Pharaoh and Egypt were enemies of God’s people in the Book of Exodus. Pharaoh tried to destroy the Hebrews, God’s people, by throwing all their baby boys in the Nile River. In the Book of Esther, we read about Haman in the ancient kingdom of Babylon. Haman had political power which he tried to use as a tool to destroy the Jews who were in exile in Babylon. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem King Herod tried to destroy him, killing all the babies in that town. So, this red dragon represents political powers and their leaders who try to destroy God’s people so that his chosen Messiah cannot come and carry out his mission. But there is more to it.

And she birthed a son, a boy who is about to shepherd all the nations with a rod of iron, and her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.(Revelation 12:5)

This is an apocalyptic version of the Gospel, Jesus’ life and ministry from a heavenly perspective. We are familiar with the 4 Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which give us an earthly view of Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke is filled with things familiar to us: taxes, a pregnant woman, a long journey, a town packed with travelers, the cradle, the animals, the shepherds. True, we still have the angels, but the earthly focus is unmistakable.

In Revelation 12:5, however, we are given a different perspective. Jesus’ birth, life and ascension back to God in heaven is reduced to one verse. The focus here is on his role as king. He will rule all the nations with a rod of iron. No nation, people or culture will defy the rule of Jesus. Jesus is King of kings. His rule is unbreakable, a rod of iron. His rule is endorsed by God. Jesus is welcomed to God’s throne. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to his people in the Old Testament. God promised to send his Anointed One as a descendant of Abraham. And God promised that he would be the one to rule forever. Jesus is born to rule.

These verses tell us 2 things. First, Jesus’ birth is one of God’s great goals in history. And second, Jesus’ birth leads to his universal eternal rule.

And the woman fled into the wilderness where she has a place prepared by God so that they might care for her 1,260 days.
And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels made war against the dragon and the dragon and his angels made war. And he was not able nor was a place found for them any longer in heaven.
And the great dragon was thrown out, the ancient serpent, the one called the Devil and Satan, the one leading astray the whole inhabited earth, he was thrown to earth and his angels were thrown down with him.
(Revelation 12:6-9)

If we have any doubt about the identity of the dragon it is dispelled in this section. The Lord wants to be sure that we know who the red dragon represents. He is more than a symbol for nations and their leaders who are hostile to God and his people. He is a powerful person using those nations and rulers against God and his people. He is the ancient serpent, the one who tempted Adam and Eve to sin in the Garden of Eden and so lead all humanity into a fallen state. He is the one called the Devil, which means slanderer. He is the one called Satan, which means adversary. He is the one who leads the whole world astray. Just as he persuaded Adam and Eve to doubt God’s word, so he still persuades people, communities, cultures, societies and nations today. His first recorded words, “Did God really say?” are still his most effective tool.

John’s vision includes a great battle in the heavenly realms between the Angel Michael and all the angels who follow him, fighting against the dragon, Satan, and his angels. Despite Satan’s great power, he loses and is expelled from heaven. All of this is a reminder that what we see in history is driven by forces which are invisible to our natural eyes. Spiritual warfare rages all around us. We see and experience the results. The results are broken lives and families, broken communities and nations. The battle is real and the losses are tragic. But these visions show that there is a victory and it belongs to God.

And I heard a loud voice in the heaven saying, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ, because the accuser of our brothers is thrown out, the one accusing them before our God day and night. (Revelation 12:10)

The scene shifts in verse 10. John hears a loud voice of praise in heaven, God’s dwelling place. What follows in an expression of worship. Songs of worship are found throughout the Bible and they are some of the most inspiring passages of Scripture to read and meditate upon. But many of the worship songs before the Book of Revelation use the form, To God be, To God be the glory, the power, the honor, and so forth. It is an expression of hope and belief about the future: may it be. But the loud voice in heaven affirms that the time of God’s victory is no longer in the future, the kingdom of God is no longer merely potential, Now are the salvation and power and kingdom of God. Jesus began his preaching ministry by proclaiming that the kingdom of God is near. He taught his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. But John’s vision of the worship in heaven sees the time when God’s kingdom is consummated. Note that God’s kingdom is closely related to the authority of Jesus, the one born to rule.

The consummation of God’s kingdom rule is also important for God’s people. They are the ones who were being harassed by Satan. He accuses them before God night and day. His accusations may include lies, since he is the great deceiver, but they are damaging because they also contain some truth. God’s people have sinned and rebelled against the Lord. Satan knows that for God’s holiness to remain intact, for his righteousness to be unstained, he must exercise justice and punish his people, cut them off from his love and blessing. Satan believes that he has put God in an impossible situation. He must either show himself to be unrighteous by blessing those who do not deserve it, or he must show himself to be unloving by condemning those he created for fellowship. But God is not defeated. Jesus is the answer to the spiritual conundrum. That’s why Satan tries so hard to destroy Jesus. He knows that Jesus can defeat him. Jesus’ rule leads to Satan’s defeat.

11 And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life unto death. (Revelation 12:11)

So God’s people have victory over Satan and his accusations. Notice that this victory comes by the blood of the Lamb. “Lamb” is a reference to the Passover feast memorializing God’s rescue of his people Israel from slavery in Egypt. God instructed them to sacrifice a lamb to remember his salvation and to look forward to a much greater salvation. So, Satan is accusing God’s people of sinning, which they have done, forcing God to exercise his justice and deny his love, or exercise his love and deny his justice. But Jesus sacrifices himself at Calvary, giving his life as a sin offering for God’s people, the ultimate Passover Lamb. It is his blood, his life, offered as a sacrifice that enables God to forgive his people. God’s holiness is satisfied because the sin of his people is punished and God’s love is satisfied. This frees God to forgive and bless his people, demonstrating his mercy and grace. Satan is expelled from heaven and his accusations are silenced. God does not simply ignore sin. That would make him unjust. God does not abandon his people. That would make him unloving. His solution is brilliant, a cosmic victory.

We shouldn’t miss something important about this verse. God’s people overcome by the blood of the Lamb, by Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary, but also by the word of their testimony. The salvation that comes from Jesus’ sacrifice is not forced on anyone. It must be appropriated by personal faith, by the word of their testimony. Only those willing to testify, to place their faith in Jesus, will enjoy the benefits of his sacrifice. And this testimony is not empty words. Notice what it says: They did not love their lives even to the point of death. In other words, they were willing to die for their testimony. Saving faith inspires meaningful words which are backed up by actions, by sacrifice, even by martyrdom if necessary.

In verse 5 we read that the woman, God’s people, gave birth to her son, Jesus, who will rule the nations with an iron rod, and he was snatched up to God, to his throne. This is a short version of the Gospel, a heavenly perspective that focuses on his birth and ascension (his coming and going, if you will). Now, in verse 11, we get his important sacrificial death, the blood of the Lamb, which is the proper focus of saving faith. Those who overcome the enemy do so by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony. The blood of the Lamb does not automatically save all who are born on earth. Each one must decide and be willing to hold that faith as more precious than even life itself. Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection offer us eternal victory.

But the story doesn’t end with Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension.

Therefore, rejoice O heavens, and those dwelling in them. Woe to the earth and the sea for the Devil has gone down to you, very angry, knowing that he has little time.(Revelation 12:12)

Victory has begun with Jesus’ death and resurrection, but it is not finished. There is still a battle to be fought. This reminds me of playing ball on the street as a boy. In our neighborhood we usually played baseball or football. We played together so often that we knew once the teams were chosen which team would win. We could tell by who was on each team. If you were chosen by the losing team, well, that was no fun. You just had to go out and do your job of losing and being a good sport. But when you were chosen to play on the winning team, it was great fun to play! The Book of Revelation is telling us that we know who will win. We know by whose team we are on. Jesus is the winner. All who follow him will share in his victory. Anyone following the devil and his team will share in his loss.

And when the dragon saw that he was thrown to the earth, he pursued the woman who gave birth to the boy.(Revelation 12:13)

It may seem strange to read about dragons in the Bible. Is this evidence that the Bible is merely some sort of religious mythology with no basis in fact? It is fashionable in our culture to be skeptical of invisible heavenly happenings. But so-called “consensus science” and its self-imposed Darwinian limitations have failed to explain the richness of the human experience of reality. Darwin leaves too much out. The Bible reveals what naturalistic science cannot see. In symbolic language we are reading about the cosmic struggle between God and his enemy Satan. And the enemy hates all that God is trying to do through and for his people. He works to destroy God’s work, his people.

Notice how God’s people are identified in verse 13. They are the woman who gave birth to the boy, Jesus. Five times in this short chapter the ancient Greek word for giving birth is used (tiktō). That’s why it is appropriate to use this chapter as a Christmas reading. In just 17 short verses the birth of Jesus is mentioned at least 5 times. Why? Because Jesus’ birth is an important part of this cosmic struggle which is raging between God and his enemy, the Devil.

But we hear competing notions about the real meaning of Jesus’ birth. What is the true nature of Christmas? The watered-down version of Christmas asserts merely that people have good hearts and simply need a little inspiration to be generous and loving and kind and do the right thing. Jesus’ birth is sentimental folklore like other religious myths which are designed to appeal to our better nature. This popular presentation of Christmas uses the pictures of Jesus in the manger with Mary and Joseph and the animals and shepherds, all part of the Bible’s presentation. By using imagery that evokes the Bible’s account, this false version reinterprets the Bible’s message, replacing the truth with a lie.

A much better version of Christmas reminds us that Jesus’ birth is not folklore but history and that he came for more than the cradle. He came to die on the cross. And even more than that, he came to wear the victor’s crown. This biblical version of the cradle, cross and crown reminds us that we need more than someone to appeal to our better natures. In fact, the Bible asserts that we have no better nature, merely a sin nature. Our sin nature will destroy us if left to run its course, and we haven’t the power to stop it. We need a Savior. Jesus is that Savior. He offered himself as a sin offering on the cross and God raised him up and received him back to heaven. He is alive and able to live in the hearts of his people through God’s indwelling Holy Spirit, giving us power to overcome our sin nature.

But even this presentation of Christmas leaves out one important aspect. Jesus came to conquer more than just our sin nature. Once we have been forgiven in the eyes of God by the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, because of our faith in him, we still have an enemy who is out to destroy us: Satan. The ancient Serpent who persuaded Adam and Even to doubt God and disobey him is still deceiving people, trying to persuade them to reject God and his salvation. The dragon is active in turning nations and empires against God’s people in an effort to destroy them. So Jesus’ birth is certainly about more than sentimentality but it is about more than our personal salvation. Jesus’ birth is an important part of the cosmic battle between God and Satan.

And the 2 wings of the great eagle were given to the woman so that she might fly to the wilderness, to her place, where she is nourished a time and times and half a time away from the presence of the serpent. (Revelation 12:14)

The imagery here comes from the Book of Exodus. After God rescued his people from cruel bondage in Egypt he brought them to Mt. Sinai in the desert. He said, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” Now we read in the Book of Revelation that God will again bring his persecuted people to a place of safety in the wilderness. When it says “time, times, and half a time,” it is probably a reference to a period which is measured as 1,260 days and as 42 months in other places. It is 3 and a half years. Why any time at all? Why would God allow his people to be pursued and flee into the wilderness?

Before God brought his people out of slavery in Egypt he made them wait while he visited 10 plagues on the land of their oppressors. Why? Why not just come in and destroy Pharaoh’s army and put an immediate end to their cruel bondage? Why make them wait? God was doing more than rescuing his people. He was revealing his power and his redemption in unforgettable ways. More than that, he was refining their faith like gold in a fire. He wanted more than their freedom, he wanted their faith. He wanted them to see his glory in ways that they would talk about for generations.

Here, at the end of the age, we see in the Book of Revelation that God’s tactics are unchanged. He delays victory so that his people can be, not just saved, but strengthened. We can believe that the wilderness times in our lives, the struggles we experience, are allowed by God in order to show us his power, to reveal his work of redemption to us, and to refine our faith like gold in a fire.

And the serpent spewed from his mouth after the woman water like a river so that it might sweep her away. And the earth helped the woman, the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river which the dragon spewed from his mouth. (Revelation 12:15-16)

Notice that God’s enemy keeps changing his name: devil, dragon, serpent. Every time we turn around he is wearing a different mask. That should be no surprise. Satan is a master of disguises and full of deception.

Verses 15 and 16 demonstrate one of the challenges to interpreting the symbols in the Book of Revelation. The idea of a river coming from someone’s mouth would seem to be a symbol for speech. Since it comes from the Devil’s mouth, it would make sense for this river of water to represent an overwhelming barrage of deception. The Devil is full of deceit. But if that is a correct interpretation, then how does the earth open its mouth and swallow words of deception? Mentioning the earth makes the river seem more literal, like a natural disaster. Is it some combination of the two?

While many of the symbols in the Book of Revelation are interpreted by the book itself, and others are fairly easy to interpret without much assistance, some are quite difficult. But we must remember that God sometimes keeps the interpretation a mystery until some future time. In chapter 10 of John’s Apocalypse, the apostle hears 7 thunders. Seven is an important number in the Book of Revelation. It is the number for completion. The thunders apparently say something that is intelligible for John and he is ready to write it down. But a voice from heaven tells him not to write. The 7 thunders are kept from us for now. This is reminder that God has not revealed everything to us. Some things are kept for later.

One thing is clear from these verses: God always provides for his people, even though he allows the battle to be prolonged and even though he sometimes leads his people into wilderness places. God often uses a seemingly impossible avenue of rescue, something that we would never think of. When he brought his people out of slavery in Egypt, God led them up to the Red Sea where they were trapped by Pharaoh’s armies. Disaster seemed imminent. But then the Lord opened the sea and his people crossed through on dry ground. Pharaoh’s armies followed them and were swallowed up by the sea. God provided a way which the Hebrews could not see, until the time came. When the time comes, we will understand these symbols in the Book of Revelation. For now, we know enough to trust God.

And the dragon was enraged at the woman and he went out to make war against the rest of her offspring, those keeping the commands of God and having the testimony of Jesus. (Revelation 12:17)

Satan keeps failing but he keeps fighting. Verse 12 says that he knows his time is short. This implies that he knows he will ultimately lose but he is hard-hearted, stiff-necked, and unrepentant. He never learns. Every time he tries to destroy God’s people God turns it into a celebration. Pharaoh tried to destroy God’s people in Egypt by throwing all the boy babies into the Nile River. But God saved them and instituted the Passover Feast. In Babylon a man named Haman hated God’s chosen people and tried to use the government to wipe them out. The result? God saved them and since then they have celebrated the feast of Purim to commemorate it. Back in the Promised Land, Antioch IV Epiphanes tried to destroy God’s people, but God saved them and they celebrate Hanukkah to remember it. King Herod tried to murder Jesus in Bethlehem, but he failed and so we celebrate Christmas. Satan used the Pharisees and Pilate to kill Jesus, but God meant it for our good and he raised Jesus up from the tomb and we celebrate Easter.

We have all this evidence of God’s faithfulness to his people, his ability and willingness to turn our defeats into victories. With all these examples of God’s faithfulness we should have great confidence in God. After all these defeats have been turned to victory throughout history there is no reason to think our lives and our place in history will be any different. God will turn our struggles and defeats into triumph!

Notice how God’s people are described in verse 17. They are the ones who keep God’s commands and have the testimony of Jesus, a combination of works and words. To testify without obeying is not enough. To obey without testifying is not enough. Obedience does not mean perfection. We still struggle with sin but we can humble ourselves before the Lord and be forgiven. Nevertheless, if someone has no desire to obey God it is a sign of no salvation from God. We cannot run with the Devil and share the Lamb’s victory. God’s people trust and obey.

President Donald Trump recently announced that the United States of America will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The whole world was stirred up by the announcement. After thousands of years, Israel and Jerusalem are still at the epicenter of history. God promised the land of Israel to his chosen people 4,000 years ago. He chose Jerusalem as the place where his name would dwell with his people. And he promised that even if his chosen people were scattered to all the nations of the world, he would restore them to the Promised Land: Israel. That may seem like ancient history, but God is faithful and his promises are sure.

God continues to prove the skeptics wrong. He does the impossible and he does it in the pages of our newspapers. Until very recently in history it did not seem possible that God’s ancient promise to gather his people and restore them to their land could ever come about. How can a people be scattered to the 4 corners of the earth for almost 2,000 years and even maintain their ethnic identity? Most peoples would intermarry and cease to be distinct. But God’s chosen people, Israel, has not only remained a people after being expelled from their homeland in the first century, but in May 1948 the impossible happened: Israel became a Jewish nation again, just as God promised. He gathered Jews from around the world and restored them to their homeland. And he did so after one of the most brutal attempts to destroy them history has ever seen: the Holocaust. The enemy’s hatred for God’s people is vicious, but he has failed.

God’s promises will all be fulfilled. Satan will lose. Jesus is the victor. We should trust the Lord, obey his commands, and testify to our faith in Jesus.

Merry Christmas!

Brother Richard Foster

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Jesus and Christmas in a Land of Skepticism

The Gospels tell us that Jesus fed a crowd of more than 5,000 people out in the wilderness with only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. And everyone was satisfied. A miracle! But why did he do it? What does it mean?

Some folks claim that Jesus did nothing supernatural. They say that many people in the crowd already had food but were too selfish to share. All Jesus did, they argue, was inspire them to open their hearts and share with one another.

The non-miraculous interpretation of Jesus feeding the 5,000 may sit well with skeptics, but it doesn’t fit the Gospel writers’ accounts. The Gospel writers clearly present Jesus as a man of miracles, born of a virgin, healing all kinds of diseases, casting out demons, and even commanding storms to stop!

So, if Jesus did not feed the 5,000 in order to inspire people to be more generous, then why did he do it?

Another interpretation of this episode starts by recognizing that Jesus truly performed a supernatural act by dividing 5 loaves and 2 fish to feed more than 5,000 people. But this version goes on to say that Jesus’ goal in feeding the 5,000 was to inspire sacrificial giving. As a young lad in the crowd gave his lunch to Jesus, we should give our all to Jesus.

But John is the only Gospel writer who mentions this lad and John never says anything about the boy’s desire to give his loaves and fish to Jesus. Matthew, Mark and Luke never mention the youngster at all, so the boy certainly cannot be vital to a proper understanding of Jesus’ actions.

If Jesus is not inspiring generosity toward others or promoting sacrificial giving to him, then what is the meaning of his feeding the 5,000?

The people who ate Jesus’ miracle meal that day recognized that Jesus was doing something similar to what God did when he fed Israel in the wilderness. After the Lord rescued his people from bondage in Israel he rained down manna from heaven to provide food for them in the desert.

Jesus is demonstrating that he has the same kind of power that God displays. When they asked for more miraculous meals, Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life, whoever comes to me will never go hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus believes in generosity and sacrifice, but something bigger is at stake. Jesus is God in the flesh, come not just to promote or inspire good deeds, but to give himself so that we can have eternal life in heaven with God.

Each year we hear heart-warming and sentimental expressions about the true meaning of Jesus’ birth, the real spirit of Christmas. A plethora of virtues find room in the inn of a humanistic Christmas: love, generosity, sacrifice, family, compassion, and so on.

As the wise men came and brought gifts to Jesus we should give gifts to one another, so the popular reasoning goes. But the magi from the east were not on a goodwill tour. They traveled a great distance not to promote a spirit of gift-giving, but to worship the King.

The Bible says that Jesus’ birth is a cosmic turning point in human history. The nations of this world languished in violence and hatred, hunger and poverty, suffering and sorrow, disease and death. God made us for better.

Jesus, born to a young lady named Mary and laid in a manger, is God stepping into this tragedy we call life, sharing our ups and downs. His mission? to bring victory over death and joy in God’s presence forever. That’s bigger than anything that comes in a gift bag.

So Christmas is not just a time to promote human virtues or to enjoy temporary delights. Christmas is the time we remember this greatest episode in all human history: Jesus is God in the flesh come to save his lost people.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill,

Brother Richard

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Tell The Story of The Bible in One Minute Or Less

We can tell the story of the Bible in one minute or less. That may sound impossible, but it isn’t.

We begin where the Bible begins: creation. God made the heavens and the earth and everything in them. And his creation was good.

Next, we point out that God made people in his image. Every man, woman, boy and girl is made in God’s image and has incalculable value.

Here’s the bad news: humanity rebelled against God. Adam and Eve disobeyed him and all their descendants have, too. Because of our disobedience to God we live in a broken world full of injustice, suffering and death.

Here’s more bad news: God will punish all disobedience. He proved that with Noah’s Flood and his judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah.

Now for some good news: God promised a man named Abraham that through his descendant every nation would be blessed. Much of the Old Testament tells how God’s promise slowly unfolded in generation after generation of Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites.

God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Jesus was born a descendant of Abraham, sent by God to offer himself as a sacrifice for sin so that all who trust in him can be forgiven and enjoy God’s eternal blessings.

God raised Jesus from the dead, showing that both sin and death have been defeated. Then God poured out his Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers, the church, empowering them to live a new kind of life.

Now, through the church, God is proclaiming his message of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. And soon, Jesus will return and take all those who belong to him to be with him forever.

So try it and see how long it takes. Use the stopwatch on your smartphone. It took me just over 50 seconds to speak through the version above.

We could alter the details of this presentation in a variety of ways, but the main thrust of the story is clear. God made us; we rebelled against him; he loves us enough to save us. So, each of us must decide whether we will accept his offer of salvation.

God has entrusted his story to us. We have the responsibility to be his messengers in the world today. And the world desperately needs the truth of God’s story.

What an honor it is to speak God’s truth. What a joy it is when we see someone respond with saving faith. Let’s tell God’s story!

May God’s empowering Presence inspire and enable us to tell his story boldly,

Brother Richard

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Why Waste Time on Such A Broken-Down Beat-Up Organization as the Church?

Jesus’ mom and brothers try to speak with him but they can’t because he is surrounded by crowds of people. Someone tells Jesus that his family wants to see him, but he surprises everyone with his response.

Jesus asks, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” That would seem obvious. Jesus, however, is full of surprises.

Jesus motions with his hand toward his disciples and says, “Look! My mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in the heavens is my brother and my sister and my mother.”

At first glance Jesus seems to be rather dismissive of his immediate family. (Joseph is not mentioned, perhaps because he has passed away.) But even in his agony on the cross Jesus will make sure that his mother is properly cared for (see John 19:25-27).

Jesus is not rejecting his family particularly or the natural family generally. He is revealing something important about true discipleship. When we follow Jesus, we join a new group, a spiritual family, the family of God.

As followers of Jesus we automatically become part of his group: the church. The Bible knows nothing about ‘Lone Ranger’ Christians. All true believers are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the same heavenly Father.

Now, comparing church to family is a double-edged sword. Families should be places of encouragement, nurturing, support and love. But unfortunately they can be places of conflict, frustration, misery and animosity.

Sometimes family seems negative because it is a natural place of responsibility and accountability. Responsibility and accountability can be painful in the short term, but they are beneficial in the long term.

But other times the family experience is simply a bad one. Family members say and do harmful things, and because they are family, the wounds run deeper.

Jesus is right. The church really is like a family. At times she is encouraging but at other times she is discouraging. At times she is loving but at other times she is hateful.

One thing the church is not. She is not optional, not for true believers. When a son or a daughter refuses to visit mom or dad or brothers or sisters, then we know that something is wrong. Likewise, when a Christian refuses to attend church, then we know that something is wrong.

Jesus came not just to save individuals but to build his church. “On this rock,” he said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not overcome it.” Wow! No other organization has that promise, only the church.

So often the church looks ragged and ugly and weak. In fact, she sometimes looks so weak that one might think that even a gentle breeze would sweep her away once and for all. But after 2,000 years of tragedies and triumphs this raggedy institution survives and continues to serve the Lord, albeit imperfectly.

How can such a broken down, scuffed-up, out-of-step with the world organization last so long? Only by the power and promise of someone with great power. Only by the word of Jesus and work of his Spirit.

Someday she will stand before God in splendor, without blemish, spotless, despite all the bumps and bruises and wrinkles and stains she displays now. On that day she will be brilliant, adorned as a bride for her groom at the wedding supper of the Lamb. And she is the only organization with that promise!

May God’s Holy Spirit bind us together in love as brothers and sisters in Christ,

Brother Richard

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Is It Time to Give Up?

Jesus denounced the cities where most of his miracles were done. He said that it would be worse for them on the Day of Judgment than for notoriously wicked cities like Sodom.

Why is Jesus being so judgmental? Why is he condemning large groups of people? Not because they persecuted Jesus. They didn’t (that would come later). Not because they opposed Jesus or rebuked him. In fact, they were indifferent.

Jesus is denouncing these cities because they did not repent. Repentance is a change from disobeying God to serving God. It is turning away from a life of sin and turning to a life of obeying God. They declined.

Jesus gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk, cleansed lepers, gave hearing to the deaf, raised the dead and preached the good news to the poor. The crowds were amazed at his miracles. But Jesus did not perform miracles in order to amaze or entertain or even to satisfy their curiosity.

Jesus’ miracles were meant to convince people that they should take his message seriously. They should turn from sin and turn to him for forgiveness. Cities full of people in Galilee saw his power and went home unfazed. So Jesus pronounces them doomed.

This is a sobering text (Matthew 11:20-24). It shows a side of Jesus that many wish to ignore or deny. True, Jesus is a friend of sinners. But he is their friend because he tells them the truth about heaven and hell. Instead of approving of their sin, he offers salvation from sin.

The cities in Galilee were given a great gift. They were eyewitness to the healing power of God. They heard the powerful preaching and teaching of Jesus with their own ears. But they failed to act.

The Bible tells us that when God gives more, he expects more. This was solemn news for the towns in Galilee. It is also solemn news for United States of America.

What other country in modern times has been more blessed by God? We have enjoyed religious freedom from shore to shore, Christian churches in every town, and Bibles on every shelf.

What will happen to a country that has been so privileged and yet turns its back on God?

Like Jesus in Galilee, Christians in the U.S.A. often meet with indifference when sharing the message of God’s kingdom. Meanwhile, the spiritual decline in our land is discouraging. It would be easy to give up our efforts to reach a culture that seems so determined to self-destruct.

But we must take our cue from Jesus. After denouncing the cities that ignored his message he did two things. First, he praised God. Jesus thanked the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth, for his work in the world and his work in his own life.

No matter how difficult things may get, we must never stop worshiping the Lord, our Maker and Savior. He is our source of strength and inspiration.

The second thing that Jesus did was to continue extending an invitation to those who might hear and respond. “Come to me all who are weary and burdened,” he said, “and I will give you rest.”

Like Jesus, we must be faithful in offering the good news about God’s amazing grace. God’s word promises us that if we do not give up, at the proper time we will reap a harvest!

Let us faithfully speak the truth in love,

Brother Richard Foster

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God’s One Mistake

Many American Christians have discovered God’s one mistake. It has to do with the Lord’s Day. God was apparently not thinking ahead when he instructed his people to gather for worship one day out of seven.

How could the Lord, who knows the beginning from the end, miss the long list of difficulties he created? Did he not realize that people have birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, holidays, out-of-town visitors, family time (to name just a few)? 52 Sundays out of every 365 days is a lot to ask.

After seeing how his people Israel struggled to keep the Sabbath in the Old Testament one might expect the Lord to learn his lesson and change his mind in the New Testament. But no. Jesus himself had the notable habit of attending Synagogue regularly (and with people who were trying to kill him!). And the Early Church met more than once a week. What were they thinking?

What does God have to say for himself? Well, the New Testament likens the church to a body. In the same way that a person’s body has hands, feet, eyes, ears, etc., the church is a collection of people with diverse spiritual gifts, each one needed by all the others. When someone is absent the body is incomplete and the other parts suffer. Imagine your hands and feet showing up on different days.

We also read that the church is like a temple. Each person is a living stone in the walls of this spiritual place where God meets with his people. When bricks are missing the building is incomplete and weakened, vulnerable to the hostile forces that come against it.

But wait. Must God justify his commands to us? Do we worship on the Lord’s Day because we have approved it as useful and acceptable to ourselves? Do we have the final word on what is right? “Okay, Lord, I’ll obey if you can convince me that I should . . . if not, then I am taking control!” If this is true, then we should dispense with calling him Lord.

Our cultural ancestors in Europe discovered God’s mistake about once-a-week worship before we did in the U.S.A. They have ‘evolved’ morally and spiritually more rapidly than we have (or is it de-volved?). We are apparently now in a competition to take the lead in this race for the cultural bottom, and doing rather well as of late.

But someone will rebuke me: How can a lack of worship on the Lord’s Day be blamed for the spiritual and moral demise of an entire culture? The point is taken. Perhaps a haphazard attitude about the Lord’s Day is a symptom and not the disease. But if so, should we not make an appointment with the Great Physician? Should we not labor to restore this sign of spiritual vitality: regular worship?

What message is sent to the world when God’s people openly defy him? Why should they consider honoring God when his own people fail to observe one of the most visible expressions of faith? Maybe there is a connection between the church’s observance of the Lord’s Day and the rise or decline of a culture.

At the bottom of it all we must answer this question: Did God make a mistake when he instructed his people to worship one day out of seven, or are we making a mistake when we ignore him?

May the Spirit of God always inspire us to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord,

Brother Richard Foster

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The Powerful Word of God

This year is the 500th anniversary of a decisive turning point in the history of the church. In 1517 the Roman Catholic Church had dominated in the West for generations. But during that long period of political power the organization descended into corruption.

The corrupt church had to keep its members in the dark in order to protect itself from accountability. Its teachings and practices had departed dramatically from God’s word. But a man named Martin Luther was brave enough to risk taking a stand for the truth.

Luther’s personal spiritual pilgrimage led him back to the Bible. He realized how far Roman Catholicism had strayed from God’s word. Luther challenged the leaders of the church to reform their practices and align their teaching with Scripture.

The hearts of the church leaders were darkened by the wealth and influence they gained from oppressing God’s people. They refused to amend their ways. Instead, they tried to destroy the messenger.

But the Roman Catholic establishment underestimated the power of God’s word. Martin Luther and others like him began to expose the lies of the Roman Catholic institution. The truth revealed in the pages of Scripture uncovered the deceit of sixteenth-century Catholicism.

Other brave and talented people translated the Bible into the languages of the people so they could know the truth. Roman Catholic leaders tried to keep the Bible out of the people’s hands, capturing and killing those who translated and published the Bible for common folks to read.

The results of all this were catastrophic for the Roman Catholic institution’s grip on power. Their refusal to make needed corrections forced genuine believers to break with Roman Catholicism and form new local churches built on the truth of God’s word. What started as reform became a revolt against entrenched falsehood and the birth of a new movement, Protestant churches.

The history of the Reformation is a reminder that God’s word is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. Church leaders may go astray but God’s written word will always restore God’s people to the narrow path which leads to life.

By trying to cover up and subvert the truth of God’s written word, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church caused a painful and radical correction to the Christian movement. Had they allowed God’s word to make many small adjustments along the way they would have avoided the need for such revolutionary change.

The same dynamics are at work in today’s church. When we allow God’s word to make frequent course corrections to our churches and to our individual lives, we will avoid the need for radical changes that can be difficult and painful.

In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, let’s renew our commitment to the Bible. Let us be faithful to read, learn, memorize, apply and share God’s word. For “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God might be capable, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

May God’s Word always be a lamp for our feet and a light for our path,
Brother Richard Foster

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