Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Beginning with the End in Mind

This past Christmas season was filled with all kinds of anticipation: seeing loved ones, opening gifts, witnessing performances, getting time off work, etc. However, many this holiday season also anticipated the release of certain motion pictures like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” How do I know this? The numbers don’t lie. This single movie has already brought in over $1 billion dollars and has broken nearly every box office record imaginable. In fact, just recalling these facts makes me wonder if I’m not the only one who hasn’t seen this motion picture.

Although I haven’t seen the movie myself, I am one of the near-82,000,000 (as of Dec. 30, 2015) to have watched the trailer on Nearly every movie nowadays puts out a trailer months before the picture hits theatres to give people a taste of what is to come and gin up as much excitement as possible. I’d say that Star Wars did a bang up job doing just this with its own 2-and-a-half minute preview.

However, I don’t want to spend much more time talking about a galaxy far, far away. In the spirit of blockbuster season, I want to draw your attention to a far greater trailer observed by a far wider audience that has existed no just for a few months, but for nearly 2000 years. This preview forecasts something more magnificent than anything you will see in the theatres this season, or in any other season for that matter, and its implications are of eternal significance. I am speaking of John’s preview of the end times via Revelation in general and Revelation 19:11-16 in particular. Today, as we kick off a new year, I’d like to take a moment to share with you a preview brought to you by this passage that I hope will fill us with great anticipation, encourage our hearts in an ever-darkening world, and inspire the kind of confidence that I pray will lead us not only into 2016, but for the rest of our lives. In this trailer we will hear three names for Jesus uttered—each with their own corresponding descriptions that speak of the end of the greatest story ever told.

I. NAME #1: Faithful and True-19:11-12

The immediate context of Revelation 19:11-16 finds itself in the denouement of the prophetic action described in Revelation 4-22:5. What is clear about 4-22:5 is that the distress witnessed and the acuity of the wrath poured out upon the world in the end seems to increase as the text progresses. The book reads like a piece of music that includes one large crescendo toward a climactic fortissimo. Here, the fortissimo is the victory of the Lamb in chapters 17-21 and the implications thereof (Babylon’s fall [18:1-24], and the celebratory worship of Christ [19:1ff], etc.). As when a dissonant chord resolves, this large section turns up the tension, only to have the Lamb of God resolves this tension in a way that puts the reader in a state of peace and hope.  Revelation 19 begins the peaceful closure following the rising tension and climax of the entire book and directs the plot toward the conclusion and applications found in Chapter 22.  

This passage is introduced with “after these things” (Μετὰ ταῦτα) and breaks up the rising action culminating in the climax and the falling action that leads to the resolution and conclusion of the entire book. Though what follows Revelation 19:11-16 eventually describes the bliss and long-awaited peace that many in the believing community are anticipating now and will on day experience, this peace must be brought about by means of a final and ultimate victory. This victory is portrayed in vivid Technicolor in verses 11-16 of chapter 19—introduced by “And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on is called Faithful and True,…”(19:11a).
The opening line of the passage portrays Christ as seated “on a white horse” (suggesting purity), and calls Him “Faithful and True.” In the first coming, Jesus’ ministry culminated in the Passion set in motion after He entered into Jerusalem on a young donkey—a beast of burden (humble, submissive, and a willing sacrifice). Here, in the description of His Second Coming, Jesus’ present ministry is predicted to culminate in a procession in which Jesus is seated on a pure white war horse (brilliant, victorious, and regal). Other horses were used in the book of revelation to describe coming plagues (white, red, black, pale green); however, this horse is superior by means of its rider—“Faithful and True”—who is Jesus Christ who brings about peace for His own.  

Faithful and True” riding on this white war horse is next said to, “in righteousness,…judge and wage war,…” (19:11b). Though in the world at present wars are fought for a whole host of unjust and immoral reasons, there is coming a war, perhaps the shortest war of all, in which one will fight against legions and in the struggle judge the wicked and battle against the corrupt. It will, be a war that will, once and for all, end all wars. This is the war Jesus will fight and win and this statement is as faithful and true as the name He is given in this verse!

Next, “Faithful and True” is described with the following, “His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself,…” (19:12). Equipped with the piercing perception afforded Him by his omniscience (the flaming eyes) and marked with the emblems of absolute authority and power (the many diadems), Jesus is no longer shown to be an ordinary man from Nazareth in Galilee, but an all-knowing warrior King named Faithful and True.

II. NAME #2: Word of God-19:13-15

As the description continues, we are introduced to another, more familiar name attributed to the coming Christ—“the Word of God.” However, this name is not without its own accompanying description. “He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood and His name is called the Word of God” (19:13). The graphic details of Jesus’ “robe dipped in blood” indicate that Christ is not above getting His hands dirty in bringing about the final victory envisioned in this passage (v. 13). However, while in His first coming Christ’s own blood was spilled, in His Second Coming, it will be the enemy’s blood that is spilled, thereby staining Jesus’ heavenly robe. Though in Jesus’ first coming the “angry fury of God” was directed at Him on the cross, in the Second Coming this same wrath will be directed on an unbelieving world that has not accepted the cross.

This blood-stained warrior on the horse is called in verse 13 “the Word of God.” Sound familiar? It should, for in John 1, the same author of this vision described Jesus thusly, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,…and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). In John, the Word of God spoke heaven into existence and proved the character of God through His presence in the world. Here, the Word of God is the commander of armies, bringing about total victory. This particular name of Jesus brings continuity to His office as creator, redeemer, and vindicator. He is present at the beginning, middle, and end of history and plays the most crucial role in it all. Jesus is the Word which spoke the heavens into existence, redeemed the world after it fell. He is the same Word that will usher in a new world to replace the present world as predicted here in this little preview.

Jesus was, is, and will be not just any Word, but the Word “of God.” The phrase, “of God” is especially loaded with theological importance as its function grammatically is not to describe what kind of word Jesus is, but to rename Jesus altogether. Properly translated, this phrase reads, “His name is called the Word who is God.”

As such, Jesus leads the armies of heaven which are described as “clothed in fine linen, white and clean,…following Him on white horses,…”(19:14). Though this description of the heavenly ranks tells us something of the holiness and purity of the forces represented, what is perhaps most significant about this description is what is not present. This heavenly army, unlike any well-prepared legion, has no swords or spears. This could only mean that this army, though present, takes no part in the coming action of military/spiritual victory. “They are noncombatant supporters of the Messiah as He wages the war single-handedly (Thomas, 387).

Now this is a battle in which I look forward to being a part.  All of the glory of riding into victory without having to risk life and limb and take up the sword in a bloody battle is what is promised for the saints.

The only member of the brigade fixed with a weapon is the Word who is God riding on a horse, “from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations” (19:15a). The same Word of God that spoke the heavens and earth into existence will bring an end to this world of corruption and pave the way for a new world in its place—this, He will do by striking down the nations that are bent against them.

Just as the Word of God was stained with blood in His first coming to bring salvation on the cross, so too will His robe be stained with blood when He brings about total victory in the end. Just as Jesus provided righteousness to the lost who could do nothing for themselves, so too will He usher in heaven for the righteous who will do nothing to earn it and are yet present to receive it. The same Savior who saved believers totally in the past and sustains believers in the present, will usher believers into glory.

2 Cor. 2:14-“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.”

Once this victory is sure, the Bible continues to reveal that, “He will rule them with a rod of iron and He treads the winepress of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty,” (19:15b). This image furthers the theme of total and complete victory over the enemies of God. God’s fierce wrath must be appeased and Jesus is the One to accomplish it.

While Christ was God’s agent of discrimination (that is between good and evil) in His first coming, He will prove to be God’s agent of condemnation in His Second Coming—literally carrying the sword of God in His mouth and yielding the rod of iron in His hand.  

Jesus is the Faithful and True Word of God who was and is, and is to come and bring about the victory we know now in part now but will one day enjoy in full—no thanks to us! Now THAT is something worth getting excited over.  

III. NAME #3: King of Kings and Lord of Lords-19:16

These two names already given of Christ in this passage together lead to the third name. In fact, they almost act as qualifications for the third title he is said to possess in verse 16, “and on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, ‘King of Kings, and Lord of Lords’.” This title’s unique placement on the part of the robe covering Jesus’ thigh, given that Jesus sits atop His horse, makes it noticeable to all who see Him. The importance of this title is further reiterated by its placement at the very end of this passage.   

This final name attributed to Christ celebrates His sovereign rule over every geo-political, spiritual, economic, personal, and present ruler on the earth. Though many have claimed and still claim ownership and authority in this world and of this world, only one King, only one Lord will be standing in the end—His name is Jesus and He is the faithful and True Word of God who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

So What?

Is He the King and Lord of your life? Is His Word something you have accepted? Do you know of His faithfulness and truth? If not, then this motion picture is not going to be something you are eager to see played out on the silver screen of this world. If not, this trailer you have witnessed today is understandably frightening. There are only two kinds of people in this world—those who will meet Jesus head on, (experiencing the tip of His sword), and those who will follow Him in total victory. The difference is faith in Jesus and the work He accomplished when He first came to the earth (what we celebrated this past Christmas)—(His birth, death, and resurrection).

For those who read this and are a part of the “Lord’s army”, are you living a life of anticipation for the glory that is to come, or are you so bothered by what you see around you that you have forgotten that the sweet victory described in this passage is as good as done? This same Jesus who is predicted here as faithful and true—the Word of God, King of Kings and Lord of Lords—is the same Jesus who chose you, loves you, walks with you, and is leading you. Although I can’t wait to see this movie when it finally hits the box office in the eschaton, I also can’t wait to see what God’s people are capable of when they fully appreciate and embrace what this trailer teaches while the world waits. May we, as disciples today, apprehend this preview of the end and in response may it fill us in the present with the kind of anticipation that longs to live rightly, share eagerly, give of ourselves generously, and grow accordingly. This preview was brought to you by Revelation 19:11-16. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

"What Child is This?" Pt. 3-The Savior of the Desperate

Many different types of events will draw a crowd. In the news we read of protests or demonstrations that have the ability to accumulate a large group of people. In schools crowds often form in the hallway when a fight breaks out or on the dance floor when people are taking turns showing off the latest moves. Car wrecks often draw a crowd of people (and cars) as well as parties that celebrate different occasions. There is a crowd mentality that often surfaces when something important is happening. People are naturally drawn toward things that arrest their attention. This is especially true when a decision is involved. Think of the millions of people who tune in each week to watch shows like Dancing with the Stars, the Voice, or Survivor in order to anticipate and then celebrate the winner of these competitions once it is announced. We are people who collect themselves in crowds to watch spectacles, especially when something significant is on the line.

By the time the end of Ruth has come around, a crowd has begun to form around the evolving situation. Many are gathering to see how things will turn out between this Moabite woman and a well-to-do bachelor named Boaz. But before we look at today’s passage, let us remind ourselves of Ruth’s story.

Years prior to this event, a woman named Naomi and her family (consisting of a husband Elimelech and two boys) moved from their homeland (Bethlehem) to Moab because of a long-lasting famine. While in this foreign land, Naomi’s sons each took Moabite women for wives (a big no no). However, before any of them could have children, Naomi’s husband and two boys died. Widowed and alone, Naomi becomes bitter and decides to return home to Bethlehem for salvation from her desperate plight. Ruth, recent widow of one of Naomi’s sons, against Naomi’s wishes, decides to return with her. Back in Bethlehem (which literally means “house of bread”—ironic as that was exactly what they were looking for), Ruth decides to take a job to support both herself and Naomi. She finds her way to a field to glean for crops behind the harvesters (grabbing scraps left behind the field workers) and catches the eye of the operation’s owner—Boaz. Upon further investigation and as a result of God’s providence, Naomi reveals that Boaz is a potential kinsmen redeemer for Ruth—a potential husband fit to keep the line of Naomi from drying up and dying off. After several awkward meetings, Boaz and Ruth agree to marry, and yet, something stands in their way—Mr. “so-and-so” who is a nearer redeemer and the first in line to marry Ruth if he should choose to do so. Therefore, Boaz agrees to meet with this man and ask his permission to marry Ruth and purchase the right to redeem her and Naomi’s late husband’s land holdings (a very pricy decision).

By this point, a crowd has gathered in an effort to hear the decision that was made between Boaz and Mr. So-and-So. Interested in the outcome of this decision, the group (originally of ten) has grown to many onlookers who, in their passing by, have decided to tune in and hear the result of the decision that has been made between these two men. Let us take our place among them and examine the three results of the decision reached. Ultimately, what we will learn will inevitably point to a miracle child born to redeem. In fact, when we ask the question, “what child is this?” of Jesus in light of this passage, we will come to understand that He is, like Boaz, the Redeemer.

RESULT #1: The Practice of a Custom-4:7-8

Immediately prior to this passage is the meeting between Boaz and Mr. So and so. The meeting progressed as follows: Now Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there, and behold, the close relative of whom Boaz spoke was passing by, so he said, ‘Turn aside, friend, sit down here.’ And he turned aside and sat down.  He took ten men of the elders of the city and said, ‘Sit down here.’ So they sat down. Then he said to the closest relative, ‘Naomi, who has come back from the land of Moab, has to sell the piece of land which belonged to our brother Elimelech. So I thought to inform you, saying, “Buy it before those who are sitting here, and before the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if not, tell me that I may know; for there is no one but you to redeem it, and I am after you.”’ And he said, ‘I will redeem it.’ Then Boaz said, ‘On the day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you must also acquire Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of the deceased, in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance.’ The closest relative said, ‘I cannot redeem it for myself, because I would jeopardize my own inheritance. Redeem it for yourself; you may have my right of redemption, for I cannot redeem it.’”

Verses 7-8 interrupt the meeting that is taking place and draw attention to the gestures that would have accompanied this decision (i.e. the practice of a custom), “…Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning the redemptions and the exchange of land to confirm any matter: a man removed his sandal and gave it to another; and this was the manner of attestation in Israel…”(4:7). The removal of a sandal according to ancient custom was a symbolic act declaring abdication of one’s rights as the redeemer and a transfer to the next in line. In those days, the sandal was the most common form of footwear, generally made of leather and fastened with straps or laces. The act of removing the sandal and handing it to another was symbolic of an exchange or transfer of goods or rights. Inasmuch as a transfer was made and inasmuch as this transfer was made among a crowd of witnesses, this symbolic act of transfer was legally binding. In other words, the act makes concrete the transfer of rights from one person to the next.

Interestingly, the transfer of the sandal would have been more meaningful in that culture than it would be today. Sandals were important footwear and many did not have but one pair. To give up a sandal meant giving up half of your closet collection and leaving you barefoot on one foot until you could acquire another. Not only was this personally taxing, it would have been publicly observed. Anyone in the vicinity, for the remainder of that day at least, would have been able to see Mr. So-and-so wearing only one sandal and understand that a legally binding deal had been made.

This gesture was accompanied by a verbal declaration “Acquire for yourself” (a recapitulation of the statement made in verse 6) (4:8). With the transfer of the sandal as the final legal gesture, the official court proceedings were complete. The rights and responsibilities of redemption (concerning Elimelech’s estate) had been officially transferred to Boaz, and he was legally recognized as the redeemer—that is the savior of Ruth’s plight and Naomi’s family line. Although Boaz grows more important to us in the story with this new distinction, Mr. So-and-so, disappears from the scene almost as quickly as he appeared, heading home to live an unchanged and normal life.

RESULT #2: The Proclamation of the Conclusion-4:9-10

With a bit more pep in his step than earlier, Boaz closes the meeting with a passionate speech. This speech defines the significance of what just took place for everyone around him and calls attention to what they observed. Although originally Boaz called just ten elders around to bear witness, since the meeting began, many walking through the city gates had remained to watch as the business was conducted (much as many gather around to watch the outcome of some sort of competition). This is why the author introduces Boaz’s speech with, “to the elders and all the people” (4:9).
Boaz’s concluding speech begins and ends with the same clause, “your are witnesses” (4:9). With this declaration, Boaz affirms that if ever in the future there would be any question of what had transpired between him and so-and-so, many could be called upon as witnesses. With this in mind, Boaz summarizes two actions that had transpired, “‘You are witnesses today that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon…’” (4:9). The first implication of what transpired was the transfer of the estate of Elimelech. Boaz had obtained the right to purchase it from whoever held it presently. In so doing, he would restore the land back to whom it originally belonged—Naomi’s family.  

In the second portion of his summary, Boaz declared that he had also acquired the rights of Ruth, “Moreover, I have acquired Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, to be my wife…”(4:10a). Though Boaz mentioned the land first, this he did because his right to Ruth was contingent upon gaining the right to the property. However, it is obvious from the construction of the sentence that Ruth was his primary goal. Literally, it reads, “and also Ruth, the Moabitess, the wife of Mahlon, I have acquired for myself.” From this clear reference, it is obvious that Ruth’s foreign status was no barrier for Boaz. Instead, it almost appears as though, because of her glowing reputation throughout Bethlehem, he relishes the idea of marrying this foreigner.

This is not unlike Christ’s redemption for the believer. Although foreigners to His kingdom, Jesus is pleased, if not, proud, that He as the Redeemer of the world is able to enter into a relationship with you and me. He has the rights to do so and was absolutely willing to purchase that right though it came at the ultimate cost.

In Boaz’s explanation of his motivation in the foregoing legal efforts he uses three significant expressions. His first goal was to establish the name of the deceased on through his own inheritance, “in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance” (4:10). Boaz’s second goal was to prevent the name of the deceased from being “cut off from his brothers” (4:10). This expression represents one of several for annihilating one’s honor and reputation and preventing one’s post-death existence. Boaz’s third goal is to prevent his name from being cut off from “the court of his birth place” (4:10). In other words, this decision by Boaz is intended to guarantee Elimelech/Mahlon the right to representation in the gathering of the town council. In the end the security of Mahlon’s and Elimelech’s name is guarded.

Again, Boaz closes his speech as he opens it, calling those around to bear witness. He does this because he wants to remind them of their responsibility to testify if called upon.

RESULT #3: The Prayer of Blessing-4:11-12

Interestingly, there is no word for “yes” in the Hebrew language. In order to affirm something or agree, the Israelites repeated that which they conceded. Here, they say, “we are witnesses.” By affirming this role, they agree to the legal and popular obligations that Boaz gave them through his speech and state here that they will be the witnesses he has called them to be concerning this case. However, this is not the end of their input.

With unanimous spontaneity, the crowd erupts in a hymn of blessing that consists of three parts, “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built the house of Israel” (4:11b). First, they express their concern for Boaz by praying for that Ruth be fertile. The expression “who is coming into your home” derives from the ancient customary practice of the wedding party proceeding to the home of the groom after the marriage ceremony and him formally ushering the bride into his house.

After the completion of this foretold ceremony, the crowd continues and prays that Ruth take her place among the matriarchs of Israel along with Rachel and Leah. This would have been absolutely unprecedented for the original readers. It would have been unbelievable for a foreign woman to be granted such status among Israel’s finest feminine figures. As is well known, Rachel and Leah were the daughters of Laban whom Jacob married and who became the founding mothers of the twelve tribes of Israel. Leah is mentioned second in order for her name to stick in your mind and draw attention to the tribe of Judah who was associated with Bethlehem (their present setting) and was a descendant of this famous mother. Just as Rachel and Leah had built up the house of Israel, so, they pray, may Ruth build up the house of Boaz.

”to build a house” is an idiom which means “to have progeny, descendants, to establish a family.” The people’s invocation of Yahweh to make this possible is in keeping with the psalmist’s notion that “unless the LORD builds a house, they labor in vain who build it” (Ps. 127:1).

The second blessing was directed to Boaz and is constructed with two parallel lines. “May you prosper in Ephrathah And may a name be called in Bethlehem” (4:11). Because of the wide range of meanings that may be ascribed to “prosper,” this first line is difficult to pin down. The word can mean “to act valiantly,” “to perform honorably,” or “to show great strength.” However, “to make wealth,” seems to be most appropriate in the context of a blessing associated with marriage.

Typical of Hebrew parallelism, the second line builds on the first. The phrase “become famous” (lit. “to call a name”), means to keep that name alive. It also perceives the person as living on in his descendants in the place named, which is Bethlehem here. The ancients believed that when a person’s name is never mentioned after his death, he ceases to exist.

The third blessing the witnesses prayed was that Boaz would become like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, “Moreover, may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah through the offspring which the Lord will give you by this young woman” (4:12). This reference to Tamar, Judah, and Perez reinforces the impression that the narrator has been writing the story of Boaz and Ruth with Genesis 39 in the back of his mind. What does that say? This most celebrated example of levirate obligation and betrayal also involved a widow whose husband, Er, had died without producing    an heir. Failing to get Er’s brother Onan, to fulfill his levirate obligation and despairing of waiting for Shelah, another younger brother to grow up, Tamar pretended to be a prostitute and tricked Judah, her own father-in-law, into a sexual relationship. She conceived and eventually bore twin sons, Perez and Zerah. Together they became the ancestors of the tribe of Judah.
The point of comparing Boaz to Judah and Ruth to Tamar is to draw attention to the common levirate quality to their unions.  Through Tamar, whose husband had died childless, Judah had fathered Perez, who became the ancestor of a host of clans. Through Ruth, whose husband had died childless, the people prayed that Boaz might father a child who would birth a multitude as well. However, if one considers the common rabbinic style of arguing from lesser to the greater, the reader cannot help but think that if Yahweh had given immoral Judah a double blessing in the birth of twins and if Judah flourished through Perez, how much greater are the prospects  for Boaz and Ruth who are pure in their intentions and righteous in character. These two have been presented from the beginning to the end as persons with as people of hesed, people like God.

The people that proclaimed this three-fold blessing could not have imagined how prophetic it would prove to be. Collectively inspired by the Spirit of God, they join here in a pronouncement that will eventually transpire before their very eyes. Had they been around long enough to see the fulfillment of their prayer, they would have observed the establishment of a name and a house far greater than Perez.

Ruth 4:13-15-“So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed is the Lord who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel.  May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.’”

So What?

When we ask the question of Jesus in light of what we have learned in this passage, “What child is this?” we learn that He, like Boaz is a redeemer who in spite of the inconveniences was willing to purchase the right to us out of a desperate plight and into a living relationship. This, he did by coming to this world as a baby boy, living a perfect life, and dying on the cross so that we might be restored –our name to live on forever. Like Ruth and Naomi we are desperate and incapable of helping ourselves. However, Like Boaz, Jesus was willing to extend us His grace and provide us with abundant blessing. While Boaz suffered the inconvenience of an awkward conversation before a crowd of spectators, Jesus suffered the inconvenience of a cross. Because of what Boaz accomplished, Ruth was saved from her desperation and eventually gave birth to a son who would turn out to be the grandfather of King David (from whom would come Jesus Christ himself!). Because of what Jesus accomplished, those who place their faith in him are saved from their sin and are promised eternal life that will one day culminate in a kingdom run by King Jesus. What a worthy thing to celebrate this Christmas!