Revelation 7 and the 144,000

Revelation Chapter 7 (Interlude)

Introduction

I will borrow from several parts of Beale’s introduction because I have found it helpful for showing how chapter 6 and 7 tie together:

Revelation 7:1-8 explains how believers are sealed so that they can persevere through the first four tribulations (he is referring to the four horsemen) enumerated in chapter 6. The vision of 7:9-17 reveals the heavenly reward for those who do persevere. It amplifies the brief picture of the saints in 6:9-11, who have finally entered into God’s presence, after having successfully completed their course of suffering (see esp. 7:13-15). 7:9-17 also describes the kind of rest that the exalted saint were told to enjoy (6:11)…Saints who suffer in the tribulation are encouraged to persevere as they reflect on the divine protection they have through God’s sealing them and as they recall the promise of their future heavenly reward.

Therefore, the sealing of the saints explains further how Christ will “keep them from the hour of trial” which is “to test the earth-dwellers” who have persecuted them (cf. 6:10). All these connections concern matters that precede the final judgment and reward, so chapter 7 must function as an interlude or parenthesis in its placement after chapter 6. Yet the chapter also has a future aspect, especially toward the end (vv. 15-17). From this perspective the chapter is also an answer to the concluding question of 6:17, “who is able to stand”: before God and not suffer the wrath of the last judgment? This is the definite answer to 6:17 and the main point toward which the visionary narrative of 7:9ff drives.[i]

Hamilton rightly says that, “This chapter is important because we will see later in 9:4 that those who are sealed will not be harmed, and we see in 14:1-5 that this group stands with Jesus, redeemed, on Mount Zion. The fact that God seals his servants also informs the number of the beast in 13:16-18, which seems to be a satanic imitation of God’s sealing of his servants.”[ii]

7:1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree.

There are obviously no “corners” to the earth – Columbus helped us figure that one out some time ago – and just as obvious is the fact that God knew it all along! But the meaning here is a simple literary device to mean that the reach of the power of the angels was worldwide.

What are they holding back? The “four winds”, which I tend to believe equate with the four horsemen from chapter 6. For in Zechariah 6 they are equated as the same thing:

And the angel answered and said to me, “These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth.[iii] (Zechariah 6:5)

Beale explains:

This identification becomes clearer from understanding that the sealing of believers in vv 3-8 explains how they can be protected spiritually from the woes of the four horsemen, which they must endure. Therefore, the identification of the winds with the horsemen means that the sealing of believers in vv 2-8 takes us back even before the time when the four horsemen of 6:1-8 are unleashed.[iv]

7:2-3 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, [3] saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

The Seal and the Passover

The seal of God here is the mark of ownership and of protection that indicates that you are God’s own possession and that your salvation has been secured. A brilliant picture of this occurred prior to the Exodus when God instructed Moses to adorn the lentils of Jewish homes in Goshen with the blood of a lamb so that the Angel of Death would know to pass over those homes in the midst of a devastating night-time slaughter of the first born of all Egypt. That night, thousands of years prior to John’s vision, an entire generation was taken away by the Sovereign of all life.

And it is those plagues – the 10 plagues that wracked Egypt prior to the Exodus – that serve as one of the main OT backdrops of the first four seal judgments (the four horsemen), but especially come to mind in the Trumpet and Bowl judgments in the coming chapters. They are modeled after those plagues, and are meant to serve as a reminder of God’s power and sovereignty, as well as His plan for anti-typical fulfillment of a final exodus from sin, death, and a fallen world; He will lead His people to a new land.

Now, the seal is the opposite of the mark of the beast. The mark of the beast is just another way of saying you are a child of the enemy, as opposed to a child of God.

It is a harsh reality that we must come to grips with that all those who are not children of God are, in Biblical terms, categorized as children of Satan, because they are under His control. This reality goes back to Genesis 3:15 where the seed of the Woman was to battle it out with the seed of the Serpent. It didn’t take long before the first battle commenced – Able was the first physical casualty in a war that would stretch for thousands of years. Jesus taught this dichotomy clearly:

They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, [40] but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. [41] You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” [42] Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. [43] Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. [44] You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. [45] But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. [46] Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? [47] Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:39-47).

Paul emphasized this as well:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—[3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:1-3).

It is only through the grace of God that one is saved from the enemy camp. Indeed, Jesus came to make enemies His friends:

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. [10] For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life (Romans 5:9-10).

And this seal is that which indicates that we have been snatched from the enemy camp, and are in the army of God’s glorious elect. It is also an indication of protection from all the evil plagues I mentioned were about to befall mankind. Not protection from difficulty, or struggles in this life. The Israelites were spared death, but yet they endured many of the plagues the Egyptians endured, and then wandered in the wilderness and had a tough go of it for many years before being granted entrance into the Promised Land. So too are we protected ultimately.

Beale explains this well I think:

The nature of this protection is spiritual. This is apparent from the fact that believers and unbelievers suffer similar physical afflictions. But, whereas these trials purify God’s servants, they harden the ungodly in their response to God (so 9:19-21). The seal is closely related to the salvation of the people who bear it. This is evident from 14:1-4, where the group that has “written on their foreheads” the names of Christ and the Father (vs1) is also said to be redemptively “purchased.”[v]

Now, more poignantly, the seal is especially that which protects us from what Revelation refers to as “the second death.”

The sealing of the elect is the answer to the question posed in 6:17, “who is able to standin the great day of the Lord’s judgment. Well, the answer is that the elect are able to stand because God has sealed them. Tom Schreiner sums up nicely:

Those whose names are written in the book of life are enrolled because the Lamb has been slain on their behalf (Rev. 13:8; 21:27). The 144,000 are sealed (Rev. 7:1-8) only because they belong to the Lamb. His death is the source of their life. The sing a new song of salvation and have the name of the Father and the Lamb on their foreheads because they have been redeemed by the Lamb (Rev. 14:1-5).[vi]

A Reminder of the OT Imagery

In this way we can see the importance once again of knowing our Old Testament. I’ve said again and again in class how these OT images and stories would have been automatically conjured up in the minds of 1st century believers hearing John’s symbolic descriptions. Their minds would work with OT imagery the same way ours works when we hear the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Immediately we think: Star Wars! And all the stories and characters flood to mind in milliseconds. The same is true for the original readers of John’s letter. Therefore, we much be extra studious to understand their minds, and seek to know the OT backdrop which colors the words of this book.

7:4-8 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: [5] 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, [6] 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, [7] 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, [8] 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.

There are four general theories[vii] of who makes up this group of 144,000.

  1. The dispensational view, which takes it literally as 144,000 exact people, they see it as Jewish Christians coming out of the great tribulation. “This is based on the presupposition that John’s language is to be understood literally except where he states explicitly otherwise.”[viii] The issue is that hermeneutically their literalization of the number is incorrect – every number in Revelation is figurative, why would this be different? Also, their view that a rapture of Christians will take place prior to a period of tribulation is further error that compounds the mistake.
  2. Some classic pre-mills view this group as figurative, standing for the Jews who are partially hardened but will be come to faith en masse when Christ comes back (Romans 11:24-26). The issue with this is that the Romans 11 passage talks about salvation en masse, whereas this pass in Rev. 7 has in view a remnant of people. They seem to be conveying two different ideas.
  3. Some see the 144,000 as Jewish and Gentile Christians in the first century who will emerge from the horrors of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. My issue with this is that it doesn’t seem to accord with the context. If chapter 7 is an explanation of chapter 6:1-8, which I believe is evident, then one would have to say that the four horsemen were only corresponding to that destruction which took place in 70 A.D., with the following 5th seal emphasis on Christian martyrdom. However, I’m not sure that historically this has been the emphasis coming out of 70 AD (not that its not possible I suppose). It would either damage the recapitulation hermeneutic more generally, which we have seen manifold evidence for thus far, else it might suppose that all of the trumpets and bowls are referring to that time in 70AD, something that the global nature of their descriptions seem at odds with.  
  4. Lastly, there is the view that the number is figurative and that the group here is “the complete number of God’s people” (so Beale). I believe this is correct because every other number in Revelation is figurative, and because the context of the passage demands this conclusion.[ix]

I believe there is ample evidence to point to the fact that what is being represented here is not simply a special carve out of ethnic Jews, but a figurative description of the church across all time. While futurists believe that this group of people are Jewish believers coming out of a literal 7-year tribulation period after the rapture, not all premillennial futurists agree. Both Mounce and Ladd disagree, saying that the 144,000 is symbolic for the church in the tribulation.[x] That being said, I just don’t see these ideas as working very well, and believe Schreiner, Beale, and Hendriksen to be on the right track here. This is evidenced by the figurative nature of 144,000.

Beale explains the 144,000 number, and generally Hendriksen and others say the same thing:

144,000 is the result of the square of twelve multiplied by one thousand or the multiple of the squares of ten and twelve multiplied by ten. The use of twelve (and perhaps ten) heightens the figurative idea of completeness. The square of twelve may be merely the number of the tribes of Israel multiplied by itself or, more likely, the twelve tribes multiplied by the twelve apostles. Chapter 21 confirms this suggestion, where the names of the twelve tribes and of the twelve apostles form part of the figurative structure of the heavenly city of God, “the new Jerusalem.”[xi]

Hendriksen picks up on this citation of chapter 21 and says, “Entirely in harmony with this representation we read in Revelation 21 that the holy city Jerusalem has twelve gates and twelve foundations. On these twelve gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. On the twelve foundations were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (21:9-14). We also ready that the wall is 144 cubits in height (21:17).”[xii]

In other words, the number 144,000 is a number meant to represent something, not specifically count individuals. And that something it represents is “the sealed multitude of…the entire Church militant of the old and new dispensations.”[xiii]

Schreiner helpfully discusses the idea and provides a useful summary snapshot:

Some interpreters, of course, understand the 144,000 as literally referring to Israel. The arguments presented previously (cf. his NT theology chapter 17) suggest that John uses “Israel” symbolically to refer to the new people of God. The twelve tribes of Israel point now to a greater fulfillment: the church of Jesus Christ. The 144,000 is symbolic in that it is twelve squared and multiplied by one thousand. It represents, then, the totality of God’s people and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. It also represents God’s army in that it is comparable to the census of Israel s God’s army in the OT. God’s warriors are those who suffer for other sake of the Lamb. The church of Jesus Christ is, then, the true synagogue of God, the place where his people father together. The church does not cancel out ethnic Israel, for the names of the twelve tribes are on the gates of the heavenly city (Rev. 21:12). But the true Israel, composed of both Jews and Gentiles, finds its fulfillment in the church of Jesus Christ.[xiv]

Lost Identity

I sometimes feel obliged to spend more time refuting the dispensational viewpoint because of its odd predominance in our culture at this time in history. So I want to give one more angle on this group of 144,000 as food for thought.

One of the main difficulties with the dispensational viewpoint on this number representing Jewish Christians from literal tribes is that those tribes were completely obliterated during the Assyrian exile. Beale notes that there was still a possibility that some tribal identity existed in the first century A.D. (e.g. Acts 26:7), it seems that many Jews even at this time didn’t have a specific tribal identity. And while dispensationalists like Walvoord argue that God still knows who is from what tribe,[xv] even that argument has two issues

  1. Intermarriage: Of course God knows everything, but what is it that object of His knowledge? Are there some people who have somehow accidentally remained of purely Reuben, or Judah, or Benjamin blood? Assuming God knows the blood lineage of all mankind, it is still highly doubtful that given all the intermarriage in the last 2000+ years that there remain on earth now (or in the future) those who are purely of the blood of one or another of these tribes.
  2. Context: Beale says, “Even if it were viable (and my first point were null), it would have to remain speculation until more evidence from Revelation 7 or elsewhere in the book could be adduced to support it. Instead, the immediate and broad contexts point to a transferal of the tribal names to the church.”[xvi] That broader context could include the noted parallel of chapter 7 with 14:1-4. In those verses the 144,000 are said to be those who are “redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God” (14:4) – in my mind this draws from NT literature in which we are told the church (James 1:18 perhaps picking up on Jeremiah 2:2-3?) and Christ (1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18) are the firstfruits of God (The church due to the nature of its unity with Christ – see Romans 6-8). That they are redeemed from mankind emphasizes again that they are a remnant, and that they are not simply from Israel, but more globally from “mankind.” We will discuss this more when we come to chapter 14.

An Odd List

Now there are some oddities with the tribal list. First, it is missing the tribe of Dan and also missing Ephraim. Futurists like Walvoord say that this is either because the antichrist will come from Dan, or because these tribes were guilty of idolatry.[xvii] But there is no such biblical evidence to support the former, and the latter could be said of all of the tribes!

Hendriksen says, “To say that the symbol ultimately indicates Israel according to the flesh is wrong. The apostle certainly knew that ten of the twelve tribes had disappeared in Assyria, at least to a great extent; while Judah and Benjamin had lost their national existence when Jerusalem fell, in AD 70. Besides, if Israel according to the flesh were meant, why should Ephraim and Dan be omitted? Surely not all the people in the tribe of Dan were lost.”[xviii]

Of course some of this doubles down on what I already mentioned before, but I believe it’s sometimes helpful to hear it from other sources and perspectives.

Another oddity is that Judah is listed first in the list. In my mind there could be some influence here from Genesis 49 where Jacob blessed his sons and predicted that from the tribe of Judah would come a king – that king, as we now know, was Jesus.[xix]

Hamilton sums up some of these oddities, “…in this list that John gives in Revelation 7:5-8, he leaves out Dan, lists Manasseh but not Ephraim, and lists both Joseph and Levi. So john has twelve tribes listed, but this list doesn’t match the way that the Old Testament generally listed the twelve tribes.”[xx]

Hamilton thinks that perhaps Walvoord is right in saying that the omission of Dan and Ephraim (which was the name also equated with the northern kingdom of Israel) might be due to idolatry. But it is hard to say for sure.

7:9-10 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, [10] and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Some objections are given by the dispensastionalists that these two groups can’t possibly be the same people. One group is described as coming from every tribe and nation and the other is described with a number and as Israelites. But the similarities outweigh the differences. The second group seems to have emerged from the tribulation because they were sealed (which was something mentioned of the first group). It also seems likely that, “on this understanding, just as John heard that Jesus was a Lion in 5:5 and then “saw” Jesus as a Lamb in 5:6, so also John “heard” the number 144,000 in 7:4 and then saw an innumerable multitude in 7:9.”[xxi]

Therefore, John looks and sees something that previously he only heard. If verses 4-8 are representative of the church from across all time, which I believe these are, then verse 9 is the visible representation of what John heard in verses 4-8. And what an amazing thing he saw!

John sees a vast multitude, a very diverse group of people. They seem to be people represented from all the nations of the earth. Their diversity transcends tongue and ethnicity, and their unity is found in that they all have white robes and palm branches in their hands, and they all cry out with a very loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

7:11-12 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, [12] saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

The angels, and elders and specifically the four living creatures all agree with the words of the church and say “Amen!”

One of the things that came to mind here was how in Isaiah 6 we are told that “one angel called to another”, that is to say that one of the Seraphim cried out in praise to God to another angel, and as if in agreement they all join together crying “holy, holy, holy” – the trisagion, He is three-times holy. And we see something similar here as well where all of God’s creation is joined together in one mind in praise to God. One group praises God, and the other seeks to echo their praise with praises of their own.

If worship is two parts: one presenting one’s body before the Lord (i.e. Romans 12:1-2), and the second presenting one’s praise before the Lord, then this group has both covered. They “fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God” – but it is not an empty worship of body alone. The body is only part of the worship…

Note now the content of what they are saying about God. They acknowledge these things about and to God:

Blessing – He is the origin of all blessing, for “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). Therefore it is right to bless God with our tongues for all He has given to us, and for who He is intrinsically, and that is just what they do here.

Glory – Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory we are told (Hebrews 1:1-3), but what is this glory? The glory of God is defined by John Piper as the visible and outward manifestation of His holiness – it is his holiness “gone public.” But what is being said here is that all glory, that is, all praise for goodness, is due to God. He is the only person who deserves “glory” or to be “glorified” in the truest sense of the word.

Wisdom – This is a more complex praise than it might seem at first. Wisdom is by definition a “right use of knowledge”, and we know that Christ was the very embodiment of wisdom, and that God is the keeper of all wisdom. If God was not wise, then all of His knowledge could be used to terribly ineffective or dangerous ends. But He is wise – Paul calls God the “only wise God” (Rom. 16:27) in a similar doxological moment. The idea is that the angels and elders acknowledge that to Him alone belongs wisdom. It is like saying, “God only you know all the ends from the beginning, and only you are the right governor of all history and creation, and we would never want it any other way.”

Thanksgiving – Because of these truths we are to be grateful to God for all He has seen fit to do for us. Psalm 118:1 says, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”

Honor – Honor is specifically a word that I think fits rightly with kingship. Honor is not simply thanksgiving, or gratitude, it is rather paying respect to one who is due respect. That respect is not due only for what that person does or did, but for who they are. On earth we have a tendency to somewhat begrudgingly honor our authorities because they are in a place above us; God has put them there, thus we honor them. But in heaven honor is due to God because of His own intrinsic person and His authority over all things.

Power/Might – I will treat these two together. Though Power might be thought of as an intrinsic quality, whereas “might” in the Bible (at least in my studies) brings to mind God’s power in action. It is by His “might” that the Israelites were led out of Egypt, and so forth. Often the two ideas are held together – as in Ephesians 6:10, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength (power) of his might” (insertion mine). I love this because the idea is that God’s power is always used toward the right ends. It is not man’s power, which is used often toward wrong ends. This power of God is ultimate, and it is used in righteousness.

These are the character qualities, the attributes, if you will, that are on the minds and lips of the angels and servants of God. They end the praise by acknowledging the everlasting nature of the kingdom of God and of His person: “be to our God forever and ever!”

7:13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” [14] I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

The Explanation of the 144,000

And as if you haven’t figured it out already, the question is asked in verse 13 in a manner that reminds me of a teacher looking to his pupil to make sure they are paying attention. “Who are these people, John? Have you figured it out yet?” John punts, and the explanation is forthcoming, they are the ones who have come out of the “great tribulation.” Furthermore, they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Note that they are coming out of the “great tribulation”, which is to say that they will persevere through all the plagues of the four horsemen who will tear the earth apart until the final judgment of God comes at the return of His Son.

This phrase “great tribulation” is one which the dispensationalists have taken to mean a literal 7 year period of tremendous strife and horror on the earth.

Jim Hamilton, has several pages of solid points refuting this incorrect idea. Let me now read you some of his best excerpts:

Dispensationalist interpreters understand “the great tribulation” to refer to Daniel’s seventieth week (cf. Daniel 9:24-27), the final sever years of human history. I have indicated (in the chapter on Revelation 6-16) that I think Daniel’s seventieth week is the whole period of time between the two comings of Christ. I think this because the New Testament indicates that with the resurrection of Jesus, the last days began.

So the age to come has been inaugurated. The final period of human history, Daniel’s seventieth week, is the whole period between the ascension and the return of Jesus.

This also means that the whole period of time between the ascension and return of Jesus is a period of “tribulation.” Jesus told his disciples in John 16:33, “In the world you will have “tribulation.” Paul told the churches in Acts 14:22, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” In Revelation 1:9 John told the churches that he was their “brother and partner in the tribulation.” Jesus said to the church in Smyrna in 2:9, “I know your tribulation,” then told them in 2:10 that they would have tribulation for ten days.

So it seems that the whole period of church history, the time between Jesus’ ascension and return, is a period of tribulation…Right before the end, it does seem that there will be an intense period of persecution at the very end of history. But I think it is a mistake to expect a literal final seven years.

…I think it more likely that John means this as a description of all believers in Jesus. Thus, what John sees and recounts in Revelation is meant to encourage the churches to whom he writes. They are facing tribulation, and John tells them that God seals his servants to preserve them through the tribulation. God makes it so that though they are killed, they will overcome because they will not stop trusting Jesus.[xxii]

Now, the idea of something becoming white by spilling blood on it is nonsensical to the one who interprets these things literalistically. If we were literalists, we would have to say that this is a great mystery and there must be some kind of magic they are using to make their garments white – what are they using? What kind of blood is this anyway that the Lamb has? You may snicker, but you see the point of my hyperbole, do you not? We must interpret that which is metaphor in such a way as we are informed by the context. In the NT the blood of the lamb is said to cleanse us from our sins.

Elsewhere John writes:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)

The author of Hebrews alludes to this same truth as well:

…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:14)

Therefore we must trust that the blood of Christ is that which will cleanse us and shield us from all harm on this earth – it is the blood of His sacrifice which protects our salvation. There seems to be a strong parallel here with 6:9-11. The saints there not only are under the alter (perhaps a symbol of protection from the four horsemen), but they are given white robes (vs. 11) and told to rest a little while longer. So too those here in chapter seven who emerge from the tribulation are given white robes – their garb is the same because they are of the same group, the elect of God.

7:15-17 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. [16] They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. [17] For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This promises mirrors that which we find in the end of the book as well. It is a wonderful promise that for those who are God’s elect, He will shelter them and bring them to their final resting place, which will be in a land flows with “springs of living water.” Therefore for those who are parched, God will give ultimate satisfaction. What Jesus gives spiritually now in “living water” we will receive physically later.

Lastly, we are told that God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This perhaps is the most wonderful verse in the entire chapter, because it 1. Acknowledges the tear-inducing struggle we face while we walk upon this earth, and 2. It showcases the tender mercy and love of God for His children.

The all-powerful God of heaven and earth understands your pain and struggle. In fact, He ordained these events in order that as you live through the plagues of the horsemen, you might be refined as gold, a choice stone in the city of God, the New Jerusalem. On that day He will heal your hurt and your scars, and mend all the pain that has caused tears to flow.

The Psalmist knew the truth that for those whose God is the Lord, they are ultimately protected from all the evil on this earth:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. [2] I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” [3] For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. [4] He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. [5] You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, [6] nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. [7] A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. [8] You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked. [9] Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place— the Most High, who is my refuge— [10] no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. [11] For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. [12] On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. [13] You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot. [14] “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. [15] When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. [16] With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” (Psalm 91)

Footnotes

[i] Beale’s longer commentary, Pg.’s 404-405.

[ii] Hamilton, Pg. 188. He’s really spot on here. And gives a great introduction, part of which includes a wonderful analysis of the main point of the chapter, which is that, “God is able to seal his servants and protect them from all danger, winning praise from them” (pg. 188).

[iii] There is also a background from Jeremiah 49:36 here. That verse says, “And I will bring upon Elam the four winds from the four quarters of heaven. And I will scatter them to all those winds, and there shall be no nation to which those driven out of Elam shall not come.” Beale comments in his footnotes on pg. 407 of his longer commentary, “Standing in the same tradition as Zechariah, and therefore possibly also behind Rev. 7:2-3, is Jer. 49:36, where ‘the four winds’ are divine agents of judgment against a nation.”

[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 406.

[v] Ibid. Pg. 409-410.

[vi] Tom Schreiner, NT Theology, Pg. 429.

[vii] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 416.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] It might be noted that Beale offer’s Bauckham’s view as a 5th alternative, but I don’t see it generally as fitting that way, but rather as an enhanced understanding of point 4. Namely, Bauckham says that the 144,000 represent an army of God’s people. The tribal lists, and the census terminology seems to be taken from the OT, and the parallel with 14:1-4 where the 144,000 is spoken of in militaristic terms, seems to only solidify this impression. Far from a separate view, it is a view that supports the figurative number of 144,000 (something Beale himself sees), but adds a dimension of conquering in the same way that the Lamb conquered (cf . Beale pg. 423) by enduring the suffering of the four horsemen.

[x] Steve Gregg, Pg. 133.

[xi] Ibid. Pg.’s 416-417.

[xii] Hendriksen, Pg. 110-111.

[xiii] Ibid. Pg. 111.

[xiv] Tom Schreiner, NT Theology, Pg. 751.

[xv] See Beale Pg. 415 and Greg Pg. 133.

[xvi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 419.

[xvii] Steve Gregg’s Commentary, Pg. 133.

[xviii] Hendriksen, Pg. 111.

[xix] Beale rightly remarks, “The priority of Judah here emphasizes the precedence of the messianic king from the tribe of Judah and thus refers to a fulfillment of the prophecy in Gen. 49:8 that the eleven other tribes ‘will bow down to’ Judah.” Beale also says that Ezekiel 34:23-25 further develops this motif of Judah being the head of the tribes (pg. 417). Hendriksen also talks about the priority of Judah in his commentary (Pg. 111).

[xx] Hamilton, Pg. 190.

[xxi] Ibid., Pg. 192.

[xxii] Hamilton, Pg.’s 194-195. I still omitted many good things he had to say. He also talks about how the phrase “great tribulation” does not exclusively refer to a final period of difficulty and then quote Rev. 2:22 and discusses that a bit more.

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Living a Life of Expectancy

Be Ready: Living a Life of Expectancy

What does it look like to live in such a way that we if we were to know Jesus was going to come back tonight we’d be ready to welcome Him with open arms? Living in light of the reality that He could come back at any moment is what the Christian life is all about.

I think we are going to find two different kinds of motives for living a life of expectancy when we examine Scripture.  So in this post, which is a copy of my notes on Luke 12:35-48, I’ll examine these and other important lessons.  So let’s dive into the text…

12:35-36 “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, [36] and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks.

The first hint we have that Jesus is using an analogy here is that he says be “like” so and so. He is saying there is a mindset we need to have, a worldview, if you will. And that mindset is to inform the way in which we live our lives.

The kind of mindset is said to be analogous to that of servants who are anxiously awaiting their master’s return from his wedding feast. No sooner will the master return than the servants are to “open the door to him.” The picture is clear – these men haven’t gotten dressed for bed and haven’t turned off the lights, so that when the master comes back, they are ready to greet him.

12:37-38 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. [38] If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants!

From a context perspective on the matter of these “watches” of the night, it is helpful to understand that the Jews and the Romans divided up the night into 3 and 4 sections respectively. The ESV Study Bible helpfully explains:

Most interpreters think Jesus is using a Jewish understanding of “three watches of the night” (6:00–10:00 p.m., 10:00 p.m.–2:00a.m., 2:00–6:00 a.m.). However, others think he is using a Roman understanding of four watches (6:00–9:00 p.m., 9:00p.m.–12:00 a.m., 12:00–3:00 a.m., 3:00–6:00 a.m.). In either case, the point that Jesus is making is that “the master” could come at any time, even when one is not normally prepared.

Now, as to what Jesus is saying, it is an interesting point…He is saying that if these servants just stay awake long enough and are ready for the return of their master, the it is the master who will serve them – a role reversal is taking place here.

Therefore they are called “blessed” because they are on the receiving end of this service.

The reason for the role reversal is simple. The servants were up at all hours of the night because it was a dangerous thing to leave the master’s possessions unguarded for fear of thieves. But if they stay awake and guard their master’s possessions, then they will be rewarded by the master – in fact he will personally serve them. This is quite an honor.

This tells us that the master values his possessions and appreciates those who are responsible guardians of the things he cares about.

Remember that servants are responsible to obey and execute their duties. There is no obligation on the part of the master to treat them with this much dignity. Yet that is the picture Jesus is painting.

This leads to the first reason we should be always “ready”: We ought to be ready because there is a great joy and blessing awaiting us if we are faithful to the Lord until He comes back. We have motivation for faithfulness born out of the joy we know He wants to reward us with. This tells me that God really does care about our well being, and it is His desire to have us happy – to have us find joy and to look forward to that just as Jesus Himself did.

There are two further passages that verify what I’m asserting here. The first is found in John 10:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)

Interestingly, in this passage Jesus uses the analogy of thieves again, but this time in a different way. Here Jesus contrasts His own ministry with those pretenders to the office of shepherd in this passage in John.

The second passage is from Hebrews 12:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, [2] looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

This is a passage we’re most likely all familiar with. But I want to point specifically at this part where it says that Jesus endured the cross because He had a great joy that was motivating Him to do so.

So we, like Jesus, need to keep in mind the reward. In fact, it wasn’t only Jesus who was motivated to faithfulness by the joy that awaited Him, the entire chapter preceding this one speaks of saints who were motivated in a similar fashion.

For example, Abraham was motivated by a better place of dwelling with God:

For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:10 ESV)

And…

But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:16)

Moses is said to have the same drive:

He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. (Hebrews 11:26)

Finally the author concludes:

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, [40] since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39-40)

Therefore it is right for us to be motivated by these things, not simply because these men and women were also, but because our supreme example, Christ Jesus, focused on the joy that awaited Him and we are told to “look to Him” as our model.

12:39-40 But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. [40] You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

Now Jesus begins to mix His metaphors a bit. He was the master in the story, but now compares his return to that of a thief in the night, which is done elsewhere:

Paul says:

For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thess. 5:2)

Peter says:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3:10)

Then later in Revelation, Jesus warns the church:

Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. (Rev. 3:3)

Then He sums up with the clear message that He is coming back and you don’t know when.

That leads us to ask the question: What does it mean to “be ready”? What does that look like?

12:41 Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?”

Peter – still trying to figure out how the kingdom of God will be setup – asks a good question (at least from a human perspective). He wants to know if Jesus is giving instruction to those who will rule over the kingdom – the hierarchy, if you will, or to everyone who is following Jesus at the time.

Jesus, like He did so often, doesn’t directly answer the question, but answers in a richer way by the exploring the analogy further. The purpose behind using the analogy/story to answer the question is (in this case) not to create confusion but to give His disciples a deeper insight into the doctrine he’s teaching them.

In other words, Jesus is teaching them to think. In fact, you might say He’s teaching them to think His thoughts after Him.

12:42 And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time?

So Peter – the answer to your initial question is that Jesus is addressing anyone who is a manager over the things God has assigned. A servant in the House of God. And, I believe it is right to say, we have all been entrusted with responsibility in these matters.

12:43 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. [44] Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions.

Jesus reiterates what He stated before, but now giving another dimension to the blessing: Management of all of the master’s possessions.

And this makes sense. God put Adam in the garden originally to rule over the earth. The purpose of God for Adam was thrown away when Adam traded God’s sovereignty for his own selfish whims. When the Master came to check on His household, He found that Adam had not been responsible with what God owned.

God’s plan for us is that we will reign with Him over the new heavens and new earth. However, our bridegroom Jesus Christ is away for the time being. When He returns, He wants to see we have been good stewards of what is His. And, what is His is everything. Perhaps more specifically His house includes His people called after His name and according to His purpose.

12:45 But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, [46] the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. [47] And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. [48] But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.

This last section gives us the second reason/or motivation for “being ready” for His return: There is punishment that awaits those who aren’t.

The example that’s given is this sadistic servant who is charge of the household while the master is away. Hendriksen rightly calls the man a sadist, and says that he shows evidence of being a brute who likely isn’t even a true believer.

Therefore there are a few layers to be unpacked here.

  1. Fear of the Lord is a Proper Motivation: Those who are arrogant and do not fear the Lord will not go unpunished, and those who neglect their duties as leaders of the flock will have to answer for that neglect on Judgment Day. The warning is stern, and it is clear. God cares so much for the souls of His people that He will punish those who neglect, starve, or inflict pain on those souls. He loves His sheep and will not tolerate their neglect, for their purchase cost Him dearly. We ought to be motivated by this to care for people and value them as much as God values them.
  2. Degrees of Reward/Punishment: It is implied here that even though the leaders of the household will receive a beating far worse for their neglect, yet those who disobeyed will still receive punishment for their sins. There seems to be a gradation in the punishment. This fits will Gods ideal for justice. People will be judged according to their works and words.
    1. You may have heard of the case of the Nazi hunters who have spent the last half century hunting for ex-Nazi party officials and those complicit in their misdeeds. It has been the excuse of almost all of the lower ranking officers who carried out orders that they were just following orders. That being said, the courts have in many cases found that while they are not as responsible for the deaths of million of Jews (among other crimes), yet they are complicit and therefore bear some amount of responsibility. You cannot use your leaders as an excuse for immoral actions. And, in fact, as Hendriksen rightly points out, “ignorance is never absolute.”
  3. Eternal Hell is Real: There is even the possibility held here, so it seems to me, that those who mismanage God’s household could be found not to be Christian believers at all and will therefore be cut to pieces and thrown into the fires of damnation along with “the unfaithful” – the imagery is reminiscent of what occurred to those false prophets of Baal after Elijah’s contest. Elijah took them to the river and cut them to pieces. Why the harsh imagery here? Cutting someone to pieces seems, well, quite brutal. I believe its because Jesus wants people to know the stakes. This is very important to him. And what is important to God ought to be important to us.

In Conclusion

The summary here is one we’ve heard quoted for years by both Christian and un-Christian alike. So popular are these words that they have been almost universally accepted as a maxim for leadership.

Jesus says, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”

There is a great responsibility within the church to lead people in faithfulness. I believe that life is structured this way – those who are leaders of nations bear an enormous responsibility. And they will pay for their negligence if they’re found wanting on the Day of Judgment.

How much more so will those who hold sway over the souls of men (in the church) be held responsible for their keep.

In sum, this passage ought to instill in us two kinds of motivations. 1. A motivation toward the joy that awaits us in heaven, which Jesus Himself looked forward to, and 2. A proper fear and reverence of the Lord, knowing that God has an abiding love for His sheep, and He will not spare the sword from those who neglect what He paid so dear a price to purchase.

Let us keep these things in mind as we raise our children and attend to our responsibilities in the church. Let us keep in mind His coming could be any day now.

Revelation: An Introduction Part I

This week I have started a study on Sunday mornings in the book of Revelation.  For the first few weeks we’ll be examining the overall picture of the book, and covering some introductory themes.  Below is part 1 of that introduction – I hope you enjoy!

PJW

Introduction and Overview to the Book

Why Study Revelation? 

Revelation can be intimidating. It has taken me several years just to get up the courage to study through it and teach it. Many commentators also note in their respective prefaces how difficult it was to get around to doing this study as well. Pastor Voddie Baucham says that when surveyed, a large denomination of Christians said that Revelation was the book they most wanted to hear preached. That same survey found it was the bottom of the list of books Pastors most wanted to preach![i]

The word “Revelation” or “Apocolypse” holds negative, even scary connotations in our society today. As Warren Wiersbe writes:

The word translated “revelation” simply means “unveiling.” It gives us our English word apocalypse which, unfortunately, is today a synonym for chaos and catastrophe. The verb simply means “to uncover, to reveal, to make manifest.” In this book, the Holy Spirit pulls back the curtain and gives us the privilege of seeing the glorified Christ in heaven and the fulfillment of His sovereign purposes in the world.[ii]

But I have found that in my studies thus far, it is a book that provides great blessing and perspective which can enable a Christian to persevere, and adore Christ above all other things. In fact, those are the two things that I believe makeup the two main themes of the book: Christ’s reign and ultimate victory, and our ultimate triumph with him. The second part – our eventual triumph – is the reality for which we have been called to endure. Therefore the majestic reign of Christ and the call to persevere under tribulation make up the main nexus of John’s writing.

The majestic reign of Christ and His overall splendor permeates the book. He is the Lord of history, the Lord of man and of all created things. The high Christology of Revelation is evident from the first chapter:

…and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. (Revelation 1:13-18)

He is the first and the last, and the one who is “alive forevermore.” His power and His majesty are evident to all who read the book. No longer are we limited to the motif of the suffering servant, or the profound teachings of the Great Rabboni. Now we are afforded a peak, a glimpse, a view into the fuller person and majesty of Jesus Christ.

Revelation helps us understand the profundity of His cross work, and finality of His sacrifice. It helps us understand that He is sovereign over all things, including time and creation.

I really like what Warren Wiersbe has to say about the proper approach to the book: “When Daniel and John received God’s revelations of the future, both fell down as dead men (Dan. 10:7-10; Rev. 1:17). They were overwhelmed! We need to approach this book as wonderers and worshippers, not as academic students.”

But it is also a book about the saints who are called to endure. William Hendriksen says, “In the main, the purpose of the book of Revelation is to comfort the militant Church in its struggle against the forces of evil.”[iii]

Followers of the Lamb are to endure until He comes again – that second coming is our great hope. As Hendriksen so beautifully opines:

As we think of the glorious hope of the second coming, our hearts are filled with joy; our souls are consumed with a breathless impatience; our eyes attempt to pierce the dark clouds which veil the future, hoping that the glorious descent of the Son of man may burst upon the view. It is a longing which gushes into word: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And he that hears, let him say, Come” (22:17).[iv]

John MacArthur points out that this is the only book in the Bible that begins and ends with a blessing. And Doug Kelley puts his finger on the reason I decided to study this book, namely the blessings/benedictions ascribed to those who would take the time to study it.

Kelly splits these into promises and blessings. The benedictions (blessings):[v]

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (Revelation 1:3)

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13)

(“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”) (Revelation 16:15)

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:9)

Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:6)

“And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” (Revelation 22:7)

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. (Revelation 22:14)

Here are the promises to the saints that Kelly lists:[vi]

  1. God sees their tears (7:17; 21:4)
  2. Their prayers are heard and used to rule the world (8:3-4)
  3. Their death or suffering leads to glory (14:13; 20:4)
  4. Their final victory is assured (15:2)
  5. Their blood will be avenged (6:9; 8:3)
  6. Their Christ lives and reigns forever and is victorious in time and eternity (5:7-8; 21:22)

Clearly this gives us ample motivation to study this wonderful book!

Who wrote this Book?

Most every scholar and theologian believes that the book was written by the apostle John – the one who wrote the gospel of John, and the three epistles named for him. Some hold that perhaps another John wrote the book – a late 1st century prophet with the same name, perhaps. But G.K. Beale (who believes the apostle John is the likely author) says this, “The issue is not important to settle since it does not affect the message of the book. Regardless of which John wrote, the author of the book identifies himself as a prophet (parenthetical references). Therefore, it is probably that John should be socially identified with a group of early Christian itinerant prophets.”[vii] 

William Hendriksen thinks that the evidence for another John having written this book is particularly weak. For instance, he points out, “Surely the very fact that the author of the Apocalypse merely calls himself John indicates that he was very well known, not only in one particular locality but throughout the churches of Asia.”[viii]

Now, there are certainly different styles of grammar and writing between the Gospel of John and the Revelation of John – some say this is enough to believe another man wrote the book. But conservative scholars are not so sure. There are some differences, but there are also many similarities. Hendriksen says, “The similarities are striking. They are to be found even in peculiar grammatical constructions and in characteristic expressions.” His comparative similarities are as follows (for those who want to look them up):[ix]

John 3:36 and Revelation 22:17
John 10:18 and Revelation 2:27
John 20:12 and Revelation 3:4
John 1:1 and Revelation 19:13
John 1:29 and Revelation 5:6 
 

Some of these comparisons are more obvious, others less so. But there are many other similarities. The gospel calls Jesus the “Lamb of God” and the “Logos” and so does Revelation – these are words and phrases that make John’s gospel unique, and here we find the phrase “Lamb of God” used 29 times in Revelation.

Of course the similarities don’t stop with grammar and phraseology. The doctrine is the same in both books. The sovereignty of God, the pre-temporal nature of Christ, the conquering power of the blood of Jesus all form major doctrinal similarities between books.

I especially like the way in which John describes Jesus as pre-temporal in both books. Here are a few examples:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [2] He was in the beginning with God. [3] All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” [58] Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:57-58)

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:13) 

When was this Book Written?

It is hard to overestimate the importance of discerning when this book of Revelation was written. The reason being that if the book was written prior to A.D. 70, then scholars have reason for believing that some of the things written herein refer to the events that occurred in that fateful year when the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and the great Herodian (2nd) temple complex.

G.K. Beale has done a nice job compiling the different historical arguments for both viewpoints, and is worth quoting his summation here below:

The difference of dating could alter the interpretation of the book, since the occasion prompting John to write might be different in each case. The early date is especially important for those viewing the main intention of the book as prophecy of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem: interpreters who hold to the early date generally understand the book primarily as a polemic against apostate Jewish faith. And the early date places many of the book’s descriptions of persecution against the background of Nero’s oppression of Christians in 65 (A.D.).

But if the book was written in the nineties, then it was occasioned by the situation of Christians living under the reign of Domitian, a situation that itself is an issue of debate. The majority maintaining a late date have viewed Domitian as a persecutor of Christians, though a few others recently have viewed his reign in more benevolent terms.

One can in fact affirm the early date or the late date without the main interpretative approach being affected. Under either dating position the book could be understood as a polemic against Rome and especially against compromise with ungodly Roman culture. The early date allows for an anti-Jerusalem focus, but does not demand it.

There are no single arguments that point clearly to the early or the late date. The early date could be right, but the cumulative weight of evidence points to the late date.[x]

Those who are partial (or full) preterists rely on the early date because they see these events in 65 and especially in 70 AD as fulfilling the prophecies of John’s apocalypse. Full preterists even believe the Jesus Himself came back in 70 AD!

I believe the latter date is more likely simply from my own study of church history this past year in seminary. The persecution under Nero was very localized to Rome, and the rest of the church really didn’t feel the pressures as much.

Furthermore, as Beale and others point out, when Pliny (a magistrate/governor of Rome) was trying to figure out what to do with Christians in 113 AD he wrote to Emperor Trajan as there seemed to be no previous law code or judicial or military precedent as to how to deal with them.[xi] 

Furthermore, John uses the term “Babylon” throughout the book, and while some see this as a sort of symbolic name for the “apostate Jerusalem”, Beale rightly (I believe) notes, “John’s use of the name may be the strongest internal evidence for a post-70 date. ‘Babylon refers to Rome in Jewish literature after 70 A.D. and roughly contemporary with the Apocalypse. Jewish commentators called Rome ‘Babylon’ because the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in 70 A.D., just as Babylon had done in the sixth century B.C. This use of the name probably influenced John, as did other Jewish traditions.”[xii]

Lastly, it is the testimony of very early Christian authors that this book was written at a later date. Irenaeus, Victorinus, Eusebius, Origen, and possibly Clement of Alexandria as well all believed the book to be written post 70 A.D.[xiii]

Irenaeus’ writings are especially important. In discussing the antichrist’s identify he wrote that, “We will not, however incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of the Antichrist; if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him (John) who beheld the Apocalypse. For it was seen not very long ago, but almost in our day, toward the end of Domitian’s reign.”

This is very hard to refute for early daters no matter how much they try and re-translate or offer new ideas about what Ireneaus clearly spoke.

Early daters mention a number of arguments in their favor, from the mention of the “seven mountains” in 17:9, which are supposed to be seven kings of Rome, to the calculation of the number 666 as meaning Nero in the gematria, to Babylon (which we’ve already mentioned). Beale goes through each argument (and several more) and I really don’t find the weight of these arguments convincing.

Therefore, while either date might be correct, it seems like the weight of both the historical and internal arguments on behalf of a later date rule the day.

The Importance of Hermeneutics

It is so important that before we begin our study in this book that we have an understanding of how to interpret what we’re reading. The book of Revelation is classified as what theologians call “apocalyptic literature”, which means that the genre of this writing is not poetry, historical narrative, or epistolary – though it has some elements of the latter form.

R.C. Sproul explains this very well, and its worth quoting him at length here:

The basic principle of biblical interpretation established by the Reformers was literal interpretation, sensus literalis, which means that responsible interpreters of Scripture always interpret the Bible in the sense in which it was written. Poetic literature should be interpreted as poetry, didactic literature should be interpreted as didactic, and so on. A verb remains a verb, a noun remains a noun, a simile is a simile, and a metaphor is a metaphor.

Conversely, the style of interpretation called “literalism” involves applying a wooden interpretation, which does not work well for poetic literature. For example, when the psalmist says that the rivers clap their hands (98:8), we do not take that to mean that rivers somehow grow hands and begin clapping. We do not interpret such poetic images in an overly literalistic way.

When it comes to interpreting prophetic literature, the question is whether the language is figurative or ordinary prose, and there is widespread disagreement about that. Some believe that we must interpret the prophecies of the future literally in order to be faithful to the Bible, but that can lead us in circles.[xiv]

Revelation is a book will need to be interpreted differently than, say, the book of Genesis. We will encounter all manner of symbols, numbers, and visual descriptions that will leave us in awe – and perhaps a little confused, especially if we take the wrong approach to the book. Dennis Johnson rightly says, “The strength of symbolism is vividness, for often a picture is worth a thousand words. The challenge of symbolism, however, is its ambiguity.”[xv]

…to be continued…

Footnotes

[i] Voddie Baucham: http://www.gracefamilybaptist.net/sermons/2012-05-introduction-revelation/

[ii] Warren Wiersbe, Commentary on the New Testament (The David Cook two volume set), Revelation, Pg. 1036.

[iii] William Hendriksen, ‘More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation’, Pg. 7.

[iv] Hendriksen, Pg. 8

[v] Douglas F. Kelly, Revelation, A mentor expository commentary, Pg. 21

[vi] Kelly, Pg. 21

[vii] From G.K. Beale’s commentary on Revelation, Pg.’s 35-36

[viii] Hendriksen, Pg. 12

[ix] Hendriksen, Pg. 12 – carries on the discussion onto page 13 as well, and really provides some helpful comparative verses here. Shockingly, he leaves out John 8 which I cite above (it’s one of my favorite examples of Jesus’ pre-temporal existence).

[x] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, Commentary, Pg. 4

[xi] Beale, Pg. 5

[xii] Beale, Pg.’s 18-19

[xiii] Beale, Pg. 19

[xiv] R.C. Sproul, ‘Everyone’s A Theologian;, Pg.’s 310-311

[xv] Johnson’s commentary on Revelation is called, ‘Triumph of the Lamb’ and this quote is found on page 10.

The Restoration of Peter

Here are my notes for John 21:8-17. This account includes the restoration of the Apostle Peter.  After denying the Lord three times, the Lord Jesus has restored his friend to ministry in a public and profound way.

The Miracle

21:8-14 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. [9] When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. [10] Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” [11] So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. [12] Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. [13] Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. [14] This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

One can really sense the authority and majesty of Jesus in the fact that no one “dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’”

What’s in a Number?

It is always interesting when Scripture uses such a specific number to describe something. In this case, the disciples caught 153 fish. Why would John remark on that specifically? Well, I think that we can easily say that it was worth noting how many fish simply because it’s a lot of fish! Not that the number itself is significant, but rather that the exact number tells us something of how impressive the catch actually was.

Now, there are other (MANY other) interpretations that range from the bizarre to the more plausible. Hendriksen notes about 7 of them just as a sampling, but even a cursory search of the internet seems to reveal a plethora of others.

Some of the ideas are (quoting Hendriksen):

  1. The fish were not counted until the shore had been reached, in order to teach us that the exact number of the elect remains unknown until they have reached the shore of heaven.
  2. The ancients counted one hundred fifty-three varieties of fish!
  3. There is here a veiled reference to Matt. 13:47, 48, and an indication that all kinds of people are going to be saved.
  4. The number one hundred fifty-three represents 100 for the Gentiles, 50 for the Jews, and 3 for the Trinity.

My friend Uri, an expert in Israeli history and culture, told me that he likes the idea that the number represents the different varieties of fish because it points to the universality of the gospel and the diversity of the church. He says, “In Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis he lists all the known fish species at the time. Behold 153. The significance is the universality of the church. 153 fish, all the species/nations of the world can fit into the net and the net is not broken.”

The Abundance of the Miracle

In every miracle that our Lord has performed there is one consistent theme – what He does He does in abundance!

He made more wine at Cana than was necessary, He made more fish in Luke 5 than the disciples could take in, He made more bread and fish for the 5000 than the crowd needed, and He healed hundreds – if not thousands of men and women. Note also that when He healed people, he didn’t just give them an aspirin. They would have been happy for their suffering to be relieved I’d wager. But He completely healed them. What God does He does in such a way as to indicated that He is God, AND that He is good!

The Lord who remarked that a good father gives his children a fish and not a snake, gives fish in abundance. In everyway and on every level that you have provided for your children, the Father and His Son have far outstripped you. They have lavished grace and peace and in the life to come riches beyond measure.

And just as Jesus bid the disciples to come and eat breakfast with him, so he calls to us, his children, to dine with him. His call to believers is this:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. [21] The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Revelation 3:20-21)

Seeing A Larger Picture with Ryle

J.C. Ryle has examined this passage and, surveying all the commentators up till his time, has provided some thoughts on the possible broader allegorical meaning of the matter. He is quick to say, however, that we must have caution in adding more to the thing than that which is already there. But still, there are some observations that may hearten us and enrich the passage as a whole. Here is what he says:

Other expositors, of a more figurative and imaginative turn of mind, go into heights and depths where I cannot pretend to follow them. I shall content myself with pointing out the more obvious spiritual lessons which I think the passage was probably meant to convey.

(a) I think that Christ’s remarkable appearance to the disciples, when they were in the act of fishing, was meant to remind them and the whole Church of the primary duty of ministers. They were doing work which was strikingly emblematic of their calling. They were to be “fishers of men.”

(b) I think the lack of success in catching fish, which the disciples had until the Lord appeared, was meant to teach that without Christ’s presence and blessing ministers can do nothing.

(c) I think the marvelous success that attended the cast of the net, when Christ gave the command, was meant to teach that when Christ is pleased to give success to ministers, nothing can prevent souls being brought into the Gospel net, converted and saved.

(d) I think the drawing of the net to shore at last was meant to remind the disciples and all ministers of what will happen when the Lord comes again. The work of the Church will be completed, and the reckoning of results will take place.

(e) I think the dinner prepared and provided for the disciples, when the net was drawn to the shore, was meant to remind ministers that there will be the great “marriage supper of the Lamb” at last, when Christ Himself shall welcome His faithful servants and ministers, and “come forth and serve them” (Luke 12:37).

(f) I think, besides this, that the respective positions of the disciples and Christ, when they first saw Him, may possibly be intended to represent the respective positions of Christ and His people during this dispensation. They were on the water of the sea. He was looking at them from the land. Just so Christ is in heaven looking at us, and we are voyaging over the troublous waters of this world.

(g) Finally, I think that our Lord’s sudden appearing on shore, when the morning broke, may possibly represent our Lord’s second advent. “The night is far spent, and the day is at hand.” When the morning dawns, Christ will appear.

With these conjectures I leave the passage. They may not commend themselves to some readers. I only say that they appear to me to deserve consideration and reflection.

Certainly they do deserve consideration! I think that perhaps letter (f) is a little far fetched, and letters (d) and (e) are very similar. But he is correct that from what I have read at least, letters (a), (b) and (c) are universal in their appearance in the minds of many commentators, and definitely appeared in my mind as I studied the passage.

These are great ideas to reflect upon in the coming days, and a marvelous reminder of the richness of Scripture. It is passages like this which kept Spurgeon busy for hours at a time! Certainly they should also keep us busy in our meditation.

21:15-17 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” [16] He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” [17] He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

The Restoration of Peter

Setting the Scene

I have been to this very spot where Jesus is said to have called these men to shore for breakfast. I have sung ‘How Great Thou Art’ at full tilt with other men and women in the small chapel that sits firmly ensconced upon that shore. This is a beautiful place!

What makes it beautiful is multi-dimensional. Not only is it a feast for the eyes, and ears with the flowering trees and waves breaking upon the shore, but it is a spiritual feast – even an emotional and mental feast for anyone who has ever been restored by the Lord Jesus. And that group includes me.

In this segment of verses we read how Peter and the Lord, while sitting amongst the other disciples, had what must have been their first bit of extended conversation since the night of Jesus’ death. Jesus had appeared to them prior, but apparently had not spent a lot of time in one-on-one discussion, or extended teaching of them yet (as in Acts 1:3).

Therefore the last time that Peter and conversed with the Lord in any substantive manner was during the Farewell Discourses when, as we recall, Peter had proudly declared that he’d follow Jesus even unto death. Jesus’ reply to Peter’s declaration was to prophecy that in just a few short hours Peter was deny Him not once, but three times.

Peter learned that fateful evening that though the spirit may be willing, the flesh is weak. Peter not only denied Jesus, he did so in public. Therefore, as D.A. Carson summarizes, “Whatever potential for future service he (Peter) had therefore depended not only on forgiveness from Jesus, but also on reinstatement amongst the disciples.”

I Agape your Phileo and Raise you an Agape

Now Jesus, the great Shepherd of His flock, begins his interactions with Peter by asking him if he “loves” him “more than these.” In this context Jesus likely means “these” as the disciples. He is daring Peter to once again assert his supremacy. And in doing so, His words cut to Peter’s heart and remind him that though he claims to be the most loyal and dutiful disciples, he has a recent failure of such magnitude that with each passing word from the lips of Jesus, Peter must have been smarting all the more.

Peter responds in the affirmative, and with each affirmative reply, Jesus charges Peter to “Feed the lambs”, “tend my sheep”, and feed my sheep.”

Much has, perhaps rightly, been made of how when Jesus asked Peter whether he “loved” him, he was using the word “agape” whereas Peter was responding with “phileo” for his description of love.

There are four expressions of love in the Greek language, as the wonderful web resource Gotquestions.org has stated:

The Bible speaks of two types of love: phileo and agape. Both are Greek terms and appear at different points throughout Scripture. The Greek language also had terms for two other types of love, eros and storge, which do not expressly appear in the Bible.
http://www.gotquestions.org/phileo-love.html#ixzz3FWIhOYPt

Many scholars have argued about the differences between phileo and agape. The usual summary is that Agape is more a love of choice – a sacrificial love. It is a matter of the will. Whereas Phileo is a love of affection and is based somewhat on emotion.

GotQuestions.org sums up this popular teaching in this way:

Since phileo love involves feelings of warmth and affection toward another person, we do not have phileo love toward our enemies. However, God commands us to have agape love toward everyone. This includes those whose personalities clash with ours, those who hurt us and treat us badly, and even those who are hostile toward our faith (Luke 6:28; Matthew 5:44). In time, as we follow God’s example of agape love for our enemies, we may even begin to experience phileo love for some of them as we start to see them through God’s eyes.

But I don’t know that it’s correct to say that Peter didn’t truly love Christ, but rather Christ was setting the kind of example Peter must follow. He may have been proclaiming to Peter the kind of love – sacrificial love, love of difficult choices, noble love – that He had for His sheep. Now Peter needed to have that same love for the sheep.

That being said, D.A. Carson and F.F. Bruce both lay a very good case out for why its very hard to draw any particular conclusion simply from the use of different nouns – especially in this Gospel when John has been using agape and phileo interchangeably up until now.

I find this extremely important when figuring out questions of interpretation. We need to look at the context of the book and how the author has used words in the past. And while we need to take a sample of the common vernacular as well, I would think that the authorial usage takes slight precedent over cultural commonality if there are multiple examples to draw from, and indeed there are in this book.

Additionally, there is some evidence that agape was also coming into more common use at the time to mean simply “to love” (per Carson).

This is another example of how sometimes popular tradition gets it wrong – or at least assumes perhaps a little more than we ought to assume. Once our inquiries and speculation have been done, if we don’t have a preponderance of evidence before us that leaves us certain of our views, we must humbly step away from proclaiming our views to be “doctrine.”

Soon I will be studying through Revelation with our Sunday School class, and I find a similar example of illogical hermeneutics applied to the millennium in that book. So much is made of whether the millennium is a literal 1,000 years when up until that 20th chapter in Revelation no other number (save perhaps the 7 churches?) was used in a literal fashion. But it is popular tradition now to assume this be the case. Ought we not to ask how John has written of such things in other parts of his book?

I raise this only as a caution that we approach Scripture with humility – especially those with learning and education. For those without education are less apt to project their assumptions onto Scripture and are often open to correction. However it is the learned man or woman who confidently asserts opinion where angels dare not tread. Let us with humility interpret the Word of God.

The Friendship of Jesus

One of the most difficult things to do is confront a brother who has sinned and is in need to rebuke and restoration. We are commanded by Paul to “speak the truth in love.”

What touches my heart so much about this passage in John is the tenderness of Jesus. His tripartite restoration of this impetuous man mirrored the three-fold denial which Peter had so shamefully displayed just days before.

The realization that here in one man is Peter’s God and friend, his Savior, and His Lord, this must have been overwhelming. It is overwhelming to me. It is why one of my favorite verses in Scripture is Exodus 33:11. The passage goes like this:

When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent. (Exodus 33:9-11)

If you have found yourself covered in shame, if you have wronged your Lord, take comfort – we all have wronged our Lord. We have all sinned against God. But the blessing of this passage is the reminder that even the greatest leaders can fall, and even the greatest falls can be restored. We have a Savior, aye, this is true – but more than that, we have a friend.

Joseph Scriven’s great hymn, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’

What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.

 

Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.

 

Are we weak and heavy laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms he’ll take and shield thee;
thou wilt find a solace there.
 

The Mission Given to Peter

I’ve briefly touched on this earlier, but we must examine briefly again the mission that is given to the Apostle Peter. Jesus has specifically given him a mission. That mission is to feed the sheep, to tend the flock and so forth. He must watch over the new church of Christ, and must also feed them.

Carson quotes Barrett and quips, “The ministry ‘is described in verbs, not nouns: Tend, feed, not Be a pastor, hold the office of pastor. And the sheep are Christ’s sheep, not Peter’s. Not, Tend your flock, but Tend my sheep.’

What does it mean to feed the flock? Well, if the “flock” is the church then we must necessarily believe the “feeding” and “tending” are also metaphorical devices. The church feeds off of the Word of God.

This is made plain even as far back as Moses’ interactions with the Israelites when he told them:

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Jesus himself quoted this verse to rebuke Satan during His temptation in the wilderness before the beginning of His ministry.

In fact, He later called Himself the bread from heaven, which is simply another way of saying that He is the Word of God incarnate. The bread and the word are one in the same, the Lord Jesus Christ.

And indeed Peter understood this. For later he would go on to say:

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2-3)

Peter understood that He was being tasked with the spiritual nutrition of the church. Ironically, and scornfully, those who claim direct papal descent from this man are the ones starving the church of its food. The Catholic church (so-called) does not encourage the reading of Scripture, in fact it is the greatest rationer of spiritual nutrition in all the world. Which is why it is with great irony that they are the ones who claim this passage (along with Matthew 16:13-20) as one which sets down the primacy of Peter because not only does it do nothing of the sort, but even if it did, they do not follow the instructions to him who was supposedly made primal.

Carson rightly says, “Thus there is nothing intrinsic to the language of John 21:15-17 that suggests a distinctive authority for Peter. All Christian leadership entails a certain tension between authority and meek, exemplary service, patterned finally on Jesus himself. In the context of the Fourth Gospel, these verses deal with Peter’s reinstatement to service, not his elevation to primacy.”

Yes while most everyone else in the world is either trying purposefully to spread the word of God, or trying hard to stop the spread of this word, the Catholic hierarchy is content to slow drip the Word to a body that is thirsty and dying of starvation.

Conclusion

Now our response must be carefully assessed. For we cannot read this and judge ourselves content to move on before we settle some things in our mind. Let us settle at least these few things:

  1. The Word of God is that which feeds the church and it must be spread throughout the whole world.
  2. The Word is what changes lives, and therefore must not be adulterated or watered down by our own ideas.
  3. We must give great time and energy to studying and spending time in the Word of God.
  4. We must teach others the Word of God – this is the feeding of the lambs.
  5. Jesus told Peter to tend the lambs, which is to say that our leaders must be watchful for the safety of the church, keeping an eye out for wolves and for sheep who have gone astray.

It is a great and precious thing to be both restored and given a task. That is what Peter experienced, and that is what Paul says we each experience – we are not only saved, but we are saved for a purpose:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Let us take this restoration as a reminder of the open arms of Christ, and the charge he gives us upon restoration. He has saved us – and not to mope about in introspection for our entire lives, but to love others in service to our Lord. In this we look to Him the author and finisher of our faith, and our true Friend and Brother.

The Joy of Decreasing for the Fame of His Name

Here are some rough notes from a sermon I preached yesterday on John 3:25-36.  I hope you find them edifying!

John 3:25-36

The Joy of Decreasing for the Fame of His Name

 

Outline

  • Introduction
  • The context
  • The Joy of Decreasing
  • The Preeminence of Christ in All things
  • Conclusion

Introduction

I want us all to come away with the realization that as Christians we ought to be continually “decreasing” in order that the fame of Jesus might “increase.” There are by-products of this, and one of them is that we will realize great joy.

The imperative to decrease is fueled by the fact that we, as the bride of Christ, have a bridegroom who is worthy of our devotion, obedience and love.

Read with me the words of John as inspired by the Holy Spirit

The Context

3:25-26 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. [26] And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

So John had this great ministry going here across the Jordan. He was attracting a lot of followers and many of these men began to get concerned when the crowds died down. Soon they learn that they’re not showing up in more because they’re more interested in what Jesus has to say, so they’re following Jesus instead of John.

So John’s disciples are saying, in affect, “Houston we have a problem!”

Oddly enough, we’re presented with the issue in an odd context. The Apostle says that the disciples of John were arguing about purification, and then in verse 26 they seem to move on to a discussion on the ministry of Christ and how people seem to be leaving John’s ministry and going to Jesus’ ministry. So this sort of leaves you scratching your head because you might wonder, “What in the world does purification have to do with anything? And why didn’t they finish talking about the discussion over purification?” It just seems like an odd piece of information to stick in there all by itself.

In order to understand the context, we need to understand what these men were talking about. What is the connection between their discussion of purification and their anxiety over the flourishing of Jesus’ ministry?

I think John Piper is on the right track when he says that perhaps there was a confusion over whether or not John’s baptism was “working” since all these people were getting baptized and then going over to Jesus’ ministry. You have a purification issue John! Or so they seemed to be saying…[i]

You see what was going on here is that people were finding in Jesus the words of life. They were finding peace. The man who would be washing souls for all eternity was attracting a bigger crowd than John.

This man would later say, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see” (Rev. 3:18).

John doesn’t answer the purification issue directly but rather indirectly, by saying that the bride of Christ will be purified by the bridegroom who is the perfect and spotless sacrificial lamb. The marriage picture is the same – we die for our wives, we love them, we sanctify them by washing them in the Word.

John is going to point them to the fact that it is the bridegroom who purifies the bride – and there is cleansing found in no other avenue.

This is the context for John’s answer…

The Joy of Decreasing

3:27-29 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. [28] You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ [29] The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.

John begins answering them in verse 27 with a rebuke – he’s basically saying, “nothing that is happening now would be happening if it were not in God’s will and if He had not ordained it to be happening.”

It sounds similar to what James says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

Note “who stands and hears him” is significant. This is the voice of the Lord. This is the life-giving power of God in audible form. This is the voice that called out “Lazarus!” from the tomb. This is the voice that John had been waiting for!

“No body would be going to Jesus if heaven weren’t giving them to Jesus” Piper says.

Look at how incredibly happy John is that Christ is the one who is getting the glory; it causes him to “rejoice greatly.” Let’s not miss this. He is so happy because his ministry is coming to a close, and that means that Christ’s ministry is about to bloom. Not only is he rejoicing but also his joy is “complete.” John finds his ultimate purpose in his exaltation of Christ. This is what makes him ultimately happy, ultimately joyful.

So this is the key point here: John’s purpose and joy in life now and in the hereafter is inextricably tethered to the fame of Christ’s name.

3:30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

What an amazing statement. Can you say and can I say truly, “He must increase, while I, PJ, must decrease.” It is this decreasing that which is the mechanism that brings him joy.

But what does it mean to “decrease”? I believe it means to value and treasure Jesus’ reputation (fame) and glory over and above our own fame and glory.

John Piper paraphrases John’s statement this way, “When Jesus becomes more in the world and I become less in the world, my joy goes up.” Piper continues by saying that John’s response is “a joyful response to God’s sovereign self-exaltation.”

You see, for John the Baptist, his joy increased as Jesus’ ministry increased. His spiritual joy increased as his own worldly fame and ministry decreased. The more his ministry magnified Jesus, the more joy he was going to have. This is because his identity and happiness was not determined by his own fame and success, but was indivisibly indissolubly bound to Jesus.

In order to give this truth life, John uses the picture of the bride and his bridegroom. The bridegroom was coming – and what could be better for the bride!

I am reminded of Charles Wesley’s famous hymn ‘Come Thou Long Expected Jesus’ because it echoes John’s heart. There is a line in that hymn which calls Jesus the “Dear Desire of every nation” and the “Joy of every longing heart.” That’s what He was for John.

Christian, it is God who who kindles these desires and thoughts of the heart within us. It is a desire inhering within all who have been born of the Spirit and joined to the body of Christ.

Paul expresses it this way:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

Therefore our joy is realized now by nature of the hope we have for the future.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:14-18)

Therefore it is the Spirit living in us who testifies to us that we are 1. United to Christ and 2. Have a great hope for the future as heirs of the kingdom of God. And this is what brings us great joy!

Christ Himself understood this joy – that is why He was able to endure the cross and the shame. As Hebrews 12:2 says, “…who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame…”

Making Christ Central – He is Supremely Valuable

So how do we find real joy – and I mean real happy, thrilled, hair-raising all-satisfying joy – in Christ the way that John is describing here? I would argue that in order for us to find real joy, life-transforming joy in Christ, we must learn to value Christ above all other things. John understood the real value of Christ, and so he eagerly looked for Him and was thrilled that he could “decrease.”

The thinking goes something like this according to Christ, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).

For John, everything he had, his entire life was wrapped up in this ministry and now it was leaving him, and what was his response? He was thrilled! Why? Because he had already sold everything, he didn’t want or need followers, he wanted and needed Christ. Christ was the object of supreme value to him. He had found his treasure.[ii]

The Preeminence of Jesus

In light of the Baptist’s statement, we are right to examine what the apostle says about this man he wants to see “increase.” There’s a reason these verses immediately follow the Baptist’s statement.

The Apostle wants us to know that what flowed from John’s mouth was a result of his evaluation of Jesus – his soul comprehended that this teacher was no mere man – He was the supreme ruler of the universe.

John’s words were regulated by his soul’s comprehension of the majesty and authority of Jesus.

We must not miss this. Jesus is the one and only absolute authority in heaven and on earth. His ministry is one of singular supremacy – He reigns over all.

If you are a sinner, lost without Christ, this is a terrifying truth. If you are a Christian, held closely to the bosom of Christ, this is a magnificent truth, it is a beautiful truth – for He is your sovereign. Indeed He is sovereign over all even if those who don’t recognize His reign.

As Abraham Kuyper once famously said, “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

Here are 5 ways in which John comprehended the supremacy of Christ…

3:31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.

First: Christ had a Heavenly Origin[iii]

His claim to be divine is at the core of His supremacy. Jesus’ words have a force behind them that ordinary men’s words do not have.

Saying Jesus is “from heaven” and contrasting his origin with those who are from the earth is simply another way of proclaiming His deity. This man is – by His nature – is above all.

This really gets at the nucleus of our religion and why we worship, praise, and trust Jesus. We believe that Jesus was not a normal man.[iv] John’s disciples had not yet come to this realization. John is not simply commending them to a better teacher, he’s not just being humble, he’s saying that he MUST decrease – what else can one do before the King of kings?

3:32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.

Second: Christ Knew the Truth First Hand

Being divine, and having come from heaven, He would have heard the Father’s words first hand. Being both God and man, He understood the will of God for mankind perfectly. He was able to testify to God’s words with perfect accuracy because He was in the presence of God, but also because He was/is God!

Imaging Christ “hearing” testimony of the Father in the midst of a holy Trinitarian conversation in heaven is hard to picture mentally. Our finite minds cannot exactly know how they communicate with one another. These are the kinds of things that men cannot know; they are mysteries far too deep for us to plum.

But being the great Teacher/Rabbi, Jesus spoke in ways that we can comprehend the major concept up to a point where our mental acuity runs out of road.

It was not because of the depth of the truths that men did not receive His testimony, however. Despite His gracious condescension and amazing communication ability, many still did not accept what He had to say and this was because of their sin:

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. (John 3:19)

3:33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true.

Third: Christ’s Testimony Always Agreed with God

What John is saying here is that once we agree (“set our seal to” the fact) that God is the very essence of truth, we necessarily have a basis for putting our trust in the testimony of His Son.

If we agree that God is the very embodiment and essence of truth, and we believe that Jesus is His Son, then we should believe everything Jesus says.

In His High Priestly Prayer, Jesus says…

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

The inverse reality is that if you do not receive the testimony of Jesus, you are by implication calling God a liar:

Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. (1 John 5:10)

Therefore you either believe His message, or you believe He is a liar. There is no middle ground.

3:34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.

Fourth: Christ Experienced the Power of the Holy Spirit Without Limit

As James Boice points out, some have erroneously thought this passage means that God gives the Spirit to believers without measure, but that is obviously not the case as our own experience bears witness. A few quick reasons of explanation should suffice:

  • It is also preposterous to think that mere humans without the nature of divinity (as Christ had) could possible contain the fullness of the Spirit.
  • If we did have the Spirit without limit, we would see miracle after miracle.
  • Lastly, it’s our experience that in our sinfulness we often live lives not characterized as Spirit-filled. We do not tap into the power of the Spirit nearly as much as one would expect who had the full and unlimited power of the Spirit “without measure.”

This is therefore referring to our Lord, who was divine and given an unlimited power of the Spirit during His time on earth.

John is specifically relating the “words” of Jesus to His having the Spirit without measure. Not only is this the divine God-man, He is full of the Holy Spirit – to such a degree that every word He spoke was not only verifiable in their veracity, but because they passed over His lips were actually the very definition of truth. His words were true, had the power to heal bodies, cast out demons, calm storms, create food ex-nihilo, and forgive the sins of man.

In the greatly “increasing” ministry of Christ, every word spoken was drenched in the righteous truth of the Spirit.

3:35-36 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. [36] Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

Fifth: Christ received all Authority from the Father

If Jesus is divine, as we have reasoned from above, then it means that everything He has to say is something we need to be paying attention to. He has all authority.

By way of analogy, when I was a child I think its safe to say that I tested the bounds of authority! One way in which I did this was that from time to time I would ask my one parent for permission to do something, and if they said “no”, I would promptly go and ask the other parent for permission in the hopes of winning the old “divide and conquer” game!

Now, unfortunately what normally happened was that when the parents conferenced with each other my plot would be discovered, and I would be punished. My parents formed a united front. Anything my mom said my dad agreed upon and vise versa. They had the same mind, and there was no disunity between them. I came to learn this quickly!

So it is with the authority of Christ – and so it ought to be with us by way of extension. That is to say that because we are co-regents with Christ, have the mind of Christ, and have the Spirit of Christ, we act on authority not intrinsically inhering within our natural state. Rather our authority is from Jesus. We preach, teach, serve, and love others by the authority and power of Jesus.

John Piper says, “These are breathtaking words. God sent Jesus. Jesus speaks the very words of God. God gives him the Spirit immeasurably—and always has. The Father loves him. The Father has given all things into his hand. So Jesus is the God-sent, God-loved, God-speaking, Spirit-permeated, all-authoritative ruler of all things.”

Finally, in verse 36 we’re informed of the stakes – and they are high…John tells us that whoever believes these things about Christ will reap eternal life.

The word “remains” indicates that the de-facto state of affairs for humanity is to be under the sentence of God’s wrath. Only until that wrath is mediated are we safe.

Do not make the mistake of elevating any other man or ministry above the supreme Son of God. You have no other means by which you can pacify God’s wrath. John is saying that the Son has such authority that only belief in Him and His word will save you from everlasting condemnation.

In Conclusion

You may have heard military leaders talk about “proportional response” – it is a phrase that carries a somewhat subjective sense of justice, but the idea is that when attacked or provoked by an enemy, the response ought to be “proportional” to that attack. That is the moral guidance Generals in the Army or Air Force use with political leader to make judgments about the appropriateness of their counterattacks during a war.

However, human relationships with God are marked by disproportionality. God has lavished upon us what we cannot – even if we wished – repay with good behavior.

The most appropriate response in light of His work in our lives is to decrease. For John, the greater the fame of Jesus, the greater his own joy. John’s example is that of a man whose identity in life is intrinsically tied to the greatness of Jesus.

What is Jesus’ by right is John’s (and ours) by association.

John shows us how foolish it is to compare oneself or hold one’s self up in competition to Jesus. This man is above all! And to drive home the point, he gives us little glimpses into who this Bridegroom is.

  1. If you object, then understand this – this Jesus is the One who holds all things in his hand. This isn’t another teacher. This is the one who holds eternal a life in his hands (vs 36). Bristling under the weighty thought of surrender to His Lordship invites a realization of wrath. Rejecting Jesus is rejecting life; embracing Jesus is to invite eternal life and joy. There are no other scenarios in which joy can be truly realized.
  2. If you are a Christian, that means you are part of “the bride of Christ.” The bride’s joy is unalterably connected with the bridegroom, who is Christ. The more we diminish as we magnify His name, the more joy and satisfaction we will have.

I believe we can find true joy in life now and in the hereafter as we decrease, and He increases. We have a supreme Lord who is worthy of our obedient devotion. He is preeminent in ALL things. He is the creator of all things. He is the sustainer of all things, and He chooses whom He will save by His own power, for His own pleasure, and unto His own glory.

Praise God that we are united to such a benevolent Bridegroom!

Let us close in a prayer of adoration for who He is…

Endnotes

[i] Piper says that there are parallels between this and what John writes in Rev. 21:9 which says in the latter part of the verse (an angel speaking to John), “‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’” The church will experience the purification work of the perfect Lamb. Piper also cites Ephesians 5:25-27 which says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

[ii] There are some really practical applications here. You may have found Jesus but may not be recognizing the fact that He is the only thing that truly valuable to you. Oh sure, intellectually you understand that because it’s in the Bible that Jesus is good, and because He saved you and you’re a Christian and so on. But is your life designed and structured around the fact that Jesus is THE most valuable thing in your life. Have you sold off everything that gets between you and Christ? Have do done everything to grasp that pearl of great price? Or are you still reaching for the world’s brass ring? When we internalize this truth and apply His supreme value to every aspect of our lives, we realize very quickly that we are idolatrous people. We have lost our first love (Rev. 2:4).

Christ’s value in our lives is brought home to us by the remembrance of His suffering and of His victory over the grave. I hope that we let these truths change us so that when we encounter people fleeing us, and life’s pleasantries falling away, we can still say with John, “this joy of mine is now complete!”

[iii] It was John MacArthur’s own notes that convinced me that these final verses in chapter three scream loudly of the preeminence of Christ. Therefore I used Dr. MacArthur’s subheadings with my own exposition under each one.

[iv] Only an “ego-maniac” would make the claims Jesus did. And surely He would be, if He did not have the right to claim the things He did about Himself. This is something that every non-believer must be confronted with, and it’s the same question that Jesus put to Peter “who do you say I am?” Your response to that question will reveal whether or not you will spend eternal life with Christ or not. Similar claims led C.S. Lewis to famously say:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg–or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”[iv]

Thomas Confesses Jesus as Lord: John 20:24-31

Here are my notes for John 20:24-31. These form the conclusion of my notes on the 20th chapter of John’s Gospel.

20:24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. [25] So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

There is now no doubt that the person who stood amongst them was, in fact, Jesus. They wanted to tell others – and rightfully so. One of the people they tell is Thomas whose reaction is to deliver a withering statement of unbelief.

John goes out of his way to give us the details of this interaction for a reason.

The implacability of Thomas draws a vivid contrast to what the reader has just learned. Thomas seems to be so stubborn as to demand that unless God met his own conditions, he wouldn’t believe. This is hubris only humans are capable of, and unfortunately it offers us an uncomfortable and unvarnished window into our own souls.

During the most difficult of times our minds often become warped and bitter. Frustrated at our circumstances we make demands of God, which He sometimes yields to for the sole purpose of entailing on us a stiff lesson. At times God is so desirous to show us our own depravity that He actually grants our infant-like demands. Such was the case with Thomas. He would soon get more than He bargained for, and be so deeply knifed by the Spirit that His submission to Christ’s Lordship was immediate and forthcoming.

Not that I speak of any harsh injustice on God’s behalf, rather He sometimes cuts us most deeply by pouring over us His unrivaled affection, thereby revealing to us our own sinfulness and His own comparative faithfulness and charity.

20:26-29 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” [27] Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” [28] Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” [29] Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

The Lord’s Timing

It wasn’t until 8 days later that Thomas actually saw the Lord. In the Bible we have many times where numbers play a significant role. What I mean is that they “signify” something. The number 7 usually signifies “completeness” or “fullness”, and I’ve heard R.C. Sproul say that if 7 is the fullness, then 8 must represent the overflow of that – almost a one-upping of that idea (to paraphrase his thoughts).

Not to read too much into this, but Thomas didn’t get to see the Lord right away. Instead he had to wait not simply a week – 7 days – but 8 days. He had to wait until it was well past time for him to see the Lord. While everyone else probably discussed every detail of the Lord’s first appearance, Thomas was left out. His attitude of unbelief festered as the Lord waited until the right time to appear again.

I don’t think its wrong for us to remember that this is how the Lord works. His timing is not always in alignment with our timing!

In fact, the very timing of His coming into the world was perfectly selected by the Lord. Paul notes this in Galatians:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5)

And of course we see this in our own lives as well. How often do we look at the lives of others and say, “Well if I had there money, or their experience, or their children, or their husband, then things would be different! When will God give me those things?” And until then we hold out in unbelief. We don’t believe His promises because He hasn’t acted in our timing!

Getting What We Want

We don’t know how this scene played out emotionally, or have the benefit of watching the reactions of Thomas and the others, but I wonder if Thomas believed right away at this point or not. My guess is that at this point he didn’t have to touch Jesus to believe. Yet he still was commanded to put his hands into the wounds. Jesus was going to make him go through the motions of his own request. Therefore, by the time Thomas exclaims “My Lord and my God!” it seems possible that the declaration came through tears of shame.

Jesus’ words are not of comfort, but rather of rebuke for Thomas and a lesson for us all. He says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.”

This is the very definition of faith.

The author of Hebrews would later write, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Hebrews 11:1-3).

In other words, faith is trust in God that He is who He says He is, and will do all that He has said He will do. And in the fullest sense of Jesus’ words, those who believe are indeed “blessed” because they will receive eternal life. This is what He said before His death:

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21)

What Stands in Our Way?

Knowing that we have been called to believe in Christ – in His saving work, and also in the promises articulated for us in the Bible, I think it very worthwhile for us to ask the question: What is standing in the way?

The reason its worthwhile to ask this question stems from the fact that, like Thomas, we all battle unbelief from time to time. In fact, John Piper would say that unbelief is really at the root of many of our sins. It is unbelief in “future grace”, as he says in his book ‘Battling Unbelief’:

The “unbelief” I have in mind is the failure to trust in the promises of God that sustain our radical obedience in the future. These promises refer to what God plans to do for us in the future, and that is what I mean by future grace. It is grace, because it is good for us and totally undeserved. And it is future in that it hasn’t happened to us yet but may in the next five seconds or the next five thousand years.

For the Christian the promises of God are spectacular. They relate to our immediate future, before this minute is over, and our eternal future.

Therefore, its important to remember to fight the fight of faith every day, equipping ourselves with the truth of God’s word, and trusting to what is unseen.

Paul reiterates this truth in 2 Corinthians:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. [17] For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, [18] as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

20:30-31 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; [31] but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

The Gospel is Not Neutral

And now we come to the thesis statement of our author. For many pages and lessons now I have pointed out that these verses are the foundation and the reason for why John wrote his gospel. He is not an indifferent historian; he has an agenda. And that agenda is spelled out in such certain terms that commentary seems almost superfluous.

Nevertheless a few words are appropriate.

First, one of the things that has always struck me about verse 30 is that John, and the other gospel writers, actually didn’t record all of the things Jesus did. They didn’t even get all the miracles down on paper.

Later John will say, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

This man Jesus was doing so many miracles that they couldn’t all be written down! We know, however, that those God intended for us to know were recorded. Everything written was written for our benefit by His gracious foresight.

Remember, these acts were not simply one-on-one clandestine doctors meetings. These were public healings. Let your mind be awed over His majesty as mediated through His miraculous healings. Surely this was the Son of God (Matthew 27:54).

Someone once asked me, “Why do you think Christianity spread so quickly and to so many people?” My answer was two-fold. 1) Anyone who rises from death and spends 40 days teaching people all over the country in mass audiences is going to cause a major stir and 2) anyone who heals this many people for three years is going to cause a major shift in the cultural landscape of the day (not to mention the physiological landscape!).

Secondly, just as John was not a neutral observer, so we also cannot be neutral observers. It is impossible to hear this message of the gospel and remain “neutral” because the gospel divides. It divides people because it convicts us of our sin, and exposes our darkness with the light of truth. Jesus said:

“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! [50] I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! [51] Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. [52] For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. [53] They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53)

So the gospel is truth that cannot be responded to in a neutral way – you either reject its claims or embrace them, but there can be no in-between.

This is clearly articulated in chapter three:

Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. [34] For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. [35] The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. [36] Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:33-36)

For those of us who have accepted the truth of the gospel, let us read John’s thesis statement with joy, knowing that these things were written with us in mind! For those who might be reading this and do know claim a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus, then I urge you to bear these things mind – look at what this man did and what He said. Can there really be any doubt that this was the Son of God?

The Commissioning of the Disciples: John 20:19-23

Below are my notes on the commissioning of the disciples. Jesus has been resurrected from the grave, and now suddenly appears before His followers. Read on to learn what happens…

20:19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

Walking Through Walls?

It is still Sunday, only now the day has reached its conclusion and evening has come. The disciples – this could be a group comprised of more than those later known as “Apostles” – are huddled in a meeting room when Jesus arrives on the scene.

Our author notes that far from the great alacrity with which we hope to meet our Lord upon His return, these men were fearful. John tells us the reason why – they feared the Jews. When Jesus suddenly appears in their presence, this must have given them a great start. Already on high alert, suddenly this man seemingly comes from out of nowhere.

Jesus, it is said by some, must have walked through the locked doors of this gathering place. As MacArthur presumes, “The locked doors were no deterrent to Him; His glorified resurrection body simply passed through the walls.”

But I think Morris, Hendriksen, are correct to urge caution to readers, that we might not jump to the immediate conclusion that we know exactly how He entered the room. Carson, usually very thorough on these kinds of things, agrees with MacArthur, though he actually gives a reason where as MacArthur (in his usual confident style) simply assumes the fact. Carson says,
“The function of the locked doors in John’s narrative, both here and in v. 26, is to stress the miraculous nature of Jesus’ appearance amongst his followers. As his resurrection body passed through the grace-clothes, so it passed through the locked doors and simply ‘materialized.’”

He has a point – at least contextually. And I believe that though the passage doesn’t explicitly say how Jesus got into the room, it seems implicit from the context that He arrived through some spectacular means.

That being said, I think this is a perfect example of a passage where we must read up to a certain point and then stand back in awe of the Lord, without pressing it or adding to it in such a way that it would bring judgment upon us. Therefore some, for example, who use this passage as a way to say that one day we will have some sort of translucent or metamorphic powers. It is not wrong to look forward in hope to the glorious new body Christ will clothe us in upon the resurrection, but those who presume to confidently erect an entire scheme of eschatological physiology based on this verse alone ought to temper themselves, and leave such things in God’s hands.

The Peace of God

Jesus (the embodiment of peace) then greets the disciples with the customary greeting – this would have been salom alekem in the Hebrew. It seems pretty normal, but as Carson wisely points out, Jesus says it twice. Therefore most scholars agree that there is more than a simple greeting here. As J.C. Ryle says, “He who ‘spake as never man spake,’ said nothing without meaning.”

This leads us to ponder two things in particular.

First, the gentleness with which Jesus addresses His disciples. These men have been cowering in fear. They’ve completely abandoned His grave – unlike the brave women and two influential members of the Sanhedrin, they don’t seem to have been spending a lot of time at the tomb.

But as Ryle points out, “’Peace’ and not blame, ‘peace’ and not fault-finding, ‘peace’ and not rebuke, was the first word which this little company heard from their Master’s lips, after He left the tomb.”

Secondly, this leads us to ponder the fulfillment of the promises He made before His death:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27)

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Thus the first thing He says to His disciples after defeating death has a tinge of the fulfillment of that great promise He made, and the reminder that because of His work they (and all who come to believe in Him – see Ch. 17!) would have everlasting peace. Indeed Paul saw this clearly:

…remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:12-16)

It is significant in my own mind that the first thing Jesus says to our souls when we come to Him in repentance and seeking protection is “peace be with you.” As Christians we have that peace, and that rest. We simply come into His presence, we ask for forgiveness, we ask for His power and His peace, and He will be faithful to not withhold what He so enjoy to give:

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)

20:20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.

He’s Really Real

He is not an aberration – there is a physical body, this is a real resurrection, He is not merely a Spirit. In John’s day, the Docetists were claiming that Jesus hadn’t really appeared on earth with a real human body. They felt that the physical world (much like the Gnostics) was evil, or corrupt, and they didn’t think that God would have subjected Himself to such an evil.

They believed that though He appeared to be human, He was really only spirit – not only post-resurrection, mais après as well.

John lays out the case against this simply by recording historical fact. Jesus, for His part, shows His disciples unparalleled love and kindly condescension. He wants them to know that He is not a mere aberration, but the One they love and have followed these past three years. This is the Lord.

20:21-23 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” [22] And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. [23] If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

The Commissioning

This seems to be a very difficult passage, but I believe the main theme is found in this commissioning of the disciples. Their commission is ours, and is an extension of the Son’s mission, just as the Son’s mission is an extension of the Father’s plans for His creation and chosen people, and that mission is given to the church as a whole to be carried out by individuals empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus makes this plain when He uses the words “as” and “even so” – these words are what remind us of the fact that He is the vine and we are the branches. Without Him we can do nothing.

What a thrilling charge! No sooner has Jesus arisen from the grave than He says, “its go time! Let’s roll. We have a great mission in front of us.” We.

And what I want to just point out here is that once Christ’s “peace” has come upon us, we are commissioned in a similar way. We are to be “doers” in the missional sense of James’ words. He has commissioned the church for action. Now what is that action? We’ll come to that in a minute…

Empowered by the Spirit – A Preview of Pentecost

First, I want to note that this commissioning is grounded in the reality that the disciples were empowered to carry out the mission. They are empowered by the Holy Spirit. They couldn’t do this job alone, and neither can we.

John Owen rightly said that there is a “natural popery in man,” by which (and I believe Tim Challies is right on this account) we naturally want to work our way through ever sin, every problem and every mission of life, depending very little on help from others or from God.

So let us not fall into that trap. As Christians we are commissioned for the spreading of the Gospel and the living of a victorious life. That only happens when we walk in the Spirit.

Now, there is an interesting situation here which scholars of all stripes have long disputed. The scene as we have just read it, involved Jesus breathing on His disciples. He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Only then does He commission them for action.

Some have said that there is a conflict between this mini Pentecost, and the one in Acts 2. How can we reconcile these two events?

Because of the context, and the order of what Jesus says and does here, I believe that He is grounding this imperative (the charge) in the indicative (the receiving of the Spirit). The Bible never asks us to do anything without giving us the help and power to do so. This is the case in numerous examples throughout the New Testament especially because of the New Covenant promise of the Spirit.

A perfect example of this is found in Philippians:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)

Note that there is a command, which is promptly followed by the reassurance that it is God “who works in you.” So the imperative is grounded in the comfort of the indicative.

With all of this in mind, I think that this breathing on of the Spirit is symbolic of what will happen soon at Pentecost (Acts 2) – it is anticipatory of that event, just as the commissioning is anticipatory of their upcoming mission (this view of the anticipatory nature of the “breathing” is taken by Schreiner, and fits well with my own contextual interpretation of the commission as a whole). Note that He will later instruct them to remain in the city until the Spirit comes upon them.

Therefore He commissions them with instructions grounded in His own promise to help through yet another “extension” of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit. This all anticipates the day they will be sent into all the world to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18).

Second, I think this breathing is symbolic because the disciples don’t immediately show fruit of being filled with the Holy Spirit. As Carson points out:

There is too slight a demonstration within the Gospel of John that this alleged bestowal of the Spirit made the slightest bit of difference in the lives of Jesus’ followers. The disciples still meet behind locked doors (vs. 26) and the natural inference is that they are still afraid of the Jewish authorities (vs. 19). When Thomas comes to faith, it is not because of the promised witness of the Spirit (15:26-27), but because he sees the risen Jesus for himself. Those who accept John 21 as part of the Gospel, even if it is cast as an epilogue, cannot fail to observe that the disciples are sliding back to their old employment (21:1-3), sorting out elementary reconciliation with the Master (21:15-19), and still playing ‘let’s compare-service-record’ games (21:20-22). All this is not only a far cry from the power, joy exuberant witness, courageous preaching and delight in suffering displayed by the early Christians after Pentecost, in Acts, it is no less distant from the same virtues foretold in John’s farewell discourse, where the promise of the Spirit receives such emphasis.

Carson goes on to say that if this is really John’s version of Pentecost, it’s really disappointing! And I agree with him. This must be a preview, an anticipation of what is to come.

The Instruction

Now looking at the instruction itself, He tells them that, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” This can only make sense if we understand that He is not talking to the individual (like priests or the pope etc.), but to the church as a whole (cf. Morris).

Furthermore, to understand this we must touch on that foundational truth we just discussed about the Spirit. Our work is grounded in the work of God – our power is assumed to come from Him. And this is the same here as it pertains to forgiveness. Those the church forgives are forgiven, but not because the church has a mystical power outside of God’s prerogative to forgive whomever we want, but rather because the church (when operating in a Spirit-filled manner) agrees with God’s Spirit to forgive, or not to forgive.

Some denominations – Catholics and others – have taken this to mean that priests have the right of “absolution”, but if we are to truly understand the ancient practice of ablution we must understand it to mean that form of agreement with God that reassures a church member that he/she has been forgiven (see esp. Sproul on this).

The Catholic “church” has in recently centuries enumerated unto itself such “powers” as were never meant in this practice (or ought not to have been meant in any case). Catholic priests say now, “et ego auctoritate ipsius te absolvo”, which is to say, “and by His authority I absolve you.”

In sum, the church can bind and loose, can forgive and hold back forgiveness, because it is a Spirit-filled institution, the very bride of Christ, and His body. So long as the church is connected to Him as His branches, we will agree discerningly with Him in all His judgments as we proclaim the gospel of forgiveness and the warning of eternal punishment to all who reject this free offer. What Jesus is saying here is none other than that the church has the commission to preach the gospel to all people in power endued by the very God who had just raised Him from the grave.

For as Peter would later recall…

God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it…This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. (Acts 2:24, 32-33)