Revelation 6: The 5th and 6th Seals

Here are my study notes from yesterday morning which covered Revelation 6:9-17, namely the 5th and 6th seals, as well as some more general notes on recapitulation as a literary form in the book.

The Fifth Seal

6:9-11 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.

George Ladd says, “Here John appears to have in mind all Christian martyrs of every age, perhaps those of the end time in particular.” I don’t know that I agree with his futuristic bent, but I do think it accords with all Christians – and not simply those who were physically killed for the name of the Lord, but all those who died in their faith having stood firm against the devil. In other words, for all saints who are identified with the slain lamb.

Beale makes a good case that these men and women are to be identified with all Christians who have died in Christ by pointing to the rewards, which correspond to those in chapters 2-3. Ladd says that in a very real sense we are all called to die to ourselves and put on the Lord Jesus as His followers. Therefore we take up our cross, which is a way of saying that we take up the mantle of suffering which is ours as Christians.

The life of a Christian is often one of suffering. Jesus said this:

Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, [22] and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:21-22)

Later on in Matthew we see that Jesus lays before us the complex idea that in His sending of prophets to the people in the OT, He knew they would be killed and He orchestrated these things in order to lay the case against the wicked:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, [35] so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (Matthew 23:34-35)

What is wrapped up in this saying is the same thing that applies to those in the New Testament and to us today. In the deeds of the righteous and their/our proclamation of the truth of God, we are both God’s instruments of salvation and also His instruments of judgment.[i] Not that we judge anyone, but that God’s words convict the world of His righteousness and their sinfulness. Therefore the gospel acts as a separating fire (Luke 12), which burns up the chaff and refines the gold.

Beale is likely right to note the special NT emphasis due to the “witness” being associated with these men. As someone who has studied John’s gospel I can personally attest to (no pun intended) the importance of the word and concept “witness” in John’s writing. Perhaps a similar emphasis is intended here. If so, that means that the witness these folks “bore” is that of identification with the Lord Jesus.[ii]

6:10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

This cry mimics the words in Zechariah 1, which follow the vision of the horseman in that book as well:

Then the angel of the LORD said, ‘O LORD of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’ (Zechariah 1:12)

The idea here is that these saints have been killed by the tribulations of the four horsemen. These are the faithful Christians who have stood for the Word of God throughout the ages, and cry out for the Lord to bring about the final word of justice.

Their appeal is to the character of God. He is the “sovereign Lord” and is both “holy and true” and therefore will not wink at sin.

The appeal is a type of imprecatory prayer upon the earth dwellers who have persecuted Christians, and rebelled against the sovereignty of God. They seem to be saying, “Since you are sovereign over all things, you must carry out justice Lord, in accordance to your holy character.”

This reminded me greatly of that important passage in Exodus 34 where God declares His name to Moses:

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. [6] The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, [7] keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:5-7)

These saints are not spewing bitter vengeance, but a love for the reputation of God. And they know that the only way for God’s character to be upheld is for justice to be carried out. For all sin must be punished. You are either covered in the blood of the lamb, protected as it were, by the altar of His sacrifice, or you are naked and defenseless to bear the wrath of God for all of your sins.

The warning is made strikingly clear by the author of Hebrews who says:

How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? [30] For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” [31] It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:29-31)

What is the takeaway? May we have a similar regard for the reputation of the Lord we serve.

6:11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

The idea here is that these saints have been killed by the tribulations of the four horsemen. These are the faithful Christians who have stood for the Word of God throughout the ages, and cry out for the Lord to bring about the final word of justice.

We can tell they are believers because they are described as those “slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” Furthermore they are given “a white robe” which often signifies the reward of those who have died in Christ. Lastly we see their position as being “under the alter” and Beale recommends that we see this not as the Brazen alter of sacrifice, but as the alter of incense which is before the throne of God. This fits well with the reality that only Christ has occupied that Brazen alter in an ultimate sense. Ladd disagrees and sees no real issue with combining the idea of the sacrificial death of saints with the brazen alter.

Either way, the image conveys to us that these saints are being poured out as an offering to the Lord through their witness and identification with the slain lamb. They are protected under the altar of the holy temple, which is in the midst of the throne of God.

What is interesting to me is that on earth we long for the return of Christ – we are plagued by sin and by tribulation. Yet even here in heaven we see that there is a longing for the Lord’s return, and for His vindication. These saints are in a place of rest, yet God is telling them that the time is not yet ready for the end.

The message of the 5th seal is that troubles in life are not meaningless. And, like in the rest of the book, Christians are given hope and encouraged that God is sovereign over all the circumstances in our lives and in the world in general.

We are told to endure for the sake of His name. We are to “take up our cross daily” as Jesus exhorts in the Gospels (Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23), and to endure the tribulation brought on by the four horses.

Therefore, Christ the Lamb is the One will one day come back in great glory to renew the earth and heavens and judge the quick and the dead. It is that Day of Judgment which John describes next…

The Sixth Seal

6:12-17 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, [13] and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. [14] The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. [15] Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, [16] calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, [17] for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

Now at the opening of the sixth seal John sees a vision of the final judgment, which the saints from the previous seal had longed to see. He sees the great and mighty Day of the Lord – the Day described as one in which no one could stand against the wrath of God.

Like so many other images in Revelation, these verses are steeped in OT imagery – especially from Isaiah 34. Beale actually cites Isaiah 13:10-13; 24:1-6, 19-23; 34:4; Ezekiel 32:6-8; Joel 2:10, 30-31; 3:15-16; and Habakkuk 3:6-11 among others.[iii]

The images include:

  • A great earthquake
  • Sun becomes black
  • The Moon becomes like blood
  • Stars fall to the earth
  • Sky vanishes like a scroll
  • Mountains and islands were completely moved
  • All people (great and small) who dwell on the earth hide and long for suicide

The Isaiah 34 passage states:

Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood. [4] All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree. [5] For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have devoted to destruction. (Isaiah 34:3-5)

Its nobles—there is no one there to call it a kingdom, and all its princes shall be nothing. (Isaiah 34:12)

Another key passage is found in Joel 2:

The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. [32] And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls. (Joel 2:31-32)

The sum total of these things is a cataclysmic day in which God announces His presence in a very “earth shattering” way. The final judgment, the Day of the Lord, the great coming of our Lord Jesus has shaken the very foundations of the earth. The idea here is to show the fear of all of those who dwell on the earth at the time of the Day of the Lord.

This also parallels Jesus’ Olivet discourse, especially Matthew 24:29:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Matthew 24:29)

Therefore what this scene is showing us is the final judgment and second coming of our Lord. For Jesus then goes on to say:

Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. [31] And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:30-31)

Recapitulation Reminder

So here we are at the end of chapter 6, with still 16 other chapters to study, and we’re already reading about the final scene of the judgment of God. How can this be? Well, as I have mentioned before, Revelation is a book that contains a series of visions – they are recapitulated over and again to reiterate for us different aspects of the same scene. Like multiple cameras setup at a football game to capture different angles of the action, these snap shots showcase different perspectives on the same scenes. We might think of Jesus who taught continually about the kingdom of God, yet in the Gospel accounts we find Him using different analogies that emphasize many truths and realities upon which that kingdom is founded. Many perspectives on the same truth. Many ways to get at the same reality.

As I was driving to the hospital with my good friends Mike and Tracy yesterday, on our way to visit a loved one, and our discussion tended toward the importance of “retelling the old story” of the redemptive plan of God for mankind. Not simply the Romans road, but the whole of the story from Genesis through Revelation and how it all fits together. We decided that it is in retelling the story that Christians gain strength and are encouraged in all God has done for us in Christ.

Could it be that this retelling of the story again and again in Revelation is essentially getting at the same thing? Jesus wants to show us in manifold ways the old old story, and to showcase His plan of redemption again and again for us so that we won’t forget and so that we’ll learn to treasure His plan and so that we’ll take comfort in the truth that He’s in control of said plans.

Literal or Figurative?

There is a lot of debate about whether these images are figurative or literal. I tend to think of them as figurative because in the context of this passage we’ve read about the four horses and those slain as being under the alter, among many other figuratively styled literary conveyances of ideas. These devices seem to be bound up together in continuity with the rest of the passage, not suddenly changed in these verses to accommodate a different literary form – which would seem odd. Beale gives OT application to the argument, but I am not an OT scholar. However, I am a student of literature, and to go from reading the previous verses symbolically to reading these in some other way, would seem inconsistent.

So I think these images are conveying a deeper meaning – deeper in that its mysterious to some, but to those who carefully study these things, and know their OT, and have wisdom from God, they are made clear. And in their clarity there is richness that would not be there save for this style of conveying the point.

NOTE: There are several evidences for believing these things continue to be figurative, and Hendriksen points out that even if one considers the stars falling to earth, that would never work physically/literally because many such stars would be bigger than the earth.

Therefore the question is what do these images convey? I think they convey great dread at the second coming of our Lord.

Some Concluding Thoughts

One of the things that struck me while reading the passage was how John is here shown the absolute dread that will be upon anyone dwelling on the earth who do not belong to Jesus (note especially verse 32 in the Joel passage).

The reaction of the people who are left on the earth is telling – first they want to hide. But since they obviously can’t hide, they realize that there is no hope. Adam and Eve, who tried to hide after their sins (Genesis 3:9) realized this truth quickly. And throughout the prophets we read of men on the earth who call on the rocks and caves to hide their idolatry (Hosea 10:1-3, 8, 11:2; Jeremiah 4:23-30; 5:7 – cf. Beale Pg. 400 who makes the case well).

Beale explains, “The unbelievers’ idol-refuge, the earth, muse be removed because it has been made impermanent by the pollution of their sin, but the eternal home of believers with their God will remain.” What he is getting at is that humanity “has become perverted and has worshiped the creation (cf. Romans 1:21-25; Revelation 9:20).”[iv]

Therefore this is the crux of the matter. There are two main points here:

  1. This will be a day in which the truth that weighs down every man or woman who doesn’t acknowledge God subconsciously, will now be brought to light in such a way that no one will escape its reality: there is no hope apart from Jesus.

There is no escape without the help of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God – He is the only hope. Caves will not hide you from God’s wrath, only the altar of the sacrifice of Christ who covers us in His blood will sufficiently protect us from the holy wrath of God on that day.[v]

  1. The suffering of the elect is not meaningless. God has a purpose in all of these things – a purpose which leads to our refinement and His glory.

As Tim Keller says, “Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.”[vi]

Now, John is shown another vision that concerns the elect. That will take up the entire focus of chapter 7 and some label this an interlude. Chapter 7 will almost be as if to say, “Now that you’ve seen the terrifying day of the Lord, you are probably wondering about those saints from the 5th seal. How will they survive these things? What will be their end? Well, check this vision out.”

The vision in chapter seven serves to answer the final question of verse 17, “the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

Footnotes

[i] See also the example of Noah from Hebrews 11: “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” (Hebrews 11:7)

[ii] We shouldn’t press this NT angle too far in my opinion, for the saints of old looked forward in anticipation and having now been united to Christ due to the sacrifice of Jesus they would also be identified as witnesses, albeit from heaven (see Hebrews 11 and Moses’ identification with Christ). Still, these people were identified as those who died as witnesses while presumably on earth, which makes the NT emphasis legitimate.

[iii] Beale’s longer commentary, Pg. 396.

[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 402.

[v] I realize that Beale says there is some protective nature/sense of the altar here in chapter 6 and I agree with that. However, that the altar protects us from the wrath of God is a conclusion I have arrived at on my own, taking the imagery to its rightful conclusion (I believe).

[vi] Tim Keller, Pg. 30, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. As quoted from: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/20-quotes-from-walking-with-god-through-pain-and-suffering

The Generational Divide: Luke 9:37-48

Some study notes from Bible study last night. The passage (Luke 9:37-48) immediately follows the Transfiguration.  I don’t have this in my notes, but at study I showed the group the beautiful ‘Transfiguration’ painting by Raphael, which is study in contrasts with the scene of the transfiguration and the one my notes below discuss. Here is the painting:

Transfiguration_Raphael

The Generational Divide

9:37-42 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. [38] And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. [39] And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. [40] And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” [41] Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” [42] While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

Jesus’ Power Displays the Inbreaking of the Kingdom

Jesus’ authority in this situation is clear. He is King over all creation – He is king over all spiritual goings on in this world.

I think that much of what we see in this passage has to do with the inbreaking of the kingdom of God, and the power of Jesus over the demonic powers of this world. But there is also a feature of this passage that concerns us – namely how people of this world are blinded by their sin and by Satan to these spiritual truths, and have hearts that are slow to grasp the importance of loving others as Jesus did/does.

A key passage to understand the relationship between Jesus’ kingship and His kingdom, and the authority he holds over demons is found in Matthew 12:

Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. [23] And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” [24] But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” [25] Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. [26] And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? [27] And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. [28] But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. [29] Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. [30] Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. [31] Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. [32] And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12:22-32)

So the question becomes, if Jesus has the power to do these things, do we believe He has the power to do them. It is not simply that our belief somehow activates God’s power somehow. No. That is not the right way to think of it. God works according to His own sovereign pleasure. But it is perhaps more correct to state that God indeed takes pleasure in our prayers, and indeed gives us the faith to believe. The faith is actually a gift from God. For as Paul states in Ephesians 2, your faith is a “gift” so that “no man may boast.”

This is so that God will receive all the glory. For our purpose is to bring Him glory. That is our end, our great summum bonum.

A Study in Contrasts

Now, we’ve talked a lot in our study of Luke about Jesus’ miracles, and I’ve mentioned in a small group setting that it becomes difficult not to become desensitized to what we’re reading. These people lived a long time ago, we know don’t them, we haven’t lived a day in their shoes, we didn’t see this stuff take place. So we’re left to read it and imagine what the scene might have been like. God gave us His word and our imagination for just this reason.

Jesus has just come down the Mount of Transfiguration. We read about it last week and talked about the amazing display of glory, which the disciples were privileged to behold.

Now, He’s coming down off that hill and the first people Luke tells us He encountered were those who could use His power the most – those oppressed and possessed by demons.

But there’s a problem here, isn’t there. Jesus doesn’t respond as He usually might be expected to – its not as cut and dry as Jesus heals, then goes on His merry way.

We learn that there’s a man whose only son has been physically oppressed by a violent demon, and it seems that the disciples of Jesus weren’t able to cast the demon out.

Why?

It seems the answer is in Jesus’ reply: they lacked the faith necessary to accomplish the task. For Jesus states – in a way that must have sounded like a rebuke – “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you?”

There is a direct connection between His glorification at the top of the mountain, and His reply to these people.

Luke must know that he has set before the reader a study in the contrast between the reality of Jesus and who He was, over against the unbelief and lack of faith of the people. Wasn’t it just last study that we read how an audible voice from heaven shook Peter, James, and John to their core with a proclamation of the deity of Jesus? Wasn’t it just a few hours before that Jesus was shining like the sun in resplendent glory?

The people here – the masses – didn’t see the transfiguration. But they saw many other miraculous signs from Jesus. So the reality of who Jesus is, does not square with the way in which the people respond to Him.

We are all like this – slow to believe in what Jesus says, and slow to obey him. I know this to be true from personal experience, for I count myself as part of this group.

For those doubters who say, “I’d believe and have faith if I saw Jesus do all that with my own eyes.” Passages like this, and many more to come, will build a case against that proposition. What we learn from a survey of the gospels is that seeing is not necessarily believing. There were a remnant of people who saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, and yet they still went on to tell the Jewish religious authorities in hopes of getting rid of Jesus. They didn’t believe.

So Thankful He can Do This Stuff…

Interestingly, as I read this passage, I was greatly comforted because of the reminder that Jesus has the power to heal, to cast out demons, and to create in us a clean heart. In other words, He has the ability to bring us spiritual peace.

I don’t want to minimize this. Because when we are tormented by the enemy, fall prey to our own depraved desires, we can know there is grace and there is power to save us, and to bring us back from our wanderings. It is this power that is stronger than anything else upon which we must rely.

9:43-44 And all were astonished at the majesty of God. But while they were all marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, [44] “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.”

It is perhaps noteworthy that the works of Jesus are being attributed by the people as coming from God. This is in contrast to the way the Pharisees saw Jesus as casting out evil spirits by the power of Satan (11:15). The common people seemed to realize that good things come from God (This is the theme of Psalm 127, and of course James 1:17).

I love the response here of Jesus to the miracle, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.”

PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT I AM SAYING!

Now the contrast is complete. What kind of king gives himself up to his enemies? What kind of king plans to do so even before he is captured? Even before the plot to capture or kill him has been completely formulated!

This is no earthly king. One of our rulers would never have sacrificed himself for a group of people who couldn’t even muster up enough faith to partake in his work with him.

Hence the greatness of Jesus and of the gospel. For as Paul says:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. [7] For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—[8] but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. [9] 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. [11] More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)

Any other leader would have thought the transfiguration a confirmation of his right to rule the earth – and indeed it did just that for Jesus. But from there Jesus departs from the expected path. He once again sets aside His glory and condescends to save us.

This isn’t done subtly either. He gets their attention – He says to them to “let this saying sink into your ears.”

9:45 But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.

Now how did the disciples react? They didn’t get it. They didn’t understand it. And, to be honest, they didn’t want to understand it. For it says, “they were afraid to ask him about this.”

In saying that Jesus’ words were “concealed from them” Luke is basically saying that these things were spiritually discerned and God did not give them wisdom to discern them. It’s just that simple. They didn’t get it, God didn’t allow them to understand it, which was perfect because frankly they didn’t want to understand it.

Don’t you think this might have been a tiny bit important? Perhaps the disciples just might have wanted to get to the bottom of this?

And people wonder why we can get into heaven on the basis of our own sovereign choices! If left to ourselves we will ignore the truth of the gospel. We will run far away from the wisdom of God. We are fallen creatures who love the darkness rather than the light (John 3:19-21). And when faced with difficult truths, we obfuscate or simply choose to ignore the facts in front of us.

Why do we do this? It could be the illusion of control is slipping away and we don’t like that. We like the idea of planning our own destiny, or at least heavily influencing it by our free will acts and choices. We don’t want to face future difficulties and act irrationally toward them by thinking that if we ignore them they’ll just go away.

This is perhaps why the disciples didn’t want to probe deeper into what Jesus had said.

9:46 An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. [47] But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side [48] and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”

The Nature of the Kingdom

And to prove just how far their heads were buried in the sand, the disciples were still unsure of what kind of kingdom Jesus was about to usher in. So instead of reconciling what they saw on the mountain with what Jesus was saying about His impending death, they focused on the more cheery prospect of Jesus’ earthly reign. For as we recall from earlier studies, some might have thought that He was about to establish a political kingdom and would overthrow Herrod’s rule, so they were starting to jockey for position within this upcoming administration.

However, looking back on these things, we do need to reconcile the Mount of Transfiguration with his saying here. What is going on here? How can He be both sovereign king of all the earth, and yet give himself over to his enemies to die?

I’ve made the argument before that the kind of kingship Jesus was conveying – the kind of kingship we share with him – is that which is put in place by God, established by His hand, and carried out in love through the power of the Spirit. Indeed, much of our conquering (as seen in the book of Revelation) is done in the realm of the spiritual. As Paul says:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

The nature of the kingdom is now spiritual, though Jesus reigns over all created matter – whether physical or spiritual. Indeed He utilizes that which is physical to accomplish the spreading of His spiritual kingdom. Therefore it is a false dichotomy to speak of two separate kingdoms. There is not a spiritual kingdom over and against (or separate from) a physical kingdom. They are two facets of the same one kingdom.

Though the disciples did not understand this, we need to understand it. For our goal, as articulated so well by R.C. Sproul, is to bear witness to an invisible kingdom:

In answer to their question about the kingdom, Jesus gave the fundamental mission of the church. Men would be blind to His kingship, so His disciples were given the task of making it visible. The fundamental task of the church is to bear witness to the kingdom of God. Our King reigns now, so for us to put the kingdom of God entirely in the future is to miss one of the most significant points of the New Testament. Our King has come and has inaugurated the kingdom of God. The future aspect of the kingdom is its final consummation.[i]

And I’ve mentioned this in my work on Revelation, but Anthony Hoekema is very helpful here:

The kingdom of God, therefore, is to be understood as the reign of God dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ, the purpose of which is the redemption of God’s people from sin and from demonic powers, and the final establishment of the new heavens and the new earth. It means the great drama of the history of salvation has been inaugurated, and that the new age has been ushered in. The kingdom must not be understood as merely the salvation of certain individuals or even as the reign of God in the hearts of his people; it means nothing less that the reign of God over his entire created universe. “The kingdom of God means that God is King and acts in history to bring history to a divinely directed goal. (quoting Ladd)”[ii]

The Least of You

Now we get to the point of things. Jesus brings a child near, and says that the least of you will be the greatest in the kingdom of God. To quote the title of a CJ Mahaney book ‘Humility: True Greatness.’

What is it that makes humility and being “the least” so powerful, so highly sought after in the kingdom Jesus is describing?

I’d wager that it’s because they both serve as descriptors for love.

The kingdom of God is characterized by love. It is the overriding hermeneutic, outlook, worldview, and lens through which a Christian must look – a lens put into place by the Holy Spirit.

This is because the kingdom of God is ruled by God, and God is love. Therefore the kingdom will be characterized by individuals who behave, think, and talk like God.

And because God loves His creatures and creation, we too should love them. Which means we should place ourselves in a posture of servanthood, of putting others first, in loving others, of not thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. This is the attitudinal position of someone who is “great” in the kingdom of God.

The Generational Divide

Jesus was clearly annoyed at the generation in which He lived. But a generation passes, and another pops up. It only takes 40 years. Generations come and generations go. But what I believe that what is going on here is that Jesus is drawing the distinction between the ways of those under the law of the old covenant, and those who will makeup a new generation of believers.

The kingdom Jesus is ushering in consists of a new generation. The newness of this generation is seen also in how Jeremiah articulated the coming of the new covenant:

In those days they shall no longer say: “‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ [30] But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge. [31] “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, [32] not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. [33] For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [34] And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

I’ve said in countless lessons that we live in the already/not yet. We live in a time of inaugurated eschatology, in laymans terms this means that Jesus ushered in a kingdom during his ministry on earth. It is an unseen kingdom, a kingdom of God.

It is all well and good to read about and talk about demons and the spiritual world, and all this theology of eschatology and so forth. But what does it matter?

Here is why it matters. If Jesus inaugurated a kingdom, and that kingdom is one whose guiding hermeneutic is one of kindness, love, and deferential treatment to others, then don’t you think its slightly important that we live in that way now?

This is why futurism isn’t all its cracked up to be. Because we live now, and God cares about how we live now.

Our lives now are to be characterized by the same driving principles that will govern them upon the return of our Savior. That is why the future has invaded the present. We are to live in such a way that the invisible will become visible to the hearts and minds of those who we work with, play with, hang out with, and minister to.

For as Paul says:

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. [15] For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, [16] to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Corinthians 2:14-16)

Footnotes

[i] Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 307.

[ii] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, Pg. 45