Revelation: The Dragon and the First Beast

May 22, 2011

Revelation is filled with vivid images that dazzle our imaginations. Among the more prominent of those images are the dragon and the two beasts. Fortunately, the text provides us strong evidence about the true identity of these symbolic creatures.

(Rev 12:3) Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads.
(Rev 12:4) His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.

The prophecy leaves no doubt who this dragon represents:

(Rev 12:9) The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

So we have an important clue: The dragon is Satan. Whenever Revelation speaks of the dragon, we know it is talking about Satan.

But what did the dragon do?

(Rev 12:17) Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.
(Rev 13:1) And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name.
(Rev 13:2) The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority.
(Rev 13:3) One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was astonished and followed the beast.
(Rev 13:4) Men worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?”
(Rev 13:5) The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise his authority for forty-two months.
(Rev 13:6) He opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven.
(Rev 13:7) He was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them. And he was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation.
(Rev 13:8) All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.
(Rev 13:9) He who has an ear, let him hear.
(Rev 13:10) If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.

The dragon (Satan) went off to make war on the saints. So a beast rises up and is given power “to make war against the saints” (vs 7). Clearly this beast was Satan’s agent in making war on the saints. The beast was given authority over “every tribe, people, language and nation” — clearly the dominant ruler over the entire world in that day. And note that the beast was worshipped by all the people.

The beast was made up of parts of a lion, a bear, and a leopard. Now where have we seen those three animals in prophecy before? In Daniel 7, of course — where the lion represented Babylon, the bear represented the Medes and Persians, and the leopard was Greece under Alexander the Great. Each successive empire devoured the preceding one. But there was a fourth beast in that prophecy, one with ten horns:

(Dan 7:23) “He gave me this explanation: ‘The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will appear on earth. It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it.
(Dan 7:24) The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom. After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings.
(Dan 7:25) He will speak against the Most High and oppress his saints and try to change the set times and the laws. The saints will be handed over to him for a time, times and half a time.

Revelation depicts this fourth empire as being made up of parts of the preceding three (lion, bear, leopard). So Revelation is making a direct connection with the prophecy of Daniel. And the kingdom represented by Revelation’s first beast is the same as the fourth kingdom in Daniel 7, the kingdom that succeeded Greece. That, of course, would be the Roman Empire.

In chapter 17 we get more information about this beast with seven heads and ten horns.

(Rev 17:9) “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits.
(Rev 17:10) They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while.

Five of the seven kings had already fallen at the time of the prophecy. (Remember, this was around AD 95-96). “One is.” That decisively determines that the kingdom under discussion is the Roman Empire.

If we need further evidence, note that the seven heads represent seven hills. At the end of the first century, any Christian in the Roman Empire would immediately have recognized that as a reference to Rome.

Thus we have another important clue: The first beast was the Roman Empire.


Revelation: Introduction and Three Keys

May 15, 2011

Rev 1:9  I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
Rev 1:10  On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet,
Rev 1:11  which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”

The Revelation of Jesus Christ was given to the apostle John during his banishment on the isle of Patmos. Early church writers uniformly agree that this occurred during the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96). Here are a few sample pieces of evidence. Clement of Alexandria states that he returned from Patmos “after the death of the tyrant.”. Victorinus (third century AD) states that John was “condemned to the labor mines by Caesar Domitian.” Eusebius (AD 263–339) states that John was banished to Patmos in AD 95. On those and other similar pieces of evidence, we place the date of writing of Revelation around AD 95-96.

From the outset we see that Revelation will contain symbolic descriptions.

Rev 1:12 I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands,
Rev 1:13 and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.
Rev 1:14 His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.
Rev 1:15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.
Rev 1:16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

What a vivid picture! Who was this who spoke with a voice like rushing waters, with a double-edged sword in his mouth? He was “the first and the last.” He had been alive, and then died, and now is alive again. Hmmm… Obviously this was Jesus Christ. And obviously he expected John to conclude that from the clues he gave. And lest there be any doubt that the symbols represent something real, he explicitly told John that the stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the lampstands are the churches themselves. Thus Jesus illustrated for John how the message was to be understood.

We call this “apocalyptic” language, because it is the kind of language used in the Apocalypse (the Greek name for the book of Revelation). We see similar language in other books, especially the book of Daniel. While it may be difficult to define this language precisely, we know it when we see it. And Jesus explained by example how we are to view these vivid descriptions.

So here is the first key to understanding Revelation:

1. The exotic descriptions are symbols representing something real.

The second key addresses the timing of the events described:

(Rev 1:3) Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

(Rev 22:6) The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.

(Rev 22:10) Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near.

The events portrayed in Revelation were to happen soon. The time was near. The members of those seven churches would not have expected the events described to be two thousand years in the future.

Contrast the above passages with the prophecy of Daniel:

(Dan 8:26) “The vision of the evenings and mornings that has been given you is true, but seal up the vision, for it concerns the distant future.

Daniel prophesied at the end of the Babylonian captivity around 550 BC, about events that would be fulfilled in 164-165 BC, fewer than 400 years later. Yet that was the “distant future.” If 400 years is the distant future, how many years would be “soon”? How long would they have to wait for events that were “at hand”? Surely, those events would unfold much sooner than 400 years in the future.

So here is our second key to understanding Revelation:

2. The events described would happen soon.

For the third key to understanding Revelation, consider the following passages:

(Rev 1:9) I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

(Rev 2:10) Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.

(Rev 2:13) I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.

(Rev 6:9) When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.
(Rev 6:10) They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”
(Rev 6:11) Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.

(Rev 12:17) Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.

(Rev 20:4) I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.

Consider also the repeated references to persecution and the blood of the saints from chapters 13-18. Clearly, the focus of Revelation is on intense persecution of the church. That persecution had already begun but would intensify in coming years. In Revelation, Jesus delivered a message of warning and encouragement to the church. He urged each of the seven churches to persevere and to overcome. He encouraged them with promises of deliverance, and of resurrection and rewards.

So the third key to understanding Revelation is:

3. Revelation was written to encourage the saints to persevere, to endure and to overcome intense persecution that was about to fall on them.

We have identified three keys within the text itself helping us to understand Revelation. As we continue we will learn additional clues directly from the text. And then we will consider the narrative of Revelation in the framework of what we have found.


Revelation series

May 8, 2011

Starting next Sunday, our congregation is beginning a Bible class series on the book of Revelation. I will be co-teaching this series with another one of our elders. So it seems like a great opportunity to write another blog commentary like I have done for a number of other books.

I’m pretty excited about this opportunity. Over the years, in my experience, teachers and preachers in our churches have generally avoided the book as a whole. Yes there have been plenty of sermons about the seven letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3. And there has been no shortage of sermons about the great multitude praising the Lamb in chapter 7, and especially of the thrilling picture of the new heaven and the new earth in chapters 21-22. But what about the dragon? The two beasts? The harlot and Babylon? What about the 1260 days, and the 1000 years? And most importantly, what was the message of the book as a whole, and what did God intend to accomplish through that message?

I think the main reason the book is avoided is that the religious world is pretty confused about it. There are at least five very different views about what the book means. Each of the views has numerous variations. How can someone come to a clear understanding of such a book? And how can someone dare to teach such a book, given the stern warnings at the end?

Rev 22:18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book.
Rev 22:19 And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

But God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor 14:33.) God has a message to be delivered. God gave the message to Jesus, who gave it an angel, who delivered it to John. (Rev 1:1) John wrote it down for the seven churches in the province of Asia. (Rev 1:4) The message was delivered, and as always, God’s word accomplished the purpose for which it was sent. (Isa 55:11) Jesus promised blessings to those who read, hear, and keep the words of the message:

Rev 1:3 Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

Rev 22:7 “Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.”

So we need to read the book, and we need to understand it so that we can keep the words of the prophecy. It’s time to apply ourselves to understanding Revelation.

We will be teaching this from the perspective of the original audience of the message. What did it mean to the seven churches who first received the prophecy? How would they have understood the symbolic language of the book? What need was it addressing? And what message should we take from the book as we read it nearly 2000 years later?

The book of Revelation itself contains strong evidence about how to interpret its mysteries. We will begin by talking about the symbolic, apocalyptic style. We will show that Revelation identifies the dragon, the two beasts, and the harlot. And we will deduce from internal evidence what is meant by the 1260 days and the 1000 years.

Once we have established that evidence as a framework for the book, we will go through the book in sequence, understanding the scroll, the seals, and the trumpets within that framework.

We will be drawing heavily from the book “Unlocking Revelation: Seven Simple Keys” by Dr. Stafford North. After reviewing a variety of books and commentaries on the subject, we chose to follow the approach of this book in our class, as the clearest and most methodical approach we found to understanding Revelation.  We won’t be doing a detailed comparative analysis of all of the competing theories about Revelation in our class, and I’m not interested in extended debate on that subject in this blog series. Instead I will be presenting the book as I believe it would have been understood by its original audience.

May we all receive the blessings promised to those who read, hear, and keep the words of this Revelation!


What One Must Know to be Saved: Conclusions

May 7, 2011

In an effort to revive my blogging activities, I am going to re-post some “greatest hits” beginning with this series titled “What One Must Know to be Saved.”   This is the tenth article in that series, and was first published in August 2008.

From the preceding discussion, the things a person must know to be saved are obvious. In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit has recorded for us numerous examples of the gospel being preached to a variety of people. Some of these people were Jews and well versed in the Old Testament scriptures. Others were Gentiles with no understanding of God. The inspired preachers taught an appropriate message in each situation, always pointing toward the same thing.

To receive the promises of the gospel of Christ, a person had to know that God created the world and everything in it, including all mankind; that man had fallen into sin and rebellion against God; that God commanded them to repent; that He had sent his Son, Jesus, the Messiah, into the world to save us from our sin; that Jesus died for our sins; that Jesus was raised from the dead; and that God appointed Jesus to preside over a final judgment of every person.

The evangelists in the book of Acts started at the level of understanding of their audience, and taught what was missing in order to bring them to a basic understanding of those facts. For many, that happened in a single teaching session. For others, it took days of examining the scriptures. And for some, the message was presented repeatedly over a period of months or years. As Paul told Agrippa, conversion might take a short time or a long time.

Once a person had been taught enough to understand and believe those basic facts, they were baptized into Jesus for forgiveness of sins and were added to the church. Subsequently, the teaching continued as they learned more and more about their new lives in Christ.

It is interesting to note what is not recorded in any of the examples of conversion found in scripture.

First, there was no catechism class, and no comprehensive study of doctrine before conversion. Of course, during the timeframe of Acts there was no ambiguity about which Christian church one should join. But there were doctrinal controversies (see Acts 15). Those were important topics which certainly had to be taught to the church. But they were not part of what was taught during the conversion process. People were converted to Jesus, not to a certain form of worship, nor to a form of church government, nor to a particular hermeneutic, etc.

Second, there was no comprehensive study of all the sin in a person’s life before conversion. There always seems to have been some specific sin from which they were challenged to repent. But they were always called to make Jesus Lord of their lives. That covers all the other bases. As the new convert progressively learned about sin and righteousness, they continued to repent, because Jesus was their Lord.

Third, there was no trial period to prove repentance prior to conversion. Once a person came to faith in Jesus, and made Jesus Lord, they could be baptized. Of course, the example of John the Baptist (Luke 3:7-8) shows us that we should call for repentance and that we should not overlook clear evidence of a lack of repentance. But conversions in Acts typically occurred in a single encounter, and the convert’s commitment to make Jesus Lord was taken at face value.

There is much more that should be taught after conversion. As Thomas Campbell stated in his sixth proposition, there are many things that “belong to the after and progressive edification of the church” which are not meant to be part of the profession of faith given at conversion.

The basic facts taught to potential converts are sufficient to bring them into a saved relationship with God, and to place them in the church. Therefore, the only things required in order for a person to remain in that saved relationship with God, and in the fellowship of the church, is for them to continue in what they began: faith in Jesus, and submission to Jesus as Lord.


What One Must Know to be Saved: Corinth

April 30, 2011

In an effort to revive my blogging activities, I am going to re-post some “greatest hits” beginning with this series titled “What One Must Know to be Saved.”   This is the ninth article in that series, and was first published in August 2008.

Luke records in Acts 18 that Paul entered Corinth and taught them the gospel.

Act 18:4 Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.
Act 18:5 When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.

Later, Paul summarized his message to the Corinthians:

1Co 2:2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Later in the same letter, Paul further elaborates on the gospel message he delivered in Corinth:

1Co 15:1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.
1Co 15:2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
1Co 15:3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
1Co 15:4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
1Co 15:5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
1Co 15:6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
1Co 15:7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,
1Co 15:8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
1Co 15:9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
1Co 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them–yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
1Co 15:11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

That is the message on which they “took their stand.” In other words, those are the essential facts upon which their saving faith was based. Paul’s message to the Corinthians was the same as it was to everyone else:

  1. Jesus was the Christ
  2. Christ died “for our sins”
  3. Christ was raised from the dead
  4. Evidence! All this was in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, and is confirmed by the eyewitness testimony of more than 500 people.

Paul also pointed out that the gospel had a dramatic effect in his own life (a fact they could easily observe). Paul “got it.” When someone understands the gospel message about what Jesus did for us, and why, it has an effect.


What One Must Know to be Saved: Agrippa

April 23, 2011

In an effort to revive my blogging activities, I am going to re-post some “greatest hits” beginning with this series titled “What One Must Know to be Saved.”   This is the eighth article in that series, and was first published in July 2008.

In Acts 26, we have Luke’s account of Paul’s defense before King Agrippa.

King Agrippa was familiar with the Old Testament prophets. It was not necessary in his case to establish the basic facts about God and his past relations with the Jews. So in Paul, in his testimony before Agrippa, simply explained how he, as a Pharisee, had come to believe in Jesus and to devote his life to spreading that message.

Paul told Agrippa of his background as a Jew, and that his recent activities were the result of his hope in the promises God made to the Jews. He explained how he had persecuted the church, and recounted his conversion on the road to Damascus. And he told Agrippa of the instructions he received from Jesus:

Act 26:17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them
Act 26:18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

And he testified that in his subsequent activities he was carrying out those instructions.

Act 26:19 “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.
Act 26:20 First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.

Paul then summarized the gospel message he had been teaching:

Act 26:22 But I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen–
Act 26:23 that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”

Paul’s message to Agrippa contained the same elements as we have seen previously:

  1. That Jesus is the Christ prophesied in the Old Testament;
  2. That Jesus suffered and died and rose from the dead;
  3. That Jews and Gentiles alike are called to repent and turn to God;
  4. That forgiveness of sins was offered through faith in Jesus.

Agrippa was not immediately converted by Paul’s testimony:

Act 26:28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
Act 26:29 Paul replied, “Short time or long–I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

As Paul indicated, the message sometimes converts in a short time, but in other instances conversion requires a longer time. And in Agrippa’s case, as is too often the case, he apparently never did come to accept the message.


What One Must Know to be Saved: Felix

April 16, 2011

In an effort to revive my blogging activities, I am going to re-post some “greatest hits” beginning with this series titled “What One Must Know to be Saved.”   This is the seventh article in that series, and was first published in July 2008.

Act 24:24-25 Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was a Jewess. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.”

Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem eventually led to a trial before Felix, governor of Judea. Felix was well acquainted with the Way. But historians tell us that Felix was a man of many vices. As Adam Clarke says:


As bad a governor as Felix most certainly was, he rendered some services to Judea… This was all true; but, notwithstanding this, he is well known from his own historians, and from Josephus, to have been not only a very bad man, but also a very bad governor. He was mercenary, oppressive, and cruel; and of all these the Jews brought proofs to Nero, before whom they accused him; and, had it not been for the interest and influence of his brother Pallas; he had been certainly ruined.


Something of the character of Felix can be seen from the fact that he frequently called for Paul, hoping to receive a bribe.

Despite the fact that Paul was on trial before Felix, and dependent upon the governor for favorable verdict, he boldly chose to preach to him about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come — directly challenging the life and character of the governor. Felix responded with fear, and sent Paul away.

The text does not give us all the details of Paul’s message. But what we do learn is that, in preaching the gospel to a lost man, Paul directly challenged the sin in his life. Righteousness, self control, and the judgment to come were important parts of the message Paul delivered to the lost — so important that Paul did not omit it even when it might cost him his freedom, or his life.


What One Must Know to be Saved: Athens

April 9, 2011

In an effort to revive my blogging activities, I am going to re-post some “greatest hits” beginning with this series titled “What One Must Know to be Saved.”   This is the sixth article in that series, and was first published in July 2008.

The most complete description in Acts of the gospel message as delivered to Gentiles is found in Acts 17, in the account of Paul teaching in Athens.

Here, Paul’s audience was quite different from those who heard his messages in the synagogues which we examined previously. Appropriately, his message was different as well. Paul began by making a connection between his message and their own culture and religion. He explained that God created “the world and everything in it” and is Lord over all that He made. He taught them that the duty of man is to reach out and find God. He pointed out the folly of their beliefs in gods made by human hands. And he called for repentance from their idolatry. Finally, he warned them that there would be a day of judgment through Jesus, who was raised from the dead.

It is striking how different this message was from those delivered in the synagogues. Here Paul was addressing an audience with fundamental ignorance of God and of the origins of man. Most of the instruction is about who God is and what he expects from man. Just at the end he introduced the idea of the resurrection and judgment.

Apparently only a few of these hearers were moved to respond to Paul’s message. Some of the audience wished to hear him again on the subject, and it seems likely that all who would eventually respond required further instruction before they would have sufficient understanding to believe in Jesus and thereby be saved. It seems that before one could have a saving belief in Jesus, some basic foundational understandings had to be taught as prerequisites:

1) There is only one true God, not made by human hands.
2) The true God created the world.
3) Man has foolishly disobeyed God, and needs redemption.

As an aside, notice that Paul also taught Gentiles in Ephesus that there is only one God.

However, even in this case, we see the instruction Jesus being raised from the dead and being appointed to preside over judgment. And we see a call for repentance. (Note that he also taught repentance to the Gentiles in Ephesus). But from what we learn in Acts 17, it appears that these Gentiles needed further instruction before they could have saving faith in Jesus.


What One Must Know to be Saved: Pisidion Antioch

April 2, 2011

In an effort to revive my blogging activities, I am going to re-post some “greatest hits” beginning with this series titled “What One Must Know to be Saved.”   This is the fifth article in that series, and was first published in July 2008.

In Pisidion Antioch, Paul entered the synagogue and taught the gospel.

In his message, Paul summarized the period of Israelite history from Egypt through King David, and taught that Jesus was descended from David. He reminded them of what John the Baptist had said about Jesus. He told them about the crucifixion and resurrection, and how those events fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. He told them of the eyewitnesses to the resurrection. Finally, he told them about the forgiveness of sins available to everyone who believes.

So, similar to Peter, Paul included the following points in his gospel message:

  1. Jesus is the Savior, the Holy One of God spoken of in the Old Testament
  2. Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.
  3. John the Baptist pointed to Jesus with a message of repentance and baptism.
  4. Forgiveness of sins comes to those who believe in Jesus.

Subsequent accounts of Paul’s gospel message to the Jews include Thessalonica and Ephesus. In these accounts we learn that Paul’s message specifically included the facts that Jesus was the Christ and that repentance was a key part of his message. Paul’s gospel message to Jews was the same as that of Peter:

  1. Jesus is the Christ
  2. Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, in fulfillment of Old Testament propecy.
  3. Jesus is Lord
  4. In response we are called to repent and turn to God for forgiveness.

By now it should be pretty clear what made up the gospel message to a person with a knowledge of first century Judaism.

But what about Paul’s message to Gentiles?


Elderlink Atlanta 2011

March 27, 2011

As is our custom, this past Friday and Saturday my wife and I attended the Atlanta Elderlink program  for 2011 at the North Atlanta Church of Christ.  And as always, the program was rich with insights about shepherding God’s people more effectively.

How to Die Happy

Randy Harris started the program on Friday night, offering two principles for success in life at any level.

1) Define success.  In other words, choose the right goal (he used the Greek term “telos”).

2) Choose an appropriate strategy for reaching that goal.

Randy proposed that a possible goal for the church could be subversion, to train the members to implement subversion of the ways of the world in the community around us.  The idea is to go beyond simply living a counter-cultural life (which can be passive and isolationist) and instead to actively inject the Christian lifestyle into the world.  Preparing Christians to carry out this kind of subversion requires developing their critical thinking skills and to understand the ways in which Jesus subverted the world around him.  He suggested that, instead of measuring success through attendance and contribution, we should try measuring the subversion (perhaps by counting acts of subversion that have been carried out).

We may take following Jesus very seriously, but we haven’t been so good at living up to that.  We’re called to be the light of the world, the kind of people who model to the world what Christianity means.  We should just do that, and accept whatever results that brings.

Charles Siburt

A change to the original program was made to allow Charles Siburt to share about his very serious personal health struggles and the lessons he has learned from them.  I will not go into detail about the nature of his sickness.  But the ongoing, life-threatening issues he faces are teaching him lessons about

1) Clarity.  The doctor looked him in the eye and told him the truth.  Faith in God requires us to face the truth squarely, not to deny and pretend.

2) Courage.  Faith isn’t so much about experiencing a miracle. Instead faith is itself the miracle.

3) God Cares.  The song “Be still my soul” has been on his mind lately.

4) Community:  The encouragement of many people is powerful.  God comforted the downcast by sending Titus to Paul. And God has comforted Dr. Siburt through the encouraging words of many people.

The big-picture message of this session was the utter calmness with which Dr. Siburt described his health and his heart at this point in the ordeal.  His strength can be a source of inspiration to anyone striving to overcome a terrible obstacle.

I wish they had told me…

Chris Smith opened the Saturday morning session with some quotes from elders.  He asked them what are the things about the job of an elder that they wish someone had told them before they were appointed.  Here are a few that I caught:

  • “When people disagree they go for the jugular”
  • “People can be cruel”
  • “How far-reaching divorce can be”
  • “I went from being a nobody to a somebody, not ready for that”
  • “Those in crisis expect us to provide them the perfect spiritual lifeboat… if we don’t we’re failing them”
  • “Am I going to let the hardship in the church to dominate my life”
  • “When elders speak, people listen differently”
  • “Be careful, there’s an elder in the room”
  • “People treat you differently”
  • “I would have liked for the people to be different (more spiritual)”
  • “I was unprepared for going home and not being able to talk to wife about things.”
  • “I live in Corinth.”

He pointed out that elders can learn from other elders.  There’s no reason to have to learn every lesson through experience , especially in a crisis.  We can find someone who has dealt with that crisis before, and find out what was the best thing they did; what they wish they had not done;  etc.

He advised us to be prepared for handling a child molestation incident, not waiting until one occurs to figure out how to respond.

We can’t please everyone.  Sometimes we can’t please anyone.  Some people are impossible to please, and this can be divisive.  Identify those people and watch out for what they might do.

He shared that, as a minister, he had been unprepared for how “boring” things can get.  The challenge of delivering an impactful message every Sunday can wear a preacher out.

There is a saying “Ninety percent of life is showing up.”  Similarly, it could be said that 90% of leadership is showing up.  Who you are matters more than what you do.  In difficult times, people are desperate to see a calm, steady, non-anxious presence — someone who can de-escalate things and reassure everyone that things will be ok; someone who is not dysfunctional and will not fall “off the wagon;”  someone who knows a little more than they do.  They need a leader who demonstrates, “I know the way. Follow me.”

Panel discussion and breakout sessions

During the breakout sessions, the attending elders got a chance to interact with the speakers about what they had heard.  In particular, there was a lot of discussion about the “subversion” idea, and how to present that in a way that a congregation could accept it.

There was considerable discussion of the women’s role in the church, a topic that really wasn’t mentioned in the main messages but had been raised in the panel discussion.

Chris Smith advised that, if a congregation likes their minister and wants to keep him for a long time, then do something special, nice, and totally unexpected for them.  As an example he described a vacation that was given to him as a surprise over ten years ago, which he still remembers more than any salary increase along the way.

Leading for the long haul

To avoid burnout as a church leader, Chris Smith advised:

1) Manage yourself.   Take care of your own personal needs.  Don’t rely on someone else to make sure you don’t burn out.

2) Trust is everything.  Build and maintain trust between leaders in the church.  The way to build trust is to act in a trustworthy manner.   Visit at the hospital.  Show up at funerals.  Be there (literally) in a crisis.  Doing those things builds trust. People don’t forget those things.

3) Do not misplace your heart.  Beware of becoming cynical as you deal with the most serious spiritual issues in the church.   Sometimes you have to “bring the hammer.”  If you never have a hard talk, you are surely overlooking sin.  On the other hand, you need to be full of grace.  Instead of being “done with” the repeat violator, be the one who is always ready to offer a new start.

4) It is God’s church.  God loves his church more than I do, and will love it after I’m dead and gone.  Do I love the church?  If not, they will know. If I think I’m smarter than most of them, they know.  They have to know that you love them.  If you do that, then you can say hard things when you need to.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live together in Christian community.”

5) People can change.  Remember those times when a person’s life turned around.  Cherish those memories, and let them encourage you as you enter the next crisis situation.

Rules for Recovering Legalists

Randy Harris began the closing message with a couple of illustrations.

His first illustration involved a group of  kids he was teachign to play chess. He gave them three rules to improve their strategy:

1) fight for the center
2) develop your pieces
3) castle early
Those new chess players didn’t see these rules as legalistic.  Rather, they saw them as helpful to achieving their goal of being a good chess player.
His second illustration involved driving a car in “whiteout” snow conditions — such heavy snow that you cannot see the road at all.   In such conditions, the driver welcomes any indication of where the boundaries of the road are.  These indicators aren’t seen as confiining but as enabling.
The point of both illustrations is that we need rules and boundaries.  God provides law for our good.
Paul was not anti-law.  In Romans he says the law is holy, right, and good.  In Galatians Paul was not arguing that law is a bad thing, but that the Jews were clinging to the wrong identity markers.
Randy gave another illustration from sports.  Athletes put themselves through incredibly hard things that might in other settings get someone put in jail.  But they choose to do it in order to reach a goal.  There is a huge difference between legalism and discipline.
We need rules and boundaries and discipline.  It helps to apply them in community.
Randy then began to explain the subversion idea more fully.  He gathered from the breakout sessions that most people felt it would be hard to implement the idea.   Randy then laid out a strategy for achieving the subversion “telos”.
Start by developing a subversive lifestyle yourself.  Then form a small community of leaders who are willing to enter into a covenant with one another.  Agree on exactly what the group’s covenant should be — a rule of life that the group is willing to live under.   What do we need to do to live out the gospel we proclaim?   By identifying the rules of that life, and making a covenant to live by those rules, the leaders begin to lead the church by modeling the lifestyle — modeling the radical lifestyle of Jesus.  That kind of modeling is the only thing that makes a person a real leader in the church.
A suggested rule is that we need to be indifferent to some things:  to what people think of us; to material things; to power, politics, pop culture and the media.  We need to be indifferent to those things, not influenced by them and not giving our time to them.  Randy described the effect of some students fasting from those things for six weeks.  The biggest problem: boredom. They didn’t know what to do with all the free time they suddenly had in their schedules.  Imagine if that time in our schedules could be spent on things that advance the Kingdom of God!
Randy gave another illustration from one of his classes.  He had mentioned in class that it has been statistically proven that there is no such thing as a streak shooter in basketball.  One of his students, a member of the women’s basketball team, took issue with his statement.  She chose as her project to interview the members of the basketball team to see whether they agreed.  The result was that they strongly disagreed, and were even angry that Randy would challenge that.  Their response was based entirely on their interpretation of their personal experience, despite the factually sound proof that they were wrong.   Randy showed through this illustration that we tend to reject truth because it doesn’t fit with what we believe from our experience.  We are unwilling to be radically generous with our material possessions because our experience tells us we will need material things and we aren’t so sure God will deliver on his promises to provide what we need.   Can we commit ourselves to “downward mobility?”   The thought is scary to us because we rely on ourselves instead of on God.  We rely on our experience of taking care of our own material needs, rather than the truth that God will keep his promises.
The bottom line is that leaders must first model what we will call the church to do.  “What’s wrong with my preaching?  There are not enough passages that I can preach with authenticity.”  There are too many passages that I have not embodied in any meaningful way.


I have a lot more meditation and personal work to do before I can adequately sum up this year’s Elderlink.  I heard things that challenged my socks off.   Things that could change my life, if I will let them.

If you are a church leader and you have the opportunity to attend an Elderlink program, do yourself and your church a favor.  Go.  And bring your fellow leaders with you.