Apocalypse in You Zion Fellowship 29.1.17
Having recently returned from Myanmar (Burma) I have been asking (again) why God’s presence is often more powerful in places outside Australia. One of the culture shocks I encountered on my recent trip was the intensity of the devotion of its Christian young people. When my host told me I was speaking at a “teen seminar” I tried to explain that I am by no stretch of the imagination a youth speaker. He replied, “Our children are different.” Well they certainly were different; I have never experienced such heartfelt passion in children and teenagers (8-18). They sat in a 4 hour seminar with Bibles and notebooks underlining texts not once looking bored or distracted. This is more than a cultural phenomenon; it has to do with being aware of the presence of Jesus.
If it’s all about the presence of Jesus then we must not allow purely material explanations of the spiritual poverty of Western Christianity to dominate our thinking. Jesus did say to the Laodicean church, ““you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev 3:17) but is this the last word? I was chatting with a prominent Korean Christian leader last year (Dr. Kim, Sang-Bok David), who has lived through the horrors of the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Korean War and a time when S. Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. The Christians were materially and spiritually hungry and they cried out to God for material and spiritual relief and he answered them spectacularly with a spiritual and economic revival. Now Dr Kim sometimes asks congregations, “Isn’t it possible to be affluent and spiritual at the same time?” it is certainly true that unless we step outside of the circle of desiring peace and prosperity there can be no genuine revival in Australia. But we don’t have to be stuck in this circle.
Signs on the Horizon
I recently wrote an article for the internet site Christian Today on my experiences in Myanmar which suggested a key factor in the vitality of the Church there was their strong awareness of being a relatively powerless minority group. Permission to renovate churches can be refused, people are thrown out of families when they come to Christ, career pathways have been blocked and so on. Whilst this is changing because of altered political circumstances when Buddhists programmes are common on TV, newspaper editorials reflect the teachings of the Buddha and chanting monks wake you up at 4.30 each morning it’s hard to forget that you are surrounded by a spirit hostile to Christ (1 John 4:1-3). If we had spiritual insight we’d see things aren’t all that different here?
The percentage of genuinely born-again Christians in the population of Myanmar (4%?) is probably similar to that of believers in Australia. (Though ethno-geographically there are great differences.) The Australian media is perhaps more anti-Christian than theirs. Buddhism and Western secularism have a lot in common; there is no Creator to whom you are responsible which makes you the master of your own destiny. This spirit is increasingly popular in Australia. A young father complained to me recently that the practice of “mindfulness”, an ancient meditation technique with roots in Buddhism, was being implemented at his children’s state school to reduce student stress. His complaints were dismissed with the argument that the technique was being used in a purely psychological way. This is a secular myth because everything is spiritual.
I fear our failure to understand the apocalyptic character of the gospel has wedged the Church into a spiritual blind alley in the “same-sex” marriage debate. Many non-religious people hear our protests against gay marriage as though we are saying that we are the “good people” and those with a different view are “bad people”. But Jesus did not come as a moral teacher teaching the difference between right and wrong so we might be “better people”, he came to bring good news about how to become part of a new creation (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). I am convinced that the spiritual future of Australia is dependent on the recovery of the apocalyptic dimensions of the gospel. What do I mean by an “apocalyptic gospel”?
In popular understanding “apocalypse” means catastrophic destruction scale; like global warming or a nuclear war. This is not what the term means in the Bible. The Greek word apokalypsis means the revealing of that which has been hidden and its most foundational use is found in the first verse of Revelation; “The apocalypse of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.” Apocalyptic is not about bad things happening to people it is about the revelation of Jesus Christ. The greatest need of the Western Church is not to come to terms with an increasingly militant secular post-Christian culture but to recover a vision of who Jesus is.
The apocalyptic dimensions of scripture have always served to nurture the faith of oppressed Christian minorities, whether the little Church of the first century oppressed and marginalised by the mighty Roman Empire, or the slaves of nineteenth century America or the believers in the Middle East today. The cosmic scenes of the Bible increase faith because they point beyond the limits of earthly existence to a heavenly world from which everything is ruled by Jesus. It is the “Lamb standing as slain” (Rev 5:6) who opens the seven sealed scroll releasing war, plague, famine and other horrors which eventually destroy “the destroyers of the earth” and issue in the ultimate justice of God’s new creation (Rev 6ff; 11:18; 2 Pet 3:13). The apocalyptic language of scripture; rivers and seas of blood, a final battle, fire raining down from heaven, the second death and so on work to purge a compromised Church from unhealthy alliances with anti-God forces (Rev 16:3-4; 20:9-10, 14-15). These visions will purify the Church when they are rightly expounded with Christ at their centre. But bad theology has corrupted the spiritual imagination of most Christians when it comes to the apocalypses of scripture.
“Death of Apocalyptic”
As a very young Christian I remember reading a book called The Late Great Planet Earth which scarily heralded an impending catastrophe and the end of the world by 1988. More recently the Left Behind series popularised scenarios of doom. Believers who follow these teachings these teachings want to escape from tribulations rather than be a part of redeeming the world through suffering for Christ (cf. Rev 11). The teachings of doom-sayers and date-setters have conspicuously failed to revive the Church. Their distortions and speculations have robbed the apocalyptic portions of scripture of their power to stir us to prayer, repentance and obedience. This is a whole Church problem. When it comes to apocalyptic issues many Pentecostals possess zeal without knowledge but many Evangelical Christians possess knowledge i.e. good Bible teaching, without zeal (Rom 10:2). Pastors across the Church have largely failed its people. The author of The Message translation of the Bible, Eugene Peterson, begins a chapter in one of his books by noting he cannot remember hearing the words apocalyptic and pastor in the same sentence. Generally speaking pastors want to see their sheep grazing on the green pastures besides the still waters, rather than exhorting them to be like Paul, ““For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”” (Ps 23:1-2; Rom 8:36).
Only a return of an apocalyptic atmosphere in the Church can persuade us that the true situation of believers in this world is always one of end-time urgency (Rom 13:11; 1 Cor 7:29; 1 Pet 4:7). Such a restoration can only through a new Spirit-given insight into the apocalyptic dimensions of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:17; Heb 1:2).
If Jesus is the Word made flesh through whom all things were created then the destiny of all creation is caught up in the life destiny of Jesus (John 1:1-3, 14, 17 cf. Col 1:16, 18). This is the only proper framework to understand biblical apocalyptic.
A theologian famously said, “If Jesus has been raised (from the dead), then the end of the world has begun.” (Pannenberg). But it does not go far enough. At the close of Revelation Jesus declares of himself, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end/goal.”” (22:13). Jesus is the end-goal of all of God’s purposes from the beginning of creation, so when Jesus arrives on the earthly scene the end of this world as we know it has begun. To put this another way; God becoming human (Incarnation) initiates the Apocalyptic transformation of the world.
If the people of Israel didn’t grasp this then the evil spiritual powers certainly did. “he (Jesus) came…to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him …29 And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?”” (Matt 8:28-29). The exorcisms and miracles of the kingdom of God present in Jesus were signs of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom supplanting all the evil kingdoms of this world and bringing in a new creation (Matt 12:28; 16:3; Luke 7:20-21; Rev 11:15).
I like this comment from New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, “Jesus is portrayed by the gospels as a one-man apocalypse, the place where heaven and earth meet, the place where and the means by which people come and find themselves renewed and restored as the people of the one God, the place where power is redefined, turned upside down or perhaps the right way up.” To understand how all apocalyptic reality is concentrated in the person of Jesus we need to reflect on the cross.
Apocalyptic and the Cross
Most teachers on the end-times have failed the Church badly by not seeing all things apocalyptic through the lens of the cross. We must read Jesus’ Gospel discourses e.g. Matt 24 on the signs of the End through his crucifixion. The Lord said the love of many would grow cold, this prophecy finds its foundational fulfilment when he is betrayed and deserted by his own disciples (Matt 24:10,12; 26:14-16, 56, 69ff.). Jesus tells his hearers to be watchful, but then in Gethsemane his disciples fail to watch with him when the hour of trial comes (Matt 24:42; 26:38-41). Christ speaks of a great persecution that will come at the end, and then such persecution becomes his at the cross (Matt 24:9, 21; 26:39ff; 27:46). The Old Testament prophets predicted the Judgement Day would bring a darkening of the heavenly bodies and earthquakes (Isa 13:10-13; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15-16; Am 8:9-10) and as Jesus was dying darkness covered the world the rocks are split and the dead are raised (Matt 27:45, 51, 54). Perhaps the clearest sign of the apocalyptic dimensions of the death of Christ is the tearing of the curtain of the temple (Matt 27:40). On this curtain was embroidered a panorama of the heavens (Josephus, Jewish War 5.5.4). When the curtain as split in two this was a sign that the final destruction of the cosmos had begun in Jesus’ death and that his resurrection would be the start of the new creation. But we must go deeper into Jesus’ own experience of the cross to understand its fuller apocalyptic dimensions.
At the peak of Christ’s suffering is the terrible cry of dereliction “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34). Jesus speaks like this because he is enduring the End-times fiery wrath of God upon sin which casts the unbelieving out of his presence and his glory (2 Cor 5:21; 2 Thess 1:8-9). The sufferings of Revelation’s lake of fire have already been endured by the Lamb of God (19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8). In bearing the sentence of death for us Jesus passes a death sentence upon the present form of this world (1 Cor 7:31). Most importantly for us, hidden under the outward suffering of the crucified flesh of the Son of God lies a mystery at the heart of all true Christian apocalyptic.
The title over Christ’s head in the languages of the world, ““Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.””, is a prophetic sign of a rulership being extended over all things from the cross (John 19:19-20). Jesus had prophesied, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”” (John 12:31-32). The hosts of demons which are vividly described as attacking the lost in the last days (Rev 9) first attacked the Lord on the cross on the cross (Luke 4:13; 22:53; John 14:30); but Jesus “disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross.” (Col 2:15). We are familiar with the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 when from his glorious throne King Jesus will separate people like sheep to his right and as goats to his left, the cursed go into “eternal punishment” and “the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:31-46). Jesus began this process of kingly judgement reigning from the cross. Two thieves were crucified with Jesus, one his right and one on his left. When Jesus declares one to be going with him to Paradise the other to his own cursing and condemnation we see Jesus as King already administering the Last Judgement from the cross (23:33, 39-43). Christ’s apocalyptic triumph on the cross is proclaimed in John’s Gospel by the final words of Jesus; ““It is finished”” (John 19:30).
When the first creation was finished the Lord rested in his holy pleasure, but this creation would Fall into corruption through the sin of Adam (Gen 1:31-2:3). However when the last Adam/Christ finished his work on earth he brought the new creation into the incorruptibility of his resurrection life (1 Cor 15:45, 52).
The death of Jesus brought with it the End of the world as we know it; in the language of the New Testament, Jesus has “condemned sin in the flesh” “abolished death” and “destroyed him who has the power of death, that is the devil” (Rom 8:3; 2 Tim 1:10; Heb 2:14-15). Jesus himself is the substance of the apocalyptic transformation which God will bring to the world; from the ugliness of sin, Satan, death and all evil to the beauty, goodness and holiness of a new and pure creation. This way of transformation is the apocalyptic wisdom and power of the gospel (1 Cor 1:24). Christ is now the Lord of heaven and earth delegating to his Church authority to disciple nations (Matt 28:18-20).
In reading a book recently on the crucifixion I came across a story which can help us live as “apocalyptic Christians”. As a teenager Chris was taken by the Nazis from Holland to Germany for slave labour. He came down with typhus in the labour camp and nearly died. Beside him in the camp infirmary lay a Polish boy beaten senseless for picking up a cigarette butt. After three days and nights the boy died. It was then while lying in bed next to the dying boy that Chris decided to become a theologian. He went to the window and saw Berlin in flames from the Allied aerial bombardment; there sick and viewing the apocalyptic scene he confessed, “Only God is real.”
All Christians are called to live out the truth that “Only God is real.” We surely know that the world in which unbelievers seek profit, prosperity, pleasure and privilege and in which they place their hopes has come to an end in Christ (Matt 16:26). The implications for us are dramatic. In Paul’s words, “the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.” (1 Cor 7:29-31 cf. 2 Cor 4:16-18).
Returning to the question with which I began this sermon. It is tempting to think that believers in Third World countries have some sort of spiritual advantage over us affluent people. But suffering and poverty in themselves cannot establish a foundation for a move of God’s Spirit. It is a revelation that the poverty of the Word made flesh and crucified alone on the cruel cross is the turning point from the old to the new creation that empowers believers to live the sort of apocalyptic lifestyle that the New Testament speaks of (2 Cor 8:9). When Christians faithfully endure rejection, marginalisation and voluntary deprivation in maintaining the testimony of Jesus (Rev 13:10) a light shines out of our lives which is the light of the new creation come in Christ for the salvation of the world (Matt 5:16; John 1:5; 2 Cor 5:17; Phil 2:15; Rev 21:23). The biblically compelling vision of every Christian life is to be an icon/image of the apocalypse/revelation of Jesus Christ, to be in Christ a “mini-apocalypse”. The life of Christians in their struggles and strengths is to reveal the apocalyptic wisdom and power of Jesus himself. As unbelievers witness the shape and priorities of our lives they can see that death does not have the last word, that Jesus has conquered the powers of sin, Satan, death and all evil.
We desperately need to pray for a new revelation of who Jesus is (cf. Rev 1:1). A revival of worship, art, godliness and mission will come through a rediscovery of the dimensions of what Christ has achieved on our behalf. This will bring a major shift in the way we experience reality. Eugene Peterson correctly says there are only two possible responses to a revelation of the apocalyptic Jesus; you either worship him or you try to run away (e.g. Rev 5:6-14; 6:15-16). To worship the apocalyptic Christ is not just singing a few songs, it is obedience to the command; “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies bas a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:1-2).
Why do we find this sort of obedience so difficult, why does revival delay in Australia? There can only be one reason. I was walking along the street on Australia Day (3 days ago) and I saw this flag in the gutter. It reminded me of something I said prophetically some years ago as I looked at the Union Jack (made out of the crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick) on our flag, “There will be no lasting revival in Australia until the cross goes through the heart of the Church.”
But what might this look like? It is almost 60 years since Leonard Ravenhill wrote the book “Why Revival Tarries (delays)”. Here is how he describes of the work of the cross in our hearts, “the man who has died to self… has no ambitions – and so has nothing to be jealous about. He has no reputation – and so has nothing to fight about. He has no possessions – and therefore nothing to worry about. He has no “rights” – so therefore he cannot suffer any wrongs. He is already broken – so no one can break him. He is already “dead” – so no one can kill him.He is less than the least – so who could humble him? He has suffered the loss of all things – so none could defraud him.” Such a man/woman would truly be a mini-apocalypse imaging the death and resurrection of Jesus into a whole new order of existence.
How does one enter into such a state of death to this world and aliveness to the next? This is something that only God can give. But if we ask him to reveal his Son in us, whatever the cost, something apocalyptic will surely take place in our lives (Gal 1:16).