Lecture 10: Apocalyptic Literature
Course: New Testament Introduction
Lecture: Apocalyptic Literature
We were talking about things Apocalyptic and we need to finish that discussion so we're going to spend some more time in the Book of Revelation.
But in order to do that, we need to front load a few things. So, what we're going to do, is I need to give you some basic definitions because one of the problems in dealing with a Book of Revelation, or Daniel, or Ezekiel, or even parts of Zechariah is that there is not a basic framework of understanding as to how prophecy works, and especially how Apocalyptic prophecy works in the Biblical world. So we bring all kinds of our expectations to the text and we read things into the text. And it's not helpful.
So, I want to start with the basic definition as to what the heck a prophet was. What was a prophet?
Well, a prophet's an oracle. The most basic definition that will be cross-cultural for the ancient world, whether we're talking about a prophet in Assyria, or Babylon, or Persia, or Israel or the later Greco-Roman world. A prophet is an oracle.
He, or she, is a mouthpiece for some divine being. And as such, he or she does not speak for himself or herself. Now, this is one of the things we need to understand because one of the things that becomes problematic for us is we say things, like "Well, this is the book Jeremiah wrote."
Okay, well, actually Baruch wrote it for Jeremiah. But, besides that, Jeremiah is not taking intellectual rights to this because where does it ultimately come from? As far as he's concerned, this is from God's lips to your ears. You know? This is a word of Yahweh to God's people.
Our problem is that we live in a world of intellectual copyright and authorship concerns that were no part of the ancient world. So when we look at an Old Testament book and say "Ok, this was written by Isaiah, it reflects X, Y and Z," well, there are some problems with that because the nature of prophecy is that a prophet is just passing along a message from where else? From God. He's just passing along a message.
Another part of the problem, at least in the Protestant tradition, and maybe especially in the African-American Protestant tradition is we have somehow jumbled up prophet with preacher. Sometimes we assume preachers are prophets, some preachers think they are prophetic, when they are just actually pathetic, and it's a problem.
Some preachers actually get so overcome with exuberance of their verbosity that they really think that they are inspired, and in fact, they have just expired or perspired, or both. The truth of the matter is, that we need to be clear that what we're talking about when we're talking about Biblical prophecy is a revelation from above. We're not talking about a prepared sermon. We're not talking about somebody who's enthusiastic and all revved up and wants to preach the Word of God. That's not prophecy.
It may be proclamation, but it's not prophecy. There's a difference. A prophecy is a late word from God that you wouldn't have otherwise thought of because it just came to you from God. That's a prophecy. Other things are not.
Now, having said that - I mean, a prophet can wear a lot of different hats. There are prophets like Elijah that are also miracle workers. But miracle working is not necessarily indigenous to the role of being a prophet.
I mean, there are plenty of Old Testament prophets that are not miracle workers. There are prophets who are also court sages. They advise kings; they advise queens. They tell them what to do. This is a different role. There are prophets who are teachers. They disciple people. Elijah discipled Elisha.
But even at the end of that process, notice what Elisha asked at the very end. "And just for good measure, how about a double portion of your spirit, because I need to be inspired, too," says Elisha.
So he perfectly well understands that the teaching role is not the same as the prophetic role. Without the spirit of God in his life he is so not going to be a prophet.
We need to not mush together all of these categories of prophet, teacher, sage, and preacher and all of those kinds of things. A prophet is an oracle; he's a mouthpiece for some divine being and as such, he, or she does not speak for himself or for any other human being. If he's a true prophet he's speaking from the divine source.
And these roles - prophet, priest, king, sage, teacher or magoff/magoyz - astrologer, can all be distinguished.
Here is something else that's interesting. Most of you will remember the story of Balaam, if for no other reason than it involves a talking donkey. There is no Shrek, but there is a talking donkey.
Prophecy, in the world of the Old Testament and into New Testament time, was a multicultural phenomena. Balaam is not an Israelite prophet. Do you remember this? He's a prophet from another country that God uses to speak on behalf of Israel and not against Israel. Remember these stories from Numbers, right?
So, prophecy, whether from Ari, Jerusalem, or the Oracle of Delphi, the mountains of Greece or Rome, point number one: A genuine prophecy was intended to be understood at some level and it was spoken in known languages.
Right off the bat, here's a little help from First Corinthians 14. Prophecy and speaking in tongues - not the same thing. They are both spiritual gifts according to Paul, but not the same gift.
Nor is the interpretation of tongues prophecy. In fact, we have three different gifts. One is the gift of tongues, the other is the gift of having the spiritual discernment to figure out what the tongues are saying, and a third gift is the gift of prophecy. These are different gifts. Different strokes for different folks, given out by God's spirit.
Prophecy is spoken in a known language. And here is something that's really interesting. Prophets in antiquity were the original hip hop artists. They spoke in poetry. It had rhythm; it had rhyme, every time. It had assonance; it had alliteration, depending on the language that you're talking about. It was poetic in form.
Now, sometimes when we translate it into English you can still tell that. I mean, for example, if you go back and read the beautiful material in Isaiah 40 through 66 there are whole passages of that where you're going, "Wow! This is eloquent!"
Even plain old plebian English can give you a feel that this is poetry. Well, it is. Prophets tended to speak in a poetic form. They also spoke in an intelligible way. In other words, not just in a known language, but in an intelligible way.
However, most prophecy could not ever have put into a manual that was labeled "Prophecy for Dummies", because it was never simple. It was always complex. It was often deliberately puzzling. It was meant to tease the mind into active thought.
So, for example, when somebody went to the Oracle at Delphi, the king, Agamemnon, he asks the Pythia, the woman sitting on the tri-cornered stool, "Should I go to war with Persia? What do the gods say?"
And she chews on a pryacantha leaf, makes all kinds of weird, strange noises and then the man who is the priest in the temple, who is by the way, called the prophetess, comes and says - This is what she says - He's got the gift of the interpretation of the unutterable shrieks of the Pythia. She says, "If you go to war with the Persians, a great victory will be won."
Agamemnon puts on his glasses and goes, "Okay, by who?"
How helpful was that? The words of a prophet were often enigmatic and they are not perfectly clear. They would involve metaphors and similes. And like poetry does, dramatic hyperbole. I mean, it's like the Psalms. These are songs that often used dramatic hyperbole. You know, there is a psalm that says "The hills skipped like rams in the presence of Yahweh." Okay?
Well, this is not a literal description of what the hills are doing. It's just talking about how all of creation reacts to its Maker when He descends and comes down in the glory cloud.
Prophecy was like that as well, and more to the point, especially Apocalyptic prophecy was like that. It was full of dramatic hyperbolic images. I mean, you have multi-headed beasts, you have gnarly emperors that die and come back again. I mean, you've got all kinds of stuff going on here.
Now, it's referential but it's not perfectly clear what it means. It requires thought, reflection, wisdom. In fact, John of Patmos tells us this, doesn't he? He says, "To understand the number of the beasts requires" what? Wisdom. Yes. It's not self-evident.
Now, we are a culture that is not patient with enigmatic. We like perspicuous, clear, simple, dumb it down, put the cookies on the bottom shelf. If that's your deal - you should not study prophecy, because you're going to be constantly frustrated. Because it ain't that way baby, it just ain't. That's not the way prophecy works. It's not the form of prophecy, either.
Sometimes prophecy involves absolutely spontaneous utterances, but under the broad heading of prophecy is also the gift of reading the signs of the times. Reading the signs in nature, or in history. So, it's not just a matter of hearing a late word from God and proclaiming it. Sometimes it's also a reading of omens or signs of various sorts.
Let me tell you what it is not. Prophecy is not the ability to decipher ancient texts. That's what a scribe does. That's what a scholar did in antiquity. That is not the job of the prophet. The prophet is not a scholar. The prophet can be Amos the fig plucker.
"What do you mean I've got to put my figs down and go all the way up to those northern tribes? I don't even like the northern tribes. And say what?"
They will not receive that with gladness.
"You want me to do what?" "Alright, I'm going. But I'm coming back afterwards. I ain't staying up there."
Okay. Here's a farmer, minding his business. He gets a late word from God; a news bulletin.
"You need to go tell those boys they are in a deep place, and they are about to answer to God, so they need a little forewarning." Right? Okay.
Anybody could be a prophet so long as they had a relationship with God. A grocery store bagging boy could be a prophet, because you don't have to go to school to be a prophet. You just have to be accessible to God.
And even if you're obtuse, like Balaam, God will find a way to get through to you even if he has to have your donkey talk to you.
A spontaneous utterance, a reading of omens or signs - it's not a matter of deciphering ancient texts. That was the task of scribes and wise men and exegetes.
Consulting a prophet was a regular activity in antiquity. People tried to obtain a late word from God about some pressing or impending matter. Having given you a sort of flavor for what the role of the prophet was - he's an oracle, and where his information comes from - it doesn't come from study, this should lead us to certain kinds of principles of interpreting Biblical prophecy. Most Biblical prophecy is a late word from God for the present or for the very near horizon of events. That's what it is.
It's not primarily for a group of people 2000 years later who happen to have prophetic fever. In the first place, it was the word of God for its original intended audience. It's secondarily a word of God for us.
When some Old Testament prophecy is viewed Messianically in the New Testament, it is very rarely viewed as speaking about some remote or very distant future event.
And here's the thing, the writers of the New Testament all put on their "Christological" glasses, and they read the Old Testament with their Christological glasses on. So what they say about the Old Testament is that all the promises and all the prophecies of God are "yea" and "amen" in Jesus Christ.
It's all about Jesus. The law? It's about Jesus. The prophets? It's about Jesus. There's a theme here. Wisdom literature? It's about Jesus. Are you getting the picture here?
Christ is the fulfillment of all of the Old Testament institutions. He's the fulfillment of all of the Old Testament promises and prophecies. He's the fulfillment of the law.
Paul puts it this way in Romans 10: "Christ is the end of the law as a way of righteousness. He put an end to the Mosaic law as a way of righteousness."
We were driving up here, there in the cornfield, and good King James with all 10 Commandments on two gigantic billboards on Highway 71 heading north. I would have been better pleased if he had put up the Sermon on the Mount, but okay. Here we go.
You need to understand the hermeneutic, the lenses through which Christians - the earliest Christians - read the Old Testament. Christ has the key to it all. That's the hermeneutic. And furthermore, they believe that it would all be fulfilled in Christ, through Christ, or by Christ and His people.
It wasn't about some other nation, lets say America 2000 years hence. It's about Christ and His people. It's not about, lets say a secular democracy being set up in the Holy Land and calling it Israel. That's a whole different ballgame.
It's about God and His people. More specifically, it's about Christ and His people.
So, when the New Testament writers were dealing with Old Testament prophecy, they didn't lump them together into three piles.
Fulfilled prophecies? Done; nothing more to be said about those.
Unfulfilled prophecies -two categories: Israel; the church. Wrong. They are not two categories of unfulfilled prophecies. There is just one. All of those prophecies are fulfilled in, by and for Christ and His people.
How do Jews get in on these prophecies and these promises? Through Christ. In Christ. Not [gap 0:19:06] from Christ. Christ is the mediator of all of these things coming true. The hopes and fears of all [gap 0:19:14] are met in Him tonight. Look nowhere else.
We need to understand then, not only in the way that prophecy works, we need to understand the New Testament way of reading Old Testament prophecy including Apocalyptic. And when we get there, we're better.
It was believed by the New Testament writers that the eschatological age had already begun in their own day and when they think about the end of the end times, they don't speak precisely about it.
They were just happy to say, "I've been redeemed by the blood of the lamb." And we're in the end times, how much more do you need to know? Get on with living in the light of Christ, who has already come, and in the shadow of eternity.
You're betwixt and between. You're already in the kingdom but you're not yet fully revealed to be what you should be in the kingdom. We're in the eschatological age. Let's get on with living in that fashion.
And I want to stress, as I have stressed, that the nature of the material in this prophecy is imagaic; it's metaphorical; it's poetic. And this is especially true in Apocalyptic prophecy. Ordinary prophecy can be a bit more literal.
So Nakrub is going to whack King Uzziah on the head; news at eleven. That's fairly literal. Right? Okay. Whoa unto the city.
Apocalyptic prophecy is a little more metaphorical. I would say, first of all, the first question to be asked is, why was this prophecy given when it was given, and of what relevance would it have been to its original audience. Okay? That's just the first question. It's not the only question I would want you to ask about it.
The second thing I would do is the intertextuality thing. Why aren't these prophecies sited or alluded to anywhere in the New Testament, and if they are, how are they used in the New Testament? Because that gives a clue as to how Christians would use them; the original Christians would use them.
So that's sort of stage two. I'm going to look at the New Testament and see how Christians used these prophecies and in what ways they saw them fulfilled or not yet fulfilled. That's clue number two.
And then the third thing, having gone through that nice process, I'm then going to ask, of what relevance is this to me and my faith now? Now, what usually happens, of course, when we read the Bible, is we skip over one and two and we go right to number three and then we get confused. Because -
Here's why. If you understand it in its original context and then you understand it when it's been re-audienced for the first Christian audience in the New Testament, then you will already have some guidelines as to what it can and can't mean. For you.
I mean, the point is, it's not going to mean something for you that contradicts what it meant when the original prophet spoke it or when the Christians first understood it. It's not going to mean something antithetical or contrary to what it meant originally.
When we talked about Apocalyptic last time I gave you this definition of the nature of Apocalyptic literature, so I'm not going to rehearse it again, but the main thing to be said is it's revelatory literature and it's literature about things that have been seen.
Now we're not just talking about oracles. Most of the prophecy in the Old Testament is oracular prophecy, meant to be heard. When we get to Apocalyptic we're talking about prophecies that have been seen. We're talking about visionary literature. We're talking about not merely an oracle but a "see-er".
John of Patmos is "see-er".
And this gives you a flavor of what we're talking about here. He's minding his own business. All of a sudden he's in the spirit on the Lord's day and he hears and he sees. Well, then what happens? Then, having had the vision, he's got to write it down.
Writing down is not the vision. It's the recording of the vision. And then he's got to decide how to describe what he saw. It's one thing to hear God say, "Thus sayeth Yahweh." Boom!
You can write that down verbatim. It's a whole 'nother ballgame to see a lamb unsealing seven seals. So, we have this language of analogy. It was like. It was like. It was like.
Let me urge you to realize that your experience of God is far more profound than your understanding of God and not only is your experience of God far more profound than your understanding of God, your experience of God, if its real, is far more profound than your ability to articulate what you have understood.
What is asked of John is not merely to have an experience. He had it. But he's asked to then, understand it and then try to describe; it to articulate it in language that made some sense. And the only language that made sense was analogy.
It was like this. It was like that. It was like this. It was like this. It wasn't exactly this, but it sure was like that. You get the picture?
When you run out of adequate vocabulary you start using analogies because the experience of the divine tremendum is so overwhelming that human language is not adequate to describe God. It's not adequate.
Male 1: Is God giving him the prophet - or her - the words, or giving him or her the images and they have to find the words to describe it?
Well, if I understand Apocalyptic right, they are given words. They are also seeing things. Right? So, it's a multi-media presentation. Right.
The question is how you connect the words with what you're seeing, because sometimes the words are interpretive and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are supplemental. You know? And it's complex.
And then, after the fact, to sit down and then you try to say, "Okay, how in the world do I write this down?" I mean, no wonder he's having problems here. "How in the world do I write this down?"
God bless him for trying and we're richer for it. You need to understand that he's trying to describe a transcendent reality.
Now, I want to say something on a pastoral moment. I just have a pastoral moment with you.
My grandmother had no more than a seventh grade education. She could no more have written a term paper on the nature of the trinity than she could have written a term paper on how astrophysics works.
She was a profoundly devoutly Christian person. She knew in whom she believed. She believed it profoundly. Her problem was, she couldn't articulate all that she had experienced. And know, there are a lot of Christians like this.
We need to understand this and be a little bit merciful, because some people rightly complain, as Moses complained, "I don't speak so good. I don't have the gift of articulation. I don't write so well. I don't speak so good."
I would just say to you, that when you're confronted with Apocalyptic literature, which has confused and bamboozled everyone who has confronted it to one degree or another, it ought to humble us.
It ought to cause us to take a humility pill once in a while and say, "You know, what I know for sure is I don't know enough. And my ability to even articulate what I know is not good enough. I need to keep working on it.
See, this is especially a word in due season for teachers and preachers. I mean, one of the reasons the New Testament has let not many of you become teachers is because it is difficult to go through all three stages of experience, understanding and articulation and adequately, never mind exemplarily, adequately describe what it is that you've experienced or not, you know. I'm constantly confronted with that.
Now let me tell you what helps. Jesus says, "Don't worry about your words not being adequate enough because the spirit will give you guidance and utterance in saying the right thing in due season."
We need to understand that adequate articulation of the truth about these prophecies or in the gospel in general requires ongoing and perpetual dependence on God. It's not about us having a one-time experience of Jesus, after which we live in the afterglow and it's been left up to us ever since.
These prophecies are referential, but Apocalyptic is about the revelation of secrets; whether about the past, present or future. And there are a constellation of features that Apocalyptic prophecy has.
For example, one of the reasons for Apocalyptic originally, which began in exile, when God's people were in exile - By the way, did you notice? The only book of Apocalyptic prophecy in the New Testament is written by whom? Somebody who is in...exile.
Lets see if we can connect the dots. Ezekiel - exile; Zechariah - exile; Daniel - exile; John of Patmos - exile. What have all these people got in common? They are all in exile. Uh-huh.
This is prophecy, from and for the persecuted. And we who are so very far from any genuine persecution have trouble understanding it. We like to say, "Why is it encoded language?"
I'll tell you why. Somebody's looking over John of Patmos's shoulder while he's in exile. He's not on this pile of rocks all by himself. He's being watched. He's being observed by pagan officials. That was true of Ezekiel; that was true of Daniel; that was true of Zechariah.
It's coded language for a reason. If they could have put the whole thing in Cherokee they would have. Then nobody would have gotten it without a translator.
Part of the experience of exile, dear friends, is realizing that things are not going right. And it leads to a reflection: What did we do wrong that we ended up in this place? It further led to a belief that God would rectify things, either in another world or later in this life.
As I suggested to you last time, and I would want to emphasize now, we're going to talk about this whole afterlife theology that develops in God's people by means of progressive revelation. We need to understand that it took exile before God's people realized, "You know? Justice might just not be completely done in my lifetime. So, when is God going to make it right?" And they began to think about the afterlife.
If we compare the Throne-Chariot vision of Ezekiel in Ezekiel 1 and a similar Throne-Chariot vision in Revelation 4, one of the things that becomes clear is not only are these two passages analogical in nature - It was like. It was like. It was like. It was like. Read through Ezekiel 1. We have how many "it was likes"? There are about 20 of them in the first 25 verses.
The same sort of thing in Revelation 4. Not only do we see that, but what we learn is that the descriptions themselves are metaphorical. So, for example, if you do a descriptive analysis of comparing and contrasting the vision of Ezekiel 1 and the vision in Revelation 4, one of the things you're going to discover is that the critters are not exactly the same; the four creatures. And you're going to discover that the eyes aren't in the same place, and that the wheels don't work the same way. And yet, it's recognizably a vision of God's Throne-Chariot in both cases.
Now, what does this tell you? It's a plastic, modifiable, metaphorical image. It's not a literal description. When you have wheels within wheels, the message is that God can go anywhere at any time. He can be omnipresent.
What's the function of the image of the wheels? What's the function of the image of the throne? These are the kinds of questions you need to ask about it. Not why is it the description in Revelation 4 doesn't match up exactly with the description in Ezekiel 1.
Well, the answer to that is these two prophets both saw the living presence of God on his Throne-Chariot vision but they described it using slightly different analogies or kinds of analogies.
Maybe you have noticed that it's not even just in the most directly imagaic portions of the Book of Revelation, but the author is groping for images big enough to describe the central character of the book, who is Jesus Christ. So He's the lion, who is also the lamb, who is also the day star, who is also the rider on the white horse, who is also the Alpha, and Omega, and Christ, and the Son of God, and the one like the Son of Man, and I could go on.
You could put up a whole poster of the images and terms applied to Jesus just in the Book of Revelation. The point is no one descriptor adequately describes him. He's looking for a language large enough, big enough, adequate enough to convey the majesty and transcendence of this Christ in the Book of Revelation.
Here's the most important point that you need to get. These terms are character descriptions. They are character descriptions. They tell us what kind of person Christ is. Some aspect of his character is being revealed.
So, when he's called the day star, what are we learning about Him? He's the light of the world. He's the Revelation of God that eclipses all other revelations. When we're told He's the Alpha and Omega, we're not merely being told He was there at the beginning and will be there at the end. What are we being told? He is the beginning. He's God. He is the end. If you want to know what God is like A to Zed, look at Jesus.
He's the Alpha and Omega; the full alphabet soup of what God is like. The same can be said of the Nero-like figure, Mr. Six-Six-Six. This is a character description. If seven is the number of perfection then 6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6 is what? It's the number of imperfection. It's the number of chaos. It's the number of destruction. It's the number of falling short. It's a character description of this gnarly ruler.
He looks good on paper. He's got a lot of digits. He's in the Fortune 600 company. However, something is terribly wrong.
Now, I do want to talk to you about the numbers in the Book of Revelation a little bit more, because it's part of a larger phenomena in Jewish literature called Gematria.
Gematria is the use of symbolic numbers, and some of them are certainly Biblically significant. They are symbolic numbers. The number three; the number seven; the number 10; the number 12 and multiples thereof.
If seven is the number of perfection then 6-6-6 is the number of imperfection; incompletion; chaos. In the Gospel of John the number seven gets rung, the change is on. We have seven "I am" sayings. We have seven "I am" discourses. We have seven sign narratives. Are you getting the picture?
What is this telling us? That perfection has now shown up. The perfect one has now shown up and He does all things well; indeed, perfectly.
Now these numbers represent definite things, but very seldom are these numbers or their multiples used literally. For example, lets talk millennium for a minute. It's a good thing to do when you're in the 21st century, [chuckling] breaking in a new millennium.
A thousand is a multiple of? Ten. It's a whole number. It's a round number, and when Jews used a number like this, they meant to say, it's a big ol' long honkin' period of time. But the point of calling it a thousand is, it has a definite beginning and it has a definite end. It's a determined, long period of time.
It's not like the number for pi - 3.14 etc., etc., etc., etc., etc. It's a definite long period of time. It's a multiple of 10. It just means a long time.
Or let's take the number 144,000. You know that one shows up in Revelation, right? The Jehovah's Witnesses tried hard for a long time to read this as a literal number, but when there were more than 144,000 Jehovah's Witnesses they had to recalibrate. [chuckling]
It's not a literal number; it's a multiple of what? Twelve. As in the 12 tribes; as in the 12 apostles. So 144,000 would be all of the Old Testament people of God plus all of the New Testament people of God. They are all in that number when the saints (who dat?) go marching in.
You with me now? It just means the whole people of God; and a lot of them. The good news is there will be a lot of them. Got the Old and New Testament people of God.
If seven is the number of perfection then 3½ is what? It's half of perfection, right? It's an incomplete kind. So when Daniel says there will be a time, a time, and a time and a half - that's how many? One, two, three and a half. It's half of seven. It's not a complete or perfect time. It's an incomplete time. This is the way Gematria works.
But there's more to Gematria than that, because these numbers were not just symbolic numbers, they were turned into coded words. Letters of the alphabet were assigned numbers. You with me now?
Now, it would be easy if one was "a" and two was "b" and three was "c", etc., etc. The truth is, they didn't have Arabic numbers. There was no one, two, three. So, ancient people tended to use letters of the alphabet for numbers anyway.
I mean, look at Latin. I. I-I? I-I-I? IV. V. VI. X. IX. C. M.
These are letters of the alphabet. They are also doubling as...numbers. This is the way the Hebrews did it. By the way, just a little footnote. Some of those egregiously gigantic numbers in the Old Testament...these are just "guestimations" because what we have is Hebrew words like "ephah" and we don't know whether that means there were ten tent groups or there were ten million. We just don't know.
We're better off in the New Testament because the Greeks had a better way of counting than the Jews did. Numbers are always squirrelly is my point in the Bible.
Lets talk about the use of numbers for names. Right? Famous graffito in the Roman catacomb. I love a girl whose number is 5-3-4. This is not her cell phone number. This is the numerical value of her name. You add up the letters of her name, you get 5-3-4. Okay?
Now, it's easy to go from a name, with a preexisting numbering system to a number. Oh, but try to go from a number back to the name. There are many permutations and combinations possible. Her name could be Ann; her name could be Susan; her name could be Sam. You see what I'm getting at?
Any number of names could add up to 5-3-4, depending on the letters in the name. Well, that brings me to the most famous of all numbers. This one. I want to go over this one more time just to make sure you get it.
Here is a coin. Here is our boy, Nero, on the coin. The inscription on the coin is "Augusti caesar neron divi filii". Sometimes the words are arranged differently, but those are the words. "Nero, the divine son of Augustus Caesar."
Now here's what we know about Latin or Greek Gematria. If you add this up in either Latin or Greek, this inscription adds up to 6-6-6. The audience of John living in Ephesus and other such cities who knew Latin and knew Greek, know perfectly well what this symbolic number refers to.
This is not a great mystery, but it requires wisdom to interpret it. What's interesting to me is that we have a textual problem. Some manuscripts, instead of the number 6-6-6 have the number 6-1-6. Some of our Greek manuscripts have 6-6-6; some have 6-1-6.
What is interesting about that is just this: This is the, if you will, Latin form. Right? The Greek form takes away just one letter. That letter. Now guess what happens when you take away that one letter from the inscription? The numerical value of that name is this.
Now, here is what's interesting about that. It means, that the scribes who were copying this manuscript in the Greek speaking East, read the inscription on the coin and said, "Oh, they must have meant 6-1-6." Whereas the scribes who were copying in the Latin speaking West, read this inscription on the coin and said, "Oh, they must be referring to 6-6-6."
And that's why we have a textual problem there. It's different scribes from different parts of the empire looking at the inscription differently.
Gematria is the use of symbolic numbers, not only to convey concepts like perfection or imperfection, but also to give a coded name to somebody. John's Revelation stands apart from any Jewish Apocalyptic works in that John is a real person who is presenting his own real visions.
So, unlike early Jewish Apocalyptic literature that say the testament of Abraham, the testament of Enoch, the parables of Enoch, John really wrote his own Revelation. Abraham did not write the testament of Abraham. It was written in the first century B.C. Enoch did not write the parables of Enoch. It was also written in the first century B.D. or first century A.D.
These documents, the Jewish Apocalyptic documents, non-canonical, are pseudonymous. They have a falsely attributed author from antiquity. That's not true with John of Patmos. John's Revelation was written by John, a first century Christian prophet.
Here's why you don't start studying the New Testament with the Book of Revelation. To understand Apocalyptic literature requires a prior understanding of this kind of literature. So here's where I ask you, who was the Book of Revelation written to?
It was written to first century Christians in seven cities in the province of Asia starting with Ephesus and going all the way around to Laodicea. And they are all on the same road. In fact, the letters to the churches are listed in the exact order that you would have gone to each of these cities on that road. Isn't that interesting?
So what does that tell you? This document was intended to be taken as a circular letter for multiple Christian congregations to one, and then the next, and then the next, and then the next, and then the next, and you know what? John wants each of these churches to hear about the dirty laundry of the other churches.
He wants them all to hold each other accountable because he's not there. These are his churches but he's not there to hold them accountable, so the messenger has to take this and proclaim it orally to them in these seven churches. That's what's required.
This literature was not intended to only make sense now that we've gotten to the 21st century. It had a meaning for first century Christians, and second century Christians, and third century Christians.
But if we're talking big picture here is big picture one more time. Though things seem to be going awfully wrong just now - the economy is bad; there are wars everywhere; suddenly there is an earthquake. Does this sound familiar?
Never mind. God is still on His throne. God is still sovereign over all of human history, and though things may all seem to be going quickly to Hates in a hand basket, in fact, in the end God will have the victory and so will his people.
So, until then, God's people are to hunker down, be faithful to the end, not commit apostasy, and be prepared to suffer and if necessary, die for the faith.
This is the Book of the Martyrs. Be prepared to suffer. John is saying for those about to die, "We salute you. Remain faithful to Jesus Christ."
As I said to you before, the word Nike, victors, Nike. Who are those who conquer? Those who are faithful even unto death. The conquerors are not those who take up the sword and kill people. The conquerors are those who are faithful to their faith even if they are martyred. They are the over comers.
Now, the other part of this message, when it comes to not the salvation part, but the justice part is, leave justice in whose hands? The man upstairs. This is a book that is not a call to arms. It's a call to remember "Vengeance is mine," sayeth the Lord. "I will repay."
Only Christ is worthy to unseal the seals; open up those cans of mayhem and destruction on the world. We're not worthy of doing this.
Now I want to talk about envisioning, if we can, the process by which this book was written.
A: John has the vision, but
B: He has to set some of what he saw down in writing.
Obviously he could not describe everything he saw. He had to be selective. The problem with visionary experiences, as I stressed as opposed to auditory ones, is that only the latter can be conveyed verbatim.
A visionary experience can not. So, there's that, but then he has to realign these different visionary experiences. He has to line them up in some kind of order that makes some kind of sense, because when you actually read the Book of Revelation this is not just one revelation. This is not just one vision. We're talking about multiple visions.
So that in more than one place, for example in Revelation 1 and also in Revelation 4 we hear, "I was in the spirit on the Lord's day and I heard and I saw."
We're talking about two visions, not one. In fact, we're talking about multiple visions, so in terms of the literary process he had to arrange this material. There was a literary arrangement of the visions.
And then there was the whole issue that he had to send this document from a distance. So, what does he do? At the beginning and the end of the document he set all of those visions in an epistolary framework. He addresses letters before he gives all the vision.
So we have a little bit of epistolary part at the beginning and the end; Revelation 2 and Revelation 3; Revelation 22 at the end. And in between we have a whole mass of visions that have been arranged.
Now here is Revelation's structure. Taking all that into consideration, here is the structure. There is the prologue; there is inaugural vision of Christ and seven messages to his churches. Then there is the inaugural vision of worship in Heaven.
Now this leads to three sets of sevens and there are two, what shall we say? Interludes in the three sets of seven? There are seven seals; there are seven bowls; there are seven trumpets.
Here is one of the interludes. Revelation chapter 12, the story of God's people in conflict with evil. The woman, the man-child, Satan...stay tuned. We're going to say more about that.
That's right in the middle of talking about the seven trumpets. We have the seven seals, then we have the seven trumpets, then there is this little, if you will, interlude, or commentary on the story. Then there are the seven bowls, and then we have a long description of Babylon, the harlot.
The end of the book is a tale of two cities. [speaking in character] "In this corner, weighing 185, bad to the bone, Babylon the harlot. And over in this corner, looking like a bride coming down the heavenly staircase, the New Jerusalem."
The end of the book is a tale of two cities. Here is the issue for you. Which city do you want to be a citizen of? You need to decide now, says John of Patmos. If you haven't already sold your soul to Babylon and the devil, now would be a good time to align yourself in the other direction, says John.
So we have the story of Babylon, the harlot. We have a transition from Babylon to the New Jerusalem, called the millennium, and then the end of the book, the New Jerusalem and the epilogue.
Now, it's not a terribly complicated structure. Three sets of seven judgments; interluded commentary; two cities at the end pitted against each other; the resolution of human history; Heaven comes down and merges with earth.
It's a spectacularly comprehensive vision. From stem to stern we are told everything we ever needed to know, not everything we wanted to know, about both what's up there and what's out there - both the future and now. It's comprehensive.
Now why has John downloaded this whole big whopping thing on those seven unsuspecting churches? I mean, can you imagine being in one of these churches that for the first time had somebody stand up and on one single occasion read this whole thing out to them. And then at the end say, "Did you get it?" [chuckling]
I mean - picture this! Because you need to have gotten it because I've got to move on to the next church. I'm the herald; don't shoot the messenger.
Are you beginning to get the picture? They didn't have the luxury of him handing out a scroll to each church and [coughing] say, "Here you go. You can study this for a while. I'll be back. If you didn't get it the first time, go online and look at the power point."
No! That's not how it went down. How it went down is this whole, huge thing was downloaded on them and eventually it was copied. And the good news for them is their oral memory was way better than ours. The other good news for them is they were already in an environment where they understood this kind of literature.
The other good news is they could relate to the speaker because they too were being persecuted, so there was an empathy between the speaker and the audience. I mean, they had a lot of advantages.
The other good news is, they all spoke Greek. I mean, they had a lot of advantages we don't have as a head start to understanding this book. So, don't feel terribly sorry for them. They had a lot of advantages. There were way ahead of the curve already.
What is clear to me is that John of Patmos had been a prophet in these churches before this period of time. That's why he has the authority to address them this way now. This is not like, you know, a messenger from Mars that they had never heard of before, talking to them. No, this is their prophet. This is their authority figure and he's speaking to an audience that he knows.
He even knows what their spiritual condition is. He knows when they've been naughty. He knows when they've been nice. He knows when they've been bad or good, and he's addressing them with knowledge of their character and condition.
And if you read those seven letters carefully you know what else you learn? You learn that these churches have had a long history. You don't start telling the church the [in character] the thrill is gone and you've lost your first love.
You know? You don't go singing [musically] "You've lost that lovin' feeling - " Unless it was a long time ago that they first began to love.
There is a clear sense of a long history here of these congregations. Some are going well and some are going not so well, you know? And now he's addressing them well down the line, long after they began.
He's trying to help them at a time of persecution, prosecution and execution and probably under Domitian. He's trying to help them. [coughing] They certainly needed the help.
What I want to do now, is I want us to look at one passage. Just one, because it's very important for us to understand this because here we have John's vision of worship. It's actually a dual passage - Revelation 4 and 5, but we're just going to look at Revelation 4.
Revelation 4 is vision of the creator god. Revelation 5 is a vision of the redeemer god. So Revelation 4 is the focusing on God, the Father. Revelation 5 is the vision focusing on Christ, the Son.
What makes that very interesting, of course, is that it's in Revelation 4 that we have the image of all creatures great and small worshipping God - the angels, the humans, and the animals.
But in Revelation 5 the focus is on the lamb and the word. Now think about this. Revelation 4 - the God of Creation; Revelation 5 - the God of Redemption. Which one has the scrolls? It's the second one.
You see, you can learn that God is Creator just by looking at creation. But without special Revelation, without the scroll, without the book - you don't get the memo about redemption. There is a definite purpose to the way these visions go down in terms of revealing the creator god and the redeemer god. Lets hear about the creator god.
"After this I looked, and there before me a door was standing open in Heaven. And a voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, 'Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this.' And at once I was in the spirit.
"And there before me was the throne in Heaven with somebody sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald and circled the throne. And surrounding the throne were 24 other thrones and seated on them were 24 elders, and they were dressed in white and had crowns of golden on their heads.
"And from the throne came flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. And before the throne seven lamps were blazing."
These are the seven spirits of God.
"Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, of crystal; clear as crystal. And in the center around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes in front and back."
Where are the eyes in Ezekiel? They are in the wheels, remember?
"The first living creature was like a lion; the second was like an ox; the third had a face like a man; the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings.
"Day and night they never stopped saying, 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, God Almighty who was and is and is to come.'
And whenever the creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him to who sits on the throne and who lives forever and ever, the 24 elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and they worship him who lives for ever and ever.
They lay their crowns. They cast their crowns before the throne and say, [musically] 'Thou art worthy. Thou are worthy. Thou art worthy oh, Lord. To receive glory, glory and honor and glory and honor and power. For thou hast created, hast all things created, thou has created all things. And for your pleasure they were created, for thou are worthy, oh, Lord." Amen. The story of the worship of the creator god.
I want us to compare three visions. Lets start with Isaiah's vision in Isaiah 6. Do you remember when he went into the temple? Do you remember what happened when he went into the temple?
He goes into the temple and he encounters something he hadn't entirely counted on. He says, [musically] "I saw the Lord, sitting on His throne. He is high and lifted up and His trains fill the temple. He is high and lifted up and his trains fill the temple. And the angels cried, 'Holy!' The angels cried 'Holy!' The angels cried 'Holy is His name!'"
You see the temple in all ancient near Eastern religions is the junctions between Heaven and earth. It's the contact point for an ancient person with God.
Now the thing about encountering God - dear friends, hear me very clearly - is that any genuine encounter with the genuine god both narrows and widens the gap between us and God. It narrows it because God comes closer to us. We experience God and we begin to understand God better.
But when it is God that we experience, the immediate, instantaneous reaction of a sinful person, when he encounters the Holy God is, "Woe betide me, for I am a man of unclean lips," says Isaiah, "and I dwell amidst the people of unclean lips."
He realizes instantly, "I am so not God. I am not holy like that being is holy."
It both narrows and widens the gap between us and God. Worship happens when the creature realizes she or he is not the creator, and bows down and worships the one who is.
Let me say that again. Worship as it is described in Revelation 4 happens when the creature, whether it be angelic, or human or subhuman creature, recognizes that he or she is not the creator, and bows down before the one who is.
This is true worship. It's about giving up, surrendering, presenting yourself as a living sacrifice, bowing down, recognizing and restoring the order of creation.
You see, worship creates a communion between two very different beings. It's not worship that happens if you fall in love with yourself.
G.K. Chesterton put it this way. He says: "A creature is not made so that he can worship himself any more than you can fall in love with yourself. Or if in a fit of narcissism you do, it will be a monotonous courtship."
Worship is about us having communion with the Holy Other, who is so not me. That would be worship.
Now let me explain to you something important. Worship of a holy, pure, righteous, just, and yes, loving and merciful and compassionate God is not about our cozying up to God, our buddy or pal, because this is not a parenting relationship, and it will never be a parenting relationship.
Yes, there is intimacy with Abba, but we're not being set up in a partnership of equals in worship. I mean, that's my point. That's not worship; that's fellowship. I like Tom Skinner's definition of fellowship: A bunch of fellows in the same ship. [chuckling]
That is not worship. Fellowship is one thing; worship is another. An awful lot of time because we don't have teachers and preachers to explain a theology of worship, these two things get "cornfused". Or just used.
Worship is not fellowship. Fellowship is not worship. They are both good. I'm not condemning fellowship. I am telling you, though, that worship is theocentric. It focuses on God. It does not focus on us. It does not focus on our problems. It's not all about us. It's about God.
When Isaiah went into the temple, the focus was entirely on God and being caught up in wonder and praise of God. That is worship. It's not fellowship. It's worship.
A partnership between equals results in fellowship, not worship. So the experience of Isaiah was worship. Any experience which seeks to put us upon God's level is not worship, it is the opposite of worship. It is idolatry - and you remember what the Bible says about idolatry.
Worship implies a distinction between the worshipper and the one who is worshipped, such that there can be communion between the two.
Now, here's the thing, when you really encounter God it's both truth and consequences. You realize, as you may never have realized before, who you really are. What is the real truth about you?
Isaiah is a mighty priest and prophet of God. He goes into the temple and wham! "I encountered the Holy God. Whoa betide me. For I am a man of unclean lips. And He gets the mesquite grilled treatment on his lips and tongue. God can fix that.
The word worship comes from two old English words: worth and ship. It is ascribing to God His worth. What happens at the end of that Isaiah passage? Did you notice? "Thou art worthy. I am not."
What happens in Revelation 5 in regard to the scroll. The question is, who is worthy to unseal the seals? Are you with me? Worship clarifies for you who is worthy, and who is not. And the answer to that is we are not. We are so not, and God is. It's a theocentric thing.
Now listen to me. None of us are worthy of absolute, unconditional devotion and adoration. If you give absolute, unconditional devotion and adoration to another human being, that is idolatry. It's the polar opposite of worship. It's ascribing deity to and serving and sublimating oneself before someone that is less than God.
And even if it's well-intended, if you give that unconditional absolute devotion to a parent, a ruler, a friend, a conqueror, a lover, a teacher or a mentor, or even to yourself worst of all - everyone of those is idolatry. Only God is worthy our worship and he is so worthy of our worship.
Lets consider another such encounter with God. Ezekiel's experience. Here's Ezekiel, out by the Canal Chi Bar in Iraq, swatting mosquitoes and small birds. [coughing] And he is having a pity party. You want to know why? It's his birthday and nobody baked him a cake. But more importantly, he's of a priestly line. On his birthday, he was supposed to be anointed to be a priest in the temple in Jerusalem and he is so not in Jerusalem.
So, he's out there singing the blues. [musically] "My mama done tol' me, I'm havin' a bad day - "
And in the middle of that pity party here comes this incredible Throne-Chariot vision - God, coming to a theatre near him. Boom! Bigger than avatar and no 3D glasses needed. This was an out of this world experience.
What he learned on that day is that worship need not be confined to a holy place, because God is not confined to sacred space. God is on the move in this world, and He will come to you.
I love the story of C.S. Lewis. It means a lot to me personally. I spent a good deal of time in Oxford. I've read all of his books, and to me the most moving part of the early story of C.S. Lewis is the day he became a Christian.
He was a don, a brilliant English literature professor at Oxford. God had been working on him for a while. He had Christian friends.
J.R.R. Tolkien, who was also a teacher there, was a devout Roman Catholic, which if you know anything about C.S. Lewis, he was an Ulster Protestant. He's of an Ulster Protestant background. Tolkien and Lewis should have been killing each other, because their ancestors did.
Lewis says that on the day that he became a Christian God backed him into a corner in his office until he said "uncle". And here's what he said about that experience. "On that day, I became the most miserable Christian in all of Christendom."
Because he realized how unworthy he was to be a follower of the King of kings. This was not [musically] "I've been redeemed, by the blood of the lamb." This was, "Oh my God. What just happened to me? God got hold of me."
You see, there are as many different conversion experiences as there are people and we should never try to put everybody through the same conversion experience Cuisinart. God can do it however God wants to do it - slow or fast, dramatic or quiet, painful or not so much. You know? It's different strokes for different folks, and that's okay.
"On that day I became the most miserable convert in all of Christendom," said C.S. Lewis.
Alrighty, then. Not so much "I've been redeemed by the blood of the lamb."
Ezekiel on that day realized that the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof and He can be worshipped anywhere at any time, because He's in all of those places. You can commune with God anywhere at any time, even at surprising times and places - like in Iraq, by a canal, far removed from your priestly calling in Jerusalem.
I am very clear that John of Patmos must have identified with that Ezekiel story, because his experience was similar. He was suffering severely in exile. Now, Daniel didn't have it so bad most of the time. Go back and read the Book of Daniel. Ezekial? It was a different story.
I think John of Patmos must have really identified with Ezekiel and so it's not a surprise that he has a vision that's similar to Ezekiel. Now this vision is not about calling him to a prophetic ministry. He already has it. This is a vision about reminding him to make the main thing the main thing, which is the worship of the one true God.
Hear me now. The most important act that happens on the planet earth is not what happens in Washington, D.C., or what happens in London, or what happens in Iraq. The most important act that happens on all of this globe is the one true worship of the one true God. That, from God's perspective is what makes the world go around. Right? And sets us all in our creaturely places where we ought to be. It's the most important thing we can do.
Lets talk about John's experience in Revelation 4. He says he was in the spirit. Earlier, in Revelation 1, he says, "I was in the spirit on the Lord's day."
Now you notice he does not say the spirit was in "me" though that was certainly also true. He says, "I was in the spirit." You know what that means? I was so immersed in the living presence of God that I heard and I saw.
When is the last time you were so immersed in the living presence of God that you saw and that you heard? Wow! I like the way Dean Jones tried to portray this having of the vision. He says, "I don't know that I can describe it to you."
He gets to the part about the star falling from the sky. Wormwood - remember Wormwood, falling from the sky? And he's going, [stammering]. That's a very good description of something that's so overwhelming. It was overwhelming. He was in the spirit.
Notice it doesn't say he was in the church on the Lord's day. It says he was in the spirit and he heard and he saw. He was in exile on a rock pile. And he heard and he saw. It was not a matter of holy space for him. It was a matter of receptivity to the holy. [coughing] It was a matter of receptivity to the holy - have you turned off the noise in your life so that you can be receptive to God?
The psalmist says this: "Let all the earth be silent. God is in this place. Let all the earth keep silence. God is in this place."
It was a holy time for John. I think Revelation 4 asks for us and answers some of our most profound questions about the nature of worship and our posture and preparation for it. So often we hear people caught up in the American consumer syndrome say, "You know, I don't go to that church because frankly I don't get much out of it."
See, they are evaluating their church like they are evaluating their spaghetti - as a consumer. Let me just explain to you that you don't go to church to be a consumer. You go to church to be a producer of worship.
I'm going to say that one more time. If you consume something while you are busy producing something, that's a bonus and a byproduct. But that ain't why you should go.
I had a little old lady in my home church. She was deaf as a post and blind as a bat. She had these big old hearing aids, and these glasses, you know, before Lens Crafters, when the glasses were like Coke bottle bottoms. You know? Thick glasses.
And she was - Because many are called and few are chosen. I mean, she was always on the third row every Sunday, religiously. And on that same row was a young lady, a much younger lady, and she just couldn't understand why the little old lady was there, because she could hardly hear and hardly see.
To her, this made not sense because she didn't seem to be [emphatically] getting anything out of it. So, she asked one day. She mustered up her courage and asked her, "Why are you here?" Not in a rude way.
The little old lady stood up to her full 5 foot 2 height. Mustered up all of her 105 pounds and said, "I'm not here for what I can get out of it. I'm here for what I can give to the Lord, Jesus Christ and to His people, which is my praise and adoration of our God. During the week I read the bulletin. I find out what hymns we're going to sing. I read the scriptures that are announced as the scriptures for the coming service. I pray and reflect on what it is and I come prepared to worship. I don't come prepared to get; I come prepared to give. Worship is not the performance of the few for the couch potatoes for Jesus in the pews. It's not entertainment. It's worship."
We are all creatures, great and small, to be caught up like in John's vision in love and wondering praise of our God, so that all creatures of our God and King worship God together. That's worship.
The young woman was stunned by the old lady's response. The old lady admitted, she hadn't gotten as much out of it as she used to, but it was okay, because she came and met the Lord there, and worshipped him.
Worship was not intended, friends, to be a spectator sport. It's a participatory thing. The consumer approach to worship puts the "em-pha-sis" entirely on the wrong "sy-llab-le". It leads pastors desperately to seek to change worship patterns and acts, so it will attract a bigger crowd, [speaking louder] on the theory that worship should be a matter of giving the people what they want and crave. [normal voice] Wrong.
Much of what people want is not good for them and much of what they crave is not Godly. Worship is not about giving the people what they want and crave. It's about giving God what He desires and requires. Let me say that one more time. Worship is not about giving the people what they want and crave. It's not anthropocentric. The focus is not supposed to be on [louder] little old us! That's narcissism.
Worship is about giving God what he desires and He requires. Read the Bible. Look at the worship scenes in the Bible.
Lets consider for am minute what the prerequisite was for John receiving the vision. It was not that the right mood had been set by the music. [chuckling] [in voice] "Tain't no music goin' on, on that rock pile." Unless John is singing, okay?
As a musician, let me just say to you what the function of music is not. The function of music is not to set the mood, nor is it primarily to rev up the troops. The function of music is to minister to a part of you - the affective side of you - so that your whole being will be caught up in worship, not just your cognitive part, but also your affective part.
The music reaches you at levels beyond your cognitive part. The point of the music is so that we all are caught up in our whole selves in love and wonder and praise of God. That is worship, when we are totally engaged with God. Our whole being.
The proper theology of music in worship is, that music is the response to encountering God. Look what happens in Revelation 4. What happens? They burst out spontaneously in song because they have seen His glory, and they wish to praise His name as a result. We need to rethink this worship thing, and this music thing.
John was not in the spirit because the music had set the mood. He was not in the spirit because he was in the right church building. It was because he came prepared for a close encounter with God. He was in the spirit. That's the prerequisite.
This is not just about turning off your cell phones. It's about the spiritual preparation necessary to worship. An awful lot of people come in to worship and they are not prepared to worship. And they actually don't get into the worship until well into the worship.
And a lot of them have just turned off the whole first part of the service, waiting for the message because they are cognitive types. [coughing] And they are just kind of, "Okay, lets just wait for the word to be delivered from Mount Sinai and okay, I'll put up with the rest of this. I can't really sing, so you know..."
My point is, we need to teach them what is the function of all these parts of worship and why is it important.
Michelle: Why isn't the teaching happening? Because I have been in very few churches where the body worshipping knows why they are there.
I know. Well, we have not because we haven't been taught. My latest book, which is coming out Monday, is called "We Have Seen His Glory - A Theology of New Testament Worship". Because this is a problem, friends. I have been running around the country giving this very part of my presentation tonight.
And the response has been overwhelming and the number one question is just exactly Michelle just asked me. Why have I never heard this before? And why haven't we been trained how to worship, and explained why we do the different things we do in worship?
Why is it important to sing? Why is it important to pray? Why is it important to give? Why is it important to listen to a message from God?
The interesting thing about it is, in the Protestant tradition, that we are so focused on the message. But you see, that's the only part of worship that is from God to us, verbally. The preacher, or prophet or teacher is speaking in loco parentis. In the place of God, speaking directly to us, and you would be thankful for that because if God spoke directly to us it would be rather like what happened to the Israelites at Mount Sinai.
"Please don't do that again. Send Moses. We'll take the mediator." Right?
What's interesting about worship is, that we focus on God and that prepares us to hear from God, so the function of the preaching at the heart of worship is that God speaks to a people who are ready, [coughing] willing, able and prepared to hear.
Now, if you haven't gone through all the preparation, how well [coughing] are you going to hear?[coughing]
"Let those with two good ears listen to the message."
It's critical to understand the different parts of worship. You see, John had already immersed himself in the divine presence before the vision came. He didn't get the vision until he was already in the spirit. The reason an awful lot of people don't get a lot out of worship is they haven't come in the spirit and they don't leave that [coughing] way, either.
And therefore, they see the elements of worship, but they don't enter fully into worship. It's a problem. And when God gave this man a vision, what a vision it was. It was a vision of Heavenly worship, and it transfixed him and it transfigured him, and if you'll remember the vision and what it did to Ezekiel - it struck him dumb for a week.
When was the last time you went to church and it struck you dumb for a week. I'm thinking not. This is different. This is different.
The thing that's so amazing to me about this -
Lets take the Throne-Chariot part. We've got four creatures: a face like a lion, a face like an ox, a face like an eagle and a face like a human. Here's what the rabbi said about Ezekiel 1.
The eagle - is it not the king of all of the birds of prey? The lion - is he not the king of all the beasts of prey? The ox - is he not the king of all the beasts of burden? And the human being - is he not the king of all creatures great and small?
The representatives of the great orders of creation all lifting up the Son of God. This is worship. All creatures great and small lifting up the throne of God. It's a vision of worship.
So powerful a vision that even angels blushed and the elders, the saints in Heaven bow down and cast their crowns before God, because you know, in the presence of God you realize you're not worthy to wear a crown. Only the King of kings is. Only He is worthy of worship.
By just talking to you a little bit about what makes the worthwhile worship, according to John, why is god worthy of such worship? Because He made us all. We have his branding. We belong to God.
John Knox put it this way: "It is the chief aim of humankind to love God and enjoy and adore Him forever."
You know what worship is? Loving God with all your heart, and soul, and mind and strength together as part of the body of Christ. It's pouring out your love to God.
Do you want to have a good Valentine's Day? Pour out your love to God. I guarantee you He will respond. Worship Him with your whole heart. I guarantee you will get a Valentine's present like you've never had before.
The chief purpose for which God created us is not, is not to merely till the earth and fill it. The chief purpose for which He created us in His image is to worship Him. That's the main reason we were created.
Let me just say [coughing] one more corollary to this. The chief purpose of the church and of history is not the salvation of all human beings. That's a means to the end. The reason we need to save people is because they are not worshipping God. The means of salvation, the end is worship.
Revelation 4 tells us about the end; worship. Revelation 5 tells us about the means, the savior who is worthy to judge and save the world.
So lets review. True worship requires [coughing] that we be in the spirit on the Lord's day and give our whole selves to God. This in turn implies that we come as true worshippers wide open to give praise and glory to God, having already received the grace necessary to do so, having already put aside all distractions and sins that readily encumbers us.
Only so are we really prepared to receive what God will give. The reason that the message comes late in the service is the assumption is we need to be prepared to receive it. That's always been the assumption.
Worship is chiefly what we do. We come to give honor and glory and praise to the worthy. We come primarily to give, rather than to get. But hear the good news, and this is the best part. If you will just open the door a crack, God is coming to give as well. God comes and meets you in worship and is prepared to give as well.
What kind of expectations do you have when you go to worship? Are you coming, being prepared to encounter God and to change? I mean, just think about when you were a child. The anticipation and expectation you had for Christmas.
Now think about having that kind of anticipation and that kind of expectation and that kind of hope invested in coming and worshipping God on the off chance that it might be - shizam! - God that you actually encountered in worship.
The good news is that God comes to give. It's not just all about you giving. God also comes to give. God bows down as we bow down to God. God comes to relate, to, empower, to heal, to save, to give vision to His people and proclaim His truth. The chief aim of worship is that we get caught up in love and wonder and praise with our God.
I want to tell you about a worship experience I had. I was ending a trip from the lands of the Bible. We finished in Rome and the catacombs on a Sunday morning down in the bowels of the earth. [sighs]
We were in a vaulted ceiling room. There were all these niches in the walls where the saints had been buried. The caskets were now removed. The place has been sanitized. There were candles everywhere.
There was an altar. We were going to worship God and share in communion, and the sense of the Holy was all over this place. The saints were with us there, ready to worship with us.
Our guide, Georgio Botti, was something of a lapsed Catholic and a lothario. He was a great guy. He was a musician who was a talented guy, but the minute he came into this room, the minute he saw the candles and the minute I put on the robe and the minute we began to sing "Thou Art Worthy" he just began to weep. It was just like Isaiah, "Woe, be unto me, for I am a man of unclean life."
He came up to me and said, "Dr. Ben, I haven't lived right. But I do believe in God and I would like to sing His praise and make my life better. Can I please enter into the worship and not just watch it? Can I please come to the altar and confess my sins and receive Holy Communion?"
And I said, "Our liturgy says this: 'All ye who do truly and earnestly repent of your sins and are in love with God and in fellowship with your neighbor, and are prepared to own His Son, Jesus Christ, draw near with faith, and receive this sacrament to your good. And on that day, saints and sinners worshipped God, and we all wept. And we were all caught up in love and wonder and praise of God and the pilgrims who had gone on the tour finished with the saints in Heaven, in the heavenly courts.'"
I hope you have a vision of worship as big as John's.