The Bible is rich in paradox, but one of my favorites appears in Revelation 5:5-6. John begins this text by recalling, “And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’”
This is a text that creates all sorts of expectations in the listener. We’re about to be introduced to somebody who is simultaneously the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, and a conqueror. Each of these descriptors is rich in imagery and Scriptural resonance.
Let’s start with the lion. Even the irreligious recognize lions as ferocious, majestic creatures. The Biblically literate are reminded of Jacob’s blessing of his son Judah in Genesis 49:9.
Second, the Root of David is an offshoot of Israel’s greatest king, the warrior who killed giants and led his people to regional preeminence. In order for the title to apply, the candidate had better have the right Davidic lineage, be kingly, and be a victorious war leader.
Third, as we would expect, this leonine Root has conquered. The Jews of Jesus’ time would have been in no doubt about what to expect here. They’ve been under Roman domination for too stinkin’ long; it’s time to start dominating the Romans instead!
However, John takes all these expectations and subverts them in the very next verse. He says, “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.”
Whoa! This is like expecting a steak dinner and getting a cube of tofu instead. The heroic victor over the enemies of God’s people looks like a baby sheep. Worse still, He looks like a DEAD baby sheep. This is an animal with zero capacity to conquer, who in fact clearly has been conquered. And yet, the elder says, “This is the One who has overcome.” What gives?
That’s exactly God’s point. In literal terms, Jesus didn’t look like anybody’s idea of a victor. He spent His whole life as a Jewish peasant. He never led armies in battle; indeed, He told His followers to sheathe their swords. He didn’t kill His enemies; they killed Him.
However, this meek Lamb of a Savior proved to be a lion. He overcame not through brute force and hatred, but through lowliness and love. His enemies thought they had defeated Him on the cross, but through His death and resurrection, He defeated the greatest enemy of mankind, the devil himself. He will stand for eternity as the greatest conqueror of all time.
God’s lions are lambs. We should remember this not only about our Lord, but about ourselves. We find personal victory not by asserting our will, but by submitting to God’s will. We prove our worth in the kingdom not by insisting on our own way, but by humbly serving others. We bring others to Christ not through domination and coercion, but through patience and love.
To worldly wisdom, this is and always has been foolishness. Surely, anybody who acts like that will get trampled on and despised! Surely, a people that acts like that will be shoved aside and forgotten! However, the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and His path leads not to irrelevance, but to triumph. If we are led by the spirit of the Lamb, we will share in His glory too.
Lots of people binge-watch TV shows. Recently, I’ve been binge-reading personal-finance blogs. One of their favorite topics is asset allocation, in other words, where you should put the money you’re saving for retirement.
Of all the possible investments, the one with the highest returns historically is the stock market. However, most financial gurus will tell you not to put all your money in stocks or stock mutual funds. It’s too risky. What do you do if you’re invested in 100 percent equities, and the market tanks the day after you retire? Your portfolio may never recover.
Instead, the gurus recommend putting part of your money in stocks, another part in bonds, maybe another part in cash or T-bills. The overall returns probably won’t be as good, but those safer investments will protect you from disaster.
This divided strategy makes a lot of sense financially, but a lot of Christians try to apply it where it’s not appropriate. We have examples of men and women of faith who were 100 percent invested in God: Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Paul, and many others. They gave up substantial earthly rewards and faced severe trials for righteousness’ sake, and they were all rewarded.
However, too many brethren look at these examples and say to themselves, “Oooh—too risky!” They try to hedge their investment in God. God promises them inexpressible joy in Christ, but they’re worried that they won’t be happy without their alcohol habit or porn habit, so they cling to it. God promises them eternal fellowship in heaven, but they’re worried about losing friends here if they’re too vocal about their faith, so they remain silent. Rather than being 100 percent invested in God, they’re 75/25, or maybe 50/50.
This diversified spiritual portfolio may seem wise to earthly reasoning, but it’s an invitation to spiritual disaster. As Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1:13, we are supposed to set our hope fully on the grace that is to be revealed. Fully. That’s 100 percent. Not 90 percent on grace, 10 percent on pleasure. Not 75 percent on grace, 25 percent on friends. Nope. Fully. Otherwise, we will fail to achieve what is most important.
Our journey to heaven isn’t like a retirement account: passive, under the influence of forces beyond our control. Instead, the Scripture compares it to a race, in which a partial investment can only lead to disaster. NASCAR drivers don’t race to economize on gas. They race to win. Athletes don’t jog through the 100-meter dash so they can have a comfortable walk to the car afterward. They run to win.
We need to run to win too, and we need to recognize those “diversification opportunities” not as ways to avoid risk but as encumbrances that will keep us from winning. Many of the problems that we worry about never actually come up, but even if they do, so what? 5000 years from now, nobody in heaven will be saying, “Man, I really wish I hadn’t given up my drinking habit!”
In that day, there will be regrets in plenty, but to find them, you’ll have to look someplace else.
This week’s Bible reading has many, many verses in it that stand out to me. Of them all, though, the one that most fired my imagination was Colossians 2:8. There, Paul writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”
Contrary to what we might think, in this verse, Paul makes clear that being captured is not a bad thing per se. Instead, we’re supposed to avoid being captured, or indeed capturing others, with the wrong thing. Being taken captive by philosophy, empty deceit, human tradition, or the elemental spirits of the world: bad. Being taken captive by Christ: good.
Our first application here must be to ourselves. We can have other hobbies, interests, and concerns, but the One who owns us must be Jesus. Our minds and hearts must be turned to Him above all others.
Second, in our efforts to win the lost, we must be careful of using anything but Jesus to appeal to outsiders. There are some obvious applications here. The congregation that attracts unbelievers with a worship service that sounds like a rock concert has made converts to the rock concert, not to Jesus. The church that gets people on its church bus by taping a five-dollar-bill under one of the seats might be bringing those people to services, but it isn’t bringing them to the Lord. Rick Warren to the contrary, “Train up a child in the way he should go,” is not sufficient authority for a church to establish a potty-training ministry! The gospel, not earthly appeal, is what brings the lost to Christ.
However, we must look to ourselves here too. It is possible for us to adhere to the form of Bible authority while defeating God’s purpose and intent. Consider, for instance, song worship. It is entirely possible for a congregation to raise the rafters in four-part a-cappella harmony yet not take visitors captive to Christ. Only the word of Christ, first dwelling within us richly, then expressed to one another in heartfelt singing, can do that. If our song worship is not about the message, it is missing the mark.
So too with preaching. A man can command the pulpit in one of our churches with all the skill of Apollos but not bring anybody closer to Jesus. A sermon built on human tradition and political prejudice can be “not unscriptural” and still have nothing to say about the gospel. The hearers of such a sermon may well amen every word without having brought their lives into submission to the Lord.
To succeed in carrying out God’s will in this evil time, we cannot abandon the word of Christ for any fleshly expedient, no matter how alluring. Instead, we must focus everything we do: singing, preaching, teaching, and personal work, more and more tightly on Jesus. We must repeatedly proclaim His mercy as our Savior and His authority as our Lord. If we want to bring others to Jesus, nothing but Jesus will do.
Most Christians are familiar with the twin descriptions of disciples in Matthew 5:13-16. There, Jesus tells us that we are to be both the salt of the earth and the light of the world. However, we’re not as quick to recognize that these two commandments are in tension. The problem is that being salty has a tendency to make us less bright, and being bright tends to make us less salty.
The key attribute of saltiness is distinctiveness. Christians are supposed to have a different savor than the people of the world do. If we are adulterated so that we become like the people of the world, we have lost our savor, and we are useless for God’s purposes.
Universally, dedicated Christians are aware of this danger. They see that exposure to worldliness will make them more worldly, so they avoid worldliness as much as they can. Even outside of the assembly, their best friends are other strong Christians. If they can, they will take jobs that allow them to work with brethren instead of worldly people. They home-school their children or send them to private Christian schools, with the goal or at least the result that those children are insulated from worldliness as well. By the time I was eight, I had already heard every cuss word in the book. I don’t think my home-schooled eight-year-old daughter has.
In many ways, all of these are wise decisions, and I think brethren make them with the best of motives. In fact, every one of those things is something I’ve done. However, we have to recognize that all this protected saltiness can come at the cost of being a light.
Jesus says, after all, that we are supposed to be the light of the world, and it is precisely the world from which many Christians have isolated themselves. In the midst of my Christian friends, Christian co-workers, and educational environment in which all the adults are Christians, I have no trouble going through an entire day without saying a single word to someone who is lost. As a result, there are high-school kids with a bunch of friends in the world who bring 10 times as many lost people to our assemblies as I do.
The point here is not that we should avoid having Christian friends and Christian co-workers and Christian-friendly educational choices. I think it’s hard to go to heaven without the first, and the second and third are at least beneficial. However, we must admit that all that insulation from the world comes at a cost, and if we want to save the lost, we first must encounter the lost. Salt that has lost its savor is useless, but so too is a light that spends all its time huddling under a basket with other lights.
Usually, the story of the Old Testament is a story of spiritual failure. However, there are times when God’s people get it right. One of these rare occasions appears in Nehemiah 8. Immediately before this, Nehemiah has led the people to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, and now they have all assembled in a square before the Water Gate to celebrate the Feast of Trumpets. In their conduct, we see three things that we ought to imitate.
They Were Attentive to the Law
This chapter is filled with evidence that the Jews of this day cared about the Law. In Nehemiah 8:1, they tell Ezra that now that they’re assembled, they want to hear him read the Law. According to 8:3, they listen attentively to the reading of the Law from early morning to midday. In 8:5, they stand when the scroll of the Law is opened and bow low in worship. Finally, in 8:8, they listen to those who are explaining the Law until they all understand it.
At this point in Jewish history, most of the people are probably illiterate. Additionally, they likely couldn’t afford to purchase a scroll of the Law even if they could read it. They didn’t have a building in which to assemble to hear the Law; they just stood on the pavement. In every one of these ways, our situation is better than theirs. Our access to God’s word is so much easier. Is our zeal for that word equal to theirs?
They Took the Law to Heart
Nehemiah 8:9-12 reports the reaction of the people to the reading. They weep because they understand how far short they have fallen of God’s expectations. However, a few verses later, we find them rejoicing, taking their strength from their joy in God. For them, hearing God’s word is both a meaningful and an extremely emotional experience.
By contrast, all too many Christians today declare (either openly or by their behavior) that the word of God is borrring. Frankly, that says a lot more about them than it does about the word. We can’t truly have a heart for God unless we also have a heart for His revelation. We too should be moved when we hear or read it. It is no less beautiful, meaningful, and powerful today than it was in Nehemiah’s time. However, if we want to find beauty, meaning, and power in it, we first must invest ourselves in its study.
They Restored the Practice of the Law
In Nehemiah 8:13-18, the people learn from the Law that they’re supposed to be celebrating the Feast of Booths (as set out in Leviticus 23:33-44), so they cut branches, construct booths of them, and live in them through the time of the feast. Nehemiah notes that this festival had not been celebrated correctly since the days of Joshua, nearly a thousand years before.
We too should be zealous to obey every commandment of God, especially those commandments that long have been neglected. We must beware of the danger of accumulating our set of “Church of Christ traditions”, things that we do because we have always done them, not because we are seeking to obey God’s will. Like the Jews of Nehemiah’s time, we must compare our practice to God’s law and unflinchingly obey Him no matter what that demands of us.