Jul 15, 2019

Why Read the Last Chapter?—Caring about God’s Story in the Book of Revelation

IT WAS A PRIVILEGE TO WRITE THIS BLOG ORIGINALLY FOR IHOPKC.ORG.  REPOSTED HERE WITH PERMISSION.

“Ugh, I’ve never read the book of Revelation.”

“Oh,” I stammered, taken aback. “Why?”

My mind raced, trying to generate the most positive benefit-of-the-doubt explanation—she’d been a believer for years, but maybe she just hadn’t gotten that far in her Bible reading yet. Her offhanded answer silenced my attempted “spin”:

“It’s too confusing and scary.” She shrugged nonchalantly. She was positive she wouldn’t understand the last book of the Bible and had no plan to ever read it.

I’d spent the recent months finishing the first draft of a new novel. How carefully I had crafted the storyline! Threads that ran from the very beginning of the first chapter were finally wrapped together in the last. An astounding thought hit me: Was it possible a reader might simply never read the end of the story?

Does anyone do that?

Flabbergasted, a deep sense of solidarity with my Creator sparked inside me. In that moment I saw God as an artist, a history teller, writing an intricate storyline that is not only true but every detail of which He’s carefully crafted over thousands of years. His life and His heart have been poured into this book called the Bible—it’s His primary way of showing Himself to those He loves most deeply, after all. More than that, His future is in this book. As a novelist, I write holy fiction, but He writes holy truth.

From the point of view of an author, the book of Revelation is the final chapter of a sweeping, beautiful saga. (And as C. S. Lewis suggests in The Last Battle, that saga is the title page of the Great Story itself, which will unfold for eternity.) The Bible’s narrative encompasses the human story from its beginning to its end, and all our moments from the mundane to the epic. I find my soul written out in its pages. Not one of us is absent. Artists like Lewis have told us much about ourselves, but no earthly wordsmith could create this perfect revealing of the individual heart, illuminated by the context of God’s Great Story. He has written us a book not only about Himself but about ourselves.
Like the best novels and true-life accounts, the Bible has a conclusion that blows the reader’s mind and makes sense of the rest of the story. This is reasonable since it itself is the cosmic, true story, the structure of which forms the pattern for all substories and parables and fables: good vs. evil (we couldn’t have made this up before Eve ate—it wasn’t in our realm of knowledge); the hero and the beauty (yes, love and rescue and self-sacrifice, all started in the Trinity’s heart before Adam ever saw her); the final showdown; happily-ever-after . . . you get the picture. What we know of story, we got from God’s. Without His initiation of a beginning, a middle, an end, and an eternity, we’d be stuck in lives of seasonless monotony.

Young girls love to curl under their blankets and listen to Daddy read stories in character. They even love when the slightly scary wolf makes a wolfy growl in Daddy’s throat voice, and they can shiver excitedly, all cozy because the safety of being the little one snuggled next to Daddy’s gentle bulk is a delight beyond compare. How I love watching violent thunderstorms from the cover of a deep porch. Mist occasionally dampens my face; meanwhile, an arm’s length away, blasts of wind and water are ripping leaves off trees and raging down the asphalt road. It exposes life’s real situation: the earth is in chaos, and I am safe.

Why do we forget this when it’s time to dig into the troubling and mysterious, literal and obscure, final chapter of the Word—The Revelation of Jesus Christ? (That’s its full title, by the way.) It might speak of frightening times and take intentional work to understand, but isn’t love found there—in the searching and the resting, in watching the chaos from inside the arms of a God who tells me His secrets ahead of time, to keep my heart safe?

Have I ever shied away from knowing about the danger “out there”? Probably. Has my ignorance kept me from appreciating the power God is daily exercising in keeping me safe? Yes. If I knew that He’d arranged for a reckless car to run out of gas before it reached my intersection, I’d feel a lot of gratefulness at the end of the day. Could it be that telling the vulnerable their real story is a gift to them, not an assault on their fears? There are dozens of reasons to ingest and understand the storyboard of the upcoming showdown between God (and His Church) and Satan (and rebellious humans)—a.k.a. the end times as revealed in Revelation—and this one undergirds them all: love.
I wish my tongue-tied self could have shared this with the friend who doesn’t plan to study Revelation: Dearest one who doesn’t want to read the last chapter of a story that’s actually about you and written by your Love, don’t you know . . .

Love tells you His whole story.
Love warns of danger ahead of time.
Love offers His strategies to save your heart’s life.

In summer of 2001 my prophetic father, a pastor, sat me down privately at the kitchen table and gravely shared that God had recently spoken to him: in the autumn of that year something would happen that would change our lives irretrievably (Americans’ lives, and possibly all the world’s). My father had never told me a prophetic word of this magnitude, or so directly, before. Several months later, on the morning of September 11, my colleagues and I watched on our conference room television as the twin towers fell and a new era began. I called my father, telling him to turn on the news. “Remember what you told me? It has happened,” I said.

Why did God tell him, and why did he tell his daughter? I remember my father saying, “I don’t know exactly what it is, but I don’t want you to be afraid. I don’t want you to be surprised.” And when the day came:

I knew God had not abandoned us.
I knew His sovereignty had not been overturned.
I knew His plans for His people would not be thwarted.
I knew God was in control.
I was not afraid.

There were things to fear, yes, things to keep a watch out for—skies to scan every morning as I threaded my way among the high-rise buildings of downtown Chicago, a potential next target. But God had known, and God had told His people ahead of time. Since then, I’ve heard similar stories. Here and there God gave the heads-up to other normal people, quite unlikely and unpowerful folk, and the church wasn’t taken completely off guard.

None of us can read the future history of Revelation and somehow fix the world so it doesn’t happen. But that’s not the point of reading the last chapter. If a Man who loves me wants to tell me His secrets, I want to hear them. If a Man who loves me will explain to me how to survive a coming danger, I will note it carefully. If a Man who loves me is ready to share the great story of His heart, His people, and His future, I am ready to listen all the way to the end. Not only that—I am ready to join it.

A story’s great literary art is not complete without its conclusion. A movie’s climax is never left on the cutting room floor. When a novelist exposes his inner soul through the course of his crafted storyline, his real fans don’t give him a congratulatory thump on the back with the offhanded comment that they never finished the book, the middle was good enough for them. Who would do that, particularly to a brilliant writer they love and whose novel they are in? Most stories can be enjoyed in their middle but only understood from their end.

And this Bible “story” is so much more than a novel to read—it is life to live. The value of good theology notwithstanding, the primary reason to delve deeply into Revelation is relational. If the God who loves us has written down His life story and ours and wants us to intently read the last chapter so it all makes sense—so we’re not afraid, so we know His heart, so we can be His partners through it, and so we understand how the eternal Great Story begins—we will.

Jul 5, 2019

Author Edition of Perpetua — 50% OFF July 6 & 7


https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07RCDHG21

I'm super excited to announce the 15th Anniversary Author Edition of Perpetua!



AUTHOR EDTION:

1 Restored Chapter
Multiple Restored Passages
eBook functionality (meaning, you can make the print larger!)


KINDLE COUNTDOWN DEAL:  JULY 6 & 7

As an intro price that I particularly hope readers who already have a the print version will take advantage of, the book is on a special 50% OFF sale on Amazon July 6 & 7.


Sep 24, 2018

Has the Truth Set Me Free?—The Missing Step to Gaining Freedom



“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). End of story, right? Jesus clearly laid out a two-step process here, one I memorized when I was a child. It’s probably on the tip of every Christian’s tongue. When friends have been struggling to overcome a sin or a painful thought pattern—perhaps self-hatred or an addiction—we have counseled them to seek out the truth, to study the truth, to believe and proclaim the truth. “It will set you free,” we urge. 

We are right—the truth does free us. And yet . . . examples pile up around us of long-term Christians who have never gotten victory over their habitual sins, sincere believers whose lives are not characterized by joy, and our own inner souls that are barely staying above water. What is going on?

“I know the truth,” your heart cries, “why do I still struggle with these thoughts?” 

“I know God loves me,” your friend cries. “I’ve read Song of Songs—He calls me lovely. Why do I still feel so ugly, so rejected, so unwanted?”

To be honest, none of us are entirely sure, and so we start talking about the difference between knowing and knowing; Greek-paradigm knowing and Hebrew-paradigm knowing; knowing in our heads versus knowing in our hearts. I have often seen agony inside an earnest woman’s eyes as she eventually grinds to a halt, wondering—“How on earth do I get my heart to know?” She feels she’s done all she can. Verses are memorized; truth is in her brain—if there is some magic way to make it travel down a few centimeters and end up in her heart, she doesn’t know what it is. Perhaps the only thing left to do is stand in the ministry line for prayer and keep asking the Holy Spirit to make the magic happen.

I grabbed my Bible recently to look up John 8:32, and my eyes wandered upward…upward to verse 31 and the words Jesus said right before He told us the truth would set us free. Forgotten words, dismissed words, words we have completely disassociated from the ones following. In a millisecond I learned a lesson I will never forget—do not glide along on memory rather than searching for what the Scripture actually, specifically, says. Right there in plain sight was the first part of His sentence—the key to how to know the truth came right before my memorized snippet that promised we would know the truth.

What I remembered as: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” actually says:If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

A few translations have the words of John 8:31 in the same sentence as John 8:32, others begin verse 32 with “and” or “then,” making “you shall know the truth” dependent on what comes before it. It is clear that these two verses are not unrelated snippets or proverbs—Jesus preached them in one teaching, one sentence, perhaps one breath. Here it is again in the New English Translation:

Then Jesus said to those Judeans who had believed him, “If you continue to follow my teaching, you are really my disciples and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

The Amplified Version expounds: “If you abide in My word [continually obeying My teachings and living in accordance with them, then] you are truly My disciples.” Abide doesn’t simply mean read it every day. It means do it every day.

Context is not always king, but the first half of a sentence is! It turns out becoming free is a 3-step process, not the 2-step one that’s easier to remember and frankly, easier to agree with. We love the idea that when we know the truth, we will be free. It’s not as enticing to hear that the promise starts with a big “IF”—that in order to know the truth, we have to obeythe truth. 

It’s helpful to note that Jesus wasn’t talking to unbelievers here but to the ones who already believed on Him. He wasn’t saying, “Get saved, then you will be my disciples and know the truth.” Instead, He was telling current believers to live in His Word like a fish lives in the sea—breathe in it, sleep in it, eat in it, think it, see it, stay in it. Abide. Make it your world. Obey it. Follow it. Do it.

So the promise doesn’t go:

   KNOW the truth - - - - > be FREE

It goes:

   LIVE the Truth (the Word) - - - > then you’ll KNOW truth and - - -> be FREE

This progression is reiterated across Scripture. James, such a practical and passionate teacher, tells us to receive the Word with meekness and then he cries out, “But be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Peter also makes the connection clear in a little phrase that rings often through my thoughts: “Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth by the Spirit…” The Contemporary English Version plainly and beautifully translates it as, “You obeyed the truth, and your souls were made pure.”

“Obeying” inherently includes the understanding that whatever it is we have to do doesn’t come naturally to us, wasn’t our idea originally, and may be a rather unpleasant choice for our flesh nature. Obeying is more than mental agreement—it’s always played out in our actions. This is why abiding can be explained as obeying—it means both staying and continuing in the Word. One can’t “continue in” Jesus’ teachings but not do them; the thought is oxymoronic, nonsensical. (The word oxymoron comes from a Greek word that means “pointedly foolish.” It’s a good description.)

Such nonsensical images are all around us—the spiritual leader who says he loves Jesus but is ordaining homosexual clergy; the politician who says he is a Christian but has an ongoing record of adulteries; the doctor who takes the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm yet kills tiny humans, justifying it because they are not big yet.

Those examples are easy to see, but do we notice the ones closer to home? What if my list above had read like this:  

Such nonsensical images are all around us—the woman who says she follows Christ but is stingy with her love or fearful about her finances; the boss who proclaims Jesus but pays workers late; the wife who says she forgives but keeps record in her heart of the times and ways her husband hurt her. 

The real story of abundant life begins with doing what God says. Freedom from the emotional, relational, physical, and even spiritual junk of our pasts begins with laying down our ways and agreeing with God’s. John 8:31 is paralleled in that famous promise of James 4 that when we resist the devil he will flee from us, a verse which also suffers from our inattention to the first phase of the process. “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (v. 7). The power to send Satan fleeing and the power to be set free—both begin not with ourselves, but with giving up ourselves: Submitting to God. Obeying His Word. 

I was talking to a girl recently, coaching her to do what Scripture says without waiting until she understood why it says it. “Obedience is the way to understand, as counter-intuitive as it seems,” I told her. I spoke of Samuel’s words, “to obey is better than sacrifice” [i.e., obeying God is better than giving Him all the religious things we imagine He’d like from us](1 Sam. 15:22). Embarrassingly, I couldn’t instantly point her to John 8:31 because while I knew the biblical concept, I didn’t remember where it was. But I knew that the pain she was crying out in, the agonizing disconnect between the joy God promised His people and the brokenness she was experiencing in her heart, would not be solved by talk but by her actually beginning to practice the Word of God.

When Jesus commissioned us to preach the Gospel—that climactic moment on the mountain in Galilee before He ascended back to Heaven—He listed two parts to our life-mission to make disciples:


  •         Baptize them
  •         Teach them to obey everything Jesus has commanded us
            (Matthew 28:19-20)

Teaching believers to obey (stay in, remain in, abide in) His words is the definition of making disciples (in other words, obeying is the definition of being a disciple, see John 14:15). So it turns out the first half of that sentence in John 8 is essential. If we don’t turn the car key to “on”, we can step on the gas all we like—it still won’t go. Step 1 is the only reason Step 2 works. Obeying/Abiding in His Word is the first step to knowing the truth. And then, yes—the truth will make us free! 

I’m ready to move forward in obedience, so that I can move forward in freedom. Who’s with me?!


Check-my-heart List:
[  ] Where am I not physically and practically continuing in Jesus’ teaching?
[  ] Do I hesitate to do what the Word says, waiting until I understand it first?
[  ] Do I look for “cultural” reasons the Bible may have given a command, hoping that will mean it doesn’t apply to me?

Abiding unto Freedom:
[  ] With the Holy Spirit’s leading, choose one Bible chapter or passage to prayerfully abide in each day for a week, asking God for ways to practice it.
[  ] At the end of the week, with the Holy Spirit’s help, assess what has happened in your heart. (There may be unexpected results. For instance, a woman who lives in the 1 Peter 1:22 – 2:10 passage, setting her heart to “love one another fervently” and to put away “deceit, hypocrisies, envies, and all evil-speaking” may discover she is less subject to the fear of rejection she used to often feel (see verses 2:4 and 2:9-10). This is just an example—God knows our unique hearts and the roots of our struggles, and will heal and free us in ways we may not anticipate.)