He is worthy. . .

I saw that there was a scroll in the right hand of the one sitting on the throne. The scroll was written on the inside and the outside, and it was sealed with seven seals. I saw a strong angel announcing in a loud voice, “Does anybody deserve to open the scroll, to undo its seals?” And nobody in heaven or on the earth or under the earth could open the scroll or look at it. I burst into tears because it seemed that there was nobody who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside it. One of the elders, however, spoke to me. “Don’t cry,” he said. “Look! The lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has won the victory! He can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

~ Revelation 5:1-5, TKNT

Then, in between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain. It had seven horns and seven eyes, which are God’s seven spirits, sent out into the whole earth. He came forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one seated on the throne. When he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each held a harp and gold bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They took up a new song, saying,

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and open its seals,
because you were slain,
and by your blood
you purchased for God
persons from every tribe, language,
people, and nation.

You made them a kingdom and priests
to our God,
and they will rule on earth.”

~ Revelation 5:6-10, CEB

I think we’ve all said (or heard it said) at some point in our lives, “Jesus is worthy of my worship.” It’s a nice sentiment, but I sometimes find myself asking, “Why is he worthy of my worship?”

Is it simply because he is God, and that’s how it should be? We’re supposed to worship God, right? That’s just the way things are. We’re finite, and God is infinite. He’s infinitely powerful, infinitely just, and infinitely holy, so that in itself is motivation for worshiping him.

The book of Revelation is admittedly a very difficult book. And that’s okay. Apocalyptic literature is never easy to figure out, but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t wrestle with it. Here’s what I (and by “I,” I mean, “theologians and scholars that I currently agree with”) think is going on here.

First question: What’s the deal with this scroll? What is it and why is it so important?

Answer: There are a ton of ideas about what this scroll could be, and many of them contradict each other, but here’s where I land currently. All of Scripture is the story of God’s interaction with the world. He created a home in which to dwell and placed his children into the world to be its overseers. But these children decided to move in their own direction apart from the Creator’s design and sent this world—themselves included—into a tailspin. God set into motion a plan through which he would restore everything to its rightful relationship with him. The scroll in Revelation 5 appears to be God’s plan to redeem and restore his creation to its rightful state of perfection, even unbroken relationship with him.

Second question: Why can’t God the Father open the scroll and unveil this plan of restoration?

Answer: Each of the seals that hold the scroll shut appear to be part of a series of judgments that will purify the earth and eliminate the wickedness that runs rampant upon it. No one in the throne room seems to be capable or qualified to break the seals and purify the earth. No one, that is, except the Lamb (Jesus). Why is the Lamb qualified? The text says, “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain” (emphasis added). We can infer a few things from this qualifier. First, the Lamb entered the human condition. He suffered and died. That means that he can identify with us, and the judgments he pours out don’t come from someone who is detached from humanity, but someone who can sympathize and empathize with us in our plight. His purification of the earth is not arbitrary or unfeeling.

Second, he was motivated by love. John wrote that God is love, and what better way to show love than to give your life up for the object of your love? Jesus did that, and when he judges the earth, he is motivated by a self-giving love, the depths of which we cannot possibly fathom.

Third, death—and by extension, resurrection, particularly the resurrection of Jesus—is incredibly important. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: the very thing that qualifies Christ is his self-sacrificing action on the cross. In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul writes the following:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

There’s a lot here, but we can infer that the operative principle when considering the Messiah’s worthiness is his incredibly humble attitude. Paul tells his audience that this attitude—this humility—is the attitude to adopt. This is why the Lamb is worthy to break the seals of the scroll and begin the process of purifying the earth and eliminating wickedness. This is why the Lamb is worthy to open the scrolls and set in motion the restoration of all things.

Because he is uniquely humble.

Third question: How does any of this change how I worship God?

Answer: Maybe it doesn’t. But I would submit that the reason we worship God should be brought into examination. The Greek word translated in 5:9 as “to take” (“You are worthy to take the scroll”) is the same word translated in 5:12 as “to receive” (“Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, wealth, wisdom, and might, and honor, glory, and blessing”): λαβεῖν. The parallel shouldn’t be missed. The Lamb is worthy to take the scroll and open the seals in the same way that he is worthy to receive honor and glory. His humble, self-sacrificing death qualifies him.

This realization should change things. Think of the following exchange:

“Why do you worship Jesus?”

“I worship him because he is worthy.”

Where do you think it could go from there? I think we need to be cautious of an answer like this because it can quickly and subtly turn into something to the effect of, “I worship him for no reason that I am truly aware of or can accurately and/or succinctly articulate right now.” That can lead us to an artificial or unsustainable worship of Jesus that may last for a season, but that will falter because we can’t find a good reason to worship him.

Or consider this possible ensuing exchange:

“Why is he worthy?”

“Jesus is worthy because he is all-powerful, completely just, perfectly holy, and infinitely wise.”

Fair enough, but for starters, I think Scripture is far more explicit about why Jesus is worthy of our worship, and while those attributes are given in Scripture, I don’t think they’re used as motivation for worship (though I could be wrong about that; this is, after all, a blog and not a dissertation).

We become like that which we worship, and I believe that can be also be stated as this: we take on the attributes we hold most dear of that which we worship.

That’s why when we see people who obsess over God’s power, justice, and wrath, over and against God’s love, we often find people who are arrogant, dogmatic, and unloving. (Though ironically they often say things like, “I’m only saying this because I love you like Jesus loves you.” If you truly loved like Jesus loved, you’d be setting your agenda aside and laying your life down for the sake of that other person. . . but I digress.)

But when we see people who obsess over God’s love, we find people who always set aside their own comforts and ideologies for the sake of those around them. It’s almost as if they’ve taken ownership of the Messiah’s words: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”

So why is Jesus worthy of my worship?

He is worthy because he was slain. He is worthy because he emptied himself. He is worthy because without his death on the cross, the scroll would remain closed, and the restoration of creation would be unattainable.

“But thanks be to God, who in the Messiah constantly leads us in a triumphal procession and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of what it means to know him!”

Who am I? . . .

For years, he crafted an identity. His parents’ deaths gave him the identity of orphan. Hunger gave him the identity of thief by necessity. Repeated escape attempts from prison hardened him, and he earned the identity of criminal. Nearly twenty years as a prisoner transformed him into a desperate and broken man.

Then a chance encounter with grace introduced a new story, and following the guilt and shame he experienced after spitting in the face of the gift he’d been given, he began to work on a new identity.

No longer the thief, no longer the criminal, no longer the escaped convict known as Jean Valjean, he took on a new name. Monsieur Madeleine, he called himself. A new name, a new life, and a new city to call home.

But it wouldn’t be long before his previous life caught up with him. His former jailor, now an inspector with the police, sees something familiar in M. Madeleine and decides to investigate further.

When it seemed inevitable that he would be exposed for the thief and criminal he once was, a man bearing his face emerges as an escape from the ghosts of his past.

He soon faces the question of his own identity. Is he the criminal of so many years ago? Is he M. Madeleine, the benevolent mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer? Or is he someone completely different?

At some point in life we face the same questions Jean Valjean faced. Am I [insert sin here]? Or am I [insert accomplishments here]? Or is there something else that defines me?

Valjean’s conundrum in Les Misérables represents the problem that the world imposes upon each of us: what you do defines who you are. At work, you arrive at your position based on how much effort you put into your job. On your career path, you often receive your title based on the degree or certification program you completed before entering the workforce.

If you constantly make mistakes, you’re a failure. If you fight a losing battle with sexual immorality, you’re filthy and lustful. If you give in to your vices over and over again, you’re an addict.

How you live dictates who you are.

But for God, the complete opposite is true. Scripture tells us that who we are dictates how we live.

We are daughters and sons of God (Romans 8:14-15), so we can be joyful and grateful.

We are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), so we share the incredible news that our King has come.

We are hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3), so we can live freely because we have nothing to fear.

Suddenly we don’t have the pressure of living for something. Instead we can live from something—joy, peace, freedom.

Suddenly finding our identity is as simple as looking at our King.

Just know that even though it’s simple, it’s far from easy. This world is screaming other identities at us so loud that it can drown out the voice of the King. But if you listen, not for another deafening scream, but for a whisper, a “still, small voice,” if you will, you’ll hear him.

“You’re mine. Your identity is in me. You are my child, and I love you.”

Where it wishes. . .

This weekend in eTown we’re telling kids the story of Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus as recorded in John 3. In verses 5 through 8, Jesus uses the word pneuma several times for two different meanings, and I think he’s being purposefully ambiguous.

Pneuma is the Greek word for both “wind” and “Spirit,” and in this case it’s quite significant. I think Jesus is alluding to the life of someone who is “born of the Spirit.”

That life is characterized by trust. Complete trust in the movement of the Spirit to the extent that our own agendas, our own plans, all take a backseat to what God is doing in our lives.

To the outsider, it might seem completely random. I mean, why give up stability to go somewhere “on a whim”? Why pass on some amazing career opportunities in publishing to start a church community from scratch? Why leave the town you grew up in for an uncomfortable living situation?

But to those born of the Spirit, these are the only options that make sense. How can I not go where the Spirit leads? How can I, when faced with what he has revealed to me through Scripture, when staring at the reality of a world ravaged by sin, worry about my agenda?

When there’s just too much at stake?

When we are “born again,” we surrender our lives to a mission. We give our lives over to the making of disciples, and there is no task more important than that. If that takes us to the most illogical places, or settles us in what we’ve always called home, no matter how random or nonsensical it may appear, it’s what we were (re)born for.

“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

All those powers. . .

My favorite comic book character is Superman. I’ve always loved his story—the tragedy of his past, the loneliness and isolation he experiences, and the sheer power of his, well, person. But if there’s one thing Superman can’t do, it’s this: he can’t save anyone from death.

Sure, he can save people from getting killed by something. But death will always evade Superman’s power. He even admits after his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, dies of a heart attack, in a scene from one of my favorite movies, “All those powers, and I couldn’t even save him.”

If the seemingly omnipotent Kal El can’t defeat death, what hope do we have when death seems to own everything?

There’s a song by Hillsong United that repeats this line:

“The same power that conquered the grave lives in me.”

That’s a bold claim to make, isn’t it?

Not when you consider these words from Chapter 3 of Paul’s letter to his church in Ephesus:

“According to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Jesus never once had to make the admission that Clark Kent did. Never once did he say, “I couldn’t even save him.”

Instead, he destroyed death.

He rendered death obsolete.

And the power he used to kill death?

Love.

Pure, raw, unadulterated love.

Paul wrote that if we “know the love of Christ,” we’ll then be “filled with all the fullness of God.” Yeah, that’s right. The fullness of the God who killed death.

That power lives in us if we know Christ’s love.

All of it. “The fullness of God.”

All those powers. . . Why aren’t we changing the world?

Belief. . .

One of the awesome things about my new job is the opportunity to listen to men who are far smarter than I am dialogue about spirituality. I love sitting in on many casual conversations that take place in the kitchen/conference room. But there have been several occasions where I’ve been pulled into a conversation.

Today was one of those occasions. One of our pastors looked at me and said, “Commit this to memory: Romans 4.3.” When this guy says something, I know I need to listen. He’s one of those men whose opinion is cherished throughout the office.

So today I after work I decided to read through that passage.

“For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.'”

The ramifications of this sentence floored me.

For practically my entire life I’ve added so much to the Gospel. But when the question is asked—”How can I be made right with God?”—the answer strips all that away.

Believe.

My favorite story in the life of Jesus is the story of Lazarus’s death. The story is a microcosm of everything that Jesus came to earth for. He enters our world in the middle of our deepest suffering and pain. He looks at the pain and sympathizes empathizes with us. He even cries with us. He then does battle with the pain and breathes life into death.

After Lazarus died, Martha, Lazarus’s sister, approaches Jesus in the middle of her pain and essentially asks, “Where were you?!” And instead of comforting her or reassuring her, Jesus reminds Martha of who He is.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

How reassuring is this statement when your brother just died?

And then Jesus asks her point blank. “Do you believe this?”

Her response is staggering. “Yes, Lord, I believe. . .”

And in believing, she was given a front-row seat to Christ’s duel with death.

Believe, and God takes you into His family.

Believe, and God shows you how mightily He fights for you.

Believe, and God makes you right with Him.

Martha’s doubts didn’t go away before she believed. None of her questions were answered before she believed.

She believed, and then she saw.

It’s the same thing for us today. Seeing is not the catalyst for believing. Believing is the catalyst for seeing.

When we believe, we see just how powerful God is.

When we believe, we see just how much God loves.

When we believe, we see that God wants us with Him.

But all this is possible only when we believe.

Defiant worship. . .

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
(Daniel 3:16-18 ESV)

Exactly one year ago I lost my job at Liquid Church. It’s not like I didn’t know it was coming; after all, my title started with the word interim. Regardless, it still hurt. It felt weird and wrong somehow. When I was told that I would be finishing up in two weeks, Pastor Tim was wrapping up a series on the book of Habakkuk. I wasn’t listening at the time, but after exactly one year, God has given me the opportunity to do what my heart yearns to do and to do it full-time.

I honestly don’t know how I continued. I was angry. I was sad. I even fell into depression. I questioned God over and over again. Why had he placed this calling on my life, yet he had given me no avenue to act on my calling?

But I kept serving him in the flawed ways I knew. I cried out to him in song every Sunday, begging him to give me a ministry to call my own.

And then I looked around me and realized that he had given me an avenue to act on my calling. He had given me a ministry. There were so many opportunities he had given me, but in my grief and self-absorption, I was unable unwilling to see and grasp the opportunities he’d given me.

In the middle of it all, I still remembered the cross. I was failing. I was destroying myself. But God was still there, reminding me that he bought me with his blood.

And then it got worse. The opportunities that I’d missed—the ministry God had given me that I was blind to—they were all taken from me.

“My God is able to deliver me. . . and he will.”

These words were so difficult to say, let alone believe. But I tried.

“But if he does not. . .”

Even more difficult to swallow this thought. If God chose to keep me from my heart’s greatest desire, would I still worship him?

Even now, as I type the words, they are slow and deliberate. I have to ask myself again, “Would I still worship him?”

I pause for what feels like an hour.

Yes. I will.

Because when I trusted Jesus as my Savior I knew that I was not asking him to enter my life and empower my agenda or my motives. I knew that I was not asking him to come along for the journey of my life.

I was asking him to lead me. I was asking him to go before me. I was asking him to pave the way in my life, and I know that whatever pain I may experience, he’s going through it before I am because he’s leading me.

That is how I can defiantly say that even if my God does not deliver me, I will still worship him.

How can we, when trials come our way, persevere if we’ve asked Christ to empower our agendas? We cannot. Instead, to truly defy our circumstances, we must understand that trusting Christ as our Saviour is following him through life and not requesting that he follow us.

Accepting grace. . .

I’ve been reading through Acts lately thanks to the latest sermon series at Emergence. I was struck by an interesting dichotomy between two conversions in chapters 8 and 9.

In the first conversion, we find the story of an Ethiopian eunuch whose curiosity for the things of God led him to discover Jesus. Let’s assume this guy has had no contact with any sort of religious education. After all, according to Deuteronomy 23.1, he wasn’t allowed in the temple anyway.

And yet as Philip talks with him about the ancient book of Isaiah, this eunuch very readily and simply trusts Jesus.

In stark contrast to the story of the eunuch’s conversion is Saul’s conversion in chapter 9. While the eunuch followed Jesus without the need for any real coaxing, it took a supernatural slap in the face for Saul to finally follow Jesus. And his road was marked with pain, suffering, and humiliation.

He was slammed off his horse, exposed to an extremely bright light, lectured by Jesus himself, left blind and completely dependent on someone else’s help, and cared for by the very man he was planning on executing.

Here’s the funny thing—Saul was the religious one.

So what have I learned from this? For starters, no one is outside of God’s reach. From the broken and remorseful sinner to the passionate and violent religious leader, God reaches all of us.

But I think he has to hit religious people a little harder. We’re stubborn, set in our ways, and we believe we’re right about everything. So he steps in, introduces a little bit of pain because, unlike the “sinner,” we haven’t experienced life’s hardships that would draw us to him, and confronts us directly.

So what does that mean for me? I’m not totally sure. I think God’s telling me that I need to love religious people just as much as I love non-religious people. They need his grace just as much as anyone else. The problem is that we’re often very unwilling to accept it.

Everything I need. . .

With my voice I cry out to the Lord;
With my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord.
I pour out my complaint before him;
I tell my trouble before him.
When my spirit faints within me,
you know my way!
In the path where I walk
they have hidden a trap for me.
Look to the right and see:
There is none who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for my soul.
I cry to you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living.”

The last few days haven’t been easy. And it becomes so difficult to trust God when it feels like he’s taking things away from me. To be totally honest, I’m actually angry at him right now. I almost feel like he’s given me glimpses of the great things he has planned for me, only to rip them away with the words, “You’re not ready for this yet, Nate.”

He gave me something to pour my abilities and efforts into, and then I hear, “I can’t let you do that, Nate. Not when you’ve lost sight of whom this is really about.” And it hurt, but I knew I needed to make some changes in my own life.

And just as I’m on the brink of taking that first step towards change, a gift he’d given me very recently was quickly snatched away, and I hear, “You’re not ready for this gift, Nate. This was my gift to you, but you’re not a gift yourself.” And again, it hurt.

Like any child who’s being corrected by his father, I’m angry because the correcting hurts. But, like that child, I know that I have nowhere else to turn, and that the hand that’s correcting me is the same hand that comforts me.

So I’ll run into the refuge of my Father’s arms, knowing that, even though I can’t have what I want right now, he’s providing me what I need.

My old mentor told me recently to stop “seeking change for yourself and start seeking the God who changes.” Because change may be everything I want in my life right now, but this God is everything I need.

Fear in love. . .

I was reading through Revelation 1 yesterday when I stumbled on a passage that had a very intriguing setup.

John describes a powerful, majestic, and terrifying incarnation of Christ. But immediately following this description, Christ says, “Do not be afraid.”

It’s almost as if he’s saying, “Look at what I did for you. I am the Eternal One, and yet I stooped down to experience death for you. But I didn’t stop there. I destroyed death so that you wouldn’t have to taste it. I control Hell so you won’t have to go there. So yeah, there’s no reason to be afraid.”

But if we’re honest, we’ll admit that fear is what drives our lives.

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you’ve seen that I’m obsessed with the concept of love. It’s fascinating to me because it’s probably one of the greatest mysteries of our humanity, yet it’s the most common aspect of our lives. It’s also (supposed to be) the defining point of Christians. (I’ll refrain from my rant about Christians’ failure to exhibit this feature.)

So here’s an interesting thought about love and fear. . .

Love, in its purest form, is completely fearless.

Odd, isn’t it? I mean, fear and love seem to go hand-in-hand. We’re afraid to love because we might get burned.

Or the love won’t be reciprocated.

Or we might be taken advantage of.

All legitimate fears. But none have any place near love.

Check this out.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
~1 John 4.18

Um. Ouch.

I strive to love perfectly, flawlessly, purely. Yet I’m held back by fear. And I think it’s this fear that is crippling me and keeping me from becoming the man that God is calling me to be.

Fear destroys love. The most common command in the Bible is “Do not be afraid” or some variation of it. I think it’s time I start obeying this command.

Perspectives. . .

My friend Beth posted a fantastic entry on this passage, and as I read it, I couldn’t help but be struck by the inclusiveness of the language.

God pours out his blessings on everyone. No matter what.

All we have to do is ask him.

What’s sad is that we often assume that we have to live a certain way or do certain things before God is willing to share his love with us.

So we slave to earn God’s favor, and hope that he’s happy with the work we’re doing.

But Paul wrote a different story about God.

“If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us?”
~Romans 8.32

It’s interesting to see how much our lives change through a simple change in perspective. You can look at your life one way, believing God to be an angry judge waiting to see us screw up, seeing every difficult or painful situation as a way for him to find fault in what we’re doing. Or you can look at life another way, seeing God as a benevolent king who wants nothing more than to watch you grow and mature, embracing every trial as an opportunity to become stronger and wiser.

And God wants this for us. He’s longing to give us great things. He wants our lives to be fulfilled and joyful. The letter writer James put it this way:

“Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle. He brought us to life using the true Word, showing us off as the crown of all his creatures.”
~James 1.17-18

We mean a lot to God. Isn’t there comfort in knowing this? Maybe a simple shift in perspective is all we need.