How Christians Win: A Study of the Word “Nikao” in Revelation

Two Ways to Conquer

The book of Revelation completely redefines our concept of “victory”. For the Romans, “Nike” was the goddess of victory (also known as “Victoria” in Latin). She had two wings, and was thought to fly around on the battle field granting speed and strength to the victors. The Romans carried symbols of “Nike” on their flags. They would burn incense to “victory” as they entered the Roman senate building. All throughout the Roman Empire, cities had statues of “Nike” with her foot on the globe, reminding everyone that Rome had conquered the world.

The conflict between patriotic Romans and the church grew especially strong in Asia minor, the center of the imperial cult. Shortly after the close of the New Testament, Christians in this area would be executed or imprisoned simply for remaining steadfast in their confession to be Christians.

It was in this world that John wrote is not-so-subtle challenge to the Roman concept of victory. The Greek word “nikao” (translated “victory” or “conquer” or “overcome”) appears 17 times in the book of Revelation. By tracing John’s usage of this word throughout his book it becomes clear that Jesus’ idea of “victory” stands in stark contrast to that which was worshiped by the Romans.

Jesus Promises Blessings to the Victors

The first eight appearances of “nikeo” are found in the first three chapters, as Jesus promises blessings to those who “overcome”.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God. (Rev. 2.7)

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death. (Rev. 2.11)

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it. (Rev. 2.17)

He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, “To him I will give authority over the nations” (Rev. 2.26)

He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. (Rev. 3.5)

He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name. (Rev. 3.12)

He who overcomes, I will grant him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. (Rev. 3.21)

Throughout the Roman Empire there was a familiar saying: “Victory belongs to the Romans, for they have slain more than their enemies.” For the early Christians, this must have felt all too true. It would have been difficult to travel through any major city, or to conduct any type of regular business, without seeing images of Nike everywhere, continually reminding them who was in charge.

And yet, despite all appearances, Jesus promises that His followers will be the ones who will be blessed in victory. It must have felt almost unbelievable. But to understand how Christians could expect to be victorious, we must continue reading this theme as it develops in John’s Revelation.

A Surprising Image of the Conqueror

Revelation 5 takes us with John to the heavenly throne room, where we are given one of the most crucial and surprising images in the book of Revelation. Here John sees a mighty angel (v. 2) holding a scroll with seven seals. The problem is that it seems no one is worthy to open the scroll (v. 3), causing John to weep (v. 4).

It is at this point that we are introduced to the Lion of the Tribe a Judah (a familiar image for the Messiah – cf. Gen. 49.9).

Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals. (Rev. 5.5)

As we would expect of a victorious Messiah, we are told that the lion is not only worthy to open the scroll, but that he has “overcome”. He has won the victory! He has done it! He has conquered! He is here!

But here, John gives us a most unexpected image. What John “heard” was the announcement of a victorious Lion. But what he “saw” was a slain lamb.

And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain. (Rev. 5.6)

What he sees seems to stand in stark contrast with what he heard. A victorious lion and a slain lamb seem about as opposite as they could be. One is a symbol of ultimate power. The other is a symbol of gentle vulnerability, and through its sacrifice, the weakness of death.

Here, in this one vision, the two images are fused together into one. From this moment on, John and his careful readers, are to understand that the victory won by the Lion was accomplished through the death of the Lamb.

Images of Roman Victory

In contrast to this image of the slain lamb, John’s Revelation also utilizes multiple images to depict the Roman idea of victory. In the vision of the seven scrolls (Rev. 6), the Roman idea of victory is represented by four powerful horses of Roman power: conquest, war, famine, and death.

The first horse brings victory, or “conquering”, which is repeated twice in verse 2 for emphasis:

I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown were given to him, and he went our conquering and to conquer.

The beasts in chapters 11 and 13, which likely also represent Rome, inflict a similar violent conquest.

When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up out of the abyss will make war with them, and overcome them and kill them. And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which mystically is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. (Rev. 11.7-8)

It was also given to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them, and authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation was given to him. (Rev. 13.7)

Lamb Victory vs Beast Victory

By presenting these two contrasting images of “conquering”, the plot tension is set. Sandwiched right between the two beast scenes is a scene in which Satan is described as making war on those who follow God. In other words, the two radically different styles of “conquering” face off against one another. On one side is the great dragon, who is called the devil and Satan (12.9). On the other side are those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus (12.17). It’s the ultimate showdown between Lamb-style victory and Beast-style victory.

The ultimate victory belongs to those who are faithful to the Lamb

Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night. And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death. (Rev. 12.10-11)

Notice carefully how God’s people win the ultimate victory over Satan. Following Jesus’ path to victory means that we conquer, not by shedding the blood of others, bur rather by identifying with Jesus’ own blood which was shed when he was crucified by the Romans. Or, as John put it, “They did not love their life even when faced with death.”

Revelation’s first century readers knew all too well the conquering power of Rome. They were it’s victims. But the message of the book of Revelation is clear. The dragon and the beasts with their “conquering” do not have the final word.

The Victory of the Lamb

In Revelation 15.2 it is those who have conquered the beast who are seen standing beside the sea of glass with harps in their hands praising God.

And I saw something like a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, holding harps of God.

In Revelation 17:14 it is the Lamb who goes out conquering the other “lords” and “kings”, and those who are faithful to Him are victorious.

These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is the Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are called chosen and faithful.

In Revelation 21:7, it is the one who conquers who receives the heritage of the new heavens and new earth.

He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.

The book of Revelation points us to the cross to completely reframe our entire concept of victory. The cross was the ultimate tool for imposing Roman conquest. But because of Jesus, the Roman cross has been defeated. Victory belongs to the slain Lamb.

The real victors are those who conquer by the blood of the lamb. They love not their lives, even when faced with death. In contrast to the Roman conquest of victory through military conquest, Revelation proclaims that the victors are those who “follow the Lamb, wherever He goes” (14.4), even when that means following the Lamb to his death (Rev. 12.11).

Is It A Sin To Worry?

For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! Do not worry then, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear for clothing?” For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. (Matthew 6:25-32)

These words are both comforting and incredibly challenging. Is worry really a sin? (If so, I’m worried that I worry too much!)

If I feel like my job is in danger, and I don’t know how would provide for my family, is it wrong for me to feel a little bit anxious? If there’s something weird going on in my body, and Google says my symptoms are likely signs of something serious, am I supposed to just carry on without giving it a second thought? If a child or a parent is seriously ill, is it even humanly possible not to worry just a little bit now and then? Does Jesus simply expect for us to just pray a little harder, and then walk around with indescribabl peace, as if nothing is wrong? Is that even possible?

Although the idea of walking around with zero anxiety sounds wonderful, I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind. It is my understanding that this verse has almost nothing to do with emotions, except to the extent that those emotions result in, or lead us to, a failure to give our full allegiance to God. The continual pursuit of endless bliss and tranquility is probably a lot closer to Buddhism or Stoicism than Christianity. Jesus does not give us an impossible command. Following Jesus can actually lead to decreased anxiety, but it is my understanding that feeling worried is not itself a sin.

This is not to suggest that Jesus didn’t really mean it when He commanded us not to worry. I believe Jesus really meant it. But when Jesus said “do not be worried”, He said this within a larger context, and His command can only be rightly understood when we consider that context.

Jesus Himself Had Anxiety

If by “do not be worried” Jesus was demanding that we continually have calm, serene emotions in the midst of turmoil, then Jesus has some serious explaining to do. If it is wrong to feel physical and emotional stress that comes when faced with problems that our outside of our control, then Jesus failed to keep his own command.

And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled. And He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death” (Mark 14:33-34)

Even Jesus was distressed and troubled. Luke 22:44 records that Jesus was in “agony” and that “His sweat became like drops of blood, falling to the ground”. Hebrews 5:7 says Jesus offered up “prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears.

The last thing Jesus felt at this moment was inner peace. He was suffocating under the weight of anxiety about the suffering He was about to endure – so much so that blood seeped from his face. That just doesn’t happen unless a person is under tremendous anxiety and stress. And yet, this is the same Jesus who commanded us not to worry.

Of course Jesus wasn’t the only character in scripture who suffered from anxiety. Just spend a few minutes flipping through the book of Psalms. In fact, when Jesus was hanging on the cross, his mind was filled with these anxious words of David:

My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?
Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning.
O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer;
And my night, but I have no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2)

That doesn’t sound like inner peace. Even though he continually cried to God, he found no rest. It was as if his prayers were disappearing into thin air without being heard. He felt as if God had totally forsaken him. He felt as if he was all alone in the crushing chaos of the world.

These are not the words of a man simply carrying on as if life was all sunshine and butterflies. There’s no easy peaceful feeling in these verses. Jesus wrestled with turmoil. He was feeling anxious.

Was Jesus failing to keep his own command? Why didn’t Jesus just meditate on the birds and the flowers a little bit harder? Was Jesus being hypocritical? I don’t think so.

I find it far more likely that we misunderstand Jesus’s teachings about worry if we conclude that Jesus was forbidding us from feeling anxiety.

In What Sense is Worrying a Sin?

Notice carefully how Jesus introduces his teachings on worry.

For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life. (Mt. 6.25a)

When Jesus says “for this reason”, this tells us that Jesus’s commands about not worrying are in some way connected to what he has just said.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal…. No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:19-24)

Jesus had just drawn the observation that when we serve the wrong master by laying up treasures on earth, the future is uncertain. When we serve wealth, our future security will always be out of our control. If you feel you have control, your anxiety level goes down. If you don’t have control, your anxiety level goes up. In other words, our level of certainty in the future and our level of anxiety is directly tied to our choice of which master to serve.

In this context, worry is the result of storing up treasures on earth, which will always have a certain level of anxiety. On earth, things happen that are outside of our control, which leads to anxiety. When we lay up treasures in heaven, they are untouchable and incorruptible. Heavenly treasures never cause anxiety.

That’s why Jesus concludes his teaching on worry by commanding us to seek first the Kingdom of God.

But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will take care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Mt 6.33-34)

Not only is worrying wrong when it results from serving the wrong master, but worrying is also wrong when it distracts us from serving our master. Pay attention to the word “but”. Notice the contrast that is drawn.

Jesus does not say “do not worry, but maintain happy emotions.” Jesus does not say “do not worry, but carry on as if nothing matters.” Jesus says “do not worry, but seek first God’s kingdom.”

The opposite of sinful worry is not maintaining peaceful emotions. Nor is it pushing all thoughts about unmet needs out of your mind. The opposite of sinful worry is recognizing that “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” and seeking first His kingdom. The opposite of sinful worry is generously giving up your earthly treasures, even when anxiety tells you that you can’t afford it.

Jesus is not suggesting that all anxious emotions are sinful, but rather they can be a consequence of investing in temporary earthly treasures rather than in incorruptible heavenly treasures. Anxious emotions can be sinful if they keep us from faithfully serving God. But the point of the text is not to seek first emotional tranquility. The point of the text is to maintain faithful allegiance to God as our only master.

Jesus does not teach us to live as if troubles don’t exist. Jesus actually presupposes that life will be filled with troubles day by day. But we must not let anxiety keep us from serving God and others.

More Than a Feeling

When Jesus was in the garden, sweating drops of blood, he turned to God in prayer. In Jesus we see something far greater than emotional serenity. We see a faithfulness to God that survived death itself. His faith didn’t rise or fall based on his ability to master his emotions. Rather than having a faith founded upon feelings, Jesus had a faith that was founded upon the unshakable character of God.

“Do not be worried” is about more than mere emotions. It is about having a solid faith and confidence that allows you to say, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26.39).

I Am Not Alone: The God Who Delights in Mercy (part 2)

By Guest Author, Stephen Scaggs

Read Part 1 Here: I Am Not Alone: The Ever-Present God, Israel, and the Church

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “We live in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” In the beginning God said about humans that, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). While this, in context, refers to the creation of the woman as helper, Paul looks back on this chapter retrospectively and writes, “This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:32).

The entire world is feeling this right now: we are doing something that does not feel natural because it is not natural to be socially distant. Even when we are by ourselves, we have not developed adequate skills for meditation and true friendship. We were created to be social creatures, and at the time of writing this article and the present COVID-19 pandemic, we feel this incredibly painful absence, even while needed.

While this particular strain of the coronavirus is novel, social distancing to avoid plagues is not. In fact the people of God were to separate themselves from lepers because they bore the mark of the corruptible. You can read about that in length in Leviticus 13, everyone’s favorite Bible book! If the leprosy was found the priest was to “shut them up” away from other people. But this was considered an “act of mercy,” and God delights in mercy.

The God Who Forms

The Law of Moses was not given to save Israel from their sins: no, they had literally just been saved from oppression in Egypt. These saved people are now then gathered at the Mount “of God’s redeeming love,” where he tells them that they are his and says to them “I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself” (Exodus 19:4). He saved them for a reason, for formation, for assembly. Indeed Stephen the Martyr refers back to that assembly as “the congregation in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38).

It was here at Sinai God makes a partnership with Israel, where he meets his church at the mountain. And in the middle of this formation God himself wanted to live with them. Immediately after God gives the basic package of laws (Exodus 20-23) and after making the covenant official (Exodus 24), he then wants them to make a portable access to his presence right in the middle of the church. The laws might seem tedious but the reason behind the sanctuary is beautiful: “Let them construct a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). In a real sense this is why God saved these people: he wants to dwell among them!

If the story ended right around Exodus 31, we would be able to neatly close our Bible. But unfortunately Israel breaks the first 4 of the 10 commandments (at least how I understand #3 and #4!) This was tantamount to a bride immediately running down the wedding aisle following the “I Do’s” and running into the embrace of a stranger, not her now-husband. But luckily for you and for me, God doesn’t zap Israel (although he wants to! [Exodus 32:9-11]).

Instead he speaks who He is and tells them a little more about His Name that they’ve taken in vain:

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the LORD. Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. He said, “If now I have found favor in Your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even through the people are so obstinate, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Your own possession.” – Exodus 34:5-9

For God to dwell with us is for us to be God’s inheritance. I love those two thoughts paired together. When the church meets and professes the Name of Jesus, we are his and he is ours. Even while we’re experiencing social distancing right now, let us seek the God who delights in mercy and is “abounding in lovingkindness and truth.”

What Christians Miss When They Can’t Assemble

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers… And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common. – Acts 2.42, 44

From the very beginning, God designed the church to be together. Due to the recent spread of the coronavirus disease, a vast majority of congregations have decided to cancel their regularly scheduled weekly services.

It should be noted that those churches which have chosen not to assemble are not simply acting out of fear. Even faithful Christians who do not fear death feel a deep level of love and concern for those who are most vulnerable to the disease, as Wesley Hazel has articulated so well here.

It should also be noted when churches temporarily cancel services due to extremely unique health concerns, this is not “forsaking the assembly” as several others have effectively explained.

As Jack Wilke has rightly observed, now is not the time to disregard the authority of our elders, or to “downplay [another congregation’s] autonomy, diminish their eldership, and place ourselves as an arbiter of their of their church’s decision.”

If you are struggling with guilt over your congregation’s decision to temporarily cancel services, I encourage you to carefully consider the points these brothers have raised, and then search the scriptures to see if these things are so.

At the same time, if you are missing your regular routine of gathering with other Christians, that’s a good thing! When Christians can’t assemble, they should miss it! From the very beginning of the church, Christians have prioritized the practice of assembling together. Live-streamed worship services and social media interaction is a great blessing that can help us temporarily fill some gaps while we are separated, but they will never be a suitable replacement for Christian assembly.

Christians Miss Praying Together

Of course we can and should pray individually while social distancing (Mt. 6.5-6). But the early church had a practice of praying together.

And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them…” – Acts 4.24

So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God. – Acts 12.5

It is important to pray with other believers. Praying together encourages us and unifies us as we share our common faith. Those who may be alone and struggling, can be greatly encouraged as they hear others praying with them. It also builds up love and concern for others as we intercede together.

The good news is that this is not completely impossible during this time of separation. It may require extra effort, such as calling someone, and (though it may feel awkward at first) inviting them to pray with you over the phone. Churches should also take care to livestream prayers along with their livestreamed lessons.

Christians Miss Singing Together

Once again, we can and should sing privately (Ja. 5.13). But part of the point of singing is “teaching and admonishing one another” (Col. 3.16) and “speaking to one another” (Eph. 5.19).

We often think that “teaching and admonishing” are tasks reserved for teachers and leaders in the congregation. But Paul’s command was for the entire church, not just the leadership. We all have a role to play in helping one another grow in wisdom, love, and knowledge. Paul also tells them that one unique way to do this is in our singing. Our songs are indeed directed vertically, as praise towards God, but they are also directed horizontally towards one another. The words we sing can teach, inspire, strengthen, and lift up our brothers and sisters. This is something that we can’t do when we are separated, and we should miss it.

Christians Miss Studying Scripture Together

Once again, private Bible study is important. But it was important for the early church to be “devoting themselves to the apostle’s doctrine” while gathering together (Acts 2.42, 44). Although nothing requires that Christians must do this in large assemblies of hundreds of people, Luke observes the practice of the early church in this way:

And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. – Acts 5.42

When Christians study Scripture together, we have built in “checks and balances”. A group of Christians studying together are less likely to all make the same interpretation mistake as one individual. We all come to the passage with slightly different eyes and backgrounds, and are more likely to discern the author’s original meaning when we work together. Studying scripture together builds relationships and unifies us around a common understanding of the truth.

When the early church gathered on the first day of the week to break bread, they also took the time consider God’s message together (Acts 20.7).

Speaking of breaking bread…

Christians Miss Sharing the Lord’s Supper Together

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. – Acts 20.7

One of the most important reasons the church gathered on the first day of the week was to break bread together. The Lord’s Supper is something we are supposed to share with one another.

Is not the cup of blessing which we bless as sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. – 1 Corinthians 10.16-17

This is something can’t do when we can’t assemble. Of course we can, and should, partake of the Lord’s Supper in our homes, and as we eat that bread, we should be mindful of our brothers and sisters scattered all over the world who are sharing that bread with us. But the Lord’s Supper is designed as something we share together. That’s why Paul instructed the church at Corinth to “wait for one another” before partaking (1 Cor. 11.33).

Sharing that one bread reminds us that we are one body. Bodies are not designed to be separated, and when they are separated, it should be painful and it should be temporary. Separated body parts don’t survive long without being reattached to the body. We must reassemble as soon as we possibly can.

Christians Miss Sharing and Giving

The early church was noteworthy for the way they came together to share with one another.

And those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. – Acts 2.44-45

When necessity arose, the church systematized their giving, by giving on each first day of the week when they gathered together (1 Cor. 16.1-2). When Christians gather together, this makes it easy both to identify the needs of one another and it becomes convenient to give. When Christians give together, we are able to hold one another accountable for our generosity.

We are facing a time when many Christians are, and will be struggling. Layoffs and income reduction are happening everywhere throughout our economy. Financial needs are higher than they have been in a long time. Yet without the convenience of the weekly assembly, almost every congregation is experiencing a significant decrease in their contributions.

Yes, we can and must give even when we can’t assemble. We should be reaching out to our elders and asking them how. But we certainly miss the convenience and accountability that comes with Christian assemblies.

Christians Miss Love and Encouragement

And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. – Hebrews 10.24-25

The word translated “forsaking” is a word for complete abandonment. Temporarily canceling services is not “forsaking the assembly.” But we must emphasize the word “temporary” and we must assemble together again as soon as possible, even if only in groups of ten meeting in back yards in the open air with ten feet between each chair.

According to this scripture, one of the purposes of assembling is to stimulate love and good deeds. In other words, by assembling together, Christians have an opportunity to deepen their relationships with one another and to encourage one another into deeper involvement in the works of the church. When Christians can’t assemble, relationships and involvement both suffer.

“Let Us Go to the House of the Lord”

It is to be hoped that as churches go through this time of separation, that Christians will grow to appreciate the privilege of assembling more than ever before. It may be that this will help us all to develop an attitude like that expressed by David in Psalm 122.2

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the LORD”

The New Testament nowhere teaches that we must assemble in large crowds. In fact, the early church didn’t meet in church buildings. They met “from house to house” in crowds that were small enough to fit inside a single home.

It may be a very long time before we can gather back together in large church building auditoriums. But we must not forget that Christian assemblies are critically important. When Christians can’t assemble, we miss out on numerous blessing and opportunities to encourage one another. To some extent, when we are apart, relationships will weaken, involvement will wane. It is likely that many weaker Christians will not survive this time of separation.

Any separation from the assembly must be as temporary as possible. Online worship services, social media, and text messaging are all great tools that can help alleviate the pain of separation. But there is no replacement for Christians assembling together.

If this coronavirus crisis drags on for longer than we expect, the time may come when we need to take some measured risks so that we can assemble – even if only in small groups in back yards. Christian assemblies are absolutely indispensable.

May we never take lightly the privilege of Christian assemblies. Let us pray together that the LORD will hasten the day when we will hear those word again: “Let us go to the house of the LORD”. I will be glad. Won’t you?

I Am Not Alone: The Ever-Present God, Israel, and the Church (part 1)

Article written by guest author, Stephen Scaggs

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “We live in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” In the beginning God said about humans that, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). While this, in context, refers to the creation of the woman as helper, Paul looks back on this chapter retrospectively and writes, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:32).

It is still a staggering number of Christians who claim they can be spiritual without the church. Even though many want “Jesus, but not church,” the inherent tragedy is the misunderstood Jesus. For people who make such statements, if you were to ask them, “What was Jesus’ mission?” or “What did Jesus teach about more than any other subject?”, the likely response would be his mission was about individual salvation and his subject was about love, grace, and forgiveness.

What is clear from people who say such things is that they do not actually read the gospels, to see what the Jesus of history actually was about. Nor do they seem to know anything about the Hebrew Bible, divorcing the gospel from its story. If we picked up Return of the King or Return of the Jedi without having read/watched the saga so far, we would not have a clue what was going on, who the characters were, what was the tension needing to be resolved, etc.

The purpose of this series of articles is to magnify the church as the bride of Christ, and to help persuade my fallen brothers and sisters that, in the words of one person, “[Church is] more than an obligation, it’s our foundation: the family of God. I know it’s hard, but we need each other. We’re brothers and sisters!”

The Ever-Present God

Ever since man was expelled from Eden, God has never gave up his pursuit to reclaim what was lost. From the calling of Abraham to the formation of Israel at Sinai, God has been committed to restoring “blessing to all families of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3) and frequently expresses his desire to “live among his people” (Exodus 25:8).

Back in the beginning of Exodus when Moses encounters God in the Burning Bush, it is the first time where God seems to reveal the divine name. But before that he states community: he says, “I am the God of your father: the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” (3:6). We’re not ethnically Jewish (at least most of us aren’t!) so those names may not mean the same to all of us: however, not only does this communicate God’s promises to bless, but as Jesus points out (Matthew 22:32), this implies that they were present with God even though they have been dead for 400+ years.

And God confesses that “he has not forgotten about his promises.” He says,

Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land…. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”

This may be somewhat humorous: “I am going to deliver them… I will send you to bring my people out of Egypt!” I think Moses was on board for the first part, but not for that last part! Moses? A deliverer? Moses asks, “What makes you think anyone will listen to me?” To which God replies, “I will be with you.” That would be enough, wouldn’t it? But then Moses asks, “What name should I give them?” And then God replies, “I AM WHO I AM” (EHYEH) and then in the next verse he says, “YAHWEH (this is the 3rd person of EHYEH), the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob sent me to you.” This is usually translated in our English translations as LORD in all capital letters, or Jehovah.

The very name of our God communicates that God is both immutable and ever present, from generation to generation. Time, space, and matter cannot deter our God. Even if the church has been in exile in Egypt for centuries, God has not forgotten his people. He will dwell once again with his people: this is his promise, this is his blessing. This is the mystery of Christ and the church, and what this starving world needs.

And Man Became a Living Soul

Article written by guest author, Stephen Scaggs

Soul, spirit, and body. These words make their rounds in our Christian vocabulary and they have a rich depth of meaning. I hope that in exploring this we learn to appreciate the importance of the body, and better understand the hope for resurrection and the eternal destiny of the soul.

Throats and Souls

What in the world does your throat have to do with your soul? Well, quite a lot actually. The word used predominately in the Bible for soul in its most literal definition means “throat” or “neck.”

This is how it is translated into English in many passages. In Psalm 69, the psalmist David is in the thick of turmoil. In verse 1 he writes, “Save me, God, for the water has risen to my neck.” Notice the wordplay here. The Hebrew people see your neck as a connection or bridge to life. And your life becomes endangered when you are on the verge of drowning. So David depicts his dire straits as water coming up and nearly drowning.

Perhaps the most famous example of this usage is from Psalm 42. Notice how the psalmist begins. “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” While this may seem like an endearing image of a stag longing for God, the reason the deer is panting is because it is dying of thirst. As the rest of Psalm 42 bears out, this is a psalm for help and deliverance. But notice the subtle wordplay where you drink water with your throat, and the psalmist uses this metaphor to describe his deep longing for God’s presence.

You Are a Soul … and a Body

The first time the word soul appears is on the second page of the Bible.

…Then Yahweh God formed the man [Hebrew adam הָֽאָדָ֗ם] of dust from the ground [Hebrew adamah הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man [Hebrew adam הָֽאָדָ֖ם] became a living soul [Hebrew nephesh לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ].
– Genesis 2:7

“You don’t have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body.” This is sometimes falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis. But what I find interesting about this statement is that nowhere do the biblical authors seem to have this ideology. Rather the first time the word soul appears in the holy scriptures, humans are not given souls, but rather the dust becomes a soul.

Is there a distinction between your body and soul? Yes… and no. Even Jesus recognizes that there is a distinction between body and soul (Matt. 10:28 ESV). But Jesus’ statement here is in no way validating a low view of the body. The point here is that for the biblical authors your body is an integral component of your identity. It has been pointed out that the word soul functions more of as a life spark for man. It is who you are. But your body is an integral component of your soul, and should not be thought of as expendable or temporary.

Motivation for Godly Living

In many circles it seems that there is some significance given to the body, but that the body is ultimately expendable. But this is not the case for the apostle Paul. This emissary for King Jesus spends much time talking about the connection between your body and how you should then live your life. Notice some often quoted but glossed over texts:

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
– Romans 12:1-2

Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits fornication sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.
– 1 Corinthians 6:18-20

…According to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.
– Philippians 1:20

Hope for Bodily Resurrection

Despite many popular misconceptions, the Bible nowhere describes our heavenly hope as a bodiless or soulish existence. Biblical hope for the Christian is anchored in redemption: the holy prophets and apostles appeal to the bodily resurrection as the hope in which we are saved. For the New Testament authors, the bodily resurrection is not another check off the itinerary list as part of the Judgment Day: rather it is a core event. And in this bodily resurrected state, it is then we will be with the Lord forever and ever (1 Thess. 4:17).

To this point, arguably one of the clearest texts is Romans 8:18-25. Notice what the apostle Paul considers the hope of our salvation:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. … But we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies: for it is in this hope we were saved! Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Some object to this bodily hope with appellations to 1 Corinthians 15, which is ironic. It is ironic because 1 Corinthians 15 is precisely saying the opposite. “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body…” (15:44). Those who attempt to use this verse to argue against bodily resurrection must completely separate this verse from rest of the context in order to argue their point. Also, we need to be using the words “natural” and “spiritual” here as Paul uses them in chapter 2. The difference between natural and spiritual is not that one is immaterial or ethereal, and the other is dirt. The difference here is between what has become corrupted and what is incorruptible, what has become weakened by sin and what is strengthened by the Spirit of God (i.e. spiritual). Also, it is still a body, not a ghostly apparition.

Some also object with phrases like “flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of heaven” or other miscellaneous texts about not being able to see God. But I think it is important for us to stop when we read “flesh and blood” and realize that Jesus describes his spiritual, glorified resurrected body as “flesh and bone” (Luke 24:39). The phrase “flesh and blood” is actually a Hebrew idiom, and if you trace how it is used in the Bible (five other times), it is used to describe fallen, unregenerate, corrupted man (Matt. 16:13-17; Gal. 1:16; Eph. 6:12; Heb. 2:14).

Some also appeal to 2 Corinthians 5. But I encourage you to not to read 5:1 in isolation from the entire context. The argument Paul is making from 5:1-10 is not that “our earthly tent” is torn down. While in this present existence “we groan,” and we “long to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven,” which is what Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 15. The dwelling from heaven and the building from God is our resurrected body. Notice for the apostle Paul what it means to be dead and out of the body: “we will not be found naked … we do not want to be unclothed … what is mortal will be swallowed up by life.” (vv. 3-4). For the apostle Paul he desires earnestly to be in the presence of the Lord, but his ultimate hope is to be in his glorified body and in the presence of the Lord. It is not an either/or, but a both/and.

The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus

Though some may think of their bodies as expendable, simply housing what is truly important, the hope of the resurrection of the body is utterly crucial to our faith. Not only does Jesus debate strongly for bodily resurrection (Matt. 22:29-33), but it is for the resurrection from the dead that the apostle Paul most frequently preaches on (Acts 23:6). When Jesus was resurrected, at no point does Jesus discard his appearance. When he was risen, Jesus actually eats breakfast on two separate occasions with his disciples (John 21:12). He describes himself. In fact, even at God’s right hand, Jesus is still a human (1 Tim. 2:5).

What do we mean by resurrection? Well, we have a lot of examples of what resurrection meant for the people of God. Every time the dead are risen in the bible, it is in their own body: Lazarus (Jn. 11), Jairus’ daughter (Lk. 8:40ff), Tabitha (Acts 9:36-43), Eutychus (Acts 20:7-12). And ultimately, of course, Jesus (Lk. 24:39; Acts 2:31; 1 John 4:2; 2 John 7). The difference between the resurrection of Jesus, the firstfruits of the dead, and the others raised is that Jesus would be raised never to die again: he was immortal, incorruptible.

The resurrection from the dead that we long for is precisely this. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Col. 3:4 ESV). As John the Beloved writes:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
-1 John 3:2

Where Does This Leave Us?

Many Christians are comfortable talking about the resurrection of the body. But I suspect for many Christians this talk is uncomfortable. I think that it is uncomfortable because we all, as the apostle Paul mentions earlier, “groan in this present existence.” The material body itself is not evil: it is part of what God called “very good.” A statue is not evil even if black paint is vandalized on the image: all it needs is to be cleaned. So our experiences in this body, whether it is cancer, sickness, disease, chronic pain, or death, does not mean our body is bad or subpar: it means it needs redemption.

So as Christians, let us learn to love our bodies, which will one day be redeemed from the grave, redeemed from bondage, and will finally exist in all its created glory in the presence of our Savior.

“My Kindom Is Not of This World” – Can You Prove It?

Jesus cited the fact that His disciples were not fighting for His self-defense as the proof that His kingdom was not of this world. When Jesus was facing trial before Pilate as a suspected Jewish revolutionary, Pilate gave Jesus a chance to explain His actions. In response, Jesus didn’t simply proclaim “My Kingdom is not of this world”; He pointed to the non-violence of His servants as proof to substantiate His claim.

Two thousand years later Jesus’s kingdom is still not of this world. But can we prove it like Jesus did? Can we still point to His disciple’s refusal to fight to bear witness to this fact?

Therefore Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me? Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My Kingdom is not of this realm.” Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a King?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” – John 18.33-37

What Did Jesus Mean By “Not of This World”?

A commitment to nonviolence is at the heart of Jesus’s definition of His Kingdom. Of course the differences between the Kingdom of God and earthly kingdoms go far beyond whether or not the servants of those kingdoms fight or not. There are many ways in which the Kingdom Jesus preached is “not of this world.”

  • Their source of authority is different. Earthly kingdoms are led by men, while Jesus’s kingdom has its authority in heaven.
  • Their ability to influence the behavior of their citizens are different. Earthly kingdoms seek to reform behavior by use of outward force, while Jesus’s kingdom seeks to inwardly transform hearts.
  • Their boundaries are different. Earthly kingdoms are divided by geographic or racial boundaries, while Jesus’s kingdom is universal in nature.
  • Their source of power is different. Earthly kingdoms look to the power of the cross (or other weapons used to impose the threat of death), while Jesus’s kingdom looks to the power of the cross (i.e. the willingness to submit to death).

But of upmost importance, we must not miss the one key difference that Jesus actually points to in His answer.

  • Their response to evil is different. “If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would have been fighting”

When Jesus used the phrase “of this world” He was not speaking of the geographic location of His kingdom, but rather He was referring to the world’s way of doing things. For example, Jesus said He came to testify against “the world” because its deeds are evil (Jn. 7.7). Elsewhere John would say, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2.15).

The contrast between “of this world” and “not of this world” is referring to a worldly way of doing things and a Godly way of doing things. The commitment of Jesus’s followers to nonviolence is at the heart of this difference.

Jesus Proved It. Can We?

Jesus didn’t just claim that His Kingdom was not of this world. He pointed to the observable fact that His servants were not fighting as proof.

If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.

Just a short time earlier He has rebuked Peter when Peter attempted to come to his defense (Jn. 18.10-11).Had Peter, or any of the other disciples been fighting at the time, Jesus’ claim would have been completely meaningless. Can you image Pilate’s response if such had been the case? “What do you mean your Kingdom is not of this world!? Then how do you explain the actions of your disciples!?” But as it was, Jesus’ disciples were not fighting, and Jesus’s teaching stood with the weight of observable truth.