Nobody Has Ever Seen God

Coming off the Revelation: Revisited series, I was intrigued when I read 1John 4:12. John writes, “Nobody has ever seen God. If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is completed in us.”

all-our-realities-are-backlit-by-something-greaterDoes that phrase sound familiar? John used a similar phrase in John 1:18, “Nobody has ever seen God. The only-begotten God, who is intimately close to the father — he has brought him to light.”

John 1:18 and 1John 4:12 are parallel ideas — nobody has seen God. In John 1:18, nobody knows God until they gaze upon the sacrificial love of Jesus. In 1John 4:12, nobody knows God until they gaze upon the sacrificial love in Jesus’ people.

As Jesus’ people embody Jesus’ sacrificial love, they make the invisible God visible just like Jesus did.

I was reminded of Genesis 28 while listening to a lecture the other day. During his journey, Jacob lays down for an uneventful night in an indeterminate location. But his dreams reveal the merging of heaven and earth and God announces his promises and plans for him. He awakes, his perspective completely altered and proclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” And he called the place, “Bethel,” which means “house of God.”

When I heard that verse, I thought, “That’s exactly what I want my life to be!” I want every facet of my life to be for others what Jacob experienced in that mundane strip of desert, the house of God, the place where heaven and earth meet.

I want my wife and kids to experience this in my daily love for them. I want my friends to experience this in our friendships. I want strangers to experience this in chance encounters with me. I want people who stumble upon this blog to experience this in my writing. I want people who view my photography to experience this in my images.

I want my ordinary life to reveal God to people as though they were waking from a dream and realizing there’s something more at work. And this happens as I learn to embody Jesus’ sacrificial love.

This is John’s message in Revelation. Revelation 5 portrays Jesus as the victorious Lion who carries out God’s plan through the Lamb’s sacrificial love. Each of the seven churches is called to victory by embodying the Jesus’ sacrificial love. Victory through sacrificial love, a love that always suffers. In other words, Jesus won the victory through suffering sacrificial love. Jesus’ followers carry on the victory through the same suffering sacrificial love. The victory won on Jesus’ cross continues through our cross.

Sacrificial love forms the core of our eternal vocation as God’s royal priesthood. It implements God’s plan to restore creation, vanquish evil and establish his reign on earth. It’s the thread that stitches heaven and earth together. Sacrificial love turns our lives into the house of God, revealing God to others in the most mundane unordinary moments of life.

Nobody has ever seen God, until they see Jesus… and hopefully us.

Revelation: Revisited-Concluding Thoughts

 

rr-conclusionThe more I read and reflect on Revelation, the more excited I become about its story. I’m not excited because I believe I’ve unravelled all of its symbols and nuances. In fact, the opposite is true. I feel as if a vast ocean of mysterious imagery and allusions lays before me to explore and learn. But rather, my excitement for Revelation is that it calls me and every Jesus-follower to participate in God’s unfolding plan for his good creation.

Remember John’s vision of God’s throne room in Revelation 4 and 5? This is an awesome revelation of heaven’s perspective of present earthly circumstances. Yet too often we domesticate this revelation into the simple platitude, “God’s on his throne, so he’s in control.” While this is true and can comfort us in overwhelming circumstances, it is almost a caricature of the real vision.

Revelation 4 and 5 reveal far more than God “being in control.” He is the Center of all and the worship of all! And in his covenantal faithfulness, he is achieving a wonderful plan for the good of his creation!

Unfortunately, no one is worthy to “open the scroll,” to take on God’s project. Humanity, God’s image-bearers and caretakers of his creation, have failed. Israel, the family through whom God would rescue creation, have failed. No one is left.

Except the Lion of Judah! Jesus, who is both Israel’s kingly human representative as well as Israel’s God in person, is worthy! But wait! When John turns to view the Lion of Judah, he sees a sacrificial lamb.

Israel’s King (the Lion), ascends his throne when he is nailed upon the cross (the Lamb). At the crucifixion, “Jesus of Nazareth — the King of the Jews” as Pilate’s sign proclaimed, is truly enthroned. The principalities and powers are overcome. God is King!

On that fateful Friday, the sixth day, God fulfills Israel’s Story — through Israel, God would rescue creation from the clutches of corruption and evil. “It is finished!” declares Israel’s King, the Lion-Lamb upon the cross. And on the seventh day, God rests in the tomb.

Jesus’ victorious enthronement on the cross now allows God to begin the next phase of his good plan for creation. On the “first day of the week” according to John’s Gospel, God resurrects Jesus and thus launches his New Creation. For Jesus’ resurrection and the New Creation it inaugurates are the immediate results of the victory accomplished by Israel’s King.

Jesus’ victory accomplishes a second result. It also makes us “kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father” (Revelation 1:6). We are now a royal priesthood who will continue to implement the victory Jesus won in the manner as he won it. N.T. Wright states:

“The Messiah [Israel’s King and representative] is to come into his kingdom through a horrible death; and those who not only follow him, but are called to implement his work must expect that their royal task – for such it is – will be accomplished in the same way, by the same means.” How God Became King

Through our sacrificial love, even to the point of martyrdom, God is enthroned, the powers are overcome, and New Creation is birthed in this present creation. In other words, the plan successfully implemented by Jesus not only established God as the True King and inaugurated New Creation, but rescued us so that we would continue to implement this victory through our faithful lives and sacrificial love.

Revelation excites me because it reminds me that Jesus didn’t rescue people FROM this world. He rescues people FOR this world. Revelation isn’t a story about how God will rescue me away from this world one day. I’m an active cooperative participant in God’s plan for this world, not a passive helpless spectator that’s whisked away. My life and how I live actually matters. Revelation’s story is relevant for the hear-and-now of everyday living, not a projection of some weird far-fetched future.

Revelation excites me because it tells a story that Jesus is King and is rescuing people, including me, to carry out his plan to renew this world. And even if my small part in that story is to love, suffer and perhaps die in faithfulness to King Jesus, God will be faithful and renew this world and complete his project and will rescue me even from death so I may live with him in his completed New Creation.

Revelation excites me because it reminds me that Jesus’ reconciling death and the new world order launched at his resurrection gives me a new human vocation to practice wherever I am and will carry me into and then onward in God’s final New Creation.

My daily responsibility is to be a faithful member of God’s royal priesthood, engaging and winning the world not with the love of power, which is the world’s strategy, but with the power of love, which is God’s strategy.

Who wouldn’t be excited about that?

Revelation: Revisited – Telling The Story (cont.)

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Following the throne room vision, John introduces the first of three sequences — the seven seals. The seventh seal introduces the next sequence — the seven trumpets. Visions following the seven trumpets finally unveil the ultimate source of evil and its earthly agents — the Dragon, the Beast from the Sea and the Beast from the Land — and those who defeat these monsters. This then leads to the final sequence — the seven bowls.

The three sequences — seals, trumpets and bowls, and their associated visions — are not chronological nor sequential. Rather, they are different angles of the same complex reality of God’s plan to restore his broken creation. All three sequences are simultaneous perspectives of the fullness of evil being confronted by the fullness of God’s kingdom. And in each sequence, God is establishing his rule through his people who loyally embody, demonstrate and announce the Lion-Lamb.

The seals symbolically reveal that to restore his good creation, God must expose and extract the full extent of humanity’s arrogance and wickedness while ultimately bringing his people safely through the crises.

The trumpets symbolically reveal that to restore his good creation, God must let the forces of destruction do their worst so that he can then establish his kingdom fully over the world.

The bowls symbolically reveal that to restore his good creation, God must inflict horrific plagues upon the wicked world. Like the plagues of Egypt, God will rescue his people and ultimately confront and vanquish the dark powers that have enslaved them.

And through all the sequences, Jesus’ people, God’s royal priesthood, implement the Lion-Lamb’s victory through their faithful and sacrificial love, even unto their death. Since King Jesus holds the keys to death and hades, they can trust him to carry them through death and into restoration.

These three sequences result in God eternally conquering the powers of evil and ushering in the final vision. This final vision unveils the climax to God’s project — the full renewal and merging of heaven and earth, now filled with God’s glory and presence among people.

It’s important to note that the closing scene of the Bible is not of God destroying his current creation and replacing it with something new. Rather, he renews rather than replaces. It’s the “old order” that passes away. His creation has always been good. In this final vision, as God takes up residence in and with his creation, creation’s “goodness” is fully realized as it becomes the good receptacle of his glorious presence.

Also, the closing scene of the Bible is not about human beings going up to heaven as many people imagine. Rather, it’s about the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth. It’s the answer to the Lord’s prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” And humans now dwell on God’s renewed earth fully merged with heaven and full of God’s glory.

And there is work to be done in God’s New Creation. Jesus’ people remain a royal priesthood. That does not end with the New Creation, but finds it’s fullness. From the New Jerusalem, which is the Lamb’s Bride, the Lamb’s people, flows healing to the rest of the world. Jesus’ followers will continue to be stewards over creation as from the beginning, implementing God’s mercy and healing to all of his creation and its inhabitants.

As with the initial vision of King Jesus, the vision of the New Jerusalem is equally intimate and majestic. God, who has mightily confronted and destroyed evil steps down from his throne and tenderly wipes away every tear from people’s eyes. This remarkable intimacy is the core of the entire Revelation — humans in community with God and with one another.

This final vision of God’s New Creation is of its consummation, its fullness and finality. This same New Creation was inaugurated at Jesus’ resurrection. John uses Revelation to help us hold these two moments in our imaginations. The images of the resurrected Jesus in chapter 1 and God’s throne room in chapters 4 and 5 are the vision of Jesus initiating the New Creation. The images of the New Jerusalem and the New Heaven and New Earth are the vision of Jesus completing the New Creation. We, living between these two events, are God’s royal priesthood. By embodying the Lion-Lamb’s sacrificial love, God is moving everything from the first vision toward the second. Therefore, we must hold both visions before us so we are not distracted, disillusioned or discouraged. Amidst the dark and deadly powers, our faithfulness is strengthened and reinforced by the visions of God’s New Creation so that we may overcome. And by overcoming, God’s kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as in heaven.

Revelation: Revisited – Telling The Story

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John’s ultimate purpose for Revelation is to encourage seven specific churches that are struggling within the Roman Empire to overcome through faithful living and sacrificial love. He accomplishes this task by creatively crafting a prophetic literary work based on an apocalyptic vision he had received. This literary work draws from hundreds of Old Testament allusions and contemporary imagery from the surrounding Roman culture to create a symbolic world that both provides a countercultural imagination and communicates how the church’s faithfulness is viewed from a heavenly perspective. And being that “seven” is a significant symbol for “fullness,” John’s use of seven churches expands to include all the churches.

In Revelation, John is revealing a world reborn. He is showing how God’s New Creation, inaugurated by the Risen King Jesus, is confronting the false and dark powers in the world and establishing God’s rightful reign through those faithfully loyal to the King.

This is how Revelation’s story unfolds:

John opens with an equally intimate and majestic vision of the Resurrected King Jesus. Jesus, embodying the Father’s incredible and terrifying glory, is the world’s true King and is confronting all the counterfeit tyrants and thrones. In fact, King Jesus holds the keys to Death and Hades, the ultimate weapons of false rulers. And this same Jesus is intimately walking among and interacting with his churches, speaking to and strengthening his people. John’s plan for Revelation is to evoke the faith and courage to live aligned with this vision of Jesus.

The vision of King Jesus shifts as he addresses seven specific churches. By addressing “seven” churches, John demonstrates that Jesus’ words both address unique issues specifically in seven churches but also symbolically in the entire Church.

While each church’s struggles are unique, Jesus’ encouragement is the same — overcome. By loyalty to Jesus expressed in sacrificial love, the Church continues Jesus’ incarnation, embodying the place where heaven and earth continue to meet. The call to overcome is the rallying cry for the struggling churches to continue what Jesus had started.

Next, the thin veil between heaven and earth is pulled away and John is allowed to see our earthly experiences from heaven’s perspective. This is the True Reality Jesus’ people must hold in their thoughts and imaginations. Behind life in ancient Turkey, behind the threats of Roman rulership, behind the seduction of false prophets, behind the struggles and temptations of ordinary life stands the heavenly throne room where the Creator and King eternally reigns. This vision is essential for Jesus’ people to make sense of everything taking place around and among them.

As we gaze into the throne room, we see God’s creation, embodied by remarkable creatures, worshipping him. Creation’s worship is magnified and given fuller expression by humanity’s worship. But amidst the praise, there is also a problem. No one can be found worthy to implement God’s plan for his creation, symbolized by the scroll. From the beginning, God is committed to run the world through humans. Humanity’s failure didn’t change his plan. God is committed to rescuing the world through Israel. Israel’s failure didn’t change his plan. Who, then, will open the scroll?

When all seems lost, John is told to behold “the lion from the tribe of Judah.” Here is God’s worthy and victorious King! But when John turns to view the lion, he sees a sacrificial lamb. The Lion, which symbolizes ultimate power and rulership, is now fused with the Lamb, which symbolizes vulnerability and weakness through sacrificial death. The two are the one and the same. God’s ultimate sovereignty is accomplished through sacrificial love. The Lamb’s sacrifice is the Lion’s victory.

In this startling revelation, the churches’ unique struggles as well as King Jesus’ encouragement make sense. We continue the Lion’s victory through the Lamb’s sacrifice. Through our sacrificial love, we overcome and are victorious like Jesus. In other words, Jesus implements God’s plan contained within the scroll, rescuing people to be a royal priesthood in order to carry out the Lion-Lamb’s worldwide victory.

We’ll conclude Revelation’s story next time…

Revelation: Revisited – Creative Storytelling

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I think many people may be surprised by the following quote by NT Wright:

“The Book of Revelation tells the same story that the Gospels tell. It is the story of how Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah, conquered the power of evil through his death and became the Lord of the world. The New Testament is not about how Jesus, on the one hand revealed he was divine, and then died so that we could go to heaven. That’s halfway to Gnosticism if you’re not careful. They are about how Jesus acted as the embodiment of Israel’s God to overthrow the usurping forces of evil and to establish through his death, resurrection and ascension God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.” -NT Wright, “Revelation and Christian Hope: Political Implications of the Revelation of John”

When Revelation speaks for itself, we find that John’s “story” aligns itself with the overarching “story” of the Gospels and the New Testament — through Jesus’ embodiment of Israel’s God, God vanquishes evil, restores his creation and fully establishes his kingdom on earth as in heaven. Revelation is the natural continuation of the Gospels’ story, that Jesus’ people are continuing his incarnation as his body and therefore continue what he began. John creatively tells this story by combining three literary genres — apocalyptic, prophetic and pastoral.

At the heart of Revelation is an amazing vision given to John. In this vision, mysteries and secrets known only in heaven and not know on earth are revealed to John. Key to understanding this revelation is remembering that “heaven” and “earth” are two dimensions of the same reality. So the thin veil between these two dimensions is pulled back and John is shown present earthly reality from heaven’s perspective. And what’s revealed is God’s plan to restore his creation, fully and finally merging these two dimensions.

This is the apocalyptic genre of John’s book.

John is also a prophet and knows that Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s Story. He understands that this vision is the supreme culmination of Israel’s vast prophetic heritage. Israel’s prophetic story has led to Jesus’ kingship and this vision reveals that his reign is continually established through the Church’s life as they live and struggle. So John creatively communicates his vision in a way that proclaims God’s intention to God’s people. As Richard Bauckham states:

“Revelation is a literary work composed with astonishing care and skill. We should certainly not doubt that John had remarkable visionary experiences, but he has transmitted them through what must have been a lengthy process of reflection and writing into a thoroughly literary creation which is designed not reproduce the experience so much as to communicate the meaning of the revelation that had been given him.”

The prophetic role is to communicate meaning. Knowing his vision of Jesus is the climax of Israel’s prophetic heritage, John imparts deep meaning to his vision by saturating his work with over two hundred allusions to the Old Testament. He never directly quotes the Old Testament, but relies on his readers deep familiarity with its complex themes. John ties off the multiple threads of Old Testament prophetic themes to their fulfillment in Jesus and now being implemented in the ordinary lives of his people.

This is the prophetic genre of John’s book.

John is also a pastor. He takes his startling vision of heaven’s perspective of earthly events, crafts it into an amazing counter-cultural symbolic world in order to communicate God’s purposes and then applies it directly to specific situations faced by the churches that he shepherds. And he does so in a startling way.

Pastoral epistles were usually written to a specific church or intended to be a “circular” epistle passed on to several churches. If an epistle is written to a specific church, it usually addressed situations specific to that church’s context. Therefore, readers outside that church would have greater difficulty finding direct application to their own situations. If an epistle was “circular” and intended for many churches, it was usually more generic and didn’t address the specific situations in one particular church.

John does something very creative. He addresses Revelation to seven specific churches experiencing very different situations. Some are being persecuted. Some are in danger of compromising with the surrounding Roman culture. Some are rich. Some are poor. But each portion addressed to the specific church ends the same way — overcome! This is a military word for victory.

In other words, each church has it’s own experiences and obstacles. John’s pastoral word is “keep fighting the good fight because by doing so, God is vanquishing evil, restoring creation and establishing his reign.” This will look differently for each church. For some it will mean persecution and martyrdom. For others it will mean resisting temptation. For others it will mean not compromising with Roman culture. But for each church, it’s their part in a larger “cosmic” battle of establishing Jesus’ kingship in direct opposition to all the other “kings” vying for power and control.

And John’s seven pastoral encouragements to overcome are drawn into his one final encouragement to overcome at the end of Revelation. Those who faithfully participate in the battle for Jesus’ kingship through their faithful living will ultimately inherit the coming New Creation to which all of their efforts have been contributing.

But wait there’s more! John’s use of “seven” is a significant part of the symbolic world he’s creating. Seven represents fullness. So while John is addressing seven specific churches and their unique situations, he’s symbolically addressing the entire “full” church and all of her people’s unique situations. He’s not only pastoring seven specific churches, but providing encouragement to the entire church! And that encouragement in all situations is the same — overcome!

This is the pastoral genre of John’s book.

John weaves these three literary genres together to create a visual story to strengthen and encourage Jesus’ people to look beyond their culture, their puzzles, their pain, their temptations and to embody his sacrificial love in the midst of a world filled with calamities, monsters and chaos.

Revelation: Revisited – Overcome, Not Escape

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Revelation is a rallying cry for Jesus’ people. Despite the many false kingdoms that both tempt us to compromise or threaten us with persecution, God is on his glorious eternal throne and Jesus is worthy to implement God’s plan for his Creation. But that plan is implemented through Jesus’ people as they sacrificially live and love in the midst of the roiling conflict.

Revelation reveals that God’s plan to vanquish evil, restore his Creation and establish his full reign is being accomplished through his people as they live in the midst of the chaos. To put it another way, Jesus’ people is how God is answering Jesus’ prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Early Christians believed heaven and earth met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and that his followers continued this project. We immediately discover in the opening verses of Revelation that Jesus has made us “to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father” (Rev 1:6). As we move through Revelation, we are reminded repeatedly that we are a royal priesthood and an important part of God’s unfolding plan.

As NT Wright states:

“This book in fact offers one of the clearest and sharpest visions of God’s ultimate purpose for the whole creation, and of the way in which the powerful forces of evil, at work in a thousand ways but not least in idolatrous and tyrannous political systems, can be and are being overthrown through the victory of Jesus the Messiah and the consequent costly victory of his followers.” -NT Wright, Revelation for Everyone.

So the underlying message of Revelation is “overcome.” This is Jesus’ message to each of his seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. We are God’s royal priesthood through whom God is performing his grand work of bringing heaven and earth together.

I think the idea of a Rapture has dominated the interpretative landscape of Revelation. So many Christians reading Revelation assume God will rescue his people from the chaos and conflict when actually he will rescue them through the chaos and conflict. In Revelation 1:18, King Jesus is holding the keys of death and hades. In other words, death has lost its power. Even though sacrificial love may lead Jesus’ people to death like their king, death is never the final answer. Jesus’ people will be rescued and raised through death.

As Jesus proclaims in Revelation 21:7, the person who overcomes (the same word to the seven churches) inherits the New Creation for which he has given his life and will be God’s child.

Overcome!

Revelation: Revisited – Symbols And Codes

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Perhaps both the beauty and mystery of Revelation come from John’s staggering use of symbols. As we read Revelation, we should not expect its symbols to act as codes. Symbols and codes are very different. Codes assume a direct one-to-one correspondence. Symbols do something much more powerful. They encapsulate powerful stories, often in ways that transcend words.

Every culture has symbols. For example, the American flag is a symbol. It doesn’t have a one-to-one correspondence to anything. Rather, it conveys a spectrum of images, emotions and values such as bravery, courage, sacrifice, and loyalty. Within that symbol are “codes.” The fifty stars represent the fifty states. The red and white stripes represent the original thirteen colonies. But the symbol of the American flag transcends any one-to-one correspondence. And its power is that it transcends words. It enforces deep emotions, values and a worldview. That’s why candidates from different political parties can use the American flag as a symbol in their campaigns, even though their agendas and priorities differ. They’re relying on the power of symbol to communicate beyond words.

We must keep the power of symbol in mind as we read Revelation. Richard Bauckham reminds us that Revelation creates “a symbolic world which its readers can enter and thereby have their perception of the world in which they live transformed.” This symbolic world provides a “set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world: how it looks from heaven to which John is caught up in chapter 4. The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be.”

Revelation’s symbols are charged with perception-altering power because they draw from the original readers’ context within Roman culture as well as their vast familiarity with the Old Testament to create a “complex network of cross-references, parallels, contrasts, which inform the meaning of the parts and the whole.” Just like a country’s flag waving on a field of battle can strengthen weary troops, Revelation’s symbolic world stokes faith and courage for Jesus’ people to overcome in the midst of temptation and persecution.

So within this vibrantly visual world, we shouldn’t feel compelled to find a one-to-one correspondence for everything John writes. We don’t need to look for comparisons between Revelation’s symbols and current events in the news. Rather, like the original audience, we should let Revelation’s rich symbolic world shape our imaginations. This requires effort in learning the cultural symbols and Old Testament allusions familiar to John’s audience. But the rewards of immersing oneself in John’s rich imagery is worth the effort.