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A Tale of Two Cities

Saturday, December 04, 2021

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Excerpt from A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens

Dickens penned those words in 1859 about London and France just before the bloody French Revolution began in 1789. Despite being separated from those “times” by 70 years, Dickens saw how closely his present resembled the past. Even today, after more than a century later, those “times” could accurately describe our “times.”

In fact, this tale of two cities is something of a theme in the Bible. Isaiah prophesied a worldwide judgment by telling a tale of two cities which represent all of humanity. “The lofty city” (Isa. 26:5; 24:4), the symbol of rebellious humanity and all those who trust in and exalt themselves above God, is destined for ruin (Isa. 24:6, 10, 12; 25:2, 5). But this proud city will be replaced by a righteous city in which the Lord reigns (Isa. 24:23; 26:1-2). Isaiah prophesied that God would overthrow the present world order enslaved to sin and establish his eternal kingdom of righteousness, which he did in Jesus.

Fast-forward to the book of Revelation where John picks up the metaphoric language of the two cities again: Babylon the Great (Rev. 17) and the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21-22). The original audience of John’s vision endured intense persecution for being part of that New Jerusalem and they needed to know that the Lord was aware of their struggles and would act very soon to vindicate them (Rev. 1:1).

What are we to learn from this theme of two cities? The New Jerusalem still stands unshaken and all who belong to Christ are her citizens (Phil. 3:20; Heb. 11:10; 12:18-29). But we have our modern Babylon as well, though she has yet to start drinking the blood of the saints here. While it pains us to see the impact of Babylon upon the world, we must remember that that lofty city, whatever form it takes in any age, is doomed.

Christ conquered sin on the cross and rose victorious over death in his resurrection. He has all authority in the universe and will rule until every power is put into subjection to him (1 Cor. 15:25). Therefore, fear not. Babylon, which seemed so great in Nebuchadnezzar’s day, fell at the hands of “the Most High” who “rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Dan. 4:25). Assyria, before her, was devoured by fire after she served her purpose (Isa. 10:5, 12-19). Egypt was drowned in water (Ex. 14) and Rome likewise fell. Why should any modern Babylon be any different?

Though the evil of the world appears to prevail, be certain that in the Lord’s own good time we will hear the report, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” Every kingdom that can be shaken will be shaken (Heb. 12:25-29). And like a beautiful bride coming down from heaven, the New Jerusalem will forever stand, tall and proud in all her glory with Christ in her midst shining bright as the sun (Rev. 21-22).

In many ways Dickens had it right. The present will always be a tale of two cities; one opposing God destined for destruction, the other, a city not made with hands, comprised of faithful followers of the Lord, destined for glory. Babylons come and go but the New Jerusalem stands forever. The question is, which city will you be living in when that voice like many waters shouts and shakes not only the earth but also the heavens? The choice is yours.

Was Paul a Gladiator?

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 

1 Corinthians 15:32

In the midst of Paul’s discussion on the truth of the general resurrection based on the truth of Jesus’ own resurrection, he makes several compelling arguments about the futility of the exertion of human will if the resurrection was a farce. One of which is a colorful description of a gladiatorial battle between the apostle himself and some frightening “wild beasts at Ephesus.” Who or what are these “wild beasts”? One interpretation is to take Paul’s words literally, that the apostle was actually thrown into a public gladiatorial ring with roaring lions and bears for the entertainment of the masses at Ephesus. It is true that during the time of Paul’s ministry in Asia, there was a massive theater in Ephesus that seated around 25,000 spectators where such battles took place (Acts 19:29).

However, being a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28), Paul would have been exempt both from death by crucifixion and death in the gladiatorial arena. It would have been against Roman law to punish Paul in the arena making the literal interpretation of this text unlikely. So if Paul isn’t talking about lions, tigers and bears in 1 Corinthians 15:32, who or what are the “wild beasts?”

His letter to Titus holds a clue. Paul quoted a Cretan prophet’s words of self-abasement: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). This was obviously a metaphorical use of the phrase “wild beasts” to describe the lack of self-control and animalistic nature of the general Cretan populace (2 Pet. 2:12; Jude 1:10). This fits well with what we know of Paul’s experience in Ephesus during his journey through Asia minor (2 Cor. 1:8).

The great theater in Ephesus wasn’t just a venue for bloody fighting. It also housed theatrical plays, musical performances and even political and religious gatherings. Paul caused one such impromptu political/religious gathering in Acts 19. The gospel of Jesus Christ was sweeping through Ephesus aided by the extraordinary miracles done by Paul by the power of God (19:11-12). The occult magical practices that dominated that pagan city were beginning to dwindle in favor of the true power of the word of the Lord (19:19-20).

This departure from pagan practice provoked “Demetrius, a silversmith, who made shrines of Artemis” (19:24), in fear of losing his livelihood, to round up a gang of his fellow tradesmen and drag Paul’s companions “into the theater” (19:29). There a confusing riot ensued that was quelled by the cool words of the town clerk (19:35-41). How does this help our understanding of 1 Corinthians 15:32? Paul may have been using the graphic image of “wild beasts” to figuratively describe the fierce attacks of his enemies. This is not unprecedented (cf. 1 Cor. 16:8-9; 2 Cor. 1:8). In the previous verse (1 Cor. 15:31) Paul used the phrase “I die daily” in a purely figurative sense as well. There is no need to take these “wild beasts” as literal animals in context.

With all that being said, we mustn’t lose ourselves in the details and miss the pioint. However we interpret the nature of these “wild beasts”  the thrust of Paul’s message is clear: Why would the apostle risk his life for the gospel if there is no resurrection? Paul’s point is, “I did risk everything because the resurrection is real.”

Was Paul a gladiator? Probably not. But he was a soldier for Christ (2 Tim. 2:3-4) shod with the gospel armor (Eph. 6:10-17) who fought the “good fight” of faith (2 Tim. 4:7). His physical presence may have been weak (2 Cor. 10:10) but he was made mighty by the Lord who equipped him with divine weapons that could level the fortresses of arrogance and “every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:3-6). 

He may not have fought off any bears or lions like David (1 Sam. 17:37) but Paul defended the gospel from “wild beasts” all the same. For the Lord, Paul willingly suffered many dangers (2 Cor. 11:23-28) that he describes as “momentary, light affliction” (2 Cor. 4:17). He suffered because he believed that “He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you” (2 Cor. 4:14). He was looking to the “things which are eternal,” the “glory yet to be revealed” (2 Cor. 4:18; Rom. 8:18), the reality of the bodily resurrection.  

Down in the Valley

Saturday, November 20, 2021

“[Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

Philippians 2:6-7

As early as Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), Christians understood Isaiah's fourth “Servant Song” (Isa. 52:13-53:12) to be describing Jesus. His humble arrival, his innocent life, the injustice and pain he suffered, his faithful obedience to his Father’s will, and, of course, his sacrificial death where he bore our sins on the cross (1 Pet. 2:23-25) are all found in Isaiah 52-53. Jesus was the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29) and in him there is forgiveness (Col. 1:19-20).

In Philippians 2, Paul writes his own poem about the Messiah and he seems to adopt both the structure and content of Isaiah’s. Servanthood is emphasized in both. Jesus “emptied himself” just as the Servant in Isaiah “poured out his soul to death” (Isa. 53:12). Both Paul’s poem and the Isaiah-passage begin and end with Christ’s transcendent glory (Phil. 2:6, 9-11; Isa. 52:13; 53:12) and between those two points of triumph, the downward staircase that ends at the cross. Both Paul and Isaiah take us from the highest high in heaven to the lowest low on earth and back again.

Paul’s point was for us to emulate the same attitude of self-denial for the sake of others that Jesus had (Phil. 2:1-4). Just as the Servant did not hold on to the “rights” that were his but gave them up so that others may live, so are we to walk the same road. We are called upon to consider others as more important than ourselves,  to serve as he served, to empty ourselves as he did.

When we behave like Jesus, however, we must be prepared to be met with the same astonishment and rejection as he was (Isa. 52:13-53:3). One tragic aspect of our Christian love and service is simply being taken for granted. We pour out our lives for others, and they simply drink us up and throw us out without so much as a “thank you.” When that happens to us, when we find ourselves ‘down in the valley’ of that V-shaped narrative of Isaiah 52-53 and Philippians 2, we need to remember a few things.

First, we need to remember that we are simply being treated as Jesus was. “He was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3). Why should we think our sacrificial love should get universal recognition and appreciation if the world for whom Jesus died paid no attention to him? Jesus said, “A servant is not above his master” (Mt. 10:24) and “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (Jn. 15:18-21). While most people will take us for granted, there will be some who will be drawn closer to Christ as a result of him living in us. And most importantly, God notices our faithful service and will reward it in the end (1 Cor. 15:58).

Second, being treated like Jesus for acting like Jesus should fill us with hope, not despair. The apostles, after they were beaten and released, were “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41). They could rejoice because sharing in Jesus’ suffering is the sure sign that we will share in Jesus’ triumph and resurrection! (Phil. 3:10-11) When we are down in that V-shaped valley, we must always be singing that final song of triumph to get us through.

The burden of servanthood is to bear the burdens of others. Jesus carried our griefs and sorrows. While we can never bear others’ burdens in the same way or to the same extent Jesus did, we can at least help them carry those burdens to the place where Jesus can unload them. “Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). We are Christ’s wounded healers, bringing God’s healing love to bear in this broken world. Someday, he will take us from this deep valley up to heavenly heights.

Listening to the Sermon

Saturday, November 13, 2021

“As for you, son of man, your people who talk together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to his brother, ‘Come, and hear what the word is that comes from the LORD.’ And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with lustful talk in their mouths they act; their heart is set on their gain. And behold, you are to them like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it.”

Ezekiel 33:30-32

Ezekiel had a tough job. He was commissioned to preach an unpopular message to people who wouldn’t listen. He was to act as a watchman and warn his fellow exiles in Babylon of judgment if they did not turn back to the Lord. Ezekiel announced the sad news that the siege back home in Jerusalem had begun (24:1-2). After two years of waiting, news of the city’s fall finally reached them in Babylon (33:21). This marked a turning point in Ezekiel’s career.

The prophet was recommissioned (33:1-9) and repeated his original message of repentance (33:10-20). After Jerusalem fell, the prophet was vindicated in the eyes of the exiles (33:21-22). Before, nobody would listen to him. But now, he had an eager audience. Ezekiel went from being an unpopular, despised prophet (cf. 2:3-7; 3:4-9) to a vindicated, popular prophet. Suddenly, he was the talk of the town. People came in droves wanting to hear what this eccentric prophet would say next (33:30). They hung on his every word but they viewed his preaching as mere entertainment (33:31-32). Ezekiel was to them “like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument.” Yes, they would listen and admire the words, but they would not obey the message. It went in one ear and out the other. They acted not in response to Ezekiel’s preaching but by their “lustful talk” and their “heart… set on gain.” (33:31)

God’s people today should draw three warnings from this text:

The dangers of becoming a “popular” preacher — Ezekiel had been both unpopular and popular, both “in season and out of season,” so to speak. It would be hard for Ezekiel not to be flattered by all this newfound attention and think he was now successful. Successful preaching, however, is not measured by the number of people who hear it, by the congratulatory words of the listeners, nor even by its reception. Rather, successful preaching is gauged by whether or not the message is God’s word. By this measure, Ezekiel was just as ‘successful’ in chapter 33 when lots of people were listening as he was in chapter 3 when no one was.

The dangers of listening to “entertaining” preaching — There are many preachers whose sermons lack substance and biblical content but, because they are entertaining, get an audience. On the other hand, there are many compelling speakers who also preach God’s word faithfully. Ezekiel, evidently, was one. But we can’t think that simply by attending the assembly and being entertained by the lesson that that, by itself, accomplishes anything. If we have not enjoined our listening with life-changing obedience, our listening does us no good (Jas. 1:22-25; Mt. 7:24-27). The exiles were entertained but not changed by the sermons. What about us?

The dangers of listening with impure hearts — Ezekiel’s fellow exiles had their hearts “set on their gain.” This possibly indicates they were trying to exploit the popular preacher for their own ends, trying to make a fast buck out of Ezekiel’s entertainment value. As with Simon (Acts 8:18-24), their receptivity to God’s word was distorted by greed. Instead of asking, “What would the Lord have me do?” they asked, “What’s in this for me?” God’s word bears fruit in us only if we “hold it fast in an honest and good heart” (Lk. 8:15).

Joseph's Three Coats

Saturday, November 06, 2021

“And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him.”

Acts 7:9

Joseph is a great example of someone who lived by faith, an example we should strive to imitate. He was a God-appointed deliverer but was rejected by his brothers. In this respect, Joseph was a lot like Jesus, which seems to be the point of Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7. One way to remember Joseph’s life is by his three coats. Most of us are aware of his first coat but we might not be sure about the other two.

Joseph’s first coat — (Genesis 37) Joseph’s story begins with him being alienated from his brothers in several ways. First, he reported his brothers’ bad behavior to their father (Gen. 37:1-2); second, he was given a special coat which marked him out as dad’s favorite (Gen. 37:3-4); third, he was given a series of dreams which indicated he would rule over his family and then told them the dreams, whic probably wasn't a great idea (Gen. 37:5-11). This had the expected result of provoking his brothers to further jealousy and hatred.

Later, his brothers plotted to kill him. Reuben restrained their hatred, opting instead to throw him into a “pit.” Then, the brothers conspired to sell Joseph into slavery (Gen. 37:18-28) and lie to their father by bringing back Joseph’s coat dipped in goat’s blood as “evidence” of his death (Gen. 37:29-36). So Joseph received and lost his first coat and ended up in a “pit.”

Joseph’s second coat — (Gen. 39-40) Joseph was sold as a slave to Potiphar, a high official in Egypt. Despite appearances, we are told that “the LORD was with him,” a phrase that is repeated throughout this story. Though nothing is said of him receiving a new coat, we know that he had one because later he lost it. Also, it is not hard to imagine Joseph receiving a new change of clothes as he was put in charge of Potiphar’s entire house (Gen. 39:1-6a). Just when things were looking up, Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, eventually forcing faithful Joseph to run away. Potiphar’s wife snatched his coat and used it as “evidence” against him, and, once again, Joseph found himself thrown into a “pit” (Gen. 39:8-23; cf. 40:15) where we are told (again) that “the LORD was with Joseph.”

A pattern emerges: Joseph faithfully served his father, received a coat, lost it and was thrown into a pit; Joseph faithfully served Potiphar, received a coat, lost it and was thrown into a pit.

Joseph’s third coat — (Gen. 40-41) While in prison, Joseph interpreted the dream of Pharaoh’s cupbearer who was released. Two years later, Pharaoh had a pair of dreams no one could interpret until the cupbearer remembered Joseph. He interpreted the dreams, gained his freedom and was put in charge of all Egypt. And what should he receive but a new coat! (Gen. 41:42-44)

But instead of using his power and position to get revenge on his brothers and Potiphar’s wife, Joseph continued to live faithfully. In fact, during a severe famine, his brothers came to Egypt to buy food and fulfilled Joseph’s dreams by bowing down to him not knowing who he was. Finally, he revealed his identity to his brothers but refused to retaliate against them. He attributed the whole situation to God’s good will and providence: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Gen. 50:20)

How was Joseph able to exhibit such grace? Perhaps Joseph could never have worn that third coat as graciously and humbly as he did if he hadn’t worn—and lost—the first two. Our life goes through many unexpected twists and turns. But if we live by faith like Joseph, we will see God’s good purposes in the end (Rom. 8:28). Even in the most difficult times, God is with us when we trust in him. I’ll leave it to you to draw the many parallels between Joseph’s experiences of humiliation and exaltation and Jesus’s own.

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