Living with Both Hands

Living with Both Hands

Matthew 22:34-40

Dr. Jim Denison

“Happy New Year.” Those words, or their equivalents, were first heard in ancient Babylon 4000 years ago. They were the first to celebrate the new year; their party lasted for eleven days, if you can imagine. Today New Year’s Day is the most universal of all holidays, transcending religions and cultures everywhere.

Black-eyed peas are considered good luck for the new year. I have no idea why—it cannot be the taste.

And making resolutions is as old as the holiday itself. The Babylonians invented this custom as well. Their most popular new year’s resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment. I’ve made the same resolution for this year myself.

According to an Internet survey, the five most popular resolutions are, in order, lose weight; stop smoking; improve relationships; make more money (which might improve relationships); and take up a new hobby (now that we have more money). I think we can do better with our lives in this new year, don’t you?

Last week we thought together about our life purpose. Did you pray about yours? Did you spend thirty minutes a day with your Heavenly Father, talking about this issue? If you did, you have a sense of his direction already.

Now, we need to look at the priorities by which he intends us to fulfill his purpose for our lives. The Great Commandments fulfill the Great Commission.

If you wonder how God wants you to live every day, look to Jesus’ answer to the same question. If you want to escape the urgent, the stressful, the frustrating, and experience a life filled with deep satisfaction and daily purpose, look to Jesus’ prescription for a life lived well.

Jesus’ prescription for a healthy life

Here’s the situation. This is Tuesday of Holy Week; Jesus is in Jerusalem, and the religious authorities are desperate. The crowds are wild with enthusiasm for him, and the established leadership fears riots or worse. They must do something about this Nazarene.

So the Herodians, their political faction, try to trick him with their question about paying taxes, but they fail. Next, the Sadducees, their religious authorities, try to trap him with their question about marriage in heaven, but they fail as well.

Now the Pharisees, their legal authorities, gather. They select one of their own, a brilliant scribe and expert in the Jewish Law, to challenge Jesus. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” he asks (Matthew 22:36).

Understand what he’s asking. The authorities counted 248 affirmative commandments, as many as the members of the human body; and 365 negative precepts, as many as the days of the year. The total number of their laws was 613, as many as the Hebrew letters of the Ten Commandments.

Which is most important? If he chooses one, he’ll be accused of neglecting all the rest. What would you say if a lawyer asked you, “What is the most important law in America?” If you answered with our laws against murder, someone will say that you endorse stealing; if you affirm our laws against drug abuse, someone will say that you are soft on human rights. And so on.

In essence, the lawyer is asking Jesus, how should we live? Out of all of God’s revelation to us, what commandment is the essential principle for life?

We join in asking the question. Not because we want to trick Jesus legally, but because we need to know practically. We need to simplify our lives, to find direction in times which are too hectic.

The cost of job stress in America is estimated at $200 billion annually.

Stress-related injuries on the job have tripled in recent years.

Fatigue is among the top five reasons people call their doctors. Of the top twenty prescription drugs, eleven are for treatment of high blood pressure or ulcers—stress disorders.

Everyone has this problem. Even librarians have a guide called Stress and Burnout in Library Service. Mothers of school-age children average eleven hours per week simply driving around.

What is the greatest commandment in the Law? Put in our words, what is the secret to living well?

Here’s Jesus’ famous answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (vs. 37-40).

Here is the “nail” on which everything else hangs. Here is the sine qua non, “that without which there is nothing.” Get this right, and everything else will be right; get this wrong, and nothing else can be right.

Here are the priorities of life, boiled down. Life in a nutshell, the secret to living on purpose, to living well. Let’s examine them in turn.

First, Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Note these facts.

One: this has been God’s basic principle for life since he first revealed himself to us. These words are part of the Shema, the ancient and essential creed of Judaism. This is the sentence with which every Jewish service still opens, and the first text which every Jewish child commits to memory. This is the way God has always taught us to live.

Two: “heart,” “soul,” and “mind” means that we must love God with every part of our lives, every day. The “heart” was the seat of the will for ancient Jews; the “soul” is the life principle itself, and the “mind” is the place of reasoning. In every decision we make, in every thought we think, indeed in every dimension of life itself, we are to love God. He will accept no spiritual schizophrenia, loving him on Sunday but not Monday, loving him when we’re with some people but not others, loving him when things are good but not when they are not. He wants us to love him every day, with every dimension of our lives.


Revealing the Revelation

Revealing the Revelation

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Dr. Jim Denison

Revelation 1:1

Revelation is my favorite book of the Bible. But for most of us, it is the most confusing book of the Bible as well. My college professor simplified it greatly for me. He said the entire book can be summarized in two words: “We win.” He was right.

Unfortunately, preachers and scholars over the centuries have made Revelation much harder to understand than it really is. Entire seminary classes are devoted to applying complex methods of interpretation to Revelation. I know, because I’ve been in such classes and taught them as well.

What words come to mind today when you think of the book of Revelation? Confusing, hard to understand, debated. And more.

This study should not have confusion. Revelation was written to everyday Christians in ways they could understand and apply. It can still be understood by believers today, if we know what those first century readers knew. And so our method for interpreting the book of Revelation will be simple: to explain what the text meant to its first readers, and therefore what it means for us today.

We begin by stepping back 20 centuries into the environment and context of this remarkable book. We need to answer four important questions, as we lay the foundation for the semester before us:

Who was the author?

Who was the writer?

Who were the readers?

How should we read Revelation?

Who was the author?

We cannot understand fully any writing unless we know its author and circumstances. What do these words mean: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The Chicago Times said of the speech, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” But these 268 words are immortal, because of the man who spoke them and the times when he spoke them.

The text before us is even more eternal in its significance, but that significance is far more meaningful for us when we know its author and context.

Who was the author of Revelation? Many editions of the Bible confuse us with their title: “The Revelation of John.” The titles of the biblical books were added centuries after the books were written; in this case, the appended title is wrong.

The first five words of the text settle the question: “The revelation of Jesus Christ” (1.1). The book is the revelation of Jesus, given to John for him to give to Jesus’ churches (1.1b). Jesus is the real author of Revelation.

What difference does it make that Jesus is the author of this book? What do we know about him which is relevant to this book? He knows the future, so these predictions can be trusted, We have through the years heard many predictions made by men, especially concerning the end times. And we know they cannot be trusted.

Jesus has the power to bring these things to pass. He defeated death, calmed storms, overcame Satan’s temptations. He created all things, and all things are subject to him. He cares about us enough to reveal these promises and offer this hope to us. He walks with us as we experience the suffering predicted here. He has suffered himself, and knows the pain we feel.

This is not the naïve predicting of a fortuneteller, or the weak assurances of a frail human being. This is the revelation of Jesus Christ himself to us. So we will read it with fascination and trust it with confidence.

Who was the writer?

The author of Revelation was Jesus Christ. However, this text was first given to a man named John (1.1) who served as the writer. Who was this writer, and why does his identity matter?

Interpreters of the Bible consider two kinds of evidence in determining who wrote a given book: “internal” and “external.” Internal evidence comes from the book itself; external evidence comes from other historical records and sources.

What do we know from internal evidence about John? He is named four times (1.1, 1.4, 1.9, 22.8). He calls himself “your brother and companion” in 1.9. He is on the island of Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1.9). That is all we know internally. From this evidence alone, what can we conclude?

He is a Christian (“your brother”).

He is suffering for his faith, thus likely a visible Christian.

He is exiled on Patmos, a prison colony. And so he will understand our sufferings, our pain, as one who goes through them with us.

The external evidence is helpful: from earliest times the near-unanimous opinion of scholars was the John the Beloved Disciple wrote this text.

Justin Martyr (ca. AD 100-165) connected the book with “a certain man of us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him” (Dialogue with Trypho 81).

Irenaeus (born AD 130) and most others in the early Christian era believed that John the Disciple wrote the book.

Some point to differences in the Greek style of Revelation when compared with the Gospel of John and the Letters of John, and suggest that someone other than the Beloved Disciple wrote the book. But changed circumstances behind the writing of Revelation could account easily for these differences.

Here’s what we know about John the Beloved Disciple and his circumstances:

He was Jesus’ best friend and author of the Fourth Gospel: “One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him” (John 13.23); “Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them” (John 21.20); “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (v. 24).


The Super Bowl of the Soul

The Super Bowl of the Soul

Galatians 3.26-4.7

Dr. Jim Denison

Last year’s Super Bowl was watched by 127.5 million people, and the game the year before by 130,754,000. The ten most watched programs of all time are nine Super Bowls and the women’s skating final of the 1994 Winter Olympics, oddly enough. Companies will pay $2.3 million per ad for this weekend’s game.

Now, answer quickly: who won last year’s Super Bowl? Who lost? By how much?

Can you name the last ten Super Bowl Most Valuable Players? Did you know that Ottis Anderson, Mark Rypien, Larry Brown, and Desmond Howard are on the list?

Which do you remember more, the players or the commercials? If I never hear “Whassup?” again it will be too soon.

Super Bowl fame is fleeting, indeed. Our worth is not our work, no matter how visible and famous it is.

We’re exploring personal issues in light of God’s great commandments and great commission, his priorities and purpose for our lives. We began by discussing self-esteem problems and praying Jabez’s prayer of audacious blessing. Let’s continue by tackling the whole issue of worth vs. work, of finding our identity in our performance, our vocations, our work.

Today God wants to convince you that you are not what you do. Let’s see why, and why that fact matters so much to our lives.

Legalism then

In every great movement, there comes a crisis point—a fork in the road, a crisis which determines what the future will be, a “Super Bowl” which decides everything. In the recent presidential election, it was Florida. In Texas history, it was the Alamo and San Jacinto. In World War II, it was Normandy.

Always, there is this crisis point which determines the future.

The Christian “Super Bowl” came early in our faith history, but the game is still being played today.

The problem is known to scholars as the Judaizers. In brief, the question was, how are we to reconcile Christianity and Judaism?

So long as only Jews were becoming Christians, there was no problem. But when Paul began preaching the gospel to the hated Gentiles, they came to Christ without first becoming Jews. And this was a big problem. This seemed a denial of the very heritage of the Jewish faith, and of all that is holy and right.

So the “Judaizers” proposed this simple solution: Gentiles can become Christians, if they will first become Jews.

A Gentile would become a Jewish proselyte and be circumcised as proof of his conversion. Then he would receive Christian baptism. In this way he would keep the Jewish law as a precondition to receiving Christian salvation.

As a result, they argued, Gentiles around the world would affirm the historic achievements and heritage of Judaism and build a bridge to its followers. What could be wrong with this?

It was this very idea which had now taken hold in the churches of Galatia. Paul founded churches in modern-day mainland Turkey, on his first missionary journey. There were now Gentile converts in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and other towns all over this part of the world.

And the Judaizers followed Paul into these churches and said, “It’s wonderful that you have become Christians. But you’ve left out the necessary first step. You must become Jews, then you can become Christians. You must be circumcised and keep the law, then you can come to Jesus by grace.”

What if they had won the day?

Christianity would have become just another branch of Judaism, like Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox today. We would be keeping Jewish rituals today, not practicing Christian worship.

And even more important, the whole idea of salvation by grace through faith would be lost. The gospel is clear: “whosoever believes in Jesus shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16); “For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

If we must do the works of Judaism to be saved, we lose our free salvation in Jesus. If we must do religious works, we no longer have a religion of grace. We are saved by what we do, not by what Jesus has done. We become what we do. And as Paul says, then “Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21).

But the Galatian Christians had fallen for this heresy. Nothing less than the future of the Christian idea and movement was at stake. This was the “Super Bowl” of ancient Christianity. Thus our vivid, tempestuous letter to the churches of Galatia—probably the first New Testament letter ever to be written. And with it came God’s solution to work-based worth, a solution which still works today.

Legalism now

Could I suggest to you that we need that solution still? That we are plagued by an identity of works, of self-sufficiency and self-justification, a way of life which says that we are what we do, our worth is our work?

Let’s see if this is so for us today.

The Minirth-Meier clinic calls drivenness to perform “the most prominent emotional illness of the 1990s.” Their book, We Are Driven, defines the problem this way: “Drivenness is an insatiable drive to do more and be more. It’s a drive that may be masked by charitable and positive motives, but in reality originates in deep, perhaps even unconscious, feelings of inadequacy and shame” (p. 6). Their picture for such drivenness is telling: riding a bike without a chain.

Do any of these words describe you: uptight, stressed, anxious, achieving, driven, perfectionistic, performance-centered? They’ve all described me in the past. I know the feeling.

Dr. David Seamands, a Methodist missionary and counselor, has spent his life ministering to performance-driven people. He has identified typical symptoms. See if any of this sounds familiar: a continuous sense of guilt, condemnation, and the judgment and disapproval of God; a sense of worthlessness, with feelings of low self-esteem and recurring inward assaults of self-belittling and even self-despising; a sense of phoniness and unreality, a feeling of being an empty fake; negative emotions, especially anxiety and anger, which result in irrational fears, smoldering resentments, outbursts of rage, excessive mood swings and depression; and difficulties with interpersonal relationships, especially where intimacy is involved (Freedom from the Performance Trap, 16-9).


Welcome to the Future

Welcome to the Future

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Dr. Jim Denison

Revelation 1:1-3

John, Jesus’ beloved disciples, is the human author of this book. But this is not the Revelation of John—it is the Revelation of Jesus Christ. Jesus wrote a book! This is it.

John was on Patmos when he received this revelation. As he says, “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1.9).

Here, in this cave, he saw again the Lord he had last seen 60 years earlier. Domitian, the crazed Roman emperor, is on the throne of earth; but Jesus is on the throne of heaven. He shows himself to John. And he gives him seven letters for seven churches.

We will look at Jesus’ letters to them, each one in order. But first, we need to understand the nature of these letters, and of the book which contains them.

What Revelation says about itself

It is a “revelation” (v. 1). The word means “to unveil.” It is rarely used outside the New Testament; it refers to insight into truth (Ephesians 1.17), and also to the revelation of God or Christ at the Second Coming (2 Thessalonians 1.7; 1 Peter 1.7). This word points to the fact that everything we know about God comes to us from him.

Its subject is “Jesus Christ” (v. 1). This is not the Revelation of John, but of Jesus. He is the subject of everything we will read.

It is for believers: “to show his servants” (v. 1). The intended audience of the book is followers of Jesus Christ. More specifically, the audience is the churches: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches” (1.11).

It has relevance for the first century: “what must soon take place” (v. 1). The intent of the book is that it be understood in its first-century context. The events described here would begin to occur quickly, and would all have relevance for the first-century listeners.

It is a vision: “who testifies to everything he saw” (v. 2). We will do well to interpret the book as visionary and symbolic in nature.

It is a book: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it” (v. 3). In the Jewish pattern, one person would read the Scriptures to the congregation (cf. 2 Corinthians 3.14; Luke 4.16-17; Acts 13.15).

This was the early Christian model also: “On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things” (Justin, Apology ch 67).

It is a prophecy: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy.” Biblical “prophecy” is more forth-telling that foretelling. There are predictive elements in this book, but its primary referent is immediate action.

Its words must be obeyed: “blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it.”

Its readers will be blessed. “Makarios” is the Greek word, the promise of joy which transcends circumstances. Revelation is the only biblical book which specifically promises such a blessing.

Its message is urgent: “because the time is near.” Cf. Revelation 22.20: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

John Newport: “Revelation does not intend to teach a program of events that pinpoints our exact location on the final track of world history. Rather, it teaches the imminence of the second coming of Christ to the churches of Asia Minor and to all churches in history” (Lion and the Lamb 127).

Interpretive options

As mentioned in the previous study, here are the most common approaches to Revelation:

Preterist: the events recorded in Revelation have already been fulfilled.

Continuous historical: Revelation is a forecast of the entire history of the church; this view attempts to correlate passages in the book with specific historical events.

Theological principles: Revelation is a religious philosophy of life which demonstrates how things turn out in a world where evil seems to be in control but God is the actual ruler.

Social Interpretation: Revelation teaches a particular social agenda, in which God’s Kingdom overcomes the existing, hostile, godless powers.

Dispensational premillennialism: a literal approach wherever possible, separating Israel from the Church, and teaching a literal rapture, 7-year tribulation, and 1000-year millennial rule of Christ on earth.

Historic premillennialism: no rapture or 7-year tribulation.

Postmillennialism: Christ will return after the millennium.

Amillennialism: the prophecies of a future millennium are highly symbolic; seven sections move in parallel with one another.

An “apocalypticist” approach: Revelation translates “apocalupsis,” or “apocalyptic.”

“Apocalyptic literature” was first developed during the Jewish exile in Babylon, and was common from about 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. Apocalyptic writers transferred the Old Testament prophets’ promises of a better world from this world to the future. They foresaw the destruction of the present evil age and the rise of a glorious world of reward to come. Apocalyptic writings are found in Isaiah 24-27, Zechariah 1-6, Ezekiel 38-39, Daniel 7-12, and Mark 13.

Characteristics of apocalyptic literature

I believe that Revelation should be treated as apocalyptic literature in its interpretive method. There are several characteristics which make up apocalyptic literature:

It grew out of difficult times and spoke to them. The more we learn about the historical circumstances, the better we will understand this book.

It presented its message through visions and symbolic language. These symbols were a kind of code which was understood by the intended readers but concealed its message from those outside the church. Numbers, objects, and nearly any other element could be used symbolically.


What God Looks Like

What God Looks Like

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Dr. Jim Denison

Revelation 1:4-20

John, the writer identifies himself for the second time in verse four. He addresses the revelation from Jesus to the seven churches of Asia, which at that time was Asia Minor, the western region of modern-day Turkey. The churches are named in verse 11.

“Grace to you and peace” was a common biblical greeting. “Grace” translates the typical Greek greeting; “peace” translates “shalom,” the typical Hebrew greeting. Together, they offer the reader the grace of salvation and the peace which is its result.

The God John served on Patmos was the “one who is, and who was, and who is to come”

(1:4). The Lord God makes the same claim for himself in 1:8, as does Jesus in 1:17.

Hebrews 13:8 agrees that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

This description is an extension of God’s self-designated name YHWH (generally

represented in English as Yahweh), meaning the One who is, who was, and who ever

shall be (see Exodus 3:14). The One “who is to come” is the first reference in Revelation

to the return of Christ, continuing the promise Jesus made at his ascension (Acts 1:11).

John also sees “the seven spirits before his throne” (Revelation 1:4), better translated “the sevenfold Spirit”. Seven in apocalyptic language is the number of perfection and completion. So this description refers to the perfect Spirit, complete and powerful in every way. The Spirit serves “before his throne,” a reference to the Spirit’s role in leading us in worship before the Father.

Thus two of the three members of the Trinity are identified—the Son will come next. Now Jesus is described as “the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). “The faithful martyr” would be another translation of the first phrase in the text.

“Firstborn” relates not to chronology but to significance and importance. The firstborn in

Hebrew culture was the most important of the children. Our text does not teach that Jesus was created (as the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim), but that Jesus is the “only begotten Son” of the Father in the sense that he is the Father’s first Son in significance or importance. In fact, he is “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5) at present, whether they know it or not.

While he rules the world, Jesus also loves each and every one of us personally. He has proven his love by freeing us “from our sins by his blood,” making us priests to serve his Father (1:5-6). “Freed us from our sins” is a completed action in the Greek, a past event with present consequences (1:5). We are already set free to serve God today.

Then one day our Savior will return to our earth and make complete our victory (1:7).

The entire world will see him, from the first-century enemies who crucified him to those alive at his return. Every person, across all time, in all nations of the world.

His very nature guarantees his eternal omnipotence, for he is both “Alpha” (the first letter in the Greek alphabet) and “Omega” (the last letter). He is the “Almighty,” the one who rules over the universe with infinite power (1:8).

Patmos

In Verse 9, John identifies himself again, this time as “your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus.” And identified his location as the island of Patmos. John is different from the Jewish apocalyptic writers of the interbiblical period in that he identifies himself.

Early writers stated that John was exiled to Patmos; Victorinus said that he was quite old, and that he worked in the mines of the island. This was around A.D. 95. In 96, Domitian the Roman ruler died, and tradition affirms that John then returned to Ephesus.

Affliction, which John mentions, was thlipsis, and he was looking forward to basileia, the kingdom into which he desired to enter and on which he had set his heart. There was only one way from thlipsis to basileia, from affliction to glory, and that was through hupomone, conquering endurance. Jesus said, “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13. Paul told his people, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” Acts 14:22). In 2 Timothy we read: “If we endure, we will also reign with him” (2:12).

Endurance can only be found in Christ. He endured to the end and enables us to do so.

Patmos was a small, rocky island about of about16 square miles in the Aegean Sea, some 40 miles southwest of Miletus. It was a penal settlement to which the Roman authorities sent offenders. It was sparsely settled, and according to Pliny, was treeless. This probably meant hard labor in the quarries.

According to some theologians, his banishment would have been “preceded by scourging, marked by perpetual fetters, scanty clothing, insufficient food, sleep on the bare ground, a dark prison, work under the lash of the military overseer” (quoted in Barclay, 41).

He was in the Alcatraz of Patmos, worshiping “on the Lord’s Day” (1:10). This is the first reference in literature and in the New Testament to “the Lord’s Day.” While some have seen it as a reference to the future “Day of the Lord,” most interpreters identify the phrase with Sunday. The early Christians worshiped Jesus on the first day of the week, the day of his resurrection (see John 20:19; Acts 20:7; 1Corinthians 16:2).

The Didache, the earliest compendium of Christian theology, identifies this phrase with Sunday as well (Didache 14). While the pagan world celebrated the first day of the week as Emperor’s Day, Christians worshiped Christ and not Caesar on the “Lord’s Day.”

Jesus in John’s vision

Then John heard a voice, like a trumpet, that told him to write what he would “see” (indicating the visionary nature of the book to follow), and send it to the seven churches (to be addressed specifically in Rev. 2—3). The seven churches are probably listed in the order in which they would be visited by a messenger with such letters.