The Sin of Cowardice

September 19, 2021 in Bible - NT - Revelation, Fear, Meditations

Revelation 21:6–8 

6Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. 7He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. 8But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” 

In our passage today, the Lord Jesus holds out eternal life for those who worship and serve Him despite the opposition of the world and eternal death for those who worship other gods or live unrighteously. The list that our Lord gives of those excluded from life include “the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars.” It is that first category that I want to draw to our attention today – the cowardly.

Webster defines “the cowardly” as those “wanting courage to face danger; timid; timorous; fearful; pusillanimous.” While we typically associate cowardice with the battlefield, cowardice is shown whenever we turn away from a good purpose in the face of opposition because of fear. 

First, we are cowardly when we turn away from a good purpose. It is not cowardice to face opposition for doing something evil and then to turn back – that is repentance. No, cowardice is the turning away from a good purpose – it is to fail to ask forgiveness from your spouse because you’re afraid of shame; to fail to confess your secret porn habit to your parents because you’re afraid to get in trouble; to fail to defend your wife from harm because you’re afraid to get hurt; to fail to confront your friend because you’re afraid you might lose her friendship; to agree to speak lies because you’re afraid you might lose your job; to watch a movie you shouldn’t because you’re afraid your friends might not think you’re cool. The cowardly turn away from a good purpose.

Second, cowardice reveals itself in the face of opposition. Anyone can be brave when there are no threats. It is when threats arise, when opposition is present, that our true character is revealed. We set ourselves to a good purpose but then face criticism or persecution or threats or a mob or financial duress. At that moment, at the moment of opposition, we discover who whether we are courageous or cowardly – for the cowardly retreat in the face of opposition.

Finally, the cowardly turn away from a good purpose because of fear. Fear of man; fear of shame; fear of death; fear of failure; fear of loneliness; fear of fame. The specific type of fear varies; but it is fear that motivates and drives the cowardly man.

C.S. Lewis in his book The Screwtape Letters has the demon Screwtape explaining to his nephew why God likely created “a dangerous world – a world in which moral issues really come to the point. [God] sees,” Screwtape writes, “as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky” (148-149). Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.

Hence, our Lord pronounces His woe upon the cowardly – those who turn back in the face of risk; who turn away from the faith, turn away from virtue, turn away from honesty when the cost of such things is too high. So what of you? Are you cowardly? Have you turned back from a good purpose in the face of opposition because of fear? I have. So ought we not to seek the face of God and to confess our sin, asking Him to pour out His Spirit upon us that we live without fear? “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim 1:7). So let us confess our cowardice to the Lord this morning – and, as you are able, let us kneel as we confess our sins. We will have a time of silent confession followed by the corporate confession found in your bulletin.

Reading the Word of God

September 5, 2021 in Bible - NT - Revelation, Lord's Day, Meditations, Word of God, Worship

Revelation 1:1–3 

1The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John, 2who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, to all things that he saw. 3Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near. 

It is always dangerous to introduce things into the worship of the Triune God that have no grounding in Sacred Scripture. The reason is that we human beings are corrupt and prone to idolatry. We drink iniquity like water. We find ways to subvert the worship of the true and living God and to replace pure worship with the traditions of men.

And so it is always good to ask questions of our service of worship. Are the things we are doing reflective of the patterns and principles laid out in the Word of God? Have we introduced certain practices simply because we think they are good ideas or because they faithfully reflect biblical principles?

The text in Revelation today addresses one of these practices. It helps us understand why the Church has historically included the reading of Scripture in the service of worship. For if we look carefully at the words in verse 3 we find this practice mentioned:

“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near.”

John pronounces his blessing both on the reader of the biblical text and on the hearers. In other words, the Apostle John expected that the Word of God would be read in the public assembly of God’s people. 

Knowing that our practice of reading the Word of God aloud each Lord’s Day is biblical requires us to ask another set of questions. For it is not enough to read the Word of God aloud and to hear its vibrational tones in our ear drums. We must read in a particular way and we must hear in a particular way.

First, how ought we to read the Word of God? The answer, quite simply, is that the Word of God should be read as though it were the Word of God – divinely powerful and authoritative, living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing as far as the joints and marrow, separating light from darkness, and wisdom from folly. The Word of God should be read as though we believe it.

Second, how ought we to listen to the Word of God? We ought to listen so as to be transformed by it. Notice that the blessing in the passage is pronounced not on the one who notices the general hum of the passage in his otherwise preoccupied mind, but on the one who hears and keeps the things revealed in it. We should listen to the Word of God in order to be transformed by it.

So what of you? Those who read for us, are you considering the passage carefully as you prepare, paying attention to meaning and tone? You who hear, are you using each Lord’s Day as an opportunity to train your ears to listen attentively to the Word of God? Are you training your ears, and the ears of your children, to listen with care – allowing our Lord to speak and transform us for His glory? Are you listening carefully, that God may break up your fallow ground and teach you to live in fear of Him all your days? Or are you treating the reading of the Word as simply one more activity to check off in worship so that you can get to the donuts? 

Reminded of our calling to read and listen to the Word of God in faith, let us acknowledge that we often fail to read His Word and to give heed to it as we ought. We are often distracted and inattentive. And as we confess our sin to the Lord, let us kneel as we are able. We will have a time of silent confession followed by the corporate confession found in your bulletin. 

With Palm Branches in their Hands

April 14, 2019 in Bible - NT - Revelation, Easter, Liturgy, Lord's Day, Meditations, Worship

Revelation 7:9–12 (NKJV)

9 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom, Thanksgiving and honor and power and might, Be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Today is Palm Sunday, the day on which our Lord Jesus entered into Jerusalem and was acclaimed the long-awaited Messiah by the people of Israel. To celebrate Jesus’ entrance into the city, they gathered the branches of palms, laid some upon the road and waved others in the air, rejoicing in His arrival. In Christian history, we have called this event Jesus’ Triumphal Entry.

In Revelation 7 this vision of praising God with the waving of palm branches is repeated. John beholds an immense multitude standing before the throne of God and before the Lamb of God. They are clothed in white robes which point to the forgiveness of sins through the shed blood of Jesus (cf. 7:14). And in their hands are palm branches. So why palms? Why have we distributed palms in worship today so that your children can disturb you with them during the service?

The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery notes that throughout the Old Testament, “the palm tree was associated with the oasis, a place of fertility in the midst of the wilderness. It provided food in the form of the date, and its sap could be used as a sweetener or for making wine… the palm frequently connoted fertility and blessing” (622). Consequently, the righteous are compared to the palm in Psalm 92:12-13 –

The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, He shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Those who are planted in the house of the LORD Shall flourish in the courts of our God.

The palm tree makes its way into the construction of the Temple. Palm trees were carved into the walls and doors of Solomon’s temple according to 1 Kings 6:29, 32, and 36. Later in Ezekiel’s vision of God’s glorious Temple, he describes the palms that decorated each of the gateways and gateposts of the Temple – likening the Temple to a fruitful garden, like the Garden of Eden, a place where God’s blessing dwells.

So when John beholds the righteous, clothed in white robes and carrying branches of palm in their hands, it is this vision of fruitfulness and delight that he wishes to communicate to us. We are palm trees adorning the temple of the Living God. So the righteous cry out, while waving their palms, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And the angels join in the praise, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom, Thanksgiving and honor and power and might, Be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Then the angels explain the significance of the palms with these words, “They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters [in other words, He will lead them to oases where palm trees grow]. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:16-17).

So as we enter into worship this Palm Sunday, waving our branches of palm, let us rejoice that our Lord Jesus has given Himself for us, He has shed His blood that we might stand before our God clothed in garments of white and that we might be fruitful palm trees, reflecting the fruitfulness of our God. The only way that we can be here in such joy is by confessing our sin, our need for the cleansing blood of Christ, and our need for His empowering grace. So let us confess our sins to the Lord and rejoice in His goodness. Let us kneel as we are able. We will have a time of silent confession followed by the corporate confession found in your bulletin.

Why kneel in worship?

February 5, 2017 in Bible - NT - Mark, Bible - NT - Revelation, Bible - OT - 1 Kings, Bible - OT - Psalms, Ecclesiology, Liturgy, Meditations, Worship
1 Kings 8:54 (NKJV)
54 And so it was, when Solomon had finished praying all this prayer and supplication to the LORD, that he arose from before the altar of the LORD, from kneeling on his knees with his hands spread up to heaven.
In the last few weeks we have explored various traditions that our elders have established to guide our corporate worship. As we have noted, every church has traditions – and those who claim they don’t are trying to pull the wool over your eyes. It is important, therefore, that we regularly evaluate our traditions to make sure that they reflect and not undermine biblical principles – and it is this that we are doing with our exhortations.
Among the traditions we have as a congregation, one of them is kneeling when we confess our sins. In just a moment I will invite you to kneel with me as we confess our sins to God. Many people, visitors especially, find this practice uncomfortable or objectionable (physically challenging is okay!) – in fact, many have refused to return and worship here because we kneel during our service. The preaching is fine; the music is acceptable; the fellowship seems sweet – but why do you kneel?
This question often causes me to scratch my head and wonder what in the world is happening in the church. What is it about kneeling that bothers us? Some say it reminds them too much of Roman Catholicism. But, of course, if we were to reject whatever the Roman Church practices, then we’d have to eliminate Scripture reading, prayer, and public singing as well. So I’m not sure that’s the real issue. I think the real issue is deeper.
Kneeling is an act of humility; it is to bow before another and acknowledge that that other is greater than I, more important than I, and hence worthy of my respect and honor or even my adoration. Kneeling is also sometimes a visible expression of wrongdoing, a plea for mercy as it were. Hence, there are times when kneeling is inappropriate. Mordecai refused to kneel before Haman; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego refused to kneel before Nebuchadnezzar’s statue; God reserved 7,000 in Israel who would not bow the knee to Baal. There are times when kneeling is compromise and sin.
But there are other times when kneeling is glorious: all Israel bowed the knee to King David; a leper kneeled before Jesus begging to be healed; a man kneels before his beloved and asks for her hand in marriage. There are times when kneeling is the right thing to do.
So what about worship? Is worship an inappropriate or appropriate setting for kneeling? Well, let us consider: we have entered the presence of Almighty God, the Creator of Heaven and earth, the High and Holy One – the One whose power governs all that occurs; the One whose holiness must judge all sin and wickedness; the One whose love compelled Him to send His only-begotten Son to bear the punishment that our sin deserved – how could we imagine that to kneel in this One’s presence is unfitting or inappropriate? Uncomfortable at first? Maybe. But inappropriate? Never.
So in our passage today, we see that Solomon – the Son of David, the King of Israel, and the wisest of men – kneeled before God to make supplication and prayer. And Psalm 95 summons us, O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our God our Maker! And note that this isn’t a summons to private but to public kneeling – O come, let us kneel ­– let all of us together bow before God for He is worthy! And so the four living creatures and the 24 elders in the book of Revelation fall down before the Lamb and they sing a new song saying, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!

So this morning, as we consider that we have entered into the presence of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let us kneel as we are able and confess our sin to the Lord.

The Devil conquered by Jesus’ Death and Resurrection

March 13, 2016 in Bible - NT - 1 John, Bible - NT - Hebrews, Bible - NT - Revelation, Easter, Good Friday, Meditations, Postmillennialism, Satan
1 John 3:8 (NKJV)
8 He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.
For the first three Sundays in Lent, we addressed our three chief enemies as Christians: the world, the flesh, and the devil. When we are outside of Christ, these forces dominate our lives and compel us to sin; they drive us away from our Creator. So having identified each of these enemies, we have begun to highlight the way that Jesus, through His death on the cross and His resurrection from the grave, has conquered each of them. Last week we heard John’s announcement that Jesus was manifested to take away our sins. He died and rose again to free us from the guilt and power of sin. This week John reminds us that not only did Jesus die and rise again to conquer our sinful nature, he also died and rose again to conquer the devil. Listen again to John’s words: He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.
John’s words remind us that though Satan is alive on planet earth, he is far from well. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection Satan’s power over the world has been fundamentally broken. He can no longer enslave the nations as he once did. Momentary victories he may have but his ultimate defeat is sure for his power is broken.
Consider, for example, the power he once had over death. Paul writes in Hebrews 2:14-15 – Inasmuch then as the children [we] have partaken of flesh and blood, [Jesus] Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. Jesus broke Satan’s power. He did, in John’s picturesque imagery in Revelation 20, chain Satan that “he no longer deceive the nations.”
This is why, therefore, our due sense of caution in the presence of the devil and his minions must always be tempered by a robust and profound scorn of his weakness – not his weakness in relation to us but his weakness in relation to God, the God who has promised to protect us and who has entrusted all authority in heaven and on earth to the Lord Jesus Christ. He holds the keys of death and hades. So we can remind one another, when fearing the devil, “Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.” Even as John writes in 1 John 2:14 – I have written to you, young men, because you are strong and the Word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the wicked one.

So as we enter into the presence of our Lord today, let us confess that at times we have failed to fill our hearts with the fear of God in our fight against the Wicked One and have instead fallen prey to his schemes and stratagems and intimidation. And as we confess, let us kneel.

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

February 19, 2015 in Bible - NT - Revelation, Bible - NT - Romans, Bible - OT - Genesis, Bible - OT - Isaiah, Bible - OT - Psalms, Church History, King Jesus, Newsletter, Providence

What is your only comfort in life and in death? Have you considered the answer to this question? Life is of course full of many comforts. I like my home, my car, my hot showers and plenteous food. I rest in the embrace of my wife, the laughter of my kids, and the affection of my parents. All these are comforts in life – but they are not comforts that carry over with us into death. They are comforts that leave when the blackness of death envelops us. So what is your only comfort in life and in death?
Many think, vainly, that death itself is a comfort, a land of forgetfulness. But death is no comfort to the one who is not reconciled to God. Death brings no release from suffering for the one who hates or is indifferent to God; it brings only an instantaneous and blinding confrontation with perfect holiness and justice and love – a confrontation that will condemn any man or woman not forgiven through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Death is not a comfort; it is an enemy.

What is your only comfort in life and in death? If you know anything of the Reformed tradition, you perhaps know that this is the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism was written around AD 1563 for the instruction of German Reformed believers, especially children, in the basics of the faith. Its answer to this question is one of my favorites.

Question #1: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto him.

Now that, brothers and sisters, is comfort for life and death. I am not my own but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has given Himself for me and, what’s more, so rules over all things that nothing happens in my life that is not for my ultimate good, for my salvation. And this “all things” includes the false accusations of my enemies (Is 50:7-9), the wounds of my friends (Gen 50:20), the failings of my physical and mental health (Ps 73:25-26), etc. All things come to me from my loving Father in heaven who has designed and crafted each event just for me – including the time of my death (Rom 8:28; Rev 1:17-18). Thanks be to God for such comfort.

Questions on Eschatology

February 13, 2015 in Bible - NT - Revelation, Eschatology, King Jesus

My daughter has written a thesis on eschatology for her persuasive speech this year. In the midst of her research she had a number of questions – here are a few and my answers.

1. When looking at the 1000 years in Revelation 20, it isn’t literal so is it “prophetic” or something else?

The 1000 years is symbolic of a very extensive number. The factor 1000 has already been used in Scripture and in Revelation in this way. For example, Scripture notes that God owns the cattle on a 1000 hills. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t own the cattle on the 1001 hill but that he owns all of them. Similarly, Revelation identifies 12×1000 from each tribe of Israel who are saved by God as a remnant within unbelieving Israel. This is again symbolic of a perfect number from each tribe – not that there were exactly 12000 from each tribe. (Rev 7:4ff).

2. Can you explain Revelation 20 about what it means by Satan being chained and being sealed away for awhile?
Yep, would you like me to? 🙂 Assuming yes – this refers to the current age. Notice that the chaining of Satan is in a particular regard. He is chained that “he not deceive the nations any longer.” In other words, the time of Satan’s control of the nations (the old covenant era) has come to an end. Jesus has broken the power of Satan, the nations are now His, and He is in the process of bringing them into submission to His rule through the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments. Jesus clearly teaches this in Mark 3 when he is accused of casting out demons by the ruler of the demons. Jesus says, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end.” Note that Jesus essentially says – your accusation is absurd! But then he goes on to explain what he is doing: “No one can enter a strong man’s house [Satan’s house] and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. And then he will plunder his house.” During his ministry Jesus was in the process of binding Satan so that he might plunder Satan’s house – the nations of the earth. So that’s what Jesus is doing now. He conquered Satan throughout His ministry (Lk 10:17-19) but definitively at the cross (Col 2:15). So Satan is now “bound.” Remember the image in Pilgrim’s Progress of the two lions on either side of Christian’s path? So long as he kept to the path they could not harm him – for they were chained.

3. Does the 1000 years in revelation 20:4-6 mean that he reigns among us today?
Absolutely – Jesus reigns today. He is the Lord of all (Mt 28:18-20; Acts 2:29-36 especially 36; Rev 1:4-5; 11:15-19; 17:12-14;  19:11-16). When Satan is called the “lord of this world” it does not mean he is the lord of the earth but the lord of those forces that wage war against Jesus and His lawful rule. God is the King; Jesus is King; Satan is not.

4. Can you explain again what the iron and clay feet represent in Daniel 2? And what verses 41-44 mean?
The kingdom of iron and iron/clay is one kingdom – Rome. The mixture of iron and clay in the feet represents the inherent instability of Rome but also of all the kingdoms built on human power and might. These kingdoms are doomed to fail. So notice v. 41 – “Whereas you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, the kingdom shall be divided…” Which kingdom? The kingdom that Daniel has just mentioned – he connects the legs of iron with the mixed feet. They are one kingdom. This is confirmed by Daniel’s later vision in chapter 7 – again there are four pagan kingdoms replaced by the kingdom of the Son of Man. There is no “extra” kingdom in there. Lion – Babylon; Bear – Persia; Leopard – Macedon; Monster – Rome; Son of Man – Jesus! The animal kingdoms are replaced by the human kingdom. Praise God!

5. What is the mountain/God’s kingdom in Daniel, referring to? The kingdom of God in the Church or the heavenly kingdom or none of those?
The rock cut out without hands is the kingdom of God (2:44), the rule of God established through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was at hand (Mk 1:15) – he came announcing that the time to fulfill Daniel’s prophecy had arrived. The kingdom is not identical with the church. The kingdom of God is the rule of God through His Messiah Jesus. The kingdom, therefore, is more extensive than the Church. Because Jesus rules, because He has established His kingdom, there is a people of God on earth – the Church. The Church is one of the manifestations of Christ’s rule but not to be equated with His rule. After all, there are other evidences of Christ’s rule – the spread of peace, the establishment of civil justice, the protection of the poor and needy, liberty, etc. Christ’s kingdom is more extensive than the church.

6. What do Revelation 20:7-10 mean?

They imply that near the end of Christ’s triumphant rule there will be a brief rebellion by Satan and his hosts which will be overcome by Christ’s return in glory.
You might listen to my sermon here for a description of Revelation 20. You can download the pdf notes for the sermon there as well.