The opening vision of the book of Revelation is a vision of Jesus Christ (Rev. 1:9-20). Having announced that history is moving toward a destined rendezvous with Him, “the ruler of kings on earth” (verse 5), Scripture portrays the cosmic Jesus (verses 12-20).1 He is robed, sashed, white-haired, with fiery feet, a roaring voice, and a sunlike face (verses 13-16). To judge by the conclusion to the vision, though, there are two features that are of particular importance—the position of Jesus and what He holds in His right hand (verse 20).
He is portrayed as “in the midst of the lampstands” (verse 13), which symbolize the seven Christian congregations (verse 20) that are the focus of John the revelator’s pastoral concern—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. This towering Jesus holds in His right hand “seven stars,” “the angels of the seven churches” (verse 20). So Jesus is church-centered. He walks among Christian congregations, and He treasures and guards—as though holding in His right hand—those who lead and nurture them.
It would seem, then, to be the most natural and appropriate thing for the churches—and the church—to return the favor and be Christ-centered. His attention and care focused on them; their worship and praise directed toward Him. In the letters the risen Christ sends to those seven churches (Rev. 2; 3) we learn that the church can stray from Jesus. And, reviewing our own Seventh-day Adventist history, we acknowledge the same to be true. Especially painful are the chapters of our story where we have forgotten that to be truly Christ-centered we must be just and merciful in our relationships with others (recalling Christ’s portrayal of the final judgment in which the King says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” [Matt 25:40]). We are at our best when we are focused on Jesus and extending His grace to others. We are at our worst when we are centered on ourselves.
Is it possible, though, that the mistakes are behind us? Have we, perhaps, accomplished this developmental task of becoming Christ-centered? Under the sway of the gospel focus of past decades, have we made the appropriate theological and cultural adjustments and turned a corner on this challenge? Or is this an essential and ongoing task that must be taken up by every generation of Adventists?
One way to answer that question is to survey Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In the letter Paul offers an idealistic portrayal of the church as the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22, 23; 2:16; 3:6; 4:1-16, 25; 5:22, 30), a holy temple to the Lord Jesus (Eph. 2:19-22), the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:21-33, esp. verses 25-27), and a unified army (Eph. 6:10-20). In doing so, Paul offers Christ-drenched correspondence to his readers, a letter brimming with the phrase “in Christ” and similar expressions (e.g. , “in Christ Jesus,” “in the Lord,” “in the Beloved,” “in Him,” “in Himself”), which together he uses more than 30 times. Believers are united in such solidarity with Christ that they are co-resurrected, co-ascended, and co-exalted with Jesus (Eph. 2:4-6).
Without Jesus, Seventh-day Adventist beliefs are mere scattered gems or broken spokes.
Early on, Paul shares the great theme of his letter: It is God’s grand, eschatological plan, His “plan for the fullness of time,” to “unite all things in him [in Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). Christ, says Paul, is not subject to last-day events. He is the subject of last-day events, the goal of God’s culminating, fullness-of-time strategy. The point is this: Ephesians is a Christ-saturated letter that everywhere praises the actions of God in Christ and celebrates the access of believers to the spiritual resources offered to them in Christ. Are we as Christ-centered and Christ-saturated, as Ephesians suggests that we are and should be? If not, we have work to do. Now. In this generation.
Ellen White’s own affirmations of Christ as the center of Adventist faith are numerous and inspiring. She writes, “There is one great central truth to be kept ever before the mind in the searching of the Scriptures—
Christ and Him crucified. Every other truth is invested with influence and power corresponding to its relation to this theme.”2 The “truth for this time” consists of doctrines “united by golden threads, forming a complete whole, with Christ as the living center.”3
She exhorts: “Never should a sermon be preached, or Bible instruction in any line be given, without pointing the hearers to ‘the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’” (John 1:29). “Every true doctrine makes Christ the center, every precept receives force from His words.”
4 In a similar vein she writes, “Where the people assemble to worship God let not a word be spoken that shall divert the mind from the great central interest—Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”5
In a two-part 1893 series in the
Review and Herald, “Contemplate Christ’s Perfection, Not Man’s Imperfection,” Ellen White readily admits that we are part of an imperfect church.6 We should avoid focusing on the imperfections so readily on display and instead focus on Christ. We should “turn to the precious Saviour.”7 She cites the positive example of some immigrants to the United States who refused to be dissuaded from their search for truth by the imperfections of Adventist believers. Instead, these believers “studied the doctrines, finding in the links of truth precious things that were like jewels hung upon a golden thread.” She comments, “Christ, His character and work, is the center and circumference of all truth, He is the chain upon which the jewels of doctrine are linked. In him is found the complete system of truth.”8
Rightly understood, Seventh-day Adventist beliefs are like precious jewels joined by “a golden thread” (or “a chain”). That “golden thread” is Jesus, who runs through the center of each valuable gem and joins the whole as one. Alternatively, Seventh-day Adventist beliefs may be thought of as a wheel in which Christ is both hub (or “center”) and rim (“circumference”), with every spoke of truth finding its beginning and end in Christ, who unites the system of truth, holding it together. Without Jesus, Seventh-day Adventist beliefs are mere scattered gems or broken spokes.But when joined together in Jesus they constitute a beautiful and functional system of truth. “Christ is the center of all true doctrine.”
To consider the challenges of living out such a Christ-centered faith, we may turn to the story of the storm on the lake and Peter walking on the water (Matt. 14:22-33). The disciples—the church—face an array of temptations and challenges that follow on a great triumph, the feeding of the 5,000. The fact that Jesus compels the disciples to depart in a boat and dismisses the crowd (verse 22), suggests His worry that the two groups may respond inappropriately in a moment of accomplishment and victory. Strangely, in celebrating the miraculous power of Jesus, they are under threat of diverting their attention away from Him to their own dreams and ambitions about Him.
If temptation threatens in good times, it is present in dark and challenging ones as well. The disciples toil in their journey against a ferocious headwind, and do so for hours. It is in the fourth watch of the night—3:00-6:00 a.m.—that Jesus comes striding across the waves to this church-in-a-boat. Their vision had become so filled in the intervening hours with the wind’s fury and the waves’ lashing that they are ill-prepared to discern Jesus. In the eeriness of the storm they judge Him to be a ghost. In this moment of trauma and stress, the disciples have so thoroughly forgotten Jesus that they turn to folk religion to explain what they see. The disciples, looking out across the waves at their living Lord striding across the sea, perceive instead only a pale, wispy, and menacing presence. “It is a ghost!” they say. And they groan and moan in fear.
Jesus jars them from their ghost-ridden and Christless world with the message, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (verse 27). It is likely that Jesus’ words offer “a conscious echo of the divine name of Yahweh” (cf. Ex. 3:14).
10 It is an amazing turnaround moment for the disciples—from fearing a wispy phantom to worshipping the Lord Jesus Christ. It is that very trajectory that the church must retrace today—to turn from our worries and fears, the wispy phantoms that too often dominate our worldview, and center our thoughts, hopes, and dreams on Jesus.
Peter, though, hesitates to be drawn into this turnaround moment. In folk religion, after all, ghosts do speak. He is unwilling to flip the identity of the apparition before him from unidentified ghost to forgotten Lord without further validation. It occurs to him that a deed, a miraculous one that would measure with the wonders he has seen from Jesus, would offer more trustworthy proof than mere words. In a flash he identifies an excellent test close at hand. Responding to the heartening affirmation of Jesus, Peter shouts his proposed test into the storm: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (verse 28). Across the waves, carried by the wind and punctuated by a lightning bolt and a rumbling peal of thunder, comes a one-word command: “Come” (verse 29).
I find it fascinating that Jesus, striding across the waves as the Lord of creation, accepts Peter’s little test. It would seem to be a good moment for a short, storm-blown lecture about taking the Lord—this Lord Jesus—at His word (and at the end of the story Jesus does admonish Peter through a stinging question). To his credit, Peter climbs out of the boat and onto the storm-tossed sea, ready to test the identity of the One who commands him to do so.
One could argue that Peter’s early steps in this test differ from the later ones. At first what is at issue is not the faith of Peter in Jesus but the very identity of Jesus. As Peter begins his trek, he is not sustained by his faith in Jesus. Instead, Jesus sustains him on the waves as miraculous testimony to His own identity. He is who He says He is. His message of hope rings true.
We should avoid focusing on the imperfections so readily on display and instead focus on Christ.
Peter does not begin his singular adventure in faith and then lose faith. He begins by testing the word of an apparition, perhaps fully expecting to end up cold, wet, and disillusioned. But in possession of an important truth: It is a ghost! But after a few steps the spiritual dynamics of the experience shift. He has now confirmed the identity of the One who has commanded him to come. The test mutates into a test of him, of his faith in Jesus, whose identity has just been confirmed. It is just here that the church—our church—is drawn afresh into the story. We face Peter’s test. Having confirmed the identity of Jesus in our shared life and experience, will we keep our vision focused on Him? Will we refuse to be distracted from our essential fixation on Jesus?
Peter fails the next test. He becomes distracted by “the wind.” And when his focus shifts to the gale, He forgets both Jesus and His hope-filled message. The wind blows fear into his heart, and he begins to sink into the roiling deep. Peter “took his eyes off the Master and fixed them on the raging sea. Looking at the storm, he came to believe in its might more than in the might of his Lord. He saw Jesus through his difficulties instead of looking at his difficulties in the light of his Lord. Thus his problems loomed so large that they blinded him altogether to the presence of Christ.”
But Peter does not fail the ultimate test, for in this moment of panicked fear he abandons any trust in himself and cries out, “Lord, save me!” And just here we, the church, learn a vital lesson. Should we lose our focus on Jesus and begin to sink, we can always cry out to Him. And Jesus, our incredible, trustworthy Saviour, will do for us just what He did for Peter. His arm thrust through the hungry waves. His hand, not waiting for our weakening grasp, but firmly gripping us. Lifting. Raising. Resurrecting. Then, eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart, comes the piercing, searching question: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus and His drenched disciple “got into the boat” and “the wind ceased” (verse 32). With the last bolt of lightning and peal of thunder fading over the horizon, the windblown waves settle to a calm, glasslike sea and a worship service breaks out in that little boat: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (verse 33).
The history of the church—our church—in story form. We will all too often fail our own vision test, allowing someone else or something else other than Jesus to dominate our field of view. But what an ending to the story! And what a grand place for the church’s story to conclude: Eyes on Jesus. Affirming His identity as the Son of God. Worshipping the One who has saved us. I wish to be part of such a Christ-centered church, don’t you?
John K. McVay is president of Walla Walla University, Walla Walla, Washington, United States.
Not long before the tragic events of August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, Black and Latina reporter Ilia Calderón from Univision News did an interview with Ku Klux Klan (KKK) imperial wizard Chris Barker and his wife, Amanda, on their North Carolina property. Barker’s group, the Loyal White Knights of the KKK of Pelham, North Carolina, would later participate in the Charlottesville White supremacist protest.
A short video of the interview opens with Calderón watching the all-too-familiar hoods and burning cross, KKK rituals. Then Barker notes that this is the first time in 20 years that a Black person has been allowed on his property. He calls Calderón a “mongrel.”
She describes herself as a “Black person and an immigrant,” to which he responds, “Yeah, exact same thing.” Calderón asks, “Are you gonna chase me out of here?”
Barker retorts, “No, we’re gonna burn you out.”
A bit later, Calderón asks, “Are you a hate group?”
Barker and his wife respond, “No.”
So Calderón asks, “How do you define yourself?”
Barker answers, “We define ourselves as a Christian group,” and together with his wife declares, “We don’t hate anyone.” Barker expands, “We tell the Bible—what the Bible says.” To paraphrase: “We read the Bible just the way it was written. We take it at face value. We believe. We do exactly what it says.”
Calderón tests that assertion by responding, “The Bible says that we were all born equal.”
The KKK imperial wizard pounces: “No! Wrong! Leviticus 19:18 is what you’re saying: ‘Love thy neighbour.’ It says, ‘Love thy neighbour of thy people.’ My people are White. Your people are Black.”1
Barker’s obvious conclusion? “You are not my neighbor. The Bible asks me to love only my own kind of people. It does not ask me to love you.”
Is he right? Is KKK imperial wizard Chris Barker correct in his understanding of Leviticus 19:18?
Grudgingly, we must admit that he is reading that particular passage quite literally. In its immediate context Leviticus 19:18 is not a broad rule to love everyone everywhere. It is more focused than that. It is an exhortation to love your own. Barker is, from one point of view, doing just what he says he does: “We tell the Bible—what the Bible says.”
Imagine that you are conducting an interview with Barker, and the interview turns to his interpretation of Leviticus 19:18. What would you say to him? How is it that he is actually terribly twisting and misrepresenting the Bible when he seems to be attending rather closely to its words?
Before I suggest answers to that question, perhaps I should share why I am exploring this case study. I am doing so to make this point: Careful Bible study is something every Christian should be prepared to do. Though we sometimes attach the academic label “hermeneutics” to this task, it is one we must all perform. It is not a technical, obtuse, and challenging task reserved for Ph.Ds. It is a necessary and unavoidable one. We must all be alert to the possibility that we may be twisting Scripture, all the while professing our dedication to take God’s Word as it reads. And we must not be taken in by seemingly correct but actually warped views of the Bible sometimes offered by others.
Recalling and applying important, basic Bible study principles is key. Here’s one: We must interpret any passage of the Bible in the light of its context.
As we read the context of Leviticus 19:18 we come quickly to Leviticus 19:31, “Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God.”2
We might say to Chris Barker, “I notice that you are a KKK imperial wizard. Leviticus 19:31 tells me that I should not listen to wizards. So I’m not going to listen to you.”
But to use the passage that way may be to fall into Barker’s own too narrow and overly literalistic way of understanding the Bible (and to borrow from his harshness as well!). Keep reading a little further, and you will come to Leviticus 19:33, 34: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Is the Bible’s command to love one’s kin, one’s neighbor, to be interpreted restrictively, as a command to hate everyone else? The context—Leviticus 19:33, 34—denies that interpretation.
Applying another basic Bible study principle here, we should interpret any passage of the Bible in the light of the whole. Compare scripture with scripture. We need to search the Bible to find passages that deal with the same theme or idea as the one we are studying, building a biblical résumé for our theme.
What about this idea of loving one’s neighbor? Does it occur elsewhere in the Bible? It certainly does. It does not take us long to come to Jesus’ own reading of Leviticus 19:18 in Luke 10. It comes in the form of repartee with an attorney who asks, “Teacher, . . . what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (verse 25).
Being a good teacher, Jesus invites His new pupil to answer the question himself: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (verse 26).
“He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself’” (verse 27).
Jesus answers the attorney’s question by telling one of His greatest and best-loved stories. It is not a story about how one Jew loves and cares for another Jew. Instead it is a story about how two Jewish men—a priest and a Levite—fail to do so, ignoring the needs of their fellow Jew who has been attacked by thieves and left for dead.
Then along comes a Samaritan, someone from a different, alien culture. Someone naturally inclined to mutter “He got what he deserved” under his breath as he hurries by. Instead he stops and cares for the man, medicating and bandaging his wounds. Turning his donkey into an ambulance, the Samaritan delivers the man to the closest thing he can find to an emergency room and pays the man’s health-care expenses.
Jesus’ story ends with a searching question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (verse 36). Which one, Jesus asks, truly fulfills the dictum of the Torah in Leviticus 19:18 to love one’s neighbour?
The Jewish attorney, unable (it seems) to speak the word “Samaritan,” demurs with his answer: “The one who showed him mercy.”
To which Jesus responds—to the attorney and to us—“Go and do likewise” (verse 37).
Two people read the same passage. Two radically different interpretations and applications of it. KKK wizard Chris Barker sees in Leviticus 19:18 a call to love his own and only his own. Others are to be ignored and driven out whether hated or not.
Jesus Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords, hears in Leviticus 19:18 an expansive call to love one’s neighbor. One’s neighbor includes not only those close at hand—people who look and act like us—but also those at a distance, a cultural and racial distance. The stranger. The other.
Jesus draws everyone—Chris Barker included—into the circle of the divine command “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
So whose interpretation should we follow? Chris’s or Christ’s? That of the KKK wizard or that of the King of kings and Lord of lords?
John McVay, president of Walla Walla University, lives in Walla Walla, Washington, United States.
In 1867 William W. Davies, believing he had received a vision instructing him to do so, migrated to Walla Walla, Washington, and founded a group called the Kingdom of Heaven. While Davis himself claimed to be Michael the Archangel, he identified his newly born son, Arthur, as Jesus Christ, returned to earth. It proved a successful recruiting strategy for Davies, doubling the size of his group.1 However, most believers with a nodding acquaintance of the New Testament descriptions of the glorious return of Jesus would not have been convinced by staring into Arthur’s crib. The claim was outrageous; the evidence, nonexistent.
It is Jesus Himself who predicts the appearance of false christs, a prophecy punctuated by a terrifying warning. Unlike the appearance of powerless infant Arthur Davies, some of these false christs will perform convincing signs and wonders, deceiving many and proving so credible that the fidelity of “the elect” seems at risk (Matt. 24:24). In his culminating sermon in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt. 24; 25), Jesus focuses on the coming destruction of Jerusalem and on signs of His return, accenting the need to discern and wait for Him, the true Jesus.2
Over the millennia since the first advent of Jesus, many false christs have appeared.
Jesus begins with the warning “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many” (Matt. 24:4, 5).
3 In a section that focuses on His return (rather than the destruction of Jerusalem), the warning reoccurs: “Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. Therefore if they say to you, 'Look, He is in the desert!' do not go out; or 'Look, He is in the inner rooms!' do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (verses 23-27).
Discerning the true Jesus requires day-to-day faithfulness.
Two critical questions emerge as we consider these important warnings by Jesus concerning false christs. The first is “How can we discern the true, authentic Jesus (and avoid endorsing the fake ones)”? The second is equally important, though more subtle: “How can we know ourselves?” How can we measure and weigh our own spiritual condition? How can we avoid becoming discouraged or overconfident, and setting ourselves up to be deceived?
Since it is Jesus who issues the strident warnings about false christs, it makes good sense to ponder the counsel He offers in this final sermon in Matthew, advice that addresses these questions. He tells us that to await and discern His second coming requires alertness to signs pointing to it (verses 29, 30, 32-35), which is especially important since believers have no access to the precise timing of the return of Jesus (verses 36, 42, 44). He provides clarifying descriptions of the manner of His return, which should protect us from chasing false, earthbound christs who appear in some rustic retreat center or a conference room (verse 26): “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (verse 27); “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (verse 30).
In addition to this intellectual discernment about the manner of Christ’s return, we should notice carefully that Jesus also advocates a thorough, experiential preparation. Discerning the true Jesus requires day-to-day faithfulness, doing what Jesus has asked us to do (verses 45, 46 and the parable of the talents [Matt. 25:14-30]). Jesus recommends an experiential preparation that includes participating in proclaiming the “gospel of the kingdom” as the peerless sign of the Christ’s return (Matt. 24:14; cf. Matt. 28:18-20, [the Great Commission, the ringing conclusion to Matthew’s Gospel]). We learn best the lessons we teach. Entering into the experience of sharing Jesus with others helps bring us to a true, experiential knowledge of Him that will help protect us from chasing any false christ.
Jesus recommends another important experiential component to nourish our fidelity in the time of the end and to respond positively to His warnings about false christs: ministering to Jesus in the person of those in need (Matt. 25:31-46). His final sermon in Matthew reaches its crescendo as Jesus describes the final judgment, accenting afresh the central theme of discerning and awaiting the true Jesus (verses 31-46).
The Son of Man will invite into His kingdom those who have seen Him in hungry, thirsty strangers, in those who are naked, sick, and imprisoned (25:35, 36). Those who have ministered in these ways will hear words of commendation spoken by Jesus Himself: “And the King will answer and say to them, 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me’” (verse 40).
Those who fail to do so hear parallel words of judgment: “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me” (verse 45).
What is especially interesting about Jesus’ sketch of the final judgment is that His true followers, who receive His accolades for discerning Him in those in need, are unconscious of their own ethical and spiritual accomplishment. They protest, asking when they have perceived and ministered to Jesus (verses 37-39). Like “the faithful and wise servant” (Matt. 24:45) and the recipients of multiple talents (verses 14-23), they have simply been doing what Jesus asked them to do as they awaited His return.
Yet while believers are oblivious to the connection, Jesus Himself perceives it: in ministering to those in need, His followers are identifying and caring for Him. Jesus, then, offers this word of inspired counsel to help us respond to His warnings about false christs and His exhortations to acknowledge the true: “As you await Me, minister to those in need. Doing so will sharpen your ability to recognize Me—the Bridegroom—when I arrive in the midst of the world’s moral night and at an unscheduled moment. Entering into the ministry that I Myself have exhibited among you, you experience My own character, the way I treasure and care for others. This is superb preparation for being able to recognize Me and will help inoculate you against worshipping any egomaniac masquerading as Me. For you will know Me as only My followers—those who pattern their lives after Mine—are able to do.”
Jesus addresses our second question: As we face the end, how can we know ourselves? in His parable of the ten virgins, five of the bridesmaids represent those who have prepared in advance for Christ’s return, and five represent those who have neglected to do so (Matt. 25:1-13). In the anguishing conclusion to the parable—which provides a most poignant warning for those living at the time of Christ’s return—the five unprepared bridesmaids knock at the festal door crying out “Lord, Lord, open to us!” (Matt. 25:11).
The Bridegroom Himself responds with the haunting verdict, “Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you” (verse 12). Jesus, moving outside the narrative of the parable, applies the lesson directly to His audience and to us: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming” (verse 13).
Because we do not know with any precision the time when Christ will return, we dare not delay in tending and mending the quality of our relationship with Him. That lack of precise knowledge of timing seems to be by divine design! To know the day and the hour might well invite a fatal somnolence. Our relationship with Jesus, this most valuable element of discipleship and of life, demands constant and consistent monitoring. We dare not hit the pause button, assuming there will be time to recover our lapse.
The two groups of bridesmaids in the parable are differentiated by whether or not they bring extra oil for their lamps, indicating their level of preparation for the coming of the bridegroom. In the Bible, oil can serve as a symbol of abundance (e.g. Deut 32:13, 14; Job 29:6; Joel 2:24).
We do well to give full consideration to one simple fact: This sermon of Jesus is filled with warnings.
Our campus church at Walla Walla University has established a highly appreciated beginning-of-the-year tradition, “The Longest Table.” We close down one of the streets that bounds our campus and fill it with conjoined tables as far as the eye can see. And our campus pastors have cast a vision of welcoming students to campus with a grand abundance. Not only are we to provide a plentiful feast on well-decorated tables—we send students back to their dorm rooms with arms filled with Tupperware. Leftovers!
God offers to believers a rich, abundant, spiritual prosperity. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit and through His Word, Jesus becomes present in our lives, becomes the light of our world (John 8:12). With David we may testify, “You are my lamp, O Lord, and my God lightens my darkness” (2 Sam. 22:29, ESV).4 As is true of the New Jerusalem, the Lamb becomes our light (Rev. 21:23).
Believers have a responsibility to treasure and tend this abundance, to value it enough that we monitor its presence in our lives. We value Christ as the lamp of our lives so much that we invest in regular times of Bible study, prayer, and public worship. We are alert to the dimming of the lamp, the depletion of the oil. And we take immediate steps to trim the lamp and augment the supply of oil. We treasure the presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit in our lives as much as the householder of old treasured the presence of the light of an oil lamp in the darkness of night, or a traveler the light of a lamp upon the rough road ahead (Ps 119:105).
As we look back over the final sermon of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, it seems marked by a great deal of negativity. The juxtapositions are stark. On one hand false christs appear, working profound wonders that deceive many (Matt. 23-26). On the other hand, Jesus Himself appears “as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west” (verse 27). Vultures gather over corpses and earthlings wail (Matt. 24:28, 30) while a victorious trumpet blast cues angels to begin the global gathering of the elect (verse 31). More frequently, Jesus shares the positive narrative first, reserving the corresponding negative story as the punchline.
The wise servant who is promoted to the top spot is compared to the wicked servant who is “cut . . . in pieces” (verses 45-51, ESV; cf. the parable of the talents [Matt. 25:14-30]). Five bridesmaids gain entrance into the bright joy of the wedding feast while five are left outside, bereft, in the dark of night (verses 1-13). Those who in the final judgment are applauded for having ministered to Jesus by caring for those in need are contrasted with those who failed to do so and receive the dire judgment “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (verse 41, ESV).
We do well, though, to give full consideration to one simple fact: This sermon of Jesus is filled with warnings. The sermon could be described aptly as one long, loud warning. It is not a report offered after an event has occurred, but a warning about the future. Warnings sound rather negative. But because they are delivered in advance of the threatened crisis, they are very positive communications. To shout “Don’t touch that!” to someone about to reach for a hot stove or a hot wire is negative in tone, but positive in purpose. Warnings are not positive in their tone, but they are marvelously positive in their purpose—to keep as many as possible safe from the impending threat.
We should then judge this final sermon of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel not by its frequently negative tone but by its ultimate and positive purpose. No one who attends to these warnings of Jesus need suffer the doom He so graphically portrays. By spurning any false savior and embracing the abundance of a relationship with the true, we may experience the positive purpose of the warnings of Jesus about false christs and look with hope and joy toward His return.
John McVay is president of Walla Walla University in Walla Walla, Washington.
Peter is sleeping soundly, so he doesn’t see the angel of the Lord appear, or experience the eerie, glorious light that surrounds him in the rocky dungeon. He awakens—to a degree—when the angel cuffs him in the side and issues three curt commands: “Get up quickly.” “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” “Wrap your coat around you and follow me” (Acts 12:7, 8).1
Peter obeys, but he is in a daze. Peter and his angelic escort slip out of the tomblike prison, past sets of guards and heavy gates. When Peter comes to himself, he says (to himself!), “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting” (verse 11). Peter’s execution has not only been scheduled but advertised. Posters have gone up on the stately columns of the forum. Food vendors have already, in these early-morning hours, begun to set up shop.
Having been effortlessly sprung from Herod’s massive, rocky prison, Peter hikes quickly across town to Mary’s house, “where many were gathered together and were praying” (verse 12). He assumes his friends are there and wishes to share the good news that Jesus has acted on their behalf. Members of an earlier prayer band, meeting on a similar occasion, had prayed in the exalted language of the fourth commandment (Acts 4:23-31). It’s hard to imagine that the prayers ascending now for Peter are less earnest, eloquent, or biblical. If we could listen in we would be moved by their passionate, powerful, poignant petitions.
It may be easy to break out of jail, but it can be tough to break into church!
There is a problem, though: one that is at the heart of our story. Luke crafts his narrative to highlight it and uses humor to help us understand it: The eloquent prayers on their lips do not resonate fully with the convictions in their hearts. Their prayers are full of faith and buoyant expectation. Their hearts are not.
Peter approaches Mary’s house. A sizable group is gathered in what is likely a spacious home, arranged in the usual Greco-Roman style. The entrance opens onto an atrium lit by an opening in the roof and surrounded by various rooms and hallways. Since there seems to be some distance between the gate and where the group is gathered, they may be assembled back in the corner, in the dining room. The leftovers of a hasty meal are still on the table as they intercede for Peter.
The gatekeeper, Rhoda the slave girl, is attentive. When Peter knocks at the gate, she runs toward it. Looking through the iron lattice of the gate, she can see who is standing there. His identity is confirmed by his voice as he calls out. With prayers of intercession, ones dripping with worry, ringing in her young ears, Rhoda judges it selfish of her to welcome Peter. Instead, she dashes across the atrium to the dining room, flings open the door, and proclaims joyfully, “Peter is standing at the gate!”
She expects the news to be greeted with instantaneous acclaim. She expects the crowd to dash past her, to throw open the gate and welcome Peter. Instead, she finds herself needing to offer an extended defense of her announcement. The members of that prayer band are dismissive of her and her declaration. She is, after all, only a slave girl. “You,” they say, “are out of your mind!” (Acts 12:15).
Being a slave girl, Rhoda is used to dismissive attitudes. But this slave girl has backbone. She does not capitulate. She fires back. She keeps insisting, “Peter is at the gate!” She makes her point effectively enough that the others cannot deny her eyewitness report. Nonetheless, they are convinced that the exalted Jesus will not act to free Peter. So convinced that they reach for a convoluted theological argument to explain away the obvious conviction of this eyewitness. They say, “It is his angel!” (verse 15).
Meanwhile, out in the street, at the gate, Peter himself is being insistent. He is knocking on—perhaps even rattling—Mary’s gate. He is calling out with increasing volume. In that moment the action—or rather inaction—of the members of that prayer band is powerfully revealing: They do not actively believe the premise of their eloquent prayers: that Jesus, exalted on the throne of the cosmos, hears and answers such requests.2
Luke, the able storyteller, employs comedy here. He flashes a scene on the screen of his story, one familiar in the media of his day—the scene of a running slave—and he couples it with an anecdote common in the time, a “knock, knock” joke.3 Luke tells his true story in a way meant to trigger a reaction from his audience. They are to laugh, to catch the comedy, to hear the humor.
And a funny story it is! In scene one (verses 6-11) Peter discovers that it is rather easy to escape from Herod’s massive prison. It practically happens in your sleep. The chains melt off your wrists. The guards are all anesthetized, frozen in time. Doors and the final, large iron gate swing open effortlessly without a squeak. Before you know it, you find yourself waking up in the middle of the street. It’s easy to break out of jail!
In scene two (verses 12-17) Peter experiences how difficult it can be to break into church. He knocks and knocks. He cries out again and again. A just-escaped and easily identifiable prisoner is left stranded in the street. In fact, he never seems to have gotten in. After a hasty report and little exhortation in the street, he is gone. It may be easy to break out of jail, but it can be tough to break into church!
When the laughter subsides, something important happens. The comedic timing is right, and we get it: the joke is on us. We are laughing at ourselves. Here in the heart of Acts we confront a central and durable problem of Christian discipleship. How often does the eloquence of our prayers find an empty echo in the cavern of our hearts? How often have our professions found a mismatch in our actions? How often have we experienced the post-Resurrection malaise? Of course Jesus is risen. But what difference does that make?
In that moment of painful self-knowledge we drop to our knees in that dining room at Mary’s gate, in Peter’s cavernous prison, and pray a different kind of prayer. An earthy, quiet, simple prayer of repentance: “Lord, we believe—don’t we? Help Thou our unbelief.”
The story, then, discloses some bad news about us. Blessedly, it also shares some powerfully good news about the God we serve. We recall James 5:16, which reads: “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results” (NLT).4 We sometimes retranslate it, “The insincere and unbelieving prayer of a wavering disciple accomplishes nothing.” Our story suggests that is not true.
We serve a God who hears the prayer that falters toward the precipice of doubt and unbelief. He hears that prayer as it is translated into the language of heaven by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:26, 27). The prayers of that early Christian small group are rooted in unbelief. The sublime language of their prayers belies the faithlessness in their hearts. Yet—and please don’t miss this—the risen Jesus, our gracious Lord, hears and answers those prayers anyway.
The point of the story? In their myopia, in their failure to truly believe in the cosmic lordship of Jesus, the church is locked up in a prison of doubt far more intimidating than Herod’s rocky cavern. Here, though, is the wonderful and amazing news: No prison, not a craggy dungeon, and not the more intimidating prison of our doubt, is immune to the Lordship of Jesus. You see, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
John McVay is president of Walla Walla University.
Some years ago, while hard at work on my doctoral dissertation, I was to meet with my dissertation supervisor on a southern California campus. With a few minutes to spare, I went to the campus bookstore.
While there, I took a look at the textbooks my professor had required for the course he was teaching, a class on early Christian worship. One of the required texts was a book by Barry Liesch titled People in the Presence of God: Models and Directions for Worship.
I came across a couple pages that have been important to me ever since. Liesch writes, “Although the book of Revelation has been widely studied . . . as a book of prophecy, what it says about worship has been widely neglected. Yet at least fourteen of the twenty-two chapters deal with worship. Worship is depicted as going on unceasingly before the throne. It is not an ‘interlude’ between a sequence of dramatic scenes, as some have termed it. The reverse is true.
“In the deeper structure of the book, revelatory events [prophetic events, the stuff that happens down here on Planet Earth] themselves are the interludes that break up the practice of continuous worship before the throne of God. Moreover [and here this Evangelical author really starts to sound like a Seventh-day Adventist], worship in the last days becomes a strategic issue. The book unveils overall a cataclysmic conflict being waged across the expanse of heaven and earth as to who is to be worshiped, Satan the deceiver or the Lord God.”
In that light, let’s look at Revelation 15. Let’s look at the beginning and the end, the introduction and the conclusion:
The introduction: “Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished” (Rev. 15:1).1
The conclusion: “After this I looked, and the sanctuary of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, and out of the sanctuary came the seven angels with the seven plagues, clothed in pure, bright linen, with golden sashes around their chests. And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever, and the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished” (verses 5-8).
Revelation 15 describes the seven last plagues, God’s final judgments on a rebellious globe bent on destroying His people.
The original “Song of Moses” is a hymn of profound praise and thanksgiving to the Lord.
We watch the drama. The doors of the heavenly sanctuary are thrown open. Seven linen-garbed, gold-sashed angelic warriors emerge. Into their hands are placed golden bowls filled with God’s judgments. As the last bowl touches the hands of the last angel warrior, thick, dark smoke fills the sanctuary, a signal that its mercy-granting, forgiveness-bequeathing business is done.
The frame of our story—its introduction and conclusion—is frightening, intriguing, apocalyptic!
Not long ago Pam and I had the privilege of visiting the National Gallery in London. We stood together looking at one of the world’s great masterpieces, the painting Sunflowers, by Vincent van Gogh.
I’m reading the information placard, trying to grasp the features and importance of this work, when Pam taps my shoulder and exclaims, “Wow! Would you look at that frame!”
Note to Pam: Sotheby’s wouldn’t be interested in the frame! It’s not the frame that’s most important; it’s the masterpiece within it.
According to Liesch, it’s not the stuff that happens down here—including the seven last plagues—that’s most important. It’s the acts and deeds of worship that occur up there, at God’s throne.
In the context of Revelation 15:1-8, it’s not the frame of the seven last plagues that is most important—it’s the masterpiece of worship at the heart of the passage. That masterpiece consists of a description of the choir, the choir directors, and the choir’s song.
This is one of those so-called interludes, in which we are drawn back into that worship service continually conducted at the heart of the cosmos.
The choir: “And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands” (Rev. 15:2).
In that earlier, lengthy transcript of the heavenly worship service in Revelation 4 and 5 we find ourselves worshipping before the throne of God. John describes that throne: “From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal” (Rev. 4:5, 6).
Now, in Revelation 15, in anticipation of the conflict and fury yet to come, that placid sea of glass is mingled with fire. The members of this massed choir are themselves veterans of great conflict, victors in many battles.
The narrator offers high praise for this choir. They have “conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name” (verse 2). They have vanquished the consortium of evil at the end of time.
The choir directors: “They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (verse 3).
Moses, you will remember, leads the children of Israel out of Egypt in Exodus. At a crucial point in the story, he becomes the conductor of a mass choir. As he directs, he sings in full voice: “Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord” (Ex. 15:1).
So how is it that this song is both the Song of Moses and—simultaneously—the Song of the Lamb? Jesus is the new Moses.
Moses had said, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers” (Deut. 18:15).
The life of Jesus—His death, His resurrection, His exaltation, His intercession—represents the new Exodus. Jesus heads the quest for a new Promised Land. He steps to the fore as director of this choir, and with full voice leads them in their hymn of praise. It is the song of Moses and the Lamb because they are the choir’s directors conducting the chorus.
As we prepare to listen to the anthem, we need to poke around in the music library, to search the archives. We find the original, the first “Song of Moses.” Listening to it prepares us to hear this new composition, “The Song of Moses and the Lamb.”
That original “Song of Moses” rings out at the close of a dramatic day. The massed forces of the empire of Egypt hunt down the long-enslaved and recently freed people of Israel. Defenseless, these Israelites are trapped between Egypt’s high-tech military and an uncrossable body of water. The only future they can envision is thousands of graves in the desert.
But God makes a way through the sea. Then comes the song: “Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying, ‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him. . . . Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Ex. 15:1-11).
In what key do they sing? Do they boast of their own accomplishments? of their own moral qualities? of their sinlessness, perhaps? Do they sing their song in the key of self-congratulation?
This original “Song of Moses” is in the key of praise. It is sung “
to the Lord” (Ex. 15:1), and it is all about the Lord: about His power, His deliverance, His mercy upon the unworthy.
And when, by His grace, we make it to that grand baccalaureate on the other side, our song will have in it not a word of boastfulness, not a phoneme of pride. It will be an ode of praise to “the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb” (Rev. 5:13, NRSV).2
Any song of ours, offered in the key of self-congratulation, rings hollow. It dies on our lips. It isn’t about our accomplishments. It isn’t even about our failings, many as those are. It simply isn’t about us. The original “Song of Moses” is a hymn of profound praise and thanksgiving to the Lord.
It is just such a song that these victorious ones now sing in our heaven-sited liturgy. They are praised by the narrator: they have “conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name” (Rev. 15:2).
They are victors, winners in the culminating scenes of salvation history. They overcome the massed forces of evil at the end of time. High praise indeed!
But their song has in it not a syllable of self-congratulation. It is a song offered only in the key of praise and thanksgiving.
“And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, ‘Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (verses 3, 4).
This hymn offers a powerful message. In this anthem we have access to the set of convictions that has equipped the members of this choir to navigate the worst of times. We have here the essential mind-set for Christian disciples who await Christ’s return. We have exemplified the core convictions, the essential intellectual habits, of true victors.
Four Essential Habits
If, in this moment of great victory, you wish to harmonize with the Lamb, I point you to these four essential habits of heart and mind:
Thankfulness for what God has done.
Wonder at the unlimited nature of God’s power and domain.
Adoration for who God is.
A settled belief that God’s side is the winning one.
Our daughter has taken many music lessons. She has practiced with a reasonable degree of dedication. And she has made good and measurable progress in her skill.
And all the while she has saved: birthday checks, babysitting money. The amount of the required investment being considerable, two grandmothers have willingly contributed. Mom and Dad dug deep.
The appointed day arrives to make the wintry pilgrimage from Berrien Center, Michigan, to Ogden Avenue in Chicago. When we arrive, we find the exterior of the building understated at best: industrial, an urban backstreet.
Then we travel by freight elevator up a couple floors and are led into a gorgeous room with large picture windows opening on the Chicago skyline. That room is filled with tight rows of large, beautiful instruments. The Lyon and Healy showroom is full of harps, beautiful harps, scores of them. And one of them is to be ours, hers.
I pulled out the receipt this week. It is dated January 8, 2006. I’m still impressed by the amount of money it takes to purchase a quality harp. After careful shopping, and a lot of questions to the saleswoman, we buy a used harp bearing the serial number 51325.
The logo in the background of the receipt is a stylized “L,” a curly ampersand, and an artistic “H,” accompanied by this slogan: “Harpmakers to the world since 1889.”
Somewhere in the heavenly courts a showroom opens onto the skyline of the New Jerusalem. Its paperwork bears the motto “Harpmakers to the cosmos since time immemorial.”
This showroom, too, is filled with harps—handcrafted, hand-carved, gold-encrusted harps. Myriads of them, gleaming in that showroom. They are all tuned up and ready to play in the key of praise. They don’t have serial numbers, but artistically engraved into each harp is a name. And one of those names is yours.
John McVay is president of Walla Walla University. This article is based on his baccalaureate address at Andrews University April 30, 2016.