An Early Directory for Public Worship (1 Cor 14:26-40)

posted by R. Fowler White

As we come to 1 Cor 14:26-40, we arrive at the close of our brief series on 1 Corinthians 12-14. Paul has covered certain fundamental truths regarding the Spirit and His gifts. It is the Spirit, he declares, who brings unity to the church’s confession of Christ, its gifts for ministry, and its members (12:1-31). Moreover, he maintains, it is not any one gift of the Spirit that is indispensable to seeing our ministries thrive; rather, it is the Spirit’s fruit of love (13:1-13). If we wonder how indispensable love is to ministry, the Apostle would have us compare the greater gift of prophetic speech to the lesser gift of untranslated tongue-speech. In light of that comparison, we’re to see that the former benefits others; the latter does not and cannot benefit others unless it is translated (14:1-25). With those fundamentals as background, Paul will now sum up the regulations that will result in the edification of others during the ministry of God’s word in congregational worship. In the content of his summary, we see what amounts to evidence of an early apostolic directory for congregational worship.

Paul begins his directives with a regulation in 14:26b that applies to all ministries of God’s word in public worship: let all things be done for edification—or as the preceding context puts it: edify others, not oneself alone (14:4-5, 12). No one who delivers God’s word should hinder the instruction and exhortation of God’s people through the public ministry of that word (cf. 14:31). Whether the form of that ministry was a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, a translation (14:26b), all who would minister God’s word were to subject themselves to the Apostle’s directions regarding when to speak and when to be silent (14:27-35). Consequently, he directs the ministry of God’s word to be delivered only by qualified men, by up to three in number, in an orderly fashion, and with testing to ensure the edification of those assembled. Just how firm the Apostle was on these regulations is clear from his declaration that only those who complied with the Lord’s directives through him were to be recognized as those who have the Spirit and His gifts, and those who would not comply should expect divine discipline (14:36-38).

As we consider Paul’s instructions, it is vital to notice where he anchors these regulations. They are rooted in the very character of God (14:33a; the God who distributes gifts for ministry is the God of peace [i.e., harmony], not disorder), in the practice binding on all the churches (14:33b; 11:16), and in the Law (14:34b; likely referring to Genesis 1-3 to which Paul had already alluded in 11:7-9, 11-12). Together, these three anchors tell us that there was more at stake in Paul’s directives than a special rule for a special situation in a specific local church like the one in Corinth. What was at stake was the standing rules that Paul instituted in all the churches over the entire course of his ministry, rules that governed the elements of public worship, including the ministry of God’s word. In fact, as we observed above, we see in 14:26-40 and their context (1 Corinthians 10-14) not a few of the elements of an early ‘directory of public worship,’ the latest presentation of which are arguably apparent in 1 Timothy 2–5.

The sum of Paul’s regulations for public worship here in 1 Cor 14:26-40 is that during the ministry of God’s word, the churches were to prefer the greater gifts without prohibiting the lesser ones and to do so by following the regulations laid down by the Apostle to ensure that the ministry of God’s word was done in that fitting and orderly way that instructed and exhorted His people (14:39-40). Interestingly, insofar as Paul seems to bring into view the broad spectrum of speaking gifts in 14:26b, we find here regulations that have present-day application to the ministry of God’s word through the gift of teacher, a gift less than those of apostles and prophets but greater than that of tongue-speaking (12:28; 1 Tim 4:13; 2 Tim 2:2; 4:1-4; 1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:9).

Self-Edification Is Not Enough (1 Cor 14:1-25)

posted by R. Fowler White

Having established love as the precondition for fruitful ministry through the Spirit’s gifts, the Apostle’s attention in 1 Cor 14:1ff. turns back to two of those gifts, one greater, one lesser: respectively, that of prophecy and that of tongue-speaking. His treatment of these gifts is crucial for our understanding of the purpose for which all gifts are given to Christ’s church.

For what follows, we’ll understand that both tongue-speaking and prophecy have ceased (a point raised and discussed elsewhere on this blog), but when they operated, they involved the God-given ability and aspiration to minister to His people by communicating His inerrant word to them. The two gifts differed, however, in that tongue-speech was spoken in a language understood by the speakers themselves but not by their hearers, while prophecies were spoken in the language of both speakers and their hearers.

Two additional observations may also help us. First, let’s note that the phenomenon of tongue-speaking is not unique to Christ’s church. For instance, tongues-speech, dreams and visions, and other extraordinary experiences took place in Corinth’s temples to Apollo and in Egypt’s palaces. Even today, tongue-speaking can be heard among certain Muslims. We should not think, then, that tongue-speaking has its source always and only in the Holy Spirit. Scripture is clear that such occurrences may have their source in ‘the flesh’ (i.e., sinful human nature) or even in servants of Satan disguised as apostles or prophets of Christ (e.g., Acts 16:16-18; 2 Cor 11:13-15). Second, let’s remind ourselves that by the Spirit and His gifts Christ is building His people as His ‘sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true.’ (This divine building project is a topic about which Paul, Peter, and John wrote.) For that work to be done, our gifts must be used not merely to build up ourselves, but to build up others too. In 1 Cor 14:1ff., Paul’s concern about that project focuses on the Spirit’s gifts of prophecy and tongue-speaking. His remarks are blunt: the lesser gift—tongue-speaking without translation—had no place in public worship because such tongue-speaking built up only the speakers themselves, not other believers also. Let’s take a look at the particulars of those remarks.

Paul launches his argument in chapter 14 by restating in 14:1 God’s order of priorities for fruitful ministry in congregational worship. Priority #1 is to pursue love for others, because love is the precondition to a congregation becoming a sanctuary pleasing to God. Priority #2 is to maintain an eagerness for spiritual gifts, for by them God makes the many members one body. Priority #3 is to edify others in public worship. It is Priority #3 that is in focus in 14:2ff. as Paul contrasts prophecy and untranslated tongues-speech. The basis of his preference for prophecy reduces to this: self-edification by any gift may be beneficial, but it is not enough. In fact, the gifts have never been given to edify oneself alone. They are given to edify all (14:4, 18-19). As for tongue-speakers, Paul says, unless their speech was translated, they built up only themselves, not others too. As a result, untranslated tongue-speech had no place in public worship.

Paul becomes even more insistent in 14:6-19. In the interest of edification, the Apostle lays out regulations that tongue-speakers should obey. His general rule is straightforward: benefit (i.e., profit, help) others (14:6). He illustrates the rule as we see it in music (14:7), in the military (14:8), and in human communication (14:10-11). Without distinct tones, instrumentalists keep others from recognizing and enjoying the song being played. Without distinct sounds, a military bugler keeps others from preparing for battle. Without translation, a foreigner’s language remains, well, foreign. Applied to tongues-speech, the Apostle’s general rule means that, when left untranslated, it keeps others from participating (14:9) and from being built up (14:12). Given that reality, Paul goes on to set down a specific rule for tongue-speakers: they should pray to translate for others (14:13-19). Why? Because otherwise, tongue-speakers don’t communicate with others as they should in public worship. Only with translation would tongue-speech be good for others in public worship. To illustrate his point, Paul appeals to his own experience in 14:14-15: ‘Look at what happened when I prayed in tongues without translation: my praying bore no fruit for others. In that light, I should pray and sing only with translation so that I speak both to God and to others, thus building up both myself and others.’ He goes on in 14:16-19 to apply his point: ‘Look at what happens when you and I don’t do what I just described. Without translation, tongue-speakers keep others from participating in public worship. Only with translation are others able to join tongue-speakers in prayer or praise’ (14:16-17). ‘Further, without translation, tongue-speakers keep others from learning in public worship. Only with translation will others be able to learn from tongue-speakers’ (14:18-19). ‘Let no believer, then, be like that bugler who can’t play “Reveille.” Let’s use our gifts to build up all members of Christ’s body, not just ourselves.’ In light of all this, Paul insists that tongue-speaking was not to be part of congregational worship unless it was translated.

Closing his case against untranslated tongue-speaking in public worship, Paul urges, ‘Let’s be grownups about tongue-speaking’ (14:20). ‘Recognize that the statements I’ve made here about tongue-speaking are consistent with what OT prophecy says about it, specifically in Isa 28:11’ (14:21). Turning back to Isa 28 we read there that Judah’s hearing of speech they did not understand was a sign that God was judging them as unbelievers (Deut 28:49; cf. Isa 33:19). In fact, He was rebuking Judah for their unbelief at His new temple building work (Isa 28:16). The same was true in the Apostle’s day. Paul himself was doing foundation-laying in God’s new temple building project (1 Cor 3:9b-11), and his ministry was a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (1:23; 14:21-24). Paul’s point in 14:20-25, then, is that ‘grownups’ will recognize untranslated tongue-speaking for what it is: it is a sign of God’s judgment against unbelievers (14.22a), be they Jews (this people, 14:21) or Gentiles. Indeed, when believers spoke in a foreign tongue in the presence of unbelievers, such tongue-speech only antagonized them and hardened them against the gospel (14:23; cf. Acts 2:13). By contrast, when believers prophesied in the presence of unbelievers in their own tongue, prophetic speech convicted and even converted them (14:24-25). It was prophecy, then, that was a sign of God’s blessing on believers (14:22b) and a means of evangelism for those outsiders who might have entered the setting of the church’s public worship. Paul’s conclusion is clear: in the church’s public worship, tongue-speaking without translation benefited neither other believers nor outsiders.

In 1 Cor 14:1-25, Paul gives us a grownup church’s perspective on tongue-speaking: unless it was translated, tongue-speech had no place in public worship. Because it built up only the tongue-speakers themselves, not other believers also … because other believers could not understand it … because it antagonized and hardened unbelievers against Christ’s gospel, untranslated tongue-speech was not to be part of the church’s worship. With all this in mind, a key enduring takeaway for us from Paul’s instruction in 1 Cor 14:1-25 would be that, as God’s temple building project continues, we must be careful to use our gifts not merely to edify ourselves, but to edify others also. Self-edification is just not enough.

The Truths of Which We Now Sing (1 Tim 3:16)

posted by R. Fowler White

The Apostle Paul wrote in First Timothy 3:16 (NASB95): By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. 

As we have entered another season of celebrating the incarnation of God the Son, we sing of that great mystery of godliness that, as expressed in the phrases of 1 Tim 3:16, has now been revealed in Christ. So let’s be clear: by mystery we don’t mean something esoteric or cryptic, but rather truth made known only by divine revelation. About this particular mystery there is said to be common consent in God’s confessing church. It is a mystery summarized here in six lyrical phrases from what was most probably an early Christian hymn, sung in three stanzas of two lines each. Let’s consider the truth revealed in each line.

We sing of the incarnation of Christ: He who was manifested in the flesh. According to the Apostle Paul, our song begins with the fact that that Child in the feeding trough was the pre-existent Son of the Father, God of God, God with God, who has permanently taken to Himself human nature, having become forever thereafter one Person with two natures, divine and human. Miraculously conceived and preserved from sin’s defilement by the Holy Spirit, His birth began His suffering. That suffering became hostility and insult; then betrayal, abandonment, scorn, rejection, condemnation; then torment, facing the terrors of death, feeling and bearing the weight of God’s wrath as a sacrifice for sin, enduring painful, shameful, cursed crucifixion. His death brought an end to the earthly phase of His manifestation in the flesh. Of His incarnation we sing in our song, because with it the historical accomplishment of our redemption began. But there is more to our song.

We sing of the vindication of Christ: He was vindicated [justified] by the Spirit. When He was manifested in the flesh, the Son became the servant who submitted Himself to God’s law and conquered Satan, sin, and death. He became the one Man whom God has justified by His works. Made alive by the Spirit, everything Jesus said and did was certified as faithful and true. We sing, then, of Christ vindicated, the only immortal and now glorified Man.

We sing of the appearances of Christ: He was seen by angels. Even heaven’s angels have beheld Him, resurrected and ascended in theophanic glory. Through the incarnate and vindicated Son of Man, humanity has been restored to the heavenly sanctuary, and the angelic host now assist Him to maintain heavenly Mt Zion’s accessibility and inviolability even as they assist all who will inherit salvation. To paraphrase what another has said, the angels sang at His birth, ministered to Him in His hour of temptation, guarded His tomb, testified to His resurrection, witnessed His ascension, and look forward to His return. Just so, we sing now of His appearances to angels.

We sing of the proclamation of Christ: He was proclaimed among the nations. As the NT teaches us, the Apostles were equipped and authorized for their gospel ministry by Christ. Once He was vindicated by the Spirit and seen by angels, we read of how they labored hard to tell the nations about the saving mission, the justifying grace, and the transforming mercy of the patient and powerful Christ. They did indeed tell the nations in their day of Christ—and the church built on the foundation of Christ continues to tell the nations of Him, so that, at last, people from all families on earth will join in praise to Christ who is God our King. Even so, we sing the everlasting song of Christ proclaimed among all nations.

We sing of the reception of Christ: He was believed on in the world. For over 2,000 years now Christ has been believed on in the world. The first eyewitnesses of His resurrection believed: Mary, Peter, John, even Thomas, among others. After the Twelve believed, then Pentecost came and thousands believed on that day. The evangelistic mission only expanded to reach even the imperial capital of Rome. We see a global, worldwide mission bringing a global, worldwide harvest from all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, a harvest so great that no one can count its numbers. It is of this Christ—of Christ believed on in the world—whom we sing.

Lastly in our hymn, we sing of the ascension of Christ: He was taken up in glory. Raised from the dead in glory, Christ was taken up in glory into the highest invisible heavens. He is there at this very moment, crowned and enthroned, radiating majesty and splendor, preparing a place for all of us who believe, making intercession for us, answering all accusations against us, making sure that we have access with boldness to the throne of grace. From glory He came; to glory He has returned. And so of His ascension, His present coronation and reign, we sing.

These are among the truths of which we the church now do sing in this season of celebration. Singing of such things as incarnation, vindication, theophany, proclamation, reception, and ascension is outmoded for many today. Yet those who smear us who sing are full of balderdash and twaddle. We sing because we know ourselves to be sinners in the sight of God. We sing because we know ourselves to be justly deserving God’s displeasure. We sing because we know ourselves to be without hope except in God’s sovereign mercy. We sing because we have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners. We sing because we have received and are resting upon Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel.

Don’t sneer at us who sing. Join us in our confession and sing with us the truths that express the great mystery of godliness, once hidden now revealed in Christ: Christ manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: Change for the Good

Posted by R. Fowler White

Overall, the evidence and fruit of reformation in the OT church after the exile was change, change for the good. Change in direction from self and sin to God and His will as revealed in Scripture. Change in attitudes and affections, priorities and choices. Decreasing likeness to the world and increasing likeness to God. To as many of us as enter into solemn covenant with God and His church, we give testimony that He has begun a work of change in us and our household. So, as we read the story of Nehemiah, we examine ourselves and ask, do we, as members of God’s church, see the continuing fruit of reformation in ourselves, in our households, and in our congregations? When was the last time I noticed increasing holiness in my thoughts, words, or deeds? In Neh 12:44–13:3, reformation produced three observable changes in God’s people.

In Nehemiah’s day the people were joyfully supporting the temple ministers in their work (12:44, 47). They were joyfully fulfilling the vows they had taken (Nehemiah 10). They were giving contributions of the fruit of every tree, the wine, and the oil to the priests. They were giving their firstfruits and firstborn, year by year, to the house of the LORD. They were giving tithes in keeping with their vow that they would not neglect the house of their God. All these gifts were owed and given as required by God’s revealed will in His law. The people had vowed to support the OT church in its worship and work, and so they gave their tithes and offerings in keeping with their vow.

In Nehemiah’s day the temple ministers were faithfully performing their work (12:45-46). The priests, Levites, storeroom stewards, singers, and instrumentalists were all faithfully performing the service of their God and the ministry of purification. They were doing their work in keeping with God’s commands as implemented by King David and King Solomon. Why look back to the reigns of David and Solomon? Because they were largely the glory days of Israel: David had organized Israel’s worship; Solomon had built the temple. Their worship was driven and their faithfulness was defined by God’s word, not by the preferences of the postexilic generation or even previous generations. The postexilic temple ministers, then, organized and administered worship according God’s command as exemplified in David and Solomon.

In Nehemiah’s day the people promptly applied God’s standard for admission and exclusion to the visible church (13:1-3). Let’s bear in mind this OT “ministry of the keys” was a necessity not based merely on ethnic terms, but on covenantal, moral, and spiritual terms. According to Moses, God had sworn to bless those who, in faith, blessed Abraham and his seed and to curse those who, in unbelief, cursed Abraham and his seed. So, certain Gentiles, like Rahab, Ruth, and Naomi, had been admitted with their households because they confessed saving faith as Abraham did. On the other hand, certain Israelites, even some generations of Israel, had proven to be spiritually and morally Gentiles and had been broken off from the patriarchal tree for their unbelief. The standard for admission and exclusion was response to God’s oath to Abraham and his seed. In that light, the people were reading what was written about that standard and were promptly obeying it.

When reformation came to the OT church after the exile, it produced change in God’s people. Cheerful givers fulfilled their vow to support the church’s worship and work. Are you and I cheerful givers fulfilling our vow to support the church’s worship and work? God’s ministers faithfully administered temple worship and work according to His word. What is it that drives our worship choices and defines our faithfulness: what God wants or what we want? The people promptly applied God’s standard for admission and exclusion to the visible church. Do we acknowledge that Christ has established officers in His church to grant or refuse fellowship as His word requires? In Nehemiah’s day the evidence and fruit of reformation in the OT church produced change for the good in God’s people. May it be so in our day too.

What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: The People as a Whole

Posted by R. Fowler White

When reformation comes to the congregations of God’s church, what does that reformation look like? To put it differently, when God renews and revives His church, what does that renewal and revival look like? Would we recognize it if it happened in our congregations? Would you recognize it if it happened in your family? In you personally? Historically, we think of the Reformation in the 16th century. We think of an extraordinary sovereign work of God through His King according to His Word to His own glory, manifested in increased holiness and decreased worldliness in thought, word, and deed among God’s church and usually in increased civic righteousness (restraint of evil) among non-Christians through increased fear of God in their hearts. So, what will reformation look like if and when God brings it to us today? As a framework for answering that question, let’s consider what reformation looked like when it came to the OT church in Nehemiah’s and Ezra’s day. We can analyze what happened from various valid angles, so consider first what the people as a whole did when reformation came to the OT church.

They took the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture. Strikingly, we are not told that Ezra summoned the people. Instead we’re told (8:1) that on the 1st day of the 7th month, all the people (almost 50,000) gathered as one man. We’re told (8:4) that the people made the wood platform from which Ezra read Scripture, the Book of the Law of Moses. We’re told (8:13) that on the 2nd day of the 7th month, the family heads came together to Ezra. The people took the initiative. And then what? They submitted themselves to be discipled under their leaders. The people told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book (8:1). The people remained in their places as the Levites helped them to understand (8:7), and the family heads came together to Ezra to study and to find out what God required of them (8:13-14).

Having taken this initiative, the congregation’s discipleship produced certain fruit. They were united. Notice how many times throughout this passage we’re told that “all the people” or words to that effect did this or that. No fewer than 10 times, the solidarity of the people is highlighted (8:1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 17). They were also zealous, eager, passionate, hungry, thirsty for God and His will as revealed in Scripture (8:2, 3, 7, 12, 13, 16). They were worshipful too (8:6, 17-18). We read more about this in Neh 9, where the people confess their own sins and also the iniquities of their fathers. But notice in Neh 8 that they wept over their sins as they heard the words of the Law read and taught (8:9). The people were so exercised by the conviction of their sins that the leaders, especially the Levites, had to calm all the people down (8:10, 11). Having turned from their sins, the people also celebrated their God (8:6). They were instructed to celebrate, and they did it (8:10, 12). And how did they celebrate? Just as God had prescribed: they kept the Festival of Booths, the Festival of Ingathering, signifying their identity as pilgrims living in temporary housing with God their Provider but anticipating their permanent home with Him in the Garden Land (8:13-17). Representing faithful pilgrims from all nations, this Festival testified to the congregation of God’s presence with them on the way to the beauty and bounty of a restored Eden, and they rejoiced in God and delighted in His presence, and they rejoiced in God and delighted in His presence.

When reformation came to the OT church, the congregation took the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture; they submitted to discipleship under their leaders’ stewardship; they were united, zealous, and worshipful disciples of their Lord; they wept over their sins; they celebrated their God. Having just celebrated another Reformation Day, let’s ask: are we seeing congregations taking the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture? Have we and our fellow members submitted ourselves to be discipled under the stewardship of our leaders? Are we united, zealous, and worshipful as Christ’s disciples? Do we weep over our sins? Do we worship our God as He prescribes? This is what reformation looked like in the OT church when God brought it to the congregation as a whole. Next, God willing, we’ll consider what family heads and officers did.

Heaven’s Splendor vs. The World’s Allure, Pt. 5 (Rev 5:8-14)

Posted by R. Fowler White

If not for the vision that John sees in Rev 5:5-7, we should be weeping as he did. After all, we now know the truth that John knew. We know that no creature, angelic or human, is qualified to secure the future of Christ’s church or empowered to fulfill God’s purposes for history. This world, with all its enticements, tempts us away from Christ. With all our vulnerabilities, we Christians and our congregations are increasingly at risk. Watching John’s weeping turn to worship, however, we too stop our weeping as we see the omnipotent, omniscient Lamb in Rev 5. Yet there is more to that scene than glorious sights to see. There are also glorious sounds to hear. Creatures from every part of creation worship the Lamb in Rev 5:8-12 and the Lord God Almighty in Rev 5:13-14.

The heavenly anthem begins in the inner circle around the throne: the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down, throwing themselves to the ground to celebrate the Lamb who is God’s Lion (5:8-10). Accompanied by the music of harps and by prayers for vindication, they sing a new song, a song of joy after the Divine Warrior’s victory, a song celebrating the Lamb’s worthiness to finish God’s plan of redemption and reckoning. The Lamb is worthy because the price He paid in His sacrificial death had the power to redeem a people of every kind for God and the power to reform those He redeemed into a kingdom and priesthood for God.

The choral singers’ number expands outward from the throne, beyond the living creatures and the elders (5:11-12). Now the choir of angels multiplies to include millions and millions of voices. They sing to the Lamb, attributing to Him all the excellencies belonging to God Himself.[i] Then the sacred chorale expands once more to every quarter of creation (5:13-14). Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them celebrate the Lord God and the Lamb. Now the choir of all creation celebrates Their glory, attributing to Them blessing and honor … glory and might, and that in an everlasting doxology. Confirming the truth of this glorious heavenly anthem, the four living creatures shout, Amen! Meanwhile, as in the previous scene in ch. 4, the twenty-four elders again throw themselves to the ground to pay homage to the supremacy of the Lord God and the Lamb.

How clear can it be that, for every part of creation, the Lord and the Lamb—God the Father and God the Son—in company with God the sevenfold Spirit (4:5; 5:6), are the sum of all that is held up to be glorified and enjoyed! Every part of creation finds in God alone all moral and spiritual excellencies and perfections. Every part of creation finds in Him all these qualities in impeccable proportion, harmony, and unity; in delicate balance, stunning brilliance, and full integrity. Every part of creation finds God in Three Persons to be altogether excellent, exquisitely splendid, supremely beautiful, and radiantly wonderful.

John the Apostle came to the visions of Rev 4–5 troubled for the congregations of Christ’s church in his day. Who can doubt that he would be troubled for us in our day? We see the vices of unbelief corroding government and business. We hear anti-Christian bigotry becoming the norm in society at large. Pressured in such an environment by the prospect of losing rights and privileges, some in the church advocate for us to shrug off the historic Christian confession and moral vision and to embrace the world’s priorities. Forget about it. As citizens of a heavenly homeland, we’ll follow John’s example and his words. With the eyes of faith, we’ll ponder the glorious sights of our Divine Sovereign in His Heavenly Palace surrounded by His angelic court. With the ears of faith, we’ll revel in the glorious sounds of creation’s choir worshiping the Lord and the Lamb in the presence of the Spirit—the Blessed Trinity in the splendor of heaven’s holiness. Thus prepared, we’ll fight the good fight, singing a new song as King Jesus delivers God’s chosen captives from the domain of darkness and transfers them into His own benevolent kingdom of priests.

[i] Richard D. Phillips, Revelation, ed. R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, and D. M. Doriani, REC (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 204.

Heaven’s Splendor vs. The World’s Allure, Pt. 4 (Rev 5:5-7)

Posted by R. Fowler White

It’s hard for most of the congregations of Christ’s church to resist the world’s promises of influence and affluence, especially when it threatens to shove us to the hinterlands of society. Some negotiate with the world to avoid that marginalization and persecution and to gain financial security and influence—and in the process they lose their Christian identity. Following John’s example and words, however, we know that there is a better choice: ponder the sights in Rev 5:5-7 with the eyes of faith. That vision turned John’s sorrow into joy. That revelation turned his weeping into worship. Just look at how the drama unfolds …

When we last saw John, he had broken into tears, aching for God’s plan of salvation and judgment to be fulfilled. And, at just that moment, John hears one of the twenty-four elders speak words of comfort to him. That elder, remember, was among the rank of angels who serve as God’s court officers and who represent the redeemed in both Testaments. He tells John, “Stop weeping and look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David.” But wait a minute: why should seeing this Lion stop John’s crying? Because this Lion is the One with the ancestry of God’s chosen king. He is the king from Judah to whom God had promised the nations as His inheritance. This Lion is the king whom God had charged to engage in holy warfare to make His people secure and pure for fellowship with Him. He is the king who is greater than David: He is not just David’s son; He is also David’s Lord. He is the One with proven qualifications: He has already conquered sin, the world, the devil, and death. This Lion is thus the Conqueror poised to take the scroll of inheritance and to finish God’s plan for history. “John,” says the elder, “stop weeping and behold, the Lion.”

We can only imagine John’s excitement as his weeping gives way to wonder. Blinking his tears away, John turns to see a Lion … but instead he sees a Lamb, and not just any lamb. This Lamb is greater than the Passover lamb and the sacrificial lambs of Israel. This Lamb has been slaughtered as a sacrifice and yet has taken His stand, not just outside the tomb on earth but also here in heaven. This Lamb is like no other lamb. He has seven horns, the fullness of strength. This Lamb has seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, the fullness of the Spirit, the fullness of knowledge and wisdom. It is this omnipotent, omniscient Lamb who steps forward to take the scroll, to finish God’s plan for the destiny of this world and of all who are in it. What a vision this is for John and for us his readers: this Lamb, slaughtered yet standing, is the Lion of God who has already conquered!

How do these sights strike our eyes? Weeping John was told to stop crying and look: look at, look to the victorious Lamb. Does this revelation stop our weeping? No creature in heaven or on earth was or is qualified to secure the future of Christ’s church or to finish God’s plan for history. Only Christ—David’s son and David’s Lord—is worthy because He is the Lamb led to slaughter as an innocent sacrifice for His guilty people. He alone is qualified because He is the Lamb standing as the Lion who has conquered the devil, the world, sin, and death. Because of His death, resurrection, and ascension, Christ alone is worthy to open the scroll of inheritance and to finish God’s plan for the ages. He alone is qualified to be Heir of all things and to make His people into co-heirs with Him.[i]

Christian, does your heart ache for God to finish His plan for the ages? Church, is it hard to resist the world’s promises of influence and affluence, especially as it threatens to shove us to the hinterlands of society or worse? Don’t bargain with the world to avoid its threats and to gain its promises. If you do, Christ says, you’ll lose your Christian identity. Instead, like John, stop weeping, look up, and worship the Lamb in the splendor of heaven’s holiness. God’s plan for the destiny of this world and for the future of His church is in the good hands of that victorious Lamb, of that conquering Lion.

[i] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (1999), 341.

Heaven’s Splendor vs. The World’s Allure, Pt. 3 (Rev 5:1-4)

Posted by R. Fowler White

We know the plot of Rev 1–4 pretty well. Our King Jesus dictated seven messages to prepare His church for the battlefield of this world. We’re to follow Him into battle with the mission to bring God’s chosen captives out of Satan’s kingdom into His kingdom until He returns. In His seven messages, Christ tells us time and again that He knows the state of every congregation in His church. He tells us that for most of His congregations, the chief problem is that we prefer the majority culture to the church’s historic faith and practice, and so we jeopardize our Christian identity. If that is King Jesus’s diagnosis of our problem, what’s His remedy? We’ve seen the first part of His prescription in Rev 4. As we keep reading, we realize that the scene in ch. 4 continues uninterrupted into ch. 5. The Lord our God, who is worshiped in 4:8-11, is before us again in ch. 5, but this time the vision adds even more depth and breadth to our understanding of Christ’s remedy for His church.[i]

John’s vision in ch. 5 opens with him seeing a scroll in the right hand of the Lord God Almighty. As for the scroll’s appearance, it’s written within and on the back. It’s a double-sided document like the scroll handed to Ezekiel (2:10). In addition, similar to the sealed scrolls of Isaiah and Daniel, it’s a sealed document, signaling that it’s not just important but also authentic, unchanged, and unchangeable. The scroll has seven seals, suggesting that it’s filled up, complete, and comprehensive. As for the scroll’s content, it reveals God’s plan, His predetermined agenda, for the ages, covering the development of all of sacred history. The scroll’s content, though partially revealed and documented in the OT, focuses in Revelation especially on sacred history from the cross to the new creation.[ii] In other words, the scroll covers God’s plan for the rest of this age and the age to come. But we can say more: from the worship described in ch. 5, we also learn that the scroll is a last will and testament of inheritance for the heirs of God. This scroll, then, contains God’s plan for the destiny of this world and of all who are in it.

John’s vision of the scroll of inheritance notwithstanding, the scene in ch. 5 takes an unexpected turn. A powerful angel from God’s palace in heaven addresses anyone who has ears with a loud voice: Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals? In other words, who is qualified, who has the ability and the authority to execute God’s plan of salvation and judgment?[iii] As John looks on, not one created being in heaven or on earth steps forward. Those creatures know what the scroll represents: they know no creature has either the autonomy to direct history to its proper conclusion or the capacity to carry out God’s plan of inheritance.[iv] Seeing that no creature qualified to open the scroll, John breaks into tears, weeps loudly, greatly, intensely. Can we even imagine such a thing: crying in heaven? He aches for God’s plan to be accomplished, yet he knows that human beings can’t depend on mere creatures, human or angelic, earthly or heavenly, to carry out God’s plan for the destiny of this world—and that knowledge moves him to sob.

How does this scene in Rev 5 move us? If it were not for the vision that John sees next, it should make us weep as John did. Why? Because the drama in God’s heavenly palace in Rev 5:1-4 reminds John and his readers that no creature can rescue them from the dangers on the battlefield of this world. No creature, even among those in heaven, is empowered to fulfill God’s purposes in salvation or judgment. There is no creature, not even one from heaven, who is qualified to secure the future of Christ’s church. Put this together with Christ’s seven messages, and it hits us how vulnerable the congregations in Asia Minor were to the world’s allure. In fact, so are ours. This world is a threatening place for Christians and congregations with our many liabilities. So where does all this leave us? Out of fear or trust of the world, some would negotiate (i.e., compromise) to ensure rights and privileges and to avoid penalties and punishments. Following John’s example and his words, however, there is a better choice: learn the lessons of the scene that comes next in Rev 5:5-7. It turned John’s sorrow into joy, his weeping into worship—and it ought to have the same impact on us.

[i] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (1999), 337.
[ii] Beale, 341.
[iii] Beale, 348.
[iv] Beale, 338.

Heaven’s Splendor vs. The World’s Allure, Pt. 2 (Rev 4:8-11)

Posted by R. Fowler White

If the seven letters of Rev 2–3 are any indication, it’s hard for most of the congregations of Christ’s church to resist the world’s offers of influence and affluence, especially when the alternatives are life at the margins, in the shadows, and worse. So, what exactly should churches do to resist the world’s allure? As we saw in a previous post, we resist by keeping before us the vision that King Jesus has given to us in Rev 4:1-7: a revelation of the Lord our God in the splendor of holiness, the grandeur of our Divine Sovereign in His Heavenly Palace surrounded by His court. Yet Christ gives us even more to see and hear in heaven above, more to make us bold on the battlefield of this world. Christ presents to us the never-ending worship of the attendants of the Lord God Almighty. What started in 4:1-7 as a heavenly montage unfolding before John’s eyes now becomes a scene of adoration and acclamation in Rev 4:8-11.[i]

John begins by telling us about the worship of the four living creatures (4:8). With six wings they are shielded before the brilliance of God’s holy presence; they are equipped to do His bidding with alacrity. Full of eyes they are attentive and perceptive. Day and night, they never cease to praise. They break out in choral song, extolling the Creator God for His perfections. First, they honor Him, the God of heaven and earth, as Holy, holy, holy. He is infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably superior to and separate from all His creatures, even the sinless ones. But especially when compared with His sinful creatures, there is not a trace of evil desire, of impure motive, or of unholy inclination in Him. Second, they pointedly hail the God of heaven and earth as the Lord God Almighty. He is infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably all-powerful, omnipotent. Here is the one Being who does whatever He wills, however and whenever He wills it. Only He can do, and does do, all His holy will. Third, they also adore the God of heaven and earth as the One who was and is and is to come. He is infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably beyond time and history. He has always existed; He will always exist. He never began; He will never end. He does not grow; He does not age. He sees and knows each event and all events of history as one. Do we hear the never-ending worship of the four living creatures in heaven? Surely, the world’s siren song pales by comparison.

John’s focus shifts from the four living creatures to the twenty-four elders, who are also worshiping (4:9-11). Perhaps these who represent the redeemed of both Testaments are singing antiphonally with the four living creatures; perhaps they are singing harmony. In any case, these angelic officers of the heavenly court fall down (4:9), throwing themselves to the ground as an act of devotion and humility before the ever-living Lord God Almighty. They cast their crowns before His throne, paying Him homage, submitting to His supremacy. They ascribe all worthiness, the highest worthiness, to Him as Creator. He exerts His sovereign power and will in creating and sustaining all things, and His sovereignty in creation and preservation guarantees the fulfillment of His purposes in re-creation. Do we hear the never-ending worship of the twenty-four elders in heaven? For those with ears to hear it, the heavenly anthem drowns out all music but its own, including the world’s siren song.

So, what do we do when the congregations of Christ’s church seem indifferent to the boundaries between the world and the church? When the world presents us a choice between economic security and influence, on the one hand, and society’s margins and shadows, on the other, how exactly will we resist the world’s siren song? King Jesus gives us a better song to sing: the chorus sung by the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders. We’ll join that everlasting song because the issue at stake for us is not merely a first amendment issue; it is a first and greatest commandment issue. So we’ll praise the Lord God Almighty for His perfections. We’ll rejoice in our eternal God and His unceasing rule in and over history. No matter the time or place, no matter the trial, our holy, eternal God is enthroned in heaven. He alone is the Creator and Preserver of all things, so we’ll resist the world’s allure and sing of Him in the splendor of holiness, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.[ii]

[i] J. Ramsey Michaels, Revelation, vol. 20, IVPNTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), Rev 4:1.
[ii] M. Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, 2471.

Heaven’s Splendor vs. The World’s Allure, Pt. 1 (Rev 4:1-7)

Posted by R. Fowler White

The messages dictated by King Jesus to the seven churches in Asia Minor in Rev 2–3 are meant to prepare us readers to follow Him onto the battlefield of this world, with the mission to bring God’s chosen captives out of Satan’s kingdom into His kingdom. From those messages, we learn that the battle is hard for most churches. The difficulties for the seven churches came not because they were universally poor, or totally alienated from their culture, or even subject to government-sponsored persecution. No, for the most part, those churches—five of seven, to be exact—were weak or self-satisfied, compromising with the majority culture, blurring the boundary between the historic faith and practice of Christ’s church and the beliefs and behaviors of the world, all to secure their “place at the table” and, with it, their viability. The issue at stake, in other words, was not a first amendment issue; it was a first (and greatest) commandment issue. Squeezed into the world’s mold, they were jeopardizing their Christian identity. Sound familiar?

Well, what’s the remedy when congregations are blurring the lines with the world’s beliefs and behaviors, when they’re feeble or complacent and compromising their Christian identity? Christ Jesus, the Lord and Head of His church, gives His answer in Rev 4. He gives John a fresh vision of the Divine Palace in heaven where the Sovereign Divine Ruler sits enthroned, surrounded by His court of attendants (4:2b-7). It’s a marvel of sight and sound unlike anything on earth.

John describes what his eyes can see of the invisible God Himself (4:3). God makes Himself visible to John in a splendor like that of precious light-diffusing stones that intensify the radiance emanating from His throne, the unapproachable brightness surrounding the Deity Himself.[i] Displayed in this portrait is God’s magnificent grandeur, His dazzling glory and, from the rainbow, His abundant mercy. Ineffably sublime, here is the One who is the Majesty enthroned on high!

To enhance our grasp of God’s cosmic supremacy, John’s eyes pan around to His attendants. Around the throne (4:4) are twenty-four elders seated on thrones. Reminiscent of both the twenty-four divisions of old covenant priests and also of the twelve tribal fathers of old Israel with the twelve apostles of the new Israel, these angelic officers of the heavenly court represent the entire community of the redeemed of both Testaments.[ii] Dressed in white garments and wearing golden crowns, they are upright and holy, having a majesty all their own. From the throne (4:5) come flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, evoking the sights and sounds of Mt Sinai. God appears here in His holy power, ready to reveal His judgment and His salvation. Before the throne (4:5-6) are burning seven lamps of fire, which are the seven Spirits of God. Present with God on the throne is God the Spirit in His sevenfold fullness, just as Isaiah described Him in Isa 11:2. Before the throne was also something akin to a sea of glass like crystal, waters quieted by God’s power, like those at creation, after the flood, after the Red Sea and Jordan crossings, in the bronze basin of the tabernacle and temple courtyard. Together with the precious stones, this sea of crystalline glass suggests just how resplendent God’s throne is. Also around the throne (4:6b-7) are four living creatures. Guarding and supporting God’s throne like the seraphim that Isaiah saw (Isa ch. 6) and like the cherubim that Ezekiel saw (Ezek chs. 1 and 10), this rank of angels embodies all the highest attributes of living creation, projecting the likenesses of a lion (the greatest and fiercest undomesticated animal), an ox (the strongest domesticated animal), a man (the ruler of all animals), and an eagle (the noblest bird).[iii]

The contrast between the grandeur of the Divine Palace in heaven and the allure of the world’s blandishments could hardly be more stark. Offers of influence and affluence from the world are hard to resist for churches, particularly the weak or complacent, when their earthly alternatives are a place at the margins, in the shadows, or worse. So, how exactly do churches resist the world’s siren song? By remembering what King Jesus gave all seven churches in Asia Minor. Along with His open letters to them, He gave them a revelation of the Lord God in the splendor of heaven’s holiness. That is the vision He gives us too. Captivated by that vision, we won’t do what most churches in Asia Minor did, even if we’re pushed to the margins and the shadows. We won’t blur the boundary between the world and the church. We won’t jeopardize our Christian identity to ensure financial peace and influence. Instead, we’ll heed Christ’s call from heaven to join, in Spirit and truth, the creatures in heaven around God’s throne. We’ll heed Christ’s call from heaven to engage in the single most important activity of all time and space: the worship of our Divine Sovereign in His Heavenly Palace, surrounded by His court of attendants. Then, as heavenly-minded strangers and pilgrims in this world, we’ll “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also,” and we’ll carry out the mission our King has given us, speaking the truth in love to bring God’s chosen captives out of Satan’s kingdom into His kingdom.

[i] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (1999), 321.
[ii] Beale, 323.
[iii] Richard D. Phillips, Revelation, ed. R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, and D. M. Doriani, REC (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 171.

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