So too with the greatest story ever told.
A little less than 2,000 years ago, Jesus was wrapping up his three-year ministry intensive with his small band of eleven disciples. Forty days before, He had graduated from death to life, becoming the first fruit of the New Creation, the model Man who then breathed on his astonished followers and transformed them into chips off this new Cornerstone. Now He was about to step back into His Father’s dimension and sit down on the throne as the dread Sovereign over heaven and earth.
He leaned into His eleven disciples and a great hush fell.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” He said. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
And so He summed up the raison d’être of His life…and ours.
Now depending on one’s eschatological view—whether a-, post- or historical pre-millennial— we can disagree as to the extent we will be successful in this grand enterprise of discipling nations before the Lord returns. We can even disagree as to how true success is defined.
But there should be absolutely no question as to what that commission is and means: to love others as He has loved us; to strive to bring every thought in obedience to Christ; to seek first the Kingdom and His righteousness; to pray and then work for that Kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
And die trying (in more ways than one).
Anything less is to cease being a disciple; to quit the game, leave the field and shuffle off into the inglorious stands.
If you think the year is 2015, you’re only partially correct. For the citizens of North Korea it’s presently 104. That’s because the government retooled the calendar so that the modern era began on the day their tin-pot messiah, Kim II-sung, was born. (April 15, 1912—the “Day of the Sun”—is a national holiday, appropriately coinciding with America’s tax filing day, though it would have been even more fitting had he been born two weeks before.)
His son and successor, Kim Jong-il, took a break from “changing the times”— settling on changing his score card in golf. According to official North Korean state media reports, this unsurpassed leader and athlete routinely shot three or four holes-in-one per round of golf.
But now Jong-il’s son and successor, Jong Un (you’ve got to appreciate the delightful onomatopoeia in all of this), is back on the time thing. On August 15 the government officially put the nation’s clocks on Pyongyang Time, setting them back from the rest of the world by one-half hour.
And there you have it folks: truth unfolding on the world stage. And courtesy of the Playwright who directs the rising and fall of nations and individuals; all in an effort to get through our thick heads that the more we lean to our own understanding, the stupider and more destructive we become.
North Korea: there’s probably no nation on earth more committed to rejecting God; more beguiled by the notion that “man is the measure of all things” and that a great one can arise from the masses and lead the people into a humanistic promise-land. And what has it gotten them? Knocked two thousand years back into the past. (Looking at the living conditions in North Korea, that’s actually an insult to citizens of the iron age.) Jerked a half-step out-of-sync with reality. And cursed with a succession of toad-like fools for leaders who if placed anywhere else in the world couldn’t get elected class clown.
(But before we get too smug: how far behind this tragicomic fiasco are we? I mean, really? Particularly when set against the New Jerusalem God has in mind for this planet.)
And so the “four winds of heaven” sovereignly blow across the roiling, chaotic seas of fallen humanity. Beast systems are cast upon the shore and do their dance until ebbing tides sweep them back into the abyss. Flecks of foamy shame manifest as men: pathetic antichrists granted a brief opportunity to sit on their Creator’s lap and try and slap at His face. Change the times! Rail against the Ancient of Days! Strain against His cords and commandments! Oppress the poor and the people of God!
The Creator chuckles. The Playwright, seated on His blood-bought throne, determines the scene is over; that the plot point is complete. The wind blows and the tides ebb. And Nero, Diocletian, Attila, Vlad, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi, Saddam and the Kims—among other beasts—shuffle off, stage left, into a burning Sheol; waiting on the terrors of the Great Day when the curtain sets on Act One.
Then Act Two begins.
Have you every noticed how the Book of Acts just kind of….ends? It’s almost as if Dr. Luke got an emergency call while working on chapter twenty-eight and had to quickly bring it to a close. I mean we find Paul in Rome, teaching and preaching, handing out but another rebuke to some unbelieving Jews and then:
He lived there two whole years at his own expense, welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (28:30) The end.
Talk about leaving the reader hanging!
But then again, maybe not.
One commonly accepted explanation is that Luke’s last sentence is really more of an ellipsis than a conclusion, suggesting that more can and will be said about the advance of the kingdom of God. The baton is being passed from the apostles to the Church that has been birthed by the Holy Spirit through their faithful efforts. In other words, it’s a big to be continued…
To which every Christian should say a loud “Amen!”
But there may be another reason Luke ended his account to Theophilus (can it be a mere coincidence that his name means “Love of God” or “Friend of God”?) on this note. He very likely was employing a common literary device—particularly for his time*—in order to sound a loud symbol as he ended his two-part (Luke and Acts) symphony. The purpose of the symbol crash? To put a strong emphasis on the inexorable advance of Christ’s Kingdom reign.
The device is called a chiasm or chiastic structure. The term derives from the 17th century term chiasmus, which refers to a crosswise arrangement of concepts or words that are repeated in reverse order. In essence, a chiasm is a repetition of similar words or ideas in a backward sequence. A simple example would be ABBA, where the second word or idea (B) becomes the first word or idea in the following clause or sentence. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) and “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” (Hesitations 3:33) follow this pattern. But chiasms can be more complex (Joel 3:17–21 would be diagrammed as ABCXCBA) and sometimes encompass broader themes that can span an entire book or body of work.
Such is the case with Luke’s two books; his Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles. All manner of chiastic structures are found therein. But the one I want to emphasize here is how the beginning relates to the end of the overarching narrative.
Luke’s Gospel opens with an overture. The advent of Messiah is described and celebrated amid a chorus of prophecy and worship – with chiasms everywhere. Of particular note—because with chiasms the center letter (word, phrase or idea) is often the emphasis of the passage—are the following:
1. Gabriel: the Lord is with you (vs. 28); the Lord God will give Him the throne (vs. 32); son of God (vs. 35)
2. Elizabeth: mother of my Lord (vs. 43)
3. Mary: He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones. (vs. 51,52)
4. Zacharias: The center point is the covenant (vs. 72) and the oath (vs. 73) but is surrounded on both sides with promises of Messianic dominion; of God’s people being delivered from their enemies: that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us (vs. 71); that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies (vs. 74).
Then, with all these promises of Messiah and His godly reign sounding throughout Luke’s overture, it ends with this most pregnant of sentences:
And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance (anadeixis: showing, exhibition, revealing) to Israel. (vs. 80)
Let the show begin!
Act 1, verse 1: In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. (Luke 2:1)
We open then with a snapshot of the fallen world as it was at the time: under the dominion of a pagan emperor cult, one that John would later identify as the beast.** So the first line sets the stage. Babel appears to have won. Man, not God, seems to be ruling over the earth.
Fast forward. How does it all end? With the son of man taking on the full wrath of the Roman imperial system and defeating it through His resurrection from the dead. With Jesus ascending and sitting down at the right hand of God, enthroned as the true Lord of heaven and earth. As the book of Acts winds to a close, with Paul freely preaching Christ as Lord on Malta, an island off the coast of Italy that served a major naval base for the Roman Empire. The leading citizen of the island (Publius, a very common name that essentially means “public,” an everyman in other words) hosts God’s apostle for three days and a healing revival breaks out, no doubt leading to any number of Roman citizens being converted and acknowledging Jesus, not the emperor, as the true kurios (Lord). And finally with Paul receiving something of a celebrity’s welcome as he arrives in the capital of the world, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance”…under the very nose of Caesar himself.
There is evidence to suggest that Luke finished the second half of his two-book narrative after Paul arrived in Rome but before A.D. 64, when a great fire burned down much of the city and Nero used it as a pretext to begin his persecution of Christians. Similarly, it’s likely that Paul’s epistle to the Philippians was written during this same period of imprisonment. If this is true—and it almost certainly is and further that Luke would have been aware of the events described therein—we’re granted in Paul’s letter even more evidence of the prevailing power of the Gospel and the grand reversal that at that point was well underway. The world was slowly being turned right-side up again!
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. (Phil. 1:12-14)
Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. (4:21-22; emphases mine)
And so Luke’s saga opens with the City of Man and its fascist leader “large and in charge.” But it ends with the City of God being built and the emperor’s power being incrementally conquered by the Gospel, a counterinsurgency of love and faith. In this chiasm, the essential message of the entire Bible is writ large. Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot contain or comprehend it.
*Oral literature—which ruled the roost until the invention of the printing press—particularly relied on chiasms, both as art but also as a mnemonic device (aid for memorization). For example, two of the most memorized and performed works of ancient literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, have a chiastic structure “of the most amazing virtuosity” that permitted the oral poet to better recall the basic formula of the composition during performances. (Cedric M. Whitman. Homer and the Heroic Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958) Much of the Bible is like this.
** This is according to the many scholars who see John’s last book as describing what Jesus promised the generation then living would see: a great tribulation that ended with the destruction of the temple and the Old Testament world. (For the reader who may consider this approach absurd (likely because they have never heard it before and have further been marinated in the “Left Behind” worldview), consider that twice in the first three verses John notes the imminence of the events he is about to describe (1:1, the things that must soon take place; vs. 3, for the time is near). And there are number of other places (21:12; 22:6; 22:10) in Revelation where there are strong suggestions its prophecies were going to unfold near the time of their composition.)
Worshipping the one true God is man’s first, last and eternal order of business, his very source of life and joy. Through worship we honor and enjoy intimacy with the Source of all that is transcendentally true, good and beautiful. It is, as William Temple observed, “the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His Beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to His purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.” (William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel, p. 68)
In Temple’s poignant observation there is a truth that is not understood by many Christians – and completely lost on the skeptic who dares to mock God as insecure (Why does he need people standing around adoring him?) or describe heaven as a big yawn (Who wants to sit around saying “Holy, Holy, Holy” over and over again forever?): that is that as we worship we are transformed. The eyes of our understanding are cleansed. We begin to see Him as He is and are progressively drawn into His glory and are transfigured by it. (1 John 3: 2)
And while there will no doubt be countless other delights we will enjoy in the New Creation (1 Cor. 2:9), this intimacy with the Presence and experiencing its energizing and transformative power will be the greatest and most sublime of all eternity’s joys.
Understanding this, it’s evident that worship on this side of the veil is vital for us individually and corporately as the Church. And so how we do it (engaging heart, mind, soul and strength versus hands in pockets with attention drifting) is crucial. And what we say and sing – as well as how we present and perform our worship – are critically important as well.
Now a sea of ink – and tragically even some blood – has been spent thinking and working through these matters by people far more qualified than me (by corey at testsforge). My little contribution has to do with just one aspect of this issue about which I have heard little – at least in these days where the vast majority of western Christians have been influenced by a baptized form of dualism and a “this is not my home, I just a-passing through” type of Christianity. (For more on this please see my essay, Heaven is Important…But It’s Not the End of the World.) That is the relationship between the lyrics we sing and the Kingdom of God, by which I mean the present reign of Christ in the earth.
In Part 2 I will explore this in more detail.
As Christians we know that the best things often come in threes, including the very best thing of all: the Persons of the Godhead. And the entire creation springing forth from that Triunity very often breaks down fractally into threes: length, width and height; past, present and future; solid, liquid and vapor; body, soul and spirit. Similarly, in examining the life and calling of the eternal Son of God as manifest in His incarnation, its trajectory breaks down into three distinct and very key stages: creche, cross and crown.
Ah, the creche! So great the mystery therein that the angels of God came to behold; longing (in the Greek “hungering with an intensity bordering on lust” (1 Peter 1:12b) is more accurate) to look into the mystery of the Gospel. And what a soothing thought it is for many. What’s more adorable or less intimidating than a baby? And so the manger, as important as it truly is, becomes the virtual box that many people, including more than a few ministers, like to try and keep Jesus in. Meek and mild, loving everybody; a Messiah who’s no more capable of “sheep and goats” judgments and expressing wrath than a nursing infant.
But why the creche in the first place? It was stage one of a three-stage rocket – a sling that inexorably shot the smooth stone of Jesus’ incarnated life into the forehead of the great serpent-beast. The manger promised Him, betrothed Him to the cross. “Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour.” (John 12:27) “…the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28) “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8) Without the cross, the creche is drained of both meaning and significance. And our redemption, regardless of whatever warm fuzzies we may experience singing “Away in a manger,” is but vapor. Furthermore, without a desire to pick up our own cross, to die to ourselves and follow Christ, that vapor may be condensed into something watery through the machinations of formal religion. But it will never produce the solid ground on which we will need to stand on that Great Day.
But true Christianity doesn’t stop at the cross, or even the empty tomb. (Sadly, many if not most true Christians in the West today have been blinded to this third stage.) Perhaps the greatest mystery of all is how the first fruits of the New Creation, the glorified, transfigured second Adam – the Son of Man – crossed the membrane of this world and stepped into the one to come. He marched through ancient gates and sat down – as a Man – on the throne of both heaven and earth. (Emphasis mine) He received back the glory He had set aside (Phil. 2:7) – and more besides. He was crowned and given a scepter (we should ever remember that a king’s scepter is just an ornate war club), which He in turn extends over His bride the Church with the command to rule over His enemies. (Psalm 110:2). And so by faith we are more than conquerors. (Rom 8:37) And as conquerors it is inevitable that we shall one day join our Beloved, the prince of Peace, in crushing Satan under our feet. (Rom. 16:20)
In this present age, by the way, and not just in the one to come. (Eph. 1:19-22; 2 Thess. 2: 8)
A recent Huffington Post article on trends in snake-handling among some pentecostals got me in a reflective mood. So I have a confession to make that will likely surprise some of my friends and the fans of The Apologetics Group and Real to Real Ministries.
I’m a long-time, habitual snake handler. And not in the herpetologist or “having a pet snake” sense of the term. I’m talking about a real, old-fashioned, Biblical — as in Mark 16:18a — type of snake handler. And since 9/11/2001 (a memorable move-in day), I’m also a resident of Middle Tennessee.
Can I get a witness?
Furthermore, it’s my sincere hope that every Christian who reads these words will join me in this blessed calling.
You see, I really believe that Jesus, God the Son, was the promised seed of Eve, the Messiah who crushed the serpent’s head at Calvary. (Gen. 3:15) I truly believe that He bound the “strong man” Satan (Mark 3:25-27) and divided his house by the power of His death, resurrection, ascension and enthronement; that all authority in both heaven AND THE EARTH has been granted to Him by the Father. (Matt. 28:18) As a result, even the least of these (that would be me, and perhaps even you) — by and through the Gospel of the Kingdom and the power of the Holy Spirit — has been made a vessel of heaven’s treasures and an ambassador of that Kingdom, vested with more spiritual authority than even the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. (Matt. 11:11; 2 Cor. 4:7; 2 Cor. 5:20; Rom. 8:11…etc.)
And to what end? So that we can sit on the sidelines, waiting to get yanked out of the arena while we look in wonder as the great dragon serpent deceives the world? May it never be! Rather so that we can go into all the world and disciple nations (Matt. 28:19,20), plundering the very house that once belonged to the now-bound serpent. (The only limited dominion Satan has now is in the spiritual atmosphere and over the hearts of the “children of disobedience.” (Eph. 2:1-2))
And how, in the memorable words of C.S. Lewis, are we to follow the “rightful king” and engage in His “great campaign of sabotage”? By, among other things, handling serpents. Even as Jesus came for the specific purpose of destroying the works of the great serpent (1 John 3: 8), finally crushing its head through the cross, so we are called to wage spiritual war against the lesser powers and principalities that are its offspring. (Eph. 6:12; 2 Cor. 10:4) Wherever these “snakes” manifest, its our job to wrestle them to defeat, secure in the knowledge that their doom is sure:
The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (Romans 16:20)
For a good portion of the past three years, for example, I have been studying and wrestling with — through prayer and truth-telling — the serpents of chaos, confusion, lust, brokenness and narcissism (among others). These are the spiritual powers and principles operating in the shadows, driving the third and final stage of the sexual revolution that, I believe, could ultimately — albeit temporarily — bring our civilization to its knees. (Our prayer should be that once we’re on our knees we will repent and come back to God.)
But if it does, it will not be because the serpent and its offspring are so strong. Rather, it will be due to the church’s compromise and disengagement with our prime directive, the Great Commission (discipling nations, teaching them to obey Christ and the Word of God). It will be because we have refused the call to wrestle with the serpents of spiritual wickedness. And it will be because we have lost the faith to believe that the “greater One lives in us” (1 John 4:4) so that when we pick these snakes up with our hands or are exposed to their poison they will be no means hurt us. (Mark 16:18b)
Once again: Can I get a witness?!
PS: As I posted this I began to wonder: could our adversaries in the culture wars end up hijacking this article and trying to marginalize me by suggesting I’m a literal snake handler? We’ll see…