Red Letter — Cutting to the heart of the Sermon on the Mount

This is an edited transcript of a sermon on Matthew’s Gospel from City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. You can listen to the sermon here, or watch here. The running time for those options is 35 minutes.

If you were given the ability to cut out anything in the modern world to fix it, where would you be pointing your blade?

What political issue or system would you tackle to bring about righteousness?

Maybe, this week, you are feeling like it is religious freedom? Maybe it is modern economics?

What would you cut down that gets in the way of heaven on earth? Jesus has been talking about the kingdom of heaven at every turn (see Matthew 3:2), and he keeps going in this passage today. Jesus is still speaking on the mountain (Matthew 5:1-2), as the new Moses.

Moses would meet God on the mountain (Exodus 19:3, 24:18, 34:4). Mountains are a meeting place between heaven and earth. Mountains are places where God’s people would meet with God (like Jerusalem would become with the Temple) and then take God’s kingdom down to earth. When Moses did this, over time, he was transformed by being in God’s presence, till he began shining with God’s glory (Exodus 34:29).

And now Jesus describes a restored Jerusalem — a whole city of shining Moseses — people who are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-15), whose light shines, visibly — so people see our good deeds, they get a glimpse of heaven and of God and instead of glorifying us for our goodness — they see God in us and with us — and glorify Him (Matthew 5:16). He’s come to create a kingdom of Moseses.

One way to think about “glorifying” is the idea of “shining the light on” — our good deeds do this because we are carrying the light of heaven — radiating God’s character, imaging Him. This is a little picture of the kingdom of heaven; this shining people. Jesus keeps using this phrase the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19, 20). It’s what Israel is waiting for. Jesus says he has not come to get rid of the old, not to replace Moses, or the Old Testament law — or to get rid of the prophets — but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17); fulfilling their hopes for a Kingdom.

Now, we might file these bits of the Bible — law, and prophets — separately, but Jesus groups them together and says both have a purpose or a telos — or something, or someone they are pointing to — and he is it.

What follows is one of the most intense bits of Jesus’ teaching — it looks like he takes the law and makes it harder to obey — or some people think it is to teach us how impossible the law was to keep, so we rely on grace alone — and it is true only one person has fulfilled the law perfectly… and that he offers us forgiveness for where we fall short, by grace, through faith.

Jesus says those people who want to set aside these commands will be called least in the kingdom, while those who practice them and teach them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19).

Jesus is not changing the law. He is showing how the law has been misunderstood — to show people are not pursuing righteousness, because they are not pursuing God. They are not a bunch of rules with nothing to do with being the kingdom of heaven — the city on a mountain — They are not an impossible standard to ignore. They are a way of life we are invited to practice in the freedom that comes from being God’s children; those liberated to join Him in His kingdom.

Sometimes in our rush to reduce the gospel to the good news about how we are saved by Jesus — “justification,” we miss that the gospels — like Matthew — are a story that is also about what we are saved for, “sanctification,” how we are called to become like Jesus as we imitate him. This idea that we should teach these commands — and obey them — comes up again in the Great Commission — we are not just told ‘make converts by preaching the Gospel’ — we are told to take people through a new exodus — baptism — and to make disciples who will obey these commands (Matthew 28:18-20).

Back on the mountain Jesus drops this bomb. He says the kingdom of heaven requires a righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20).

He is playing with the expectations first century Israelites have about the kingdom. The Pharisees believed God would not send a Messiah to end the exile until Israel was cleansed. There is a document from the late first century BC called the Psalms of Solomon, reflecting their thinking about Israel’s restoration and the end of Roman rule. For this to happen God had to cleanse Israel before this day of mercy and blessing when he would bring back his anointed:

“Behold, O Lord, and raise up unto them their king, the son of David. At the time in the which thou seest, O God, that he may reign over Israel, thy servant. And gird him with strength that he may shatter unrighteous rulers.”

“And that he may purge Jerusalem from nations that trample her down to destruction. Wisely, righteously he shall thrust out sinners from the inheritance.”

“And he shall not suffer unrighteousness to lodge any more in their midst, nor shall there dwell with them any man that knoweth wickedness, for he shall know them, that they are all sons of their God.”

For this to happen, Israel would have to cut out their unrighteousness. The wicked would be removed and only children of God would remain — there would be no more enemies. No Romans.

This idea of righteousness meant the Pharisees created a bunch of extra laws going beyond the Old Testament — to create a righteous Israel, so the Messiah would come. There were other groups too.

The Zealots; they hated the Romans, and some of them even started assassinating them in the streets using a special sort of knife called a Sicarii. They wanted to bring the kingdom by literally cutting out God’s enemies.

The Essenes, who cut themselves off from those they saw to be a corrupt Israel — waiting for God’s king to lead them home. The Dead Sea Scrolls found in a place called Qumran — were probably from the Essenes. They were waiting for a priest-king who would bring a shining, glorious, kingdom. Here is an excerpt from one of the scrolls (4Q541). This Messiah would speak words from the heavens, bringing a shining light that triumphed over darkness:

“His utterance is like the utterance of the heavens, and his teaching is according to the will of God. His eternal sun will shine, and his fire will burn in all the ends of the earth, and over the darkness it will shine.”

And the Sadducees were wealthy rulers who ran the priesthood in Jerusalem. They were pretty legalistic, and it seems they majored on the Torah — the Old Testament law. They were prepared to cut out sin, literally. There is an ancient source that talks about a book of decrees they had with guides for how to literally apply the “an eye for an eye, a hand for hand” law from the Torah (Exodus 21:23-25). Other groups had tried to put a money value on restoration, the Sadducees wanted to get the knives out.

All these communities came with different pictures of what a Messiah — the promised king — would be like; how he would wield the blade; and who would get cut. When Jesus says he is fulfilling the Old Testament, all these groups have different ideas (Matthew 5:17). Jesus starts unpacking where they have got it wrong. He repeats this little pattern six times in the chapter — “you have heard…” “but I tell you” (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44).

And the stakes on getting the kingdom right are high — not just about the political future of Israel, but cosmic questions of heaven or hell (Matthew 5:19, 20, 22). There is even what we might call cosmic geography built into some of the commands — do not swear by heaven — God’s throne — the earth — his footstool — or Jerusalem — the mountain city of God’s Messiah — when he talks about oaths, there are kingdom categories we do not typically have in mind when swearing an oath with our hand on a Bible (Matthew 5:34-35). And then Jesus goes into some examples to reveal the heart of the law — the way God’s people were always meant to understand it. Starting with anger (Matthew 5:44-45).

Righteousness is not just about actions, but about the heart — the inner person — Jesus is not coming to cut away at people’s actions, or different political groups — he is coming to cut hearts.

We can be like the Pharisees, thinking about righteousness in terms of controlling our actions, making rules or systems to stop ourselves sinning — and self-control is great — but the kingdom does not need new rules to shape your behaviour, new systems in place — it needs new hearts.

It feels odd to need to point it out — but harboring anger in your heart is absolutely less sinful than murdering them. He is not saying ‘if I am angry I may as well do more.’ Jesus is not equating the two — there is a whole heap of intersecting sins caught up in the murder of a person involving the theft of a life — a person who belongs to God and others — that means both the consequence and the offence is greater — that is not actually Jesus’ point.

Jesus is revealing that the law was always about the heart; not about being righteous through actions, but becoming righteous through the pursuit of God.

Think of it like a house — the “do not murder” a law — is the floor of the house. When you cross that barrier you are not part of the house. You are unrighteous. But walking around not murdering people is not the same as righteousness. It is the floor when it comes to writing a law, but God’s law was not just written to define the floor. In the law, and the story the law is embedded in, in the Torah, we are meant to meet the righteous and loving God behind the law — and to become like Him.

That is the ceiling.

Jesus is not changing the rules as much as saying that by looking at the floor, and making sure you do not fall through it, you have missed the ceiling.

And maybe anger is an area where you are happily not violating the floor — not murdering — maybe even putting up laws or strategies that stop you getting angry — but how are you going at loving people, rather than being angry at them.

It is the same with lust (Matthew 5:28) — adultery is much more costly than lusting after someone in your heart — but lust is already a failure to love. We are already missing the principle at the heart of the law about being like God and seeing other people like God does; we are already slipping into seeing people the way Satan wants us to see people.

God’s law is actually — and has always actually — been about hearts that are devoted to God, that produce lives that look like God, that reflect and bring glory to Him. That is the righteousness the law requires — that we actually be image bearers of God.

And this stuff is serious — it is worth cutting out. Jesus even says we should be prepared to take the knife to ourselves (Matthew 5:29-30).

Now — there have been people in history who have taken this idea of cutting off body parts that lead to sin quite literally with drastic consequences — and maybe they would be appropriate if our eyes or our hands actually caused us to sin…

But we know they do not. Do not we?

In fact, Jesus is going to say that all this stuff — anger — lust — the stuff we might blame our hands and our eyes for — murder, adultery — and other sins — comes from the heart (Matthew 15:19-20).

It is our hearts that need to go under the knife.

Blessed are the pure in heart.

The Pharisees wanted to change Israel — to produce righteousness —through new laws governing behaviours, but they missed the heart… The Zealots thought the problem to be cut out was other people — fix the system and righteousness would flourish… Get rid of the Romans…

And the Sadducees — they would chop bits of sinners to produce righteousness rather than their own bits… Jesus upends their expectations too… In case the crowd watching on has not got the point Jesus goes straight for the bit in the law the Sadducees loved (Matthew 5:38-39).

And maybe the idea driving the Zealots in their pursuit of justice through violence — and he says do not — and even — do not resist.

Overcome evil with good. If they slap you on the right cheek, turn the other one…

Now again, this is the teaching of principles — It is not actually a good idea in a whole bunch of situations to let people punch you or hit you — the point is to not retaliate with retribution, or even with justice, but with love and mercy. Taking the cost of making peace upon yourself — And, if someone wants to sue you for your shirt, give them your coat, and go the extra mile when someone is forcing you on a journey (Matthew 5:40-41).

You sense the Zealots going cold here.

The Messiah has not come to destroy Israel’s enemies — but to love them (Matthew 5:43-44).

He has not come to chop up sinners or stab Romans. He has not come leading a rebellion with swords and spears, but to lead people — even Gentiles — even the Romans, back to God.

The Pharisees might have thought Israel needed to be cleansed of wickedness — of enemies — in order for the children of God to be revealed (Psalms of Solomon). Jesus teaches that it is those who love their enemies — those who persecute us — who will be children of God (Matthew 5:44-45). And then, here is where Jesus reveals what the law was always about — the ceiling — Jesus says the task here is to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

Or as Leviticus puts it — be holy, because God is holy (Leviticus 20:26). It is this reflecting the nature of God that was meant to set Israel apart as God’s kingdom.

There was never a way we could hit the ceiling. The law was designed to produce godliness, by driving people towards God; depending on His grace and mercy and forgiveness. Moses became shinier the more he went back to God after Israel sinned, after he had failed, trusting in the goodness of God.

Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17) by bringing heaven and earth together — mediating between us and God, and speaking for God, the way Moses and the prophets did.

He fulfills the law by more than just keeping the law — even being perfectly holy and like God — he fulfills the law in the same way he fulfills the prophets.

He is the one the law points to — the sacrificial system, our need for God to save, the Exodus story and the idea of a kingdom of image bearing priests who would fill the earth with God’s presence.

He even fulfills the idea that the knife needed to be turned on our own hearts. Moses promised a return from exile would happen when God changed hearts — circumcised — cut them — so we might actually love God, and in loving God, find life (Deuteronomy 30:6-7). We will see Jesus pick up this language in Matthew. Then the idea of new hearts and a new covenant was picked up by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:33).

Who said God’s law was going to be written on his people’s hearts — recreating a people, a kingdom, for himself — which is what Jesus comes to do, as he brings heaven and earth together by baptizing with the Holy Spirit and bringing the kingdom of heaven. Showing us it is our hearts that need cutting first — not others. Ultimately the Pharisees and Sadducees will throw their lot in with Rome — staging an insurrection against God’s king. Coming with swords to arrest him and turn him over to the Romans.

And they do this at the exact the moment the Zealots have their own insurrection — an uprising — against Rome going on in Jerusalem — that is what Barabbas, the guy whose place Jesus takes, and the thieves crucified next to him were guilty of —

And as Israel reveals what it thinks the kingdom of heaven is going to look like,

Jesus is revealing God’s kingdom. In his death and resurrection we see the heart of God, as Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets —

You want to know how the law is fulfilled, or the prophets, look at Jesus.

You want to know what the kingdom of heaven looks like, and what righteousness looks like, and what God requires in an image bearing person who radiates his glory, look at Jesus. Crucified.

This is where we see him as the one who fulfills the Sermon on the Mount — loving his enemies, praying for those who persecute him, turning the other cheek.

He does not cut up the enemies of God, but has his own skin pierced, to love his enemies and make us God’s children — bringing those who receive him as king and savior into his kingdom.

Jesus comes to show us that the problem with the world is not out there — it is not just the Roman Empire and Satan pulling the strings. It is in us. It is our hearts. He brings forgiveness of sins — cleansing — and new hearts; fulfilling the Law (Deuteronomy 30), and the Prophets (Jeremiah 31).

Whatever bringing the kingdom looks like, it is not fixing some out there thing first, but having the knife applied to our hearts, having God’s law written on our hearts, so that we pursue the God we meet in Jesus and are transformed to become his shining children, the light of the world; a heavenly city of shining ones, whose transformed lives, and utter dependence on God to save — will glorify God (Matthew 5:14-16).

Right at the end, as Jesus sends his disciples into the world — people who follow and walk with the king — he takes them up a mountain (Matthew 28:16), and sends them — and those who came after them — into the world teaching one another to obey his commands; as shining ones (Matthew 28:19-20).

When we think about how we would fix the world, we can operate like Pharisees or Zealots or Sadducees. We can be keen to reach for the knife, to take out our enemies, or cut off bits of people who have wronged us, to do our bit to create laws that will fix things; fighting some culture war, and so forgetting about the real battle, as Jesus frames it; to live lives from hearts that have been cut by God so that we obey him.

Are you prepared to make the cuts to your own heart?

To live as shining people who practice and teach the commands of Jesus, not because they save us, but because we are saved to live this way as those whose lives reflect the glory of our God and his king.

Imagine what we would look like if we practiced these commands from the Sermon on the Mount; not perfected them, but just making them practices that drive us to the heart of God (Matthew 5:44-45).

Imagine if we worked hard at being peacemakers when we have conflict with our brothers and sisters in Christ — as a training ground for how we love our enemies.

Imagine what it would look like if the church had a reputation not only for sexual purity — which we often do not — but for being a place where we do not objectify and lust not only after those in our communities — our brothers and sisters — but those outside.

Imagine if we took Jesus’ words seriously on porn, or our thought worlds, and worked harder to cut out that habit? Not chopping your hand off when it causes you to sin, or gouging out your eyes but having God change your heart, so you see those men and women as those made in the image of God who are meant to reveal his glory, but more, so that you hunger and thirst for righteousness; for God.

Imagine if we cared about our own hearts, and bringing them into alignment with the heart of God, more than the actions of others.

Imagine if we were not known for using courts or legislation to protect our rights and police the righteousness of others, but for being generous, including to those persecuting us.

Imagine, for a moment, one of the more popular scenarios in the culture wars — a Christian baker being forced to make a cake for a gay wedding cake at the threat of legal action… Whether being asked genuinely, or as part of the culture war being fought by others.

Imagine if that baker instead of doubling down and refusing to give his shirt, made two cakes, or catered for the wedding.

Imagine if we took these words of Jesus seriously, rather than putting them in the too hard basket.

Obeying them will look different for different people in different contexts — these are little stories that are not likely to happen to you tomorrow, but the principle is what we are trying to figure out. Those are the sorts of good deeds that shining people might do as we reflect a little bit of heaven on earth.

Red Letter — Blessings on a mountain

This is an edited transcript of a sermon on Matthew’s Gospel from City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. You can listen to the sermon here, or watch it on video here. The running time for those options is 35 minutes.

We took the kids to the Brickman exhibition at the museum last week. Amazing. The wonders of the world, built in Lego — recreations of icons from human kingdoms built around the world and through history — it was crazy clever.

Here are the crown jewels made from Lego.

We do not think much about belonging to a kingdom anymore. Rumblings about a republic are getting louder, in part because this idea of royalty seems so passe. Because the royals do not seem to do anything for us. They just make trouble.

But I wonder what you would do if you were king or queen for a day — or if you actually had power and could rebuild the world. Creating wonders.

Or maybe if someone turned up promising to rebuild your life for the better.

If a king or queen — or a politician — or a CEO — or a pastor — turned up tomorrow and said they were going to rebuild the world. Or rebuild your world. And they could build a kingdom like Brickman and his team build Lego.

What would they build?

Who would it serve? Would it be like Egypt?

Where the people of the kingdom enslaved others to build their wonders… and where only the Pharaoh was the “image of God”… Or like Babylon? With its hanging gardens — built from plunder and wealth pillaged from the surrounding nations…

Who would it serve? What sort of kingdom would you build with your blood, sweat, and tears — your time, and your money?

What does fullness — or fruitfulness — or happiness look like for you, or for others made in the image of God there with you? And maybe more importantly — who is missing out? Who is pushed to the margins? Enslaved. Dominated? Not recognised as the “image” of God…

These are questions about kingdoms, really — places where our gods are revealed as images of these gods represent them in the world. We saw how the kingdom idea is there in Genesis 1 last week.

What if you imagine God building a kingdom now — what would he fix?

Who would he exclude?

And what might that reveal about your heart — how much do you think your picture aligns with the character of God?

This “kingdom” language might feel foreign for us now but it is a very real question in the first century when Jesus turns up preaching that God’s kingdom has come near (Matthew 4:17). Now, at this point in the story we readers know where this is heading — the cross, and Jesus declaring that all authority has been given to him (Matthew 28:18). But, for those who have just started following Jesus, they are wondering what it is going to look like and imagining what is coming for them in their immediate future; building little kingdoms in their minds.

They are thinking they are on their way to the top. I want you to imagine that you are the disciples. Living under Roman rule — after many generations living under foreign kingdoms — hearing Jesus announce blessing is coming with this kingdom that you get to be part of, God’s heavenly kingdom (Matthew 5:3,10).

What you would be imagining — and how different that might be to what Jesus offers?

They have got certain things they are imagining here — as first-century Jewish people — but their picture falls to pieces pretty quickly as Jesus speaks. His words are about to expose their hearts, because he is going to expose God’s heart, and show that his kingdom is turns their expectations upside down.

Matthew sets the scene for these words with some vivid Old Testament imagery — first up, geography matters — Jesus has just been in the Jordan, where Israel’s exodus into the land happened. He has been in the wilderness. He has been in the temple and on high places.

And all this scenery matters because it is part of him reliving big parts of Israel’s story. Here Matthew wants us to see Jesus as a new Moses — someone arriving to lead God’s people into God’s kingdom. When Jesus goes up a mountainside (Matthew 5:1-2). This might seem like a good decision to make for acoustics or something, but it is significant too. It is Moses-like. This phrase in Matthew is one that occurs just over 20 times in the Greek version of the Old Testament — and 11 of those times are about Moses on Sinai. It is the same phrase we get here — when Moses goes up a mountain and meets with God (Exodus 19:3), before being sent by God to his people to deliver the law — the basis of the covenant.

He hears the Ten Commandments — then God tells him to come up the mountain again and meet him and he will get the Ten Commandments written on stone as he meets with God on a high place — a little bridge between earth and heaven. He is there 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 24:18), like Jesus in the wilderness. He gets the tablets and comes down from the mountain after and finds Aaron leading the people in idol worship with the golden calf, and when he finds out Israel has broken the covenant — the promises that mark them out as God’s kingdom — he goes up the mountain again; to make atonement for sin — to try to turn God’s judgment aside as he represents their cause to God (Exodus 32:30). And he goes up the mountain again for another forty days and forty nights as the one who does not live off bread, but off God’s presence (Exodus 34:4, 28). Just like Jesus, who spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting and then quoted Moses to tell Satan that we do not live off bread alone, but God’s word.

Moses receives God’s words of the covenant — his description of how to be God’s partners in the world — his kingdom. And all this happens on a mountain — a leader of God’s kingdom goes to meet God, so that he can speak for God, and he comes down from the mountain representing God and inviting people into partnership with God in the world. Moses becomes more and more the shining image of God; a mediator between heaven and earth. He gets to see God’s goodness and hear God’s name from God himself. And Israel is waiting for a new Moses — because way back in the words of Moses, in his second reading of the law (that is what Deutero — two — nomos — law — means), Moses says when God’s people are trying to figure out how to get back to God, another intercessor will come along, to represent humanity’s case to God, and God to humanity. Another prophet will come along, speaking God’s word — and when he does, they have got to listen (Deuteronomy 18:15). Because he is going to speak for God. He is going to speak God’s word (Deuteronomy 18:18-19). He is going to be like Moses — the same Moses who went up a mountain, over and over again, and then met with God. Matthew uses this phrase, off the back of Jesus quoting scripture — quoting Moses — after forty days and forty nights of fasting. Going up mountains and down mountains and then up a mountain. Where he begins to teach.

The Moses bell is meant to be ringing in their heads.

Moses is not just the law receiver, or law giver, he is a mediator who goes to bring heaven and earth together by meeting with God, interceding with God on the people’s behalf, and then offering the terms by which heaven is going to get brought down to earth as God’s glorious, shining, image-bearing people represent him. We will see this again in the transfiguration later on — another scene on a mountain, where Moses actually shows up. And Jesus shines with God’s glory.

But here we have got the guy Matthew has called God with us, teaching people on a mountain. Teaching people about God’s kingdom. Speaking God’s word. Bringing a new covenant.

And whatever little brick picture they have built with their metaphorical Lego, he shatters it into pieces. Because here is a little glimpse into what God’s people are expecting — from the words of Moses — they were the people of blessing — in the land — their idea of being “God’s kingdom” is being “set high above all the nations on earth,” (Deuteronomy 28:1-2). It is about blessing and prosperity and power. Moses tells them they will receive blessing over and over again — and if you wanted a summary — this is a pretty good one — abundant prosperity. It will be like Eden and like being fruitful and multiplying (Deuteronomy 28:11). And the nations around them will fear them (Deuteronomy 28:10).

Maybe this is what we imagine when we think of being blessed as God’s people too? If they do not obey, they will get curse (Deuteronomy 28:15). It will all turn upside down, instead of prosperity and fruitfulness there will be poverty and famine (Deuteronomy 28:18). Hunger, thirst, nakedness, poverty (Deuteronomy 28:47-48). They will be cursed and turfed. Sent out of the land — captured and dominated by nations like Egypt — like Babylon. And this is what happens — as we saw last week — exile. A powerful nation coming against them, and Israel is hoping for a reversal.

Israel is hoping for a king who will come and upend the status quo — turfing out the enemies who oppress them and restoring their fortunes. It turns out Israel wants an Eden without God — they do not want to listen to, or worship him. They want something that looks a whole lot like Babylon. A worldly picture of prosperity. And maybe that is us. They want a king like Pharaoh, rather than God ruling as king.

And they get it. That is what exile is… And when Jesus says the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 4:17). And he starts teaching about who it belongs to — they are thinking “yes please”…

They have all these projects they are imagining. Only the picture of the kingdom he paints in his words — it does not sound like the blessing they have been hoping for…

It sounds more like curse…

And it turns out that the people pursuing blessing like Deuteronomy describes it, on their own terms — without God in the picture — they end up looking a whole lot like Egypt and Babylon.

We have already met Pharaoh… I mean Herod… But the message Jesus wants his disciples to take out into the world, bringing fruitful relationship with the world as he mediates between heaven and earth — like Moses did — and represents God, and is with us always; the message he wants his disciples to teach as they invite people into a new exodus — through baptism — is the message he teaches them. The message he begins to teach them — his disciples (Matthew 5:2) — here on a mountain as the new Moses, revealing God to his people. Only, this is not just a human mediator, this is God with us. And Jesus’ teaching begins with this series of blessings (Matthew 5:3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11).

Now — I have referred to the Greek version of the Old Testament a couple of times — because it is the Old Testament it seems most people at the time of Jesus were familiar with, and the New Testament authors often quote from it, as they are writing in Greek, this word blessed that he uses a bunch of times in a row, it basically means “happy” — and it is not the word for blessing from Genesis 1, or even the one that is commonly used in Deuteronomy — where this one is used just once, towards the end of Deuteronomy, in Moses’ last recorded words. Words about being a people saved by the Lord, and a promise that God will deliver them (Deuteronomy 33:29). It is the word that launches the Psalms — and is used over and over again in the Psalms to speak of the people who listen to and delight in the word of God (Psalm 1:1-2). An idea picked up in Psalm 119 — that famous psalm about the place of God’s word — his law — in the heart of his people (Psalm 119:1-2). In those who celebrate God’s rule as king, who kiss his son — who take refuge in him (Psalm 2:11-12).

And remember it is this that Israel absolutely fails to do — they want all the pictures of blessing from Eden, without the presence of God, without him there as the source of blessing. Without listening to what God says he requires.

And I wonder if that is us sometimes?

Jesus goes up a mount as a new Moses, and then he speaks words loaded up with royal meaning — the Psalms are connected more to David, than Moses — which is interesting, a bit, because God’s king — the son of David — was meant to lead God’s people to blessing in God’s kingdom, by taking his word to heart — carrying a copy of God’s word everywhere… So here, God’s word who gives life, turns up looking like Moses, to speak a word about life in God’s kingdom, listening to his word…

And the disciples are thinking blessing is going to pour out as the king turns up.

But Jesus is going to flip their ideas upside down.

They think being in the kingdom of God means receiving material blessings from God — Jesus says, actually, blessing — happiness — in the kingdom of God is about receiving God.

Just like people do not live by bread alone, but by the word of God, so people are not really blessed or even wealthy, unless they get God — blessing, happiness, is grounded in God, so that you can endure anything the world throws at you. It is not going to be those who think they have it all, and can build God’s kingdom on their own back, that will bring God’s kingdom.

God’s kingdom is going to come from God, and for those who realize they bring nothing to the table; the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). It is not those who find joy in the state of the world — exile from God — and try to build happiness on their terms — who will receive comfort, but those who mourn the state of the world, the oppressive empires, and their own sin, who will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).

It is not “happy are those who are happy” either — blessing, paradoxically, comes not from seeking our own happiness, but seeking God. It is not those who seek to dominate others — who use power to secure their kingdom who inherit the task of ruling the earth with God, but those who love and serve — God and neighbor — without trampling others (Matthew 5:5). It is not those who hunger and thirst for the things of this world, but for the character of God — righteousness; and that righteousness filling them so it might fill the earth — it is those people who will be filled (Matthew 5:6). We have just seen Jesus demonstrate this hunger in his temptation.

The kingdom cannot belong to those who hunger and thirst for the things of this world — the hunger that led to exile from Eden for Adam and Eve, to sin in the wilderness for Israel, and to exile for Israel as they hungered after the gods of the nations — and it cannot belong to us when we are hungry for the things that lead us to sin, and away from God — because the very nature of God’s kingdom is receiving life from God himself — hungering for him.

And I wonder if that is how any of us can describe ourselves? It is not those who take revenge and act harshly who display the character of God’s kingdom — but the merciful (Matthew 5:7). Jesus will pick this up later when he says we will be judged by the standards we used, and forgiven when we are able to forgive others. It is those who are pure in heart — not operating from divided hearts, hearts that love other gods, or people, or the world in the place of God, who will see God (Matthew 5:8). And those who bring peace — peace with God, and with others — who will be called children of the God who seeks peace (Matthew 5:9). And here is the real sting in the tail — the second time Jesus promises the kingdom of heaven to those who will be made happy by God — and this time it is those who are persecuted because of righteousness (Matthew 5:10).

That is not the picture of happiness a Deuteronomy reading Israelite has in their head, and Jesus doubles down on this one with his summary of the upside-down kingdom he is bringing. I want you to imagine you are one of the disciples who has just started following Jesus hearing this. You think he might be the Messiah. You have heard him say the kingdom is coming.

You have been schooled in Deuteronomy and the vision of the blessing and kingdom of God being abundance and prosperity and you are hearing Jesus saying “you have missed the point” — the point of blessing and the kingdom was not the material fruit of your belonging, but the relationship with God and your love for him.

And here is Jesus promising they will be insulted, persecuted, and people will say evil about them (Matthew 5:9), but they should rejoice and be glad while they suffer, because the fruits of this pursuit are life with God in the kingdom of heaven — and faithfulness has always looked like this because just look at how Israel treated the prophets. Jesus gives a whole list of the characteristics — the posture and character and virtues of those whose lives align with God and his word — the characteristics of a person who knows that God is God. And what God is like.

It is a list that does not sound like the victorious and materially prosperous fruitful people of Deuteronomy 28 — but that is because that fruitfulness flowed out of covenant relationship with God, expressed in these characteristics — and what people get if they are blessed like this — is God.

The disciples might be thinking happy are those who are wealthy and feared by all the nations. But Jesus says happy are those who are marked by God’s glorious presence in the world.

And when that list is full of stuff we do not want — maybe it reveals something about our hearts, that we do not want God — we do not want his kingdom — just the benefits. Happiness. Prosperity. And we want it now. Because Jesus says who live with this character — the object of this way of life is God, and relationship with him — that is what drives these behaviors — a heart given to God. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They will be comforted. They will inherit the earth. They will be filled. They will be shown mercy. They will see God. They will be called children of God.

The key to blessing is a relationship with God — receiving comfort and an inheritance. Being filled by God — rather than their own hands, or Satan — compare all this to the promises of Satan in chapter 4, from last week — receiving mercy from God. Seeing God, like Moses — who only saw God’s back, but face to face — as God’s children in his kingdom of heaven.

This is what it looks like to be part of God’s kingdom — it is to receive God as our God. The alternative — the alternative way of living — pursuing happiness without God — it will produce an alternate set of qualities. Imagine an anti-Matthew. Anti-beatitudes. Flip the qualities and you see both why Jesus’ words are so revolutionary and so compelling.

Imagine a world built on these values.

Blessed are the proud. Those who cause mourning. The powerful. Those who are self-righteous and hunger for glory. The harsh. The self-seeking in heart. The warriors. Victorious because of unrighteousness. Theirs is the kingdom of Satan.

You actually do not have to look hard — because it is the world around us — and it is the world our heart often wants to build for ourselves without God — if we are honest and we are sitting there with the Lego blocks of our lives imagining the world we would like, and the way other people would view us and treat us. And our success.

But these are the behaviors that lead to curse. To exile. To death. Flip those promises that God will give us himself — and all the benefits and blessing that flows from that — and you get a picture of the sort of life Jesus comes to save people from as he brings God’s kingdom.

Cursed. Theirs is the kingdom of Satan. They will be rejected. They will be cast out. They will be emptied. They will receive justice. They will be cast from God’s face. They will be called children of Satan. Theirs is the kingdom of Satan. But here is the thing — the dilemma for the Old Testament people of God is that it is their hearts, not the politics of the world around them — that lead them away from God. The empires outside Israel are just empires built from the human heart — attempts to build Eden without God — and Israel does not love or listen to God — so they do not live according to his word.

The dilemma for a world living in exile from Eden — and for Israel living in exile from the land is that heaven and earth are at odds with each other. And our hearts just keep wanting the things of earth instead of the things of heaven. Which is what led humanity, and Israel, into exile.

We keep trying to build heaven-away-from-heaven. Heaven-without-God.

And so we need a new intercessor — someone to go up the mountain and meet with God, to reveal what God says and to lead us — but we also need God to come down onto the mountain to meet with us to speak, and to invite us into life with him — and in Jesus we get both — the son of God, and the son of Man — the king of heaven and earth.

And so in this moment, as he goes up the mountain, and speaks these words from God, and as God — as this mediator between heaven and earth — he is giving us a picture of what it looks like when heaven breaks into earth, and we get swept up into the kingdom of heaven. It looks like God’s character shaping people who want God. Not what God gives, but God. And then these words become the pattern he displays as he lives an obedient human life, life in the image of God, life listening to God.

As we work through Matthew these are going to be themes that come up in his teaching — teaching we are called to obey — but they are also patterns that come up in his life. This could easily be a description of Jesus’ trial — as Matthew records it — where Jesus is beaten, mocked, crowned with thorns, found guilty of claiming to be exactly who he is — by both the Roman Empire and Israel’s leaders — persecuted just like the prophets. Jesus turns up and lives the life of the kingdom, as the new Moses, and the new David — the king who will lead God’s people home to God.

But the people are not interested in this sort of upside-down kingdom. They want the kingdom of the earth, the kingdom of Satan. They want Eden without God’s presence. Babylon’s gardens or their own little kingdoms. And just like Herod tried to kill Jesus as an infant — a new Pharaoh — the Israel who will not get with the program of the kingdom conspires to kill Jesus. This is what happens any time we have a picture we want to build of the world — the life — we want to build for ourselves that does not treat God as God, that is not us joining in his kingdom.

We look for a leader who will give us what we want — like Satan — or we will become that leader. Jesus is the righteous one who brings God’s righteousness and is persecuted for it because he pursues the kingdom of heaven — and the bringing together of heaven and earth — above all else. Because he is the one who truly mediates — truly bridges the gap between heaven and earth — and is truly the righteous one who fulfills God’s word.

What we get a taste of as he goes up the mountain in our passage, like Moses, we see fulfilled when he bridges the gap between heaven and earth on the cross. Where he goes up to make atonement for sin through his death; a death he takes that models the meekness of the beatitudes in the face of Satan’s power, and the world’s might, so that he might model receiving the kingdom of heaven, and so he might inherit the earth.

And a death he takes on to invite us to cross over from the kingdom of Satan — the kingdom of this world — into the kingdom of heaven through him, and through the baptism of the Spirit, where we receive forgiveness of our sins, and God’s presence, and new hearts, and the ability to start listening to God and living a life of repentance — a life that sees God’s kingdom through eyes given to us by God.

And he is the one who does this so he can bring in God’s kingdom as the one who has all authority in heaven and earth — the new Moses has arrived to lead a new exodus — are we going to listen to him? And the words of Jesus from chapter 4 should be ringing in our ears as we see the character of God’s kingdom spelled out in the red letters of the beatitudes, and poured out in the red blood of Jesus on the cross.

This is what God is like. He would go to these lengths out of love for you because he is not like Satan, and his kingdom will not be like the grasping and destructive kingdoms of the world. This is what his kingdom is like. He is the God who gives life because he gives his life to people.

And when we see God this way, and his kingdom. We need to repent. We need to have our false values and dreams and kingdoms exposed. Of our Babylon projects — attempts to build Eden without the presence of God.

Attempts to secure blessing without the word of God having anything to do with how we live. Repent of the gods we make in our own image — just like Israel with the calf — gods delivering blessing on our terms, according to our designs, rather than us imaging God as we listen to him and live according to his design.

And for Christians — this means repenting of our Lego Jesus’s — the Jesus’s of our own making who come to bless our own wondrous building projects. The ones we build and shape to justify the kingdoms we want.

If we have a plastic Jesus — a Jesus of our own making, and not the Jesus we meet in the gospel, and at the cross, then we will end up with a plastic kingdom. One that has no substance and will not deliver happiness or blessing, or life with God. Smash all those pictures, and see life and God’s kingdom through God’s eyes, and join his building project.

The things you build are likely to disappoint you, likely to damage people around you, and unlikely to last — unlikely to be memorialized in a Lego exhibition in thousands of years — and even if they do, it is God’s kingdom that lasts for eternity; and life pursuing God’s kingdom — because God has pursued you — that delivers happiness for you, and it delivers blessing to those around you, and it delights God.

Smash those false images of false gods, and false kingdoms, or a false Jesus and realize that we bring nothing. When we come to Jesus in the spirit of the upside-down kingdom we are pursuing his righteousness, not our own. When we pursue our own righteousness we become self-justifying and self-righteous. When we come to Jesus and his kingdom as it is these words do not just become words fulfilled by Jesus, but give and shape our lives. Words that help us realize the pictures of happiness and fruitfulness the world gives us are empty because they are not just disconnected from God, but they take us away from God.

And follow Jesus towards the heart of God, love him with all our heart, and mind, and strength, so that his heart is revealed in our actions. And when we repent — when we turn to Jesus from false kingdoms — when we are saved from those kingdoms and their consequences.

We will not live up to the standards of the Sermon on the Mount, or the beatitudes — we will fail — and we are not saved by displaying these characteristics. We are saved because Jesus did. We are not saved by these characteristics — not in ourselves — but we are saved for these characteristics, saved in order that God might produce these characteristics in his people as heaven breaks into the world, led by the king who is God with us, as his disciples — his image-bearing people who represent God to the world because we are reconnected to the heart of God — as we receive God’s Spirit — and as we obey all that our king commands. Then we will share in this blessing, this happiness — to live in his kingdom, to be happy, as our love for God — our union with him — changes us as we become disciples and listen to his teaching and are changed. Because of Jesus, and because if we trust him and follow him as the king who brings heaven and earth together, we become one with him. In communion with him. Ours is the kingdom of heaven, and this can shape the lives we build here on earth.

Red Letter — “The Gospel of the Kingdom”

This is an edited transcript of a sermon on Matthew’s Gospel from City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. You can listen to the sermon here, or watch it on video here. The running time for those options is 35 minutes.

Well, this morning, we’re kicking off a journey through Matthew’s Gospel. It’s a series where we’re going to zero in on the message of Jesus. The bits that sometimes come up in red letters in your Bible.

This isn’t because the red letters are somehow more important than the life of Jesus—his actions—or even the narrative that provides the context. In fact, the last time we did Matthew together as a church, we covered the ‘big story’ of the Gospel…

But it’s because we do want to understand the message of Jesus—what he came to tell us, and what he came to call us to do—because that’s part of our Great Commission—part of what we’re sent into the world to do as we seek to be and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). These last recorded words of Jesus in Matthew—that tell us to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the father, son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey the commands of Jesus.

To be a disciple is not just to believe that Jesus is “God with us” and the resurrected king who brings forgiveness of sins, but to obey the commands of Jesus. To listen to him—this is what faith looks like. So if you had to sum up the message of Jesus—in Matthew, or in any of the Gospels—I wonder what you’d say? What do you think Jesus commanded most?

What is the essence of these words of God’s word in the flesh—God with us—that give life?

Maybe it’s a call to repent?

Maybe it’s a command to love?

How would you sum up the message of the Gospel? What Jesus came to tell us? Here’s a fun thing… Back when ‘wordle’ was a tool to make a word cloud from a bunch of text rather than an addictive word puzzle game, I made this wordle of the red letter parts of Matthew’s Gospel… The size of the word indicates how frequently it’s used.

You might’ve guessed “love” was at the heart of the message of Jesus?

It’s there just between one and tell. You might have guessed ‘forgiveness’ or ‘sin’ were at the heart of Jesus’s message—and they’re important—but they aren’t marked as important by their frequency in his speech. This sort of word cloud thing doesn’t weigh words based on when they’re said, just how often.

But it is probably worth us paying attention to the fact that Jesus talks about “the kingdom of heaven” and “the kingdom of God” more than anything else in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s a topic he speaks about 50 times in the Gospel.

And here in the passage we’ve just read, as Jesus begins to preach, it’s his priority — both in chronology and in Matthew’s summary of his preaching, as he calls people to repent — to turn from their prior way of life towards him — because the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 4:17).

We are dipping into Matthew’s Gospel in chapter 4 as Jesus launches his preaching about the kingdom… and it’s probably worth quickly catching up on the context for these words.

Matthew opens with a genealogy, a family tree, showing us how the story of Jesus connects to the story of Israel — God’s nation — his kingdom. Jesus is positioned as the Messiah — which means the anointed king — who is the son of David and the son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1). And Matthew gives us three key points in Israel’s story to help us understand Jesus; Abraham—who is the father of Israel, the man God promised would be the father of his nation, the nation he would use to restore blessing to the world, and the reign of David — the king whose family tree God promised would produce a king who would rule God’s kingdom forever, and the exile to Babylon — that moment when God’s nation, Israel, was taken into captivity in exile— cut off from God’s blessing and his presence— so that they’re wondering what God’s kingdom even looks like now, and where this king would come from (Matthew 1:17).

After the genealogy, Matthew describes John the Baptist turning up as a prophet; a voice from the wilderness — preaching the same message Jesus is about to preach; a message that exile is about to end because the kingdom of heaven is about to turn up (Matthew 3:1-2).

In a little picture of this happening, we had Jesus turn up to the Jordan — the river that Israel crossed as they became God’s chosen nation (a kingdom) in the exodus, so that he might be baptised by John (Matthew 3:13).

Jesus is re-enacting Israel’s story here.

The first words Jesus speaks are at his baptism. He says he wants to be baptised in order to “fulfill all righteousness,” he’s showing what the real Israel, the real people of God — his real kingdom — will look like in contrast to those who’ve come before (Matthew 3:15).

He goes down into the water and comes up, and there’s this scene when the heavens open, God’s spirit descends onto Jesus (Matthew 3:16). And a voice from heaven declares this is God’s Beloved son (Matthew 3:17). There are echoes here of what God says of Israel back in the Exodus story. As Israel is being called out of Egypt, God calls his people his son (Exodus 4:22).

We’re just going to take a quick dive into some Old Testament background here to see how exactly Jesus is fulfilling all righteousness both in his baptism, and in what comes next. Later in Exodus, Israel is called his treasured possession in all the earth—his kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:4).

The exodus is God’s creation of a people — people called through the waters of the Jordan to become his kingdom of priests; called out of Egypt; out of the nations; out of the kingdoms of this world… to be his holy nation.

In Deuteronomy, this role comes with a responsibility—to worship God only, to not worship idols, the gods of the nations or created things (Deuteronomy 4:19), because they’ve come out of the smelting furnace — the sort of process you’d use in the ancient world for metalwork or to make an idol statue — they’re an image of God, is living ‘smelted’ idol statues. They’ve come out of Egypt, and they’ll go through the waters of the Jordan and become his people, his kingdom; his image-bearing nation (Deuteronomy 4:20).

But, if they disobey, if they don’t listen to God but are tempted to worship like the nations, God’s going to scatter them among the nations. That’s the exile we see in the genealogy—it’ll be like they’re back in Egypt. They won’t be God’s special people anymore; his kingdom (Deuteronomy 4:27).

They won’t be his blessed people who bring blessing. The prophet Jeremiah picks up this language from Exodus and Deuteronomy to say that instead of being blessed, those of God’s people who disobey the commands that come with God’s covenant—those who don’t obey him and do everything he commands—those people will be cursed instead of blessed (Jeremiah 11:3-5).

And Jeremiah says Judah, the southern kingdom, like Israel, the northern kingdom before them — is going to experience this curse. They’ve been warned over and over again.

But they didn’t listen to God.

They did not pay attention.

They did not obey.

They followed their evil hearts, and so now God is bringing the curses of the covenant on them (Jeremiah 11:7-8).


Being scattered amongst the nations.

The people haven’t listened. Israel and Judah have both broken the covenant (Jeremiah 11:10-11). They failed to listen to God. They did not live as God’s kingdom of priests—his image bearers—and this is the background when Jesus arrives. This is why when John the Baptist says the kingdom is near, and then baptizes Jesus, and then the heavens open and God says “this is my son whom I love” this is why this is so important. The exile is drawing to an end.

God’s kingdom is about to be launched again with the arrival of God’s righteous king who listens to God. And we see this in the passage we read together this morning. Jesus as the son who listens to his father. Jesus as the true Israel. The one who shows us what God’s kingdom looks like. The image of God. Cause then we get another little exodus re-enactment. Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, here Jesus goes out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:2).

This isn’t the only “40” symbolism in the Old Testament. In the Noah story, the rain comes for forty days and forty nights.

It’s an interesting rabbit hole that we won’t go down to see both the Noah story and Israel’s entry into the promised land as ‘new eden’ moments—moments of re-creation where we’re getting a chance for a new humanity that might replace a broken pattern of humanity where people have stopped listening to God. A humanity broken because it listens to the temptation of the devil and so gets exiled from God’s presence, being replaced by a humanity re-created through passing through waters… A bit like baptism…

There are rich Old Testament themes we’re being called to hear in the setting of this back and forth between Jesus and the devil. They actually go all the way back to the beginning… To what humans were made for… See these ideas of kingdom and sonship actually begin back in Genesis 1—where humans are made as God’s image bearers—there’s a bunch to this idea, and one of the concepts caught up with being an image bearer is being a child—a chip off the old block—and another is this task of representing and ruling. This idea of filling the earth and subduing it—being fruitful and multiplying God’s image is the idea of kingdom (Genesis 1:28).

This has often been called the cultural mandate—this instruction to make culture and pursue fruitfulness—but it’s also a kingdom commission; A call to spreading the kingdom over the face of the earth as you spread the rule of God and the presence of God over the face of the earth…

This idea of God’s kingdom was the very heart of God’s project for humanity—being God’s people, exercising God’s rule over creation with him. That required being in a relationship with him as his image-bearing children… And it required God’s blessing. So with that background, we’re asking if Jesus is going to repeat the mistakes of the past—Israel, who were meant to bring God’s blessing but turned to idols, Noah, who fell to disobedience almost as soon as he got off the boat and was told to be fruitful and multiply, and Adam and Eve, who were created to do the same and placed in Eden but didn’t listen to God and so were able to be tempted into sin by Satan, who showed that Adam and Eve hadn’t really listened to God… When he asked “Did God really say” (Genesis 3:1).

Adam and Eve didn’t respond with God’s actual words. They failed. They sinned… And that led to curse instead of the blessing and fruitfulness and flourishing partnership with God with his provision of all those fruit trees back in Genesis 1 (Genesis 3:17). And to being banished from the land God had given them to rule and expand (Genesis 3:23), just like Israel in the promised land later. So we’re asking: will Jesus do better?

Better than Israel? Better than Noah? Better than Adam and Eve?

Will he listen to God and show what it is to worship him? And the three back and forths are meant to show us exactly that…

His words—these red-letter words—are all straight from the pages of the Bible. Straight from Deuteronomy, in fact… So when Satan—the tempter—turns up and says “don’t trust God to feed you when you’re hungry here, take matter into your own hands… Take God’s place yourself” (Matthew 4:3), Jesus says “”It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”” (Matthew 4:4).

He’s modeling living on the word that comes from God because these words come straight from Deuteronomy 8:3—referring back to God providing bread in the wilderness—for his people, and that was meant to teach them—to rely on God’s word for life. And then the devil takes him to the roof of the temple—the pinnacle of this building that was on the top of a mountain—a building that represents heaven meeting earth—and Jesus and the devil are on the highest point… The point closest to heaven… And he says “throw yourself down from the heavens… God will catch you…” (Matthew 4:5-6). And again, Jesus replies: “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test'” (Matthew 4:7), which comes straight out of Deuteronomy 6, another passage that tells the story of God saving Israel from Egypt that comes right after a command to “fear the Lord your God and serve him only.” And so again Satan takes him up to this high point—a place where all the kingdoms of the world could be seen—there aren’t many places on earth physically where this could be. This is again a blurring of the boundaries between heaven and earth—Satan is offering him the key to all these earthly kingdoms—which of course, are going to be Jesus’ anyway, much like ‘being like God’ was what Adam and Eve were created to be.

He says “you can have these without the cross—without the costly obedience—if you bow down and worship me instead”—if you re-order the heavenly courts and the earthly kingdoms this way (Matthew 4:8-9). And Jesus says “Away from me, Satan, for it is written” (Matthew 4:10). And again he quotes Deuteronomy, from earlier in chapter 6. Over and over again… “it is written” (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10). This is the mantra of a faithful son of God—one who listens to God and so speaks the word of God as the language of his heart.

The one who listens to God and so knows God so well that he knows the father, who he loves, is not holding back his goodness. That he isn’t a miser. That the grass isn’t greener on Satan’s side. That idols don’t deliver they just deceive and pull us from God.

This is a king—a son of God—an Israelite—an image-bearing ruler—who shows us what it is like to reflect God’s nature and rule in the world in partnership with God, as he models worshipping God. Jesus even goes and picks a new town to live in to model this obedience and knowledge to the word of God. To fulfill what is written in the prophets (Matthew 4:13-14). And then he starts preaching the message of the Gospel. Repent. God’s kingdom has arrived (Matthew 4:17).

Because God’s king has arrived.

To lead us out of exile from God, away from the clutches of Satan, and the idolatrous empires that destroy us… and into a new exodus, into a new promised land—the kingdom of heaven. So what do we do with these words of Jesus—both the example we see in his red-letter words in his interaction with Satan—and his command to us as he begins preaching…

These words that give life — repent.

Repent. For the kingdom of heaven is near.

Now we often think of repentance as turning around— turning away from the wrong way we were living —and it certainly involves that — but here we’re invited not just to turn away from the lies of the tempter that we might listen to and live — words that bring death. We’re not just invited to turn away, but to turn to the kingdom. To turn to and receive a king who will lead us out of exile, and into a new exodus — a new way to life. Life as God’s people — his kingdom — again. Jesus is inviting us to recreation; to head towards Eden again, and life with God. Repentance is going to mean being able to say no to the tempter— something Israel couldn’t do, even with God’s word in their scriptures. Something that Adam and Eve couldn’t do — even with God’s words ringing in their ears.

Repentance is going to mean being able to answer those who want to twist God’s word to lead us away from God; those promising to give us what we want — what our sinful hearts want — by making us believe God is for something that he is actually against, or that God is holding back something that he should be giving us. This is what temptation looks like. A twisting or rejecting or spinning of God’s word.

This is what leads to sin—to disobedience—but this isn’t just about believing the wrong thing. Believing that God says something he doesn’t, or doesn’t say something he does.

Ultimately this is about loving the wrong stuff. Temptation works by tapping into our desires—desires that are so often sinful because they come from sinful hearts that are broken by the curse; sinful hearts that want to replace the living God and the life he gives with all sorts of things — idols — that are dead and lead to death.

This is the dynamic at play any time you want to put yourself in charge of your life — or that you want the Bible to say something it doesn’t in order to justify the longings of your heart — or you just don’t even care what God says, or the Bible says, because it’s at odds with what you believe to be good and you don’t want to embrace costly obedience.

And when we don’t listen to God — just like with Israel and with Adam and Eve — it leads to curse — the curse that comes with sin is death; and exile from God’s presence.

But God has sent Jesus to lead us back into his presence as his kingdom of priests; his image-bearing people who are called to be fruitful and multiply as we make disciples.

Have you repented? Turned to Jesus as king, and this new way of life?

If you have, you are united to God’s son — you’re a child of God. How will you take up the example of Jesus — God’s king — his faithful son?

What are you doing to so soak yourself in God’s word that you know God’s word — so that you know God and his goodness and love — in order to say no to the schemes of the tempter, who wants to pull you to worship anything but God?

You aren’t going to know it unless you read it — or listen to it — or sing it — or talk about it — and you’re not going to have it come to the tip of your tongue in these moments unless you’re both marinating in it and delighting in it — not just reading out of some sense of obedience to some sort of religious rule about quiet times, but reading it because you want to know what God says because you love him and you know he loves you.

What is it that leads Israel astray? That leads Adam and Eve astray? What is it that Satan tries to use to pull Jesus away?

Their hearts. Hearts that want to love and worship anything other than God. Desires for something they think God is holding back from them because they can’t see the big picture.

What is it that pulls us away from God?

Our hearts.

We keep loving stuff God says is forbidden — in his word — we keep using our own words to self-justify and listening to people who say “did God really say”.

And this leads to disaster—and the solution in those moments is knowing what God actually says. And not just knowing — cause Satan quotes God too — but obeying in relationship — as God’s people who love him.

So repent. Turn to God and listen to his word. Hear this command of Jesus to repent. Turn to God and worship him. Stop worshipping other gods, stop being led to death by your evil heart and by Satan, and be led to life by the words that give life —the words of Jesus. Because not only has the kingdom of God come near in Jesus — it has now come.

The one who speaks the word of God because he is the son of God — because he is God with us — the one who speaks the words that give life — the one who is the word who gives life, gives his life as the ultimate demonstration of obedience to God, to “fulfill all righteousness.” The one who says “not my will but yours be done” trusting that his father will raise him from the dead. And in doing this — as he is crowned and raised up before a world that gives in to the temptation of the evil one — God’s kingdom does come. God’s king is enthroned — first on the cross, and then as he ascends in glory.

Exile from God is over for children of Abraham and children of Adam who put their trust in Jesus and are united to him as part of God’s kingdom in this exodus. This is what Jesus means when he says in the Great Commission that all authority has been given to him.

We’re invited to join God’s kingdom — to become and make his disciples — if we put our faith in Jesus —God’s son — as our king; if we’re united to him so that we share in his death and resurrection — so that we receive his spirit, so that God with us is with us as we pass through the waters of baptism — our own Jordan — our own exodus — our return from exile — beginning a new life in his kingdom, listening to and obeying his word as people of the new covenant brought through his blood. We are no longer exiled from God, but God is with us always, leading us to life with him in the promised kingdom of heaven.

Revelation: Choose your city, choose your king

This is an amended version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2021. If you’d prefer to listen to this (Spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 37 minutes. This is the final sermon in the Revelation Series.

Revelation is like a good movie.

Throughout this series, as we have been looking at John’s apocalypse, his unveiling, I have been thinking about “The Wizard of Oz” and how when the curtains get pulled back, he is a bit of a disappointing little man with a machine.

And of course, our series title has a connection to the classic “Beauty and the Beast” – where the Beast was a guy who was cursed to become beastly until he could learn to love, and he loves the beauty, Belle, and is restored.

Today, I could not help but think of Disney’s “Tangled” – it is telling of the Rapunzel story; you might know it. Beautiful princess. Locked in a tower where her golden locks – her magic hair – becomes a ladder for prince charming. In Disney’s version, her golden hair is magical, and the wicked witch uses it to stay young and beautiful; she treasures this youthful vitality and guards this treasure by locking Rapunzel up in her tower. Until it all goes wrong for her and we discover what she really looks like. Underneath the magically beautiful exterior, she is a wicked witch. She is quite beastly.

You do not want to be on her team, or embrace her way of life. Rapunzel is the hero; the beauty.

Revelation is a bit like a movie – pointing its lens at all sorts of characters and inviting us to see life differently.

Its big focus is inviting us to decide what to worship – to see that our pattern of worshipping demons – spiritual beings – and the idols they use to corrupt us – and the political and economic systems these idols create, and the behaviors that this idolatry produces – violence, sexual immorality, theft, and magic arts – demonic spirituality (Revelation 9:20-21). Just remember this list because it will come up later. Revelation wants us to see these patterns are beastly, and to worship God as we see him revealed in the book instead (Revelation 14:7).

We have to choose between two kingdoms. Two heavenly cities.

God’s city, or Babylon. One rises and the other falls (Revelation 14:8).

From chapter 14 onwards, we start to see the downfall of the beastly city of Babylon – which is not the actual city of Babylon, it is picking up Old Testament imagery for the most beastly regime opposed to God’s people. The city of exile. The destroyers of the temple. The beast-worshipping enemies of God.

And it is inviting us to see other cities that share Babylon’s violent, greedy, idolatrous patterns as Babylons too. Babylon is the city of beast worshipping – and those who choose citizenship there face judgment; the “wine of God’s fury” (Revelation 14:9-10).

By the end of the book, it is clear Babylon the Great is not that great (Revelation 16:19). God’s judgment gets poured out. And the story invites us to choose our city; to choose our citizenship.

And we will see how Revelation unveils these cities – but it uses a pretty awkward metaphor to do it. It is an M-rated metaphor that draws, again, on the Old Testament…

Cities are not just presented as places to live – but as women who choose to use their bodies in particular ways as they choose who to become one with – the beauty of the lamb, or the beastliness of Satan and his beasts. So in chapter 17, we do not just meet Babylon, a city, but a great prostitute – who the kings of the earth commit adultery with (Revelation 17:1-2). An intoxicating temptress – just like lady folly in Proverbs; who leads the world astray with her intoxicating nature. The woman sits on the blasphemous beast – she is dressed as a royal queen. Purple. Red. Gold. Precious stones – she is a parody of the bride of Jesus we read about in chapter 21; the heavenly city (Revelation 17:3-4).

She holds a cup filled with abominable things; the filth of her adulteries.

The beast she is sitting on has seven heads. We will come back to that. Like the book said would happen, the beast’s name is written on her forehead. She is marked by Babylon (Revelation 17:5).

She is a beast worshipper, she has given herself to Babylon and has become one with Babylon – we are told she is drunk with the blood of God’s people; the ones who bore testimony to Jesus (Revelation 17:6).

So, if we are thinking cities, we have already met a city like this last week (Revelation 11:8).

This woman is sitting on a seven-headed beast, and those seven heads are seven hills (Revelation 17:9). Now, we have seen a bit of Rome in the background of John’s vision for first-century Christians – and Rome is a city famously built on seven hills. This woman has become one with Rome. Rome is Babylon the Great and it has marked her as his. And this woman who looks like a queen on the outside, is corrupt and beastly.

And the problem for this woman is that when the final conflict comes, Rome does not love her – the Beast does not love her – she is just going to get destroyed. Revelation describes this cosmic battle between Satan, the Beast, and his minions – and the lamb (Revelation 17:14). Things are going to be alright for the people of the lamb, because the lamb is Lord of Lords and King of Kings, and he just wins.

But they are going to be horrid for the woman. She is surrounded by all the peoples, the multitudes – the kingdom of the false king – but the beast – that Roman power – is going to turn on her and destroy her (Revelation 17:15-16). That is what beasts do. You play with beasts and you get exposed and devoured and burned up.

That is what beasts do. And now we get another decoding moment; the woman is the great city (Revelation 17:18).

Now, there are three viable options here – I think – for what the great city is – Babylon is obviously a thing of the past when the letter is written, and these three are not exclusive – it could be all of them.

The first option is that the woman is the city of Rome, and the beast is the empire – but we have just been told the empire – the beast – hates and destroys the city.

The second option is that the woman is Jerusalem, and there’s some cosmic geography at play here where John is seeing the rule over the kings of the earth as a mirror of the lamb’s rule; idolatrous Jerusalem actually set the course for everyone else by rejecting Jesus. It became Babylon.

The third option is that it’s a lens that fits any city that opposes God in this way so that those caught up in its economic, political, and religious systems—like the kings of the earth—will be judged.

The unviable option, I think, is that it’s either a literal Babylon or a specific and particular future city way beyond the horizon of the original audience. I lean towards it being symbolic, and to John seeing all these so-called great cities coming together as Babylon—but also that this symbolism has to include Jerusalem because it is the city where Jesus was crucified. And that John is drawing on some pretty significant Old Testament imagery to condemn Jerusalem for being in bed with beastly Rome, and warning Jerusalem that Rome will turn on it and destroy it, because you can’t tame a beast.

This idea that Jerusalem—and as a result—God’s people—become unfaithful and beastly Babylon—a prostitute—is found everywhere in the prophets.

Isaiah 1—the faithful city—Jerusalem—has become a prostitute (Isaiah 1:21).

Jeremiah 3—you—Israel—have lived as a prostitute with many lovers (Jeremiah 3:1). In fact, it’s both Israel and Judah—the two kingdoms within Israel—commit adultery with idols—idolatry is spiritual adultery (Jeremiah 3:9-10). In Ezekiel, the accusation against God’s chosen people is that they prostituted themselves to the beastly empires around them. Egypt, Assyria, and then Babylon—the land of merchants (Ezekiel 16:26, 28, 29). That’s interesting language that’ll get picked up in Revelation.

You might have wondered why I keep zeroing in on capitalism and the economy and greed here, when I’m talking about beastly systems not other things like sex—which is where we might feel like beastly regimes oppose God’s kingdom, it’s because economic realities—worldly wealth—seem to be at the heart of beastly power, while how we use our bodies and pursue pleasure is part of the package. Sexual immorality is part of the picture Revelation talks about. It’s wrapped up in an idolatrous grasping over the pleasures of this world. It’s the metaphor here of adultery, rather than faithfulness, but the lure seems to be about luxury and wealth and power rather than sexual pleasure.

And what could be a bigger example of Israel being unfaithful—jumping in bed with worldly power—than that scene we saw last week from the trial of Jesus; “we have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15-16). That’s from Israel’s religious and political leaders.


It’s all coming down. In this choice, Israel’s leaders chose the wrong city. The wrong empire. The wrong king. The wrong gods. In John’s vision, Babylon is over—it’s a dwelling place of demons and unclean things that must be destroyed (Revelation 18:2).

And it has pulled all the nations with it (Revelation 18:3).

And with the Old Testament background in the mix—this is exactly what the nations did with Israel.

Jerusalem was meant to be the center of God’s rule—the city that drew the nations in to discover God’s love, and wisdom, and peace, and blessing…

But instead, it’s a city where people conspired to kill God’s Messiah, as its leaders jumped into bed with the rulers of Rome.

“We have no king but Caesar…”

And again it’s wealth and luxury that is part of the pull for the “merchants of the earth.” And it’s all coming down.

These cities opposed to God will fall. They’ll be judged. And God calls his people to come out—to disconnect from Babylon—to avoid being swept up in her sins (Revelation 18:4); to not give our hearts and our bodies, to come out of the religious system of Jerusalem, and of Rome, and of any regime opposed to God.

And so to not receive the judgment that falls; plagues reminiscent of the plagues in Egypt—the Passover—the exodus—God’s people must come out and be created as a new nation; a kingdom of priests again. Or when it all falls down, it’ll fall on you.

What’s your Babylon? What kingdom or false god is pulling you from Jesus? It will topple. It will disappoint. It will come under judgment and will not stand. Come out. Flee.

This false city; this false woman; like Lady Folly she’s a false queen who will lead you to destruction in her pursuit of glory and luxury if you get intoxicated (Revelation 18:7).

She thinks she’s a queen, but she’s a wicked witch.

Her pride comes before a fall. Babylon is coming down. And when this destruction comes there’ll be weeping and mourning from everyone in bed with this beastly regime (Revelation 18:9). The kings and rulers, they’ll weep. They’ll come undone.

The leaders of the economy — the market — the merchants — those who get rich from idolatrous grasping of the things of this world — John gives a whole list of the things they buy and sell — gold, silver, precious stones, purple, scarlet cloth — all the stuff the prostitute dressed herself in as she jumped in bed with Rome — all the things that pulled her in. These merchants will be sad because the whole system comes crashing down (Revelation 18:10-11); with all the stuff they loved and put their hope in. Even the captains of their ships will mourn (Revelation 18:17). We met the beasts of earth and sea — here’s the people who get rich riding on their backs.

But the whole system crashes. The whole economic and religious and political regime comes under judgement; and it all gets revealed as hollow. Empty. A house of cards. It’s riches to ruin in an instant.

It’s exposed. It’s empty. Ruinous. Beastly.

Get out (Revelation 18:11). The city is collapsing — the important people. The wealthy. Those who create the idolatry that pulls people away from God — that leads beastly powers to kill God’s holy people… his faithful witnesses (Revelation 18:23-24). Revelation exposes this system. And it says God is coming as saviour and judge.

The great prostitute who has — by her corruption — corrupted the earth — leading the kingdoms of the world away from God, rather than towards God, has been condemned (Revelation 19:1-2). Revelation puts the lens on Babylon.

On Rome.

On Jerusalem.

On any false heaven and false city, and it says there is no life or future there….

Do not put your trust in princes or princesses. Do not put your trust in the market.

Do not be lured in by the bright lights of the cities of this world.

Do not give your hearts to that.

Do not be pulled there by your passions and desires and loves.

Life is not found there.

Babylon is coming down.

But the message of the book does not end with judgment on Babylon.

And a new kingdom is coming up, as a heavenly city comes down.

The false bride of God is going to be destroyed with her lover.

The real bride of God will come down.

The old Jerusalem is being destroyed to be replaced with a new Jerusalem.

And we have to choose.

The beauty or the beast. The prostitute or the bride. Because God’s victory involves a new bride. A new woman — not lady folly who leads to destruction, but the bright and clean glorious bride of Jesus, the lamb (Revelation 19:6-8).

The wedding of the lamb has come, and he is not marrying the prostitute riding on the back of the beast, but a new people… dressed in white, given by God, rather than the trappings of idolatry, bought from the merchants. But first we see the groom — the one who is called faithful and true (Revelation 19:11).

The one who rules with an iron scepter — this is the baby the dragon tried to devour — the one called the king of kings and lord of lords (Revelation 19:15-16).

This is Jesus — the lamb — but revealed in glory.

The serpent slayer. In Revelation’s climactic scene, the beast, the kings of the earth, all the powers and principalities opposed to God — Babylon in all its might — line up against the rider (Revelation 19:19).

And maybe we are used to the idea that spiritual warfare is evenly matched; that the forces of good and evil are held in some sort of delicate tension. Ying and yang.

Chaos and order.

Light and dark.

But they are not. The fight is a non-event. Babylon comes down. The beasts are chucked in the fire (Revelation 19:20). And it is not just the beasts, but the dragon.

Just when the battle lines are drawn and God’s people are surrounded — it is not a big battle like at the end of a movie. There is no moment when it could go either way.

Fire comes down and devours God’s enemies (Revelation 20:9-10).

The devil gets chucked into the fire with his cronies. The victory is breathtakingly fast and total.

The choice should be easy. Babylon or the new Jerusalem. Live like the harlot or the bride. Choose the beauty or the beast.

It is not a new choice; there is an Old Testament context here — this has always been the choice facing God’s people. Be God’s beloved bride, or be unfaithful. Isaiah describes God, the maker, the almighty, as the husband of Israel (Isaiah 54:5). Through Jesus, he invites the nations to be his covenant people too — his bride.

To be his covenant partners, like in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 16:8),

Clothed by God, beloved by God, dressed in fine linen by God (Ezekiel 16:10) — the vision we see again in Revelation 19 of the people of the lamb, dressed in white.

Israel is described as God’s beautiful queen, drawing the nations in on account of their beauty and faithfulness and relationship with God (Ezekiel 16:13-14).

We can choose to embrace this reality as the bride of Christ — the bride of the king — or be the beastly queen who gives herself to the nations instead of God.

The beauty, or the beast.

Choose who you unite yourself to — where you turn for metaphorical clothing, who gives you meaning and purpose and satisfies your heart, who you worship.

God, or the world.

The lamb, or the dragon.

This is the story of the Bible, but presented as a stark choice.

The prophets call Israel to return to faithfulness, to be the bride, because God is the husband (Jeremiah 3:14), but when Jesus, the bridegroom, turns up, they kill him.

Jerusalem chooses judgment and God gives his kingdom, his presence, his Spirit, his glory, to those who accept the proposal. And those from Israel who recognize Jesus as king are returned and restored, while the kingdom expands to include the nations. The prophets long for a new Jerusalem in this moment of restoration. They see Jerusalem as the great city at the heart of the world. Jerusalem is meant to be the throne of the Lord, the meeting point of heaven and earth. The city all the nations come to to know God’s name and be healed, where they will receive new hearts (Jeremiah 3:17). And the prophets picture Jerusalem rebuilt by God as a city encrusted with jewels and precious stones (Isaiah 54:11-12).

And this is what John sees at the end of his vision, at the return of Jesus, the bridegroom, as he delivers this victory and destroys the beastly regimes and the dragon, Satan. As he reverses the curse and brings not just a new Eden but a new creation (Revelation 21:1). This is Genesis 1:1 all over again, only without the chaos sea in the picture. And in the new creation, John sees a new city, a new Jerusalem, a new woman, a bride prepared for her husband (Revelation 21:2).

Not a beastly woman, but a beauty. It’s a picture of the restoration not just of the peace of Jerusalem, where God dwelled in the temple, but the peace of Eden, where God dwelled with all humanity (Revelation 21:3).

The sad things are coming untrue.

The curse of Genesis 3 replaced with the blessing of Eden.

It’s a happily ever after. The victorious king killing the dragon and uniting with his princess in love forever (Revelation 21:4). It’s restoration and recreation without the threat of the serpent or anything that might pull us from God, because Jesus is the victorious king, and God, the almighty, is reigning unopposed (Revelation 21:5).

The victorious Jesus comes to give life to his people, satisfying our thirst, fulfilling the desires of our hearts that leave us drinking from all sorts of other wells.

I can’t help but think, in this moment, of the woman by the well in John’s Gospel, the woman who meets Jesus and suddenly finds what she’s been looking for so that she is restored to life (Revelation 21:6).

That woman is us, if we also come to Jesus like a fairytale princess coming home to her beloved king. But those who choose Babylon and idolatry, they are shut out; all those demonic idolatrous practices, we saw this list before, to live that way is to choose the beast, to choose Satan, and to choose his destiny (Revelation 21:8).

Destruction. This is what happens to those who worship the beast and its image (Revelation 14:9-10). Those who choose the beast, like the prostitute of Babylon, and live in his city.

And so we meet the new bride, the restored Jerusalem, the city of God. And we’re invited in (Revelation 21:9). It’s a city that has all the beauty and riches that pulled the unfaithful woman, the idolatrous people, away from God. Fake heavenly cities echo this real deal.

It’s a city that fulfills the vision of the prophets. Isaiah with a city covered in precious stones (Isaiah 54:11-12, Revelation 21:10-11). And even Ezekiel, which sees these same jewels as echoes of Eden, the garden of God on his holy mountain (Ezekiel 28:13-14, Revelation 22:1-2).

And John is picturing Eden restored with this jeweled temple, and the river of the water of life surrounded by the tree of life, where God dwells.

The choice is stark, choose between the city of destruction that will be destroyed; all its worldly riches, and idols, and violence.

Or choose the city of life, the new Eden, and the presence of God, and living water, and beauty and glory.

Choose the false city and its false gods, and Satan behind the curtain pulling the strings, and share in its fate, his destruction. Or choose the city of the lamb, and share in his life (Revelation 20:10, 21:8, 22:1-2).

Choose to be the ugly witch in the story who destroys others for her own sake.

Or to be the princess, to join together with our king forever.

So there are two imperatives from all this.

First is to come out of Babylon (Revelation 18:4). Don’t give your heart to idols. To wealth. Power. Sexual immorality. Pleasure. Figure out how to not live as citizens of a city opposed to God, a beastly regime. Refuse to bow the knee to the beast, don’t share in its sins.

And come in. Come into God’s new city. Become the bride (Revelation 22:17).

That’s the message of Revelation. It paints the choice facing all of us in stark relief.

It exposes life as it really is, not just the desires of our hearts, and where they take us, but the nature of those who offer to satisfy these desires and the kingdoms they create.

And we have to choose, worship Satan, chase the things of this world, chase life without God, become beastly and be destroyed.

Or worship Jesus, take your thirst, the desires of your heart to be known and loved and satisfied, to him, and receive life as a free gift forever. The beauty or the beast.

Which will you choose?

Revelation: whose heaven on earth project?

This is an amended version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2021. If you’d prefer to listen to this (Spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 38 minutes.

If you were brought before someone and asked to stand for Jesus or die, would you do it?

That is the situation facing the earliest readers of this letter. Remember, it becomes official Roman policy to execute anyone who refuses to worship Caesar; to fall before him. This is how Pliny describes his procedure to the Emperor Trajan:

“I interrogated them as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed.”

Would you stand for Jesus if you were confronted by the beastly power of Rome? What about in the beastly empires from Daniel?

Over the last few weeks, we have seen this theme of beastliness at work in any empire and kingdoms opposed to God’s rule.

Do you think you could stand for God in the pressure cooker of these empires? Like beastly Neduchadnezzar, who commanded worship of his image with the threat of fire (Daniel 3:5-6).

Or beastly Darius the Mede, with the threat of lions or beasts; the famous Daniel in the lions’ den story (Daniel 6:7).

Would you worship the empire, or worship God?

I know what we like to think. We would like to think we would stand.

But what about when that command is coupled with the bright lights and the big city?

The ‘heaven on earth’ offered in the gardens of Babylon? Or the peace of Rome?

The food, the parties, the feasting of the senses, the sex, the promises on offer if you leave the safety of your family home and set out on a big adventure into the city to discover your true self?

The bright lights of our own garden city, and its (food) courts [note: this is clever because our local Westfield was, until recently, named Garden City], and its promise of fulfillment if we buy and sell and work and participate in an economy that is seeking heaven on earth.

Temples were little ‘heavens on earth’ wherever you went, and we still have temples. Garden cities offering a vision of heaven to us if we will just buy into a system of worship.

And now we can do this online too.

The theologian William Cavanaugh wrote a book called Being Consumed, it is great, and so is this article about Amazon as an idolatrous empire. He talks about the way Amazon dehumanizes people, it commodifies by disguising the human involvement in our purchases. We just see the thing, and its price, and have no idea who made the thing, delivered the thing, or even packed it in the warehouse, and we do not care.

Amazon does not even have warehouses; it has fulfillment centers. An interesting choice of words.

Garden city. Fulfillment centers. These are little attempts to build heavens.

But, workers in those centers, like other real workers behind our digital heavens, like the people who decide what images are too much for us to see, these workers are invisible. And Amazon wants its human workers to act like machines. They have even patented an electronic wristband that will monitor efficiency, setting timed goals for them to go through the motions; like machines; like animals. Inhuman.

To serve those in the kingdom, who are the haves, the buyers, the consumers. These workers are probably enmeshed in the system too, using their pay to buy more stuff from Amazon.

It is like the story of the prodigal son and the way he is drawn by the bright lights but ends up living with the pigs and eating their food.

And this is all to fund Jeff Bezos’ dream to create a heavenly future, away from the earth, where we all live in utopian communities on spaceships built and serviced by Amazon. And then there is the idea of digital paradise that is becoming more and more real, especially this week with Facebook’s launching of its little digital heaven. The metaverse.

I do not know if you saw the promos, but the idea is we can escape and be our true selves in these paradise-like virtual environments, and maybe one day we will be able to digitize our brains and live forever in a computer.

And this sort of utopia is a vision perpetuated by every technology ad that tells the story that we can build heaven either on earth or escape to a virtual heaven. One of Facebook’s Meta promos even has a predator lying down with prey, or a weird two-headed beast from Revelation; you decide.

Either way, it is apocalyptic imagery. But as we will see today, this is also because fake kingdoms like Fakebook present fake heavens as part of their appeal. When a beastly empire comes knocking, it is not just with the threat of the sword, but these false heavens, with their beautiful beastly cities and their false messiahs.

Will you stand? No matter the cost, no matter what it means missing out on?

Will you be a faithful witness?

Like these two witnesses, who stand and speak for God, prophecy, dressed in sackcloth, dressed for mourning, not glory.

The Greek word for witness here is martyr (Revelation 12:3). Two martyrs.

John calls them two olive trees (Revelation 11:4). Two lampstands standing before the Lord. Now, there is rich Old Testament background both for olive trees and lampstands, but John has already pointed his lens at some lampstands to tell us who they are.

Remember, this is a letter to seven churches (Revelation 1:4). And in the opening of the letter, there are seven lampstands (Revelation 1:12-13). John tells us they are the seven churches (Revelation 1:20). And, when Jesus addresses these seven churches, he says the ones who do not hear and respond, instead of blessing, they will receive curse. Their lampstands will be removed from God’s presence; they will be exiled (Revelation 2:5). Jesus, through John, calls five churches to repent (Revelation 2:5, 16, 22, 3:3, 19), while he tells two churches to keep holding on, keep being faithful, while beastly forces push against them (Revelation 2:10, 3:11).

Revelation is asking that same question we are asking ourselves today. Will you stand in the pressure cooker of the big city, the false heaven, the beasts surrounding you. Will you speak for God? Now John points the camera at two faithful churches living in the bright lights and big cities of the beastly kingdom of Satan, with all their false heavenly allure and power.

Where these faithful witnesses give their testimony. Prophecying about Jesus.

And when they finish, the beast roars out of the abyss and kills them (Revelation 11:7).

And you have heard about Christianity in the public square. This is what it looks like when truth is made public; not worldly power, but crucifixion (Revelation 11:8).

This is part of our testimony in the public square, martyrdom, being killed, just like Jesus, not living or politicking like the kingdoms of this world, but like Jesus. John sees this in the great city, figuratively called Sodom and Egypt, cities in the Old Testament, that were enemies of God and his kingdom, and experienced his judgment, fire from heaven, plagues, the Passover (Revelation 11:8).

Only this time, the great city is where Jesus was crucified. Here John is identifying Jerusalem, because of its rejection of the Messiah, and the judgment that brought, with the beastly cities of the world. He will go on to talk about the great city of Rome, the new Babylon, and so he is painting Jerusalem as just like these cities, as being in bed with beastly powers. Which is what we see in John’s account of the crucifixion.

It is interesting to read this through the Revelation lens.

Jesus, on trial, declares his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). It is not like the beastly kingdoms of the world, because, if it was, his people would have taken up swords to prevent his arrest by the Jewish leaders. There is an implication that they are of the beastly system here. Jesus’ kingdom comes from elsewhere.

And then the Jewish leaders are the ones who drive the crucifixion even when Rome’s political authority, Pilate, is looking for a way out (John 19:7).

They want Jesus killed because he claims to be the Son of God, and they cannot lose their hold on power or influence, their place in the big city of the world.

Still, Pilate wants to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders keep shouting, and they appeal to beastly human power (John 19:12). If you let him go, you are no friend of Caesar. “Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

When crunch time came, these leaders of God’s people did not stand and worship God.

They did not prophecy about the Messiah.

They proclaimed Caesar as king (John 19:15-16). It is clear which empire they belong to, which king they serve. What God they worship.

These leaders chose to stand with Caesar. To be friends with Caesar; friends with the world; friends with Satan.

And so, those who stand with Jesus can expect to be treated like our king.

The bodies of these witnesses become a spectacle in the midst of a celebration, a fake heavenly party. There is the giving of gifts (Revelation 11:8).

There are people from every tribe, language, and nation, coming together in a celebration of beastliness; the kingdom of the earth and its vision of heaven. Babylonian heaven. Roman heaven. Beastly heaven.

Instead of gathering around the slain lamb like in Revelation 7:9, these inhabitants of the beast’s kingdom gather round his prey, slain Christians, and celebrate in a beastly parody of heaven; a scene we will see repeat in chapter 13.

The city of God, the city of peace, Jerusalem, has become the city of Satan, and death. It needs renewal.

And indeed, John pictures that renewal coming. The journey to the new Jerusalem begins with the resurrection and recreation of God’s faithful people secured by his victory and the day of the Lord. Salvation and judgment.

The faithful witnesses do not stay dead. They are vindicated (Revelation 11:11-12).

They are re-created by the breath of life from God. They stand up again. They are glorified in the face of their enemies, and in John’s vision, there is an announcement.

The kingdom of the world has been replaced by the kingdom not of this world (Revelation 11:15).

But when does this happen?

Is this a future point about some future church, the church in the last days, or is it a picture of reality for every faithful church living in the world marked by Jesus’ victory and awaiting his return?

That is the million-dollar question, and yet, I think Revelation has already answered it in its picture of God and the slain lamb ruling from the throne, and the glorious Son of Man having entered the heavenly courts as king. It has become this.

John wants faithful churches who hang on to Jesus and anticipate life in his city, in the new Jerusalem, to know that this future is already secure, that we are already raised with Jesus and seated with him in the heavenly realm. That Jesus already reigns as king (Revelation 11:17). That judgment has already fallen on Jerusalem, that it did at the cross, and in the way the temple curtain was torn, and in the way the day of the Lord came when God’s glorious presence was poured out on people through the Holy Spirit arriving to unite us to Jesus and raise us with him, and in the way it also came for the Gentiles, because Jesus is now king of kings and Lord of Lords. Jesus is both Lord and King and Judge, and faithful witnesses secure rewards, while those who oppose God face judgment. Destruction. Not simply for persecuting God’s people but even for the beastly way of life that destroys the earth (Revelation 11:18).

Now, John turns the camera on these beastly kingdoms.

We meet these new characters, and it is a little cosmic retelling of the story of the Bible, centered on the birth of a chosen king and the defeat of Satan.

It is a Christmas story like you have never heard it before. Make sure you have got a dragon in your nativity scene this year. Because we meet this pregnant woman with 12 stars on her head, and when you see the number 12, think Israel pictured as God’s glorious people, a bride even, clothed with the sun (Revelation 12:1).

This is a picture of Israel, pregnant, ready to deliver God’s chosen king to the world.

And she is met, in her labor, by an enormous red dragon, and when we see crowns and horns, their symbols of power and authority (Revelation 12:3).

This dragon is beastly, and like Herod when Jesus was born, or Pharaoh when Moses was born, he is ready to devour this child. That is beastly, right, the moment it is born (Revelation 12:4).

He knows what is at stake if his rule is challenged.

And Israel gives birth to a promised king who will rule all the nations as the prophets promised, and before Satan can sink his teeth in, this child finds himself in God’s throne room (Revelation 12:5).

And that seals the defeat of Satan — the ascension of this king — restoring people of every tribe, tongue, and nation, back to life with God — this ends the power and dominion of Satan (Revelation 12:9).

In John’s vision, this has happened.

The dragon has been hurled down — like lightning — the kingdom of God and his king, the Messiah, has come with salvation and power because Satan has been defeated, and all people can come home (Revelation 12:10).

And how did it happen? How was this heavenly victory won?

By the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 12:11).

Just when it looked like Satan’s minions in Rome and Jerusalem were getting together to kill Jesus and win, they lose.

And how does this victory keep being hammered home?

By the word of the testimony of the faithful people of God who are prepared to bear witness even to the point of death.

And so now, it is not party time in Jerusalem, in a false city of false gods, offering a false heaven — over the death of the faithful witnesses. Now it is party time in the heavens.

And trouble for those who might fall victim to the lure of a defeated dragon and his empty promises about power and glory.

He is on borrowed time. A dead dragon walking.

And what is the call to those of us who live here on the earth and believe that the lamb has won? That he rules on the throne? While this dragon thrashes about and wages war on God’s people — trying to devour us? Hold fast to your testimony about Jesus (Revelation 12:17).

Hold on.


When the pressure comes — whether from the sword or the carrot — the lure of false worship, or false heavenly cities — hold on.

Be the two lampstands. The faithful church. Even to the point of death (Revelation 11:4).

Will you stand?

Because beastly empires are going to make it hard. They are going to come for you. They might even hurt you.

But you know what hurts more? Letting go.

John turns the lens on these beasties and invites us to see what is at stake here. He wants us to see the powers and principalities in this world that are not of the kingdom of heaven, but the kingdom of the world — the violent, grasping, dominion systems that dehumanize and devour — even as we worship beastly things that conform us into their image — he wants us to see them as they are, and to stand against them as we stand for Jesus.

So we see these beasts coming out in service of the dragon. First, a beast from the sea. It has ten horns and crowns — just like the dragon — a picture of power, and each head with its crown has a blasphemous name (Revelation 13:1). Each crowned head proclaims itself a false god; a false Messiah. Each invites us to be ruled by someone other than Jesus.

It is beastly — like the beasts in the Old Testament — and it is given its power, and throne, and authority, by the dragon (Revelation 13:2).

Satan gives these kingdoms power to oppose God — he backs their blasphemy.

And remember a few weeks back we looked at how Revelation might work like a lens that helps us look at the world, rather than a code that helps us to see direct links to people; the rubber hits the road on this here.

I think it is a lens that helps us see worldly kingdoms opposed to Jesus as they really are — tools of Satan — but that this lens worked for its first audience as well, and it works for us when we see how it unveiled the powers and principalities at work in the life of the first readers.

And so while I think there is reason to be suspicious about some readings of Revelation that see Rome everywhere through odd mathematical stuff and weird reconstructions around Nero’s death and fears he might return, there are plenty of direct links without having to get out a decoder ring.

Because what is it that reveals that something is beastly or satanic?

It is when people worship these powers or systems or kings instead of Jesus, because of their incredible might, “who can wage war against it” (Revelation 13:4)? Who can resist?

It is empires and systems that are blasphemous — that do not simply operate to bring order and goodness to the world, restraining evil, but that claim the place of God, even through good intentions — slandering His name, and His dwelling place, while trying to set up utopian visions of heaven and heavenly cities without God in the mix (Revelation 13:6).

It is the people who want Eden, only without the presence of God — where actually the presence of God is what makes Eden, Eden.

It is those kingdoms built around shared loves and shared visions of the good life that exclude the lamb — and so inevitably choose violence, like the kingdoms of the world, rather than sacrificial love, like the kingdom of the Lamb who was slain before the creation of the world (Revelation 13:8).

And the message of Revelation is that to choose the beast is to go into captivity — into exile — out of Eden — to not be God’s kingdom and priests — but to be destroyed by the sword (Revelation 13:10).

To be devoured by the devourer — but more than that, to be judged by the one who defeated and will judge the devourer.

And so the faithful witnesses are those who stand.

Those who endure.

Those prepared to be outcasts — humiliated — executed in the public square, in order to bear testimony to the lamb who was slain (Revelation 13:10).

That was the message to the faithful churches… remember…

Be faithful and hold on (Revelation 2:10, 3:11).


And then there is a second beast — and this maybe is the one that is the most famous bit of Revelation. This beast from the earth that looks a bit like a lamb, but speaks like a dragon — which I think is again a picture of how much fake kings will set themselves up to mimic the real king, while being serpent-tongued (Revelation 13:11).

So, it can be hard to spot the beastliness if you are not careful.

This second beast makes everyone worship the first beast — it orders them to set up an image to be worshipped — it gives life to the image the way God gave life to people (Revelation 13:14-15).

There are all sorts of possible fits for this beasty for its first readers — lots of commentators identify the first one as Roman political power — the crowned heads with blasphemous names as the emperors — and then this second beast as the imperial cult. Other people see the first beast as Rome’s political power — secured by the sword — and the second as Rome’s economic power.In either case, the idea is that you cannot buy or sell or participate in the heaven-like city of the kingdom without worshipping the king, and John is exposing this heavenly vision for what it is; beastly.

And inviting us to carry the name of the beast, as worshippers, or the name of the lamb, as the people of God who worship him.

Rome is definitely defining the experience of the first readers — but I think we make it too much of a code, and not enough ‘lens’ if we think it is all about Caesar and laws around who can buy and sell in the marketplace using coins with his head on them…

That is a type of beastliness, but it is the political manifestation of a bigger spiritual reality that we will get while the dragon thrashes about.

I think there is a sense that all those forms of power were so deeply embedded, that is the point — but there is also some cosmic stuff going on with these two beasts — they are a bit like the sea and land beasts — Leviathan and Behemoth we see in Job (Job 40:15, 41:1); pictures of the cosmic powers and principalities that we cannot reign in, but that only God can; pictures of the intersection between the spiritual world, idolatry, and the political systems that all creates.

In Job, these big strong beastly powers could only be controlled — defeated — by God himself; its strength was beyond us, and yet puny for God (Job 40:19).

In Jewish thought — and these beasties get quite a bit of airtime in Jewish religious writings outside the Bible — these two beasts were symbolic of the powers of evil, and God was going to destroy them in the final judgment, and this is also part of Isaiah’s vision of the day of the Lord.

God bringing his sword against Leviathan, the gliding serpent monster of the sea — the chaos beasty (Isaiah 27:1).

There is even a belief in the Jewish religious texts that these beasts will be what gets eaten at the feast of celebration that happens; God’s big banquet; his celebration of the undoing of beastliness at the wedding supper of the lamb.

So it might be better not to think of the beasts as Rome, and its emperors, but that John is trying to help us see how Rome and its empire, with all its false worship, is just another in a long line of political regimes animated by this sort of serpentine, beastly, force, and to see these forces all being brought to heel by God through his victorious king.

So what happens when we look at the world through this lens?

When beastly empires want to throw Christians to the lions? Or the fire.

Or kill anyone who will not join their worship?

Where do these forces work for us?

I think they are at work in any political, social, or economic situation — any city or agenda — that offers a false vision of heaven, with false messiahs — false kings, or saviors, with promises that we can take part in that economy if we just worship that way, if we just give ourselves.

It is in the metaverse, or the eschatological vision of Jeff Bezos and others who think we can build heavenly cities — here, and in space, using human ingenuity…

It is the bright lights of the garden city — the promises of advertisers and corporations that they are the path to your happiness if you just consume; devour; destroy the earth —

The new idolatry that invites us to experience satisfaction — build our own little heavens — at the click of a button.

Seeking fulfillment while dehumanizing the people on the other end of the mouse click — turning them into beasts, or robot-like drones who service our desires.

It is the invitation to end up being beastly, dining with the pigs — rather than glorious, dining with the lamb.

It is in the political forces at work in our world — not just in countries where owning the name of Jesus leads to death, but where being faithful leads to ridicule or persecution in the public square; the pressure to conform to the world’s view of sex, or money, or power, or progress, or growth, or politics, to chase Leviathan, and become beastly.

If we can avoid letting go of Jesus to grab these beastly regimes, then we might become faithful witnesses.

We might become martyrs; those who testify to the crucified king as those living in their false heavens pursuing a false Eden — a garden city — without the gardener king mock us, and perhaps persecute us.

If the persecution is not happening — then that is something to be thankful for, but maybe we should also ask if it is not happening because we are not being faithful? If it is not happening because we are being lukewarm?

Revelation: Pointing the lens at the throne room of heaven

This is an amended version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2021. If you’d prefer to listen to this (Spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 42 minutes.

You can tell a lot about a king — or a kingdom — by the throne and the throne room, and who is in it.

Like the throne in “Game of Thrones” — a throne made of swords — to remind anyone who sits on it their rule is secured by the sword, and will be ended by one.

“Game of Thrones” is a hyper-violent show based on a series of books that are a deep dive into the violence at the heart of modern empires.

It is a bit like the Netflix sensation [current at the time of preaching] — “Squid Game” — the hyper-violent series aiming to expose and critique the violence at the heart of capitalism, where the haves capitalise on the have nots, in the show the super-wealthy sit on thrones watching people indebted by the system give their lives in violent games, hoping to win financial freedom.

The catch is we are so enmeshed in the system these shows critique that instead of being shocked, and exposed, we find ourselves sitting in this same chair, embracing the fruits of the system and the entertainment it uses to keep us from revolution.

Empires built on immersive violence as entertainment are not all that new. In fact, this was part and parcel of the Roman empire around the time Revelation was written.

The person occupying the throne in Rome embodied the worst of the political and economic realities “Game of Thrones” and “Squid Game” unpacked, but when you were enjoying the show it was hard to escape… The throne needs to be seen from a different angle.

And that is what this Revelation does.

John’s vision now zooms in on the throne in heaven (Revelation 4:2). There is some imagery that carries over — seven lamps are blazing — seven lamps perhaps sitting on the seven lampstands —these lamps are the spirit of God blazing; shining light on the throne. Thunder and lightning are rolling out (Revelation 4:5).

There are twenty-four elders around the throne, or, literally, twenty-four Presbyterians (Revelation 4:4), and we will see more of them later. Then we zoom out on these four living creatures who are “covered with eyes, in front and in back…” one is “like a lion”, the next “an ox,” the third has “a face like a man,” and the last “was like a flying eagle” (Revelation 4:6-8). They sound weird, but we have met them before.

They were in the heavenly throne room in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:5). There are some little differences, but in both scenes they are these critters that are this mix of the human and beast; the same animals (Revelation 4:6-8, Ezekiel 1:10). In Revelation these critters have six wings, but in Ezekiel, they had four. We are told the identity of these heavenly creatures in Ezekiel.

These weird lion-man-cow-eagles are cherubs. Cherubim is the Hebrew plural for cherubs.

You might picture a cherub like this.

But according to the Bible, they are beastly creatures who look more like this:

And the thing is — this picture of these heavenly beings that serve and worship Israel’s God — these did not come from a vacuum. The prophets in the Bible are making a point here.

It is not that cherubim actually look like this; they are a visual commentary, drawing on the thought world and gods of the nations to make the point that worshipping lesser spiritual beings from God’s divine court makes no sense when it is actually God who is on the throne.

Remember, these empires around Israel worshipped images of beastly gods — serpents, dragons, weird hybrid animals like this Babylonian picture.

Their stories were violent and bloody and their kings were supported by beastly supernatural beings — gods — who triumphed, tooth and claw, over other beastly gods.

And we saw how Daniel makes the connection clear, even with Nebuchadnezzar running off to the wilderness looking like the beast gods (like the cherubim) Babylon was tempted to worship in the place of the Almighty (Revelation 4:7-8, Daniel 4:33).

These cherubim are an amalgam of these beast gods, only, they are not superior beings, but servants of Israel’s God; worshippers of Israel’s God. To worship them would be a big mistake. Isaiah does the same thing with some six-winged critters; the seraphim (Isaiah 6:2).

John’s vision brings the cherubim and seraphim together.

We might picture cherubs as little angels with wings, but seraphim — the word means both burning as a verb, and snake, as a noun, and there is a good case to think that seraphim are actually flying fire serpents. The word might have its origin in cobras who spit venom. These winged snakes were a popular religious image in Egypt — where they were a cosmic symbol of divine authority.

Pharaohs even had them on their crowns. But Ezekiel and Isaiah – then Revelation – picture these beastly heavenly creatures not as objects of worship, but as worshippers of the Almighty who sing praise to him (Revelation 4:8, Isaiah 6:2).

Why would you worship other spiritual creatures who sing “holy holy holy is the Lord God Almighty”?

John’s vision pulls together these threads to show the position God occupies in the heavens; as absolute ruler over the so-called gods of the nations.

But there is more, because the cherubim had a job. They were divine gatekeepers, keeping sinful people out of God’s presence.

When humanity gets exiled from God’s presence — in Eden — cherubim guard the way (Genesis 3:24). When Israel operates as God’s priestly kingdom, carrying God’s presence with them in the tabernacle, cherubim symbolically separate people from God’s presence in the holy of holies (Exodus 26:30-31). The curtain in the tabernacle, and then the temple — the one that tore when Jesus died — was a cherubim guarded barrier between God’s holiness and the people — part of it tearing at the death of Jesus was because that barrier is now broken, but part of it was also a picture of God declaring he will not live in that temple. Statues of cherubim framed the Ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies (1 Kings 6:27). The Ark was a physical picture of the throne of God, and the cherubim were keeping the people from God’s presence, except a priest, once a year, keeping humans away from the presence of the holy, holy, holy, God.

Here in Revelation these cherubim are not excluding people from God’s presence. They are these powerful awe-inspiring cosmic beings who draw the eye — but we are not meant to gaze at these crazy critters. Because their gaze is fixed on someone else.

We might be tempted, by all this descriptive language, to keep our eyes on the weird heavenly beings.

Especially if they represent some sort of powers or rulers of the kingdoms of the world who might impact us. Where Ezekiel’s vision ends with the camera pointed at this glorious figure “like that of a man” on the throne (Ezekiel 1:26), John opens with our gaze firmly on the throne; on this figure (Revelation 4:2), who like in Ezekiel, is surrounded by rainbows and light and glory (Ezekiel 1:27, Revelation 4:2-3).

The lens zooms out on another miracle — Presbyterians moving their bodies in worship (Revelation 4:9-10). When the cherubim and seraphim worship the one on the throne, these twenty-four elders join in. Now there is a lot of debate about who these elders represent, whether they are spiritual beings who are part of the divine council that gets mentioned in the Old Testament a bit — or glorified humans — ruling with God — but these creatures have crowns, and they lay them down in recognition of God’s rule… and say:

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” (Revelation 4:11).

I think these are probably also meant to be spiritual beings; the powers and principalities the Old Testament pictures ruling over the nations, and those who Jesus now rules over as the king of kings and Lord of Lords.

I recognise how weird and otherworldly this all is, but remember this is a letter written to real churches in the first century and this sort of vision of the cosmos was bread and butter. Especially with an emperor claiming his ancestors had ascended to the heavens to rule as gods within a council of gods.

But there is an Old Testament background here too. Isaiah the prophet anticipated a day of the Lord, when judgment would be dished out on the earth; not just on people, but any powers and principalities — those beastly nations — who had stolen Israel’s hearts through false worship. Isaiah anticipates this day when God will come in judgment, laying waste on the earth (Isaiah 24:1), and punishing the cooperating rebels on earth and in heaven – the powers in the heavens, and the kings of the earth (Isaiah 24:21).

And on that day, the heavenly bodies — that is how ancient people viewed the moon and the sun, as part of the heavenly realm; the heavens will be dismayed and ashamed for this rebellion, and the Lord will reign from his throne. Remember this was in the Temple, on the ark, in Jerusalem (that’s how God is described dwelling in the temple “reigning between the Cherubim”), and in heaven. He will reign before the elders (Isaiah 24:23). This is not definitively heavenly or earthly, and in some ways it could be both — it is just that humans will come later in the piece in John’s vision. But, again, these elders are looking at the one on the throne. And that should be our focus. Not the weird beasties or the heavenly dancing Presbyterians, and not, in this next bit, the things in the hands of the people on the throne; the scrolls and seals.

The lens is pointed at the throne.

If we look at the other weird bits and worry about the scary stuff that worry can consume us and distract us, and remove our confidence in the one ruling on the throne. John’s lens wants to keep drawing our attention to him.

These heavenly characters are not just circling God’s throne, but the slain lamb standing at the center of the throne (Revelation 5:6); the one who sends God’s spirit into the earth; God’s life giving, glorious, presence.

The Lamb takes a scroll from the one on the throne — God, and when he takes it the elders fall before him in worship. They make us look at Jesus again. These heavenly elders are God’s servants, John also sees them serving God, before the throne, holding on to the prayers of God’s people; bringing the people of God into the presence of God (Revelation 5:8). And it is not the contents of the scroll they draw our focus to — but the worthiness of the lamb who was slain who by his blood purchased people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:9).

And made them one kingdom — a kingdom of priests who will reign on the Earth, the way Jesus is now reigning in the heavens (Revelation 5:10). The King of Kings who rules over the powers and principalities has brought people from all sorts of other kingdoms into his own kingdom of priests.

The heavenly host expands — 100 million angels join in song — praising the lamb (Revelation 5:11-12). The King. The one who was slain and is now worthy to be worshipped; to be honored, glorified, and praised in song. And then we get the super wide shot — each transition the lens is expanding to include more people and creatures — from the center — the throne — outwards; from the one on the throne to every creature in heaven and earth glorifying both the one who sits on the throne and the lamb (Revelation 5:13).

Whatever you want to make of the next bit — the opening of the scroll in chapters 6 and 7 — we are meant to know that God and the slain lamb are in control. They are ruling over what comes next.

So when the scroll is opened and the four horsemen of the apocalypse trot out in Revelation 6, they are not sinister figures opposed to God, but the ones who bring his judgment — the day of the Lord — anticipated by the prophets, and even earlier, in the law. All the plagues and pestilence and destruction the horsemen bring are the punishments promised by God for people who turn their backs on him and worship false gods in Leviticus.

The first rider brings the sword; turning people against each other; leaving us playing the game of thrones, dominating people to get what we want, like we are all caught up in a squid game (Leviticus 26:17).

The second horseman — the black horse — is a picture of economic destruction; inflation, the land working against people, scarcity, and no bread (Leviticus 26:26).

Then it is the pale horse — death and hades — bringing death; even through attacks from wild beasts (Leviticus 26:22). This is where beastly worship leads. He also brings the sword, wars, and plagues (Leviticus 26:25). There is a reminder of Egypt here too, and this is a picture of judgment, exile from Eden; curse; for breaking relationship with God.

This is Jesus bringing the day of the Lord promised by the prophets. This lines up with Jesus’ proclaiming judgment on Jerusalem as he approaches the cross, and his promise that the temple will be destroyed and God’s kingdom removed and given to others; a picture he, and John, both drew from Leviticus, Isaiah and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 9:2).

When Israel experiences this exile from God’s presence, when the sword is unleashed, in that moment, in Ezekiel, the cherubim, who had been gatekeepers of God’s glorious presence in the temple, they move from the Holy of Holies to the threshold, and some guys with swords turn up. God sends this bloke with a writing kit along with the sword guys (Ezekiel 9:2-3). His job is to mark out God’s people — like at the Passover — to spare them from the judgment that is about to be dished out. Those with this mark on their foreheads will be protected (Ezekiel 9:4). This is a new Passover, only it is happening in Jerusalem — and it is imagery we see in Revelation too. Once that judgment is carried out, Ezekiel pictures God and his gatekeepers, the cherubim, taking off; departing (Ezekiel 10:18-19).

Exile was the beginning of God’s judgment on religious and political Israel for not being his priestly kingdom — a judgment finally sealed for them when its leaders kill Jesus, and the curtain tears.

John is showing how exile in Babylon – for Israel — was just a shadow of the exile that comes when you kill God’s lamb, which comes on all the nations.

I know this is a lot.

So let’s just take stock.

In the Old Testament the Cherubim and Seraphim were heavenly beings — like the elders — powers and principalities. The Bible depicts them as the sort of beastly figures worshipped by the nations — and condemns Israel, in particular, for worshipping these beastly gods rather than the God they serve — the Lord of Hosts.

These divine creatures though, they were gatekeepers of God’s presence. They kept people out. Out of Eden, out of the Holy of Holies. And when the exile happened — when judgment came on Israel — they took off with God.

Now, in the New Testament, John is using all this same imagery to say the same judgment that came on Israel in the Old Testament is — like the prophets anticipated — about to come on Jerusalem and the nations.

Jesus, the slain lamb, has won a victory over the powers and principalities, which means the nations, and the spiritual realm, are now called to worship Jesus as king. He is creating a kingdom of priests from all nations, not just Israel, by inviting people to come out of those nations — to be marked by him — rather than the beast — and so to be saved from God’s judgment. Because when Jesus — the slain lamb — comes as judge, and unleashes God’s promised consequences — that bit in Isaiah is fulfilled — all the kings, the princes, their mighty armies and the powerful economies that sustain them — everyone not marked for life, they face the terrifying prospect of realizing they have stood against God and his king (Revelation 6:15).

And it is terrible. They do not want to see God’s face, or feel his wrath.

In Revelation this judgment — this Passover — does not just fall on Israel. It is coming for all people, and those who are marked by the lamb, rather than marked by the beast, will live in God’s presence (Revelation 6:16-17).

Exile from God’s presence or Exodus to be made a kingdom of priests. Beast or Beauty. Those are the choices.

This is the lens we are given — the lens is often on the horses and horsemen, and the punishments, and trying to figure out where we are in history, rather than on the one who unleashed them, and how we should respond.

Then the lens points at people.

Suddenly the cherubim are not keeping people away from God’s glory — people are now joining their song. First the 144,000 (Revelation 7:4). Now. Lots has been said about this, lots of people have guessed what is going on — but I think it is a picture of a restored Israel — Israelites who put their trust in Jesus — not a literal number that has to be filled up, but multiples of 12 as a picture of completeness.

This is not all the people who are saved ever. It is not those of us who are gentiles — also saved and marked by the lamb, because we come next.

This is the bad stuff in the Old Testament coming untrue; the exile of Israel, the destruction of a bunch of the tribes, and the exile of the nations and us all being handed over to other powers, and humanity’s exclusion from Eden; from life with God.

Now, all humans everywhere are invited to be God’s glorious people again; to become part of this great multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the Lamb (Revelation 7:9).

Calling out:

“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:10).

We are invited to look at the throne and join the chorus of heaven; worshipping God as one (Revelation 7:11). This great multitude is the people saved by the blood of the lamb — like in the Passover — washed, cleansed, glorified — marked as his (Revelation 7:14).

We are invited to join in; to be saved by the Lamb, to no longer be separated from God by swords and judgment, but be brought into the presence of God — back into the place sealed off by the cherubim — whether at the gateway of Eden, or the curtain temple. Our exile is over (Revelation 7:15).

We now enjoy blessing — covenant blessing — rather than those Leviticus curses for false worship (Revelation 7:16), being led by the Lamb, as our shepherd, to living water and a world beyond curse — there is a nod here to the new creation pictured at the end of the book (Revelation 7:17).

John sees things Old Testament anticipates like the choice between exile from God, or restoration through God’s anointed king in a new Passover; or between death separated from God’s presence, and life in the new Eden, a restored creation — centered on the lamb.

John invites us to share his vision of the throne room, and to choose the throne we serve.

We might not have beastly gods. We might not worship spiritual powers and principalities — heavenly beings who actually rightly serve God. We might not even have categories for cherubim and seraphim.

We might not have a tyrant on the throne — like Nero — a beastly ruler who killed his own mother to hold his throne; who commanded citizens of his empire worship him and his ascended ancestors.

But we face the same temptations that people pulled to beastly worship by the imperial cult faced.

This was a significant pressure in the world Revelation was written to. My old college principal, Bruce Winter, wrote a book Divine Honours for the Caesars, about how pressure from the Roman imperial cult was profound for early Christians, and how this pressure was not just the sword. It was cultural. The beastly empire of Rome had a beastly violence at its heart.

Emperor worship was propped up by blood. He wrote:

“Imperial veneration was also combined with other public activities, including spectacles such as gladiatorial and wild beast shows, athletics, chariot races and public feasts, such was its assimilation into the life of cities in the Roman Empire.”

Beastliness was embedded into the religion, the politics, the economy, and the entertainment and culture. It formed the imagination of the people.

So what sort of thrones shape your imagination?

Probably not Game of Thrones — but almost certainly the world it tried to unveil — a world where might makes right and violence solves problems; a world where entertainment is embedded in the same system it sometimes tries to critique, so we are never sure if we are escaping it, or escaping to it.

These systems are so compelling — just like Rome’s culture of games and feasts — that even critiques of the system become part of the system; things that feed our hearts, but also make the people making the critiques stacks of money. It is a vicious — beastly — cycle.

And the solution — the solution offered by Revelation — is not more escapism into beastly throne rooms, or onto your couch where you join in glorying in violence and cultivate desires that pull you from Jesus.

It is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the Lamb at the center of the throne of heaven (Revelation 7:17); to worship him as king; to find ourselves deeply embedded in his story, having our view of the world shaped by gazing upon him. The challenge is to fill our eyes — and our vision — with this throne room. This king. This kingdom. Rather than having our hearts shaped by the beastly world around us. That does not mean not watching super violent shows, or the art or entertainment from the world, but it should prime us to see critiques and push for change; rather than reveling in the violence and misery.

We should be moved to want more of God’s kingdom to come when we are confronted with the stark reality of the kingdoms of this world.

But it does mean not just watching the world through the lenses it provides.

It means not being caught up in beastly regimes through bread and circuses.

It means finding things — the Bible, art, people who live in ways led by the Spirit — that centre your life on the throne; and finding ways to feast on those things so we keep our eyes on the Lamb.

One way I do this — and we do this as a family — is with the Bible Project. Their videos are fantastic — they love the big story of the Bible — our kids love watching Bible Project with us.

But they have also got a podcast that sometimes moves me to tears as it keeps me finding new ways to see the glory of Jesus and the wonderful intricacy of the Bible’s story. They have fantastic content on Revelation. So does the Naked Bible podcast. It gives me fresh eyes as I am engaging with God’s word, and it is full of rich stuff on Revelation going at a much slower pace than we are.

We also train our hearts as we sing like they do in the throne room — singing words joining the chorus of heaven. All the songs we sing are on a Spotify playlist so you can soak in them, sing them in the shower — do whatever it takes to focus in on the Lamb.

And of course, we are about to share in the feast of the Lamb together — the picture of a new Passover — that marks us out as Jesus’ priestly kingdom [note, we share communion together every week after the sermon].

Revelation — A letter to seven (real) churches

This is an amended version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2021. If you’d prefer to listen to this (Spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 38 minutes.

Imagine getting a letter like the book of Revelation in your mailbox — or read out at your church one Sunday. In the last post/sermon I suggested Revelation is a mix of three genres — it’s an apocalypse — which means an unveiling; it starts by pointing a lens at heaven, and then looking at the world and its events from a heavenly perspective. It’s a prophecy — John positions himself as someone bringing a word from God — Father, Son, and Spirit. It’s a letter to seven real churches in the province of Asia — but because the number seven to signifies completeness, it’s also a letter to all the churches (Revelation 1:4); to every church Jesus represents in the heavenly realm as the Son of Man — the Priest King — who walks among the (seven) lampstands (Revelation 1:12-13, 20).

The book opens with seven meta-letters within the letter (Revelation 2-3). These seven letters follow a common structure. Each mini letter opens with this reference to the angel of the church in — and then the gap is filled in with the city from Asia Minor — modern-day Turkey and surrounds; these are all significant regional centres within this province (Revelation 2:1, 8, 12, 18, 3:1, 7, 14). There are two ways you can read “angel” — it literally just means messenger — it could be addressed to the human leaders who would pass on these messages to each church, except that chapter 1 has just said that the seven stars held in the hands of Jesus are the seven angels of the seven churches, and given us this picture that they might be spiritual beings lined up in the heavens to act on behalf of the churches (Revelation 1:20), that said, for a long, long time I just read this as “messenger” — and you should feel welcome to do that if you don’t want to go down a rabbit hole where these are spiritual beings who have some sort of relationship with each church. This spiritual being is addressed on behalf of the churches, which is interesting because the contents of each letter speaks directly to the earthly life and behaviour of the humans in the churches.

There’s more to the formula. In each letter to each church, John grounds what he has to say by pointing his lens not at the church, not at its problems, but at Jesus picking up descriptors of Jesus from his vision in chapter 1.

When he speaks to Ephesus it’s to remind them that Jesus is the Priest King walking with his church (Revelation 1:13, 16, 2:1).

To Smyrna it’s that Jesus is the Living One — the First and Last — who died and rose (Revelation 1:17-18, 2:8).

To Pergamamum it’s that Jesus wields a heavenly double-edged sword (Revelation 1:16, 2:12).

To Thyatira it’s this picture of the glorious Son of God who is just like God — eyes blazing and burnished feet (Revelation 1:14-15, 2:18).

With Sardis, John does something a little different. He pictures Jesus not just holding the seven stars that are seven angels — but the seven spirits — which we saw last week is a picture of the Holy Spirit before the throne of God. Jesus is the one who spiritually unites the church to God’s Spirit (Revelation 1:4, 16, 3:1).

With Philadelphia, well, now he goes off script a bit. He pictures Jesus as the one who opens and shuts doors that no one else can with “the Key of David” (Revelation 3:7). The figure in Revelation 1 held different keys; the keys of death and Hades (Revelation 1:18).

Finally, in Laodicea, it’s Jesus the “faithful and true witness;” the ruler not just of the kings of the earth, but all God’s creation (Revelation 1:5, 3:14).

The lens becomes more expansive, but John is also showing each church an aspect of Jesus’s rule — his dominion — the way he triumphs over the beastly powers threatening to steal their hearts. He shows them things about Jesus that are particularly relevant to each church’s situation. But then the lens is turned onto the churches, and we get Jesus’ vision of the churches. He “knows” (Revelation 2:2, 2:9). He “sees.” In a creepy horror movie vibe, for Pergamum, he “knows where they live” (Revelation 2:13). This refrain is repeated (Revelation 2:19, 3:1, 8, 16); “I know…” Jesus knows and is about to unveil some key things in each church.

There’s a pattern within this set of seven churches; the first and last are in big trouble. They’ve utterly compromised and need to repent to avoid sharing the same judgment we’ll see dished out to the beast; their lamps will be removed, while the second and the sixth churches have got things pretty together. They just need to hang on. The third, fourth, and fifth churches are a mixed bag — in danger of losing their light if the compromisers in their midst aren’t brought to repentance, or if their bad influence spreads. Five out of the seven churches are unhealthy so they are called to repent.

Let’s have a look at the diagnosis of these churches; and the things that pull the church away from Jesus.

Ephesus has forsaken its first love (Revelation 2:4-5). It’s at risk of losing its lampstand. Just like the lamp of Israel’s temple was removed; they’ll be exiled, and no longer God’s priestly people.

Smyrna is holding on. They’re facing persecution from not just the Romans, but the Jews, those who because they have rejected Jesus, their king, because they teamed with Rome to crucify God’s anointed one. They’re now not the house of God, but the house — or synagogue — of Satan (Revelation 2:9-10). This isn’t about Jewish people — John, himself, is Jewish — it’s about the political and religious system of the first century that failed to hear the words of the prophets, failed to recognise the coming king; failed by turning to Rome to remove the threat Jesus posed to their earthly kingdoms and so now have had God’s kingdom pulled from their grasp.

And so the same people who made Jesus suffer are now persecuting his church, and the church in Smyrna is wearing the cost. Pergamum is experiencing the same pressure; they’re like the home city of Satan, where he has his throne (Revelation 2:13), but they’re holding on. And we know “Satan lives in their city” in this apocalyptic sense because faithful witnesses to Jesus, like Antipas, are being executed. That’s a pointer to things being not ok. But it’s not all good in the church. There are compromisers; people standing in the tradition of the Old Testament character Balaam — the guy with the donkey — who tried to convince Israelites they could be God’s people while worshiping foreign idols and joining in their religious approach to food and sex (Numbers 22-24, Revelation 2:14-15). It seems the Nicolaitans might be a group doing that too — the name “Nicholaus” means “conquerer”, and it’s possible there are some people saying you can be fully Roman and fully Christian; citizens of both kings. Worshippers of both gods. And Jesus says no.

The church in Thyatira has the same issue; there are compromisers in their midst. Here Jesus throws back to another Old Testament character — Jezebel — another false teacher who led Israel to destruction through idolatrous worship (1 Kings 16). There’s a modern-day Jezebel in their church doing the same thing; luring Christians away from Jesus through false worship, calling them to give their hearts and their bodies to someone else while seeking heavenly pleasure on earth (Revelation 2:20).

Sardis looks alive but is dead (Revelation 3:1). It’s like a whitewashed tomb. While the other two churches have some bad eggs amongst the good, Sardis has some faithful people, amongst the bad (Revelation 3:4). The rest have to learn from them what it is to be pure — to worship Jesus — to be clothed in white and worthy (Revelation 3:5). The point here’s they should become like them — repenting — so they don’t worship their way out of the kingdom of God and into the kingdom of the beast, and worse, into the judgment of Jesus.

Philadelphia is another church facing persecution from the Jews, but Jesus promises them vindication if they just keep holding on and not denying his name (Revelation 3:8-9).

But Laodicea. It’s in trouble. The citizens in this incredibly wealthy city are comfortable. Rich. They don’t feel like they need anything because they are materially sorted. But the spiritual reality — when the heavenly lens is applied; they’re wretched. Poor. Blind. And naked (Revelation 3:16-17).

They need to see things God’s way and store up heavenly treasures — to be dressed in heavenly clothing. There’s an interesting throwback to Genesis 2 and 3 here with the idea of shameful nakedness, where to be restored to God is to not be naked, but clothed in the glorious white clothes we see heavenly creatures wearing, and that we see Jesus wearing. The Laodiceans need to see the world differently; to see Jesus differently; to stop being lukewarm and get their stuff together.

The lens being turned on all these seven churches — it’s a lens being turned on God’s church — isn’t it? We know by looking. Looking not at other churches “out there,” though there are plenty that aren’t healthy. Looking not at others in this room. But by turning and applying this lens to ourselves — our own lives. We know that there are times we want to go with the flow of the world; to avoid hard things by joining the world, not holding on to the name of Jesus like we should. We know that we want to worship and give our lives to all sorts of other little gods for the sake of their little promises of pleasure and comfort. Sex… Food… Parties… Money… Power. Not just at a national level, but in the workplace, or in our relationships.

What do you think Jesus would write to us?

To the church in ______?

To our gathering — and to you — if we were unveiled. What would Jesus say to the 21st century Australian church?

Jesus knows where we live. He knows when we live. He knows the pressures we are facing. He knows what beastly regimes are pulling the strings of our hearts to tempt us to renounce his name.

He knows.

He knows what you’re watching that is forming your imagination — whether that’s the news you’re consuming that shapes your vision of people and events, or the entertainment that shapes your vision of the good life and feeds your desires, and your fantasies.

He knows what you’re browsing online — the stuff you want to buy to bring happiness. The people and their naked bodies you want to consume thinking a little sexual immorality won’t hurt. That nobody is getting hurt. That there’s nothing beastly here. That you can have a foot in both camps and give your heart to both God and your fantasies.

He knows what you’re spending your money on as you buy your own little Laodicean kingdoms. He knows how we store up wealth for ourselves and build our own little castles — our own little heavens — our own little dragon piles of treasure that we won’t share with others.

He knows who we’ll include or exclude from our communities as we use power — where we might turn into little synagogues of Satan by seeing Jesus’ victory only occurring for people like us, so we build little church communities of comfort and create cultures and behaviours and set ourselves up as judges who won’t let others in.

He knows the little values we hold that don’t come from him, but from human cultures and practices that we put up as barriers; the idea that people have to be, or look, or dress a certain way before they can be welcome here.

We might think we’re afflicted and impoverished — and we might think this reminder that we are spiritually rich — in Christ — is for us. But we’re not. Mostly. Some of us — this is true — that we’re in poverty.

But many of us are profoundly wealthy. Rich. Caught up in capitalism and consumerism and individualism as beastly empires we don’t want to walk away from. Living without needs — just with wants and a beastly empire that tries to tell us — with its impressive propaganda machine — that uses algorithms to tell us our wants are needs.

But we’re blind.

And the dangers in these warnings for the churches pulled off the rails by the world — they’re not just dangers when Nero is stomping around with an army.

They’re dangers when Bezos and Musk and our billionaire pinup boys are sending wealthy people into space, and getting us into electric cars using batteries made from resources pulled from the world’s poorest countries while exploiting their workers. They’re dangers for us.

When we love all this stuff — it pulls us away from loving God.

We’re in just as much danger of being pulled away from faithfulness to God in an individual era of sexual liberty — where we want sex with a swipe right, or simulated stimulation as we project our wildest fantasies into a search bar and have them projected back to us by our screens; or even just sex where we consume others like objects, without the deep covenant commitment to mutuality and service of one another in the context of marriage.

In (an earlier series on the wisdom literature that I may eventually post) we saw that sex outside of marriage isn’t God’s design. It’s not wise, it’s not what will produce flourishing. Sex that we pursue for ourselves, or to wilfully satisfy some other person, outside of marriage – sexual immorality — is also idolatrous disobedience that’ll pull us from God. Even if our sexual immorality isn’t in idol temples, like the first century, it still has the same impact on our hearts. The world bombards us with idolatrous messages about sex — and we want to believe them.

We want to be like the first century citizen hanging out at a pagan temple, enjoying some idol food and some sexual debauchery while also claiming to follow Jesus.

Heaven on earth.

A foot in both camps.

It’s not on.

For so many churches — and so many of us — we might have a reputation for being alive — but when we try to have it both ways — serving the beauty and the beast — we’re dead (Revelation 3:1).

Just like the beast.

And the cost of lukewarmness — what you get when you try to live in both worlds, which means you’re not actually worshiping Jesus; it’s serious.

Jesus will spit you out (Revelation 3:16-17).

You can’t serve both God and Money.
You can’t serve both Jesus and Caesar.
You can’t worship Jesus and Satan.
And Jesus knows.

He knows not just the behaviors we are pulled away by, but where they are pulling us.
He knows the empires that tempt us to bow the knee in order to secure their benefits.

One way to think of empires or kingdoms is to think of them as systems.

Where have we bought into the systems — the isms — of our day that aren’t the system built on the rule of Jesus? What are the isms that claim your allegiance?

This is what idols do. They create isms. Systems. As people join together in worship.

Capitalism. The worship of money. The idea that security and happiness come from amassing wealth; that greed is good. That perpetual growth is sustainable and desirable. We tend not to critique that. You won’t find many Christian lobby groups pushing for the end of systemic greed. We’re often too busy talking about sex.

And yet sex is a god too — especially one tied to hedonism — the worship of pleasure, and individualism, where we decide we are the gods of our own little kingdoms and others exist to serve us. Where nobody defines or owns me but me. Where I don’t belong to anybody so I don’t answer to anybody, so I’ll chase what I want, have sex how I want to have sex, live how I want to live.

This individualism, combined with capitalism, creates a sort of consumerism where we believe the things we buy, the objects we possess, will deliver heaven for us. But we turn people into possessions and use power – whatever power we can, whether it is purchasing power or social capital – to make others do what we want, regardless of the cost to them. We consume media and use technology without considering what that media is doing to us – our brains, imaginations, our hearts, let alone what it is doing to those on our screens – their bodies, their mental and spiritual health.

This behavior is beastly.

So is racism. It is not just the idea that you, as an individual, treat other people differently based on their race, but also that you fail to recognize how different groups benefit from the historic and ongoing mistreatment of various ethnic groups. It is not just Australia’s history regarding the dispossession of our First Nations people, or the stolen generation and how our government systemically traumatized whole groups of people, but also how inherited wealth compounds while inherited dispossession does the same, creating a gap that needs to be closed, possibly requiring sacrifices from us.

And it is not just our First Nations people. One thing COVID-19 has revealed is the inequality in our system. Workers on the frontlines in vulnerable places, such as aged care, or working as security guards in hotel quarantine, or delivering our comforts to us in our suburban homes, are often migrant workers. They work for low salaries, live in high-density housing, making them more susceptible to a transmissible virus than the middle class.

Sexism is also a problem. It is the idea that one sex is superior to the other, ingrained in our society where might makes right. Men can use their physical strength to dominate women, whether it’s related to patriarchy and its impact at home, on sex, on sexual violence, or in the workplace, or even in the management of churches. Strong men can impose their strength on others in a room, not with an explicit threat of violence, but just in the way that domineering personalities get rewarded so that narcissism produces success.

Nationalism, especially Christian nationalism, is problematic too. It is the idea that everyone should act like they are part of the kingdom of Jesus, even if they are not, and we sometimes pursue this by acting politically just like those around us.

All sorts of -isms have captured the church in our age. All of these are forces, systems of sin, synagogues of Satan, used by him to pull us from God, and into exile, through false worship. We need an unveiling. We need to be exposed. We need to repent. This is Jesus’ call to 5 of the 7 churches (Revelation 2:5, 16, 22, 3:3, 19).

Repent – turn from false gods; from the things that pull you away from Jesus. Turn back to the glorious one we meet in chapter 1, and faithfully hold on (Revelation 2:10, 25, 3:11). Cling to him. Worship him. This is his message to his faithful people. Citizens of his kingdom.

Stay the course. Remain faithful. Do not be lured by the bright lights, the false gods, the counterfeit gospels, or the threat of harm. Trust the one we meet in chapter 1 to deliver you, even as you step back from the beastly world and its glamorous promises. Remember chapter 1 – those who hear and take to heart what is written to the church, from God, are blessed (Revelation 1:3).

Each letter concludes with a call to listen. To hear (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22) and so to be blessed if they hear what Jesus is saying. What they hear is to worship Jesus, not false gods. What they hear is to stop thinking you can have one foot in Caesar’s world; the material world; the beastly world following the beastly pattern of grasping hold of the things that tempt you; a life of consuming or devouring. You can’t have one foot there and one foot in God’s world — the kingdom of Heaven.

You have to choose.

And the choice is not just about pointing the lens at Jesus in the past. In each letter the lens is pointed forward to the hope that Jesus brings as the living, resurrected, king who will make all things new.

Each church gets a promise for what life with God will look like if they stay the course—and each picture— each little vignette — is a scene from the end of the book and John’s vision of the New Creation; that vision of God’s blessing; the benefits of his victory overflowing to those who share in the victory of the king; those who repent and turn to him as king—worshipping him—and then hang on and so become victorious (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26, 3:5, 12, 21).

For Ephesus, it is a promise they will eat from the tree of life; a picture not just from the Garden of Eden, but the new Eden that God will bring (Revelation 2:7, 22:2).

For Smyrna—those who repent will not be hurt by the second death—which Revelation 21 says is the fate that awaits those who are lured by false worship—idolaters and those who are disobedient—destruction and death in a lake of fire (Revelation 2:11, 21:8).

For Pergammum. Well. This one comes out of nowhere a bit. In fact, just about every bit of this verse (Revelation 2:17), with its reference to “hidden manna” and “white stones” and “new names” has been unpacked and debated and packed up again and filed in the too hard basket. Obviously, the manna is a reference to the wilderness wanderings and God’s heavenly provision in times of suffering — and so there is a promise of heavenly provision — a feed — and people do see this as a nod to the wedding supper of the lamb at the end of the book. But the white stone is just weird. I have read 20 theories and am convinced by none of them, or all of them. The symbolism is lost on me, and maybe it is a dead metaphor. It could be a Roman meal ticket — you would sometimes get a stone as a ticket for a temple banquet. It could be a jury stone, where you would be found guilty or innocent in a vote given using white or black stones. It could be a jewel — it kind of means ‘bright stone’ — and a reference to a part of the priestly garment. It could be a nod to the stones Israel painted white — with lime — in Joshua when they entered the promised land.

And then the name could be their name — a new name for individuals — it could be a new name for God’s people, or it could be a new name for God, or a new function of that name. The “known only to the one who receives it” could be about the name only being known by the person who gets the extra-special new name, or it could be about the people who get the rocks will know this new bit of information from God.

I am inclined to think that some clearer bits about names from the surrounding passage help give us a picture of the significance of this promise—not only that God knows our names, and has written them in the book of life (Revelation 3:5). And that Jesus will write God’s name and the name of the city — which will come down from heaven like manna, and his own new name on us (Revelation 3:12). So I think it is a new name for Jesus connected with a new reality of life of provision in God’s new Eden

And there is another scene later in the book where Jesus is presented as a warrior king defeating Satan and his beastly minions — with a name written on him that nobody knows but himself — and then we are told his name — his name is the Word of God; the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:12-13, 16). Now. We do know this name because we are in churches that have been reading this book for two thousand years, but this was an unveiling moment. This is another put the lens on Jesus moment. This means I think there is a pulling through of an image from the end of the book here in the letter to Pergammum too, where the at-this-point-in-the-letter-unknown name of Jesus is written on the foreheads of those who will dwell with him forever (Revelation 2:17, 22:4). Whatever the symbolism that we lose in the dead metaphor, the meaning is connected to God providing for us because his name is written on us, so that we are his and he is ours. It is this name rather than the name of the beast marking the faithful churches who have not denied the name of Jesus.

For Thyatira, it is a promise that they will rule with the king of kings and lord of lords, as part of the victory of Jesus and the vindication of God’s people against all those who persecuted him—a promise that we will be given the morning star—which is another potentially weird image, but something Jesus uses to describe himself right at the end of the book (Revelation 2:26-28, 22:16). The iron sceptre image comes from the Old Testament, but also gets picked up as the absolute victory of Jesus is described—with his army dressed in white, in chapter 19 (Revelation 19:15).

For Sardis, it is the promise that we will be this army — but also the bride of the lamb — those at the wedding feast who are dressed in white (Revelation 3:5, 19:7-8), and those whose names are in the book of life (Revelation 21:27).

In the letter to Philadelphia, it is a promise that the church will be part of the eternal temple of God — part of the building — never leaving God’s presence, with his name on us, as the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven (Revelation 3:12, 21:2).

The image of the father and son sharing a throne is all through the book — and here Jesus promises that his faithful people — those united with him so that we share in his victory, will share in his rule. We will be part of the royal family, not just servants who are more like slaves, but worshippers who will be with the God we love, and who loves us and gives us abundant life (Revelation 3:21, 22:3).

In each letter to the seven churches John puts the lens on Jesus — his vision of the victorious King of Kings who rules from heaven from chapter 1, then he puts the lens on the churches to show how destructive worshipping other gods or living in other empires can be because they are tools of Satan and his beasts, then on the future secured by the certain victory of Jesus and our share in the kingdom he creates. For John, this is a victory already won by Jesus’ death on the cross, his resurrection, and his ascension. John is inviting his readers to overcome whatever temptation we might feel to worship other kings and gods; whatever temptation we might feel to become beastly, and to listen to Jesus. These letters to the seven churches are letters to those churches—but they are also a letter to us.

All seven churches got to read what John said to each of them; so did all the churches this letter circulated to, and we know it circulated pretty widely because we are reading it today. Each letter ends with the call for “whoever has ears, let them hear” (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22).


Are you listening?

Are you hearing?

This is God speaking, through John, to his church.

If we — those of us in God’s church — hear his words and take them to heart; if we are prompted to worship; to repent — which means to turn from false kingdoms, false gods, false isms — by turning to Jesus and his kingdom, if we hang on to him then we will receive a place in his kingdom. The kingdom of the crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus who gave his life for ours, and gives God’s Spirit to us so we share in God’s life. If we cling to him, then he clings to us and we receive the blessings secured by his victory — the new creation, where there is no more curse.

Jesus asks us to choose.

Will you turn from false gods and worship him with your whole heart? Your whole life?

Revelation — A lens to use to see the world fully

This is an amended version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2021. If you’d prefer to listen to this (Spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 38 minutes.

Last time round we set the scene for Revelation by looking back through the Bible at the way some of its key language ties up a big storyline thread. The idea is that we humans are either destined to become beastly, like the serpent, Satan, or beautiful, reflecting the glory of God. We saw that this choice boils down to who, or what, we worship — Jesus, and through Him, the God who created the heavens and the earth, or beastly rulers of the earth, and through them, Satan.

And we saw that this was a real and present challenge facing John’s first readers — those he wrote this strange book to. The challenge for us now is not seeing the big story this book fits into, but figuring out how to read it in our circumstances here in Brisbane, two thousand years later.

Just what sort of book is Revelation? What place does it have in our lives as followers of Jesus? What is its message for us?

The book gets its name from the first line — this opening — the ‘revelation from Jesus Christ’ (Revelation 1:1). There is a lot to unpack here as we figure out how to read it, and the first thing to note is that this word is literally ‘apocalypse.’ It is ‘the apocalypse from Jesus Christ.’

Now, we think we know what an apocalypse is, right? You have probably got an escape plan you have figured out for the Zombie apocalypse — especially after Covid — right? Or maybe that is just me.

We know an apocalypse is about the end of the world. Don’t we?

Only, that is just what we have made this word mean because of one way this book has been read, and I’m pretty convinced that is not the right way.

An apocalypse is not about the end of the world like ‘how it all falls apart,’ It might be more connected to the ‘ends of the world;’ the way philosophers talk about purpose, or like some of you might have learned, ‘the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But the thing is, this word more literally means something like revelation; an unveiling. It is about truth being revealed that helps us see events around us — to see the world — the right way — and in the sense it is used in the Bible, it is like a veil pulled back moment where we see earth and its purpose — and our purpose — from the perspective of heaven.

Now, it is possible this apocalypse is all about the fire and brimstone end of the line for the earth — that it is an ancient document predicting events in the far-off future. That is one possible reading of the book. The locusts could be Apache helicopters, and the mark of the beast could be bank cards — but these are readings of the book that always put present or future generations in the audience seat, at the expense of the past.

And that can be tempting.

The Biblical scholar Michael Gorman has a book called ‘Reading Revelation Responsibly,’ which has this great graph to explain how people read the book. He reckons all of us naturally fit somewhere on this graph.

We can treat — from top to bottom — the book as though it only describes events in the past, or as though it is about the present or the future, or a thing that encompasses all points in time. On the left right axis, we can treat the vivid apocalyptic symbols as codes that describe particular phenomenon located at a certain time (the up-down axis), or we can use these symbols like a lens; a way of seeing the world, and events either everywhere on the up/down axis or in a particular spot. So we either approach the book decoding symbols to discover precise moments they correspond to in history, or see the symbols as analogies that will explain various things that might happen at any moment — giving us a language to understand reality.

You might remember how I’ve got these colour-blind lenses that allow me to see colours I did not know existed; reds and greens like never before. These lenses change the way I understand the world by revealing things I could not see without them.

I am going to suggest — like Gorman — and like a couple of other people I will reference along the way — that we should be thinking of Revelation as supplying us with a set of lenses to see the empires of the world with God’s eyes — and that this had a particular and urgent meaning in first-century Rome (where the symbols do have a coded meaning), but we can use these lenses today too.

Part of what this book does, as a lens, is it sits us in the heavenly courts — in the heavenly realm — away from the day-to-day trenches of normal life and it invites us to see that not only is that realm real, it is the one that matters — because what goes on in the heavens, in the Bible, shapes what happens on earth.

And this means we get a bunch of vivid language, and out-there pictures, to try to disconnect us — dislocate us — from earth.

But we also get earthly things described in caricatures that expose or unveil them as what they are.

There is a good analogy for this in a piece by Aussie theologian George Athas, where he talks about how Revelation and other literature like it functions like political cartoons that exaggerate certain features to expose them.

For now, let’s imagine that when John writes his revelation, his goal is to give us a lens that unveils the world for us and invites us to see it as God does. Also, it can be so easy for modern readers to think Revelation is a coded message book about evil beings and spiritual opposition and all the bad stuff that applies — that these are the focus; but Revelation points the lens somewhere else. First and foremost, and from start to finish (like the rest of the Bible), Revelation is about Jesus.

It is not just from Jesus (Revelation 1:1). The way Greek works mean this could either be a ‘from’ or an ‘of.’ You will find English translations that do this — it is an unveiling that does not just come from Jesus, but it is a book that unveils Jesus for us and invites us to see the world anew, having seen Jesus as he is.

Revelation zooms in to the throne room of God where Jesus now rules from the throne as King of Kings and the Lord of All Nations.

But that is not all John tells us, and here is one of the first reasons I think the book sits where it does on that graph. John tells us that this vision of Jesus, from Jesus, was given to him, by God, to show his servants — his people — what must soon take place (Revelation 1:1). Now, we might think that ‘soon’ applies to us; that we are the generation these words have been waiting for. But, it is much more likely that this is a letter that first applied to the present and very near future of its first readers — and that it drew on analogies and imagery from the whole Old Testament to reframe their understanding of life in Rome.

Revelation is absolutely soaked in Old Testament references or allusions — one scholar who tabled them all up — Stephen Moyise – did up this graph of the books John draws from. He found Revelation draws extensively on the whole Old Testament as it paints a vivid picture using big cosmic language.

One scholar says there are more allusions to the Old Testament in Revelation than the rest of the New Testament put together. This depends a bit on how you define an allusion, but what cannot be denied is how richly Revelation sits in that tradition and applies symbols and language from the Old Testament to a particular moment in time.

Or that the central message is the idea that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament expectation that God would reign as king.

And that is what John has come to testify — to the things he saw — and John can sum up his vision by saying that what he is testifying to — is the Word of God and the Testimony about Jesus (Revelation 1:2).

And it is this same testimony that Jesus is King, not Caesar that has John in a prison island — on Patmos. He is there because of ‘the Word of God and the Testimony about Jesus’; the same thing verse 4 says is the heart of this message he has passed on in this book (Revelation 1:4, 9).

And this book — it is not just an apocalypse — an old bloke yelling at clouds about a broken world — to nobody; it is a mix of genres. John is like an Old Testament prophet. There is a prophetic dimension to the book.

John describes himself being in the Spirit; of being taken up to see things from heaven and being told to write down what you see. This is the classic way that an Old Testament prophet, like Ezekiel, or Daniel, would introduce an apocalyptic vision or prophecy like this. John is plonking himself down in that role (Revelation 1:10).

But it is also a letter sent to particular churches at a particular time (Revelation 1:4). It is like any other New Testament letter. We have to figure out what it says to a church in its immediate context before we apply it to our moment in the sun.

And while the number 7 gets a fair bit of air time in Revelation as a symbol of completion or perfection — even in our passage today — these seven churches were real churches, and John names them: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergameum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. John’s vision is for them (Revelation 1:10-11).

So this apocalyptic prophecy is, first of all, a letter to real churches, in real cities living under Roman rule. It’s a mix of genres, but it’s written by a person, to other people, at a particular point in history.

Whatever we want to make of it — wherever we want to see Revelation speaking, it feels odd if we say it has nothing immediate to say to these seven churches.

I reckon this means we can’t think so much of the text as a code that speaks to the present or our future, as though what John saw corresponds directly with events still to come that had nothing to say to these churches. And yet, at the same time, John uses the number seven over and over again in the book as a number of completeness. There would’ve been stacks more churches just in the towns and cities of the provinces he mentions, but he picks seven because seven is a way to say “this is for the full church.”

It has a particular and immediate audience who received the written work, who it must be meaningful to — just like Daniel and Ezekiel were to their first readers — but also a sort of ‘universal’ audience as well.

These churches are soaked in the religious and political messaging of Rome — churches called by the bright lights of the big cities, and by the bread and circuses of Rome to worship the emperor.

Which, if you remember last post — was an empire whose “proper procedure” was, at certain points, to execute those who would not worship Caesar.

So John dips back into Old Testament imagery that is used as a lens to look at Old Testament empires and says “hey, have a look at this Roman power from God’s perspective,” but more than that, it says “have a look at Jesus from God’s perspective and choose who you’ll worship.”

And the last thing to notice from the intro is that it’s not a book that is meant to be read and atomized — primarily — into verse by verse ‘pull apart the grammar’ stuff like we modern people like to do — and one of the reasons we do this — that we have to — is that the symbols in this book all mean something to the first hearers based on how familiar they are with their own context, and with the Old Testament. We don’t have that familiarity, or that context.

But it’s a book to be experienced — to be read aloud and heard (Revelation 1:3). The symbols are meant to come thick and fast, like a good audio-visual experience; leaving us a bit breathless and overawed by what we hear.

But also hearing the message and taking it to heart, and as one more hint that John has immediate concerns, he says the time for applying this is near (Revelation 1:3).

This decision to take this unveiling to heart, to re-see the world through the lens it supplies is what leads to blessing, that’s going to be a big theme the book picks up right at the end as it returns us to a picture of a world not marked by the curse of sin and death.

Revelation — this apocalypse — is meant to do a work on its hearers reframing the way they see the world, and its rulers.

And if, as we saw last week, the presenting challenge for these first-century churches is choosing who to worship and what kingdom to serve, the apocalyptic letter opens by framing our vision by pointing the lens firmly not at Rome, but at the heavenly courts.

John is writing on behalf of the Ancient of Days — the one who was and is and is to come (Revelation 1:4-5). John uses a whole lot of different titles for God in this book, and he uses them really deliberately in patterns that help structure the book, but this is such a big way to describe God.

God isn’t just a being in creation, he is the I Am — that ancient name for God, and he always has and always will be. John plays with the I Am name in his language here to say God always is, and God the father is giving grace and peace to his church.

And so is the Holy Spirit — and here’s another time the number seven pops up in this book and most scholars see this “Seven Spirits” reference as a reference to the completeness of the Holy Spirit (Revelation 1:4), but also as a way of saying this is the Spirit at work in the seven churches, because it’s the Spirit at work in all the churches.

And John is also writing from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness and ruler of the kings of the earth (Revelation 1:5), these are hints that for John, Daniel’s vision that we saw last week has been fulfilled already.

And then John, overwhelmed by this sense of God speaking to his church, breaks out in a moment of spontaneous worship (Revelation 1:5-6). This is what some of you might know as a doxology — which is a word that means words giving glory to God.

John is giving glory to Jesus, and to the Father, because Jesus has created a kingdom; not a beastly kingdom but a priestly kingdom; a reference to what God made Israel to be in Exodus (Exodus 19) but applied to the church.

Not a kingdom of violent dominion but a kingdom of servants of God, for his glory, secured by his blood.

John grounds his vision — his unveiling of reality — in the victory of Jesus that has already happened; the victory of God over sin, and death, and Satan and all the beastly kingdoms and humans who follow the way of the serpent into beastliness.

And here’s one of those points where John just combines Old Testament references. You’ve got Daniel 7, which we looked at last week, and Zechariah chapter 12. But here is also where John starts giving us the perspective of the heavenly courtroom where the Son of Man is coming with the clouds — the ascended Jesus is taking his seat, fulfilling Daniel’s vision (Revelation 1:7).

Where God the father, the Almighty — the one who was and is and is to come — now calls himself what John called him in verse 4 and adds that he’s the Alpha and the Omega — the first and the last (Revelation 1:8). This is a big picture of the God who sits on the throne of heaven and rules all nations; the one in whom we live and breathe and have our being, who has the past, present, and future in his hands.

And so the message for God’s people is that they have to pick their king.

They have to choose a kingdom.

They have to choose between this God’s beautiful forever kingdom and the violent and beastly kingdoms of the world.

And John, as he looks into this heavenly court, doesn’t just hear God’s voice — he sees the voice coming from someone, and when he turns he sees this figure like a “son of man” among these seven lampstands (Revelation 1:12-13).

We’re told later are churches (Revelation 1:20), but this lamp imagery also comes from the temple, and a heavenly vision of the temple in Zechariah; and this speaking figure is in this cosmic temple present with the churches, and he’s dressed like a royal priest and looks like the Son of Man from Daniel’s vision.

When John describes him he says:

“The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.”

This pulls all sorts of Old Testament imagery about God together — the ‘voice like the waters’ bit comes from Ezekiel, and there’s a throwback to Daniel here too (Daniel 7:9).

John brings Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days, God, together with Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man arriving, so that God and the Son of Man are brought together in this rich new way where the Son of Man is speaking as the voice or word of God.

He sees Jesus as this glorious bright glowing light. White and bright.

Just like animal skins were a code for beastliness in Genesis 3, this sort of imagery is a code for glory; for a heavenly being; we see it at a few points in the story of the Bible.

Like at the transfiguration — another unveiling — where the disciples see Jesus as he really is — one shining like the sun, and dressed in white (Matthew 17:2).

And it’s the same imagery at the resurrection, this time with an angel of the Lord whose appearance is “like lightning” and his clothes as white as snow (Matthew 28:2-3).

Hebrews talks about the son, Jesus, as the “radiance of God’s glory;” another shining word (Hebrews 1:3). John’s point with all this language is that he is the glorious ruler of the heavens and the earth — the heavenly bodies that were viewed as being divine beings in the ancient world reflect him, rather than the other way around.

John is picturing the Son of Man as this triumphant and victorious heavenly king who is glorious — shining with the light and life of God himself and who rules the heavens and the earth — the seven stars — if seven is about completeness are a picture of Jesus’ authority over the heavenly bodies as well as the earthly ones (Revelation 1:16). John tells us at the end of the chapter that they are a picture of the angels, or heavenly beings, being in Jesus’ authority.

Whatever all this means, whether we understand the imagery or not, it is intended to be beautiful, glorious, and terrifying in its over-the-top glory. It pulls together threads of similar unveilings in the Old Testament to emphasize that Jesus, whom Christians might follow as king, is divine.

John concludes this by describing Jesus as the first and the last (Revelation 1:17-18), in the same manner he has been describing God. He connects Jesus’ victory over death, Hades, the dragon, and his curse to Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Jesus is the living one.

John’s testimony about Jesus is that the crucifixion and resurrection reveal God to us, for in them the God-man, the son of God and Son of Man, is unveiled and victorious.

When we see Jesus this way, John’s response is to fall down in awe, worship, and submission (Revelation 1:17). No other king or god commands John’s devotion through their presentation of their glory.

Remember Trajan, the emperor whom Pliny wrote to. He agreed with the notion that citizens must worship Roman gods, including the emperor, or face death. However, he offered salvation from death, a pardon, through repentance and worship.

The choice facing first-century citizens was to repent and worship Caesar and his empire to receive his pardon and life in his kingdom, or repent and worship Jesus and receive life in His kingdom.

John’s vision is the lens he wants the church, the seven churches he is writing to, and all the churches they represent, to see the world through. This lens challenges us to look beyond any other pretenders to the throne, anyone or anything else that might command our worship.

How can other empires compete with the glorious one? How can we worship anything else?

This lens is something we might want to use in our own times too, as we look at empires, agendas, and objects of worship that offer us life and call us to give ourselves up, pulling us away from God and His kingdom.

Choosing between God-kings should be easy if this is what the throne room of heaven looks like, and who the one on the throne appears to be. Jesus isn’t a distant king; He is Lord of His church.

The Jesus John sees is not just in heaven, absent from the concerns of His people. He is present with His church, operating as a priest for the church in the heavens. This is a theme we see elsewhere in the New Testament. He brings us into God’s presence, which is where the book will lead.

He is the faithful witness who shows us what God is like and what faithfulness to God in the face of beastly empires looks like, trusting God to win and bring blessing. This is where the book will go.

Jesus, the living one, was dead and is now alive, offering hope of new life and resurrection to His people. This is where the book will go. As the first and the last, he will return to make God’s victory and his kingdom absolute, bringing all other kings to their knees because God is the Most High, and Jesus is his voice and chosen ruler (Revelation 1:17-18).

He has freed us from our sins, from the curse, death, and the claws of Satan by His blood, through His death and resurrection. Like in the Exodus with Israel on the mountain, He has made us a kingdom of priests, acting as our priest before His Father (Revelation 1:5-6), even as he, himself, is God. He is the one to be worshipped and glorified, with His Father.

In doing so, we too will be clothed in glory; we too will be swept up in the beauty of God’s vision for His people (Revelation 7:9).

This vision will drive what John has to say about politics and economics — about how we live as people, as the church.

Is it your vision, your lens for looking at reality?

Does it shape your worship?

Your life?

Revelation — The Beauty or the Beast

This is an amended version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2021. If you’d prefer to listen to this (Spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 39 minutes.

I have received more phone calls from strangers this year (2021) asking about the Book of Revelation and the end of the world than about anything else. Revelation is a strange book full of dragons, beasts, and chaos. Its message is coded, and we feel like we have to crack it, and we are tempted to make it about us.

Revelation chapter 13 has this famous picture of a dragon being worshiped because he has given power and authority to a beast who is also worshiped (Revelation 13:4); and we want to know who this beast is and whether it might be around now. Revelation depicts two kingdoms: the inhabitants of the earth who worship this beast and those marked by the Lamb. The Lamb has a book of life (Revelation 13:8). The beast writes a book of death. Whoever refuses to worship the beast is killed by its power (Revelation 13:15).

Whatever the code is in Revelation, whatever it means, it asks readers to consider whom we worship, what kingdom we belong to, whether we worship the dragon and its beastly minions, or the Lamb; Jesus. And the question has consequences. Deadly consequences.

Beastly kingdoms bring death to those who will not jump on board here on earth. The Lamb who was slain on earth offers life in his heavenly book.

As we delve into the Book of Revelation which reveals heavenly reality, opening the curtains between heaven and earth, we are being asked to choose between an earthly kingdom and a heavenly kingdom, a question of life and death.

And this choice has other implications in places where people rule in beastly ways; real-life implications, economic implications, political implications. Because despite what some might say, there is actually no separation between religion and politics. If you take one thing home from this series, it is not that Christianity is political, though it is, it is that all politics is religious, because all politics happens around this fundamental choice between kingdoms.

The beast, or the beauty of the slain lamb, shapes the political and economic behavior of its people. In this famous passage, one that is getting a run in the media at the moment, the beast uses a mark, an imprint—the word here is often used for images stamped on coins (Revelation 13:16-17). In this vision, if you do not have that mark, you do not participate in the economy, you do not benefit from the kingdom of the beast.

And the mark is the number or name of the beast, and we get this famous number, 666 (Revelation 13:18). Now, we will dig into this more in a few weeks’ time, but the key to understanding all this apocalyptic stuff is to read it carefully. And John, who is writing, says discerning what he is talking about requires wisdom (Revelation 13:18), and that while we might think this is going to be supernatural and demonic, it is actually natural and demonic. It is about a person, a man beast, who is on earth doing the will of the dragon.

So it is very unlikely that COVID vaccines or credit cards or all sorts of things that people have identified with this passage over the years are the fulfillment of the events depicted in Revelation.

Revelation is an apocalyptic text that stands in a tradition — an Old Testament tradition — that frames the world this way, from the perspective of heaven, to invite us to consider how we live, what kingdom we belong to, who we are and will be as people, as we choose what to worship.

It is a book that is the fitting conclusion of the story of the Bible because John’s vision is incredibly grounded in the image and story of the Bible. This choice between beauty and beast goes right back to the beginning.

Right back to the serpent — Satan — a beastly wild animal. People were meant to rule over wild animals as God’s image bearers, but the serpent slides into their direct messages (Genesis 3:1).

Adam and Eve were clothed in the glory of God, naked and unashamed, reflecting his goodness and love, and then the serpent claws them away from God. They become people ruled by a wild animal.

And we get a hint that the fall is a turn toward beastliness as Adam and Eve are clothed in animal skins. They become like the animals (Revelation 3:21).

But now, humans are caught up in a fight with the wild things. But there is hope. There will be a fruitful line, a line of seed, offspring, who will be opposed to beastliness and crush the serpent (Genesis 3:15).

There will be a battle that will determine if people are human as God created us to be, beautiful reflections of his image who rule over the wild things, or humans ruled by the animals, beastly humans.

We see this beastliness take hold in the next story, the story of Cain and Abel.

Abel has mastery over the animals. He cares for the flocks. But Cain is at risk of being mastered by the animals, becoming beastly.

God warns him, “Sin is crouching at the door,” like a beast waiting to pounce. It desires to have him. He must rule over it, not be ruled by it (Genesis 4:6-7).

But instead, Abel’s blood soaks into the ground, and Cain is exiled to live like the beast-man he has become.

In the story, his descendants go out and build cities, full of technology, tools, and instruments, but they are cities of death, where within a handful of generations, this fellow Lamech is boasting about bringing death and destruction to his enemies.

And that is the story of human empires produced outside the line of seed that will lead to the Lamb. Genesis has these stories of humans and empires who become beastly as sin takes hold. They are cities of order and technology and even art and culture. The trains would have run on time. But they are cities like Babel, Babylon, disconnected from God’s presence. Beastly kingdoms ruled with violence.

But throughout the story, there are little glimpses of both the hope and the fight against beastliness.

One example is David, the shepherd king who tends a flock, who rules over the wild animals, lions, and bears who come to kill his sheep (1 Samuel 17:36).

That is interesting, right?

But here is something even more fun, courtesy of the Bible Project.

Goliath, the giant, is presented not just as a beast but as a giant serpent.

Every time the narrative mentions his bronze armor, scaly bronze armor, it is a serpent pun. The Hebrew word for bronze uses the same letters as the word for serpent. They are related to the same root. He is bronze and scaly. He is snakey. He is beastly. He uses human power and strength, weapons, to mock God and his people. He comes with sword and javelin and snake armor (1 Samuel 17:4-6), while David comes against him in the name of the Lord.

And we know the story.

David defeats this beast-man, and his head is crushed (1 Samuel 17:41). David becomes king. He launches a “city of peace.” He uses his strength to crush beastly kingdoms, like a shepherd. The catch is that in his own temptation, his grasping, his use of the sword, especially with Bathsheba and Uriah, David grasps and kills those in his care. He is rebuked for being a predator rather than a shepherd, and he is told the sword will not leave his household. He got too close to beasts and became beastly.

The closest parallel to Revelation and the book where the beast theme really gets unpacked is the Book of Daniel. There, before the vision we read, there is a story where someone is dressed like an animal as a picture of beastliness.

The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, he has a dream, and Daniel interprets it. He says Nebuchadnezzar will go live with the wild animals until he worships God’s authority as the Most High. He becomes like a cartoon beast, an apocalyptic figure, an ox, an eagle, with hair like feathers and claws like a bird (Daniel 4:20-33). This is a picture that portrays Babylon and its power in beastly terms. If Israel in exile is tempted by the beauty of Babylon, here is a view of that beauty from a heavenly perspective revealing its ugliness.

Then Daniel has this vision of four great beasts (Daniel 7:2). And, like with Revelation, we are tempted to try to see these four great beasts as kingdoms still to come, pictures of the end of the world. We might look at ISIS or America or all sorts of modern kingdoms and try to make the hat fit.

But there is a more immediate fulfillment for this apocalyptic vision because this apocalyptic genre is a way that people can speak about present moments from a heavenly perspective.

Daniel’s vision is explained straight away. The four beasts are actually four kings who will arise from the earth (Daniel 7:17), and they might look powerful and victorious as they destroy or dominate God’s people, these beastly regimes, but actually, God is going to win, and he is going to give a kingdom to his people forever.

And these empires around Israel were overtly and deliberately beastly. Their gods were presented as animals, serpents, dragons, weird hybrid animals, like this Babylonian picture. Their stories were violent and bloody. The kings of these nations were seen as supported by beastly gods, who triumphed, tooth and claw, over other beastly gods.

Babylon’s creation story involved the Battle-God Marduk creating the world from the dead body of the serpent God Tiamat — who was also a symbol of the chaotic waters. Marduk then built Babylon as the seat of the gods on the earth; the bridge between heaven and earth. There is this idea that goodness and peace and cities of order and beauty are built out of death and destruction and violence.

Daniel’s vision — and in the narrative that goes with it in the book of Daniel — pictures a beastly empire with a beastly king. When the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, is sent into beastly exile as an animal it’s a picture of Babylon’s beastliness. When the Medes take over from Nebuchadnezzar’s son in the story of Daniel, Darius the Mede is the beastly ruler who throws Daniel to the beastly lions because he will not worship him and his gods. Then a third kingdom, the Persians take over, with Cyrus mentioned just before Daniel’s vision is described in the book; a vision is set back under Babylonian rule; back before the events of chapter five. Daniel’s vision features beast… after beast… after beast… until Daniel pictures a fourth beast; a super-power who will come in and do horrible things to God’s people (Daniel 7:21-27). And it is very likely that this superpower he pictures is Greece, and that it is pointing Israel to Antiochus Epiphanes, a Greek king who marched on Jerusalem, setting up a statue of himself on the altar in the rebuilt temple; a moment the Maccabees, a Jewish text, calls the abomination that causes desolation.

And the thing all these regimes have in common — according to Daniel — these regimes opposed to God is that they are beastly, and though they look victorious and powerful and majestic from an earthly perspective, they do not win. They swallow each other, and, ultimately, God swallows them up. These beasts represent kingdoms; earthly kingdoms that devour and trample and crush; kingdoms marked by kings who will lead mighty armies. These beastly kingdoms are violent. They wage war against each other, and they wage war against God’s holy people. These are dominion systems pounce on and devour the weak.

And these beastly kings will set themselves up in opposition to Israel’s God. They are earthly pictures of cosmic rebellion against God’s rule. And the only hope for God’s people amidst these beastly empires is for God — the Ancient of Days — the Most High — to step in and put things right in the heavens and on earth. So Daniel has this vision of the heavenly court sitting and ruling on the actions of this beastly regime, and the Most High taking the reins both in heaven and in the kingdoms under heaven, and launching an everlasting kingdom where all rulers will worship him (Daniel 7:26-27). We will see Revelation picking up lots of this language.

In Daniel, the beasts get slain at this moment when God is revealed as the rightful God of the nations (Daniel 7:11), and his king, the Son of Man is enthroned in heaven (Daniel 7:13), and in Revelation chapter one, in John’s vision of Jesus in the heavenly throne room, this has already happened. In Daniel’s vision the total victory over all other empires in the heavens and the earth is secured as the Son of Man is given an eternal kingdom covering all nations that will never be destroyed. He is worshipped in the place of the beast (Daniel 7:14).

So as we approach Revelation and its picture of beastly regimes, there is a whole lot of this symbolism that is being drawn from the story of the Bible. Beastly regimes are those empires — military and economic and political systems — religious systems — that set themselves up in opposition to God’s people as people are pulled away from glory into beastliness by the serpent.

And as we read Revelation we have to remember that while we might want to make it about us, here and now, it is first a real letter to real churches facing their own beastly regime (Revelation 1:4). One that looks like it has crushed the serpent crusher. There is a new violent and beastly kingdom serving the agenda of the dragon, Satan, but whose false beauty, the “peace of Rome,” is secured by violence, and the worldly power and beauty of Rome is tempting people to worship its gods (and emperors).

This is the regime responsible for executing Jesus who will now set about not just persecuting Christians at various times — but worse, even — it will set about asking to be worshipped; proclaiming itself and its kings as the good economy, the good empire, with the mightiest army and the best gods. Rome is not all stick, there is plenty of carrot; plenty of temptations luring people to beastliness.

It looks impressive and wealthy and powerful; it offers pleasure and peace and prosperity. That is the temptation for Christians; it is not just about martyrdom, but about the same choice that faced Israel in Babylon — do they worship God or the beast?

John is writing to people with an immediate message, presenting an important choice. And that choice will end up being life and death, because beastly empires do not tolerate opposition — they use the sword to build their kingdoms.

The Roman empire will require worship. Revelation is probably written around the time of Nero — I think probably just after his death, but it could be any time in the first century. By the end of the first century, Rome is ruled by the emperor Trajan. One of his governors, Pliny writes a letter to Trajan asking what to do with these pesky Christians springing up in his province, Bythinia — it is a region in modern day Turkey — right on the border of the province of Asia (where the letter is addressed).

Pliny says when people are accused of being Christians he interrogates them, when they confess he interrogates them again with the promise of punishment, and those who will not recant he executes. That is beastly, right? But it is just a matter of course — it is a procedure. It is like he is trying to give these Christians an easy way out too. All they have to do is worship the beast. He says:

“…in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have followed the following procedure: I interrogated them as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed.”

He says the path out of execution is conforming to the Roman gods — worshipping their gods, including the image of the beast-king:

Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods…

And Pliny writes back…

”you have observed proper procedure”…

This is the context Revelation is written to; an empire that demands worship and lures Christians away from faithfulness with bright lights, and the ‘peace of Rome’ — a peace won through violence. And so the invitation is there: Choose a kingdom; Choose a king.

Worship the image of the beast, carry his mark (Revelation 13:15); and know that you are really worshipping Satan — the dragon (Revelation 13:4) — and so will become beastly… Or worship God, and be marked by the Lamb.

The beauty or the beast…

It is interesting to think back to that moment when the Pharisees test Jesus with the coins at this point… the Pharisees, who will end up teaming up with the beast to kill the Lamb. They come asking about paying taxes to Caesar (Mark 13:16-17), bringing little metal disks marked with the beast’s image — the face of the empire — little marks that allow people to buy and sell. And they ask “should we pay tax to Caesar” — should we participate in this empire?

Jesus’ answer has often been interpreted as saying that we should participate in this empire — pay these taxes — take part in the politics of the day because Caesar has the right to tax us, and there are all sorts of reasons — like Romans 13 — to think that is true. But there is more to his answer. When you ask yourself “where is God’s image”; how do we then give our whole selves to God?

Our participation in human empires — as people who belong to God — stops when these empires ask us to worship. We see that in Daniel, we see that in Jesus, and we will see that in Revelation.

Jesus calls us to worship God, with your whole life; to give God what is God’s — and be marked by Him, not to be swept up in a beastly empire.

We live with our own beastly regimes that call us to worship — that invite us to become serpent-like.

The former US President, Dwight Eisenhower, described a “military industrial complex” at the heart of the U.S empire. It is the heart of the Western world and the peace and prosperity we enjoy — a vicious cycle where the economy and the military and the politic systems are deeply enmeshed — producing an empire built on the capacity to be mighty and violent.

Image Source.

Now. We might feel a step removed from the U.S as a ‘middle power’ here in Australia, but the news recently of an AUKUS alliance does not let us bury our heads in the sand. We are marching in lockstep with this empire, and this approach to the economy.

And we do it thinking we are the good guys, just like the Romans and the Babylonians, bringing peace because we have a bigger sword. And this is not to say that governments should not wield, or buy, swords — the Bible literally describes them as a sword. Beastly governments are the ones that call for our worship, and pull us away from life shaped by the crucified Lamb, and think that salvation and redemption and peace lies in the way of the sword, rather than the beautiful way of the cross.

There is a Pentecostal theologian named Walter Wink who describes the modern world and its military industrial complex as a domination system — another way of talking about this is to label it as it is… beastly. He says The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth shaping the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today.

He sees this myth as essentially Babylonian — tracing our stories about heroes using violence to secure peace back to Babylon’s creation story, and to the Roman idea of peace. This myth is everywhere from Marvel movies to the stories we tell ourselves about peacekeeping as we send armies into places like Afghanistan. Wink says the Babylonian story has clear implications, that ultimately produce an ethic for kingdoms who follow the story:

“The implications are clear: “human beings are created from the blood of a murdered god. Our very origin is violence. Killing is in our genes.“

That we cannot imagine a world without armies — the sword — or solutions without domination of the will of the ‘good’ over the evil, secured through violence, demonstrates this. This myth — the idea that violence can be redemptive — that the sword wielded by government can save — is how beastly powers dupe us into complying with the system. Wink says:

“By making violence pleasurable, fascinating, and entertaining, the powers are able to delude people into compliance with a system that is cheating them of their very lives.”

This myth takes hold of our imaginations … it shapes our politics and our relationships and gets us participating in the machine — because the benefit of being complicit is that our security and power gets us cheap stuff from those we exploit, but this is how we lose our souls and become beastly.

The thing about democracy, too, is that we kind of all end up as kings and queens of our own little empires. We all have the capacity to be beastly as we choose what to worship — especially when that choice happens in a violent system shaped by this mythology, and in a global capitalist system where greed is good and we are disconnected from the production of the things we buy and enjoy.

I read this story this week about the environmental and economic destruction brought about by our need for cobalt — did you know you need cobalt? It is a vital part of the batteries in all our smart things — and this destruction is not in your backyard, but it is literally in the backyards of people in the Congo, whose lives are being devoured by our consumer behaviour. Or Lithium; the other vital component in batteries — the ones that power smartphones and electric cars, where the rapacious mining for these commodities destroys the environment in countries like Chile.

This sort of thing is much more the mark of beastliness than a vaccination. Maybe it will get harder and harder to buy stuff or participate in the modern economy without a smartphone in your pocket. But it is easier not to think about that, and not to think about how our military might — or China’s in the case of cobalt mining — or the economic power of the first world might perpetuate this issue and guarantee the supply chains and the exploitation by preventing revolution.

Maybe we think it is better to be in the empire, worshipping its idols than opposing it and being thrown to lions. Maybe we think we can have a foot in both camps?

But here is the thing.

You have to choose.

The beast, or the beauty.

You have to choose your kingdom and your king.

Choose who to worship and serve.

And doing that has to shape your politics and your economics and your approach to the sword… to power and violence. Because actually your politics and economics show what you have really chosen…

Jesus has created a kingdom — not a beastly kingdom but a priestly kingdom… Not a kingdom of violent dominion but a kingdom of servants of God, for his glory, secured by his blood.

He is the serpent-crushing son of man — the King of Kings — who brings the beautiful heavenly kingdom Daniel saw in his vision, and that John describes here… but he does not do it through violence… he does not crush the serpent with a sword… but with his blood. His story is not one of redemptive violence but redemptive sacrifice, where even if he slays the dragon, he does this through his death, absorbing the dragon’s blows. He is not just the shepherd king, but the lamb slain; he turns the myth of redemptive violence in on itself. He does not live by the sword.

His kingdom, as we will see through Revelation, looks very different to the grasping and devouring kingdoms of this world.

John grounds his vision in the victory of Jesus that has already happened; at the cross, and in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the son of God and son of man, as king of heaven and earth.

The story of the Bible is the story of the victory of God over sin, and death, and Satan — and ultimately the beastly kingdoms and humans who follow the way of the serpent into beastliness… through the sacrificial love of his chosen king… the serpent crushing seed… the lamb slain before the creation of the world.

And now we have to choose. And you really only have two choices — Satan, who loses, or Jesus, who wins. The beast, or the beauty.

Origin Story (and what’s next): From the beginning to the end…

I’ve enjoyed the process of turning the nine sermons I preached on Genesis 1-11 into posts. I thought I’d do a sort of ‘index’ post with links to all nine, along with the passage covered, and mark a transition into a second series.

I’m going to post up my sermons from Revelation from 2021 next, and then from Matthew’s Gospel (start of 2022), because these all became the basis of a big series on being human in 2023.

Here are the Genesis sermons.

  1. In the Beginning (Genesis 1): An introduction to the idea of the heavens and the earth being separate realms created in the beginning, to ancient cosmology, and to the idea that the Genesis story is both literature read through Israel’s history — especially in exile in Babylon, and that it creates themes threaded through the entire narrative of the Bible, fulfilled in Jesus. Genesis 1 presents heaven and earth being separate as a reality that will create tension through the narrative, and the primordial state of being ’empty and uninhabited’ as something God’s representative image bearing humans will join him in overcoming as we fill it not just with the life he creates, but with his rule and presence.
  2. Eden and the Earthlings (Genesis 1:26-2:25): Reading the story of the creation of the ground-man or earthling, and then the woman, in a heaven on earth place as a critique of other stories of how idol statues in the ancient world were made that teaches a very different vision of the nature of God and the purpose of human life, and seeing it fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus and God’s Spirit being breathed into a new humanity to make us heavenly beings not just earthlings. Also noticing that the man and woman were created to represent God together where the woman is an ally in the priestly task of ‘cultivating and guarding’ heavenly space on earth.
  3. Treason against the tree-son (Genesis 3): Reading the story of the Fall as an act of rebellion; seizing the life God offers to us on our own terms in order to rule, as Satan the dragon-beast pulls humans from representing God to beastliness and death — exile from God’s gift of heavenly life; seeing this pattern run through to Jesus in gardens in the Gospels, where, at Gethsemane humans bring tree-weapons and swords to seek the death of the life of God in the ultimate act of rebellion, as God gives his life to the world.
  4. East of Eden (Genesis 4): Adam and Eve are exiled east of the Garden — but it seems, still in the region of Eden, separated from heaven-on-earth life by Cherubim (like those stitched onto the curtain that separates God’s people from God’s presence in the Tabernacle and Temple).

    When Cain is consumed by sin — which crouches at his door waiting to devour — and becomes a bloody beast, he is exiled further to the east; to wander around other murderous humans. He builds a city, and a family tree defined by violence and vengeance.

    The movement east culminates in Babylon both in Genesis 1-11, and in Israel’s exile — by the end of the Old Testament God’s people are waiting for a king, and for God’s presence to return to the Holy of Holies in the Temple; moving from east to west. Jesus arrives as God and king to bring heavenly life back to his people and end our exile into the wilderness; entering Jerusalem from the East to cleanse the Temple and then tear the curtain.
  5. A Giant Problem (Genesis 6:1-8): The weird passage about the Nephilim; offspring of rebellious heavenly beings; plants seeds for giant opposition to God’s people living in peace in ‘heaven on earth’ places like Eden.
  6. The Ark and the Covenant (Genesis 6:9-8:22): The story of Noah’s Ark is a story of de-creation and recreation in response to violence filling the land as humans (except for Noah) are more like serpents than God. God carries people through death in an ark that anticipates the Exodus and the Gospel.
  7. Don’t be a Nimrod (Genesis 9-10:32): After the flood things go down hill (or down the mountain) fast as Noah’s sons form the family tree of the nations who will feature in the Old Testament story; chief among these descendants is Nimrod, who’s a violent warrior hunter, an anti-Adam, who builds Babylon and Assyria.
  8. Why be a Brickman when you can be a brick, man (Genesis 11:1-9): The story zooms in on the creation of Babylon told in contrast to Babylon’s own mythology, depicting the city and its heaven-on-earth project as a failure in a way that will resonate deeply for Israelite people held in exile in Babylon as King Nebuchadnezzar builds towers to the heavens made from bricks stamped with his name.
  9. Getting outta Babylon (Genesis 11:10-12:20): Abram and his family are called out of Chaldea (part of Babylon) to head back west towards life with God, as his people of promise. They come to a cross roads, and travel through Egypt; where those who mistreat God’s people experience curse in a way that anticipates the Exodus and is a picture of the Old Testament hope that God’s people will be called out of exile in Babylon again.

Origin Story — Getting outta Babylon

This is an amended version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. If you’d prefer to listen to this (Spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 46 minutes.

Well, we’re at the end of the beginning of the beginning. Like any good origin story, the scene is set here for the rest of the franchise. Modern origin stories — like in the Marvel universe — give us a picture of what heroism looks like, but also, if they’re any good, they give us a sense of the setting, not only of the external threat — the baddy — but also the flaws of the heroes that are going to be part of their story.

So, let’s just use this lens on Genesis for a moment as a way of recapping where we’ve been. First up, there’s the question ‘who is the hero’? One of the mistakes we can make with any part of the Bible is jumping to seeing humans as the hero, or even the subject of the story. Genesis tells us straight up that this is God’s story, not only as the author but as the one who’s acting to create, and we get the setting here too, not just the ground but the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).

We saw how there’s a hint that maybe heroism would look like bringing heaven and earth together, but for humans, it’ll look like joining God, filling the desolate and uninhabited earth (Genesis 1:2) with life that reflects his rule, his kingdom, as his image-bearing representatives, like the sons of God were meant to reflect his rule in the heavens (Genesis 1:26).

We’re not the hero, though. We’re the kids dressing in costumes, or maybe we’re the Hawkeyes, the Black Widows — heroic people without heavenly power. We’re not Aragorn or Arwen. We’re the Hobbits, the ground-level heroes.

And we met our first big baddy, a heavenly critter of some sort who turns up as a legged serpent, a dragon even, who wants to craftily pull people away from defining heroism as reflecting who God is to defining heroism as being godlike on our own terms (Genesis 3:1, 5). This leads to grasping, and then quickly to violence (Genesis 4:8), building violent cities, where vengeance creates a vicious cycle (Genesis 4:17, 24), ultimately producing a world soaked in violence (Genesis 6:11).

We even met heavenly baddies who joined the cause of the big baddy like we’re meant to join the cause of God, grasping humans, “taking any they chose” (Genesis 6:2) like Adam and Eve plucked the fruit, creating super-powered baddies, the Nephilim, warrior kings of name (Genesis 6:4), who will pop up in the story of the Bible as giants or the leaders of violent empires.

And though we saw godliness as generative, as creating life and providing abundance and hospitality, and beauty and order and love, God, the hero of the story, detests this grasping violence, sin, our attempts to be godly, and so he de-creates and re-creates in the flood, exiling evil and violent people from his presence (Genesis 3:24, 4:16), and then his world (Genesis 6:13).

Exile is pictured as this movement east, away from the Garden. And in our last ‘episode’, we landed in the furthest east we get here, in Babylon (Genesis 11:2), where a warrior king, Nimrod, is trying to build a name for himself by building another city, Babylon (Genesis 11:4).

Each week we’ve traced how this origin story creates threads or scenes or patterns that repeat through the story where our picture of God and heroism develops, but mostly it develops against the struggle, the failure, for the humans in the story to be heroic, to be godly, and how much we’re trapped in the coils of the serpent.

But in the midst of the story, we’ve been tracing two lines of seed set up in Genesis 3 (Genesis 3:15). There have been two types of human, children of the serpent like Cain, Lamech, and Nimrod, and children reflecting the image of God, potential serpent crushers, new Adams — Abel, then Seth, then Noah.

And now, in this line of Shem, the line of name, that gets us to Abram (Genesis 11:10, 26), the camera narrows down again after the Babel story. We had a family tree of the three sons of Noah back in chapter 10, and now we get the family tree of the one son whose line we’re going to keep watching.

Now, there’s a thing we haven’t looked at much in these genealogies as we’ve passed them by, but Genesis keeps telling us how old someone is when they have a kid, and how old they are when they die, even if the camera moves on from that person. It follows this formula: When ____ had lived X years, he became the father of _____. After he became the father of ____, ____ lived X years and had other sons and daughters (Genesis 11:10-11, 12-13, 14-15, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21, 22-23, 24-35).

For this whole family tree, right up to two years before Abram is born, Noah is still alive. There are so many generations of this family tree still mingling around the traps, and so when Abram’s dad is called to uproot and leave, this is a big deal. He’s pulling out of a family system where multiple generations are still around. Here’s a visual of the overlapping lifespans of each person.

There’s a little more backstory to this repeat of the line of Shem. We met Peleg back in chapter 10, and his brother Joktan, but then the story divided (Genesis 10:25), we followed Joktan’s line. We’re told the world was divided when Peleg was around, so I reckon that’s giving us a bit of a timeline for when the Babel story happened, when Peleg’s great-great-grandfather’s brother’s grandson Nimrod was doing his thing.

All these characters are still very much related in an extended family network, and the scattering from Babel into nations with different languages is starting to unfold. And one way it unfolds is in this family line we zoom in on — the line of Peleg (Genesis 11:18-19); Shem’s other great-great-grandson, who turns out to be the great-great-grandfather of Abram, and the camera has zoomed all the way from an account of the heavens and earth (Genesis 2:4), to the account of Abram’s dad Terah (Genesis 11:26-27).

We’re told a couple of times his roots are in this place called Ur of the Chaldeans (Genesis 11:27-28). It’s the land where Abram and his brothers are born, and one of Abram’s brothers, Lot’s dad Haran, even dies there. Now, this is significant because Ur of the Chaldeans is in Babylon. The Chaldeans become part of Babylon. In fact, if you flick forward to Jeremiah, where Jeremiah tells the story of God using Babylon to bring judgment on Israel, through Nebuchadnezzar, where it says Jerusalem was surrounded by Babylon and the Babylonians, it’s the same Hebrew word here for “Babylonians” that we get for Chaldea in Genesis (Genesis 21:4).

Abram’s family, the line of fruitful seed we’re going to follow for the rest of the story, all the way to Jesus, was born in Babylon and comes out of Babylon to become God’s chosen people. They start off with Abram’s dad Terah taking his brother, his nephew Lot, and Abram, and Abram’s wife Sarai, out of Babylon towards Canaan. They start heading west, which is a significant movement. Remember back to the idea that the gates of Eden are on the east, so to head west is to head back towards Eden. And Canaan is significant too because it’s what’s going to become the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey. It’ll become Israel, where the temple mountain is and where God dwells with his people.

But they don’t make it. They stop in Harran (Genesis 11:31). Now, there’s some fun Hebrew visual punning going on here with the name of this place Harran, and the name of Abram’s brother Haran. By changing just one consonant slightly, you get two different names with two different meanings. But I wonder how much both are being invoked. Haran, Abram’s brother, his name is the Hebrew word for mountain climber. It gets used six times in five verses here, while Harran, the city name, is a word that means crossroads, a word borrowed from the early Babylonian empire, which named the city, and on the map, this city lands in Assyria, where Nimrod also built cities. Terah and his family of mountain climbers reach a crossroads at the edge of the empire set up by Nimrod, and they stop. They’re right at the edge of the east.

They’re at a crossroads. Do they leave the land of the east, where their family is connected, or do they go west, towards Eden, or in this case, Canaan? And Terah and his son settle there. Terah dies there, at the crossroads (Genesis 11:32).

So from this crossroads, God calls his people, his line of faithful seed, from the line of Shem, name, and the line of Eber, the Hebrews, who he’s going to attach his name to, out of the land of Nimrod, and Babylon, and its walled cities, into the land. He calls Abram to leave his established family network, the people and household that give him security, and go into a land God will show him, to keep going west (Genesis 12:1). God makes these promises that are going to set up the story of the rest of the Bible, all the way to Jesus.

God promises Abram’s family will become a great nation. They will be blessed, like humans were blessed in Genesis 1. They will be fruitful and increase in number, and they’ll do this in relationship with God. They’ll be an image-bearing people so that God will make their name great, and they’ll be a blessing to others. In fact, whether or not people are blessed like humans in Eden, or cursed, like humans east of Eden, is going to depend on how people treat this line of seed, starting with Abram. And through this line, all the nations we’ve just seen spread through the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:2-3).

Now, there are some barriers here that pop up in the narrative. For starters, we were already told Sarai couldn’t have kids (Genesis 11:30), and things get pretty sketchy pretty quick in terms of how Abram and Sarai deal with this promise. The first thing Abram does is demonstrate faith at the crossroads. He and his family, and Lot, who throws his lot in with Abram, they pack up, and they head off to Canaan, and arrive there (Genesis 12:4-5).

Where Terah was heading, and where God told him to go. He goes to a great tree, where God appears to him. There’s an Eden image here (Genesis 12:6-7). God promises this land to Abram’s seed, his offspring, so Abram and his family stake a claim. Abram does what Noah did after the flood, and what faithful people will do through the story all the way through. He builds an altar to the Lord. He’s a new Adam, a human who is in relationship with God.

He moves further west, towards Bethel, a place named house of God. That’s what Bethel means, not towards a hill. This is the Hebrew word for mountain, where he puts up a tent and builds an altar, to the east of Bethel. So the house of the Lord, framed like a new Eden, is to the west, and he calls on the name of God (Genesis 12:8-9).

A tent. An altar. Calling on the name of God. Near the house of the Lord. This is tabernacle type stuff. This is a high point. It sets up a sort of ideal, and then, things, like they often do, go downhill as Abram heads into Egypt because of a famine, which is a scene that’ll repeat with his great-grandkids (Genesis 12:10).

There he creates a repeat of the fall. There’s a repeat of seeing beauty and taking, only this time Abram gives Sarai to the Pharaoh. It’s bad (Genesis 12:14-15). God sends plagues on Egypt. We’ll see that again. It’s a curse on the Egyptians, those who curse Abram are cursed (Genesis 12:17). And the Pharaoh sends him out of Egypt and back to Canaan. It’s a mini-Exodus (Genesis 12:19-20).

In the space of one chapter, Abram leaves Babylon and becomes a new Adam, promised the land of Canaan, and then leaves Egypt with the wealth of Egypt given to him as God blesses him and curses the people who curse him. But right in the middle, we see Abram as this conflicted character, a new Adam who God’s going to work with, who calls on God’s name, and a reflection of the old Adam, who brings curse as he rules over his wife, and lets her be taken.

What a scrambled mess. But what a picture of the scrambled mess that this line of seed goes through in the Old Testament as they end up in Egypt, and are created through an Exodus, coming out of Egypt, and into Canaan, setting up an altar on a mountain, not just in a tent, but in a temple, a house of God.

In chapter 13, when he comes out of Egypt, Abram and Lot are both blessed with wealth, and rather than fighting, Abram lets Lot choose what land he’s going to settle on. Lot land that is described as being like Eden, and he heads east again, while Abram chooses the land on the west, the land of Canaan (Genesis 13:10-12).

Finally, Abram goes to live near some more trees, where he pitches his tents and builds an altar (Genesis 13:18). There’s an interesting contrast set up between Nimrod and Abram, where Nimrod builds a city with bricks and Abram sets up as a nomad, living in tents in the trees. It’s a real return to Eden.

And so in Abram’s story, we have a pattern that defines Israel’s story and Israel’s hope, even as they come out of exile in Babylon, and head back west into these same places. Going back to the call of Abram out of Babylon, to enter a covenant with God for the land. And Israel coming out of their suffering in Egypt, to make a name for God (Nehemiah 9:7-10). Only the retelling of this story doesn’t end in hope in Nehemiah, but in despair. Even as the people rebuild the temple and the walls in Jerusalem, they know exile isn’t over yet.

They’re in the land, but now they’re in the land and still in Babylon; they’re slaves still ruled by Nimrod-like kings because they keep doing evil (Nehemiah 9:36-37). They’re in distress — because of their sin. Their harvest is going to foreign Nimrod-like kings — all the Eden-like fruit goes elsewhere — and they want delivery.

They’re left wondering how the promises to Abram are still being fulfilled. What home looks like. Whether they’ll ever be a house of the Lord; a people who meet with God and so provide blessing to the nations ever again.

They want the hope expressed in the prophets to actually be fulfilled; for God’s people to be called back from the ends of the earth, for God to keep His promises to Abram to bless the world through his servant — this line of seed. They want to know that even in exile, God hasn’t rejected them and will call them back to produce blessing and fruitful life (Isaiah 41:8-9).

They want to truly come out of Babylon; led by a new Adam, by a new Abram, a son of Abram, to be led by a king. They want exile to be over. And Genesis sets us — children of the nations — to want that for us too; restoration from our own exile, the exile from Eden and at Babel into these cities of the world, ruled by these powers and the human rulers who line up with the snake.

So let’s tie these threads together — and maybe the threads of the whole origin story as we’ve seen it. We’ve seen a few times that the end of the story — Revelation — is a new beginning, shaped by the origin story in Genesis. It gives us not just a first story to live by but shows how the gospel becomes our origin story and what the end of the story we’re living towards looks like.

It has the same hero — God — but revealed in a more pointed way in his Son, the victorious King, who appears from Revelation 1 to the end as the Son of Man and Son of God who rules in a way that truly reflects God (Revelation 1:5). John is writing to the church, communities of Jews and Gentiles around the world facing the beastly Babylonian rule of Rome, but he calls Jesus the ruler of the kings of the earth. He says he’s freed us from sin by his blood; ending the claim the powers and principalities had over Israel in Nehemiah, and over all of us from Genesis, and making us a kingdom of priests to serve God (Revelation 1:6). This is what Israel’s called in the Exodus, as they’re called out of the nations, and it’s what we’re called to do as Jesus calls us out of these cities ruled by these kings to live under his rule. He’s come to deal with rebellion in the heavens and the earth — and the same big bad guy, the dragon, Satan (Revelation 12:7-9), and his heavenly and earthly minions — beastly powers and principalities and their human expressions — Nimrod-like cities of Babylon (Revelation 13:4).

And it tells the story that the hero wins. He destroys the beastly and his buddies — the kings of the world, and their armies — the Nimrods in fiery judgment — and the dragon, who he destroys, with the beast, in fiery judgment. He’s the snake crusher (Revelation 19:19-20, 20:10).

Revelation tells this new exodus story, where God’s king calls his people out of Babylon; Babylon and Egypt and Rome and Jerusalem and whatever cities we belong to that teach us that violent grasping is how we secure the good life. Our economies built on grabbing wealth and beauty on our own terms — where we chase Eden life without God — and making a name for ourselves.

It describes this judgment on Babylon, on the cities of Nimrod that started in opposition to God in Genesis; Babylon the great is falling because it has become a dwelling place for demons and impure spirits — for those like the Nephilim, opposed to God (Revelation 18:2). These are the cities of those nations disinherited at Babel and given to these powers, who refuse to come home.

Babylon becomes a symbol of political and economic rebellion against God: wealth, power, an empire opposed to God that corrupts the nations drunk on the lies of the serpent and kingdoms built on grasping (Revelation 18:3-4).

The world that rejects God’s faithful seed faces curse — these Babylons will get something like the plagues that hit Egypt when Abram was there, and when Israel left in the Exodus — something like the flood, because her sins are piled up like bricks in Babel. Revelation describes judgment falling on all the beastly kingdoms represented by Babylon — Rome, Jerusalem, our own human empires — as a result of the death, resurrection, and rule of Jesus.

But God calls us to be like Abram — to come out — leave these empires and find Eden-like life with God, with the fulfillment of the same promises driving us — blessing, a home, and being his nation of priests (Revelation 18:4-5). And we’re invited to hear God’s call to Abram to come out — to live as an exodus people — not a people exiled from God, but people like Abram who know our home is the new Eden — because we’re following a king who brings blessing to those who receive him, and judgment — curse to those who don’t.

Babylon is coming down to earth. Falling. And blessing is going to be found with God’s faithful seed, who’ll bring a heavenly city — a heavenly city brought down from the heavens to earth — an anti-Babel that achieves all the Sons of God and the Nimrods and the Nebuchadnezzars were trying to do; and is a more permanent home than Abram’s life under the Eden-like trees (Revelation 21:1-2).

A new Eden with a new tree of life (Revelation 22:1-2).

The end of the story ties all these threads together, and it invites us to live with this as our story — our hope.

So now we find life under the branches of the tree that gives life — the cross — while we wait for this new tree of life.

We find life with Jesus as the one who connects us to life with God as we feed on him — called to come out of Babylon and come to him (Revelation 22:17).

Abram’s story becomes our story — we all come to a crossroads in life where we have to decide whether to choose Babylon, and the serpent-rulers, or to head towards life up the mountain and into the heavens with God — and for us the crossroads is the cross — where Jesus secures the fate of the serpent, and the earthly kingdoms opposed to him secure their fate too.

Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is such a great picture of this shift. It’s easy for us to ask what does this mean for us, to not live in Babylon even if we reside there. This means — like Israel in literal Babylon — not seeing Babylon as home, and believing its stories about God, the world, and the good life. That’s what these texts did as a story for Israel.

Communion with God doesn’t mean leaving our cities — it actually means living in them, but living differently.

A bit like Israel when they were in exile in Babylon who weren’t, at that point, called to pack up everything and get out like Abram; but to plant their own trees; their own Edens in the city that wanted to be just like Eden but without Israel’s God in the mix; they were to do this and love their neighbors as they lived a better story; seeking the peace and welfare of the violent city (Revelation 18:4-5).

Precisely because they knew God was going to call them out and to a new home, and this was how to testify to that hope; to God’s promise to bring them back in a new exodus (Jeremiah 29:10-11).

The catch is we’re not Israel in exile, or even Israel restored — we’re citizens from the nations, also brought back — not exiles, but those who’re on the journey home to God even as we live in empires that will fall.

The trick is to make homes — to be dwelling places of God in the world, but not to be too at home. To do the Abram and sit under Eden-like trees — not as exiles cut off from God, but as people who know we have a home that we’re waiting for, so that we’re never truly at home in the places we live; we’re foreigners.

There’s an early letter circulated in the Roman empire in the 2nd century, the Epistle to Diognetus, about how Christians lived in this tension. Where they might speak and dress the same as their neighbors. But had a “wonderful and confessedly striking method of life,” dwelling in their countries as sojourners — knowing this isn’t the end of the story because we have a home.

This letter unpacks how Christians lived differently — because we have a different story about what it means to be human. This played out in how Christians shaped their homes — their families and their tables — and how they approached sex. They were marked by generosity — by participating in a different economy. They lived lives on Earth as citizens of Heaven.

Living this better story means not participating in the religious worship of the cities we find ourselves in — which was easier when there were literal temples to sex, and money, and success in the landscape of a city. We’re still worshippers; and we still have our own versions of temples and rituals and sacrifice we make; and we still live in empires built on the capacity to do violence and the desire to constantly grasp our share of capital, as nations and individuals. And we’re called to come out and live differently.

There’s an interesting picture of this in Corinthians — and this’ll lead us into sharing communion together — so can I invite those who’re handing out the bread and juice to come forward, now, and as they do, if you’re someone who’s heard the call out of Babylon, and into life with God — even if you want to take that step today — just grab hold of the bread and the juice and consider what that represents.

In Corinth, Paul talks about the cup of demons (1 Corinthians 10:21). He calls the church not to participate in both the Lord’s cup — being united with Jesus, and this cup of demons. Now, this is almost certainly partly about idol temples, where parties happened at altars, but Corinth was also home to an imperial cult temple; a temple to the deified Caesars — at the highest point of the city. The Roman rulers learned a bunch from Nebuchadnezzar — and the way they talked about the spirit of the emperors who became gods. The thing that made him a god — was his daemonius — his demon.

There’s this inscription about Nero taking the throne that uses this word demon to describe his spirit; his genius:

“…the expectation and hope of the world has been declared emperor, the good genius of the world and the source of all good things, Nero has been declared Caesar” (P. Oxy. 7).

An early Christian, Tertullian, points out that Christians don’t swear to the demon of emperors. Demons are for exorcising:

“We make our oaths, too, not by ‘the genius of the Caesar’ but by his health, which is more august than any genius. Do you not know that genius is a name for daemon? Daemons or geniuses, we are accustomed to exorcise, in order to drive them out of men…” (Tertullian, Ad Nationes, Chapter 17).

To share in the table of the empire was to call Caesar lord, and commit yourself to his rule; and Revelation certainly has Rome in view as a beastly human kingdom. The Corinthians were called to live in the city of Corinth, but under the rule of Jesus — in communion with him — not giving their lives to the earthly kingdoms of people who claimed to be like God and went about doing that through grasping and dominating.

Sharing in the cup of Jesus — at his table — means not being shaped by the violent and grasping patterns of people who believe the origin stories that say ‘this life is all there is’ and we’re just a speck in time and space produced by randomness so we should grab what we can, while we can, or look to make life as long as we can by seizing godlike control of ourselves. And so, we serve the God-king who comes to bring heaven to earth the way Adam was meant to — not by grasping, or becoming beastly, but by giving — and that becomes our pattern; a pattern that’ll produce fruit in our lives as his Spirit dwells in us, and as we tell ourselves his story in our own Babylon, and here is a call to come out.

Will you take and eat this bread remembering the body of Jesus, given for you, that you might live in communion with God; his heavenly life dwelling in you so that your home is this heavenly city, the new Eden?

And will you drink this cup — remembering that you are not united to Satan or demons or the powers and principalities that make Babylon; that Jesus drank the judgment poured out on those empires for you on the cross, so you might drink from his cup and share life with him under the trees of the new Eden, by living waters.

Origin Story — Why be a brickman when you can be a brick, man?

This is an amended version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. If you’d prefer to listen to this (Spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 43 minutes.

Do you want your name to last beyond your time here on Earth? I don’t know my grandfather’s father’s name on either side of my family. Do you?

It’s unlikely any of us will be remembered in a hundred years. And I’m increasingly okay with that—I guess because I realize that there are people whose names we remember because they did outrageously awful things, like Judas, Hitler, Nimrod, or John Dring, who invented the first instant coffee in 1771.

We can try to make a name for ourselves—but others have sought to make a name for their city or nation.

Building projects—making giant stuff—is one way to put a place ‘on the map,’ like Coffs Harbour with its Big Banana, Nambour with its Big Pineapple, or the Gold Coast with its Big Clive. If anybody has tried to make a name for themselves in Australia this year—Nimrod style—it’s the guy who has put up billboards and images of himself everywhere.

This isn’t just an Aussie thing—we do like our big things—but in Brazil, there’s a town trying to make a name for itself using the name and image of Jesus.

Obviously, Rio de Janeiro has had its Christ the Redeemer statue for ages; this town, Encantado, has built a taller Jesus statue—five meters taller—Christ the Protector.

I just love this image from construction time.

But now, you can take photos from his heart.

How lovely.

Just what Jesus and the first commandment wanted us to do.

You can book your holidays now—and while you’re there—maybe you could book a trip to the Creation Museum in America— built by Aussie Ken Ham— where work is beginning on a Tower of Babel; a life-size replica.

Human projects are so often part of us attempting heaven on Earth projects in our name, not God’s. And look, neither the Jesus statues nor the replica Tower of Babel are only built to make a person or town’s name famous, but they feel like other big things. Tourist attractions rather than architecture representing heaven on Earth like—say—the Temple in the Old Testament.

I can’t help thinking the builders of these projects haven’t quite nailed the way the Bible approaches monumental building projects—whether they’re bricks and mortar, or ways to promote His name.

So the Babel story has some background. One way to read it is as a prequel to the events we read last week because here the whole world’s got one language (Genesis 11:1). In chapter 10, in the table of nations, the text says these nations spread across the world each with their own languages (Genesis 10:5). It’s also more of the Bible’s origin story of Babel — Babylon— which we were told Nimrod built last week (Genesis 10:10). The passage starts on the plain of Shinar (Genesis 11:2-3), a word that’s also translated as “Babylonia” in the Old Testament, like in Daniel (Daniel 1:3). We’ll see that this story relates to other origin stories, and especially the Enuma Elish, the story of the creation of the city of Babylon and its temple tower as a gateway between the heavens and the earth.

There’s also some Genesis backstory that I reckon should inform the way we see this. Let’s remember that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth (Genesis 1:1), and that for the first readers of this text, their concept of reality was that heaven is high above the earth—through the dome. God created humans to represent Him on Earth like God rules—with the ‘us’ He speaks to in Genesis 1—in the heavens (Genesis 1:26-28, Psalm 8:5-6).

We’ve seen how there are other heavenly beings who are part of a divine council — heavenly rulers — in the Bible’s story, and how some of these sons of God tried to bring heaven to Earth on their own terms in the whole Nephilim episode; they try to bring heaven down (Genesis 6:4). I mentioned then that Babel is a mirror of that story with humans trying to bring heaven and Earth together from the ground, even from bricks made from the ground (Genesis 11:4).

There’s just a couple of other things to bear in mind here too — we open with this final move eastward (Genesis 11:2). This is as far east of Eden as we get in the story of Genesis; that movement that began with humanity’s exile from the garden ends here in Babylon (Genesis 3:24, 4:16), and the construction of a city (Genesis 11:4). So far cities have been bad places in Genesis; human versions of the garden, but without God. The only other use of the word city that’s used here is for the city Cain built, that became the city of his violent descendant Lamech (Genesis 4:17). The word used for city means fortified or guarded place. What’s interesting here is that the word for garden that we get in Genesis is literally an enclosed place (Genesis 2:8).

We’ve got these two sorts of places that are marked out as ‘not the wilderness’ — and I reckon they unfold in contrasting ways; one type of non-desolate land is made by God, with boundaries He establishes, while the other’s made by humans who’re trying to recreate heavenly life outside Eden — with the walls we put up, and trying to shove heavenly life in on our terms.

Walls were an interesting part of nation building — the capacity to shift life in the ancient world from nomadic to something like urban life. You can read a bunch about them in this book Walls: A History of Civilisation in Blood and Brick.

Walls separated the desolate and uninhabited land in the ancient world — where nomadic warrior people and shepherds would roam, fighting off predators, plundering the weak — from the cultured city space where people lived in comfort and security, protected from the wilderness, where they would carry their goods — and bricks — in baskets. Here’s a quote:

“The world outside their walls was not exactly uninhabited, but it was, in the eyes of the basket carriers, dangerous. This was civilization in its infancy: every city its own frontier, never far from hostile neighbors in the mountains, desert, or steppe.”

People living behind walls found comfort, security, and wealth, so kings through the ancient world would brag about their wall building as the source of their power.

Chapter 1 of Walls explores exactly this period in history — life before Babel. Before baked bricks. Before bricks walls were just mud, and they’d sink, and you couldn’t defend them. Baked bricks, like we find in Babel, brought a whole new era of building stuff to make a name for yourself, and to build with ambition; a whole new way to make new Edens, or cities. Here’s another quote:

“Lacking sufficient fuel to bake all their mud bricks, the Mesopotamians settled for drying them in the sun, a process that created building blocks of such dubious quality that they could not withstand even occasional rain.”

So we zero in on the origin story for this city — Babel — Babylon — the story of Nimrod the warrior king from chapter 10 getting people together to build a city trying to bring heaven on Earth, to make a name for himself like he’s a Nephilim; so he’s not just a mighty warrior, but a man of name. They’re on a plain — not a mountain — and he’s using this new brick technology (Genesis 10:10).

Genesis is retelling the story of the god-king Gilgamesh — whose epic is an origin story shaping the life of other nations in Mesopotamia. On the very first tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic, one of the very first boasts is that he built the wall and the temple of the city of Uruk — which Genesis 10:10 said was one of the cities Nimrod built.

Here are some quotes from the Gilgamesh Epic:

“He carved on a stone stela all of his toils, and built the wall of Uruk-Haven, the wall of the sacred Eanna Temple, the holy sanctuary. Look at its wall which gleams like copper…

Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around, examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly. Is not even the core of the brick structure made of kiln-fired brick…

One league city, one league palm gardens, one league lowlands, the open area of the Ishtar Temple, three leagues and the open area of Uruk the wall encloses.”

Nimrod, in the Israelite imagination, is Gilgamesh.

The Epic says these walls were made from kiln-fired bricks, and the walls encompassed this whole open area — the temple, the city, and the plains. Where that epic tells the story of Uruk, Genesis zeroes in on the Nimrod-Gilgamesh character building Babylon. We’re going to meet a later Babylonian brickman in a bit — but for now the camera’s pointed on Nimrod and his quest moving from a forgettable nomad to a builder of cities — from being a warrior on the Earth, to a warrior king directing earthworks — building walls and filling the space behind them.

Look what the goal is here as they build a city and then a tower to reach the heavens from the Earth; literally it’s a tower with its head in the heavens (Genesis 11:4). It’s the same word for the top of the mountains in the flood (Genesis 8:5). They want to make a name for themselves and not be scattered — only, we’ve just seen the nations scattered already; so we know how that’s going to go, and we know that humans were meant to fill the Earth — spreading — spreading a garden meeting place between heaven and earth made by God rather than a city made by humans (Genesis 1:28, 11:4). Remember too, somewhere in the Israelite imagination, at least according to Ezekiel, Eden was a mountain (Ezekiel 28:13-14). In Genesis 3, Eden was a meeting place between heaven and Earth, where God walked — and — that’s exactly what Nimrod and his buddies are trying to build (Genesis 3:8).

This tower to the heavens is what is called a ziggurat — a type of temple from the ancient world. It’s more than a temple, it’s a gateway between heaven and Earth. A set of steps that the gods could climb down, so Nimrod the Brickman builds one of these Ziggurats.

We have names recorded for ziggurats from nations around the same time — that are all variations on the theme ‘Mountain House’ — these buildings — like this one in Ashur that was called “the house of the mountain” — this was man-made, and its ruins look like a mountain.

Or there’s this one in Nippur called “the house of the mountain of heaven and earth” — these were man-made mountains with their heads in the heavens.

The Mesopotamian region had their own walled-garden-mountain-temple idea — their own Eden, and that’s what is being built here; a gateway, in a city, to bring divine beings — God, or sons of God — down to earth. It’s a staircase to make the events of Genesis 6 happen again — bringing heavenly life to earthly people to make their name. It’s a monumental project.

In Babylon’s own creation story the Enuma Elish, there’s a tower just like this. Only in that story the tower is built by the gods so they can come down. In this story, Marduk, the chief god, tells humans to build Babylon by making bricks. Here are some quotes:

“Build Babylon, the task you have sought. Let bricks for it be moulded, and raise the shrine!” The Anunnaki wielded the pick. For one year they made the needed bricks.

They raised the peak of Esagil, a replica of the Apsû. They built the lofty temple tower of the Apsû.”


“Be-l seated the gods, his fathers, at the banquet. In the lofty shrine which they had built for his dwelling, Saying, “This is Babylon, your fixed dwelling, Take your pleasure here! Sit down in joy!”

When they “raise the peak of Esagil,” that’s a word that translates as “the house that raises its head,” it’s a replica of the Apsû — which are those flowing living waters in the Babylonian story. A mountain where the waters of life flow out (that sounds like Eden). They build a lofty temple tower. So the gods come down and party with them in Babylon — their “fixed dwelling,” this lofty tower.

The Babel story turns this on its head.

The Gilgamesh-Nimrod king who wants to be a Nephilim — who wants to make a name for himself — he’s not a grand heavenly player who is godlike; he’s a wannabe. He has this grand unity plan to make himself a god on earth, but things don’t go the way he wants. There’s no divine party. Before they even finish the tower that is meant to bring heaven to earth, God comes down (Genesis 11:5).

He takes one look at this tower project — and there’s an echo of Genesis 3 here — where there he says “they’ll be like one of us” — when they already were, he says if they finish this “nothing they plan will be impossible” (Genesis 11:6). This is another push to be godlike — heavenly humans on earth, but they’re doing it wrong.

They’re trying to build a Garden of Eden — a place where God dwells on earth with His people — rather than receiving that as a gift from God. It’s an attempt to build security and paradise and a name on earthly terms, with baked earth, rather than letting God make His name great through His earthly representatives — images of His heavenly rule — given life by His breath.

So God — just like he does in Genesis chapter 1 — says “Let us” (Genesis 1:26, 11:7). There’s a plural here that could be God talking within the Trinity, or it could be God talking to the divine council — and there’s a reason to think that’s what’s in view here that we’ll see in a minute. Then rather than the humans coming up into heaven, or building a tower that enables God to come down — God comes down to confuse — which is the same word for Babel or Babylon in Hebrew — He Babylons the people, scattering them all over the world, and the city doesn’t even get finished — this heaven on Earth project doesn’t work out; even if Babylon is going to look great, and bricky, and powerful with its garden mountains and lofty temples and big walls — it isn’t Eden. It offers no security.

And this scattering—into nation states around the earth—it’s an act of judgment on these nations (Genesis 11:8-9). We’ve picked up Deuteronomy 32 a couple of times in this series—back when we were talking about the sons of God, where we noticed that there’s a good reason to translate this verse as God setting up the boundaries of the nations according to the numbers not of the sons of Israel, who haven’t been born yet when the nations are scattered in Genesis 10 and 11, but according to the sons of God (Deuteronomy 32:8-9). This act of scattering in Genesis is him disinheriting the nations—giving them to the sons of God, these other heavenly beings in the divine council to be ruled by these powers and principalities—while God keeps his own people, Israel, as his portion—his own inheritance.

There’s a warning here about what’ll happen if God’s upright people—Jeshurun means upright—abandon the God who made them—fathered them—and who saves them—to bow down to these gods—idols, and literally here in bold demons—a word only used twice in the Old Testament—but the nations aren’t condemned for this idolatry here (Deuteronomy 32:15-17). Just Israel, who’re God’s children. The punishment for this people; it’s to be scattered and to have their name erased (Deuteronomy 32:26). It’s exactly what the people in Babel wanted to avoid; and what happens to everyone at Babel.

Reading Deuteronomy this way—picking up a thread from Babel—I reckon, is compelling when you look at how Genesis moves from the people who want to make a name to the line of the son of Noah whose name is Name, the line that now runs all the way to Abram, whose name God is going to make great as he blesses the nations (Genesis 12:1-3). We’ll see more of Abram’s story next week—and there’s another good reason to read Deuteronomy 32, and its commentary on God’s relationship to the nations and to Israel this way that comes a little earlier in Deuteronomy, in chapter 4, where God says all the other nations have been given over to the worship of these other heavenly bodies—the host of heaven, while Israel has been brought out of the furnace of Egypt—like a cast idol statue—a baked people—as God’s inheritance (Deuteronomy 4:19-20). It’s similar to the language Exodus uses when it talks about Israel as a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:5-6).

God’s people are called out of the scattering that happens when Nimrod builds this temple city of Babylon to make a name for himself; this walled centre of security trying to bring heaven and earth together on human terms. Cities can be like this — centres of human security without God appearing to set the boundaries, which is part of the story for Israel through its history as it comes to have its own cities, and its own walls, and its own heaven on earth spaces—the tabernacle, while they’re living as people without walls; people roaming the earth heading towards a destination—the promised land.

On their journey, we’re often told about the cities in the land as though they’re little Babylons—walled cities full of violent people—led by giant kings—that was what scared the spies who were sent into the promised land (Numbers 13:28). On their journey, we’re told about these big cities, with big walls and giant people—like King Og, or the Anakites, as though these walls offer security against God’s plans (Deuteronomy 3:3-5, 9:1-2), but like Jericho with its famous wall tumbling story—these walls weren’t a barrier to God.

Israel is warned that when they turn to idolatry and get scattered—these same walls, in their cities, won’t protect them either. He’ll bring a nation against them from far away. A nation whose language they won’t understand, who’ll tear down their city walls, and cart them off. They’ll be scattered just like the people in Babel—only they’ll be scattered into Babel itself (Deuteronomy 28:50-52, 64). The seeds for the exile are planted in the Babel story, and in the way the Old Testament picks up these threads.

So this becomes a particularly interesting story for Israel while they’re in exile in Babylon. Nimrod isn’t the only Gilgamesh figure in the Bible. He’s not the only brickman. What he does with his cities and the Babel story in Genesis, king Nebuchadnezzar repeats—and Daniel wants us to see the repeat of the name-making warrior king—a Nimrod—who wants his own version of heaven on Earth; his own Eden.

Babylon’s king Nebuchadnezzar was a mighty warrior king in history who expanded Babylon’s empire—including by taking the southern kingdom of Judah into exile—he might’ve inspired just how popular the Gilgamesh Epic became by being a city-building god-king. He was a famous brickman. Like Nimrod who built with baked bricks and tar, he built walls (Genesis 11:3).

There are stacks of surviving inscriptions like this one about his building projects; where he brags about the strong wall he made with bitumen and baked bricks, building this as high as a mountain. Just like in Gilgamesh. Just like in Babel.

Here’s a translation from some of the inscriptions:

“I built a strong wall that cannot be shaken with bitumen and baked bricks… I laid its foundation on the breast of the netherworld, and I built its top as high as a mountain.

I added to the palace and raised it as high as a mountain with bitumen and baked brick.

I constructed a strong, sixty-cubit spur of land along the Euphrates River and thereby created dry land. With bitumen and baked brick, I secured its foundation on the surface of the netherworld, at the level of the water table, and raised its superstructure.

As for the merciless, evil-doer… I drove away his arrows by reinforcing the wall of Babylon like a mountain. I strengthened the protection of Esagil and established the city of Babylon as a fortress.”

Nebuchadnezzar the Nimrod brags over and over about building brick mountains. Even that he made dry ground on the waters—like Genesis, but also like the tower in Babylon’s creation story—and in Babel—out of bitumen and baked brick. He brags about driving back Babylon’s enemies and protecting the ‘house that rises its head’—establishing Babylon as a fortress.

And every brick laid was Nebuchadnezzar making a name for himself—it’s estimated there were 15 million bricks used in his construction projects—bricks like this one.

Each one was imprinted with his name and a list of his achievements as a temple builder who made tower-mountains that reached the heavens. These braggy inscriptions were on every brick, on every wall, and built into the foundation of every project.

You want to make a name for yourself in Babylon, you be a brick-man. A Nimrod. A Nebuchadnezzar.

Daniel draws a link between Nebuchadnezzar and the Babel story.

He starts off with Israel being brought to the plain of Shinar, and then, over time, has Nebuchadnezzar getting too big for his boots in a ‘head in the heavens’ scene. This time it’s not with bricks but with gold. Nebuchadnezzar, like Nimrod, goes to the plains of Babylon and he builds a giant tower with its head in the heavens (Genesis 11:2-4, Daniel 3:1), only this tower isn’t a ziggurat, it’s a giant image — it uses the same word as Genesis 1 just in Aramaic — it’s a giant golden image of God, representing his rule.

He does this right after Daniel interprets a dream where Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom was a gold bit of a statue made from different materials; it’s just the head (Daniel 2:38-39). He wakes up and builds the entire ‘man’ of his dreams from gold. He’s claiming his kingdom and name will last forever; that he’s the one who’ll bring heaven and earth together as he unites all people under his rule; people of every language bowing and worshipping on his command (Daniel 3:4-5). What a Nimrod.

Just imagine for a moment reading the Babel story while you’re in Babylon. That’s where the big story of Israel’s history — Genesis to 2 Kings — ends up. Imagine reading about Nimrod while carting around bricks with Nebuchadnezzar’s name on them, building his towers. The book of Daniel is a kind of ‘after the event’ commentary on faithful life in this moment in history, but the Genesis story invites you to see Babylon and its mountainous buildings that are trying to link Babylon to the gods, and its Gilgamesh-like king who is uniting the earth while trying to make his name great with these building projects as a dead end. As a path to disinheritance and being scattered, and being brought down. Nebuchadnezzar is a Nimrod; and so is anyone who tries to unite heaven and earth without God.

But God has a heaven and earth reunion project he’s working on through history (Daniel 2:44), one that centers on a king who brings heaven to earth in a forever kingdom as he lives not for his own name, but for God’s — a son of Abraham — who brings blessing and restoration to all nations.

Another inversion of the Babel story comes with the nations, not just Israel, being not disinherited but re-adopted. That’s the story Paul tells when he visits Athens; a modern-to-his-day Babylon, with amazing walls and lots and lots of idol images (Acts 17:26, 30-31). He looks at these images as attempts to reach heaven, and how God’s plan was to bring all people back to himself, even after they’re given the boundaries of their lands, Deuteronomy 32 style; given over to the powers and principalities and this temple building idolatry. He says something has shifted in the heavens and the earth, where the God who “isn’t served by human hands building stuff out of bricks” has revealed himself through this one man; Jesus, who is now the ruler of the heavens and the earth — and all nations. Jesus the anti-Nimrod, who calls us out of our own building projects and into his.

Those are two threads tied up, but what about the bricks and the temple building? Our “brickman” tendencies to get swept up in the name-building project of our empires? Or even our own name-building, image-making efforts; whether that’s to make a name for ourselves now, in our own spaces, or to be like a Nimrod or a Nebuchadnezzar or a Big Clive, or a Donald, trying to build a kingdom that will last.

Here’s a fun payoff for that thread. Babel was a temple-building project, trying to bring heaven and earth together, which is ultimately God’s plan for the renewal of the heavens and the earth. At the end of the Bible’s story we see the heavenly city descend so humans live with God, and have his name written on us (Revelation 21:1-2, 22:4). There’s a rabbit hole here where the Hebrew word for “brick” is basically “white stone,” and the faithful church gets a white stone with a new name written on it, as we’re called out of Babylon in Revelation (Revelation 2:17).

But we’re not called to be brickmen — Nimrods, Nebuchadnezzars, or Clives — we’re called to be a brick… Man.

We’re not people who use bricks to make a name for ourselves, but bricks swept up and joined together in God’s building project — connected to the living stone — Jesus. Jesus, God’s living image who reveals what life lived for God’s name looks like; the true Israel and the forever king, who calls us to join in his Exodus-styled kingdom of priests—his living temple—as we journey towards this heavenly home (1 Peter 2:4-5).

The idea isn’t to build monuments or monumental lives so our names’ll be remembered like Nebuchadnezzars—but for our lives to be temple-like monuments to him; as we become a living temple, together, proclaiming the name of Jesus because we know that God remembers our names and we are heirs with Jesus who live lives with this as our story. Nebuchadnezzar might’ve built Babylon with 15 million bricks with his name on them; God is building a heavenly temple with billions of living bricks, through history, with his name written on us.

We’re not brick builders trying to bridge heaven and earth on our own terms, but bricks with God’s name stamped on us, showing the world what God’s bridge between heaven on earth looks like as we get swept up in his program to proclaim the name of Jesus. Being part of this building project is the anti-Babel way to invite people to meet the anti-Nimrod king who brings the nations back into relationship with God through his death, resurrection, and the pouring out of God’s Spirit to give us heavenly life here on earth.

Origin Story — Don’t be a Nimrod

This is an amended version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. If you’d prefer to listen to this (Spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 34 minutes.

You’ve heard about the State of Origin, well, in this section of Genesis, we’re reading about the origin of states, nation-states, to be precise. It turns out, in the Bible’s narrative, these entities are more connected than we might think; they’re part of the same family tree, even while they appear to be lifelong rivals.

In our last section of the Genesis story things were looking up. Noah resembled a new Adam, ruling over the animals — saving them, providing for them, releasing them to be fruitful and multiply. And like a priest, he was building an altar, making a sacrifice — a precursor to the atonement sacrifices made in the temple by a righteous representative. They were even on a mountain, a heaven-meets-earth space, where God promised not to destroy everything again, even though there’s a hint that nothing in the hearts of humans had changed.

In this section there’s even more Eden imagery at play. Adam, the man of the ground, placed in Eden, is replaced by Noah, the man of the ground, who plants a vineyard. It produces fruit, and Noah enjoys the fruit of his labours — too much. Like Adam and Eve, he encounters some trouble with the fruit in his garden, and he becomes unashamedly naked. He lies uncovered in his tent.

Now, Noah finds himself in trouble. But let’s just examine some of the parallels to Genesis 2 — where Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed; there was no risk. They were meant to enjoy the fruit of the garden. Noah does something dumb, but this is not a repeat of the fall here — he becomes the fruit, lying there, unable to act. Noah becomes a test for his sons. Sin is crouching at their door. Will they be like another ‘ground man’ — Cain?

Something super sketchy happens here, and there’s a bit of “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” happening. Ham fails. He “saw his father naked” (Genesis 9:22).  We’re primed to see his actions as problematic because, when Noah’s sons are reintroduced, we get the sideways comment that Ham is the father of Canaan an historic enemy of God’s people at any time this story is being read as part of the Torah when it is completed (Genesis 9:18, 22). He’s the father of the Nephilim-sized enemies who pop up (Numbers 13:32). Genesis 6 should be ringing in our ears as readers. There’s a good case that behind this euphemism we’re reading the origin story of Canaan, and “seeing his uncovered father naked” is innuendo for something sinister. In Genesis 2, nakedness is neutral; there’s nothing to suggest that seeing nakedness itself is a sin; there’s something more happening. Ham is cursed because he does something wrong.

In Genesis 3, once sin enters the picture, coverings are first made by people, then by God as protection from our vulnerability to beastly predators who’ll take advantage of nakedness — a pattern maybe implied with the Sons of God ‘seeing’ human women that we see explicitly as David acts as a predatory Son of God and takes Bathsheba.

Ham’s transgression is a big deal; it’s a fall; he gets cursed as a result (Genesis 9:25). I’m not sure we’re meant to think he just had a laugh at his nude dad. There’s something going on where he is dishonouring, maybe even usurping his dad in a repeat of the sort of grasping evil that has led to a curse so far, it’s a pretty seedy origin story for Canaan.

Because when Leviticus — the same part of the Old Testament, by the same author, talks about uncovering people’s nakedness, well, here’s how the ESV translates these same Hebrew words in Leviticus 18:7: “don’t uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother” — and that’s a euphemism for sex. Then, Deuteronomy uses the same Hebrew phrase here in this verse — that says a man shall not take his father’s wife, or uncover his father’s nakedness. So later on, you read about Lot and his daughters, who get their dad drunk — in a sort of mirror of this story — to produce children who become the Moabites and Ammonites (Genesis 19:35-37). You can take all that with a grain of salt; but the parallels are there, and so is the law — even if it makes us feel a bit seedy, which is maybe an unfortunate play on words when we’re trying to follow the line of seed that will produce a serpent crusher; rather than the seedy, beastly humanity we see running around in the story.

But before we follow Ham, the father of Canaan’s line, we see Noah’s other two sons acting rightly. They act like God in the Garden, covering up Noah’s nakedness without bringing him shame. They go above and beyond to do what is right for their father. When Noah wakes up; he finds out what Ham has done, and acts like God, pronouncing a curse on Ham’s line (Genesis 9:24-25). Ham’s seedy line is not the line of seed. His line will be the lowest of the low; literally the servant of servants, like a serpent on its belly, and he gives a blessing to their brothers (Genesis 9:26-27). That will be a pattern that repeats in Genesis. It’s also one we’ve seen before; one brother receiving blessing and approval, while the other receives a curse because sin devoured him and made him a devourer. It’s these two family lines, God’s children and the serpent’s — a line of blessing, and a line of curse — continuing.

Shem’s really the one to watch — it’s a fun side fact that his name literally means “name,” especially because we’re going to see people keep trying to make a name for themselves… but he and Japheth are blessed, while Ham isn’t even named now; just his kid Canaan, and the nation his line represents in the story.

Then we’re told Noah dies (Genesis 9:28-29), and we get a long list of the generations of Noah’s kids  in what gets called the Table of Nations (Genesis 10). This is how the Genesis origin story offers an origin story for all the people Israel knew or dealt with in their national life in the Old Testament.

It’s a weird genealogy because it’s very deliberately stylized; it becomes a sort of symbolic picture of all the people of the world — there are seven times ten nations — those numbers repeat all through the Torah — seventy nations. Everyone.

This section is bracketed with this statement that all the people come from this family tree. This origin story — like with Genesis 1 — is making the point that everyone under heaven, even Israel’s enemies who they might want to see as not human, everyone was made to perform the same function; to represent God; and everyone in the story comes from the same flesh and blood — the one humanity. We have the same breath of life in our lungs, and the same lifeblood pumping through our bodies by our hearts.

And we’ll see, in the line of Ham — we get the Bible’s origin story for Babylon; it’ll retell that story from a different angle in the story we look at next week, because it’s going to become a big deal in the Bible’s story.

In Japheth’s line, we get a whole bunch of nations, and then we zero in on just two of their sons — Gomer and Javan — to get a spreading out into other nations — and these nations will become pretty significant in the trajectory of the Old Testament story.

So, for example, Javan is the Hebrew word for Greece, and the others found coastal city-states of the Mediterranean. These nations are spreading, each with their own language… and there’s an interesting chronology thing going on here with the Babel story where these languages emerge in the narrative; this chapter foreshadows and provides some broader background for chapter 11.

Then we meet Ham’s kids — Cush, which is Ethiopia — then Egypt, where Israel spends time in slavery and captivity before the Exodus, Put, and Canaan — the giant enemies of God who occupy the land. In this line we meet sons and nations that share names with places watered by the rivers of Eden (Havilah and Cush, see Genesis 2:11-14). Presumably, the story is telling us that the life that flowed through Eden ultimately flowed out and watered the land and provided life where these nations would spring up from the ground after the flood. The other rivers — the Tigris and Euphrates — head into Babylon.

And that’s where we go next, from Ham, via Cush, we get the story of the founding of later, and maybe greatest, enemies of God’s people. Babylon and Assyria (Genesis 10:8-12), other than this bit, the Table of Nations is mostly a genealogy with a few bits of commentary thrown in, but we throw to story mode here, which makes you think this bit is at the centre of the narrator’s purposes.

We’re told some details about the founder of these later empires that throw back to pre-flood life, or patterns. Nimrod is a mighty warrior — just like the Nephilim — it’s the same in the Hebrew as the ‘heroes of old’ (Genesis 10:8, Genesis 6:4). This is a human who spreads bloodshed like Cain and Lamech and the Nephilim; a violent ruler, perpetuating the type of behaviour that caused the flood. He’s a warrior “on the earth” (Genesis 10:8); we’ve been set up to see earth as different from heaven, and as the domain for human rule as we fill the earth, and he’s filling the earth with violence.

His name comes to mean ‘mighty hunter’ because — even though animals have only just been given to humans as food, he’s a real good beast-master — a beast-killer (Genesis 10:9).  It didn’t take long between God giving Noah and his descendants animals to eat — with the caveat that animals would fear humans — for Nimrod to give a reason why. This isn’t the sort of rule Genesis 1 pictures for humans over animals, it’s not how Noah cared for the animals. He’s an anti-Adam who builds violent cities instead of a garden (Genesis 10:10-12).

From there, we get the whole list of the people who will enslave Israel, or who they have to displace from the lands later, and a description of them spreading out into that land (Genesis 10:13-20).

Ham’s line isn’t going to be the line where the seed of the story we follow comes from — it’s a dead end filled with violent and grasping nations who get caught up in a cycle of violence, and who’ll violently oppose God’s kingdom coming. The beastly line of Ham produces Canaan and Babylon and Nephilim-like heroes like Nimrod.

And one of the points here — in this narrative — especially if you’re reading the story in one of these empires — is don’t be a Nimrod — there’ll be a tradition that expands from here that pictures God’s people as shepherds who exert mastery over beasts, but who care for animals as an analogy to how God cares for people, and of God’s people beating swords into plowshares — resisting these patterns. Not being like Nimrod and his bloody empires. Empires built on seedy sex — ‘uncovering the nakedness’ of others, and bloody violence; empires that consume.

It makes you wonder how much we participate in systems of violence in our cities and empires — how much we benefit from Babylon and our own Nimrods, even in our consumer choices and how we treat animals — and look, this is a rabbit hole — but this is one of the reasons I went from thinking cheap eggs were good stewardship because we could use the money to look after people or save their souls, to thinking more carefully about what I buy; and it’s part of what’s admirable about those who choose to be vegetarian or vegan in order to not be a Nimrod. I don’t think you have to do that, but it’s a costly decision not to benefit from the Babylons around us. You can’t call people out of Babylon if you’re busy loving life in it.

But we start getting a seed planted here, for the Hebrew reader — because in Shem’s line we get the line of Eber — the Hebrew word for Hebrew (Genesis 10:24). This is the family tree that the rest of the story is going to keep following — all the way to Jesus. We’ve met men of name — the Nephilim — and we’ll see humans trying to make a name for themselves next week in Babel; but Shem’s name is literally the Hebrew word for name; and his family will be the one who represents God’s name in the world. And this is another story where God picks the younger brother, not the older.

This family ends up in the eastern hill country (Genesis 10:30). There’s another movement east; God will call them back from the east when he calls a descendant of this line — Abram — to come and live in the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:1).

But this table of nations wraps up as it begins — reminding us not of the future violence that will tear this family tree apart, but that this is one family spread out through the earth (Genesis 10:32). The story suggests all people share something in common in our humanity; and if we go back far enough in the origin story, it’s that we’re made to live as God’s image in the world; to be fruitful and multiply as we represent Him in the way we rule creation. That’s a stunning view of one’s neighbours, especially one’s enemies — to see one another as siblings. If you’re one of the Hebrew people, whose story this becomes, especially if those neighbours are staring at you along the blade of a sword, making you a slave in Egypt or an exile in Babylon, this is a powerfully different view from the stories you’ll find in those nations ruled by the Nimrods of the world.

As the story of the Bible unfolds, all the nations — even the Hebrews — end up like Nimrod; trying to build kingdoms on violence and bloodshed. And they all end up violently opposed to God — going to war not just with his people, but with him.

So in the story of this line of seed — that becomes the twelve tribes of Israel, and then the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin — the Jews — the story that becomes the Old Testament — these nations pop up over and over again until it all comes to a head. In Ezekiel, God promises to go to war with these nations of the world — nations from our table here, descendants of the sons of Noah — he says, “I am against you” — and names names who come from the table of nations — from the lines of Ham and Japheth — or their descendants. God says he’ll bring all the troops — the warriors — out… from the many nations — a mighty horde of Nimrods who violently oppose God’s people, and then God will destroy these nations (Ezekiel 38:3-6). He will execute judgment the way he did on Egypt — plagues — the many nations will be confronted by God’s holiness, and he’ll make himself known to “these many nations” — the nations of Genesis 10 — the whole world, so they will know he is the Lord (Ezekiel 38:23).

Daniel also picks up the table of nations. After the fall of Babylon and its great Nimrod-like king Nebuchadnezzar (who we’ll see more of next post) comes Persia — a lesser empire. It gets swallowed up in a violent war against the “Kingdom of Javan” (this gets translated as Greece for us in the English), but it’s the same word as in Genesis 10 (Daniel 11:2-3). There a mighty king will be raised up — probably Alexander the Great; a giant Nimrod. Once he dies two Greek empires, based in Egypt to the south, and Syria to the north, fight to the death. This all happened in history and it’s possible that the final written form of Daniel reflects this history. The conflict swallows up the nations of the Table of Nations, as these Nimrods slaughter thousands (Daniel 11:11-13), until the massive Nimrod from the south dies (Daniel 11:45).

But as these nations rage, and these kingdoms rise and fall, God still reigns. Daniel ends with this picture of God’s Kingdom emerging at this time, in this violent world of Nimrods, mighty warriors of the earth, the Kingdom of Heaven will turn up (Daniel 12:1-2). Daniel says when this happens — when God’s Kingdom emerges — the wise will shine not like earthly Nimrods (or even earthling Adams), but like the brightness of the Heavens; shining like stars (Daniel 12:3). He’s already pictured this happening when the Son of Man enters the throne room of Heaven (Daniel 7:13-14).

So, let’s tie up some threads. We’ve got Noah, a new Adam who fails, and whose son fails spectacularly and is cursed to become a servant of servants. From his line, we don’t get servants but Nimrods — anti-Adams — enemies of God’s people. Ultimately, all the lines in the table of nations become like Babylon — like Nimrod — even the Hebrews, which is why they end up in exile, living by the sword and dying by it. We’re waiting for a kingdom of shining heavenly people to emerge, led by a king who won’t take on the grasping pattern of Ham, or be a violent warrior king.

This king builds an empire with power but reveals God’s glory to the world. By the end of Daniel’s timeline — and the Old Testament — all these nations and empires have been united under the biggest Nimrod of all. What Babylon, Persia, and Greece tried to do, Rome does. Rome is an empire that unites these nations through violence. And the cross is where all these threads are tied together.

Jesus — the true Israel — has returned from exile. He’s crossed the Jordan and entered Jerusalem from the east, and entered the temple to cleanse it. At the cross, Jesus is surrounded by a bunch of Nimrods. The armies of all the nations from the table of nations, united under the banner of Rome. Even Israel joins in. These Nimrods put him to death because, like the Nephilim and the serpent, this violence has always been aimed at overthrowing God. And God’s judgment falls on the world, as he also reveals His king and saviour, who ascends to heaven as the Son of Man.

And we have a choice.

We live in a world of Nimrods. In states, and economies, built on violence, grasping, and seedy sex. We turn anything into a fight. Nation against nation. State against state. Culture against culture. Mate against mate. Sibling against sibling. Sport. Politics. Conflicts in community groups, families, even churches. We fight culture wars and jump on bandwagons behind people fighting the good fight. Sometimes we even fight for good things without realizing we’re using the weapons of warfare handed to us by Babylon, so that we become just like our neighbours.

We’ll either pick a Nimrod — or Goliath — a champion — to represent us, or try to be a hero making a name for ourselves in these fights, and that’s just stupid.

We’re called to be people of peace, following the Prince of Peace, not Nimrods.

Look how Paul describes how Jesus fulfills all these threads. We’re not waiting for this kingdom to emerge, for some future battle — the kingdom is emerging, and with it comes a new non-Nimrod pattern for life. Paul says in our relationships we should have the same mindset as Jesus (Philippians 2:5). He’s just unpacked that as having the same love as Jesus, pursuing oneness in his way of life. He says we should do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit — not try to make a name for ourselves — but be humble (Philippians 2:3-4). This is an anti-violent, anti-grasping, anti-Nimrod, anti-Ham, anti-Cain, anti-serpent way of life.

It’s the way Jesus lived when he didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped. Adam and Eve, Cain, the sons of God, Ham, they all take things to serve themselves, chasing equality with God. Jesus didn’t seize anything for his own advantage, but made himself nothing, became a servant. Ham’s curse was service. Jesus takes on Ham’s curse. He even becomes human (Philippians 2:6-7). God being made in human likeness is an upside-down Genesis 1. Jesus becomes obedient to death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). He lets the beastly Nimrods kill him to expose the evil human heart that even kills God if it meant we could grab more, and at the same time exposing the heart of God that we’re called to share, as his children.

And as he takes on what looks like a curse, descending from the heights of heaven to become the lowest on earth, as he’s given over to violent human empires, God exalts him to the highest place, and he gives him a name — a Shem — above every name, so that at his name not only should every Hebrew knee bow but every knee in heaven and on earth and even under the earth — heavenly and earthly creatures — all the characters we’ve met in Genesis, and every human ever — will bow to him as Lord and King (Philippians 2:10-11). Jesus is the King who brings the kingdom pictured in Daniel — the anti-Nimrod King of the anti-Babylon, and who makes God’s name known in fulfilment of Ezekiel (Philiippians 2:12).

And if we join the kingdom of the anti-Nimrod and take up his call to be people of peace who bow our knee to him, receiving his Spirit to change our hearts and minds — taking on his pattern of love, humility, and service, we’ll be blameless and pure children of God — shining people in a generation of Nimrods. We’ll shine among the other kingdoms like stars in the sky — just as Daniel said would happen when God’s kingdom turned up (Philippians 2:15-16).

As Jesus’ kingdom unfolds in Acts — from Shem’s descendants in Jerusalem and Samaria, to the ends of the earth — we see those scattered in Genesis coming home. Even a descendant of Ham’s son Cush — the father of the Ethiopians — we meet an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:27). He’s reading the Old Testament book of Isaiah, and when this Ethiopian is convinced Jesus is the Messiah, he gets baptised (Acts 8:28-39). This is a picture of the table of nations coming home through living waters. And so are we as we come to faith in Jesus.

Wherever we’re from — in the Bible’s story, we’re humans with the same lifeblood and God’s breath giving us life — and we can become children of God through Jesus’ invitation for all humanity to come back into God’s family tree of life, not by his breath, but with his Spirit dwelling in us.

The radical inclusion of people from all nations marks Christianity as profoundly different from the religious and political vision of Babylon. There’s no more ethnically diverse community in the world, or in history, than the church. And this unity works when we follow Jesus, because he’s a king unlike Nimrod, who builds a kingdom unlike Babylon, or any kingdoms of this world, marked by a pattern of live and love that looks like him.

Don’t be a Nimrod, or line up behind them in any kind of tribalism or culture war that pushes people away from God, be like Jesus. Find your life as a child of God by taking up his pattern of service; not as an expression of curse, but to bless the world.  

Origin Story — The Ark and the Covenant

This is an amended version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. If you’d prefer to listen to this (spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 41 minutes.

This is a story we all know, right? There are hundreds of kids book retellings. You can find toy arks with pairs of animals in houses, toy shops, and even public kindergartens and schools around the world. It’s a story that even transcends Christianity; obviously it’s a Jewish story before it becomes our story; but it’s also part of the Muslim world. In fact, many nations around Israel, and even further afield, told stories of a man, and a boat, escaping through a  cosmic flood.

I mentioned the Gilgamesh Epic last post; it has a flood story where Gilgamesh goes off to meet Utanapishtim, a man who’d been tasked by the gods to create a ship called “Preserver of Life.” He made a square box out of wood, here are the instructions.

“Make all living beings go up into the boat. The boat which you are to build, its dimensions must measure equal to each other: its length must correspond to its width.”

He took all the living beings; people and animals he could save, and they ended up on a mountain where he sent out birds — a dove, and a raven — before the ground came back, and sacrificed to the gods and became immortal.

“Mt. Nimush held the boat, allowing no sway. When a seventh day arrived I sent forth a dove and released it. The dove went off, but came back to me; no perch was visible so it circled back to me… I sent forth a raven and released it. The raven went off, and saw the waters slither back”

Gilgamesh wants the secret of this immortality, but he can’t get it.

And of course, much more recently we had Russell Crowe’s version of Noah; and look, I loved this movie, but it retold the flood story as a story where God responded not to violence and sin on the earth, between humans, so much as violence against the earth; as a parable about climate change and the coming environmental collapse.

It’s a versatile story; and it’s one where all these versions leave us wondering what the point is, and what the truth is. The story creates questions like “what scale was the flood; local, on ‘the earth’ as the readers would’ve understood it, or covering the entire globe as we’d understand it? Did it actually wipe all people out? And we saw last week that there are Nephilim, or their descendants either side of the story. Did all the cultures that have the story also have a hero on a boat? What’s the Genesis story doing in contrast with the Gilgamesh story and others like it — not just how is it similar — including stories about the foundation of Babylon, which we’ll get to in Genesis in the next few weeks.

These are all good questions worth pondering, but they aren’t necessarily the questions we’ll be answering; we’re looking at how these stories are the origin story for the Bible; the origin story for Jesus. We’re seeing how they create thread — concepts and ideas — that run all the way through the Bible, so our questions are a little bit different.

So here’s a 10,000 foot summary of the story so far as we’ve seen it in Genesis that sets us up to understand the Noah story, we’ll go from there to look at the story in more detail, then see how ideas get picked up and woven together and land us with Jesus.

You ready. In the beginning, after God made the Heavens and the Earth; the waters of the deep were a barrier to life — making the world desolate and uninhabited, while the Spirit of God hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:1-2).

God pushed back the waters to make sky — and a cosmic dome, a vault. The waters are held at the barrier between heavens and earth (Genesis 1:6-7), and then separated on the earth; so that land appears (Genesis 1:8-9); which will then be filled with plants and animals — birds, fish, and ground critters (Genesis 1:20-24). We’re told they all have the breath of life in them (Genesis 1:30), and finally God makes people as his living images; living idol statues; who ruled these other creatures, and spread the good garden of Eden across the face of what had been a desolate and uninhabited earth, to be fruitful and multiply, as we represent him. We were God’s answer to the desolate and uninhabited world (Genesis 1:26, 28), made to tend it as gardeners — male and female — who lived with God and ate from the tree of life — working together to bring life, and to resist chaotic forces from the heavenly realm (Genesis 2:15-17), like the serpent (Genesis 3:1). The serpent has other plans. He leads humanity down the garden path, so people turned against each other, and against God, and the environment became increasingly hostile; cursed and turned against us (Genesis 3:17), and humans are exiled; banished, from the garden and the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:22-23).

We saw Noah introduced in chapter 5 — super briefly last week — as a man who would reverse the curse. Noah gets positioned as a new Adam. Notice how he rules over the animals in this story; there’s repeats of the categories of animals God made in Genesis 1 over and over again in the flood story to make this point (Genesis 5:28-29, 6:8). But this new Adam comes as God prepares to begin again; to wipe out all the living stuff not ruled by Adam — and this seems extreme (Genesis 6:7), but we’re told humans were only evil, all the time (Genesis 6:5). And that the earth is full of violence.

Humans are bearing the image of all these beastly violent ‘gods’ and the serpent — so humanity increasing has become a problem because we’re not spreading fruitfulness; the likeness of God; but violence (Genesis 6:11-12). Violence is a real problem in the story, a sign of something gone wrong — corrupt — in humans. God is about to unmake what he has made, and to start again. He promises to destroy the earth; and it’s clear that he doesn’t mean totally eradicate, but there’s a de-creation happening, so he can re-create with his new Adam (Genesis 6:13). Just notice — as we skim by — that there’s a whole lot of seven-day references here; we’re being put in the mood to see the creation week as the background here. Seven pairs. Seven pairs. Seven days. Seven days (Genesis 7:2, 3, 4, 10).

As God sets Noah apart, he gives him a building plan. He’s told to put together this monstrosity that looks nothing like any boat that is actually capable of floating (Genesis 6:15-16); and often our picture books make this look more boat like than it is. This isn’t a boat. It’s a floating rectangular prism. God is going to put an end to all the life on the earth that has the breath of life in it. The breath of God that makes things alive will be withdrawn. There’s an undoing here. All these creatures — animals and humans — will perish without God to give them life (Genesis 6:17). The barrier to life that was there in the beginning — the waters — will return as the floodgates of heaven, the vault, opens along with the ‘deep waters’ of the earth (Genesis 7:11-12).

The water, we’re told, comes specifically from what God has been holding back in the heavenly dome; and in order to separate water and land. The separated waters from Genesis 1 become unseparated, the great deep bursts and the floodgates are opened. We go back to Genesis 1:1. The darkness and the deep; a desolate and uninhabitable world.

Everyone except Noah, his family, and the animals they save will die because God’s going to establish his covenant with Noah; and he’s going to start again (Genesis 6:18-19). And that’s how it happens. After the waters opens up, Noah and his family enter the ark (Genesis 7:13). The animals join him, just as God commanded, and God shuts them in. He’s going to preserve life on this ark. The people inside, and animals, are sealed in by him, and protected from the waters from death. The ark; this rectangle box; is going to be one space on earth where God keeps giving life, when everything else is overrun by chaos waters, this ark where God’s covenant people are held — where the breath of life is still on the earth —will keep people alive, through the de-creation moment, and into a new world when the waters recede (Genesis 7:15-16). And then, once the waters are in place — and once the people and animals are in place too — there’s a throwback to the beginning (Genesis 7:18-19).

The ark is lifted from the earth, up towards the heavens, just have this picture of the reality in mind.

It goes up higher than the mountains; high places where people would meet with God, and this box with the only breath of life left in the world, God’s breath, hovers over the waters. Just like god’s spirit does in chapter 1; it’s the same phrase (Genesis 1:2, 7:18)

The waters are now covering the earth again; and the earth is going to become desolate and uninhabited again; days 2 and 3 of the creation story are undone. The waters and land are not separated. There’s no dry ground.

Then days 4 and 5 are undone; all the creatures die — the listing of animals mirrors the list in Genesis 1. The animals. The birds. And all mankind (Genesis 1:30, 7:21). Everything with the breath of life in its nostrils — think back to Genesis 2 and God breathing life into the human — Adam — into his nostrils. Every living thing is wiped from the earth.

It all zeroes in on one man; a new Adam — Noah — and the people with him on the ark (Genesis 7:22-23).

They’re in the ark for a long time. I love the idea that we get in the Noah movie that while they were in the boat this faithful curse-reverser was telling his family the creation story in the darkness surrounded by the waters of the deep. It’s such a beautiful scene.

Noah — the curse reverser — is the great hope for a re-created humanity; he leads a remnant through this de-creation — through the chaos waters — and into a new garden.

God remembers his people on the ark and sends his breath, or Spirit, as a wind over earth; this is the same Hebrew word as when the spirit hovering on the waters in Genesis 1. He blows back the waters; and the waters recede (Genesis 8:1).

The cosmic floodgates are shut again; this is a new beginning; a repeat of Genesis 1 and God separating water and land to make a place for life. The water keeps receding; dry ground is appearing (Genesis 8:2-3). Starting with mountain tops; like the one the ark comes to rest on (Genesis 8:4-5).

And Noah — like Gilgamesh — sends birds out. First a raven, then a dove (Genesis 8:6-8). In Gilgamesh it’s the same birds but the other way round, and I’m not sure what to make of that. There’s an interesting little thing here where the dove goes out, hovering, flying, over the face of the waters; waters that cover the whole earth, a few times, until it eventually returns after another seven days. It returns with a sign that the earth is no longer fruitless; an olive branch. A fruitful tree.  So Noah finds dry ground, the water and ground are separating again (Genesis 8:13). And God calls him out of the ark; onto the dry land, with his human family, and all the animals — so they can all be fruitful and multiply again; it’s a re-creation moment (Genesis 8:16-17). Noah’s family emerges from the ark, onto a mountain. Mountains are everywhere in the Bible story right, as heaven-meets-earth places. Noah makes a sacrifice on a mountaintop, again like Gilgamesh (Genesis 8:20). God smells the aroma of his sacrifice and it pleases him so he makes a covenant with Noah and his family. A mountaintop promise to not de-create quite this way again. Even if human hearts have not changed; even if they’re still sinful all the time, there’ll always be people he preserves from judgment (Genesis 8:21).

There’s a big change in this repeat of the call to be fruitful and multiply. From this point, death becomes part of humans living in the land; specifically our rule over the animals. Where in Genesis 1, people were given plants and fruit — just like the animals were, now they’re given the animals as well. Who’ll be scared of them. It’s not Eden (Genesis 9:1-2). There are some limits to this violent domination, and those limits — around the lifeblood of an animal — build up to the prohibition against shedding the blood of another human. God won’t curse all people, but there’ll be an accounting for those who take up the pattern of Cain (Genesis 9:4-5). Those who turn their hands against an image of God will have their blood shed. Violence against a human is a desecration of the image of God (Genesis 9:6), and God makes a covenant not just with Noah and his family, but the animals too — not to destroy them (Genesis 9:9-10). It all looks so good, for a moment, until our next installment, where things go downhill super-fast.

But let’s look at some threads from here — de-creation to re-creation; through water — water where God provides salvation, while judging the earth for its violent opposition to his design for human fruitfulness. God providing dry ground for people, while holding back the chaotic waters is a type scene that repeats.

It repeats as God creates people for himself through water — little new creation moments happen throughout the Bible’s story. This word for ark gets used in one other story in the Old Testament. It’s different to the “ark of the covenant” though both are a box (and both come with building instructions that are similar), they’re different Hebrew words, but you know what is called an ark? The only other one in the story?

The basket Moses is placed in when the violent empire of Egypt orders babies to be thrown into the waters of the Nile (Exodus 2:3). When we meet Moses; Moses the rescuer of god’s people who is saved from the violence of Pharaoh, he’s placed in an ark, and put in the water.

So that old joke — ‘how many animals did Moses take in the ark?’ — the trick that’s meant to catch kids out… well… he couldn’t fit any. It was just a basket.

Moses’s mum finds a loophole with Pharaoh’s commands as she throws him into the Nile, but he is, in a way, symbolically dead in the water; relying on God to preserve him in his ark. His ark, like Noah’s, is made from plant and pitch (Genesis 6:14, Exodus 2:3). He’s raised to life from the Nile and named Moses because he’s “drawn from the water” and saved from violent forces opposed to God’s rule, and the fruitful multiplication of his people (Exodus 2:10). He’s a new Noah. The flood story is an Exodus story; God creating a covenant people through water.

Moses grows up and he goes head-to-head with Pharaoh, and there’s a fun thing where the plagues are de-creation moments too — but that’s a rabbit hole. His own origin story foreshadows the creation of Israel, God’s people, through the waters as they leave Egypt; the same waters that cover over the Egyptian war machine. The Exodus is a new creation story following the pattern of the flood, salvation and judgement fall, and God’s covenant people are protected and carried into a new fruitful land. God brings this salvation; new life because he remembers his people… Just like he remembers those on the ark (Genesis 6:14, Exodus 2:24). And as they head out of Egypt and are chased by the Pharaoh and his warriors — violent people opposed to God’s plan — Moses stretches out his arms, and just as god’s Spirit — a wind — that Hebrew word again — pushes the waters of the flood apart to make dry ground appear for Noah, God opens the waters for Moses and Israel to cross on dry ground. Israel is preserved; saved from death, brought to life, heading towards fruitful land (Exodus 14:21-22). While the violent army of the violent nation is destroyed under the waters. The chariots, the horsemen, are all wiped out (Exodus 14:28).

As God’s people sing about this salvation they sing about God’s wind — his Spirit — moving the seas; for their salvation, and against their enemies. It’s a flood again (Exodus 15:10). And on the other side of the waters they become a covenant people called to be fruitful and multiply. In Exodus they’re called to be a nation of priests, formed through the waters as god saves and judges; bringing death and life. And Moses leads the people up a mountain — into the heavens; like Noah being up above the mountains. Moses and Noah both build altars on mountains, and make sacrifices. There’s heaps of parallels (Exodus 19:5-6).

Now just imagine, for a moment, that this is your origin story; as a nation — both these stories — the story of Noah and of Moses; of God saving through waters; leading people on dry ground into fruitful life while judging violent enemies of his plan and people. Imagine you’re surrounded by a violent nation, Babylon, with its own flood story. A story where violent gods flood the earth because of noisy humans who are disturbing their partying and rest, and where you’re never quite sure if they’re going to do it again if you get a bit uppity. They’ve got this story keeping them on their toes; keeping them obeying the violent king who represents the violent gods; you’ve got the story of Noah, and Moses, and maybe the idea that god might save a people from this sort of violent empire through water again.

There’s this promise, in Isaiah — the same chapter where we got the branch of Jesse a few weeks back — that looks forward to the waters of Egypt and Babylon being swept back by a wind of God — the Spirit — so that people will walk on dry ground again and a remnant of his people will be saved and walk on this ground towards life, just like Israel in the Exodus (Isaiah 11:15-16).

At the end of the Old Testament Israel is waiting for this new Exodus — and in a way we all are. The world stays violent; human hearts are evil and opposed to God, and violent empires reign… And there hasn’t been a moment when all Israel — not just Judah, exiled in Babylon, have returned to be god’s people like Isaiah promises. God remains faithful to his promise to Noah though; holding back his judgment on a violent world, even if he does intervene in moments like the Exodus on behalf of his people.

And in this world, we get Noah, leading a remnant — a small family of people — through judgment; hoping for re-created life — but nothing changes — we get Moses — leading God’s nation towards the land; but right after he finishes his sacrifices on the mountain; Israel fails — just like Noah’s family — and we’ll pick that up next week — and then we get Jesus.

Here’s some cool threads running from the flood story to Jesus; from Israel’s origin story to ours. At Jesus’ baptism, John is baptising people on the east side of the Jordan —the Babylon side. He’s making a way for people head back into the promised land (John 1:28); announcing the beginning of the New Exodus with language from the Old Testament. As Jesus comes out of the water, there’s the Spirit hovering like a dove — it’s a flood moment and a Genesis 1 moment all at once. Something’s about to happen. New life is about to emerge (Matthew 3:16). John has just said Jesus will bring a different baptism — one with the Spirit, and with fire. He’s come to fix the human hearts that create violence; to lead another Exodus — bringing salvation and judgment — another ark; saving those who’ll listen and find life with god that raises us to the heavens (Matthew 3:11-12). Jesus will say he’s also going to experience another baptism; before he brings this fire, describing the cross as a baptism (Luke 12:49-50). The cross is where God brings judgment and salvation; a path out of death.

If violence against a human is a desecration of the image of God, then this is the ultimate expression of violent desecration of the ultimate image bearer with the ultimate debt now owed to God. At the cross, Jesus is surrounded by the violent forces that oppose god’s plan — like Noah; like Moses and Pharaoh; like Egypt and Babylon. He absorbs the blows.

At the Cross, God provides another timber vessel that saves; that carries us from this old violent world; a world under judgment; and into new life. Water and blood flood from his side, and in that flow we find both judgment and salvation. Those who reject Jesus and side with the violent world that kill him face death, while those who cling to the cross for life will be carried to new life.

We’ll see in a couple of weeks, when we get to Babel, how the baptism Jesus brings — by God’s Spirit coming like fire — brings a new Exodus. We’ll see and how that fire judges and saves, like John says Jesus’ baptism will (Matthew 3:11-12) separating those in God’s family — on the ark — his covenant people — from who choose the violent world.

But remember the Great Commission, where Jesus goes up a mountain and tells his people that God is with us, so we should baptise people and make disciples (Matthew 28:19); that’s a picture of this story becoming our story, through our own baptism.

Because that is what Baptism is; just as Noah’s ark — and Moses’ ark, and his leading God’s people to new life through the waters were Israel’s origin story; our baptism into the death and new life of Jesus is our origin story.

Romans 6 says baptism represents us dying with Jesus, going down into the water, sharing in his death; a death that came at the hands of the violent world; so that we might be carried to new life; raised up above the waters as heavenly people. Baptism is our flood story. Our Exodus. A picture of the old being washed away and new life emerging through death, and the Cross of Jesus is our Ark, raising us up into the heavens and holding us safe as judgment falls (Romans 6:4).

Peter picks up this idea in 1 Peter — where he talks about how we’re now Exodus people; a “Kingdom of priests,“ because we’ve been united in Jesus (1 Peter 2:9). He says this weird stuff about Jesus preaching to the spirits from before Noah’s time — and maybe that makes some sense after last week; especially because there’s this theory these demons (and others) were the ghosts of dead Nephilim. Then he says we’re people who are ‘saved through water,’ not saved ‘by water.’ It’s not that baptism saves, it’s this idea of being carried through death and judgment, like Noah in the Ark hovering over the water, protected by God, ‘put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit;’ saved to be raised up into the heavens; even further than the ark. Unlike in Gilgamesh, where death is the ultimate destiny of every human and immortality is a pipe dream, this divine life is for everyone who grabs hold of the boat (1 Peter 3:18-22).

When we’re baptised in water, this is what we’re representing; a story we make real for ourselves through actions. We’re part of the people of God created through the death and resurrection of Jesus. There’s something beautiful and true about infant baptism. Just like Noah’s family on the ark, and the kids in Egypt, we’re not saved by our own effort, but by jumping on the ark following the ultimate Noah (or Moses), Jesus. There’s also something beautiful about immersion, this picture of going down into the water, covered by flood waters — dying — and coming up made new. Baptism is a picture of death and resurrection.

When we see others baptised we, the baptised community, remember our ark; that carried us through the waters, through death, and into resurrection. We live as the baptised and baptising community; the dead made alive. We live as those who know that God promises he won’t flood the earth again, but that Jesus promises to return bringing judgment and salvation; life or death. We live knowing he came to bring a baptism, of the spirit, and fire, both re-creation and immortality and judgment on the violent and evil world that would kill God.

Life in this baptised community is life shaped by this story; life with new hearts that come by the spirit; life that rejects the violent and destructive world, even if this means stormy weather; but where we cling to the cross; life where maybe, like Noah, we value God’s creation and try to make little pockets of Eden, carrying them through the storm with us and our family. Telling our origin story; the Gospel; in the dark, hoping that it’ll shape us as we seek to point people to the light.

Just as an added final touch, we finished this service baptising a member of our church family who shared their testimony of finding life in the story of Jesus.


Origin Story — A giant problem

This is an amended (and extended) version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. If you’d prefer to listen to this (spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 35 minutes.

Of all the questions i’m planning to ask God when i get to see him face to face it’s who are the Nephilim? No passage has been a pebble in my shoe like this one, but I wonder if I’m alone. How many of us have just got to this bit and filed it in the ‘too weird’ basket?

That’s fair. Maybe. But it could also be that like so many of the chapters we’ve looked at so far in the Bible’s origin story that this one has incredible pay off with a bunch of threads that run from here through to the end of the story. So let’s dig into it a bit and see what we find.

This is a passage that at this point in the story creates more questions than it answers. Like does this mean the ancient model of reality is right, with supernatural beings dwelling in the heavens above? Who are the “sons of God” (Genesis 6:2)? What are the Nephilim (Genesis 6:4)? Are they children of the sons of God, or are they the sons of God? How does this story relate to other ancient stories about half god heroes who found cities? There are stories like the Gilgamesh Epic that map onto this chunk of Genesis in interesting ways. How should we make sense of this in a modern world where most of us don’t really believe in angels or demons that interact with the world the way we see it happen here? Can something so confusing be important at all? Those are just some of my questions. Maybe you’ve got others.

I’m going to sketch out some building blocks for us as we answer some of these questions, and then we’ll look at some of the different constructions people have put together with those blocks, and I’ll unpack how I think this all works, but this is a more tentative and speculative sermon than normal.

Maybe before we begin it would be worth trying to put ourselves in the headspace of this story. I wonder, for those of us who are Christians, do you think without the Gospel’s promise of eternal life, that eternal life is something you would be searching for? If you’re here today and not a Christian, is immortality something you think about? Because in some ways, if not for the Gospel, that feels like a thing that belongs in fairy stories. This quest was a massive part of ancient epic stories — like the Gilgamesh Epic, which tells the story of a demigod hero chasing eternal life, and a serpent who took it away. It’s at the heart of the legendary quest to find the Holy Grail; the cup that was meant to give eternal life, or the Philosopher’s Stone in Harry Potter, used to produce the Elixir of Life.

And maybe we don’t live by fairy tales, but we do still quest after Holy Grails. There are people who want science to figure out how to undo aging and death, or technology to offer a solution where we can digitise our consciousness. Others of us just want a legacy; a name that will mean something after our death, or families who will benefit from our heroic triumph over the odds. Whether or not the hunt for heavenly life drives our neighbours now, or is just something we take for granted, it’s a big part of Genesis after the loss of the Tree of Life.

This is another story about what was lost in humanity’s exile from Eden; just note how this passage is bookended with Noah (Genesis 5:30-31, 6:8). A big chunk of the next few chapters of Genesis deal with Noah’s epic journey — a story of de-creation and re-creation.

We’re told at the end of the family tree from Seth to Noah in Genesis 5 that “he will comfort us in the labour and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the lord has cursed” (Genesis 5:29). He’s presented as a bit of a curse reverser, but then things take an odd turn. Humans are being fruitful and multiplying; increasing in number, and they’re having daughters (Genesis 6:1), and then these sons of God, there’s an interesting parallel in the Hebrew wording here, they repeat the pattern of Eve in the garden with the forbidden fruit, they “see” that the women are beautiful (the Hebrew word “tov”), and they “take” them as wives (the word “laqach”). It’s the fall again. The parallel is meant to draw our attention to that. Something here is not good.

So who are these “sons of God,” there are a few different options for how this passage has been read. One line of thinking is that this is about the line of Seth; the good human line of seed, mixing with the line of Cain — the line of the serpent, so that there’s no pure line anymore. This’d mean reading the throughline from Adam being made in the image of God and Seth being made in the image of Adam, to see this as a line of sons of God (Genesis 5:1-3), so the repeat of the fall means the whole line gets corrupted. It makes a bit of sense, sure, especially if you don’t want a supernatural reading here. But, remember, one of the things we’re doing here is looking at how this story launches threads — connections — that run through the rest of the story of the Bible, all the way to Jesus, and then on into the new creation.

The modern way of reading the text runs into some problems when we see how this phrase “sons of God” is used through the Old Testament to refer to spiritual beings. Which means my inclination is to take a second view. In this other line of thinking there’s a series of threads that run from here to build that two-tiered picture of reality we saw back in Genesis 1, where god creates “the heavens” and “the earth,” and creates humans — on earth — to be in his image, but also to be like the heavenly beings. We saw how places like Psalm 8 mirror the roles of angels in the heavens and humans on earth; and how sometimes these angels are described as Elohim — the Hebrew word for gods — and even sometimes as sons of God (Psalm 8:4-5). You’ll find an example of this in Job 1, where the sons of God — and Satan — turn up in the heavenly court room (Job 1:6), and in Psalm 82, where Elohim — god most high — rules amongst the Elohim — the gods (Psalm 82:1, 6-7). Elohim is a tricky Hebrew word that is both singular and plural and so you’ve got to figure out what’s going on based on the context.

These Elohim, in the Psalm, are called sons of God, and it even describes how some of these sons of God will fall like other rulers — that they’ll become mortal. And there’s one more really interesting reference to the “sons of God” in Deuteronomy 32 — this one’s a bit trickier because the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament we have use ‘sons of God,’ but a more recent full Hebrew text of the Old Testament that our translations typically follow has “sons of Israel” — but just note what it says here in Deuteronomy 32; the nations that aren’t Israel are given to these sons of God, while God keeps Israel as his special people (Deuteronomy 32:8-9). This alternative reading of Deuteronomy 32 begins in Genesis 6.

So before we get to the next bit, the Nephilim, lets recap what we see here. It’s a repeat of the pattern of the fall, but it’s the fall of spiritual beings, “spiritual sons of God,” this is a description of a heavenly fall; a rebellion against god in the heavens. Created beings seeking to marry heaven and earth — bring them together — without God in the mix; perhaps immortal spiritual beings looking to pass on their immortality, their heavenly life, to a bunch of beautiful humans exiled from the Garden, and maybe some humans who are happy to get that immortality any way they can. Which explains the seemingly random segue from these marriages to God limiting the lifespan of the human to 120 years (Genesis 6:3). Humans are mortal; this sort of marriage between heaven and earth is not going to be a path to immortality.

And this leads into the weird stuff about the Nephilim. We’re not told directly that they’re divine-human offspring; just that they appear when the sons of God marry the daughters of humans, but it’s very much implied. Though they could also be the sons of God, now stuck on earth — the name, or word, ‘Nephilim’ seems to be derived from the “fallen ones.” We get this thing where these fallen ones are on the earth in those days, and later — when the sons of God have children with the daughters of man, and we can infer these Nephilim are the offspring produced by this union; then we’re told they’re the heroes of old; and literally “men of a name” (Genesis 6:4).

There’s an interesting parallel between this story and one coming up, the tower of Babel. In this story heavenly beings try to marry heaven and earth by coming down, and we end up with people of a name, while in the Babel story humans try to “make a name for themselves” by bringing earth to the heavens on their own terms.

In all this there’s also a bunch of parallels to what people in the ancient world believed about Gods and kings and heroic demi-gods and the world, stories we can read today, like Gilgamesh, or the Enuma Elish, where divine-human heroes establish powerful kingdoms of the world — like Babylon — in league with cosmic beings. In these stories these heaven-and-earth unions are a good thing. In the Bible, the heroes held up by these other nations are a picture of cosmic rebellion against god. This could explain, too, why so many cultures have pantheons of gods — demigods — and mythical heroes.

There’s a thing that emerges in the storyline of the Bible from here on that views these characters as giants; mighty warriors . What’s interesting is that these giants all appear after the flood that is about to wipe all life that isn’t on the ark from the face of the earth. That’s a conundrum, like who Cain is afraid of, that is created by a straightforward reading of the biblical text and even the same chunk of the text; the books collected together as the writings of Moses. Because we meet some descendants of the Nephilim as the story unfolds. It could be that Nephilim emerge whenever sons of God marry human women, so this pattern continues; or that the flood isn’t global, but is a significant story of de-creation and re-creation of a family of God’s people who’ll relaunch the human project (it could also be that the story is operating as a polemic against the view of the world held by the Babylonians enslaving Israel in the exile).

Here’s a few times giant descendants of the Nephilim turn up, with a few different Hebrew names, and we can do a little bit of detective work here, that’ll hopefully pay off. In Genesis 14 we meet a group called the rephaites, a Hebrew word for giant (Genesis 14:5). In Numbers 13 the spies come back from Canaan saying the people who live there are Nephilim – Anakites — giants (Numbers 13:32-33). In Deuteronomy 2 we get a recap of the giant people — the Emites, the Anakites — Nephilim descendants — who are Rephaim, who get called Emites by the Moabites (Deuteronomy 2:10-11).You following? The point is that giants, whatever they’re called, are the baddies – connected back to the Nephilim story. There’s another story about Og, the king of the Rephaites who’s so big his bed becomes a tourist attraction (Deuteronomy 3:11). This human opposition — from nations given to the ‘sons of God’ in Deuteronomy, is connected to a story of cosmic rebellion, and their giant offspring. These giant people — mighty warriors — crop up as those opposed to God’s people and to the fulfilment of his promises; like those opposed to God’s people as they seek to settle in the new Eden; the promised land. These divine-human-giants are enemies of God; fallen spiritual beings who join the serpent in his beastly opposition to god’s plans for fruitfulness. And this type of bad guy gets introduced back here in Genesis 6. Are you with me so far?

Cause here’s where it gets fun. Maybe. Israel’s story is a story of giant killing saviours; and each time we ask ‘will this hero and his mighty warriors’ be the serpent crusher as well. The first is Joshua. As Joshua enters the promised land he leads a campaign of giant killing. In Joshua 11 we’re told he “destroys all the Anakites” from the lands of Judah and Israel (Joshua 11:21). He’s the leader who leads god’s people into the promised land and makes it giant free. These giants opposed to god are left out there in Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod (Joshua 11:22). Gentile territory. The land of the Philistines.

The land of goliath, the giant (1 Samuel 17:4). Goliath is a giant who is pictured as a serpent; a scaly bronze enemy of god’s people. Every time “bronze” is mentioned in the description of Goliath’s scaly armour it’s a play on the word for Serpent. This is the Hebrew word for serpent in Hebrew above the Hebrew word for bronze. You read them right to left, these first three consonants are the same (Hebrew wasn’t written with vowels, they get added later.) It’s like written pun.

Bronze and scaley; these are snakey words.

Goliath is a giant serpent who ends up belly on the ground with his head crushed by god’s anointed king, like a child of the serpent meeting the seed of god’s family (remember the curse where the serpent would ‘crawl on its belly,’ eat dust, and have his head on the ground (Genesis 3:14, 1 Samuel 17:46, 49).

David’s mighty men are later described as killers of Rephaim — descendants of Rapha — first Ishbi-benob (2 Samuel 21:16-17), then Saph (2 Samuel 21:18), then the brother of Goliath (2 Samuel 21:19), then a giant with six fingers and toes on each hand — also from Gath — also a descendant of Rapha (2 Samuel 21:20), these relatives of Goliath are all called descendants of Rapha; Rephaim; descendants of the Nephilim; allies of the serpent; the fruit of rebellion against God in the heavenly realm being dealt with by a giant-killing annointed leader of god’s people.

David is the king of the giant killers — but he’s not the deliverer, because he ends up acting like the fallen ones. David has his own band of mighty warriors; heroes of old; it’s the same Hebrew word from Genesis 6. And this list of 37 mighty warriors ends with one name that zeroes in on David’s failure — Uriah the Hittite (husband of Bathsheba) (2 Samuel 23:39); where the way he operated that invites a comparison with the fallen ones; the cosmic rebels.

In David’s ‘fall,’ as he takes and rapes Bathsheba, the narrative parallels not just with the fall (Genesis 3), but with the fall of the sons of God, with those same three Hebrew words; he sees that Bathsheba is beautiful (tov), and sends his men to take her (laqach) (2 Samuel 11:2-4). The narrator is showing us that despite crushing serpent-Goliath, David is not the king who’ll crush the serpent, and lead people back to immortality and heaven-on-earth life with God, even if he and his men are giant killers. He ends up in the serpent’s coils too. He ends up like one of the sons of God ‘taking’ and marrying a human wife; like a king of the nations, and, ultimately, Israel ends up in the land of mighty demigods, Babylon, a land given to the sons of God, and to “men of name,” to be ruled in violent rebellion to God, because David’s sons follow his pattern, only worse.

The Genesis story makes the issue causing exile — God’s judgment — a de-creation where people are removed from the fruitful ground, an issue of the human heart (Genesis 6:5-7); it’s not the cosmic rebellion that leads to the wipeout, but the wickedness of god’s earthly representatives.

Just as the sin of the humans in the days of the Nephilim led to exile, to decreation — through the flood — so the repeating of this pattern leads to exile from God; the de-creation of Israel’s fruitful land and their place as god’s fruitful people in the world. If you’re sitting in Babylon looking at the mighty warrior kings, and their companion serpents, and reading about how they’re the fruit of cosmic rebellion that leads to judgment, and you’re remembering the promise of a serpent crusher, that might stop you bending the knee to the mighty kings of Babylon.

We’ll dig into the flood story next week; but there are two ways this pre-amble sets the scene; what’s about to happen is de-creation; judgment that will deal with the rebellion of the sons of god, but that is particularly focused on the humans and the stuff we were meant to rule; we were not made to be ruled by the beasts, or by these sons of God, or their mighty giant warriors.

But let’s recap for a minute — this story in Genesis starts a thread that runs through the story of the bible where cosmic rebellion — spiritual sons of God — line themselves up with the behaviour the serpent leads humans towards; and humans are brought under the rule of these serpent-like sons of god, and these mighty warrior king figures who’re somehow expressions of this rebellious kingdom but on the earth.

Then even the best king of Israel — God’s chosen king — acts just like these warrior kings and cosmic rebels, even while fighting against them as God’s anointed king. The story just unapologetically has this spiritual realm existing in parallel and then intersecting rebellion against God’s rule in the heavens and the earth. Human wickedness — and our hearts — are part of the barrier to the re-ordering of the earth.

We’re waiting for a giant-killing, serpent-crushing, anointed king who won’t repeat the fall, but who’ll marry the heavens and the earth on god’s terms, and lead people back to life with God. Whether that’s Israel, who were carted off into the nations, or the nations themselves, who were ultimately given to these powers and principalities. There are some bits of the New Testament that pick up these threads around the Nephilim — Peter in 2 Peter, and the book of Jude — but there are a couple of places that tie it all together for us so that the Gospel is the fulfilment of this story.

But wait. Jesus doesn’t kill any giants. Right? He does win a victory over the rebellious sons of God, and he is described as killing a dragon to marry a bride and lead his bride into immortal heavenly life with God. What the sons of God did as an act of rebellion that led to grasping and destruction, Jesus, the son of God, does as an act of self-giving love that leads to life, and restored hearts, so that God’s spirit will dwell in humans forever.

Ephesians tells the story of the Gospel as the story of God giving humans new hearts, by the spirit. Freeing all humans — descendants of Israel, and the nations — from the clutches of the ruler of the prince of the air (Ephesians 1:13, 2:1-2), and raising us into the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6). So that the victory of Jesus secured through his death and resurrection and the redemption of Jews and Gentiles from captivity into one people is a reflection of a re-ordering of the heavenly realm; Jesus creating a people who are seated in the heavenly realms to reign with him is a victory over the powers and principalities and the leader of the heavenly rebellion against God’s rule (Ephesians 3:10-11). Ephesians also talks about this victory as a an act of sacrificial life-giving love that makes us holy — like God — again; a marriage between a heavenly son of God and his bride, the church (Ephesians 5:25-26, 31-32). These humans are given heavenly life; this son of God does not “take” the way the Nephilim, or David “take,” grasping; abusing; conquering, he gives himself up for his bride. He comes down from heaven, sent by the father, to bring a people into his heavenly presence.

That’s cool, and it’s the story we also see in Revelation. Revelation is just more explicit that this involves the destruction of the serpent — the leader of the cosmic rebellion, “that ancient serpent,” Satan, who leads the world astray, and his beastly human regimes (Revelation 12:9). The king that the Old Testament has us waiting for arrives to destroy the cosmic rebellion, hurling the Serpent and his minions from the spiritual world with him, tossing him into a lake of fire with his host of Spiritual rebels (Revelation 20:9-10).

And this son of God, Jesus, is the one who marries heaven and earth — on God’s terms, not human terms; creating a heaven-on-earth people to live in a heaven-on-earth city. So the story ends with the Holy city, the new Jerusalem; the new city of god’s people, descending like a bride, so that people might be united with heavenly life, in order to dwell in a new Eden (Revelation 21:2). Where we have access to eternal life from God again, the waters of life, and the tree of the life; life with God in his city (Revelation 21:6-7, 22:14). Now. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s cool.

But what’s the pay-off for us? I wonder if there’s a few ways this might shape us — first, if you’re not a follower of Jesus, there’s a confronting thing in all this that says you’re actually following other dark and unseen forces that are leading you to death as they shape our world. That’s creepy and supernatural, but a long look at the atrocities happening in Ukraine, or the mass shootings in the U.S, (or, at the time of posting, the situation in Gaza) right now makes it easier to believe there’s some beastly animating force driving humanity. Maybe there is something to this story that’s worth exploring.

And if you’re someone who is a Christian; someone who has put your trust in Jesus as the serpent-killing king, then we’re already the bride of a heavenly son of God, that he has united us with God’s life, so that we can live in this world as God’s children as people with new hearts. It’s this story, and this reality, that is meant to shape us, not other stories we might believe about ourselves or the world.

That feels pretty motherhood and apple pie on one level, but in Ephesians, Paul is pretty keen to apply this new story to our everyday relationships — church family and our households — whether we’re married or not, parents or not — and to cash it out in a call for us to live and love like Jesus in our relationships; not like the sons of God, or like David, or like Adam and Eve who go into relationships for what they can get to fulfill their own desires. So our communities look different to those ruled by dark forces.

When it comes to the ground level, it can make a little bit of difference to what feels mundane — even how we handle temptation and the pursuit of godliness — to see our decisions; our lives; as caught between these two cosmic kingdoms that form different lives on earth and lead to different eternal outcomes when Jesus returns. When we choose sin; disobedience; giving in to temptation to take or grasp the things we want — to chase immortality — to ‘marry heavenly life’ — apart from God — to embrace wickedness from our hearts — we’re caught up in the serpent’s rebellion against God in the heavens, but when we choose to live with Jesus as king, we’re aligning ourselves with God’s story as the rescued, beloved, and faithful bride; those seated in heaven, in order to bring heavenly life to earth.

We might not be chasing Holy Grails — or even thinking about eternity; but just thinking about this world and trying to build heaven here, as though this is all there is, is every bit the denial of god’s rule that we see in Genesis. Our pursuit of life without God will come to nothing, to find life not in the mythical Holy Grail, but in the cup Jesus offers is to find what those in all those ancient super-charged epic stories were looking for.