Tag: 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).

So.

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 — East of Eden (and the path back)

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 38 minutes. I’m going to be honest, 90% of the reason I started posting these sermons is that I think the title of this post is pretty great.The original introduction to this sermon, which was preached the day after the Federal Election in 2022, I’ve adapted that slightly for this blog version

In Genesis 4 we meet two brothers; two brothers offering two paths in response to humanity losing access to the Garden of Eden. We see a branching of the family tree; a choice between two lines of seed, with two ‘parents’ shaping the tree and the fruit it produces.

Like a good origin story this is where we start to set up the tension that is going to drive the narrative, we’ll see threads that take us to the end of our chunk of Genesis, but that pay off at the conclusion of the story, so we’re going to take up a couple of these threads — first by really looking at where the human family we’ve got our lens zoomed in on find themselves, and then by following them through the story of the Bible all the way up to Jesus. We’re seeing the start of two feuding family lines; the beastly line, children of the Serpent, and the line that might produce an image bearer who’ll lead people back past the guardian cherubim, into the presence of God and to the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:24).

Genesis chapter four deals with a major change of scene that came about in the events of chapter three; this human family find themselves exiled; outside of the Garden — the eastern entrance to the garden has been sealed off by a cherubim wielding a sword (maybe imagine this as a gate).

This move east, away from Eden, is going to be a significant repeated thread that’ll take this family all the way to Babylon in chapter 11; it’s a device to pay attention to, and to have in our imagination that the gateway back to God’s presence, his heaven on earth space, sealed off by cherubim is reached by heading west. Gates on the east of places like this will repeat over and over again through the Bible’s story. We’re going to be on the look out, ultimately, for both God’s presence returning to a place like Eden, and a Son of Adam leading the way back into God’s presence, and the seeds for both these storylines start in this origin story.

The cherubim guarding the way — people being kept out of the Holy of Holies where God dwells on earth — is a big obstacle to be overcome through the unfolding narrative, so is the idea that people now are going to approach God with a gap that requires sacrifice, and that’s where we land in chapter four. Adam and Eve failed to act as one in chapter three, but now they become one, so that Eve, the mother of the living (Genesis 3:20), brings forth a son, Cain (Genesis 4:1). They’re being fruitful and multiplying — and the question framed by the narrative so far is, has she brought forth an image bearer, who will rule the wold representing God, and maybe lead people back towards the Garden, or a beast? They’re fruitful and multiply again, and along comes Abel (Genesis 4:2). Two Sons of Adam; sons of man; that’s what Adam’s name means.

Abel shows a mastery over the animals, keeping flocks, while Cain does what humans are made to do in the garden; the task required for the uninhabited and unpopulated land to become fruitful; he works the ground (Genesis 4:2). He’s an earth man working the earth. So far so good.

They both bring the fruits of their labours to God as a sacrifice. Abel brings the firstfruits — the good, fatty, portions of his first born animal, while Cain just brings “some” fruit of the ground; the narrative doesn’t suggest its anything particularly special.

We’re not told where Cain and Abel are taking their sacrifice; but at this point it seems this human family is dwelling outside of the garden, but still in Eden, by the gates with the cherubim. There’s some fun stuff we’ll get to below around the Tabernacle that means I reckon readers of the Torah, tracing the development of some imagery, would imagine Cain and Abel taking their sacrifices up to the dwelling place of God, the Garden, to the barrier, to the cherubim guarding the way to God’s presence, knowing they can’t get in, but maybe seeking to restore themselves to being God’s representative people through sacrifice.

But it doesn’t go so well.

If you read the rest of Genesis you’ll see a type-scene beginning here; a conflict playing out between brothers. Humans were made to represent God together, and it’s not just husband and wife turned against each other from the curse in Genesis 3, but siblings, as firstborn and secondborn compete to be the child of promise. This type-scene repetition includes Jacob and hairy-beastly man Esau; and maybe later stories from the same big story can shape the way we read the dynamic here as these two brothers compete to represent God as the serpent-crushing line by offering a sacrifice. Or maybe only one brother is competing: Cain. Maybe that explains why there’s a little bit of implied tension between them as God receives Abel’s sacrifice and rejects Cain’s (Genesis 4:4-5). We’re not told why God favours one gift and not the other here; the New Testament book of Hebrews gives us an interpretation that says Abel was acting by faith, and so produced a better offering (Hebrews 11:4).

When his offering is rejected, Cain, the ground-worker gets a test; will he be a son of dying-beastly Adam? A son of the serpent? Or Eden-gardening Adam? Will he repeat his parent’s failure in response to his disappointment. Will he know Good from evil? God says “Sin — is crouching at the door” — like a beast — wanting to devour him — like the serpent wanted to devour his parents (Genesis 4:7).

And before we find out where Abel, the younger son, might be able to lead his family after his sacrifices are accepted, Cain makes a sacrifice of Abel in a field (Genesis 4:8). Abel makes an animal sacrifice then Cain acts like an animal and sacrifices his brother. Where he’s meant to sow life, he sows death. Abel’s blood, his flesh, is given back to the ground; dust to dust. 

This sacrifice shows sin has devoured him; he’s been swallowed up and become a bloody swallower of life; beastly; opposed to God’s plans for fruitfulness and multiplication. Now the land isn’t just desolate and empty, or a source of fruitful human life, it’s soaked in blood. Cain has become part of the seed of the serpent, its ‘striking’ offspring attacking the seed of his mother, Eve.

And just like in the garden, where God came to see his folks after their sin and asked “where are you?” now he asks “where is your brother?” (Genesis 4:9). Cain knows, but he pretends he doesn’t, he gets shifty — his dad owned up when God came looking, but Cain doesn’t. “Am I my brothers keeper?”

Well. Yes. He’s meant to be. Humans are meant to be one in their task of representing God; cultivating and guarding his presence in the world; defeating the crouching beast, and yet, he has become his brother’s killer; he is his brother’s keeper at this point; he knows exactly where he has hidden Abel, but he can’t hide what he’s done. God says his brother’s blood is crying out from the ground — telltale blood — calling out for justice (Genesis 4:10).

As a result, instead of Abel leading the family back towards the garden through his acceptable sacrifice, Cain’s unacceptable sacrifice means he’s sent further east; out of God’s presence, away from Eden, and the ground he once worked turns against him (Genesis 4:11-12, 16). Cain becomes a picture of the human condition in our exile from God. This serpent-like line is marked by violence, grasping, and vengeance. The ground has received Abel, but it will not receive Cain.

The garden was made as a place to rest with God and enjoy his hospitality; there’ll be no rest for Cain (Genesis 4:12, 14). People were blessed to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28), Cain is cursed (Genesis 4:11). He becomes a “restless wanderer” at war with the world — the ground is not going to yield fruit for him; he’s pushed out of God’s hospitality into an inhospitable world — further east (Genesis 4:16).

There’s more than a hint in this chapter that there might actually be other human families out there — outside of Eden, away from the Garden-temple, God’s dwelling place on the earth. Cain is scared people out there will kill him… He’s being driven from God’s presence, and he’ll be devoured. He’s got this picture of other people acting like animals. Violent killers who take vengeance. A world ‘out there’ that is red in tooth and claw.

At the moment with our camera zoomed in on Adam and Eve and their two boys there aren’t other people in the picture; we’ve been looking at this is the family tasked in the story with bearing God’s image in the Garden Temple and perhaps cultivating that life to spread it out into the world where the people Cain is scared of live. It’s a conundrum the narrative gives us, but doesn’t resolve — it just assumes killer people are going to be out there, outside the borders of God’s lands.

There are other ways to try to resolve that narrative conundrum, like they could be a bunch of siblings who’re about to go out into the world along with Cain, who might kill him, but they seem to be out there already, and I think it’s worth just sitting with the story the way it works, keeping the lens firmly on this family line we’re zoomed in on.

But here’s the point of the narrative — it’s not the people who are the real obstacle or threat to life, it’s being hidden from God’s presence (Genesis 4:14). Cain is sent out, exiled, with a mark from God protecting him. God promises that anybody who kills him will suffer vengeance (Genesis 4:15). We get this cycle of bloody violence, rather than people guarding and keeping with one another, ruling together, they’re murderous and celebrating their viciousness (Genesis 4:19-24). Cain goes out from God’s presence into this world. He’s exiled. He lives in the land of Nod, which is the Hebrew word for homelessness. He becomes homeless East of Eden (Genesis 4:16).

Cain finds a wife, out there away from his family, and he founds a city — a home away from home — a city in the land of homelessness away from God’s presence. If Eden, as a garden, was a walled enclosure marking out God’s presence and hospitality this city is an echo of Eden but without God’s presence (Genesis 4:17). In the midst of the story of a family tree we start getting some culture; some cultivation of creation; some fruitfulness and creativity; a weird origin story for instruments and farming tools and methods of farming livestock (Genesis 4:20-22). They’re taking the raw matter of creation and making stuff; they’re ruling. This city might look nice; the music might be good and the tools might help humans overcome the cursed ground, but there are makers of death in this family line. Cain might be avenged seven-fold; his descendant Lamech is a violent avenger who’ll kill a man just for wounding him (Genesis 4:23-24).

This is a beastly city; a city of violence and bloodshed and vengeance, in a land of ‘no-home’ — it’s the furthest thing you can get from the Garden in Eden; the home of life and generativity and God’s fruitful presence.

But the narrator takes us back to the land of Eden, outside the garden. Eve, the mother of the living, celebrates — God overcomes Cain’s beastly attempt to end the line of seed from Eve — he grants her a son, Seth, who has a son. We’re also told that at this point, people begin to call on the name of the Lord — while those out in Nod are shedding blood, there’s a little note of hope in this line (Genesis 4:25-26).

And we get a re-cap around the line of seed that the narrative is going to follow. Cain’s line is a dead-end that creates death, but this recap goes back to the beginning. God created mankind in the likeness of God, blessing them, male and female, and calling the earthling, Adam, then Adam’s son Seth is made in Adam’s own image and likeness — a chip off the old block. We’ve seen how an ‘image’ in the ancient world was an idol statue, or the king as an embodiment of the gods, part of being the image of or the likeness of someone, or of God, is also caught up in this idea of being a son or daughter (this idea gets picked up in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, which calls Adam the “son of God.”) (Genesis 5:1-4).

A line of image bearing humans continues. God works despite human beastliness towards creating a serpent-crusher who will lead humanity back from the east, from restless wandering and a sense of homelessness into rest in a garden-like home.

These threads get picked up through the narrative of the Bible. People keep heading further east. People keep acting more like Cain — and the Serpent — than Adam’s purpose in the garden. We’re landing this series in Genesis 11, with another move east, to the Plain of Shinar, where humans build a tower called Babel (that’s Babylon), which, as it turns out, is also due East of Jerusalem. When the southern kingdom of Judah is exiled, like Cain, they’re sent eastwards again. The Genesis origin story is a story that helps exiled Israel understand their own predicament; they, too, have behaved like Adam and Eve, and Cain, like children of the Serpent.

Through this origin story God’s also going to call his people out of Babylon; starting with Abram, who comes from Ur of the Chaldeans — that’s Babylon — to begin a people of promise; a nation of priests; calling people back into his presence. In that nation of priests we get little Edens; little pictures of the paradise lost, not just the fruitful land around the garden, but the garden itself. We meet a bunch of people who look like they might lead people back to life with God; Abraham, Moses, The priests, David, Solomon and all their stories have echoes of this story.

Moses enters God’s presence, on the mountain and then builds a tabernacle, where there’s an atonement where blood from sacrifices would be taken up to two cherubim, who were sitting, guarding, the Ark as they guarded the garden. The Ark is the symbol of God’s heavenly throne, where he says he’d meet with his people “between the Cherubim” (Exodus 25:22). The ark was placed behind a curtain embroided with Cherubim (Exodus 26:1, 31) who are guarding the way, separating the Holy place, like Eden, where God’s people could dwell from the most Holy Place, God’s dwelling place — like the Garden. The curtain was a barrier like the gateway separating the garden from the rest of Eden.

The entry to the Tabernacle is on the eastern side of a courtyard (Exodus 27:13-19). To come towards God was to move from the east, back towards the curtain and the Cherubim; towards his dwelling place. Moses and his priestly family end up guarding the tabernacle; living to the east of this door; a bit like the Cherubim guards Eden; living at the doorway to God’s presence and caring for the Sanctuary.  Anyone else who approaches the way to life; to God’s presence, was to be put to death (Numbers 3:38, note the word for “caring for” or “keeping” here in Numbers is the same word used in God’s instructions to Adam in Eden).  Once a year, a priest — starting with Moses’s brother Aaron — would sacrifice animals (like Abel) to make atonement for sin — to bring God and his people together again. He couldn’t come past the Cherubim whenever he wanted; or he’d die — but this time it’s the presence of God in the cloud, above the ark and between the Cherubim, that’s the risk (Leviticus 16).

One day a year that priest would go behind the curtain; entering the Eden-like place, or specifically, the Garden-like space, where God is present, in order to sprinkle the blood of animals on the atonement cover, under the Cherubim. There are even two goats where ones blood is spilled and the other is exiled into the wilderness. There are echoes of the Cain and Abel story here, and throughout the story of the Old Testament. Sacrifices to God are offered where God dwells as an expression of a desire to be one with God again; to dwell with him in the Garden. For Cain and Abel these sacrifices are made in Eden, outside the Garden excluded from entrance, for Israel, it’s in the Tabernacle, then the Temple. In all these places the barrier remains.

And people in Israel keep acting so much like Cain that they get tossed to the east.

At one point in the story, and this’ll be significant below, Israel acts almost exactly like Cain, killing the people who are meant to lead them back to God in the temple. There’s this guy named Zechariah — who’s different to the Zechariah the book of the Bible is named after… they kill him in the Temple courts (2 Chronicles 24:20-21). Chronicles tells the sorry story of Israel becoming like Babylon, and so being sent east to Babylon; when that happens Babylon takes the whole Temple set up with them (2 Chronicles 36:15-21).

When Ezekiel the prophet talks about this moment he talks about God departing from Israel’s Temple with the cherubim; the presence leaves, heading to the east, first of the temple, then the city (Ezekiel 10:18-19), stopping on the mountain to the east of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 11:23), which is called the Mount of Olives. According to Ezekiel, Israel won’t come back to God, from the EAST, from exile in Babylon and back into God’s presence until God’s presence has first returned to Jerusalem. Ezekiel is brought, in a vision, to a gate facing east where he sees God’s glory returning to his Temple through an eastern gate (Ezekiel 43:1-4). Once that happens humans — first Israel, then the world, can be restored to garden-like life with God in a new Temple as the world becomes a picture of Eden restored; centred around a mountain temple facing East, where living water flows out to give life to the nations (Ezekiel 47, note Ezekiel 28 has earlier pictured Eden as a garden on a holy mountain in verses 13-14).

By the end of the Old Testament, via the prophets, we’re waiting for God’s presence to return to a Temple in Jerusalem; an Eden space, in order to dwell with people again and we’re waiting for someone like Abel, or a priest, to come and make a sacrifice God will accept; one who will get us past the Cherubim and re-open access to life in his presence; a human from the line of Serpent-Crushing seed who is not, like Cain, a beastly child of the snake. We’re waiting for someone who might bring us back into life with God; the paradise we lost.

And the New Testament picks up these threads ties them together in the person of Jesus. Luke tells us he’s from this line of seed; he’s the image bearing son of Adam, and Seth (Luke 3:23-38, especially 38). At the climax of the Gospel story Jesus heads towards Jerusalem. John’s called him God’s glory tabernacling in flesh and a walking Temple (John 1:14, 2:19-20). As he approaches Jerusalem, he approaches from the East; from the Mount of Olives (Matthew 21:1). He comes in to the city via the eastern gates and then enters the Temple court — moving from east to west towards the Holy of Holies, and he sets about cleaning up the sacrificial system, because people’s sacrifices — their sin offerings — have been corrupted by those running the temple (Matthew 21:12-13). He enters the Temple to proclaim judgment on the people running it, including the woes he pronounces on the Pharisees who ‘sit in Moses’ seat, who aren’t ‘keeping the Temple’ like Moses’ family, or leading people to God, they’re shutting the door of the kingdom of heaven on them (Matthew 23:13). He calls them a brood of Vipers — serpent children — who imitate Cain, throwing back to both the murder of Abel and of Zechariah the priest between “the altar and the sanctuary,” which is maybe how we should picture the location of both Zechariah’s death in the Temple, and Abel’s death at the gateway to Eden (Matthew 23:33- 23:35).

The blood of these innocent people is on the hands of Jerusalem’s leaders because they have become like Cain; like the Serpent; a violent and oppressive people whose city has become like Babylon.

Then he talks about himself as the Son of Man; the true son of Adam; who’s going to come like “lightning from the East” (Matthew 24:27) to give a place in God’s kingdom to those who are blessed by God; a kingdom prepared from the creation of the world (Matthew 24:30).  He’s going to enter God’s presence and sit at his right hand (Matthew 26:64), but before he gets there there’ll be more blood on the hands of the humans who take up Cain’s line; the line of the Serpent. Jesus will become like Abel, and like Zechariah; as he’s put on trial the priests are joined by the people of the city baying for blood, and they crucify him.

But Jesus’ arrival in the city, and even his death, is a demonstration of God’s glorious presence returning to Jerusalem to judge the city and its Temple, making access to life with God possible through the sacrifice of a firstborn. So the Temple curtain tears (Matthew 27:50-51); the curtain embroided with Cherubim, separating humans from the Holy place and containing God’s nominal dwelling place on earth (he doesn’t return to dwell in the Holy of Holies in the rebuilt Temple in the Old Testament). This Temple in Jerusalem has been replaced with one that will make people holy, bringing actual atonement so we can come in to God’s presence again.

This is how the book of Hebrews picks up what happens in the death of Jesus picking up the threads that run from exile from the Garden, to Cain and Abel, through the Tabernacle and the curtain and the altar — it says we’ve been made holy through his sacrifice; restored to being the kind of people who can live in his presence (Hebrews 10:10-11) by this one human who can lead us back into the Garden. Jesus replaces the sacrifices that couldn’t take away our sins in the temple and he has entered heaven to sit with God, having made one sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 10:12). His entering this Most Holy Place; the place behind the curtain makes him — his body through his sacrifice — a new and living way; a way past the cherubim and into life with God. Through his sacrifice we can draw near to God because atonement has been made and we have been washed and purified (Hebrews 10:21-24). His blood “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” because while the tell-tale blood of Abel cried out for justice his sacrifices, even his death, did not bring humanity back into the Garden; Jesus, on the other hand, brings us into the city of the Living God, his heaven-on-earth dwelling place (Hebrews 12:22-23); the new Jerusalem the prophet Ezekiel saw as the end of Exile, and that John pictures for us in Revelation (Revelation 21-22). Jesus becomes the way maker; the mediator of a new covenant who brings us back to God; the media or way we use to come back to God, Jesus’ blood as the first born son sacrificed on our behalf is what Abel’s faithfulness anticipated. All those threads from the start of the Bible’s story  are tied together in our origin story, the Gospel. This is the story that shapes our lives; the story of how we find ourselves back in the promised land; the garden.

We might pin our hope on all sorts of leaders to carry us back to the promised land; modern politicians promise lots and deliver little. This can be disappointing, but our politics is not exhausted in our vote; we practice politics in where we give our time, our money, our energy, to building the city — the ‘polis’ — we want to live in; whether it’s Babylon or the New Jerusalem — and we do this knowing that it’s actually Jesus who builds the city, we’re just ambassadors popping up little embassies in our households and the communities we start, or occupy. Our businesses. The kids we educate.

We have to choose our family — our story — not red or blue, but Jesus or the Serpent.

Our politicians won’t lead us back to a promised land; they’ll make plenty of promises, but the world offers cities built by Cain, by children of the Serpent; Babylons, and old Jerusalems when we humans turn to violence to solve our problems, or live seeking our own way to heaven-on-earth.

But if we plant ourselves in the story of Jesus; in his family tree, as children of God, people living as God’s Images in the world, knowing that we are now located in Eden; the new Jerusalem; raised and seated in the heavenlies with Jesus; this story will produce fruit in our lives.

It’ll change the way we think about politics and participate in the polis; our city. Our desire to not be violent people of vengeance, but people of peace, will shape the way we vote; certainly, but it’ll also shape the causes we support with our time and money.

We’ll see ‘politics’ as going way beyond voting for a blue team or red team — Scomo, or Albo — who just offer more of the same; scratch a western liberal democracy and you’ll find violence and greed and individualism lurking below the surface; the coils of the Serpent — even if there are Christians in the corridors of power; and we should be participating in our city, our politics — this story will shape the alternative city we build within our city; our communities, our households we participate in and the way we use our tables. We aren’t nomads living in exile in the land of nod; or exiled in Babylon; we’re citizens of heaven, or the New Eden, called to live as those who are home, not those who’re wandering.

Origin Story: In the Beginning

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.

Origin stories are helpful if you want to understand the world you live in — and how to live.

If you want to understand why Gotham city has become dark and scary; why the Joker and other over the top villains are running around causing chaos; why they have responded to the Batman’s over-the-top embodiment of fear by fighting fire with fire; you have to find yourself back in a dark alley where that batman’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, witnessed his parents being murdered…  And an earlier experience young Bruce had with scary bats in a cave.

So many of our fictional worlds are built on origin stories that aren’t just about a key person, but explain why the world is the way it is; it’s not just fictional worlds shaped by an origin story; we humans are shaped by our own origin stories. This is part of what drives the popularity of genealogical research — learning about our family history so we can understand the present on an individual level, while at a societal level the lives we live together are often shaped by common stories we believe about the world. if you believe humans emerged from purely natural processes in a world that is closed off to any god or gods, then that’s going to shape how you use your body and use the natural world world….  

In this series we’re going to tackle the way the Genesis origin story does — or doesn’t — relate to a modern, scientific, secular view of reality — whether that’s a young earth or old earth version of that science story. Whatever you believe about the science story, this shapes the way Christians live in the world and how we approach science and decision making (note: there’s an observable link between young earth creationism and skepticism about the science behind anthropogenic climate change).

The Bible’s origin story doesn’t come from a modern view of the world; their concept of the physical world looked very different to the picture we gain from satellites looking back at the earth from orbit; the Old Testament vision of the cosmos has more in common with the stories of israel’s neighbours — the nations they interact with in the Old Testament — like Egypt, and Babylon.  

It’s an origin story with a model of the universe at home in the ancient world — engaging with and critiquing ideas about God held by Israel’s neighbours. These were origin stories Israel was tempted to believe and live by as they were tempted by idolatry and the alternative vision of god, and the world, and the purpose of human life, offered by the stories and cultures around them. We have a good idea what these empires believed about the origin of the cosmos, and the purpose of human life, thanks to archaeological discoveries in the last 200 years; we can now read stories like Babylon’s Enuma Elish, or the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’.

As we work our way through this series we’re going to consider how this context might shape how we read the story — so that we’re asking the sort of questions the text itself might be answering. This isn’t because the genesis story can’t exist alongside science stories —  whether old or young earth stories — it’s just that these stories aren’t what this origin story is about. We won’t get good answers in genesis unless we’re asking the right questions.

Our main guide for reading the Bible’s origin story isn’t going to be these ancient creation stories that are a reasonably recent discovery, but the way these origin stories — these chapters at the start of the Bible, unfold through the rest of the Bible.

Here’s a picture of how hyperlinked the bible is — how many later books build on — by referencing — earlier books.

Source/Credit: Chris Harrison, BibleViz, Bible Cross References

The Bible is a rich tapestry — a library — that builds an internal and coherent understanding of the other books — not just through quotes — that this picture picks up, but through the building of themes and patterns and imagery that we pick up as we read. 

So we’ll try to make sense of these chapters of this book by placing them in this context — and not just of the Old Testament, as though we’re the first hearers and readers of the story – but with the New Testament, as it’s fulfilled in Jesus. Because both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels locate the roots for the family tree of Jesus back in Genesis — tracing the line of seed — offspring — through to his arrival as the Son of Man and the Son of God. 

Part of recognising that the Bible unfolds as one story and that this story shapes our lives as God’s people means considering how the story itself worked for people living that story along the way, throughout the family tree (or “genealogy”), considering, for example how the nation of God read, or told (prior to its final compilation), this story from “Abraham to David” (in Egypt, for example), from David to exile (in the land), or then during exile in Babylon. We know the united final form of the Old Testament history running from Genesis to 2 Kings was put together after those events ended. This challenges our modern readings of the text, confounding the categories we want to bring to the debate. The story has its own purpose, and its own context, in this bigger story — God’s story. It’s doing something very different to what we want it to do as modern humans with a view of the cosmos we build from satellite images. 

Genesis tells us quite a lot about quite a lot of things; but perhaps primarily it is a story that reveals the nature and character of God to us, and grounds everything else in that act of revelation. We can make try to make it answer our questions, but often we get the subject wrong. Genesis frames our answer to questions around the nature of the universe and the nature of life within in it by placing reality — the heavens and the earth in their place as creations of a god who was and who is — before the heavens and the earth began. This is the scene set in the opening words of Genesis, where we’re told that in the beginning God creates the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).

Now, some people see this as a heading that describes what’s going to happen in the rest of chapter one. For a few reasons, especially the long arch in that picture that goes from the beginning (Genesis) right to the end of the story (Revelation), I think this should be read as a statement that in the beginning god created these two overlapping realities — the heavens — his home, and the home of the spiritual beings in his heavenly host — and the earth —a home for humans and a host of animals.

The other thing to consider is that we jump to thinking of the whole globe viewed from a satellite, when we hear the word “earth,”  but it’s literally “the ground” in the imagination of the ancient reader, who hasn’t sent a satellite up into space yet, and who knows that humans are deeply connected to the earth, and our survival depends on the food it brings forth. 

The earth can’t produce food yet in verse 2 — it’s “formless and empty,” at least, that’s how our NIV translates these words; but the Doug Green translation, which I quite like because of how it creates threads through the rest of the story of the Bible — is that these words should be maybe understood as barren — desolate — fruitless — and uninhabited by life… Especially living creatures who’ll cultivate it (note: Doug Green, Old Testament lecturer at Queensland Theological College is a member of our congregation).   

Jeremiah uses this same language to talk about Israel as the nation goes into exile; framing exile as a sort of de-creation — where the formless and empty involves the people — the birds — and the trees — all disappearing — it becomes desolate and uninhabited.

In Genesis the land is desolate and uninhabited, because it is covered in the chaotic waters of the deep, and it’s all in darkness.  

In the ancient map of reality the deep — these waters — represent chaos. People who hadn’t seen the earth through a satellite conceived of reality as looking something like this.

Image Credit/Source: Michæl Paukner, Flickr

They’re maybe even a spiritual force opposed to life and fruitful living, especially salt waters. In Babylon’s creation story there are two gods who make up the deep — the living water — freshwater — Apsu — and the salty chaos waters — Tiamet — who their god Marduk violently destroys and he makes the heavens and the earth from the material of her dead body.

The deep is a problem. It gets in the way of the land becoming something other than desolate and uninhabited — it stops it teeming with life and fruitfulness.  

God does something about this, and about the darkness. His spirit, a word you can also translate as breath — something that needs to be active in order to speak words (try holding your breath for a minute and then speaking) is hovering over the waters of the deep, in the darkness; waiting to bring life. God speaks to create: “let there be light”. And there is, which deals with the darkness. This happens before he creates the sun, and so there’s a cool idea that he peels back the veil — or the vault — between heaven and earth to flood the earth with his glorious light. 

Then God starts dealing with the waters. He says let there be a vault — or firmament. This is what gets created on day two — separating water from water — the waters below and the water above — this isn’t how we think of the earth and the atmosphere as modern people, but sit for a bit with this vision from Genesis where the heavens and the earth exist, and they’re held separate by this solid barrier — this domed ceiling. God carves out a space between these waters for life to exist on the earth, by his word, then moves the waters aside so that dry ground — ground that can produce fruit and life — appears. He calls this good, which is interesting because on the previous day, as he creates the vault — this barrier between the heavens and the earth — he doesn’t call it good.

There are lots of reasons this could be the case, but I wonder (with others) if Genesis is setting up a tension that will be resolved in the rest of the story of the Bible. A separation between the heavens and the earth — a barrier — exists and this will ultimately be overcome.  In the rest of Genesis 1, God fills the heavens, and sea, and sky with life — heavenly bodies, that for the ancients were a shining picture of the heavenly court —spiritual beings — and trees — and animals (note: I wish I’d paid more attention to this when preaching this series, but my mind has recently been blown by the Hebrew of Genesis 1:21 the ‘great creatures’ he creates in the deep; using a word often translated as monster, serpent, or dragon). It follows this pattern — God says, he makes, and he names.  He fills the desolate and uninhabited world with fruitfulness and life.  

He does it by speaking, and by creating not so much from out of nothing, but from his word, with his Spirit hovering. This creator god we meet in Genesis 1 is the source of all the things he makes. He’s not like the gods of the nations — whose creation stories do not involve an eternal god who creates life, but gods who are the chaotic waters (Tiamet) and at home in the darkness. The gods from origin stories around Israel bring light and order to the desolate earth by killing each other, and building stuff out of the dead bodies of other gods. That’s the kind of bloody origin story that gets you an ancient Gotham city; heroes — or kings — who embody fear, and employ violence to get what they want in empires that brings order — their own fruitful gardens and cities — through war and bloodshed. 

In Genesis, God makes the pinnacle of creation; those who will rule for him on the earth as he rules in the heavens. Those who’ll represent him and bring fruitfulness over the face of the earth as we spread his rule and his presence by spreading his image — reflecting his glorious light and joining him in the generation of life and fruitfulness in the earth. He specifically gives humans the job of ruling over the spaces and the life he has just created — fruitfully, and according to his likeness. 

There’s a plural here — the god who is speaking doesn’t just say ‘let me’ — and there’s a bit of debate over who the us is here — for a long time I read it as a divine plural — an intra-trinitarian ‘us’ — the Father speaking to the Son and Spirit who are at work in these acts of creation, but there’s a solid case to be made that God — the Triune god — is speaking to the heavenly realm and those living in his divine court — the heavenly ‘sons of god’ as they’re called later in the Genesis narrative — so that we’re like those heavenly beings, but on earth. Psalm 8 picks up this idea a bit. It talks about God making humans ‘a little lower than the angels’… Only, in Hebrew, it’s ”a little lower than the Elohim” — which is a tricky word — a Hebrew word for ‘god’ (a divine being) where the plural and singular are hard to tell apart. The translation decision here is an interesting one, and angels could just as easily be ‘gods’ — these other ‘Elohim’ — who turn up a bit in the Old Testament, like in Psalm 82, which describes God (Elohim) ruling in the heavenly court room — rendering judgment amongst the Elohim. In our modern view of the world we aren’t necessarily looking for heavenly beings in a heavenly court room, or imagining God talking to this court as he creates humans to do this job on earth.  

This isn’t our model of reality, but it is the model the Bible assumes, and the Bible’s origin story tells the story of the creation of this same cosmos.

While i’m still inclined to see the Trinity involved in the us — in the creation of humans — I do think we humans are being made to do on earth what these Elohim — the sons of God — are meant to do in the heavenly realm; be like God; be like his children who represent his rule as we rule for him.

Being made in god’s image is tied to a function; to rule over his creation as those who bring his likeness into creation.

In our secular world, where we tend to be materialists, because of our origin stories, and so focus on physical stuff, we tend to think of making something as making its substance. So we see the idea of the “image of god: being something about our human bodies that is inherent to us, and how we operate physically, but in the ancient world, when you made and named something it wasn’t so much about material nature but about function. The image of god is a job to do, not just a thing we are.  

There’s some evidence from the ancient world around Israel that clues us in to this. In the ancient near east the title the “image of god” was a title reserved for kings — who were really more priest-kings who represented their god’s rule on the earth, and guaranteed their worship — and for idol statues — that’s actually what the word here for image — tselem — means both in Hebrew and related languages from nearby countries. 

So when god makes humans in his own image — in the image of god he creates us — as male and female — you could think of it as him making us as his living, breathing, idol statues — so that wherever humans doing this job are, there the rule of God; the kingdom of God — is represented on the earth, as it is in heaven. 

This is an idea we’ll see more of in the next piece, but it’s also an idea that runs through the story of the Bible, especially as god forbids his people to make dead statues of him — the living God — cause he’s already made his own living images.  

One of the reasons I’m still partial to the idea of the Trinity being involved in the “us” — is that I think God making us male and female in his image is significant; not just because it upholds the dignity and function and full humanity of both men and women, but because men and women — a plurality of people — are actually required to carry out the function of being made in god’s image together. There’s a communal reality in the us that we’re to represent in our own us as we take on this job together and generate fruitful life the way god does, in partnership with him.

That’s the job he gives humans — the world was uninhabited and empty — desolate and uninhabited — but now, with the creation of humans — it’s not — and we’re given a job — to fill the earth and subdue it — as we rule over the wild life we find around us; joining God in bringing light and life and his presence over the face of the earth…  

At this point god declares things very good. Now, it would be easy for us to think that this is perfect; that the picture we get at the end of chapter 1 is a perfect world — a paradise that humans stuff up as sin enters the picture, but the idea that we have a job to do in subduing the world — and what we see in Eden in chapter 2 — is that not all the earth is Eden yet… It’s not all a picture of god’s heavenly dwelling…  

We humans become the answer to the problem of the land being desolate — uncultivated wilderness — by bringing fruitfulness, and we’ll see more of what both image bearing and this task looks like as we explore Genesis 2.

There are other issues unresolved in Genesis 1 that mean we shouldn’t think things are perfect at this point. The cosmic waters — are being held at bay — in the ancient worldview — gathered up and pushed aside, waiting above the firmament to be poured out; as we’ll see in the Noah story. The firmament is still existing as a ‘not called good’ barrier between heaven and earth, which is a problem set up in the Genesis 1 “origin story” that is resolved in the rest the Bible as God’s big story unfolds.  

So how should we understand this story in the beginning of our Bible? 

For starters — it’s a story that reveals God to us because it shows us how the world — his creation — is an expression of who he is. He makes light and makes life and pushes the forces of chaos and disorder aside to replace that with fruitfulness and order, and he does this in a way that transcends anything offered by any other gods we meet in any other creation story. The rest of the bible picks up this theme. The Psalms use creation itself — its wonder — as grounds to declare the glory of God.

In the book of Acts, Paul talks about God as the one who makes the heavens and the earth — and suggests we should look for God not in human temples, because he doesn’t just create the world by his word — and spirit, or breath. Existence is in him; he gives everyone life and breath and everything else. And in him we live and breathe and have our being. 

In Romans, Paul picks up the same idea and says that god’s nature — his invisible qualities — are knowable, in part, from what has been made — the works of his hands; and this actually leaves us without excuse; creation is evidence of a creator. 

The goodness of the cosmos — its beauty, its vastness — the flavours of the things God gives us for food — and the nature of the life filling it — these reveal God’s qualities to us, but nothing does this more than humans. 

And heaven and earth — and the barrier between heaven and us is a something God sets about removing. Ultimately he does this in Jesus — the Son of God, and Son of Man; the first person to span heaven and earth in his nature. There’s this cool thing Mark does in his gospel called an ‘inclusio’ — it’s a technique where two events are bracketed using the same words and themes. At the baptism of Jesus, the heavens tear — this is a violent rupture type word — and the Spirit of God, who hovered over the waters in the beginning like a dove now hovers over Jesus (Mark 1:10). This ‘inclusio’ is complete when the curtain in the temple is torn from the heavens — up top — to the earth — the bottom; it’s the same word (Mark 15:38).

We know from the Jewish historian Josephus that this curtain was an image not just of the universe, but of the firmament — the barrier between heaven and earth. He talks about how its colours represented the heavens, how the stars and cherubim embroidered on it represented the mystical living creatures in the heavenly realm (Josephus, Jewish Wars Book 5, Chapter 5, Paragraph 4). At the death of Jesus the vault — the firmament — breaks open. The barrier is destroyed. A new creation — a new state of being — emerges.

Paul picks up the language of Genesis to describe Jesus as the firstborn over all creation — the image of the invisible god — the child; the living idol statue; the ruler of god’s kingdom. He says that creation itself — the heavens and the earth — things visible and invisible — the Elohim and the rulers of earth — all things were created through him and for him. He’s the one who will remove the barriers between the good cosmos and the perfect one. Because God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him — and through him to reconcile all things — that means to bring all things together — and it includes the heavens and the earth — by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Colossians 1:15-23).

Paul talks about how we’ve been raised with Christ, and we’re now seated in the heavenlies — but this isn’t meant to make us of no use on earth — when we set our minds on things above it’s on God and his nature as it’s revealed in Jesus (Colossians 3:1-3). It’s on this story where the heavens and the earth are not yet joined and we live in anticipation of his return to make all things new. This is the cosmic good news where Jesus doesn’t just come to reconcile us to god by forgiving our sins — he does that — but to recreate all things. That’s where the big story of the Bible heads. The beginning anticipates the ending: a new heaven and a new earth, where, finally, there’s no cosmic waters (I don’t think this means no beach but no chaotic abyss) (Revelation 21-22).

In this new reality God will dwell with his people; there’ll be no solid barrier between us. No curtain. No separation of realms. This is the end of the story, and the threads begin in the beginning.

The Bible’s origin story shapes how we understand the world — where it came from — and where it’s heading — not in the way science tells us the world works, and not in the way other religious stories — whether supernatural or built from worshiping created things instead of the creator — tell us the world should work. And this should actually shape the way we live in the world — in our part of it.

This was a big deal for Israel; this origin story was the beginning of the story that explained how they should live as image bearers; as a kingdom of priests, not just in the land, with a king in Jerusalem — but in Babylon; in exile, when it felt like decreation had happened and as though the powerful origin story of Babylon — that justified its military power and propped up the regime of its kings — was the better story. The Bible’s story taught Israel to imagine a different humanity; a different purpose as it told the story of a different God.

So let’s, for a moment, re-imagine our world if the Bible’s origin story is our origin story — not just in the beginning, but in the story of re-creation we find in the Gospel; the end of humanity’s exile from God. Let’s imagine we’re reading this story in Babylon; or in Gotham — the world we live in can be pretty dark.

Let’s imagine how our new origin story — the Gospel Story that starts in Genesis — should shape the way we live in our time and place; because it’s different to the stories at work around us…

If you buy an origin story that is all about the material reality, or ‘this is all just chance,’ and ‘nature is red in tooth and claw and we’re just the top of the food chain then you want to be a predator, not prey. You want to be the fittest in order to survive and others become obstacles. This is the world we live in. Often. A world of dominance hierarchies and military industrial complexes and consumerism and climate change induced by our ‘dominance’ of the physical world. You start treating the world as though it, too, is prey — and so we dig things up and pump stuff out, and burn stuff up, and destroy natural habitats and food sources and the water basins. And we leave the land desolate and uninhabitable when we finish. Perhaps, over time, instead of spreading God’s Kingdom — Eden like life — we change the climate and push back towards a formless and empty creation, with only God’s gracious sustaining of life holding back the waters of judgment. It’s possible, too, that what restrains us from fully destroying the joint is that the image of god is still at work in our humanity.  

You also lose a certain amount of wonder or enchantment — the idea that we live and have our being ‘in God,’ and that his divine nature and character is revealed in what has been made. Instead of cultivating a fruitful relationship with the world reflecting the God who makes the world fruitful and inhabited.

Sometimes we’re tempted to live in this story. The Babylon story. The story from our family of origin where we make progress through death and destruction bearing the image of beastly gods of death, but God invites us into a new family tree, with a new story.

Our story teaches us that the right use of the world lines up with the purpose of human life — to reveal the nature of god in his world as we rule our lives, and the world, under his rule as expressions of his kingdom; of heaven breaking in to earth. Our story is about God’s design and gift of life, for all people, and his desire to dwell with us in a fruitful world that is full of life…

Our story shapes us to see not just ourselves — but our neighbours — as created to reflect the glory of God; so that we treat human lives — and bodies — as sacred objects, and see those people not reflecting the glory of God not as humans to be destroyed — or captured, enslaved, and bent to our will as we pursue our own heaven on earth projects — but to be invited into relationship with their creator.

Our story teaches us that God’s world is good — but it is not perfect — it isn’t something — or full of somethings — or someones — we should worship.

Our story teaches us that God provides the answer to the longings created by life in a good world that points us to a great God, working out a great story in history — the story of heaven and earth coming together… And that right now, we’re between those two worlds.

Our story is that in Jesus we become meeting places between heaven and earth — restored and re-created image bearers who become children of God who live as living statues, temples of his Spirit, who represent him — his divine nature and character — in the world. This story begins in the beginning.

Sermonising

I’m writing my sermon for Sunday in Google Docs. It’s on 1 John 1:1-4.

Here’s the Google Docs analysis of what I’ve written so far:

Counts Selection Document
Words: 3815
Characters (no spaces): 16912
Characters (with spaces): 20720
Paragraphs: 82
Sentences: 524
Pages (approximate): 5
Readability Selection Document
Average sentences per paragraph: 6.39
Average words per sentence: 7.28
Average characters per word: 4.43
Average words per page: 763.00
Flesch Reading Ease: [?] 84.78
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: [?] 3.00
Automated Readability Index: [?] 3.00

That’s the formula (from this test) that gives a readability level of 3. I guess that’s good. It’s probably not helped by the number of sentences. I write punchy sentences for sermons. I also speak naturally at about 160 words a minute (that’s the broadcast standard for journalism) – but should slow that down. At that pace this sermon should go for about 23 minutes.

Here are the stats on the passage itself:

Counts Selection Document
Words: 103
Characters (no spaces): 433
Characters (with spaces): 535
Paragraphs: 1
Sentences: 5
Pages (approximate): 2
Readability Selection Document
Average sentences per paragraph: 5.00
Average words per sentence: 20.60
Average characters per word: 4.20
Average words per page: 51.50
Flesch Reading Ease: [?] 78.33
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: [?] 7.00
Automated Readability Index: [?] 9.00

I think it’s a good thing that my sermon is more simple than the passage right? Shouldn’t an explanation be easier to understand than the thing you’re explaining? Otherwise it would be pointless.

Out of interest I pulled one of dad’s sermons off the MPC website and ran a comparison.

Counts Selection Document
Words: 3032
Characters (no spaces): 12835
Characters (with spaces): 15893
Paragraphs: 58
Sentences: 276
Pages (approximate): 4
Readability Selection Document
Average sentences per paragraph: 4.76
Average words per sentence: 10.99
Average characters per word: 4.23
Average words per page: 758.00
Flesch Reading Ease: [?] 82.04
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: [?] 5.00
Automated Readability Index: [?] 4.00