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03 May 2016

Day in the Life: Centurion (Luke 7:1-10)

Day in the Life: “Centurion”
Luke 7:1-10
May 1, 2016 – Kevin Rees - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermon.net

True honor is measured by character, not rank.

There are many subjects about which I have no grasp.  The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.  One subject within the growing field of things about which I have no grasp is military ranking.  I shield this ignorance, since it is assumed that every warm-blooded American knows from birth the subject of military rank—whether a sergeant outranks a major or which rank follows a second lieutenant or if a captain corresponds to the Navy or the Army.  I really don’t know anything about military rank even after several solid attempts to learn.

But I do know that the Bible casts a favorable light on soldiering.  In our modern era, American soldiers are often smeared as some form of legalized murderers; hired henchmen of the government.  I don’t hear a lot of that kind of talk in the rural Mid-South or the Mid-West, for which I am grateful.  But I am glad to report that the Bible has nothing negative to say about the military profession.  It has quite a lot information about corrupt kings and the carnage left over on the battlefield, but the category of soldier is either morally neutral if not overtly positive.

We have one of these overtly positive examples of a military man in Luke 7:1-10.  We don’t know his name, but—appropriately—we know his rank.  He is a centurion—a commander of 100 foot soldiers in one of Rome’s many legions.  Every legion would have 6000 professional legionnaires (troops), which works out to 60 centurions per unit (whose pay was 10-20 times more than a foot soldier). Centurions were foot soldiers, at first, but they rose in rank for valor and leadership demonstrated on the battlefield which impressed both their superiors and inspired their peers.

I tried to cross-check a modern equivalent of a centurion, but it is hard to pin down—most suggest that the rank is a middle-range officer between sergeant and major.  But, as I confessed already, that doesn’t gel in my brain.  The only sergeant I ever knew was Sergeant Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band.

But the minutiae of military rank need not eclipse the main thrust of this passage, which includes rank but hinges on honor.  One of the chief values within the military culture is (perceived) honor.  How the military conceives and shows honor is largely communicated through promotion or demotion of rank.  That is why it is a huge deal, for instance this week in the news, that the Army gave a rare reversal of its own internal disciplinary action.  Before his appeal was granted, decorated Green Beret, Charles Martland, (Sergeant First Class) was stripped of his rank and dishonorably discharged from the Army after he publicly confronted and physically bested an Afghan officer who openly boasted about abducting and molesting a 12-year old boy back in July 2011.  Because of a misapplied military philosophy not to interfere with the internal culture of its very fragile ally, Afghanistan, Martland was reprimanded instead of celebrated; terminated instead of emulated.  But the Army reversed its decision this week (April 28) and restored Martland to active duty and full rank. 

It really came down to honor.  Martland and the Afghani officer who quickly ended up on his back obviously had two very different views of honor.  One used his authority to overpower the weak.  The other used his authority to protect the weak.  While the military struggled with its own ulterior motives, those outside the military who learned of Martland’s story were quick to pressure for a reversal.

If you have to tap the “bars” on your uniform in order to advance “self” and remind others how much honor you have, then for all practical purposes you have no honor.  True honor is measured by character, not by rank.


I.          Entreat by Proxy (vv. 1-5)

1 After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.
2 Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him.
3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant.
4 And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy to have you do this for him,
5 for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue."

This is a very “military” passage.  The soldier treats Jesus, whom he observes from afar, in a way that would be normal for the military.  But the scenario is not at all normal.  The centurion then does something shocking: he entreats Jesus.  He makes an appeal—first by sending a proxy.  

Asking for help is not something centurions do.  Centurions are the helpers, not the helpless.  If help is needed, then requests go up the chain of command, not down … and certainly not outside the chain of command.  If help must be called in, then a centurion would have been hard-pressed to leave the jurisdiction of Mother Roma.  But the centurion has heard about Jesus.  He has heard about his miracles.  He has heard about his teaching.  He has heard that Jesus does what few other Jews are willing to do—to reach out to non-Jews (Luke 6:17-20).  And he has heard that Jesus is coming into Capernaum this very day (Luke 7:1).

Capernaum is a fishing community on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.  But sitting just a day’s journey north of Capernaum is Caesarea Philippi, the largest and most “Roman” of Roman colonies in the entire region where the highest ranking soldiers and politicians lived.  And since this centurion is likely the highest ranking Roman in town, he likely had to think of his reputation.  He had to consider that he was a figure-head for Rome in everything he said and did. 

But overriding all of those sizable variables is need; great need.  For a man who holds considerable power, this centurion faces a crisis against which he is completely powerless.  What great need haunts this centurion on that particular day enough to provoke him to cross several cultural barriers?  He “had a servant who was sick at the point of death, who was highly valued by him” (Luke 7:2). 

Most of the people in the Roman Empire were slaves in one way or another, but this one is “highly valued” (Gr. entimos) by his “master” (kurios).  But it isn’t a monetary sort of valuation; it is emotional.  He is honored (timos); esteemed, distinguished, considered precious (Friberg).

Soldiers are stereotypically conservative in showing emotions, but when they finally estimate that someone is honorable they form a deep and lasting bond of brotherhood.  We don’t know any details of their relationship, but the centurion has this kind of brotherhood bond with his servant and it is tearing him up to see him “at the point of death.”  By itself this friendship is countercultural and a testimony to the depth of the centurion’s character.  But character is not enough to stop death from advancing.

This word used is the exact word a soldier hoped to hear at the end of his career when he received a certificate (entimos) of faithful service of 26 years (Moulton & Milligan).  “Honorable” is perhaps the highest praise of a military man to describe another person, whether inside or outside the military—you are very highly honored to me.

I love the quick action—when the soldier/statesman was in the act of hearing about Jesus he commissions a company of Capernaum’s elders to deliver his appeal for intervention (vs. 3).  This is all very formal, but it is also very smart.  The centurion doesn’t know if he will get either Jesus’ attention or his consent.  He sends the elders to give character witness and perhaps eliminate as many of the cultural barriers as possible so that his servant might have the best chance at healing as possible.  It could be seen as schmoozing Jesus, I suppose, but this is his “normal.”  He has plenty of reason to expect a traveling Jewish rabbi to refuse to help a Roman, not to mention a slave of a Roman centurion. 

So the envoy finds Jesus and gives him their prepared speech—“[This man] is worthy to have you do this for him for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built our synagogue” (vv. 4-5).  But, just like character is unable to stop or slow death, worth (in the sight of man) is unable to heal.


II.         Heal by Remote (vv. 6-10)

6 And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.
7 Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed.
8 For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it."
9 When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."
10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.

What is developing in this narrative is what scholars call a chiasm; a literary device that shows the reader where “X marks the spot” at the apex of the chiastic structure.  Luke marches to the most important point, circles it with a highlighter, so to speak, and then retraces his steps back the way he came.  The people and the centurion “hear” Jesus (vs. 1) and about Jesus (vs. 3a).  The envoy asks Jesus to “come and heal” the centurion’s servant (vs. 3b).  The elders testify to Jesus that the centurion is “worthy” of this miraculous intervention (vs. 4).  You will notice from verses 6 through 10 the same elements in reverse order: the centurion insists that he is not “worthy” (vs. 6b), that is why he did not presume to “come” to Jesus in the first place (vs. 7a).  But he understands from his military career, and believes by extension, that Jesus only has to say the word (from even far away) and the servant will be “healed” (vs. 7b).  When Jesus “heard” these things about the centurion, he “marveled at him” and gave a summary couplet, which forms a mini chiasm all by itself (vv. 9-10): “turning” to the crowd, testifying that he has not “found” in Israel such faith (the chiastic apex!) as in this centurion, he sends the friends to “turn” back to the house where they “find” the sick servant miraculously restored to health.

But let me return to the apex of the main chiasm of the entire narrative, which I saved for last, in the middle of verse 6.  “When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends saying to him, ‘Lord,   The centurion—whose life and career is built upon rank; whose social status is that of boss and master and commander and leader declares in public, in the full hearing of both the group of Jewish elders and the group of his Roman friends—addresses Jesus as “Lord” (Gr. kurios)—“master.”  This is the bull’s eye of this narrative!

This is no small thing.  It is not poetic license.  It is the microcosm of this man’s spiritual universe.  He is verbally bowing before Jesus as his superior—a thing that Romans never/rarely do—especially to foreign people on the extreme fringes of their empire.  It is not posturing.  It is not manipulating.  It is humble faith displayed in the last place anyone expected to find it—in the heart of a successful Roman soldier over a situation that he cannot fix himself, the decline of his dear servant’s health.  So he says, “Lord!”

"Do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (vs. 6).  Did the centurion change his mind about wanting Jesus to “come” to his house?  I don’t think so.  Now that he sees that Jesus is willing to intervene, he sends this second envoy out to express a modesty that is, by implication, rare in those days by the Romans: “I am not worthy.”  Just give the word—that will be more than sufficient.  He indicates that his word can mobilize soldiers and servants to advance or to retreat, but he has no rank here; no authority where he can say the word and a man receive healing.  But Jesus has that higher rank!  Jesus possesses that greater authority!  This is the ultimate deference to Jesus as his superior.  It is nothing less than amazing.  The centurion possessed and applied an insight into Jesus’ power from his military worldview.

Jesus does not show favoritism.  He mobilizes to help the slave as well as the aristocrat.  He teaches the scholar as well as the uneducated.  He cherishes the dignity of the Roman as well as his own Jewish countrymen.  He sheds his blood for his enemies as well as his friends.


What is honor in your estimation?  Is it measured by rank, by career, by money, by awards, by the size of the crowd that follows you?  Or is honor measured in character—whether no one is looking or everyone is looking.  But still, even though the honorable centurion has character, he is nevertheless unable to save his friend; unable to save himself.  He must yield to the higher honor that he finds in Jesus who has an entirely different and completely higher rank.  And so must we.  Jesus is the one who shatters the house of cards by which we used to measure life.  Jesus is not a better version of me.  Jesus is someone wholly different and yet amazingly similar at the same time; someone who walks into our neighborhood and says, “Follow Me.”  “I am the way.”  “Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.”  “I am the resurrection and life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he will live.”  “In this world you will have tribulation, but fear not, I have overcome the world.”  And today, just as it was that day in Capernaum, he can heal by remote.  He can restore from afar.  He can save from where he sits at the right hand of the Father.

26 April 2016

Day in the Life: Jailer (Acts 16:25-34)

Day in the Life: “Jailer”
Acts 16:25-34
April 24, 2016 – Kevin Rees - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermon.net

Sometimes the most action happens when the least movement is allowed.


Prisoner S-854, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, was sentenced to a “special” prison in the Siberian Gulag for 10 years under the charge of espionage in 1944.  It was 1951.  “Old Whiskers” was still in power, though no one dared refer openly to Josef Stalin by that derogatory name. 

It is estimated that, by Stalin’s death in 1953, more than 20 million political prisoners died in these special camps strewn across the vast tundra, or on the way to them, or by the devastating fallout caused by them in terms of famine and starvation for the families left without their fathers and husbands, farms left without farmers, and factories left without laborers.

This was the setting of a novel I should have read in high school, but I didn’t until just last month: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  Published in 1963, it was the first printed work that the Kremlin permitted which cast any sort of an unfavorably light on Stalin or his treatment of prisoners.  As a fiction work, it was obviously non-fictional.  The author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, was himself a “special” prisoner in the late 40s and early 50s.  This was, for all equivalency, his snap-shot at the inside of the Gulag.  Although he didn’t talk politics at all, he showed the ripple effects of politics that brutalized the very people it idealized in its propaganda machine.

Among the many things that are interesting about this short book, I am captured by the fact that the author covers just the one day, 5:00 AM to 10:00 PM.  At one point, inside this day, the main character—most often called Shukhov—makes this comment about his perception of time: “The days rolled by in the camp—they were over before you could say, ‘knife.’  But the years, they never rolled by; they never moved a second” (p. 68).  Each prisoner yearned for freedom inside their interminable years, of course, but freedom was inaccessible and intangible.  More intensely felt than even freedom the prisoners obsessed over a cigarette (p. 50), or a crust of bread (p. 57), or a second bowl of soup: “That bowl of soup—it was dearer than freedom, dearer than life itself, past, present, and future” (p. 124).

One element from this novel especially propels us into our biblical text this morning; a comment made about the prison guards.  The prisoners knew that the guards, as well, were prisoners of a sort.  Their families were starving back at home, too.  They, too, had to endure the open worksite at -40° Celsius.  If their prisoner count was off at the end of the day, then they, too, would be beaten by their superiors.  They were there because of Stalin’s paranoia.

In our passage, we have a day in the life at a prison.  Oh, but what a difference a day makes!  Before 24 hours elapsed, one man’s entire existence … his eternal destiny … completely switched.  Ironically, freedom moved from the prisoners who were free in their hearts to the jailer who was bound to the prison even though he could sleep in his own bed every night. 

There was a tremendous amount of action in these two paragraphs (Acts 16:25-34), but not a lot of physical movement.   But ours is an upside-down gospel in many ways; often the most spiritual action happens when the least amount of physical movement is allowed.


I.          Singing to Quaking (vv. 25-28)

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's bonds were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here."

Tremendous action happened without much movement whatsoever.  Let me set the stage.  A few weeks had transpired, but probably less than a month since Paul arrived in Philippi.  Lydia and her household, as well as Dr. Luke, together with Paul, Silas, and Timothy, planted Europe’s first church.  They made Lydia’s house a headquarters and began evangelizing the city of Philippi.  In the course of ministry, Paul cast a demon out of a slave girl who—because of that demon—was exploited by her owners to be a fortune-teller (vs. 18).  [Note: any contact with the dead is contact with demons masquerading as deceased loved ones or spirit-guides.]

She was, in an instant, set free but her owners are furious at Paul over their loss of income.  So, they “seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers” (vs. 19).  “The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and…beat them with rods” (vs. 22).  Without a trial, without medical attention given to their wounds, and without a chance to answer their accusers, Paul and Silas (I am not sure where Timothy or Luke were during all of this) were thrown into prison (vs. 23).  The jailer put them in the innermost cell of the prison and locked their feet in stocks (vs. 24).  So, who was free and who was in bondage?  This is as relevant a question now as it was then!

I can’t help but contrast the legal system of the ancient world and the legal system today.  For illustration, consider the development in the imprisonment of Anders Breivik in Norway, who this week sued Norway for inhuman treatment.  If you remember, Breivik is the Neo-Nazi who murdered dozens of students in a “future-leaders” youth camp just hours after he set off a car bomb in Oslo that killed 8 people in July 2011 to advance his fascist political views.  He sued that his solitary confinement was cruel and unusual punishment, even though his cell was a two-room suite with a television, padded chair, writing desk, full-sized mattress, and private bathroom.  This week he won and will be given more leniency in his treatment.

However, prisons in the ancient world—and in many places in the world today, not to mention the concentration camps of the Third Reich, or the Gulag of Soviet Russia, or Mao’s torture camps in Communist China—were merely holding pens for the dead.  Justice was not in these places.  But Paul and Silas were not playing the “victim card.”  They were not manipulating the system to advance their political cause.  They did not go on hunger strikes, or descend into the gang-warfare inside the prison system for minimum levels of protection or prominence.  What they did was far more shocking; far more radical than “an eye for an eye” justice.  “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (vs. 25a).

Now think about that for a moment before we move on.  They were in a Roman colony where it was illegal to beat a citizen of Rome.  Both Paul and Silas were citizens, but no one bothered to ask.  They were imprisoned without a trial, appeal, attorney, or due process, which was all illegal … for a citizen of Rome.  Roman citizens were even given the right to appeal to Caesar himself if they felt that they could not obtain justice in a lower court, which Paul will famously do in the mid-60s which will transport him all the way from Jerusalem to Rome (Acts 25:12), just as the Holy Spirit revealed to Paul would happen (Acts 23:11).  But they mentioned none of this in prison.  They suffered for the gospel and counted themselves worthy to suffer for the sake of the Name.  So, they sang hymns.  Interestingly, all the prisoners, in the total darkness of a Roman prison in the dead of night, “were listening to them” (vs. 25b).

What were they singing?  I would love to know.  “Walk with me, Lord; walk with me.”  “This is the day, this is the day that the Lord has made; that the Lord has made.”  “Precious Lord, take my hand; lead me on, help me stand.”  But this is holy ground—as holy as that burning bush ever was!  Does that make them delusional?  No way!  “[They] sing because [they’re] happy.  [They] sing because [they’re] free.  For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.”

That would have been enough—that would have been enough for a lifetime.  To go from that worship service in the dark immediately into the worship service in the eternal light of heaven would have been enough for Paul and Silas.  I want to believe it would be enough for me if I were in their place.  They were free in their hearts.  They were free in their spirits, having been set free by the gospel of Christ’s grace.  But God had more for them, so he interrupted their praise with a great earthquake “so that the foundations of the prison were shaken” (vs. 26a).  None of these prisoners were likely able to walk around, but they were moved by the singing of the Christians … and then they were moved by the shaking of the stone foundations that entombed them.  In every earthquake I’ve ever heard about—and there were several in Myanmar and Japan and Ecuador this week alone—things always tip toward chaos.  But in this earthquake—things tip toward order.  “Immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened” (vs. 26b).  Incidentally, this is the same word as when the Lord “opened” Lydia’s heart (vs. 14).

They were moved by the singing, moved by the earthquake, moved by the miraculous opening of their jail doors and their shackles, but no one moved from the spot in which they sat.  But the movement was not over yet; there was a new kind of quaking inside the heart and mind of the jailer.  His life depended on the security of those prisoners.  If he failed in his duty, the Roman penal code—of which he was an officer—would turn around and demand his life.  So it is no shock to read verse 27, “When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.”  It would have been better to fall on his own sword than to be thrown into the prison where his inmates grew to hate him.  It would have been better to end it all now than to face the guilt of dereliction of duty.  It would have been better for his family to think that some escaped convict stabbed him to death than to think that he botched his one and only job.  But there was another force unleashed in that night—salvation.

“But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here’” (vs. 28).  I love “bones” of the original language here: do not perform evil on yourself!  For it is an evil to perform evil on an image-bearer of our good God.  “We are all here.”  But why?  Why didn’t they all run for freedom?  It was not spelled out, but I think it was because freedom wasn’t outside the prison that night; it was sitting there inside the prison even after the doors and the fetters were loosed.


II.         Trembling to Rejoicing (vv. 29-34)

29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" 31 And they said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

Crunch the lever, put this car in reverse—the movement from singing to quaking then became the movement from trembling to rejoicing.  The point was not the shaking, but the singing.  The point was not physical freedom, but spiritual freedom.  The point was not that Paul and Silas have this freedom, but that others could receive it, too.  “The jailer called for lights” (since it was pitch-black in the cells) and he, himself, “rushed in” and as he was “trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas” (vs. 29).

The switch-around is tremendous.  Paul and Silas hadn’t moved from their spot.  The only one moving around was the jailer; and as he literally shook with fear, he prostrated himself before these evangelists.  “He brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’” (vs. 30).  He was in the presence of supernatural power.  He was undone.  He needed no one to convince him that he needed saving.  We have an entire society that isn’t convinced that we need salvation.  I have heard many people say, “I have made it this far; I’ll just take my chances.”  But not this jailer—he was intuitively convinced that he was guilty in the higher court; higher than Rome … God’s court.  This was God’s work.

Notice the nuanced difference between the question and the answer.  He asked, “What must I do to be saved?”  They answered, “Believe in the Lord and you will be saved.”  The difference between doing and believing is the distance between heaven and hell.  The difference between doing and believing is the difference between freedom and bondage.  The difference between doing and believing is the difference between the gospel and every other belief system or philosophy ever attempted in all history; the difference between empty religion and a living relationship with God.  It is not our doing that saves; it is our believing in the Lord Jesus—that he did everything necessary for our salvation, that we cannot add a single tally mark to the finished work of redemption.  All that is left is to believe that “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe; sin had left a crimson stain but He washed it white as snow.” 

“You and your household”—salvation is not a collective experience, but the same offer extends to the entire group: belief instead of works.  “And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.  And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.  Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them.  And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God” (vv. 32-34).  The progression was remarkable; the elevation.  Up out of the innermost cell, up to the prison lobby, so to speak, or outside the prison where all his household had assembled for the earthquake, up to his own personal house, and then—climactically—the jailer lifted up his eyes and heart to the Lord above and rejoiced along with his entire household.  All of this inside a single day; inside a solitary night.  Before dawn everything changed!


Great spiritual action without a lot of physical movement—this is a lesson in freedom.  The world thinks freedom is measured by absences—absences of walls, of limitations, of burdens, or fear, of pain, of discrimination.  But the gospel gives a freedom that is measured by presence—Christ’s presence even in the prison, in the hospital, in the nursing home, in the cemetery, in the grips of depression or panic or desperation where the only solution seems to be suicide.  The world says, “No more walls.”  The gospel says, “No more guilt.”  These prisoners had a freedom that the jailer could not imagine.  But the most beautiful part about this Christian freedom—it wants to expand.  It wants to set more people, more families, more communities, more cities, and more nations free.  Are you free?  You can have this freedom today; this very moment.  It is accessible through belief in Jesus as your only hope for peace with God.  “If the Son has set you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).

19 April 2016

Day in the Life: Lydia (Acts 16:11-15)

Day in the Life: “Lydia”
Acts 16:11-15
April 17, 2016 – Kevin Rees - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermon.net

God is always previous.

What is the measure of a day?  We know that a day is segmented into 24 hours—but these fractions of time do not contain a day’s significance.  But what about a life span of days—is the quality of days somehow bound to our quantity of days?  No, the value of a day is not found on the timeline.

The Center for Disease Control reports (2012) that an average American lives 78.8 years (women live 81 years whereas men live 76 years).  But the World Health Organization (2013) puts that into perspective, ranking the US as 34th in the world.  Japan tops out the list of nations at 84 years (women live 87 years, men live 80 years).  Sierra Leone occupies the public health nightmare of being last (194th) on the list: 46 years life expectancy (both women and men).  Does the math then dictate that a day for a Japanese women, for instance, must be more valuable than a day for a Sierra Leonean man?  Of course not!  The value of a day cannot be plotted on a graph.

By contrast to human years, consider the life span of an adult mayfly.  Fly-fishermen all over the Southeast look forward to the day when the mayfly emerges from the water—for it is a feast for the fish who eat the flies and the men who eat the fish.  But I didn’t misspeak when I said “the day”—singular.  While the entire life of a mayfly from hatching to developing as a larva and nymph takes months, the adult phase lasts not years, but a single day.  Actually for some species of the mayfly, adulthood lasts only a few minutes.

The Dolania americana species of mayfly is considered to have the shortest adult lifespan of any insect.  The female and male both emerge from the water before dawn on the same morning in an unparalleled and unrehearsed coordination.  They have a very narrow window to fly, for the first and only time, and mate.  The male dies in a few hours, but the female immediately drops down to the surface of the water, uses all her strength to eject her eggs, which float down to the river bottom, and dies within about five minutes of emergence.  But the work is done; the next generation of insects is secure even though zero mayflies ever see two consecutive sunrises.  In a tiny way, a single day for the world of this one sub-species holds infinite value.

In our text today, we consider a day in the life of Lydia.  In five short verses, on one Friday evening in ancient Macedonia (modern-day Greece), the work of an entire life span was accomplished—the next generation of Christians was secured; nurtured and incubated in the heart and the house of Lydia.  We have one other mention of her name (Acts 16:40), and Paul will return to Philippi two more times, even writing the church there a joy-infused letter when he was in chains—but in the biography of Lydia this day is all we have.  But this day is enough.  For that day was the day that the church hatched in Europe.  Before Paul and Silas and Timothy arrived in Philippi, God was already at work in Lydia’s heart.


I.          GOD OPENED A WAY (vv. 11-12)

11 So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis,
12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days.

Remember last week, we considered a day when God’s “No!” became a “Yes!”  Paul and his company ventured into Macedonia for the sake of the gospel.  Revelation and reason mixed together and they concluded that God was opening a door to Europe.

So, in the 49 or 50 A.D., Paul eagerly took the road that God opened.  Since a sea was in between, the missionaries sought passage from Turkey to Greece through the Aegean Sea by ship—a watery pathway that has been repeated thousands of times in our modern news for over a year.  As dangerous a voyage it is today—the number of capsized and drowned migrants continues to grow—it was even more dangerous in wooden sailboats.

“So setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace and the following day to Neapolis” (vs. 11).  The trip was 150 nautical miles.  It took two days, which is quite fast!  By comparison, when Paul traveled the same journey the opposite way, it took five days since the wind and the waves were against them (Acts 20:6).  But going northwest, the wind pushed them—“we ran before the wind” (Jamieson and Fausset).  Samothrace was an island near the mainland where they spent the night.  Neapolis was a port and, as the name indicates, a “new city” where the Via Engatia from Rome met the water. 

Just 150 miles—a distance which we can drive in two hours on the Interstate—was not much.  But these were (and are!) two different continents; two entirely different cultures; different worldviews.  While there were converts from Rome on the day of Pentecost when Peter preached in Jerusalem and God added to the church 3000 souls—and so the message of Christ’s resurrection might have reached Europe 15 years or so beforehand—this was the true arrival of the gospel into Macedonia. 

They hiked inland from Neapolis for 10 more miles “to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony” (vs. 12a).  Philippi did not have a large geographical footprint, but it was important nevertheless.  It was originally founded by King Philip II (the father of Alexander the Great) in 356 B.C. near a desirable gold mine.  Three-hundred years later (42 B.C.) it was a battle site between Octavian (who would become Caesar Augustus) and Brutus, the key-assassin of Octavian’s great-uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar.  After Octavian became Caesar Augustus he made Philippi a colony (27 B.C.) and commissioned its governance to retired soldiers and other aristocrats who were willing to relocate there from Rome.  There was great pride in being a colony of Rome—a miniature “Rome away from Rome.”  But Rome was as different to Greece as Greece was to Turkey—three cultures collided at Philippi.  “We remained in this city for some days” (vs. 12b).


II.         GOD OPENED A HEART (vv. 13-15)

13 And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together.
14 One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.
15 And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay." And she prevailed upon us.

Paul and his company remained in Philippi until the Sabbath, which was their standard procedure.  That gave them time to rest, to observe, and to strategize.  Then, always, they began their evangelizing at the synagogue—to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16).  They sought common ground.

“And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside” (vs. 13a).  What was interesting at Philippi was that there was no synagogue inside the city walls.  Jewish tradition required 10 men to make a minimum quorum for a synagogue—which was apparently not possible.  So, instead of having a recognized synagogue, they had a prayer meeting outside the city on the Sabbath.  Paul walked out town to “where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together” (vs. 13b).

Four quick observations: first of all, they were not trying to assimilate into Judaism.  They, by design, gave the Jews “first dibs” on responding to the gospel.  The Jews were the overwhelming majority of the church at this point, but this gesture to the Jewish populations was not “interfaith dialogue”; it was unashamedly Christian.  As Paul would point out again and again, this good news was not necessarily new news because it was always at the heart of the entire Bible (Romans 3:21).  But the Jews had long sought to gain righteousness from the Law.  So, even though they were the custodians of the Scriptures, so to speak, they missed its very heart—righteousness comes by faith.  The very proclamation of faith as the conduit for peace with God was scandalous.  Yet, this scandal was (and is) part of the very gospel.

Second, Paul and his team went out looking for a prayer meeting because they “supposed” they’d find the faithful assembling together for the Sabbath.  It was not a guarantee.  It was not by invitation.  Theirs was an educated guess—and a lot of ministry comes along the lines of educated guesses.  They took a stab—like we are going to take a stab in our upcoming Mother-Daughter-Sister-Friend Banquet, our Family Fun Fest, our Boys’ Day Out at the ballpark, and our proposed mission trip to the Dominican Republic.  Is ministry a sure thing?  No!  But a careful and thoughtful ministry is worth the gamble. 

Third, this (or any) fledgling ministry often finds much higher percentages of women than men.  Such seems like a global phenomenon—and I don’t know why.  Paul had a vision of a “man from Macedonia” but he found a “group of women.”  This did not stop Paul.  No way!  He received any audience gladly.  Whereas the rabbis, who undoubtedly dominated Paul’s own education as a Pharisee, taught that it would be better to destroy the Torah than to entrust it to women, Paul unhesitatingly “spoke to the women who had come together” of the gospel of Christ’s grace.  It was a very liberating gesture.

Fourth, he didn’t “preach” in this casual setting, rather he spoke; he conversed … he chatted the gospel.  Paul, at other times, debated or declared or proved or preached—depending upon the setting.  His style was highly adaptable.  What never changed was the gospel.  How he communicated the gospel, however, was very flexible. 

An amazing thing happens after we learn what must never change—we learn that everything else may change.  The gospel never changes—Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures—but in order to hammer it home, we must be willing to hold lightly everything else.  Don’t let that slip by—everything else may change in order to communicate effectively what must never change.  Church culture, music, orders of worship, building, budget, standing/sitting/kneeling—these and more are “non-gospel” and may change so that which must never change can impact as many people as possible.  Yet, if (or when) a non-gospel element is treated like gospel it becomes an idol and must topple at Calvary.

Finally, Lydia’s moment arrived!  “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God” (vs. 14a).  A few things, and a few speculations that may (or may not!) fill in some of the gaps—Lydia was a woman.  No mention was given of a husband, so perhaps she was a widow.  Whatever the case, she was treated as the head of her household.  Additionally, she was not Macedonian at all, but a foreign-born trader who was still identified with her hometown—Thyatira, which was an inland city on the trade route through Asia Minor between the cities of Pergamum and Ephesus.  She may have assumed the helm of the family business or was part of a trade guild who set her up on the trade route in Europe in the hopes of connecting Thyatiran purple with all points west.  Regardless of how she got there, she was a skilled business-woman in a field where women would not have been given parlay.  So, she was persuasive and smart and courageous and successful since she has a house large enough to accommodate not only Paul and his company, but also the first church in Europe.  She was not a full-convert to Judaism, but a conscientious “worshiper of God” who publicly associated with the Jews for Sabbath prayers, which took some guts as the Jews were often marginalized and ostracized from the rest of the community.

But the most important part of Lydia was not generated by Lydia, per se.  The most important part was what the Lord did within and through her.  “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (vs. 14b).  Here we have a peek into the mystery of illumination by the Holy Spirit.  The Lord completely opened her mind (dianoigo) to turn (prosecho) her heart to the things that Paul himself was in the process of speaking.  I love the interworking—not the dissection—of mind and heart.  Paul was probably not aware of God’s work already started in Lydia’s heart.  He was faithful to speak forth the words of life; but the Lord has loosened the soil in Lydia’s mind and heart so that the words of life germinated and she believed!  Paul had only the one meeting, but God was already there.

Notice that being a “God-worshiper” was not the same thing as being a member of the family of God.  Lydia—although she sought God—was not born again until she believed in Jesus.  Sincerity is not the litmus paper test of salvation.  Paul was sincere when he hunted down the Christians thinking that he was pleasing God in his violent opposition to Jesus.  He was sincere, but sincerely wrong.  Lydia seems to have sincerity, but what she needed was exclusive belief in the risen Christ.  So, God brought her a witness.  It was all settled in a moment; an internal “yes” to Jesus as her only hope for peace with God.  Baptism, on the other hand, is the outward profession of that inward confession.  She did both in rapid fire quickness!

“After she was baptized, and her household as well” (vs. 15a).  Compressed into just two verses was one amazing day—probably just an hour or two on some Friday evening … maybe in five minutes like the mayfly.  Conceivably with her hair still dripping wet, Lydia urged the missionaries, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay” (vs. 15b).  Using the same word for “urge” that the man in Paul’s vision used (vs. 9)—urging them to come over to Macedonia and help—she urged them to come in to her house and stay.  I love the final touch of Lydia’s story; Lydia who could compete with the best traders in the marketplace: “and she prevailed upon us” (vs. 15c).


The Lord opened a way to the west.  The Lord opened a heart to the gospel.  The Lord opened a home to the church.  A whole lifespan contained in a micro-burst of speaking, believing, baptizing, and inviting.  Her story was not a waste because it had only a few words.  Her story is a marvel because it has Jesus. 

12 April 2016

Day in the Life: Paul (Acts 16:6-10)

Day in the Life: “Paul at Troas”
Acts 16:6-10
April 10, 2016 – Kevin Rees - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermon.net


What a difference a day makes!  Twenty-four little hours.

Shorter stories are not necessarily secondary stories; stories that somehow didn’t make the cut for the varsity squad.  We often refer to players in these stories as minor characters, but they’re not minor.  They are real people who have an entire lifespan complete with ups and downs, with questions and answers, with victories and defeats.  We may have just a trace evidence of their lives left over but their narrative significance is not measured by a word-count or by an evaluation of their plots based on the wooden conflict-climax-resolution line graph we learned in our junior year American Lit class that parses stories into good, better, or best.  Significance is not measured by internal drama or by ironic endings but by knowing and being known by the God; the author and finisher of the faith. 

Over the next several weeks I want to consider deeply the narrative form, and especially the shorter narrative glimpses of single 24-hour periods.  We may only have a peek into one day in the life of Lydia, for instance, the seller of purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, or the unnamed officer in the Roman army stationed in Capernaum who sought Jesus’ power from afar, or the ancient king called Agag, or the antagonist Shimei who hurled curses at King David.  Who are these people?  What is their story?  What might a single day in their life span tell us, teach us, show us? 

What, after all, is the measure of a day?  What is a day’s true worth?  It often can’t be quantified inside that day, but later … perhaps much later … that day stands out as the day when God became more than just a word.  That’s what we are after.  Twenty-four hours, 1440 minutes, 86400 seconds—but a day is not merely a unit of time.  A day is an opportunity to interact with the Lord of time, who exists outside of time, who stepped into time like a garden wherein he might walk with us and talk with us and to tell us we are his own.

The first microcosm—the first day for our excavation—involves the Apostle Paul.  No student of the Bible would call Paul a minor character, but this one ordinary day hidden in the folds of Paul’s many extraordinary days is intriguing because it is a when God said no.  God said no, and 24 hours later, Paul moves west instead of north.  


I.          FORBIDDEN TO SPEAK (vv. 6-7)

6 And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.
7 And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.

It may seem like a small encounter, and it is if it is measured only in hours or minutes then it is indeed small.  But when is a change of mind really ever “small”?  Paul changes his mind.  Or more accurately, God changes Paul’s mind—not by force, but by revelation and through reason and collaboration. 

Generally speaking, I am amazed how seldom we change our minds.  We are a stubborn people.  We do not bend.  We have it “stuck in our crawl” how things are supposed to be, and—well—that’s just the end of the story.  Pliability is not necessarily an admirable quality.  Instead, we value “staying true to oneself no matter what” as perhaps our highest ideal.  However, it is pliability, neither rigidity nor self-expression, which Christ commended when he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).  Paul was as fiercely passionate as any character in the Bible—when he got hold of an idea, he hammered it even though it got him stoned, beaten, jailed, shipwrecked, and eventually beheaded.  That is why this one day is so appealing; it is a day where we see the pliable side of a normally stubborn Paul.

Paul, who a decade before switched from being an open persecutor of the church to a public preacher of the gospel inside a few days (Acts 9:19), was not the kind of person who ran from pressure.  He usually ran toward it.  But this pressure, in Acts 16, came from God; that made all the difference.  Paul knew what ought to be set in concrete and what ought to be held by Velcro®.  He was ultra-stubborn when it came to the truth, but he was ultra-sensitive when it came to the Spirit.  That is a rare combination!

In what is called the Second Missionary Journey, Paul and his company repeatedly attempted to break into new ministry territory but they found God himself blocking the way.  After visiting a few of the churches that they helped to start on the First Missionary Journey in the vicinity of the region known as Phrygia and Galatia (modern-day Turkey), they attempted to branch west into what was known as Asia (vs. 6).  Today, we think of Asia as north and east of modern-day Turkey—and that was not inaccurate even in the ancient world—but in the ancient Mediterranean world the gateway to Asia was the city of Ephesus (A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament).  Ephesus was west.  But the Holy Spirit “forbade” them that road for ministry (vs. 6).

How do you respond to “No!”?  Do you crumple?  Do you comply?  Do you connive, complain, or criticize?  Paul received this “No!” but did not take his marbles and run home.  He plotted a new course.  We write our creeds in ink but our plans in pencil.  This is pliability.  We, like Paul, have relinquished any right we might have had in selecting for ourselves where we would live and minister.  “Having put our hand to the plow, [we] did not look back” (Luke 9:62).  To those who do have not, this life of discipleship seems alien.

So, Paul and his team redirected to the north toward Mysia.  If you have one of those handy maps in the back of your Bible, then you will see that Mysia hugged the Marmara Sea on its northern border, which if followed, would squeeze all people and all commerce through the narrow waterway (where our modern-day Istanbul stands) into the Black Sea and the region called Bithynia.  It would have been an awesome place for ministry and I curiously wonder how world history might have looked if Paul would have gone north from here instead of west?  But, “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (vs. 7)—strike two.


II.         URGED TO COME OVER AND HELP (vv. 8-9)

8 So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.
9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us."

Was Paul disappointed with these repeated barriers?  Was he discouraged for these, what might have been called, “ruined plans” and “broken dreams” for ministry?  Was he confused?  Was he conflicted?  We don’t know his emotional status, but we do have his physical status—“So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas” (vs. 8).  The language is picturesque—having tried to go north, he “skirted past” (A.T. Robertson) Mysia to the northwest as if there were a curb in the road that forced his journey down, down, down in elevation where it bottomed out at a port-town called Troas (the legendary city of Troy).

Confident Paul, I rarely think of him as ever being out of ideas, but he was stymied at Troas.  God had brought him to this place, that was certain, but “why?”  Oh, be careful with over-asking the “why?” question.  It is valid to ask, of course.  But be careful not to live there.  And be extra careful not to use it as a veiled demand for God to explain himself.  Job tried that once but vowed to do so never again.  Sometimes God will tell us why, but far more often he leads us back to the trust question—“Do you trust me?”  “Do you trust me, even without additional information?” 

This was and is a crucible of faith.  This is where our day with Paul truly begins.  They arrived in Troas, perhaps finding a place to sit down in the grass while a runner checks around for dinner options.  Perhaps they just cozied up somewhere on the beach where many years before the Greeks concocted their scheme to build the Trojan Horse.  But God did not sneak into Europe the way Europe snuck into Asia.  There was no army, no Helen of Troy whose face launched a thousand ships, no Achilles or Hector fighting to the death in the sand.  Instead God sent a vision to a defrocked scholar on his third career. 

By contrast to the previous three verses, this vision was clearly an anomaly.  While there were 11 visions in the book of Acts, they were never common; and they were hardly what I would call friendly.  Every time God interrupted the normal flow with a vision, it means crisis (A.T. Roberston).  So, just as we should be careful in asking the “why?” question, we should also be careful in seeking a vision.  God may send one—after all, he is the great Communicator and will convey his truth in his own ways—but the far better course is to seek God, not the mystical experience with God.  But this time, unlooked for, a vision was sent.

“And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’” (vs. 9).  Please notice several things about this vision—what is often referred to as the Macedonian Call.  First of all, this vision came after many weeks of mobility and several occasions when God said, “No!” in other ways.  It did not occur in a vacuum.  The weeks of “No!” in trying to travel west and then in trying to travel north helped shape this vision and its interpretation.  Paul was not idly sitting on the couch watching re-runs, but was already in faithful motion to what God had revealed to him—“Carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15).  Paul was actively obeying when God sent more specific instructions—like that old saying, “It’s easier to steer a moving car.”  Do the parts of God’s will that you already know, and God will shed more “light” along the way.  On this journey a “No!” is as valuable as a “Yes!”

Another important note was this “man of Macedonia.”  How did Paul know this man was a Macedonian?  Were there physical markers for Macedonian people?  Perhaps this knowledge was just supernaturally impressed upon Paul.  Or perhaps this was a man he already knew.  It is a peculiar thing in the book of Acts to find three sections where the pronouns immediately change from “they” to “we” (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 27:1-28:16).  In each of these sections the physician Luke joins the party.  And since Luke is the author of both the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, he slips into first-hand account when he is present.  Some have argued, and I think it is very likely, that this man of Macedonia was actually Luke.  Luke was from Macedonia; Philippi.  He was a trusted companion.  He was a familiar face.

The man of Macedonia was not just present in the vision, he “was standing.”  His very posture is urgent.  He was habitually (imperfect tense) standing—not sitting—as if he were across the Aegean Sea pacing around the room asking, knocking, seeking God to send the gospel to Europe.  So God pulled open the curtain a little so that Paul saw both Luke’s request and the answer to Luke’s request—Paul himself.  Sometimes, God decides to answer our prayers by sending us to accomplish the very thing we are asking God to provide.  What have you been praying for urgently: for someone to evangelize your siblings who do not believe, for the resurrection of the joy of your salvation, for the rescue of the marriage of a neighbor, for the persecuted church?  Could it be that God might be answering your prayers by sending you or someone you directly influence?

“Come over to Macedonia and help us”—this is the strongest verb in the whole passage.  It is an imperative: help!  Cross over here and HELP us! 


III.        CALLED TO PREACH (vs. 10)

10 And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

Great need exists all over the world.  Here in Dyer County addiction is not a hidden thing; it is open.  I don’t know any of the statistics, but I would not be surprised to learn that these corners of Tennessee and Missouri are among the highest in the nation for methamphetamine and opioid abuse.  Every other young person I meet has a different last name than his current legal guardians.  This week I learned that the pizza places won’t deliver to certain neighborhoods in our city because their drivers are regularly mugged.  Great need exists all over, but need does not constitute a call.

Paul did not go Macedonia to meet need.  If that were the only motivation for ministry, then ministry would be soon depleted and short lived (which it too often is).  Human need is unsolvable.  The world does not need need-meeters; the world needs called-out ones.  The need caused Paul to seek God’s guidance—“Are you calling me to Europe?”  There were just as many lost and hopeless people in Asia as there were in Europe—“Lord, where are you calling me?”  I don’t want to be driven by need; I want to be called by God.

“Immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”  So many nuggets here!  Paul brought the vision to the group for further analysis.  The experience itself was not enough to mobilize the team into Macedonia—it had to be washed in reason and dried in collaboration.  Revelation and reason converged and they all “concluded” that it was God (not some other source) who called (not drove) us (not someone else) to preach (not to meet needs merely) the gospel (not some other counterfeit gospel; not with cathedrals; not through stained glass) to them (the Macedonians themselves within their own worldview; enslaved to their own particular idolatries).


God had said, “No!”  God changed Paul’s mind.  So that when the “Yes!” arrived, Paul was immediately ready to respond in faith.  Were the months of planning and attempting to minister in Asia wasted?  No!  The “No!” softened Paul to the upcoming opportunity.  Ephesus and Bithynia were both penetrated with the gospel in due time (Acts 18:19-21; 19:24-19:41; 1 Peter 1:1)—but that was not Paul’s decision.  Paul, in this single day, went from looking for some way north to sailing west by personal invitation.  What a difference a day makes!  Twenty-four little hours.  And it all began with a “No!” from God.

29 March 2016

Christ Our Passover: The First Supper in Heaven (Revelation 19:1-10)

Christ Our Passover: “The First Supper in Heaven”
Revelation 19:1-10
Kevin Rees — March 27, 2016 — Easter Sunday - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermon.net

Our next supper with Jesus will be the first supper of His Kingdom.


I am helping the son of a friend of mine, and his fiancée, to prepare for their October wedding.  And as I normally do when I officiate a wedding ceremony, I require the engaged couple to meet with me, or with another counselor, for eight sessions of premarital counseling.  [This came as a strange requirement for the couple who showed up at the office a few months ago, with witnesses in tow, who wanted to get married that very moment.  They were not members at this or any church, but they seriously thought that I would say the words over them on the spot and sign their marriage license.  “That’s not how it works,” was my stunned reply.]

But when I walk through premarital counseling with a couple, I enjoy the process.  I find that both the soon-to-be-groom and the soon-to-be-bride are particularly receptive to counsel as they face this major transition.  They are scared, excited, and naïve.  And so they should be.  It is like disciple-making on steroids—because there is an endpoint, the invitations have been ordered, and the—most importantly—they already announced the engagement on social media.

Marriage remains the best mirror on the planet of the glorious reality of the gospel and the fellowship within the Trinity.  Marriage doesn’t change, because God who invented it and instituted it doesn’t change, but the wedding ceremony itself can vary widely from culture to culture; even from person to person.

It should not come as a surprise to hear that weddings in ancient Israel, for instance, differ from our modern services.  We have our customs and traditions—the groom can’t see the bride before she comes down the aisle, something old something new something borrowed something blue, throwing the bouquet, showering rice or birdseed at the couple as they rush off to their honeymoon.  But the ancient ceremony in Israel had its own customs, some of which show up in the Scriptures: several of Jesus’ parables, his miracle of turning the water into wine (John 2:1-11), his comments such as: “I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:3), and public announcements such as from today’s passage, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9).

There were three main parts to an ancient Jewish wedding—the legal part, the physical part, and the celebration part.  The groom and the bride, with their fathers, would settle the legal side of the marriage where they all committed themselves in the presence of witnesses to this union often with a dowry “payment.”  At this point, the groom would go off to build a wing to his father’s house where the newlyweds will initially live.  He could return at any moment of any day when the house preparations had been completed to a bride (and her bridal attendants) who have been waiting alertly.  He then would wisk the bride away for a time together as husband and wife.  Finally, the couple would return to a feast that could last for up to a week.

You might be saying—“This is Easter.  Why are you going on about ancient wedding ceremonies when preachers in every other pulpit in town are talking about the stone that was rolled away?”  Good question, but I submit to you that these go together.  Because the stone was rolled away, we have been transported into another plotline altogether; like a wormhole; like a hyperlink.  Because of Christ’s resurrection, and since we are hidden in Christ by faith (Colossians 3:3), we are promised resurrection as well (Romans 6:5).  Resurrection is not the end of the story, friends; it is just the beginning!  The rest of the story into which we have been graciously inserted is a story likened to a great wedding feast.

Remember from last week as we contemplated the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples—a supper that became the first supper of the New Covenant—where Jesus left a cup of wine on the table untouched.  In a stroke of beauty and prophecy, Jesus spoke over that cup saying, “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25).  Well, that fourth cup of the Passover—the cup of hallel (praise)—is what teleports us into the future through the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In Revelation 19 we look through the eyes of John the Apostle as he is given a vision of the day when Jesus will take up that cup of hallelujahs in victory in the next/last of the Lamb’s great feast days.   What started as a feast for twelve people in a secret Upper Room will become a feast for great multitudes of people on the worldwide stage; a feast that will last not a night but a thousand years.  The Marriage Supper of the Lamb is the next supper; the first supper we share with Jesus in His Kingdom!  Resurrection is just the beginning.  A necessary beginning, for sure, but so much more follows


I. Hallelujah for the Lord Our God, the Almighty, Reigns! (vv. 1-6)

1 After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
2 for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants."
3 Once more they cried out, "Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever."
4 And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who was seated on the throne, saying, "Amen. Hallelujah!"
5 And from the throne came a voice saying, "Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great."
6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.

So much drama has already taken place.  It would require a year of sermons to do the book of Revelation justice, but the short form of the entire book is found here in chapter 19.  Whatever else might appear in the book of the apocalypse, this is the undeniable truth—Jesus wins!  Death could not keep him in the grave.  And evil cannot keep him in heaven.  Jesus Christ is returning with victory in his hands.  This chapter frames the actual event that will literally happen when Jesus physically descends to the exact place from which he ascended on the Mount of Olives just east of Jerusalem (Acts 1:9).

The great conglomerate of apostate religion, corrupt economy, and demonically-controlled government called “Babylon” is smoking in ruins as Jesus makes his descent (18:2).  What is noteworthy is not the blood and the loss of the countless saints martyred by this harlot Babylon, but the justice and mercy of God.  Jesus descends with a song instead of a battle cry.  Jesus makes no speech, but his descent triggers an outburst of doxology from, apparently, those martyrs who were not lying in shallow graves with their heads cut off by Babylon, but who had been resurrected and who now sing out from their new heavenly situation—“Hallelujah!  Salvation and glory and power belong to our God” (19:1).

This is the first of only four utterances of “hallelujah” in the New Testament—all four of which are right here in this paragraph.  It is truly the Bible’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”  In total, there are 14 outbursts of praise to God and/or to the Lamb throughout the book of Revelation (4:8, 11; 5:9-10, 12, 13; 7:10, 12: 11:16-18; 15:3-4; 16:5-6, 7; 19:1-3, 4, 6-8).  But this is the climax here in chapter 19.

At first, the saints sing about God’s vindication—“for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.  Too often I hear people say that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath and the God of the New Testament is a God of love.  Nonsense!  The one and same God lives forever.  There is divine love in the Old Testament just as there is divine wrath in the New Testament.  By faith we defer to his judgment every injustice the world has ever known—do we really think that he will let injustice go unpunished?  We are blessed to be spared of the wrath of God by virtue of our being hidden in Christ.  But when he brings judgment it will be altogether consistent with his character of veracity and equity.

“Once more they cried out, ‘Hallelujah! The smoke of her goes up forever and ever.’”  But that was not enough, for now the twenty-four elders [most likely humans] and the four living creatures [most likely angels] join in the doxology addition their own, “Amen.  Hallelujah!” (19:4) to the song.

From the throne of God there then emerged, apparently, another angel’s voice instructing all the saints and all the angels everywhere, “Praise our God, all you his servants; you who fear him, small and great” (19:5).  And this time, in the great crescendo of praise that had been building for millennia, John hears what cannot be adequately put into words.  “I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like a roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah!  For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns’” (19:6).


II. Blessed Are Those Who Are Invited to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb! (vv.7-10)

7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready;
8 it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure"-- for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
9 And the angel said to me, "Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb." And he said to me, "These are the true words of God."
10 Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, "You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God." For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.

Think again of the marriage ceremony of ancient Israel—the legal part has been checked off, the bride-price has been paid, the groom has gone away to prepare the house adjacent to his father’s house for them to live.  When that new home is complete he returns to sweep his waiting bride away for a special time together, and then finally the newlywed husband and wife come back from their time apart together to a great celebratory feast (Warren Wiersbe, “Revelation 19:1-10,” The BE New Testament Commentary Series).

The Lord, the Husband and Head of the Church, is returning to earth with all the armies of heaven (19:14).  But on earth the unholy forces in the world unite to prevent his descent—even though their corrupt systems have toppled into a smoldering mess.  There is a battle looming (19:11-21), but what takes priority is not the battle but the party!

The angel with John then says, “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (19:7).  If the ancient wedding customs are being followed, and they most certainly do not have to be followed, but if they are part of the structure of these events, as it appears they are, then the marriage has already been ratified and consummated.  All that is left is the celebration.  They are already husband and wife.  [In fact, this is how I make sense of the Greek—for the word used here is not bride, but wife. (The New King James Version rightly translates it as “wife.”)  The Church-as-Wife has made herself ready for the banquet.]

And the angel said to John—“Write this: blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb…. These are the true words of God” (19:9).  There are seven beatitudes in the book of Revelation—this is the fourth (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14).  We are not told any more about the great marriage supper of the Lamb, but if the chronology of the next few chapters is linear (and I believe it is), then this feast likely extends the entire next 1000 literal years!  Bring it on!   The battle is almost a sidebar, for it is not at all a contest.  Jesus leads a total route with apparently zero causalities (19:11-21) for the good guys and 100% casualties for the bad guys.

In my “sanctified imagination” (A. W. Tozer’s phrase) I can see Jesus at the inauguration of this great party lifting that cup of wine—the cup of hallel—the one which he left untasted so many years before, using it to toast the entire redemptive plan of God, joined by millions upon millions of the redeemed as well as the uncounted angelic host and all of those who are still physically alive at the day of his return.  The Passover has come full circle—the Passover lamb, Christ our Passover Lamb, the Lamb here in Revelation who was slain but who stands, who takes the scroll, who breaks the seal, who pours out the bowl, who conquers his enemies as Lord of lords and King of kings, who presides at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

So, let us now, here, together, pick up that song of hallelujahs—for worship of Christ must not wait until that day.  It has already started.  It is going on today.  Let us not delay in joining the chorus of his praise.