In this first episode of Season 3 of the Theology for the People podcast, I speak with Michael Payne about the biblical genre of lament and its role in the life of a believer today.
Michael Payne is the Worship Pastor at White Fields Community Church in Longmont, Colorado. Previously he served as a missionary and worship pastor in Hungary at Golgota Budapest. Prior to that, he served in the US Marine Corps.
Welcome to Season 3 of Theology for the People!
Michael Payne is the Worship Pastor at White Fields Community Church in Longmont, Colorado. Previously he served as a missionary and worship pastor in Hungary at Golgota Budapest. Prior to that, he served in the US Marine Corps.
Listen to Mike's original music on Spotify here, or see him in action on the White Fields Church YouTube page.
The books Mike recommends in this episode on the topic of the biblical genre of lament are:
Michael Card, A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament
Mark Vroegop – Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy
Walter Brueggemann – The Message of the Psalms
For the Theology for the People blog, or to submit a question or suggest a topic, visit nickcady.org
The Hindu and Buddhist concept of Karma is the belief that good deeds create positive karma, and bad ones create negative karma. Positive karma, it is believed, will lead to good fortune, whereas negative karma will lead to misfortune and suffering.
Belief in karma is popular amongst modern western people, but curiously – in my observation – it is only referenced when either bad things happen to other people, or when good things happen to an individual themselves.
For example, people tend to attribute misfortune to karma when something negative happens to someone else whom they deem deserving of suffering because of their bad behavior, or when something positive happens to them. In both cases, people tend to reference karma as the reason why the person in question “got what they deserved.”
Co-opting Karma in Part, but Not in Full
It has been noted how people in the West have a tendency to co-opt certain aspects of Eastern Religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. An example of this is the way yoga has been co-opted and transformed into something very different in the West than what it originally was as a Hindu practice.
Similarly, when Western people talk about karma, they often only think of it in terms of either 1) them getting the good things they believe they have earned through their “meritorious behavior,” or 2) other people getting the suffering that the person in question believes they deserve.
What they are forgetting is that karma is essentially a system which exists to explain why bad things and/or good things happen to people in life, and it basically chalks it all up to earning or deserving.
The Shadow Side of Karma
The “shadow side” of karma is that it says that if something bad happens to you, it is because you have done something (either in this life or a previous one) to deserve it.
Just think about what a terrible concept this is when it comes to serious issues, such as abuse. If you are the sufferer of abuse, karma essentially says: “That happened to you because you did something to deserve it!” In the end, karma says that you have no one to blame for suffering in your life than yourself.
The Fairytale Twist of the Gospel
In contrast to the message of karma, that says that you deserve whatever happens to you in this life, the message of the gospel is just the opposite: That every blessing you receive in life is an unmerited gift from a benevolent God who loves you, and that the reason tragedy happens is because we live in a broken world in which evil exists.
Not only does evil exist “out there” in the world, but this evil has bound itself around our very hearts. Yet, the good news of the gospel is that God is gracious to sinners like us, extending grace and mercy to the undeserving!
As my friend Pete Nelson likes to say, “The message of the gospel is like the movie where the ugly guy gets the girl!”
Malcom Gladwell on The Fairytale Twist
Author Malcom Gladwell had an interesting episode of his Revisionist History podcast, in which he talked about different types of stories, and the effects they have on people. What he points out, is that there are certain types of stories which seem to resonate with people universally, even from a very young age.
You can listen to the entire episode here, but I’ll summarize the main points below:
The quest to revise The Little Mermaid continues. This week, we call in the experts. Part two of three. Learn more about your ad-choices at https://www.iheartpodcastnetwork.comSee omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Malcom points out that most ancient fairy tales had an aspect in them which he calls “the fairytale twist,” in which good fortune befalls a person despite the fact that they are undeserving, or often straight up foolish. In these stories, good things happen to bad people who don’t deserve a good fate.
For example, he references a story in which a foolish girl wastes her family’s final money on trivial things, but then in a “fairytale twist,” her foolish decision ends up paying off and saving her family. The salvation of the family, in other words, wasn’t because of the girl’s intuition and good choices, but rather happened fortuitously, in spite of her foolish actions.
What made these stories attractive is that audiences wanted to believe that life could suddenly go from bad to good, regardless of a person’s worthiness.
The message of these stories was not just that there could be a sudden twist that could change everything, but that the twist would be unrelated to the disposition of the character in question. In other words, you don’t need to meet some qualification to be eligible for this sudden twist – rather, it could happen to anyone (even you!).
The Shift to Poetic Justice Stories
Malcom then identifies how a change took place in Western story telling in the 1700’s, when writer Charles Perot insisted that fairytales should teach the idea that good things only happen to good people, and bad things always happen to bad people. These are called “poetic justice” stories.
A good example of a poetic justice story is Disney’s version of Cinderella. In that story, Cinderella’s virtue is rewarded whereas the wickedness of the step-sisters and step-mother are punished. Everyone gets exactly what they deserved.
Measuring Visceral Responses to Different Kinds of Stories
Malcom points out that modern marketers have created a tool which can measure children’s reactions to different fairytale endings. Through their research, what they’ve found is that children prefer fairytale twist stories over poetic justice stories.
It’s not terribly hard to make sense of why this is: Every child, even at a young age, is aware of the fact that they have not always done the right thing, and that if what you get in life is determined by your actions, that is a losing proposition.
To put it in biblical terms, the point is that deep down inside, human beings are innately aware that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, i.e. the standard of what is right.
As the common trope goes, “Nobody’s perfect!” We all understand this deep down, even from a young age, and are aware that if we were to receive exactly what we deserve, we would all be in a heap of trouble.
What is hopeful, however, is the idea that somehow, people who are undeserving can receive good fortune, and not get the punishment or misfortune they might deserve.
The Hope of the Gospel is Engrained on Our Hearts
The message of the gospel is that, by God’s grace, good things can happen to bad people (like us!).
That hope is engrained in the heart of every human being. It’s the reason why we love fairytale endings, even from a young age. It’s the reason why “poetic justice” stories only make us feel good when the person receiving the poetic justice is someone else!
Deep down we all long for justice for wrongdoers and mercy and grace for ourselves.
The message of the gospel is that Jesus Christ received the justice of God, so that mercy and grace could be extended to the undeserving!
But that’s not all: along with the promise of mercy and grace, we also have the assurance that when we receive the gift of God’s grace, He will then begin a transforming work in our lives, called “sanctification” in which God begins to shape us into more virtuous, beautiful people, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us.
Karma or the Gospel?
Karma says that, whatever happens to a person, they essentially earned it and deserved it. In contrast, the gospel says that there is a sovereign, benevolent God who entered into the brokenness of this fallen world in order to redeem it and make all things new. He, the only truly good and deserving person who ever lived, took the judgment that we deserved upon Himself, so that through Him we might receive grace and mercy. It’s the ultimate “ugly guy gets the girl” story!
Karma is not your friend. The hope of the gospel is what your heart ultimately longs for, because it’s the true story of the world, and our only hope in life and death.
One of my favorite Christmas carols is “O Holy Night,” mostly because I love the first verse:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
THE WEARY WORLD
If there is one word that accurately describes the feeling in the world right now, it is probably “weary.”
We are weary from two years of pandemic. We are weary of restriction and new variants. We are weary of our friends and family members getting sick, and even dying. We are weary from the divisiveness in society. We are weary of inflation, tragedy, tension, and strife.
But, as this song reminds us, the coming of Jesus into the world is good news for the weary world. It gives us weary people a reason to rejoice. Why? Because it tells us that, “yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
THE DAY DAWNS
One of the greatest metaphors the Bible uses to describe where we are at currently in the big picture of human history is: Dawn.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. – John 1:9
Dawn is an interesting period; *it is a time when night and day, darkness and light, exist simultaneously in the same space, yet neither are in full force*.
At dawn, the darkness that formerly ruled the night is broken by the light, but it is still dark out … though not as dark as it used to be. However, at dawn, even though light has come, the light is not yet present in its full form, because although the light has appeared, it has not yet broken over the horizon to fully dispel the darkness.
Peter expressly uses this metaphor of dawn in his second letter:
We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until *the day dawns* and *the morning star* rises in your hearts. – 2 Peter 1:19
THE MORNING STAR
Jesus is called “the morning star.” The “star” known as the morning star is not actually a star, but the planet Venus. The reason it is called the morning star is because it is the last “star” that is visible in the sky once the dawn has come.
The meaning and message of Christmas is that the true light has come into the world, and the dawn has begun. The beginning of dawn is an irreversible occurrence; once the first light of dawn has broken the darkness of night, it is only a matter of time before the sun crests the horizon, totally dispelling the darkness, bringing about the full light of the new day.
We live in a time right now where there is darkness in the world. It touches our lives, and we groan, along with all of the fallen creation, under the weight of the curse of sin and death. And yet, with the coming of Jesus into the world in His first advent, dawn has come: The light of life has come into our world in the person of Jesus Christ. We have the light of God’s Word to guide us … as we wait with eager expectation for Jesus’ second advent when He comes again!
For our world, covered in the shroud of darkness, a darkness which permeates even our own hearts, the message is clear: The advent of Jesus is the death knell of darkness and the guarantee that a new day is on the horizon.
Let us look to the morning star to give us hope until that day comes!
This is a devotional I wrote for It is Well, a great Instagram account that posts encouraging devotional messages. They’re worth following!
Hope for the Disfavored
The true measure of character is not how we treat the privileged, but how we treat the disfavored. There was no one more disfavored in the minds of the Jewish people than the Gentiles, i.e. non-Jews. After all, the Jewish people were God’s chosen people. What then of the Gentiles?
And yet, Romans 15:10-13 tells us something incredible: quoting from Deuteronomy, we read: “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him,” because “the root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles, and in him will the Gentiles hope.”
The good news of Christmas, is that God has come to the disfavored, to save them and welcome them into his family! That is good news for us, who have fallen out of favor with God because of our sins.
Great rulers and conquerors, from Alexander to Augustus, had established empires which provided people with stability and peace. But as the Roman philosopher Epictetus explained: “While the emperor can give peace from war on land or sea, he is unable to give peace from passion, grief, and envy. He cannot give peace of heart, which men long for more than outward peace.” And yet the promise of the gospel is Jesus has come to give us the peace which our hearts long for by making peace between us and God through the sacrifice of himself on our behalf.
The good news of Christmas is that God has treated disfavored people like us with kindness and grace. He came to us, in the person of Jesus, to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.
The way to receive this great gift, Romans 15:13 tells us, is by “believing,” which means “to trust in, to rely upon, and to cling to” Jesus. That is the way to be filled with joy and peace, and to abound in hope this Christmas season.
Years ago I was telling my dad about the moral failure of a high profile Christian leader which had disqualified him from ministry. I concluded the story by saying something to the effect of: “Well, I guess he showed his true colors.”
My dad’s response was: “What if that’s not who he is at the core, but a mistake that he made?”
There I was, judging this man based on one of his worst moments, and saying: “That is who he IS!” My dad was willing to say that while what this man did was wrong, he should be given the opportunity for redemption rather than being forever dismissed and defined by his worst moment.
This isn’t to say that people are not sinners or that sinful actions are justifiable, or can just be chalked up as an “oops” that doesn’t count against us. No.
And yet: What do we do with sinners? Do we write them off and condemn them, standing upon their fallen frames in order to make ourselves appear that much taller? Or do we believe that redemption is possible and desire to see it take place?
I don’t pay much attention to Sarah Silverman, but I stumbled upon this clip of her talking about cancel culture and how it labels people as irredeemable. She makes a great point: Don’t we want to see people change? If so, we should encourage and celebrate transformation rather than self-righteously writing off people forever who have made mistakes.
This is what made Jesus so incredible: he showed love to those whom his society considered irredeemable: prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners. Far from affirming their sins, he offered them redemption, a new identity, and a new destiny.
Here is the clip from Sarah Silverman:
Sarah is not a Christian, but she is touching on something that is core to Christianity.
May we as the church be those who champion redemption, who provide a place where people are loved and are shown that they are not irredeemable because of Jesus!
In him, fallen people like us have had our sins dealt with before God, and therefore we can receive forgiveness, redemption, a new identity, and a new destiny. That’s good news.
Recently a friend reached out to me with some questions regarding “annihilationism” and “conditional immortality.”
Will Every Soul Live Forever, or is Immortality Conditional?
One of the key questions in this discussion is this: Although the Bible clearly teaches the promise of eternal life for those who have been redeemed by Jesus, does the Bible teach eternal death for those who die in their sins?
“Conditional immortality” is the term given to the belief that the souls of those who die apart from redemption in Jesus will not go on living forever. They believe that immortality is conditional, meaning that only the souls of those who put their faith in Jesus will live forever, but not the souls of those who do not.
The central argument for conditional immortality in the Bible comes from Genesis 3 and Revelation 22, which talk about the Tree of Life, which was present in the Garden of Eden and will be present again in the New Jerusalem. In Genesis 3 we are told that the people were cut off from it, lest they eat of it and live forever in their fallen state. The idea is that if the Tree of Life is in the New Jerusalem (Heaven), it provides people with eternal life, but to be cut off from Heaven is therefore to be cut off from the source of eternal life.
Conditional immortality is also related to the idea of “annihilationism”
Annihilationism or Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT)?
Annihilationism is the belief that unredeemed souls will be “annihilated,” i.e. snuffed out in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 21:15) and cease to exist for all eternity. Seventh Day Adventists in particular argue that since Hebrews 12:29 says that God is a “consuming fire,” those who have not been justified and sanctified through Christ will be consumed by his presence and cease to exist.
In contrast to this is the traditional belief about Hell, held by the Church Fathers and the majority of Christians throughout history, that Hell is eternal conscious torment (ECT).
The key arguments against the ECT view of Hell, and in favor of annihilationism are two-fold:
An eternity of punishment for sins committed in a finite lifetime seems unfair, i.e. “the punishment doesn’t fit the crime”
The view of Hell as eternal conscious torment is not Biblical, but is imported from outside philosophies.
The ECT view is often blamed on Platonism, or Hellenism more generally, or from medieval assumptions influenced by writings like Dante’s Inferno
Rather than unquestioningly accepting these claims, we should examine if what they claim is true.
What Did Jesus Say About Hell?
Some might find it surprising that most of our understanding about Hell from the Bible does not come from the Old Testament, but from the words of Jesus.
13% of Jesus’ teaching and half of his parables were about Hell, judgment, and the wrath of God.
What that means is that Hell is not a peripheral issue, but is a major theme of Jesus’ teachings. If you claim that Jesus was a good teacher, you have to deal with the issue of what he taught about Hell.
Examining Jesus’ teachings, we find that the view of Hell as eternal, conscious torment was not a later addition to Christianity in the Middle Ages, nor the influence of Platonism or Hellenism, but rather people who simply accept the words of Jesus at face value.
Here are some examples of what he said:
Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matt. 25:41)
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt. 25:46)
[but some] will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 8:12)
And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:47-48)
Here Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 66:24
In Luke 16, Jesus tells the story of a man who suffered in Hell after his life on Earth ended, which means that his soul was not snuffed out when he died, but continued living.
Because of the simple clarity of these verses, the great majority of Christians throughout history have accepted that the teaching of the Bible is that Hell is eternal, conscious torment.
Eternal Separation from God
In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, the Apostle Paul describes Hell in this way:
those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,
2 Thessalonians 1:9
Once again, we see an example of the eternality of the destruction which will be suffered by those who do not know God and who reject the gospel.
Rather than being unkind or heartless, these messages are written to those who are alive so that they can turn from their ways and be saved. As Ezekiel 33:11 says:
As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die?
It is the heart of a loving God that warns and pleads, knowing the gravity of what is at stake. It is because God cared so much that he came to this Earth to give his life, that people might be saved.
A Message from Beyond the Grave
In the Gospel of Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells a story about a rich man who died and suffered torment in Hades. Jesus shares that this man longed to be able to send a warning to his family members who were still alive that they should not make the mistake that he did, of not trusting in and walking with God.
For those who are alive, this is a very important story because it helps us to understand the urgency of responding to the gospel and receiving the gift of salvation and life that is extended to us in Jesus.
The question still remains as to whether it is fair for Hell to be eternal, since life on Earth is finite.
Here 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is helpful, which tells us that the essence of Hell is separation from God and his glory.
Since God is the source of beauty, life, joy, peace, and goodness – to be separated from God and his glory is to be cut off from those things for eternity. In other words: what makes Hell hellish, is that God is not there. What makes Heaven heavenly, is that God is there.
Furthermore, since Hell is the destiny of those who have rejected the grace of God and relationship with him, and have essentially pushed God away or turned their back on Him, Hell is the final culmination of them getting what they wanted in their lifetime.
In Genesis 6:3, God says something very serious: “My Spirit will not always contend (or strive) with man.” If a person continually rejects the offer of God’s grace and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, the time will come when God will give them what they insisted upon, forever: life apart from God. This giving people over to their ungodly desires is the essence of God’s judgment (see Romans 1:18-31).
Hope Beyond the Grave
Faithful Christian teachers in history, such as John Stott, have believed in annihilationism, but this view has always been a minority viewpoint, mostly because it seems to contradict the straightforward teachings of Jesus.
What we do know is that the message of the gospel is truly good news, and that there is an urgency to this gospel because of the reality of Hell.
A lot of people say children are a gift from God. If that’s true, then why would God give a pedophile children?
It isn’t just people who say that children are a gift from God; God himself says that children are a gift from Him.
Psalm 127:3 says, “Behold, children are a gift of the LORD, The fruit of the womb is a reward.” (NASB)
In the 1989 movie Parenthood, Keanu Reeves’ character says something profound:
You know Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog. You need a license to drive a car. Hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming a**hole be a father.
Keanu Reeves as Tod Higgins in Parenthood
When we lived in Hungary, we adopted a child whom we had guardianship over for years. The process included a gauntlet of intrusive tasks: home inspections, psychological examinations, classes, fees. During a week-long class, one of the other prospective adoptive parents expressed his frustration that it seems unfair people who want to help children in need by adopting them are put through such a rigorous process, when someone who becomes a parent biologically doesn’t have to do anything.
At the same time, we also visited orphanages where children were abandoned because they were either unwanted, or the parents were unable to care for them.
Here in Colorado, our church is involved in helping children in kinship and foster care, who oftentimes end up in these situations because of abuse or neglect.
We’ve known people over the years who would have been great parents, but struggled with infertility, or were unable to have children because of other medical issues.
It seems like an incredible injustice that many who want to have children cannot, while many who should not have children do. Is God somehow irresponsible in his distribution of children? And if it is merely a natural, biological occurrence, then why does the Bible insist that children are a gift from God?
The reason for the principle, that children are a gift, is intended to shape the way we think about human life.
Life, the Bible says, is sacred. Human beings are created in the image of God, and though we are fallen, we continue to bear the image of the divine, even if it is marred within us. Alone out of all creation, this is unique to human beings. This is why it is allowed for human beings to ethically kill and eat animals, but human life is different.
Many ancient people considered children to be a nuisance. God wanted people to treat children as treasures.
This can be seen with Jesus; when his disciples tried to shoo away the children who wanted to come to Jesus, assuming that their master was too great a person to be bothered by annoying little children, Jesus corrected them and said, “Allow the little ones to come to me, for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.”
One reason why little children were not valued very highly in ancient society is because they were not able to contribute or produce anything. Furthermore, young children were particularly susceptible to disease and death. So the feeling of many was that once (and if) the child grew to the point where they could be a contributing member of society, then their life would have value. God said: No, children are not a drain, they are a gift.
The principle is that children are to be considered a gift, and human life is to be treasured.
As human beings, we are fallen. We ourselves and the world we live in languish under a curse: the curse of sin and death. This curse has far-reaching implications: it means that the world does not work the way it was originally designed to, and neither do we.
The results of this curse include sickness, hatred, envy, strife, selfish and hurtful actions, as well as all kinds of deviant behavior, and ultimately death.
We were not designed to struggle with infertility, we were not designed to abuse others, nor to suffer abuse at the hands of others.
Every human being lives under the cloud of this curse their entire life, and we all suffer from its effects in all kinds of forms. This is tragic. So tragic, that God became one of us in Jesus Christ to put an end to it forever.
Human life is still a gift and is still precious, even though human beings suffer here on Earth.
Identity and Responsibility
To say that someone is a pedophile is to define them by their sin. Rather than saying that God gives children to pedophiles, it would be more accurate to say that God gives children to people, and tragically, some people choose to harm children.
Here is how the Bible explains this:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
To ask the question of why God allows people to be parents if he knows ahead of time that they will one day commit abusive acts against their children is akin to taking responsibility away from the sinner and placing it upon God, and this issue gets into the classic Trilemma of Theodicy:
A trilemma is like a dilemma, only instead of two issues (di) that are at odds with each other, in a trilemma there are three (tri).
The trilemma of theodicy states that there are three things the Bible states are true about God, which cannot all be true at the same time:
God is loving
God is all-powerful
The argument goes that since evil exists, either: God must not really be loving, or God must not really be all-powerful. Either God is incapable of stopping evil, even though he’d like to – in which case he is not all-powerful, or God is capable of stopping evil, but chooses not to, in which case he must not be truly loving.
The logical flaw in the trilemma
The big flaw in this thinking is that it takes into account only two of God’s attributes: his love and his power.
But does God have only two attributes? Certainly not! God has a myriad of attributes, including that he is: all-knowing, providential, eternal, etc. Simply adding another attribute of God to the equation changes it fundamentally, and removes the “lemma” out of the tri-lemma!
For example, if we say that God is not only loving and all-powerful, but also all-knowing and/or providential, it changes things completely. It means that it is possible for God to allow bad things and use them for good purposes, and even for our ultimate benefit. The fact that God is eternal reminds us that comfort in this life is not the pinnacle of existence, therefore it is also possible for an eternal God to allow temporal hardship in order to work an eternal good purpose. The Bible says this explicitly in 2 Corinthians 4:17 – For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
Thankfully, even in the most horrific situations, there is hope:
Why is human life still a gift, if a person suffers abuse?
While on the one hand, the human experience is irreconcilably tainted by suffering, human life is a gift because it carries with it the hope of redemption.
The promise of the gospel is that no matter what horrors a person might suffer here on Earth, in this broken world at the hands of broken and evil people, because of what Jesus did, redemption is possible.
And what redemption looks like is a new world, in which all that is wrong is made right: in which injustice and evil are judged, in which an end is put to suffering once and for all.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Human life, despite its suffering, carries with it the hope of eternal life and redemption.
Speaking of this redemption, Paul the Apostle says:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For in this hope we were saved.
The pages of Scripture are full of the story of the people who suffered greatly.
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated… But God has provided something better for us.
May we take hold of this promise and hope by faith in Jesus and what He accomplished for us, so we can experience life and redemption!
A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll showed that 20% of Americans say that they would refuse a a COVID-19 vaccine, and that an additional 26% are not sure if they would take it.
Among those who are unsure, or decidedly against receiving the vaccine, some fear that the vaccine will have been rushed and not been properly tested, others say they are skeptical about the effectiveness of a vaccine, considering how viruses mutate, and given the relative ineffectiveness of annual flu vaccines.
However, there are also some who are concerned about possibly nefarious motives by governments and influential people, such as Bill Gates.
The suspicion of a sinister conspiracy behind the development of a coronavirus vaccine has been spurred on by comments from Bill Gates on March 18, in which he said that in the future “digital certificates” could trace who had recently been tested or who had received a vaccine. The idea is that those who will have received the vaccine will be allowed to do things which those who refused the vaccine would not be allowed to do, such as shopping, working, and enjoying entertainment or recreation in certain places. By the next day, a rumor had begun circulating that these “digital certificates” would be a microchip which would be hidden in the vaccine. 
For some people, this sounded similar to what the Bible says in Revelation 13 about the Mark of the Beast, without which people will not be able to buy or sell, leading to fears that by receiving this vaccine, you might inadvertently receive the Mark of the Beast, which would lead to the loss of your soul.
What is the Mark of the Beast?
The Book of Revelation is a vision that the Apostle John had while in exile on the island of Patmos. In this vision he was instructed to write down the things that he had seen, the things that are, and those that are to take place in the future. (Revelation 1:19)
Revelation is written in the apocalyptic genre, which its interpretation has been the source of much debate and speculation amongst Christians for the past 2000 years.
In Revelation chapter 13, John describes two beasts; one rises out of the sea (Rev. 13:1-10), the other rises out of the earth (Rev. 13:11-18). Here is what it says about the second beast:
Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.
Throughout the years, Christians have tried to figure out what the Mark of the Beast is and what the number 666 means.
Adding fuel to the fears of a conspiracy is the fact that there is currently a bill before the House of Representatives numbered 6666, as well as a calculation of CORONA (6 letters in the word, and if you take the number of the order of the letters in the English alphabet, they add up to 66).
This isn’t the first time there have been rumors of the Mark of the Beast. Ronald Wilson Reagan (6 letters each = 6+6+6!) was accused of being the beast. Of course this is ridiculous for many reasons, not least of which is that it assumes that the Apostle John, who wrote in Greek, would give us a code which could only be deciphered in the English language (which did not even exist yet).
Many Bible scholars associate the number 666 with Caesar Nero, and there is good evidence for doing this. We know from Suetonius that many people were at the time toying with the numerical values of Nero’s name (Nero 39). This practice, known as gematria, took a letter of the alphabet and assigned it an equivalent number. So, for example, in the case of Greek, the first letter alpha would be given the number one. The second letter beta would be understood as two, and so on. When you take Nero’s name (Neron Kaisar) and transliterate it into Hebrew, the result is the number of the beast: 666. 
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the second beast in Revelation 13 was Nero; it could mean that it will be someone similar to or comparable to Nero.
The Mark of the Lamb?
What many people seem to forget when discussing the Mark of the Beast is that in the verses which immediately follow, the Mark of the Beast is juxtaposed with the Mark of the Lamb.
Perhaps some of you reading this have never even heard of the Mark of the Lamb. However, if we really desire to understand what the Mark of the Beast is, we have to understand it in light of the Mark of the Lamb.
Here’s what it says:
Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless.
This is referenced earlier in the book as well:
Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”
So, any interpretation of what the Mark of the Beast is needs to consider that it must be something equal to and opposite of the Mark of the Lamb.
What are These Marks, and How Will You Know If You Have Them?
Considering how the Mark of the Beast is juxtaposed with the Mark of the Lamb, it seems clear that these two signs are identifiers, which identify your allegiance: either as person of the Dragon or as a person of the Lamb. It isn’t that you become a person of the Beast or the Lamb by receiving a mark, rather: the mark identifies you as what you already are. We see this in Revelation 7 & 14, where the mark given to God’s people is to identify them for who they already are, because they are already united to the Lamb.
In other words, these two marks are two opposite signs marking out two different types of people: the wicked and the righteous.
The Mark of the Beast is an identifier of loyalty and worship, and therefore is not something you could accidentally accept.
In the early 1980s, multiple books came out claiming that Uniform Product Codes (UPCs or “barcodes”) were the Mark of the Beast, since they were tied to buying and selling, with titles like: When Your Money Fails: The “666 System” is Here (1981) and The New Money System 666 (1982). In the late 80s and early 90s there were rumors that it could be something related to credit card companies. These ideas were predicated on the idea that the Mark of the Beast was something that could sneak up on you, and something you could accidentally use.
However, since the Mark of the Beast and the Mark of the Lamb are marks of loyalty and worship, a person will have full cognitive awareness of what they are doing (otherwise it is not worship). In other words, in order to take the Mark of the Beast, you would have to curse Christ and pledge devotion to his enemy – and it’s not something you could do on accident, or without realizing what you were doing.
In many countries, including the United States, it is almost impossible to function (think: buy or sell) without government-issued identification numbers, such as a Social Security Number or a Driver’s License Number. Almost everyone carries a mobile phone which contains a SIM card which can be tracked in different ways. Certain vaccines are required in order for children to attend public school. Whether these things are good or safe or whether the government has your best interest in mind may be valid points of discussion and consideration, but these things are not what the Mark of the Beast is about: it is about identification regarding allegiance and worship, and is therefore not something you can possibly receive against your will, desires, and full awareness of what you are doing.
Don’t Forget the Point of Revelation
It is important to remember that the revelation being given in the Book of Revelation is the revelation of Jesus (Rev. 1:1), not the revelation of the Beast!
The point and purpose of the book is not to make us scared about what the Beast is going to do, but to fill us with confidence because no matter what happens, Jesus is going to win!
Any interpretation of Revelation that results in “the beast” becoming the central focus (and dreaded fear) of your eschatology most definitely suggests that you’ve completely misunderstood the book entirely.
Matthew L. Halstead, Ph.D.
Neither the Dragon nor the Beast are the “star of the show” in Revelation, but Jesus, who comes to defeat them and redeem His people.
Let us remember that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who told us this:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
Whether you decide to receive a future vaccine or not is a decision for you to weigh and consider, but based on the clear teaching of the Bible, there is no need to fear that you will accidentally be taking the Mark of the Beast by doing so.
May we instead receive the mark and seal of the Lamb through heart-felt allegiance to Jesus, embracing the gospel whole-heartedly, with hope in the redemption He promises us, no matter what this life or any enemies may bring our way. This is the way of true security and confidence.
The following is a message I sent out to our church today regarding the current situation with COVID-19:
The situation with COVID-19 is developing quickly. I am glad that our authorities are taking this so seriously; a virus that threatens the most vulnerable in our society is something we should all care about deeply.
Confidence and Love
As Christians in these times, we are motivated by two things: confidence in the gospel, and love for our neighbors. In Jesus, we have confidence and security; we do not fear, because we know that even if our bodies are destroyed, we have a heavenly dwelling that awaits us because of what Jesus accomplished for us. Hebrews 2:14-15 tells us that because Jesus defeated death and the devil, we are free to no longer live in the fear of death.
Although we do not fear death, it is important that we love our neighbors by doing what we can to slow down the spread of this disease which is affecting vulnerable people, particularly the elderly and those whose immune systems are compromised.
Doing your part to minimize the spread of COVID-19 is not an act of fear, but of love for our neighbors.
If you, or anyone you know, needs help with shopping or errands, particularly if you/they are elderly, we want to help you with that so you don’t have to put yourself at risk. E-mail email@example.com with any needs, and we will make sure it gets done in a safe manner.
In this spirit of love, we ask that you respect the recommendations of the CDC and refrain from unnecessary gatherings and contact with others, until the risk goes down. If possible, please consider working from home.
Whereas last week, we recommended that Community Groups continue meeting, we are now leaving it up to individual groups to decide if you should meet, or consider a video chat instead. Shelby will be posting more information on possible ways to do that soon.
Sunday Church Services
For this Sunday, we will pre-record a video with worship and a Bible teaching, which we will then post on YouTube and Facebook for you and those in your household or family to watch together. On Sunday at 10:00 AM we will start a “watch party” on Facebook for those of you who use that platform. If you haven’t yet subscribed to our YouTube channel or followed us on Facebook, now is a good time to do that, and you will be alerted whenever we post a video or go live.
We are working on setting up the video system in our new building, so we can use that to film and broadcast our services, and we expect that to be ready soon. We are also working on a Church Online platform that we can use during this time.
We are waiting until it is safe and advisable for us to have physical gatherings before announcing our official Grand Opening in the new building.
Michelle Pearl, our NextGen Director, will be posting the weekly lesson so that you can go through them with your children at home on Sundays.
As we often say, giving financially to God’s work through the local church is an act of worship. Since in-person giving will not be possible until we can gather physically again as a church, we ask that you give online. That can be done on our website here, or on Realm.
Blog Posts and Devotional Thoughts
During this time, I will be posting more frequently on my blog with devotional thoughts and Bible studies. That might be one more way for you to engage with our community and grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here’s the website: Longmont Pastor – and you can subscribe in order to get email updates of new posts.
Update on Pastors Nick and Mike
I just arrived back from Ukraine, where Pastor Mike and I were visiting our missionaries and teaching at a leadership conference. When we left, there was no recommendation against travel to Hungary or Ukraine, and there were no COVID-19 cases. When I arrived back in the US today, I was screened and tested for COVID-19 and the test came back negative. However, we are more than happy to comply with the protocol and self-quarantine for 14 days out of love for others and respect to the authorities.
In one of our recent studies from the Vision series, we looked at developing God’s vision for your situation – part of which is understanding that every situation presents us with opportunities to respond to the gospel and love our neighbors. That is true in this situation as well! Here is the link to that message: A Vision for Your Situation It is important that we stick together in this time, as a community of people who love Jesus and love our neighbors. We want to continue growing in faith and looking for ways to serve those around us in Jesus’ name.
If you read the narratives about Jesus’ birth, you notice that two very different groups of people came to celebrate the event: the magi and the shepherds.
These groups could not have been more different.
The magi were “wise men from the East,” whereas the shepherds were local.
The magi who educated whereas shepherds were uneducated.
The magi were trained in astronomy: a practice common amongst social elites at that time. The shepherds were illiterate.
The magi were wealthy. The shepherds were the poorest of the poor.
The magi were elites: they easily got an audience with the king. The shepherds were outcasts: dirty, smelly, and looked-down upon by others.
The wise men were the 1%-ers. The shepherds were the undesirables.
Honored yet Disgraced
Then there’s Mary. When the angel came to her to tell her that God had chosen her to be the one through whom the promised Savior would come into the world, her response was:“Me? Really?” Later on she says that God had “looked upon her lowly estate” (Luke 1:48).
Mary was a young woman and she was poor. She was engaged to a blue-collar construction worker. We know that together they were poor because when they dedicated Jesus as a baby in the temple, they gave an offering of two turtledoves (pigeons), which was the sacrifice that the poorest of the poor were allowed to make (the wealthy were required to sacrifice a lamb, but this allowance was for those who couldn’t afford to buy a lamb). Truly: he was was rich became poor… (2 Corinthians 8:9)
Furthermore, since God’s plan necessitated that the Messiah, the promised savior, be born of a virgin (Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:22-23), that necessitated that whoever would be chosen to bear the Messiah would become a social pariah by doing so, because they would become pregnant outside of wedlock.
Mary had to be content with knowing who she was in God’s eyes, because in the eyes of those in her community she was disgraced. In fact, John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus had to deal with insults and people calling him a bastard because of his mother’s assumed impropriety (John 8:41). Scholars also note that when Mark’s Gospel reports that Jesus was called “the son of Mary” rather than the common way of referring to a child as the son of their father, i.e. “the son of Joseph” – that this was a slight, insinuating that Jesus was the product of Mary’s adultery.
Hope for “Those People”
Sometimes people look at Christianity and say, “the problem with Christianity is that it is so narrow and exclusive,” because Christianity says that if Jesus is God, if Jesus is the Savior, then you have to put your trust in Him and follow Him in order to be saved.
But here’s what’s interesting:I have met many people who say: “All you have to do to be saved is: be a good and moral person.”
Most people don’t believe that all people will be saved. They fully expect that Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot will go to hell, as well as those who hurt children or the weak. They believe that those who are cruel and mean, and those who do bad things and hurt others deserve Hell rather than Heaven.
In fact, many people find it scandalous that by just believing in Jesus, a person like Jeffery Dahmer, who has done truly terribly things, could be forgiven of their sins and still go to heaven. People even go so far as to say things like, “If someone like that is in Heaven, then I would rather not be there.” The assumption is that for God to forgive someone like that would be a grave act of injustice.
The problem, though, with saying that “All moral and decent people will go to Heaven,” or “If you live a good life, then you will be saved,” is that not all of us are moral! Not all of us have lived good lives! Some of us are failures. Some of us are broken. All of us have done things that we’re not proud of. We have all done things that hurt other people.
To say that “good and moral people” will be saved, or that in order to be saved you must “live a good life” is narrow and exclusive, because it puts “those people” on the outside. The gospel, on the other hand, offers hope to “those people” because it says that anyone who comes to Jesus will be welcomed, received, forgiven, and transformed.
The message of the gospel is good news for all people – for the elites and the outcasts. For the decent and the indecent. For the good and the bad (see Matthew 22:10 – both “the good and the bad” were invited to the wedding feast). The gospel is scandalously open to all people who will come and receive the free gift of redemption through Jesus. That’s good news for “those people” like me and you!