My aim in this message is not only to make the Christian gospel plain and single, but also to un-domesticate the gospel and make it feel jagged and strange, rather that smooth and familiar.
My reason for taking this approach is to make sure that when events in this world
- terrify you,
- or make you tense and sleepless,
- or confuse you so that you hardly know what to expect from people any more,
- or make your stomach turn at the atrocity you just saw — like a slit throat on a beach in Libya,
- or cause you to be hopeless about your future because of uncertainties and threats on every side,
- or when you feel like the ground is shifting under your feet and you never can quite get your balance and feel stable
— when any of that happens, I would like to make sure that you know that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not foreign to your life in that kind of turmoil. It’s not foreign or alien or irrelevant to that terror, or that tension, or sleeplessness, or confusion, or that stomach-turning atrocity, or that hopelessness, or uncertainty, or instability. On the contrary, the more horrible, the more foreign, the more startling, the more fearful, the more uncertain, the more stomach-turning the days become, the more relevant the gospel of Jesus Christ is.
“The more horrible and stomach-turning the days become, the more relevant the gospel is.”
I confess very feely that I am preaching here to myself first, because of what I have felt in recent weeks. What I have felt, more than once, is a knot in my stomach when 130 people are killed in a terrorist attack in Paris (November 13), and when fourteen people are gunned down in San Bernardino (December 2), or when the almost daily alerts from the Center for Law and Justice report another atrocity against Christians in the Middle East. I have felt a shaking of my stability in this world, when I read of the ever-growing number of young recruits to ISIS and Hamas and Hezbolla and Al-Qaeda — and realize that at least twelve of them came from the Somali community within walking distance of my house in Minneapolis.
And I have felt a kind of ominous, sinking feeling in my heart when I hear that the Vatican (presumably with the Pope’s authority) announced that it now views it as wrong for Christians to share the gospel with Jews to try to convert them to faith in Jesus; or when I hear that a professor at a Christian college says that Christians and Muslims worship the same God; or when I read one presidential candidate paint all Muslims with the broad brush of suspicion, and another candidate, just as naively, paints them with the broad brush of peace. And my heart has sunk when hearing a Christian university president call his 14,000-student body to apply for concealed carry permits and arm themselves so we can teach “those Muslims” a lesson when they show up here. And I have wanted to weep watching young Christians lose their way and be swept into the cultural current of sexual insanity as the highest court of America declares the existence of a square to be a circle in their new so-called definition of marriage.
I know what it’s like to feel a disconnect between the disorienting effects of world-shaking changes, and the domesticated, smooth, familiar view of the gospel of Jesus. And I have had to pause and pray, “O God, show me afresh the unfathomable depths, and immeasurable heights, and jagged strangeness of the gospel, so I can see its power and beauty in this collapsing world — exactly and precisely in relation to this world.
The Gospel, Familiar and Smooth
So let’s start with the familiar and then move to the strange. Let’s look very briefly at 1 Corinthians 15:1–4.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved [from God’s judgment, saved from wrath, Romans 5:9; Ephesians 2:3–5], if you hold fast to the word I preached to you — unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
First, notice the word “gospel.” It occurs in verse 1: “I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel.” The word gospel means good news. Then, second, notice the response to the gospel, we “receive” it and “stand” in it and “hold it fast” and “believe” it. Verses 1–2,: “. . . which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved if you hold fast to the word I preached to you — unless you believed in vain.” In other words, there is a phony belief that does not last and proves to be in vain. And then, third, notice that the effect of receiving and believing and standing in the gospel is that we are “saved.” Verse 2: “. . . and by which you are being saved.”
“Your security was settled before the creation of the world. It rests in God.”
And what is the basis of that “salvation” from God’s judgment for our sins? The answer is given in verses 3–4: “. . . Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” So the basis — the foundation — of God’s saving me from my sins is that he sent his Son to bear those sins for me — to die in my place and to rise again according to the Scriptures. The heart of the gospel is “Christ died for our sins” (verse 3).
So the more familiar message of the gospel assumes that I have sinned against God. I have preferred other things to his beauty and his friendship. I have defamed him by loving many things more than I love him. And I deserve his wrath and punishment. My eyes, my reason, and my conscience all show me all of this. But God, instead of merely pouring out his wrath on a world of sinners, acts in enormous love, and sends his Son to restore the defamed glory of God, and to show its worth by bearing the curse of those who are saved. So when you put your faith in Jesus, and God forgives all your sins, you know it’s not because you are special, and it’s not because sin is insignificant, and it’s not because the the glory of God is cheap; it’s because the blood of Christ is infinitely valuable. The purchase of our salvation depends totally on him, repairing the injury we have done to the glory and honor of God.
It almost feels blasphemous calling this view of the gospel the familiar one, the smooth one, the one that fits more easily into our pocket without shocking us. Because it is shocking. Christ was God incarnate. The crucifixion was a horrible act of torture. And the resurrection of Christ was a global triumph over sin and death and hell and Satan. Everything about it was unspeakably great. The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God — very God of very God, and very man of very man — was crucified to bear the sins of all who believe, and that he rose again from the dead to destroy death and provide eternal life and eternal joy in his presence for all who believe in him.
What makes this gospel single — one gospel — is the truth of Acts 4:12: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” And 1 Timothy 2:5: “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” And John 14:6, where Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In other words, there is one Savior, one gospel, one way to be saved. Because there is one God and one universal problem — in every culture and every ethnicity and all places and all times — that needs to be solved if anyone anywhere is to escape the wrath of God and gain everlasting joy in God’s presence. And that problem is sin. The one God has dealt with the one main problem in one way through one Savior, Jesus Christ.
The Gospel, Jagged and Strange
We turn now from the familiar to the strange. If the familiar does not shock you and make you feel that you are dealing with something radically relevant for all horrors and all crises and all terrors, then let me try now to un-domesticate this gospel and make it jagged and strange, rather that smooth and familiar.
And what better place is there to turn for the strange than to the Book of Revelation, the strangest book in the Bible? Let’s go to chapter 13.
Now I have an approach to the book of Revelation that over the years I have called the doctrine of least meanings. And it goes like this. Even the least meaning that you can be sure of in a section of Revelation is vastly important. Or to put another way: even if you don’t understand half of the imagery of a chapter in Revelation, what you can understand is life-changing, if you believe it.
So let’s read the strange section about the Beast in chapter 13 and see how the gospel explodes with glory and jagged relevance in a horrible situation where Christians are being defeated — killed — by the power of Satan.
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority [Revelation 12:9, “The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world”]. One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”
And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them [Revelation 14:12,“Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus”; “saints” = real Christians, those who believe the gospel]. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear: If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (Revelation 13:1–10)
For right now, don’t get hung up on the identity of the beast or the time in history that this is referring to. For now, just let the clarity and the power of the truth about the gospel that is plain burst out of this text into your mind.
“If you are bought by the blood of the Lamb, God will never let you go.”
Verse 7: Christians are being conquered. “It [the beast] was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them.” And Revelation 11:7 makes clear what “conquer” means: “when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them.” This was already happening. In Revelation 2:10, Jesus says to the church of Smyrna, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” So Satan is killing Christians by his agents. It was happening then. It is happening today in Syria and Iraq and Libya. It has always happened, because Jesus said it will happen (Luke 21:16: “some of you they will put to death”).
So that’s the situation. Under God’s sovereign governance of the world, a horrible Satanic power has the upper hand in the world, and Christians are being killed wholesale. So my question to you is this: Will your gospel — whatever you are putting your hope in — carry you through the slaughter of Christians in your town, or on your campus? Or is your gospel so familiar and so smooth and so domesticated it will be powerless in that day?
Now comes verse 8: “And all who dwell on earth will worship it [the beast], everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” Just to confirm that this is not a random or incidental statement, here is Revelation 17:8: “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.”
This is the way John thrusts the gospel into the reign of the beast. It is strange and jagged. Focus with me on verse 8. Eight observations.
- The word Lamb. “. . . the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” The Lamb is Jesus, the Lamb of God. We know that because Revelation 1:5 refers to “Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” So we have a lamb in Revelation 13:8 — the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.
- The word slain. “. . . the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” The word is not “died” or even “was killed.” But literally “was slaughtered.” The picture is what you do with a lamb, not what you do with a cross. You shave the neck, and you slit the throat. It is graphic. It is jagged.
- The word life. “. . . the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” This is the gospel reality that when the Lamb gives up his life, life comes to others. This is the great substitution. The great exchange. His death for ours. His life for ours. Because Christ was slain, someone gets life. Who?
- The word book. “. . . the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” Those whose names are in the book will live. Why will they live?
- Because being in the book keeps them from worshiping the beast. Look carefully now. They do not get their name in the book because they trust Jesus and resist the beast. It’s the other way around. They trust Jesus and resist the beast because their names are in the book. Verse 8: “All who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book . . .” If your name is not in the book, you worship the beast. If your name is in the book, you do not worship the beast. Why not?
- Because God sees them as purchased for himself by payment of the blood of the Lamb. If they are in book, they are his. The blood of the Lamb covers their sin. They are righteous in God’s sight. And therefore, God is totally committed to their everlasting good. Therefore, he will not let them worship the beast. He will let them die — be killed, be conquered. Because unbelief is ten thousand times more dangerous than death. If you are bought by the blood of the Lamb, God will never let you go — you will not worship the beast. And when were the names written in the book?
- The names were written before the foundation of the world. Verse 8: “. . . everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book . . .” (I know there is an ambiguity in the Greek as to what “before the foundation of the world” modifies — when the names were written, or when the Lamb was slain. But there is no ambiguity in Revelation 17:8, where it clearly says that the names were written before the foundation of the world.) So God has chosen his people before the world existed. And why does John bring up that truth right here in the most horrible persecution and killing of Christians?
- Because that truth is intended to give the deepest confidence and security to suffering believers in the gospel. You are about to be killed. Satan and his beast have, for the time being, the upper hand. Everywhere you look Christianity seems to be dying. Is your security resting on you and your flimsy, fickle will? No. Your security was settled before the creation of the world. It rests in God.
We Have a Great Gospel
Which brings me back now to this moment at the end of 2015. I don’t know whether God will give us in America another season of spiritual awakening and freedom. Or whether he will give us over to persecution and death. But I do know this. We have a great gospel. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Lamb of God was slaughtered to cover the sins of everyone in the book of life, and to secure for them the omnipotent work of God to keep them from worshiping the beast — or any other created thing in this world.
And the biggest issue facing you at the end of 2015 is this: Is your name in the book? There is no peeking. The way you know that you are in the book is how you respond to the Lamb who was slain — how you respond to the gospel. The one, single, strange, jagged, glorious gospel.
So I end where John ended his book (Revelation 22:17): “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” The gospel of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins is for you absolutely free. It cost the Lamb his life. But for you, it is free. If you receive it, and stand in it, and hold fast to it, and believe it, your name is in the book. He will keep you to the end. And you will not worship anyone or anything above God.