Revelation Paintings

I’ve always been intrigued by works of art keyed to biblical texts. In the realm of music, I think of the father and son contributions of Johann Sebastian Bach (e.g., St. Matthew Passion, based on this Gospel’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus) and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (Magnificat, based on Mary’s song of exultation at learning she would bear the Messiah). As for painting, my favorite site is the Arena Chapel on Padova (Padua), Italy, where, in the 14th century, Giotto covered the walls and ceilings with dozens of scenes, from the flight into Egypt to the raising of Lazarus. And, last year, I enjoyed putting together some parable paintings for a seminary magazine, including a Van Gogh Good Samaritan, a Rembrandt Prodigal Son, and a Brueghel rendition of the blind leading the blind.

These were works requiring months and even years to produce, but there is a special type of Christian artistry, works constructed between Sundays for the use in the next Lord’s Day service. In this vein, the elder Bach was known for his prodigious output of worship pieces, where a new cantata was required of him every week (for a total of over 200) when he served as organist of St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig. For instance, on June 24, 1724, he first performed Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (Christ our Lord came to the Jordan), marking the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (Jesus’ cousin who baptized Him in the Jordan River).

With Bach’s example in mind a few years ago, I turned to an artist in the church that I pastored1 for help with my series on Revelation. I asked if he might bring us one painting or drawing a week, and offered him essentially Wal Mart greeter wages. Happy to say, he was game.

Sure enough, each Sunday he showed up with a fresh work, executed on eight-inch-square pieces of drawing paper—some in pencil, some in pen or paint, some with Rev.1bigencaustic techniques, using heated tar and wax. In one instance, he held the paper over a candle flame to capture the look of black smoke. They featured fantastical, symbolic animals, landscapes and cityscapes, saints and stars.2 We pinned them on the wall to the congregation’s right, saw the collection grow week by week (ten in all), and kept them posted long past the series’ end. (They’re now framed on our dining room wall, where we use them for gospel conversation with guests.)

Addressing the Second Commandment in their Larger Catechism, the Westminster Divines condemned drawing any member of the Trinity. Of course, the Commandment goes beyond that to prohibit likenesses of anything whatsoever in “in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). But context is important, for following God’s instructions, the Ark of the Covenant cover bore cherubim sculptures (Exodus 37:7), and Solomon’s Temple featured carved palm trees and flowers (1 Kings 6). The issue was idolatry. Much could be said about this concern, but suffice it to say here that we did not worship the drawings. Rev.5Rather, we extended Revelation’s word pictures into hand-crafted pictures, in order to advance the strong biblical teaching of the destruction of the devil’s works and the exaltation of the saints in glory.

Of course, artists can get it wrong (and often do in their free-wheeling push for drama, novelty, or provocation), but so can preachers. Yes, the Word has primacy, but not exclusivity, and blessed is the church which regularly enlists the fresh work of musicians and artists to serve with the Holy Spirit in magnifying the holy text.

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Endnotes:

1 Dan Addington (danaddington.com)

2 E.g., the winged eyes of Rev. 4:8, the crowned locust/horse/scorpions of Rev. 9:7-10; the frogs of Rev. 16:13; the resurrected, ascending witnesses of Rev. 11:12; the river and fruit-laden trees of Rev. 22:1-2; the burning Babylon of Rev. 19:3; the descending New Jerusalem of Rev. 21:9-21; the rise of prayers from a golden bowl of Rev. 8:3-4; seven stars in the Lord’s hand of Rev. 1:16.

Rev.4

Rev.3

Rev.1


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Drunks, Derelicts and the Unquietable Conscience of John Wesley

On a bright April day in 1743, John Wesley stood preaching to an open-air crowd the great truths of salvation. The rag-tag congregation, who had come out into the countryside to hear this famous preacher, listened enraptured to his message of regeneration and new life. Just then, an old drunk rode his horse into the middle of the crowd, rearing the beast up and shouting all manner of curses and bitter words at the preacher. Wesley, who by XJF384017this time was used to such displays, tried to ignore the man and continue his sermon. That course, however, quickly proved impossible when the fool drew his horse up and, still spewing venom at Wesley and his gospel, tried to run down some of the crowd. People scattered, no one was trampled, and in a few minutes the situation was brought under control. Speaking later to some local residents, Wesley was shocked to learn who the old wobbly drunk was: a clergyman from a neighboring parish church!

After months of open air preaching, Wesley had learned to expect such opposition. Anglican rectors early on refused to allow him to preach from their pulpits, so Wesley finally forsook the beautiful established churches altogether and took his message first to the church cemeteries and then to the countryside. Thousands of hearers followed him, but even there in the remote regions, he could not avoid trouble. Hecklers and other troublemakers hounded him wherever he went, running through the crowds screaming, banging pots and pans together, or even throwing rotten eggs and over-ripe fruit at him to silence his preaching.

Wesley’s message evoked such a vehement response because he called on Christians to do more than merely recite their creeds once a week. He expected the gospel of Christ to change their hearts and, from there, to reform their lives and ultimately their entire society. “Christianity is essentially a social religion,” he said, and “to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.”

With that conviction, Wesley publicly addressed at one time or another nearly every social and cultural issue of his day. He took aim, for example, at Britain’s thriving slave trade, calling it the “execrable sum of all the villainies” and insisting on the “equal and priceless value” before God of “every immortal soul,” including blacks. He also abhorred war and worked tirelessly to urge a peaceful solution to the conflict with the American Colonies in the 1770s. He rejected the common notion that religion could be kept separate from business, for unless it was permeated with Christian values and dedicated to Christian goals, Wesley thought, business could not help but be turned to diabolical ends. Wesley railed against the social and cultural degradation of his day, championing the poor, castigating Britain’s aristocracy for wasting and hoarding their goods, condemning the liquor traffic which had reduced the nation’s labor force to a drunken stupor, and rebuking lawyers and politicians for using the law to gratify their own greedy desires. Secular or religious, sacred or profane, no department of human affairs was exempt from the word and command of God.

Wesley preached over 40,000 sermons during his life and traveled more than 200,000 miles, mostly on horseback. When he died at the age of 88, his tireless efforts had made Wesley an internationally revered figure. His Methodist movement had won official recognition by the government, and its influence had spread far beyond the shores of Great Britain.

Wesley suffered scorn for his down-to-earth, practical Christianity, but the Lord used his faithful, persevering labors to build a worldwide Christian movement.  Even if faithful Christians disagree about how exactly to apply the conscience of Christianity to society, all can benefit from a careful perusal of the life and legacy of John Wesley.

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Endnotes:

J. Wesley Bready, England: Before and After Wesley: The Evangelical Revival and Social Reform (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers).

Besides the 294 preachers and 71,668 members on the Isle, there were 198 preachers and 43,265 members in America, as well as some 5,300 new Christians brought to Christ by 19 missionaries spread throughout the world. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., s.v. “Wesley, John.”

In Christ, Everything; Outside Christ, Nothing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA2 I said to the LORD, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.”

3 As for the saints who are in the land,
they are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight.

4 The sorrows of those will increase who run after other gods. I will not pour out their libations of blood or take up their names on my lips.

Psalm 16:2-4 (NIV)

Now that our next-door neighbors present us with a multitude of religious choices, the pressure to choose other faiths can be very attractive. Even more alluring is the possibility of mixing and matching; we construct our own garments of faith from the exotic cloth now available from the local religious malls. Our culture revels in diversity and do-it-yourself religion. We are told that we are narrow and intolerant if we stick to the way, the truth, and the life in Christ.

On the run from his enemies, David ran into an earlier version of this option in his day. Israel was surrounded by colorful, foreign alternatives that promised real tangible benefits socially and materially. Yet he did not budge an inch. He had discovered that his own personal faith in God was pivotal to his welfare; apart from the Lord, he had no good thing (v. 2). He knew who his heroes were; his delight was in the saints of the land (v. 3). He was not taken in by the superficial allure of alternative religion; he saw the sorrow that resulted from misplaced confidence in other gods (v. 4). He made up his mind; he would neither join in their practices nor take their names on his lips (v. 4).

Christians are totally indebted to Israel for her refusal to negotiate on her hard-won monotheism. Being tenacious in faith is not being perverse; it is a matter of standing by the truth. Faith is rooted in reality. Christ confirmed and enriched this faith by nailing it down in history with His cross and by conquering all the alternatives in His resurrection from the dead.

The great heroes have proven this faith’s worth over the years. Just to recount their lives is a source of delight and inspiration.

Abandoning the faith or mixing and matching it with bits and pieces of other religions are recipes for disaster and regret. We gladly take Christ’s name upon our lips absolutely and exclusively. His is “the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).

In making the case for Christ, believers cannot shirk the clear-cut choice that Christ presents. We can do so with confidence when we are secure in our own confession of the Lord and when we remember that apart from Him we have “no good thing.” Christ delivers the goods; the alternatives multiply sorrow.

 

The Glorious Love of the Father—Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)

By the age of twenty-one, Charles H. Spurgeon was arguably the most popular preacher in London. His passion and gift for proclaiming the gospel did not limit him to pastoral duties within one congregation; rather, they stimulated him to found Sunday schools, churches, an orphanage, and the Pastor’s College.

Possessing a simple yet profound understanding of how God views His children, Spurgeon would often proclaim the Church glorious. In two sermons on Luke 15:20 titled, “The Prodigal’s Reception” and “Prodigal Love for the Prodigal Son,” he tells how the Father looks upon and receives His child who is in sin—a picture of how Christ transforms wretched sinners into His bride, the Church, purified. The grace of God, explained “The Prince of Preachers,” produces a grateful people who stand ready to “face the world” and serve their Master with joy.

“He fell upon his neck and kissed him.” This I can understand by experience, but it is too wonderful for me to explain . . . I can understand how God manifests his love to a soul that is washed in Jesus’ blood, and knows it; but how he could fall upon the neck of a foul, filthy sinner as such! There it is—not as sanctified, not as having anything good in himself, but as nothing but a filthy, foul, desperate rebel, God falls upon his neck and kisses him. Oh! strange miracle of love! The riddle is unriddled when you recollect that God never had looked upon that sinner, as he was in himself, but had always looked upon him as he was in Christ; and when fell upon that prodigal’s neck, he did in effect only fall upon the neck of his once-suffering Son, Jesus Christ, and he kissed the sinner because he saw him in Christ, and therefore did not see the sinner’s loathsomeness, but saw only Christ’s comeliness, and therefore kissed him as he would have kissed his substitute.1

God on the neck of a sinner! What a wonderful picture! Can you conceive it? I do not think you can; but if you cannot imagine it, I hope that you will realize it. When God’s arm is about our neck, and his lips are on our cheek, kissing much, then we understand more that preachers or books can ever tell us of his condescending love.2

God’s people do not always know the greatness of his love to them. Sometimes, however, it is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. Some of us know at times what it is to be almost too happy to live! The love of God has been so overpoweringly experienced by us on some occasions, that we have almost had to ask for a stay of the delight because we could not endure any more. If the glory had not been veiled a little, we should have died of excess of rapture, or happiness. Beloved, God has wondrous ways of opening his people’s hearts to the manifestation of his grace. He can pour in, not now and then a drop of his love, but great and mighty streams.3

It is a hard thing for a man to confess Christ if he has not had an overwhelming sense of communion with him. But when we are lifted to the skies in the rapture God gives to us, it becomes easy, not only to face the world, but to win the sympathy of even those who might have opposed themselves. This is why young converts are frequently used to lead others into the light; the Lord’s many kisses of forgiveness have so recently been given to them, that their words catch the fragrance of divine love as they pass the lips just touched by the Lord. Alas, that any should ever lose their first love, and forget the many kisses they have received from their heavenly Father!4

When God takes men from being heirs of wrath, and makes them heirs of grace, they have just as much privilege at the first as though they had been heirs of grace twenty years, because in God’s sight they always were heirs of grace, and from all eternity he viewed his most wandering sons.5

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1 C. H. Spurgeon, “The Prodigal’s Reception, Luke xv. 20,” Miracles and Parables of Our Lord, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 377-378.
2 C. H. Spurgeon, “Prodigal Love for the Prodigal Son, Luke xv. 20,” Miracles and Parables of Our Lord, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 382.
3 “Prodigal Love for the Prodigal Son,” 383-384.
4 Ibid., 391.
5 “The Prodigal’s Reception,” 380.

Can Theology Be True If It’s Self-Contradictory?

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) took the curious step recently of adopting an “Authoritative Interpretation” (AI) of its constitution that blatantly contradicts the document it purports to interpret. Passed by a vote of 317-238, the AI allows PCUSA ministers to perform gay wedding ceremonies in the 19 states where the practice is legal. But the PCUSA constitution states (at least for now)1 that “marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man.” How can a document that defines marriage as a heterosexual institution be “interpreted” to permit homosexual marriage? When a commissioner at a PCUSA committee meeting raised this issue, his point was ruled “not well taken” in parliamentary rules.2

contradictorySad to say, this is not the only instance in recent times of a prominent theological or ethical assertion that involves foolish contradiction. Fortunately, Scripture tells us how to respond to such assertions in Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit . . .” The Louw and Nida Greek lexicon explains that the phrase translated “empty deceit” refers to a “misleading or erroneous view concerning the truth” related to “a complete lack of understanding.” Though Paul likely had a broad array of errors in mind, contradictory statements certainly fall under that umbrella. Of course, some doctrines taught in the Bible (like the Trinity and creation ex nihilo) are mysterious and may seem unreasonable at first blush. But nothing in the Bible is a true contradiction. We accept biblical mysteries by faith as we pursue a fuller understanding. But any assertion that involves irreconcilable contradiction is unbiblical and must be rejected, lest it “take you captive.” Consider the following examples:

Atheist ministers. A 2010 study by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola profiled five Protestant “preachers who are not believers.”3 The study described the supposedly victimized atheist ministers as “ensnared in their ministries by a web of obligations, constraints, comforts, and community.” These five individuals may have served in church-related vocations, but it is a contradiction to claim that any atheist is a true minister of the gospel.

Gay marriage. Though it’s a common phrase these days, it’s a contradiction. God defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

Relative truth. “All truth is relative,” some postmodernists claim. But a statement is either true or relative, not both at the same time in the same sense.

No-fault divorce. Since the late 1960s this has been a common legal designation. But Jesus said there is always sin on at least one spouse’s part when the covenant of marriage is dissolved (Matthew 19:1-9).

Errors in Scripture. The Bibles says, “all Scripture” is “breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), and God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). Either the Bible is Holy Scripture or it contains errors, not both. Yet some supposed Christians claim the Bible both errs and is God’s Word.

Human non-persons. Abortion advocates have employed this term in attempt to justify the killing of unborn children. But all humans are persons, knitted together by God in the womb (Psalm 139:13).

When discussions of theology or ethics become self-contradictory, some may regard it as a move toward sophistication and enlightenment, a casting aside of outdated truisms. Yet those who believe the Bible know better. They will take care to shun such “empty deceit” and in so doing will find themselves “established in the faith” (Colossians 2:7).

 

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Endnotes:

1 The General Assembly approved an amendment to the PCUSA constitution redefining marriage as between “two people” rather than “a woman and a man.” But the amendment must be approved by a majority of the PCUSA’s 172 presbyteries, which is expected to occur. Until then, the AI contradicts the constitution.

2 Carmen Fowler LaBerge, “Calling Their Bluff—With the Hope of Keeping the General Assembly From Erring,” The Layman Online, June 19, 2014, http://www.layman.org/calling-bluff-hope-keeping-general-assembly-erring/ (accessed June 26, 2014).

3 Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, “Preachers Who Are Not Believers,” Evolutionary Psychology 8, no. 1 (2010): 122-150, http://www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP08122150.pdf (accessed June 26, 2014).


Do You Have to Believe in God to Go to Heaven?

Last year, Pope Francis wrote a long, open letter to the founder of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, addressing a list of questions Scalfari posed about Christianity. News outlets highlighted one passage from Francis’ letter in particular because it raised the question of whether people who don’t believe in the Christian God can go to heaven. “You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith,” Francis wrote. heaven“I start by saying—and this is the fundamental thing—that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.” This ambiguous passage led to rampant speculation that the pope was denying the need for faith in God. But we shouldn’t be so quick to assume Francis was overturning traditional Christian doctrine—because both the Bible and historic Christian confessions are plain regarding this matter.

For 2,000 years Christians have taught that no one who refuses to believe in the God of the Bible can go to heaven. The fourth-century Athanasian Creed affirmed that “whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.” The Church of England’s 39 Articles state, “Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.” According to the Westminster Confession Faith, “The wicked who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments.” More recently, the Baptist Faith and Message put it this way: “There is no salvation without personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.”

The Bible is as clear as the confessions.1 It says God counts humans as worthy of heaven—even though we’re not worthy in ourselves—if we believe specific content about Jesus known as the gospel. In particular, we must believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, that He died to pay the penalty for humanity’s sin, was buried, rose from the grave, and ascended to heaven, where He reigns and saves. Peter outlined this message on the Day of Pentecost, and all who believed it and turned from their sins received forgiveness (Acts 2:38). Likewise, Paul said people are “saved” from eternal judgment if they “hold fast” to this message (1 Corinthians 15:2).

Many other Bible passages also teach that a person must believe in order to have eternal life in heaven. In every instance, the implied content to be believed is the gospel: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). Of course, good deeds are required of every believer, but those good deeds are inevitable fruit of Christian faith, not a means of earning salvation (James 2:14-26).2

Can someone who doesn’t believe in the Christian God go to heaven? No. Some may consider this bad news. In reality though, it’s the best news imaginable because it opens heaven’s doors to even the worst sinners if they will only turn away from their sin and trust God’s Word.

 

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Endnotes:

1 Confusion can arise, at least in part, because some Scripture passages speak of people going to heaven or hell based on their deeds. For example, John 5:29 says that “those who have done good” will experience the “resurrection of life” and “those who have done evil” the “resurrection of judgment.” If such passages were the only teaching we had on eternal life, we might infer that a non-believer could go to heaven if he or she just did enough good deeds and abstained from enough bad deeds. But the Bible says more, warning that “none is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10) and describing all humankind as “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). In other words, it is theoretically possible to earn a spot in heaven by righteous deeds. But in practice, no one is good enough to do that. It would require moral perfection (Matthew 5:48).

2 The life of Paul illustrates the inability of good deeds alone to save. Before Paul came to personal faith in Jesus Christ, he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless.” But all those things were “rubbish” to Paul with regard to their ability to earn him eternal life (Philippians 3:2-11).