Revelation 2:12-17

Revelation

Revelation 2

12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. 13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’

Sometimes the opening sermon illustration writes itself. Listen. This is an actual article:

“Hinduism no Barrier, it Seems, to Keeping Job as Priest in Church of England”

INDIA, September 8, 2006: A priest with the Church of England who converted to Hinduism has been allowed to continue to officiate as a cleric. The Rev. David Hart’s diocese renewed his license this summer even though he had moved to India, changed his name to Ananda and daily blesses a congregation of Hindus with fire previously offered up to Nagar, the snake God. He also “recites Gayatri Mantram with the same devotion with which he celebrates the Eucharist,” according to The Hindunewspaper. The Hindu this week pictures him offering prayers to Lord Ganesh in front of his house. However, he still believes he is fit to celebrate as an Anglican priest and plans to do so when he returns to Britain. Mr. Hart, a former chairman of Christian Aid in Loughborough and chaplain at Loughborough University, now serves in the Hindu temple in Thiruvananthapuram, a village in Kerala, southern India.
He was initiated as an Anglican priest in 1984 and, before leaving for India, was serving the Diocese of Ely. Anthony Russell, the Bishop of Ely, sent Mr. Hart his license, along with a personal letter, just three months after Mr. Hart published a book, Trading Faith: Global Religion in an Age of Rapid Change, in which he writes about his conversion to Hinduism. Mr. Hart is the international secretary for the World Congress of Faiths, the world’s oldest interfaith organization, and is a strong advocate of pluralism. He says in his book that Hinduism is an especially tolerant and open faith.
In an interview with today’s edition of Church Times, Mr. Hart admits that he had not told Dr. Russell that he had converted, but said that he would be amazed if his conversion were treated with any suspicion. “I have neither explicitly nor implicitly renounced my Christian faith or priesthood,” he said. The renewal of his license was sponsored by the Rural Dean of Colombo in Sri Lanka. Mr. Hart believes that his change to Hinduism would be “read in the spirit of open exploration and dialogue, which is an essential feature of our shared modern spirituality.” He also said that he would continue to celebrate as an Anglican priest when he visited England, but he would visit a Hindu temple while there. However, not everyone in the Church of England is impressed by Mr. Hart’s passion for Hinduism. Pauline Scott, the team vicar of St. James, in Stretham, said that she would oppose any attempts by Mr. Hart to celebrate in the Ely Diocese.[1]

A priest. In the church of England. Who “daily blesses a congregation of Hindus with fire previously offered up to Nagar, the snake [g]od.” While remaining a priest!

Now, listen to Leon Morris’ description of the city of Pergamum, the city in which the third of the seven churches of Revelation resided:

It was an important religious centre. People came from all over the world to be healed by the god Asclepius, and Pergamum has been described as ‘the Lourdes [a Catholic shrine in France] of the ancient world’. Zeus, Dionysos and Athene also had notable temples in the city. Pergamum was a centre of Caesar-worship, and it had a temple dedicated to Rome as early as 29 BC . It attained the coveted title neōkoros, ‘temple-sweeper’, before either Smyrna or Ephesus, and took its devotion to emperor-worship seriously. In due course it added a second and a third temple in honour of the emperor. It was the principal centre of the imperial cult in this part of the world. But emperor-worship was not its sole religious activity. Behind the city was a great conical hill, the site of a multitude of heathen temples.[2]

And what was the symbol of Asclepius, the god of healing? The serpent. The snake.

It might be argued that the church in every age is metaphorically faced with the same challenge: will it keep its worship centered radically and exclusively on the Lord Jesus Christ, or will it make room for the snakes. Whether it is David A. Hart in India offering fire to Nagar the snake god or the Christians of Pergamum having to combat the subtle influence of Asclepius or modern American Christians being tempted to the altar of various gods and idols, the church must decide: will we be a people focused solely on Jesus, or will we not? Will we make room for snakes in our hearts or will we not?

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Matthew 12:9-21

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Matthew 12

9 He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. 15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all 16 and ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: 18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. 19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; 20 a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; 21 and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

There is an interesting old debate among theologians that has to do with two Latin expressions: ipsissima vox (the very voice) and ipsissima verba (the very words). Basically, those who argue for the ipsissima verba position say that in the New Testament what we have are the exact literal words of Jesus precisely as He said them. Those who argue for the ipsissima vox position argue that what we have in the New Testament is the very meaning of what Jesus’ actual words meant whether or not the New Testament writers actually recorded his very words exactly as He said them.[1]

My point is not to enter into that debate as it relates to the writing of the New Testament. My purpose in mentioning it is because it seems to me that this ipsissima verba/ipsissima vox distinction can help us understand what was happening between Jesus and the religious authorities when it came to His performing miracles on the Sabbath. Simply put, I would like to argue that the Pharisees focused so much on the very word “sabbath” that they detached it from and therefore missed the very voice of God concerning the Sabbath!

Patrick Miller points out that the word for “rest” is “sabat” which literally means “stop.”[2] This is where we get the word Sabbath. The Pharisees were absolutely obsessed with that word “stop.” They were so focused on that word that that they allowed it to deafen them to and then distort the voice behind it. All they knew was you were supposed to rest, that is, “stop,” on this day and they loaded that one basket with all of their eggs! And, to enforce the ipsissima verba of the Sabbath they made rules upon rules! Stop doing this! Stop doing that! Stop! Stop! Stop!

Then Jesus comes along and does works of mercy and compassion on the Sabbath. Those works violated their understanding of the word. Jesus had not stopped as they thought He should! But Jesus seems, time and time again, to be pointing them to the ipsissima vox, the voice that gave the word, and to be saying to them that they had missed the voice in their fixation on the word.

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Revelation 2:8-11

Revelation

Revelation 2

8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. 9 “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 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. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’

There are some haunting images of the city of Smyrna (known today as Izmir) from 1922. In that year, after Smyrna had been batted around in the aftermath of World War I by the Greeks and the Turks, a great and devastating fire broke out. Pictures of Smyrna in flames are the haunting images I am speaking of. Mike Pole writes of the fire:

Several American and Empire ships were in the Smyrna harbour but were under orders not to intervene as this would ‘breach neutrality’. They watched, and photographed, the developing disaster. As the city erupted into flames behind them, thousands of Greek/Armenian/Christian civilians massed on the waterfront, along a strip called ‘The Quay’. The heat from the burning city grew so great that luggage and even horses caught fire, and could be felt on the ships in the harbour.

At the same time, either local civilians or elements of the Turk army (or both) killed and raped, and small boats over-full of panicking people capsized, and people drowned. A minimum of 10,000 people died, more likely several times that. Eventually the moral values of some naval personnel over-rode their orders and they started picking up survivors from the water.[1]

The one picture in particular of the people of Smyrna crammed onto The Quay is, to me, in many ways, an apt picture of what the Christians of Smyrna must have felt around 1800 years prior: the threat of fiery death behind and the danger of the impassable sea ahead. To judge by our text, many of them must have felt trapped just as these poor folks were in 1922.

Sometimes I wonder if we understand just how overwhelmed these first century Christians must have felt. Scott Duvall observes that “according to one estimation the total population of the Roman Empire in the late first century was sixty million, of which five million were Jews and fifty thousand were Christians.”[2] Just think about that. There truly must have been times when Christians at the time of the writing of Revelation felt very much as if they were stuck on The Quay!

And it continues for many today. John McCallum writes:

In 2018, 1 in 9 Christians experienced serious persecution—a 14% increase over the previous year. And roughly 70% of the world’s Christians today live without the right to worship freely. So when they worship, they know what that means: potential persecution.[3]

Indeed.

And persecution can happen in subtle ways too. While it must be said that, overall, American Christians know little of anything of the persecution faced by Christians the world over, it is also true that there are likely people in this very room who have indeed paid a price for following Jesus. There are likely people in this very room who know the feeling of The Quay: fire behind, water ahead, and a prayer for help to almighty God.

If that is you, the letter to the church of Smyrna is for you.

And if it is not you, then the letter to the church of Smyrna is also for you, for it might just help you to care enough for suffering Christians around the world…and it might just move you to cry out to God on their behalf in prayer.

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Matthew 12:1-8

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Matthew 12

1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

Legalism—the adding of man-made rules and restrictions to the commandments of God—inevitably misses the heart of God. More than that, it usually ends up becoming a parody of itself. Richard John Neuhaus gives one amusing example of this:

Many years ago an evangelical publisher brought out a book by C. S. Lewis with his picture on the back of the dustjacket. He was holding his hand in an odd way, as though there was something in it, but there was nothing there. Around his head was a large cloud. It was, of course, a cloud of pipe smoke, but the publisher, in order not to offend, had brushed out the pipe, with the result that Lewis’ head was surrounded by this numinous nimbus. My classmates and I referred to him as See Shekinah Lewis.[1]

So there you have it. It is an amusing example and, in truth, a metaphor for all legalism. You have (1) a man-made law (i.e., no pipes), (2) an earnest effort to obey this man-made law (i.e., airbrushing out the pipe), and (3) a confusing and slightly amusing result (i.e., What is that cloud of smoke hanging over Lewis’ head?!).

Of course, legalism is not always amusing. Oftentimes it is downright deadly. It is always dangerous. Jesus confronted the religious leaders about their legalism more than once in the New Testament. Matthew 12 gives us one such example.

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Revelation 2:1-7

Revelation

Revelation 2

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’

One of the greatest descriptions of being in love that I have ever read is Leo Tolstoy’s description of Levin after Kitty, who he loves, expresses her love for him in Anna Kerinina. Listen to how this sensation of being in love affects Levin:

            All that night and morning Levin lived perfectly unconsciously, and felt perfectly lifted out of the conditions of material life. He had eaten nothing for a whole day, he had not slept for two nights, had spent several hours undressed in the frozen air, and felt not simply fresher and stronger than ever, but felt utterly independent of his body; he moved without muscular effort, and felt as if he could do anything.  He was convinced he could fly upwards or lift the corner of the house, if need be.[1]

Does that sound familiar to you? Do you recall the first feelings of the love you realized existed between you and another? Do you remember its effect on you?

Now I ask you: how do we go from that kind of thing to sitting in a restaurant across a table from our spouses barely speaking for the better part of an hour? How do some couples go from finding one another’s quirks charming and endearing to wanting to murder the other over the cap not being put back on the toothpaste? How do we go over genuine over-the-top concern at the slightest cough from our beloved in the first blushes of love to “Could you please take some Nyquil or something, I’m trying to sleep?!”

How do we forget our first love?

I do not know, but I know this: if love is not cultivated it is forgotten.

As it goes with our love for one another, so it goes with our love for God.

The seven letters of Revelation are written to seven churches in Asia Minor and, indeed, to the church throughout space and time. They are written to us. The first is to the church of Ephesus, an extremely important city in the ancient world of which we have some amazingly well-preserved ruins today. It was a prosperous and large city with a temple to the goddess Artemis that was considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. Artemis loomed large in Ephesus, as historian Holly Beers writes:

In Greek mythology Artemis and her brother, Apollo, are born to Zeus and Leto. Artemis serves as her mother’s midwife in this origin story, delivering her twin brother, Apollo. The Ephesians appropriated this myth and transferred its geographical location to a grove outside their city, a move that served to support their special relationship with Artemis…During the period of the New Testament, the historical evidence points to the likelihood of Ephesians hosting two major festivals in her honor every year. One was a celebration of her birth, complete with music, dancers, sacrifices, feasts, and priests acting out the role of demonic protectors of Artemis during her birth, frightening away the goddess Hera. The second was the Artemisia, which likely included competitions in music, theater, and athletics. There is also some evidence for female priestesses as officials of her temple.

Along with being associated with a general focus on health and safety (as her name was often understood to communicate those values), Artemis was acclaimed as greatest, holiest, and most manifest along with the titles “Queen of the Cosmos,” “Lady” (female version of “Lord”), and “Savior.” She was a specific kind of savior to the many women who petitioned her for safety in childbirth. She was the patron goddess of Ephesus, and her temple, the Artemision, was built outside the wall, a little over a mile from the city center. The Artemision was famous in antiquity, known as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world for its size and grandeur. It measured approximately 140 by 75 yards (four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens) and included 127 columns that stood over 60 feet high. The works of many of the greatest sculptors and painters of the day decorated it, and because of its financial deposits—assets that included land and water—and ability to lend money, it functioned at the center of the city’s economic life.[2]

In addition to this, there was also in Ephesus a temple to Domitian, the Emperor under whom John was exiled to Patmos and under whom the church of Ephesus was suffering. It was to this church in this socio-politico-religio-context that the words of Christ in Revelation 2 come.

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Matthew 11:28-30

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Matthew 11

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

I do believe that the last words of Matthew 11 are some of my favorite in all of scripture. My soul positively yearns for the peace they offer. Jesus calls upon those “who labor and are heavy laden”—the exhausted, the burned out, those crushed by religious charlatans and spiritual legalism—to remove the yokes that destroy and take from Him the sweet yoke of relationship and service.

David Platt had done a good job of unpacking this “yoke” imagery.

The imagery in this passage is of a “yoke” (v. 29), a heavy wooden bar that fits over the neck of an ox so that it can pull a cart or a plow. The yoke could be put on one animal or it could be shared between two animals. In a shared yoke, one of the oxen would often be much stronger than the other. The stronger ox was more schooled in the commands of the master, and so it would guide the other according to the master’s commands. By coming into the yoke with the stronger ox, the weaker ox could learn to obey the master’s voice.[1]

I love this image of the dual yoke that binds the weaker animal to the stronger so that the stronger can show the weaker how to obey the voice of the master. This is what it is to give one’s heart to Jesus! What a beautiful image!

In our text, Jesus calls us from a yoke and to a yoke. He is clearly not calling us from effort to laziness. Rather, He is calling us from a type of labor that ultimately destroys to a type of labor that ultimately heals and brings life.

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Revelation 1

Revelation

Revelation 1

1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from 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 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” 12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. 17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. 19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

My first foray into politics was as a boy when I wrote a letter to President Ronald Reagan informing him that a girl at my school named Jennifer had told me that he was possibly the antichrist since his full name was Ronald Wilson Reagan and each of those three names has six letters: 666. I wanted to make President Reagan aware of this but also inform him that I, for one, certainly did not believe Jennifer’s allegation. One of the reasons I did not believe it was because I thought the antichrist was likely Mikhail Gorbachev since he had a big birthmark on his forehead. I do not claim that I possessed the detailed understanding of Robert Faid, of course, who wrote of the birthmark:

“When I look at the top of Gorbachev’s head, I see a red dragon and over the right eye, there’s a tail that hangs, representing stars,” says Faid. He explains that St. John, in Revelations: 12:3-4, portrays Satan in similar terms, as a “great red dragon . . . and his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth. . . “

Thus, says Faid, “If Gorbachev is truly the Antichrist, Satan branded him in his mother’s womb.”[1]

All I knew was this: that birthmark was ominous and it was on his head and Gorbachev was Russian and the movie Red Dawn, among others, let me know that they were the bad guys. So it added up. I was also fairly sure that Gog and Magog from the book of Revelation were Russia and China and that the locusts of Revelation represented Apache helicopters and that the European Common Market was an ominous sign of an encroaching one world government and that the pope had to be the “Whore of Babylon” etc. etc. etc.

Such was my youthful immersion into the book of Revelation…though, not really, because, when I think back on it, I was more interested in these theories about Revelation’s application to my own mid-1980’s reality than to the book itself. Later on I began to grow a bit suspicious about the certainty that Christians had in their own interpretations of the symbolism of Revelation, including my own certainty. By the time, in college, a friend sent me an entire sermon on audiotape meticulously detailing how Prince Charles was the antichrist, I was inclined to agree with the frustrated member of that congregation who I could hear yell out from the audience on the tape: “How do you know this is true?!”

How indeed?

And this is why I approach this journey with some sense of hesitation. There is a part of me that wonders if folks in churches love what we think Revelation might say and what we want it to say more than what it actually says. Put another way, if we are not careful, this amazing book with its astonishing and, at times, terrifying images, can tempt us to a kind of eschatological voyeurism where we watch the unfolding events of calamity as we conceive of them with perverse glee.

But surely the book of Revelation was not given to titillate our imaginations. In fact, I am going to argue that it certainly was not. There is something more important than Christians being prodded by the colorful images of the apocalyptic and that something would be Christians being inspired by the greatness of Jesus Christ and His victory and promised return. So I would like to begin our journey by laying down a few promises that I want to make.

Promises for Our Journey through Revelation

  1. I will preach what Revelation says, not what any system of prophecy
  2. I will not forget the original audience who received this book.
  3. I will not engage in forced efforts of identifying prophesied events, people, or entities today, though I will point out where our culture seems to be evidencing what was prophesied.
  4. I will not overly-stress the differences between prophetic systems, though I will mention them for context.
  5. I will refuse to miss the forest for the trees.

These promises are as much for me as for you. I believe they will keep me honest and keep us all focused. This book is too important to be squandered by ear-tickling flights of fancy. Everything in this book is intended to exalt the Lord Jesus and encourage and strengthen His church. Toward that end, I would like to propose a thesis statement for the book of Revelation and also for our journey through it. Here it is:

Revelation reveals the victory of Jesus Christ and how that victory, culminating in Christ’s return, can embolden the faith and endurance of the church today in the fallen world order.

I believe our journey through Revelation will bear out the truthfulness of this statement. In fact, I want to show that the very first chapter of the book does so. We will break this thesis statement down into its parts as we walk through chapter 1.

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Matthew 11:25-27

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Matthew 11

25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

Let me ask us a few questions: How do we know that what we claim to know about God is true? How do we know anything at all about God? Can we truly say with confidence that we know this or that about God?

In asking these questions I am asking questions about revelation. Before Revelation was the last book of the Bible it was a theological truth. In fact, revelation as a theological truth makes Revelation as a book of the Bible possible, for revelation refers to God’s self-disclosure, His revealing of Himself.

In Matthew 11:25-27 Jesus speaks of divine revelation. This is important because Jesus has said many things leading up to these verses, and, indeed, He has said much more than we have recorded in scripture. Jesus’ preaching and pronouncements raises a reasonable question: How can Jesus know these things about the Father and how can we believe Jesus? In other words, what is the basis for the revelation that the Son claimed to receive from the Father and that we claim to receive from the Son? It is to these questions that Jesus now turns. In these verses we have a primer on divine revelation from the Son of the living God.

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