Hold Fast, Stand Firm.

Christianity, Religion

“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.’” Revelation 21:1-4

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming quickly.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” Revelation 22:20

When John the Apostle received the visions that he would record in the Revelation, he was living in exile in a penal colony on the island of Patmos. His crime: preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. The situation throughout the Roman Empire was no better for other Christians. Sporadic outbursts of violence and persecution against Christians had occurred throughout the first century–most famously under Nero, in which Christians were burned alive and fed to wild animals in the Colosseum– and by the time that John received the Revelation at the end of the first century, these persecutions had become state-sanctioned under the Emperor Domitian. Christians were routinely rounded up and imprisoned, exiled, stoned to death, or executed in a variety of other horrific ways. Being a Christian made one an enemy of the state, and no mercy was bestowed upon those professing allegiance to Christ over Caesar.

Due to this, the Church was forced underground. Christians would meet with one another in the dead of night, in the graveyards and catacombs where the superstitious Romans authorities would not venture. There, surrounded by the remains of their dead loved ones and fellow believers, the faithful would worship the Savior who had risen from the dead and defeated the grave.

Fresco of Jesus with Alpha and Omega found in the catacombs of Rome, c. 4th century

It was in this context that John received the Revelation. Though many focus today on this letter for its apocalyptic content, the theme of the letter is much more than just an account of the end times. It is a direct message from Jesus to His Church to hold on and endure; that though times are bleak and dark, there is hope. Christ is comforting His church and reassuring them that He is coming back for them and that they must keep their faith firmly rooted in Him.

At the end of Revelation, in the final two chapters, we are given the most optimistic of all the letter’s content. The tribulation is over, Satan and his armies defeated, Armageddon and the judgment of the world completed, and John sees the new creation–the new Heaven, the New Earth, and the New Jerusalem–all of which were described as a recreation of Eden. It is in this new creation that God’s people will be in His direct presence. He and Christ will rule in this new kingdom, and there will be no sorrow, no pain, no death, no sin. There will be no night, for God and Christ’s collective presence will illuminate the cosmos. Christ will comfort His flock–He will wipe every tear from their eyes. In the embrace of Christ’s arms in the New Jerusalem, all the pain and suffering and sorrow and death endured in the sinful former world will be gone forever, never to be thought of again.

In John’s vision, the New Jerusalem is depicted as an enormous cube, hundreds of miles in length, width, and height. This cubic depiction is for a purpose, and it further highlights the fact that this is the place where God’s people will be in His presence. In Solomon’s Temple, the dimensions of the space in which God’s presence resided–the Holy of Holies–were a perfect cube. Now the New Jerusalem–the ultimate Holy of Holies–would be the place were God and His creation would live directly in one another’s presence, just as they had in Eden.

Following the vision of the New Jerusalem, Christ again speaks directly to His followers. He tells them to keep doing what they are doing, to remain committed to following Him. He is encouraging them to stay strong, to hold fast to their faith, despite everything that is going on around them. He again tells them that He is coming back for them soon and that their faith and endurance will be rewarded.

Just think about the Christians of John’s era. Their faith had made them criminals. They were living in fear of imprisonment and death. They were forced to meet secretly in graveyards and underground burial chambers. Then they received a letter from John, the last living Apostle–the last human connection to Jesus. They come together in their secret graveyard churches, where reminders of all their suffering are all around them, to read this letter, and in it, Christ speaks directly to them. He tells them: I see what you’re enduring. Stay strong; hold fast to me. Things will not always be this way; there is a better day coming. I will come back for you–I am coming back for you, and you will be with me forever, and I will make everything better. You will not hurt anymore, you will not cry anymore, you will not die anymore. I will wipe away all of your tears. You will be with my Father and me forever, and nothing will take you away from me. I have shown all of this to John, it is all true. Just stay strong. I am coming.

Icon of “Christ With the Martyrs of Libya,” Nikola Saric, 2015.

This promise–this assurance–is still valid and true today. Around the world, Christians are still being persecuted–are still being killed–for professing faith in Jesus Christ. Christ’s words of comfort are for them, and for all believers. Despite what we see happening in the world around us, despite what we endure, we have hope for a better day. We have the assurance that this is not the end, that everything is not for naught; our faith is not in vain. One day, we will see Christ and the Father face-to-face. One day we will live in the direct presence of our God. One day, He will wipe every tear from our eyes. We know this to be true because He Himself told us these things would be so.

So stay strong. Hold fast.

Main Artwork: “Christian Martyrs in the Colosseum,” Konstantin Flavitsky, 1862.

Departed.

Christianity, Religion

“And he awoke from his sleep and said, ‘I will go out as at other times and shake myself free.’ But he did not know that the LORD had departed from him.” Judges 16:20.

Samson is one of the most tragic figures in all of Scripture. His story is sad, not because he suffers unduly or because he was the victim of some terrible wrong; instead, the tragedy of Samson is entirely self-inflicted. He is the ultimate example of wasted potential. Samson’s greatest enemy was himself, and what he had in physical strength, he lacked in discipline and commitment to God.

In many circles, Samson has been cleaned up into an Old Testament action figure. Attention is focused on his exploits and his accomplishments, while the rest of his story is swept under the rug. Samson was not a hero; he was a scoundrel. He was a man who had the talent and abilities to be one of the greatest judges of Israel, but he did not take his responsibilities and commitment to God seriously. Instead, he forsook his duty to God and pursued every worldly pleasure.

Before Samson was born, the Angel of the Lord told his parents that Samson would be a Nazirite from before the day of his birth (Judges 13:7). This meant that Samson would adhere to the obligations of the Nazirite vow: to abstain from alcohol, to refrain from cutting his hair, and to avoid becoming ritually unclean. Before his birth, Samson had been set apart by God to be different from everyone else.

Very quickly in Samson’s story, we see that this is not a vow he intends to keep. Though he keeps from cutting his hair, Samson’s main passions in life are drinking and killing. Time after time, we see where Samson becomes ritually impure by touching the dead bodies of animals and men, or by pursuing relationships with non-Israelite women. Samson was ruled by his lusts and desires, and he pursued them when he should have been seeking God. His eyes were always looking for his next conquest–whether it be in bed with a woman or in a fight with dozens of men. This man who was called to abstain from drinking and being unclean could not stop drinking or remain clean.

Additionally, Samson continually mocked and provoked those around him; humility was a concept that was foreign to him. Samson conducted himself like a godless heathen when he was supposed to be the moral authority in Israel. Step by step, sin by sin, Samson fell further and further into debauchery and did not turn to the God whom he was supposed to be serving.

Eventually, Samson’s choices–and sins–caught up with him. His enemies found out the great secret of his strength–his hair–, and they used his lover to cut it so that they could capture him. When he was about to be caught, Samson thought that he would escape, just as he had done so many times before. But Judges 16:20 reveals the sad truth of Samson’s state; God had departed from Samson. God would no longer protect this man who mocked and defied Him. Samson had repeatedly demonstrated that God did not matter to him, and he had scorned the mission for which God had created him. When given a choice between sin and God, Samson continuously chose sin. God, therefore, allowed Samson’s sins to consume him, and his enemies to catch him.

Once captured, the Philistines gouged out Samson’s eyes–the very same eyes which had been the root of so many of Samson’s sins. He was paraded around by his captors like an exotic animal, mocked and jeered by the same Philistines that he had so often mocked and ridiculed himself. It was only now, at the end of his story, that Samson realized the folly of his ways; it was only at the end that he turned to God.

Judges 16:22 says, “but the hair on his head began to grow again after it had been shaved.” Though God had removed His spirit from Samson, He would still use Samson to accomplish His will. Samson had been prepared to be a judge of Israel and to free Israel from the yoke of Philistine oppression, and God would still use Samson to do just that. While he was chained between the pillars of a Philistine temple for all to see, Samson prayed to God–for the first and only time in the narrative account of his life. Samson asked for God to give him his strength just once more, and with all of his might, Samson pulled down the pillars to which he was chained. The temple collapsed upon him, killing him and 3,000 Philistines.

Samson, a man who could have been so great, was only exceptional in his death. He squandered his talents and abilities. He wasted what God had given him. He was a man of tremendous physical strength–he pulled a lion apart with his bare hands–but he wasn’t strong enough to withstand the sins and temptations of this world on his own. We are no different; when we attempt to live in our own strength, we fall continuously into sin. We must learn from Samson’s failures. We must readily admit that we are not strong enough to live without God. We must not boast in our sins but must confess them to God. We must seek God’s strength and protection from the devouring beast that is sin as it seeks to consume us, as it did Samson. We must remember that we are more like Samson than we would like to admit; he was no more fallen than we are, and we are no better than him. His mistakes could just as easily be ours.

Seek God and his strength in everything you do; don’t wait until your sins have you chained up with your eyes gouged out to call upon Him.

Artwork: “Samson,” Norman Rockwell, 1948-49.