Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: April, 2020



The Stoning of Stephen

In this this last prayer that Jesus makes on behalf of His disciples, Jesus has reflected on their position in the world and the challenges that they would face in His physical absence.  Jesus has stated that they are not of the world (John 17:16), but that He has sent them into the world (v. 18), and that consequently the world hates them (v. 14.  But this raises a serious question.  If the disciples (and by implication believers in general) are expected to forego the comforts and pleasures of the world, what is the point of following Christ?  What advantage is to be gained?

The question is a pertinent one.  Today we in America live in a prosperous and materialistic society.  We are attuned to the here and now.  Our schools and our media concern themselves with our temporal existence here on earth.  Even many churches today are oriented towards helping people find happiness and fulfillment in this life.

But that is not how Jesus described the Christian life.  It is a life of discipleship, of sacrifice, and of faith.  What, then, is the point?  What could possibly be gained from leading such a life?  Jesus explains near the end of His great prayer: “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world” (v. 24; NKJV).

Jesus, of course, was conscious of being the eternal Son of God, and of the position that He had held in heaven before His incarnation.  While He was here on earth many did not recognize Him as the Son of God.  And He was about to undergo the most humiliating trial of all.  But all of that stood in sharp contrast with His position in heaven.  There He was in direct contact with the Father.   He enjoyed the Father’s love.  The angels bowed down and worshipped Him.  He was fully recognized for what He actually was – the eternal Son of God through Whom the world was created.

And Jesus was conscious of the fact that He was about to be separated from His disciples and return to His Father in heaven.  But He loved His disciples too; and so He prays that “they . .. may be with Me where I am.”

Where Jesus was going to be, of course, was heaven, and heaven is a very different place from earth.  Here on earth we are exposed to illness and injury, to natural disasters, crime, corruption, poverty and war.  Death is an inescapable part of human existence.

But heaven is far different.  Jesus had once said that in heaven “neither moth nor rust destroys and  . . .thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:20).  Peter could write about “an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (I Pet. 1:4).  And we are told in the Book of Revelation that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying.  There shall be nor more pain, for former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

But in His prayer Jesus specifically prayed that true believers “may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.”  We will be in the very presence of God Himself, and will see Christ in all His glory.  The world “glory” sometimes has different significations in the Bible, but when John uses it, especially as applied to Jesus, it usually refers to His honor and reputation.  And it must be kept in mind that one of John’s major concerns in recording all of this is to demonstrate that the Jesus whom he knew personally, was indeed the eternal Son of God.  And so when we are in heaven we will see Jesus as He really is, in all of His divine glory.  Again, the Book of Revelation portrays a scene in which thousands upon thousands in heave say with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain

To receive power and honor and glory and blessing!”

(Rev. 5:8-14 – set to Handel’s music

no doubt!)

It is the pure joy of being in the presence of God and beholding His glory.

“In Your presence is fullness of joy;

At Your right hand are pleasures evermore.”

(Psalm 16:11)

If we truly love Christ our greatest desire, then, would be to be in His very presence in heaven.  The apostle Paul could say “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” and that “I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.  Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (Phil 1:21-24).  And again, a little later he says, “Yet indeed I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8).

Why, then, endure suffering and hardship for Christ?  It amounts to a simple cost / benefit analysis.  In the end the benefit (an eternity in heaven) outweighs the cost (temporary suffering here on earth).

And so the question is, what is our ultimate purpose and goal in life?  Are we living for the here-and-now, devoting our lives to the profits and pleasures of this life?  They are all here today and gone tomorrow.  It makes more sense to devote our lives to Christ, to seek to honor and glorify Him in all that we do, so that we can enjoy an eternity in glory.

“This world is not my home,

I’m just apassing thru,

My treasures are laid up

Somewhere beyond the blue;

The angels beckon me

From heaven’s open door,

And I can’t feel at home

In this world anymore.”




Jesus has been praying for His disciples, and for the entire Christian church by extension, and has been especially mindful of their position in the world once He has physically departed from it.  “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15; NKJV).  But how is that accomplished?

Jesus goes on, two verses later, to lay down a basic foundational truth of the Christian life: “Sanctify them by Your truth.  Your world is truth” (v. 17).  Again He says, another two verses later, “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth” (v. 19).  To “sanctify” means to set apart from common use and consecrate to God.  When applied to Christ or to believers, it means to keep unspotted from the world and to be completely devoted to God.  But how is this accomplished?  We still have to live in the world.  As human beings we are social creatures.  We are very much affected by what goes on around us.  The world pressures us to conform – through the educational system, through the media, and through the legal system.  We face economic pressure.  All the while the world is pressuring us to conform to its debased values – its greed, its selfishness, its devotion to pleasure.  How can the Christian resist?

The answer, Jesus says, is “by Your truth.  Your word is truth.”  We might ask, first of all, whether or not there even is such a thing as “truth,” in the sense of a comprehensive explanation of reality.  Secular philosophy began by arguing that truth can be arrived at through pure reason alone.  But as time went on it became evident that there was a problem with this.  We are finite, mortal human beings.  Our range of observation is limited; we cannot possible know everything.  Philosophers have been had to question whether an objective, external reality even exists; and if it does, how can we know it?

To make matters worse, we are all subject to prejudice – we have a tendency to believe what we want to believe, whether it is demonstrably true or not.  In the end many philosophers finally concluded that there is no truth at all, in the sense of a comprehensive explanation of reality.  All ideologies are founded on prejudice, and the universe itself is essentially meaningless.

But Jesus said, “Your word is truth.”  Here Jesus is echoing the language of Psalm 119:160: “The entirety of Your word is truth,” and verse 142: “And Your law is truth.”  In the psalm “Your word” refers to what God has spoken, what God has revealed to us in verbal propositions.  And “Your law” is the whole body of instruction given to us, originally in the first five books of the Bible – the Torah (“torah” means instruction, direction, doctrine, precept, law).

And God’s word, Jesus says, is “truth.”  It is the explanation that completely corresponds to reality.  It is true because it comes from the Creator Himself.  There is nothing false or misleading in it at all.

Jesus prays, “Sanctify them by Your truth.”  Here again He is echoing the words of Psalm 119, especially Psalm 119:9: “How can a young man cleanse his way? / By taking heed according to Your word.”  And again in verse 105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet / And a light to my path.”  The world bases its values on a false and distorted view of reality, one that tries to exclude the Creator from consideration – a worldview that was fabricated to justify mankind’s rebellion against God.  To live differently from the world we need a true and accurate view of reality, one that sees the true and living God as the Creator of the universe.

The Bible challenges the secular worldview in its very first verse; “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  It is God who gives the created world its meaning and purpose.  And thus to understand things properly we are dependent upon the revelation which He has given us in His word, the Bible.  Thus God’s word helps us sort through all of the conflicting demands and false values of the world, and choose the path that leads to what God intended for us in life.  It is only in this way that we can find genuine happiness and fulfillment.

It should go without saying that true Christianity must be based firmly on the Bible as God’s infallible word and our only rule for faith and practice.  The great tragedy of modern church life is that the major Protestant denominations, which were originally founded on the principle of “sola Scriptura,” have largely abandoned their confidence in Scripture.  The result has been a profound confusion about the nature of Christian morality, and a lessening of influence on American society at large.  The mainline churches can no longer say “Thus says the Lord” because they themselves are no longer certain about what the Lord actually said.  The result has been disastrous for American society as a whole, as the nation sinks more deeply into the moral abyss.

As individual Christians, then, we need to meditate carefully on God’s world – to seek to understand it, and to apply it to our lives.  As a result we will live differently from the rest of the world around us.  We may encounter a certain degree of animosity.  Social an economic opportunities may elude us.  But in the end we will be received into heaven by our Savior         with open arms.

“It will be worth it all

When we see Jesus.”

Esther Kerr Rusthoi




Most American Christians do not realize how far removed our current practice is from that of the First Century Church.  There were no denominations then.  The entire Christian community within a given geographical area was conceived as a single church.  You were recognized as a member of that church by virtue of having been baptized.  There were no church buildings; the large metropolitan church met in small groups in private homes.  But they were all one church, under the oversight of a board of elders.  In that way they maintained their visible unity.

Jesus brings out a striking reason why visible church unity is so important: “. . .that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:21; NKJV).  And again, “ . . . that they may be made perfect in One, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me” (v. 23).  Today a great deal of attention is paid to church growth strategies, with the emphasis often on the physical layout of the buildings, the style of music, and a friendly, informal atmosphere.  None of this is necessarily bad, but how much church growth is simply people who are already professing Christians transferring their membership from one church to another?  How many actual conversions do we see?  And meanwhile the surrounding culture sinks even more deeply into unbelief and moral chaos.  Our methods are clearly not bringing the results we expected.

But why would an unconverted person want to embrace evangelical Christianity in the first place?  Why would he want to give up a life of freedom and pleasure to follow Christ?  The obvious answer, here, is whether or not the claims that Jesus made for Himself are true.  And how can an unbeliever know that the historical Jesus of the First Century was the Son of God come down from heaven?  The answer, according to Jesus Himself, lies in the visible unity of the church.  How can the world know that Christ makes a difference in a person’s life?  They look at the church and what do they see?  Carnal, self-centered people dressed up in nice Sunday clothes?  Or a loving brotherhood of believers devoted to one another’s well-being?  The proof is in the pudding, as the old saying goes.

The Nineteenth Century Scottish preacher Charles Ross makes a telling observation: “Oh! Brethren, it is not until the spiritual unity of believers in Christ shall show itself strong enough to destroy the selfishness. Carnality, worldliness, and indifference that feed like a cankerworm at the root of our Christianity, in all the visible sections of it – it is not until then, that we may expect the world to be won to the Saviour . .. The Church of God is too much divided.  There is, indeed, a real spiritual union amongst all God’s true people; let us thank God for that.  But we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that there are too many divisions . . . Sectarianism is one of the crying evils of the day’ (The Inner Sanctuary, p. 231).  And if that was true of Nineteenth Century Scotland, how much more true is it of Twenty First Century America!

Granted, denominational differences are not easily overcome.  Theologians have been arguing and debating them for centuries.  But we should all be humble and honest enough to reexamine our positions in the light of Scripture and see what the Bible actually says.  Jesus Christ is the Head of the church.  The question must always come back to what does He want?  In the meantime we can try to work across denominational line to achieve common goals, such as Christian schools and crisis pregnancy centers.  In this way Christ is glorified through the testimony that we can bear to the surrounding community.

George Whitefield, D.L Moody and Billy Graham were some of the most successful evangelists in history.  But what made them successful?  Was it loud praise bands and overhead screens?  (In Billy Graham’s case, maybe).  What brought results, real, genuine conversions, was the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.   And how did this happen?  Partially because they were willing to work across denominational lines.  May we all learn a lesson from their examples!



The Seventh Seal

America, of course, is not ancient Israel; and even the church, for that matter, is not under the Mosaic Covenant.  In that sense we have often heard the famous verse in II Chron. 7:14 (“. . .if My people who are called by My name . . .”) misapplied to America.  But, as we have seen, global pandemics do not happen by accident.  Ultimately the hand of God is in them.  What, then, are we to make of them?

When we turn to the New Testament we find Jesus making it very clear that “Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  And there will be famines, pestilences* and earthquakes in various places” (Matt. 24:7: NKJV).  The Book of Revelation elaborates.  There are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the fourth one of which is riding a pale horse, “And the name of him who rode on it was death, and Hades followed with him.  And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth” (Rev. 6:8).

Later on a trumpet sounds in heaven, the bottomless pit is opened, and locusts emerge to torment those human beings who have not previous been sealed.  “In those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will desire to die, and death will flee from them” (9:6).

Another trumpet sounds, and four angels are released to kill a third of mankind.  And yet such is the hardness of the human heart that the survivors “did not repent of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood . ..And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts” (9:20,21).

The question is, why does this happen to human society, and why does this happen to the church?  On the first question the Book of Revelation gives us a vivid picture of “Babylon,” the symbol of worldly, corrupt human civilization.  It is materially prosperous, and through its prosperity and its extensive international commerce it corrupts the rest of the world.   “For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wealth of her fornication, the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich through the abundance of her luxury” (18:3).  George Eldon Ladd, commenting on this verse, says that the word translated “luxury” (strenuous) suggests “self-indulgence and luxury accompanied by arrogance and wanton exercise of strength.”

This, in turn, led to pride (“she glorified herself” – v. 7), and exploitation of others – her cargo includes “bodies and souls of men” (v. 13).  According to the majority of Greek manuscripts, “her sins have been heaped up to heaven” (v.5).

God, then, will render to her just as she rendered to you, and repay her double according to her works; in the cup which she has mixed, mix double for her” (v. 6).  “Therefore her plagues will come in one day – death and mourning and famine.  And she will be utterly burned with fire, for strong is the Lord who judges her” (v. 8).

But what about the church?  Why should the church have suffered through all of this?  Part of the reason is that we are called to suffer with Christ.  But part of the reason is also that the church is not always as it should be.  In Revelation chapters 2 and 3 there are the letters to the seven churches of Asia, and in them the Lord is sharply critical of some of the churches.  The church at Ephesus, for example, was doctrinally sound, but “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (2:4).  The church had a dead orthodoxy.  Likewise the church at Sardis had “a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (3:1).  But perhaps the most scathing criticism was directed to the church at Laodicea.  “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I could wish You were cold or hot” (3:13).  “You say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy and have need of nothing’ – and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked –“ (v. 17).  Of this church Christ actually said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (v. 20).  He was outside!

So how does all of this apply to our current situation?  We are faced with a global pandemic, which would make it impossible to point to a single action by a single person at a specific time and place that would have occasioned the outpouring of God’s wrath and judgment.  But the pandemic has hit Europe and America especially hard, and these are places which were once nominally Christian but have since departed from the faith and have sunk into practical atheism and moral decay.  Most of these countries have legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, the same kinds of sin that brought the wrath of God down upon the ancient Canaanites.  Israel was warned, “Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all of these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you.  For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants” (Lev. 18:24,25).

To make matters worse, Western society tries to rationalize its immoral behavior with a kind of radical skepticism that denies universal truths and moral absolutes.  It is not wonder, then, that God would bring judgment down upon the corrupt and decadent Western world.

But what about the church?  At a time like this we need to engage in some honest sour-searching.  As Christ told the church at Laodicea, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.  Therefore be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19).  Measured by God’s standards, are we the churches that we ought to be?  Are we the individual Christians that we ought to be?  Can we honestly say that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength?  Do we immerse our souls in God’s Word?  Are we devoted to prayer?  De we honestly love the brethren?  Do we sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in our gathered assemblies?  Does our worship reflect the sense of mingled awe and joy that we ought to feel when we are in the presence of the infinite, holy and loving God?  If we are honest with ourselves, and our churches are typical of what we see so often today, the answer is probably “no.”

A day of prayer and fasting was long overdue.  Let us fall on our knees and humbly confess our sins, and plead with God for spiritual renewal.  And let us be earnest in praying for the conversion of the lost.  They are our fellow human beings.  But for the grace of God there go we.  Apart from Christ they face an eternity in hell.  In times like these we need to pray for revival!

“Lord, take my life, and make it wholly Thine;

Fill my poor heart with Thy great love divine.

Take all my will, my passion, self and pride;

I now surrender, Lord – in me abide.


“O Holy Ghost, revival comes from Thee;

Send a revival, start the work in me.

Thy word declares Thou wilt supply our need;

For blessings now, O Lord, I humble plead.”

J. Edwin Orr


*Most modern English version omit the word “pestilences.”  It is in the majority of Greek manuscripts, however, as well as the Latin Vulgate, although the Vulgate reverses the order: “pestilences and famines.”



The Flood

Recently the Gospel Coalition, under the leadership of Dr. Julius Kim, called for a day of prayer and fasting to be held today, April 4.  There is a Prayer Companion Booklet in which Dr. Kim says, “Like many of you, I have been grieved and at times afraid as I’ve watched events unfold in our world in recent weeks.”   The booklet then goes on to give guidance as to how to spend the appointed time in prayer.

We are deeply gratified that at last someone has called for prayer and fasting on an occasion such as this.  And yet at the same time we cannot help feel a little bit of disappointment.  The prayer guide seems to treat the current pandemic more or less as a natural disaster which has people worried and frightened, and the guide is mainly focused on finding hope and comfort in a time of need, although the guide does contain instructions to pray for the conversion of the lost.

What is missing, however, is the sense that this may all be a divine judgment on human sin.  Pandemics do not happen purely by accident; God is sovereignly in control.  The question is, why did this one come about?

It is probably not possible to give an exact answer to the question.  The outworkings of divine providence are subject to the secret will of God, and only He knows the precise reason for the current crisis.  But Scripture does give us as least a broad idea of what is going on and how we should respond.

There is the case, for example, of Noah’s flood.  We are told “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart” (Gen. 6:5,6; NKJV).  The result was that God wiped out nearly the entire human race in the great flood that followed.

Then there is the case of Sodom and Gomorrah.  “The Lord said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave, I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry . . .” (Gen. 18:20,21).  The outcome on this occasion was that “the Lord rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the Lord out of the heavens” (Gen. 19:24).

And then there is the example of God’s dealings with Israel itself.  Israel had entered into a formal covenant with God, and as a part of that covenant there was a series of blessing and curses conditioned upon Israel’s obedience or disobedience.  The curses are outlined in Dt. 28:15-68.  Significantly the list includes a large number of physical ailments.  In verse 21 we are told that “The Lord will make the plague cling to you . . .”  One commentator, P.C. Craigie, says that this “probably refers to a disease of epidemic proportions, which would cling to people (i.e., it would be impossible to halt its progress).”  The list goes on to include “consumption, fever, inflammation, severe burning fever” (v. 22), as well as a wide variety of other physical ailments.  In verse 59 it says, “then the Lord will bring upon you and your descendants extraordinary plagues – great and prolonged plagues – and serious and prolonged sickness.”  God definitely uses sickness and disease to punish people for their sins.

What, then, are the people of God supposed to do when such chastisement strikes?  Years later, when King Solomon was dedicating the new temple in Jerusalem, he prayed, in part,

“Where there is a famine in the land, pestilence or blight or mildew,

locusts or grasshoppers; when their enemies besiege them in the land

of their cities; whatever plague or whatever sickness there is; whatever

prayer, whatever supplication is made by anyone, or by all Your people

Israel, when each one knows his own burden and his own grief, and

spreads out his hands to this temple: then hear from heaven Your dwelling

place, and forgive, and give to everyone according to all his ways, whose

heart you know (for You alone know the hearts of the sons of men),

that they may fear You, to walk in Your ways as long as they live in the

land which You gave to our fathers” (II Chron. 6:28-31).

God responded to Solomon’s prayer by saying, “When I shut up heaven and there is no rain, or command the locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence among the people, if My people, who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (II Chron. 7:13,14).  What we must do, then, first of all, is to “humble ourselves,” is to get off our high horses and frankly acknowledge our utter dependence upon God.  Then we must “pray and seek His face” – we are to make a conscious effort to draw into the presence of God (“His face”) and communicate with Him.  Prayer should never be an empty ritual.  And then we are to “turn from our wicked ways.”  If the disaster was brought upon us because of some moral failure on our part, then we need to acknowledge it and change our behavior.  And if we do so, God has promised “to forgive our sin and to heal.”

As it turns out, Israel was not faithful to the covenant and was eventually driven into exile as a result.  But years later the prophet Daniel realized what must be done, and in Daniel chapter 9 he prays a prayer of confession on behalf of Israel.  Here we have a frank confession of sin (vv. 5-10 – “We have sinned and committed iniquity, we have done wickedly and rebelled . . .”) and an acknowledgment of God’s hand in what had happened to them (vv. 11-14 – “And He has confirmed His words, which He spoke against us . . .by bringing upon us a great disaster; for under the whole heaven such has never been done as what has been done to Jerusalem” ).  And then he asks God to turn away His wrath (vv. 15-19).  It is a model of how we should respond then God brings chastisement our way.

Tomorrow: The New Testament perspective