Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Big Picture

Remembering The Big Picture

Over the last couple of weeks Kristi and I have been looking at some houses online that are for sale. A former student of mine is a realtor in Tampa, so he’s been sending us links to homes with a description and pictures. We decided to pick our five favorites, and compare lists and then narrow it down to what we had in common. This quickly turned into me putting my list away and just agreeing to look at the homes on Kristi’s list! Hey, you’ve seen my apartments and her house, so I think I’m making the right move.

We’ve also been looking the homes up on Google Maps (for those of you who are not into computers, it is a program that allows you to locate specific residences and even to see pictures). You can even determine the scale of the map, from as wide as the entire country, to as narrow as a street. You can even click something called “street level” and look around at the houses in the neighborhood. And as you can imagine, homes that look good in their individual descriptions don’t always look as inviting when you expand the picture to include the entire neighborhood.

Over the last few weeks we studied together about the birth of Jesus from the opening chapters of Matthew, a “street-level” view. I want to use the story of Jesus’ birth to illustrate the difference that expanding out to see the big picture can make.

I.  The Birth of Jesus

A.  The "little picture" (Matthew 2).

The story of the birth of Jesus from our perspective is the decisive turning point in history, when God entered the human story as Jesus of Nazareth to liberate us as our great deliverer. 

But if you think about the basic gist of Matt 2, it is a pretty pedestrian storyline. 

At its core it is the story of a petty Middle Eastern despot who was paranoid about a potential rival to his throne. Yes, Herod was implacably cruel, and yes, he savagely ordered the slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem and its environs, but there is nothing noteworthy about this. Herod did that kind of stuff all his life.

It is a sadly typical story in 2014. You can read the paper or look at news online today and read about people in the same part of the world murdering innocent women and children as part of a power struggle.

There are thousands of people killed each year because of this kind of violence, hundreds of thousands forced to flee from their homeland and settle somewhere else just like Joseph, Mary and Jesus. 

But this kind of surface reading is far from the whole story. What we read in the 23 verses of Matt 2 actually represents a struggle of cosmic proportions. And to see the wider, deeper story, let’s turn to Revelation 12.

B.  The big picture (Rev. 12:1-9).

Rev. 12 begins a new section of Revelation, in which the story of the conflict between good and evil is told from a heavenly perspective - “a great sign appeared in heaven” - 12:1.  It contains highly symbolic language, which can be intimidating, but in this case the imagery is pretty easy to decipher. 

1.  The Woman

12:1-2 speaks of a woman clothed gloriously, on the verge of giving birth.

Later in 21:9-11 another glorious woman is pictured, the bride of the Lamb, the church glorified.

The end of Revelation draws heavily on the last part of Isaiah, where Israel’s return from exile was portrayed as a wife delighted in by God - Isa. 62:1-5.

So the symbolism of this woman in Rev 12 looks back to Israel and looks forward to the bride. I would suggest that she represents the people of God in the Old and New Covenant, the faithful remnant of Israel right on through to the church. 

The woman’s connection with Israel is vividly symbolized by the sun, moon and stars, reminiscent of the dream of Joseph. Later rabbinical writings said that the stars represented Abraham and his family because nothing on earth could destroy Israel any more than it could the stars.

But this vision isn’t all about glory and power. It is also about vulnerability and danger. She is pregnant and in the throes of labor - 12:2. 

This is also straight out of Isaiah, where in 26:16-21 the prospects of Israel’s future are compared to a pregnant woman writing in the pangs in delivery, only to give birth to wind. But God promises to shelter His people, and even to destroy a powerful enemy, the dragon of the sea - Isa. 27:1. 

And that happens to be the next image in Rev. 12.

2.  The Dragon

Another sign appeared  - a great red dragon (12:3-4).

In ancient cultures, just like our own, animals were used to represent world powers. The Russian Bear, the American Eagle (not the turkey, which Ben Franklin wanted), the Chinese Dragon. In the ancient world, great sea monsters and dragons were often used for this purpose. In Isaiah 27:1 God pictured Babylon as the Leviathan, the twisting serpent and dragon of the sea. 

John uses the same kind of symbolism here in Rev 12, not to represent one pagan power, but instead the dark force that lies behind all paganism - Satan - 12:9.  

It is red, the color of blood, fitting for one who was a murderer from the beginning. Seven heads, suggesting great cunning and craftiness. Ten horns, great power.  Seven diadems, the false sovereignty of the ruler of this world. 

So mighty a third of stars swept away by tail (cf. Dan. 8:10). Even the stars are not immune from the destructive power of this monster.

12:4b.  This dragon intends to kill the woman's baby.  The only thing more vulnerable than an expectant mother is a newborn baby. Up against this gigantic monster the baby would seem to have no chance!

3.  The Child

Who is this Child? -- 12:5a.

"Rule with rod of iron" immediately clues is in that this is Jesus, because  it is a Messianic phrase (Ps. 2:7-9; Rev. 2:27).

In just a few words John summarizes the entire life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus - 12:5b. The succinctness of the account can only mean that as ominous and lethal as this great dragon appeared, it was completely impotent to stop the Lord’s anointed from completing His mission.

Enraged at his utter and total defeat, the dragon makes war on the woman and her children - 12:17.

C.  The contrast

Now try to place these two passages, Matthew 2 and Revelation 12, side by side. On the one hand we have a small village, Bethlehem, an obscure couple, Joseph and Mary, and a penny ante dictator, Herod. But above and beyond “O Little Town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie”, in a spiritual dimension of infinitely greater scale,  we have this dramatic, other-worldly, cosmic conflict between the long line of God’s people and Satan Himself.

This is a war that began in the Garden with the serpent’s subversion of those made in God’s image. It continued to wage as at every turn in God’s redemptive plan there was danger. 
  • Sarah's age
  • Rebekah and Rachel’s barrenness
  • The famine ofJacob’s family 
  • Later, the near annihilation of the royal line by Athaliah
  • The decree by Haman in the time of Esther
  • The persecution of the Jews in the period between the testaments
  • And now the effort by Herod to kill Jesus.

What happened in Matthew 2 was part of a much bigger picture, a deeper struggle on a spiritual plane that you and I know only because God has pulled back the curtain and let us catch a glimpse.

This basic truth, that there is a bigger picture behind the physical reality and history we experience, is absolutely vital to keep in mind as we deal with the struggles of following Jesus. 

Let me give you three examples of what I mean 

II.  Some Applications

A. The Big Picture of History.

Sometimes I become very depressed about political changes or social trends, but its because I am failing to see the big picture. God is in control! He has purposes, and He will see them through.

Think about the changes Daniel saw, raised in the royal house, taken captive as a teen by the Babylonians, at the end of his life another seismic shift in world politics as the Persians conquered Babylon.  

But he understood that behind all of this was God's wisdom, controlling history to bring about just the results He desired—2:20-21; 5:21.

And just like we saw in Rev. 12, in Daniel we also see that the conflicts on earth are actually a reflection of a deeper cosmic battle. In Daniel 10 Daniel prays and a angel arrives and says he was heard from the very first day he prayed but that an evil spiritual force, whom he calls “the prince of the kingdom of Persia,” withstood him 21 days, and only with Michael’s help could he come. What’s the point? What happens on earth is intricately connected to events in another dimension, controlled by God and His servants the angels, and we need not fear.

In a practical sense this gives us great assurance. The Gates of Hades shall never prevail against us, because no matter how bleak things might look on earth, we have the big picture proclaimed by Jesus, a kingdom that shall never be shaken.  

B. The Big Picture of Temptation.

We must see the big picture in dealing with temptation, that it is in fact  a conflict with spiritual forces -- Eph. 6:12.

This means that when we look at illicit images, or think we are better than someone else, or talk behind the back of a sister, that behind that lust, pride and gossip are the evil spiritual forces of the devil! This is serious business!

But this should not intimidate us. It should get our attention, that there is a bigger picture, a bigger battle going on. We have a formidable enemy, but a much greater ally. Over and over again in these verses in Ephesians 6 Paul says we can stand with God’s help - 6:10-11, 13-14a.

That's the big picture in dealing with temptation, that I am fighting forces beyond this realm, but I have the Creator of the universe on my side. Just as the serpent was no match for the manchild, as children of God holding fast to the Lord we can stand firm.

C. The Big Picture of Suffering.

I do not want to minimize the pain that anyone here has experienced, but I believe that suffering can only shake our faith when we fail to remember that there is a big picture, and convince ourselves that all of cosmic history revolves around what has happened to us.

Think of Job's suffering. On the street level, what did Job know? Raiders had destroyed his servants, a fire from heaven burned up his livestock, and a great wind caused the house of his oldest son to collapse, killing all of his children inside.  

What we know from the big picture perspective is that much more was going on than raids and storms. Satan was at work.

At the end of the book when God speaks to Job, He does not explain all of this to Job. Instead, God reminds Job of the crucial truth that there is a much bigger story going on than he could ever comprehend -38:4.  

This is why it is never a good reason to say, “well, since I can’t see a good reason why God would allow this to happen I just won’t believe in Him.” None of us are in a position to possibly make a judgment like that. In our limited and narrow perspective we have no way of knowing what might be involved in God’s over-arching providence. 

But what we can do is trust that whatever may happen to us in this temporary life,  whatever good God may bring out of suffering and pain that we will not ever know, we can be assured of His love and His promise of forever.  That is the big picture perspective Paul wrote about in 2 Cor. 4:16-17.

As Kristi and I have been looking at homes, we have certainly been looking at each house very closely, and we treat each detail seriously. What kind of cabinets are in the kitchen - does the roof look new or does it need replacing - does it have two sinks in the bathroom so I don’t have to share space while I brush my teeth!

And as I have talked with you about the big picture today, I don’t want you to think that the details of your life are unimportant. They are. And in fact, you need to understand that the God who knows the number of the hairs of your head knows and cares about the pain and struggles of your life day by day and moment by moment. But understanding that there is a bigger picture is one of the very ways God sustains us day by day and moment by moment. 

And for anyone here today who is only living for the here and now, I wish I could get you to see what pathetically small vision you have, and what a horrible trade off you have made. But if you could only for a moment look behind the minutia of this mundane world, and see the love of God and the Lamb whose blood was slain  from the foundation of the world whose greatest desire is for your to share His eternal glory. And that is our invitation to you.

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