Belong before you believe, or believe before you belong?

Some of our leaders recently visited a local church holding a seminar on how to welcome new visitors. The practical advice and suggestions were all very helpful, but there was a phrase that caught our attention. During the seminar the speaker made a case for allowing non-members to serve in various ministries. The understanding seemed to be that if one gets plugged into the church they are more likely to return for subsequent Sundays. The hope was that eventually said person would come to know Jesus through exposure to other Christians, and eventually place their membership with the church. The speaker summarized this ministerial philosophy with the slogan, “belong before you believe.” In other words, whether one is a Christian, or simply a seeker there are no practical “lines in the sand” so to speak.

I get the heart and logic behind this statement, but I wonder if it’s biblical. It sounds pious but it may be missing the mark. It is definitely more pragmatic and yields immediate results, but is it the most healthy pursuit? Should we not call people to “believe before you belong?” Didn’t Jesus live out this philosophy? Some will reply—“Yeah but Jesus was accused for hanging out with drunks, prostitutes, and the unclean!” True, but we must ask ourselves—did Jesus hang around these people arbitrarily without any call for a change of lifestyle? Or did Jesus hang around these people for the sole purpose of calling them to “repent for the Kingdom is at hand?”

  • It was Jesus, was it not, who told the rich man to sell all of his possessions and give it to the poor before being allowed in the Kingdom (Matthew 19).
  • It was Jesus who said to the man who requested he bury his father before following Jesus, “let the dead bury the dead (Matthew 8).”
  • It was Jesus who said the road to eternal life was narrow and few would find it (Matthew 7).
  • It was Jesus who said that in order to follow him you would have to love him more than your entire family (Matthew 10).
  • It was Jesus who said that one would have to deny themselves, and  take up their cross in order to follow him (Matthew 16).

In other words, have we as a church become so obsessed with attracting people into our community that we have neglected to set any standard by which one can come in? Perhaps instead of leaving the front doors of the church wide open and the back doors closed it should be the other way around.

The time Jesus was wrong?

Recently I preached a sermon from Matthew 15:21-28, the famous story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. In this text I was taken back by Jesus’ seemingly harsh tone and attitude toward a woman who, from all intense and purposes, was one who showed tremendous faith and perseverance. A simple straight forward reading of the passage shows Jesus completely ignoring the woman’s plea for help (verse 23), dismissing her because she is not a Jew (verse 24), and finally calling this poor woman a dog (verse 26)! As one sifts through the Gospel of Matthew Jesus’ actions toward the persistent woman is oddly out of place. Jesus told the gentile centurion that he had never in all Israel found such faith (Matthew 8:10), spoke highly of the faith of the Paralytic in Matthew 9:2, and many more examples could be given. So, why in this particular instance does Jesus seem so unlike, well, Jesus?

While on the surface it may seem that Jesus is treating the Canaanite woman harshly could it be that there is something going on in the text that isn’t so obvious; that when one digs a bit deeper into the text discovers Jesus is actually being tremendously endearing? I think there is.

While trying to unpack the essence of this conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, some clues unveil in at least two places. The first involves the sudden shift in Jesus’ attitude in verse 28. It seems bizarre at first. After completely ignoring this woman while she cries out for Jesus’ help in verses 21-27, Jesus’ tone dramatically shifts as he exclaims “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire (Matthew 15:28).” So, why does Jesus intentionally ignore her in the first two requests for help, but then suddenly shift and speak of how much faith she has?

The second hint is found in the statement made by the Canaanite woman in verse 27. The Canaanite woman finally approaches Jesus, falls to her knees, and says “Lord Help me (verse 25).” At this point one could easily envisage Jesus responding in compassion. But no, Jesus actually responds with what only can be viewed as a harsh and rude statement: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs (verse 26).” It is at this point that the Canaanite says something that changes Jesus tone entirely, verse 27 reads thus: “She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’” What is it about this statement that radically changes the conversation?

I discovered that most English translations translate the Greek phrase Ναὶ κύριε, καὶ γὰρ (yes Lord, yet even) as “yes Lord, yet even…” or “Yes Lord, But even…” The problem however is that the words “καὶ γὰρ” never mean “but even” or “yet even,” but always mean “for even.” When translated as “but even” it gives the impression that the Canaanite is agreeing with Jesus statement. That is, it is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs—Implying that it is not right for Jesus to minister to the woman because his purpose was only to minister to the people of Israel. Rather, the phrase should be translated “For even.”

Read this way it implies something entirely different, namely that the Canaanite is disagreeing with Jesus. In essence she is saying in response, “Yes Lord, it is right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs, for even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table…(my paraphrase)” In other words, the Canaanite woman was challenging Jesus’ statement. She was arguing that the Kingdom is for both Jew and Gentile! In light of this, Jesus’ ecstatic expression in verse 28 makes sense. Jesus in essence says to this woman—you’re right!

If this interpretation is correct the tone and feel of the conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is read in a different light. Was Jesus being rude and ugly in response to the Canaanite woman’s plea for help? Some would conclude that he was. But, what if Jesus was purposefully responding in the manner he does in order to draw out the faith of the Canaanite woman? Could there be a bit of sarcasm and facetiousness being delivered by our Lord? Was Jesus purposefully saying something wrong in order for the Canaanite woman to correct him?NT scholar R.T. France seems to think so:

Cold print does not allow us to detect a quizzical eyebrow or a tongue in the cheek, and it may be that Jesus’ demeanor already hinted that his discouraging reply was not to be his last word on the subject. Need we assume that when eventually the woman won the argument Jesus was either dismayed or displeased? May this not rather have been the outcome he intended from the start? A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher’s own view—even if the phrase ‘devil’s advocate’ may not be quite appropriate to this context!” (France, R.T., NICNT, Matthew, 591)

When I preached this sermon I titled it “The time Jesus was wrong?” It got a lot of attention as you can imagine! But, in the end it is interesting to see that Jesus’ deliberate response to the Canaanite woman actually intended to spur on the great statement of faith that she did. And Jesus was glad she was right!

Are people generally good? A foundational question for young evangelicals.

I ran across a very interesting debate (conversation?) that sheds much light on the contemporary landscape among young liberals and their political views. As a young individual with more conservative leanings I am concerned as to the future of our nation, and her approach to biblical virtues and morals. You can decide as to where you stand on the issues discussed in the video yourself; it is definitely an intriguing dialogue.

But as you listen to the conversation take note during the conclusion of the discussion. Dennis Prager submits what he sees as the essential dividing line between both groups–Are humans essentially good? How would you respond to such a query? Prager answers in the negative while the young college students answer in the positive. I think Prager has put his finger on an important issue that influences how one shapes his or her worldview.

One slightly familiar with the biblical narrative will realize before he reaches Genesis 4 that human nature has been seriously affected by sin. A biblical worldview argues that we as humans are not generally good but generally evil. Paul makes this clear in the opening chapters of Romans, claiming that “none does good not even one (Romans 3:12),” and “that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).” In Ephesians Paul makes it clear that we were “dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1).”

So, yes this is a crucial question in trying to determine why society is the way it is. The young college students propose that “badness” is the result of social conditioning; change the circumstances, change the people. But go back as far as you want, and you will discover that every generation struggles with being “good.” The Bible however offers the only true remedy to the problem of badness–It is in the regeneration of the Spirit of God graciously bestowed to us by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. A transformation must occur for lives to be changed. No amount of social conditioning, behavioral correcting, psychological diagnosing, or any other treatment will suffice. No, if the Bible is true then we have to conclude that true formation of our attitude and behavior can only come through the supernatural work of God! Thus, Paul can go on to say in Ephesians 2 “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:4). “

How Making Jesus your King Can Send you to Hell.

I was struck this past week, as I was preparing for my sermon on Jesus’ feeding of the Five Thousand, by a phrase in John chapter 6:

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves (John 6:26, ESV).”

In the context of John’s rendition we discover that after Jesus performs the miracle of feeding a conservative estimate of 15,000 people with five loaves and two fish, the crowds are so amazed of what they experience they try to take Jesus by force and make him their King (see John 6:15). On the surface it seems fantastic; this is Jesus’ climactic opportunity to be exalted as King and Messiah. Yet, we read that Jesus perceiving this is what they were intending to do, withdrew….why?

We discover the answer in that most provocative verse above. Jesus reveals the true intentions of the crowd—they wanted Jesus for the bread of the flesh, not the bread of life! Rather than desiring a devotional allegiance to Jesus they merely wanted Jesus for what he could give, namely their physical security.

In fact, as the texts unfolds in the rest of John 6 Jesus begins to spell out exactly what type of attitude he desires:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst (John 6:35).

In response to this radical call of devotion the crowds are taken back, and are not that sold on such a bizarre invitation. They are after all just wanting Jesus for his ability to feed their bellies, and perhaps heal them when they are sick. So radical was Jesus’ invitation to feed on him rather than mere physical bread, that it compelled the majority of those who claimed to be his disciples to no longer follow after him. This enormous crowd who moments earlier desired to make him their kind had now wanted nothing to do with him…

As I reflect on the massive implications of this compelling story I can’t help but wonder if this reaction is prevalent in today’s culture. Could it be that many who claim to want Jesus as their King really just desire him for what he can do for them, rather than wanting Jesus Himself? I wonder if some of us carry Jesus around, and only find him useful when he benefits our physical and emotional needs? Could it be that some of us really don’t want Jesus, but rather only want what he can give us? Could we be in danger of acting like the crowds and only wanting him because he has bread?! Is it Jesus that we want or just the benefits that come with carrying the name “Christian?” These are admittedly penetrating questions, but questions I think every serious Christian should ponder.

The irony however, is that while the crowds desired only the physical bread, it was Jesus himself that provided “everlasting satisfaction!” Jesus said “I am the bread of life!” Oh how I hope to always desire the bread of life over the bread of man! Take my friends, but give me Jesus! Take my family but give me Jesus!Take my life but Give me Jesus! As the songwriter puts it “when I come to die, give me Jesus. You can have all this world but give me Jesus!”

It’s no wonder we find these words from Jesus:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied (Matthew 5:6).

My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life (John 10:10, NLT).

Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:39).

A Case for Local Church Membership.

Nowhere in the New Testament do we find the words “thou shall be a member of a local church.” However, the absence of the word “Trinity” doesn’t seem to keep us from believing in a triune God either. The reason involves simple logical deduction or inference from a holistic reading of scripture, which moves us to conclude that God is one in being yet three in persons. Similarly, while the words “local church membership” are not found in the Bible, a serious reading of the text cannot but persuade one to its validity.

With that said the following is my attempt to list details from the NT that, I believe, accumulatively make a strong case for the NT’s teaching of local church membership. But first allow me to define exactly what I mean by my terminology:
Local—I mean a specific geographical area where the church meets regularly to worship God, in contrast to what’s typically termed “the universal church,” that is, true believers throughout the entire world.
Church—I mean the assembly of believers for the purposes of worshipping God, edifying the saints, and manifesting the glory of God.
Membership—I mean the intentional and apparent recognition of each individual who has pledged their lives to a particular local church, for the advancement of the Gospel in the local community, and throughout the world.

With our terms set before us here are ten biblical reasons why, when put together, make a strong accumulative case that every believer should be a member of a local church:

  1. The word for “Church” implies in itself a group of people who gather regularly, in a particular place, for a uniting purpose. The word translated “church” comes from the Greek Ekklesia meaning “a gathered assembly.”
  2. When the apostle Paul wrote his letters they were written to specific churches in a specific geographical location.
    • To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours (1 Corinthians 1:2)
    • and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia (Galatians 1:2)
    • Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons (Philippians 1:1)
    • Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.(1 Thessalonians 1:1)
  3. The NT describes the first church as being established and having elders appointed to each local church.
    • And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.(Acts 14:23) (see also, 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9)
  4. The NT teaches that believers met regularly to worship God together.
    • I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.(1 Timothy 3:14-15)
    • And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.(Hebrews 10:24-25)
    • But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse (1 Corinthians 11:17).
    • If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds. . . What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn. . .(1 Corinthians 14:23,26)
    • See also, Acts 2:42-27
  5. Paul at the conclusion of his letter to the church at Rome sends greetings to a number of individual believers. It seems from this list that there was a clear understanding of who had identified as being devoted to that particular local congregation.
    • See Romans 16:1-16
  6. The call for church discipline involves a mutual understanding between each member of a local church that they’re held accountable to each other for what they believe and how they behave.
    • Matthew 18:15-20
    • 1 Cor. 5:1-13
    • 2 Cor. 2:5-11
    • Galatians 6:1-5
  7. The call for church discipline implies that to be put out of fellowship with a congregation means that one would have once been in fellowship with a congregation. 
    • See passages in previous point
  8. The body/member metaphor given by Paul points to the design of a local church.
    • 1 Corinthians 12:12-26
  9. Leaders of the church being accountable for the souls in their flock assume they know who is in their flock.
    • Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
  10. Jesus established and taught the importance of the Local church 
    • Matthew 16:13-20
    • Matthew 18:15-20
    • John 17:20-26

Reasons why baptism should be performed by immersion and not to infants or young children.

I have had several conversations with some of my Christian friends over the issue of the mode and candidates for baptism. And while this topic tends to divide us on doctrine it is nevertheless a crucial and important topic to have. As I heard one theologian put it: “when doctrine divides the worst thing to do is to say nothing.” So here are some reasons why I believe the proper mode of baptism should be immersion, and the proper candidates should be those who can believe and repent (i.e. not babies or children):

The Mode—immersion

  • The original word “baptism” comes from the Greek baptizo which literally means to “immerse” or “dip (see A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Walter Bauer. 2nd ed. 130).”
  • In John 3:23 we are told that John the Baptist was baptizing near Salim “because water was plentiful there.” There is no need for a large quantity of water if anything other than immersion is to be understood.
  • In Acts 8:38-39 we are told that Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch went “down into the water…and they came up out of the water.” This seems to indicate that Phillip Immersed the Eunuch, rather than sprinkling or pouring.
  • The picture baptism symbolizes in Romans 6:2-4 is one that can only make sense with immersion in view. According to Romans 6 baptism pictures a death burial and resurrection.When one is immersed into water, and comes up out of the water it pictures Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Sprinkling or pouring cannot picture these symbols.
  • In the early church the only mode of baptism was immersion (see The Emergence of the Church, Arthur G. Patzia. 240.)

The Candidate—a Repentant believer

  • Baptism is always accompanied with faith and/or repentance (e.g. Acts 2:38; Romans 6:2-4; Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:11-13; 1 Peter 3:21). Therefore, one would have to have the ability to place their trust in Christ and understand that they need to turn from their sin—babies and children are unable to do this.
  • Nowhere in the NT do we find children being baptized. Therefore, the silence of such examples leads one to conclude that infants are not required to be baptized.
  • Jesus says in Matthew 19:14 that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to children. Thus, until they reach an age of accountability it seems appropriate to conclude that Children are under the grace of God.

Should I leave my current church for a church with better youth and children programs?


Smaller churches today struggle to keep young families in the church, because they lack many of the resources and programs that larger churches can offer. As a result, many end up leaving the smaller congregation for a bigger one, for the purpose of getting their kids in a more effective ministry to meet the needs of their children. Unfortunately, I have experienced this situation first hand in the churches I have served in, and have sought to encourage families to re-consider leaving simply on the basis of what other churches have to “offer.” While there is nothing intrinsically wrong about seeking other churches that may meet the needs of their children more effectively (I am thankful they are still in the church!), I would caution leaving a particular congregation solely on these grounds. If you are thinking about leaving your church because another church has more to offer your kids, let me offer four points to consider:

  1. No matter the vibrancy and health of a church youth program, nothing will affect and transform your children’s life more than the Parent. The Bible emphasizes greatly the important role of the parents to their children. Deuteronomy 6:1 and following speaks of the parents as the primary teachers and disciplers of their children. Proverbs for example, is an entire book where a father seeks to pass on godly principles to his son. Paul in Ephesians 6:1-4 admonishes dads to “instruct their children in the way of the Lord.” Titus 2:4 speaks of the importance of the mom loving her kids. One of the major confusions in the church today is that the church is the primary spiritual leaders for children. But in actuality the church is simply the equippers (see Ephesians 4), and supplemental to the parents, so they can train their children well. The parents are the primary spiritual leaders of children.
  2. If the parents are not 100% devoted to the local church, and committed to serving the church as a main priority, it doesn’t matter how good of a youth group you may find—he will most likely leave the church after he is out of the home. One article showed that “82% of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home attached great importance to their beliefs. It also found that children who were active in their congregations while growing up tended to be religiously active as young adults. It was parents engaging with their children about their faith that made the difference.” Thus, a self-examination of the parent’s devotion to Christ is so important. You must ask the question: If the kids were not in the picture would this still be a major concern—would we still have a hunger and desire to be committed to Christ and his church? I believe if the parent’s devotion to Christ is primary then your children will follow. Discipleship is caught more than taught.
  3. Youth DO need good and godly peers to surround themselves with. While I do believe youth programs are not necessary for kids to grow in their Christian faith, I do believe surrounding themselves with Christian influences is necessary. Paul says “bad company corrupts good character.” So, youth do need Christian friends and acquaintances. However, if kids have Godly parents who exemplify and emphasize holiness, and they are involved in a church where the people surround them with love and support, I truly believe this is a sufficient influence for their Christian development. Yes, Christian peers of the same age are beneficial (and they seem to naturally come given time), but what is necessary is the example of godly parents, a Godly church, and peers to show youth how to live.
  4. As long as the parents are devoted to a Bible-believing, God-honoring, Christ-exalting local church, serving on a regular basis, but find one with a youth program they feel is more beneficial to the growth and spiritual development for their children, then they should have their pastor(s) full blessing to go to that church (not that you need their blessing!). While, the selfish part of us as pastors would obviously desire that each family remain in our church, we ultimately should long for the spiritual growth of the family. For example, I understand that at our current stage as a church we are unable to provide families with some of the options other churches can. I am confident that as we grow numerically we will be able to offer more opportunities for our kids, but as of now we simply do the best we can with the resources we have. So, if a family prayerfully decides to devote to another local church in order to help their kids grow in their Christian walk, then by all means they should do so. Pastors should be 100% on their side, praying for God to use whatever church they connect with to assist them in training their kids in the instruction of the Lord.

How do you feel about these four points? What would you add or take away?


Are You Worthy?

The Following is a sermon I wrote for my Graduate Class at Johnson University (Knoxville, TN). My prayer is that my thoughts from this glorious passage of scripture bring much encouragement to you in these seemingly treacherous of times.

Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll

   and to open its seals,

for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God

    from every tribe and language and people and nation,

and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,

    and they shall reign on the earth.”

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,

to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might

and honor and glory and blessing!”

And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb

be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.(Revelation 5:1-14)

“Do you think you’re worthy…? Strange question I admit, but ponder it for a moment. Do you think you are worthy…? Sit back, and consider it briefly. Allow it to soak in a bit; do you think you are worthy? What is your response? Your first inclination I am sure is to ask “worthy of or for what?”  Allow me to elaborate. Do you think you are worthy to fix the brokenness of life? The pains, the struggles, the hurt, the tears of sadness felt all over the globe—are you worthy to fix it? You might be nervously thinking “what kind of question is that—am I worthy to fix the brokenness of life—of course not! Who would ask that sort of thing? And how is that any way to begin a biblical sermon? Thanks a lot for the encouragement pastor!”

Well, before we get carried away and dismiss the question, I truly believe it deserves a second glance. Because when we begin to think about the significance of the world’s brokenness combined with our unworthiness (and by that I mean our inability to carry it out), then we are left with a sincere, deep, and heavy problem—one of hopelessness, despair, and doom. It’s bleak I admit, but it’s a reality if in fact the only resolve to our world’s brokenness is dependent on our worthiness, because as we have already admitted, we are in fact not worthy.

Revelation 5 perhaps helps us resolve this terrifying and complex situation. It is my desire that at the conclusion of all that has been said, concerning this most majestic text, that each of us will have a renewed sense of hope and awe of Christ; that our only response will be one of true worship. But first, may we set some context for our passage.


Revelation, as we are aware, deals primarily with future events. John, the author on the isle of Patmos writes down visions that are supernaturally given to him regarding “last things” that is, events that will transpire during the last age of history, the church age (the time between Christ first and second coming). In fact John tells us the clear outline of the book in 1:19: Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are (chapters 1-3) and those that are to take place after this (chapters 4-22). Thus, while chapters 1-3 discuss the present situation facing the seven churches in Asia Minor, our present passage until the end of the book depicts how the rest of human history will unfold, climaxing with the final return of Christ.[1]

It may be important to remind ourselves that the book Revelation is written in a special type of genre. One in which has been appropriately called “apocalyptic (taken from the very first word of the book, ἀποκάλυψις).” In its very nature the book is to be taken symbolically and not literally. Therefore, as we unfold the main points of the passage we will have to unpack a few images John describes for us in order to get the overall idea.

Our specific passage (5:1-14) picks up in the midst of a tremendous worship service held in the splendor of Heaven itself! The transitional word “then (καί in Greek, but no doubt a note of sequential transition, thus rightly translated “then”) in 5:1 points us back to the events described in chapter four. There we discover John being transported to the doors of Heaven. The imagery given reminds us of the similar picture pained for us in Isaiah 6 as Isaiah also observed the majesty of Heaven. Here we are introduced to God himself—a description that is seemingly indescribable, and yet John with the best of precision, pictures God in all His splendor being worshiped by all of creation (depicted by the four living creatures of verses 6-8), and the twenty-four elders (most likely the superior order of  angels, so Morris, p. 88).  And they never cease to praise God:

Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,

who was and is and is to come (Revelation 4:8)!”

So, the setting of our passage is Heaven, and the focus is on the creator of the cosmos, Yahweh, the Great I AM. But the focus takes a slight shift as we enter into chapter five. And it is here that we are introduced to the dilemma—who will fix the brokenness?


Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.

The scene seems somewhat simple but it may be helpful to unpack a few images here. First, it seems obvious that the one on the throne is God (see 4: 1-8). Second, we observe a scroll with seven seals. Some have suggested that this scroll is (1) the lamb’s book of life, (2) The OT scriptures, (3) or perhaps a testament that guarantees the inheritance of the saints. But most likely the scroll simply contains, as Mounce puts it, “the full account of what God in His sovereign will has determined as the destiny of the World (Mounce, 142).” In other words, the scroll contains the events of the rest of history—the events between the time of Christ ascension and His second coming. The scroll is protected with seven individual seals which when opened will reveal the description of what will happen during the end time events.

Now, it is here that we discover a complicated dilemma. As we read in verses 2 through 4 there was a call for someone, anyone, in Heaven, on earth, goodness…even under the earth, who was worthy enough to open the scroll and unveil the events of History. And all at once it’s as if the overwhelmingly joyful, hopeful, majestic, and praiseful, mood of 4:1-11 takes a complete downward spiral to despair and dismay. No one is worthy. No one was able (δύναμαι) John writes in verse 3, to open the scroll.

The implication seems to point toward a hopeless and saddened conclusion. John himself begins to weep (κλαίω, carries the idea of weeping loudly or intensely) in verse 4 because “no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.”

But why…? Why such saddened emotion at the fact that no one was found worthy to open the scroll? I think it lies in a couple of factors. First, John was told earlier in 1:19and in 4:1 that he was going to be shown what would take place—that is, how history would unfold in God’s grand plan. Upon hearing that there was no one worthy communicated the sad possibility that this amazing revelation would actually never come to fruition.

However, I think this text points to a more subtle truth. This scroll containing the rest of human history would undoubtedly reveal not only how the world would end but more importantly how God would make all things right (the point of the entire book for that matter)! There is magnificent hope within the content of that scroll. Within its pages lie the greatest news ever—God’s complete plan for mankind’s final redemption! So, when John heard that no one was worthy—that no one had the ability—to open the scroll, it conveyed a huge message: the world’s brokenness would never be fixed by our worthiness. The fact remains that we are completely unworthy to bring hope to our final destination. We are unworthy!

These verses develop, I think, a most fundamental truth about understanding our relationship to God. Worship must begin with an understanding that we are unworthy. Our first acknowledgement when faced with the reality of God, and of His Son Jesus Christ, should always be the overwhelming sense of our inadequacies and inability to fix the problems of sin and pain that this world is saturated in. In light of this, one of the greatest obstacles each of us face when seeking to relate and acknowledge the almighty God, is our self-pride. Deep within us, we may feel like we are worthy— that we deserve and are able to open the scroll, break the seals and reveal the divine plan for humanity! How egotistical of us!  Instead what we need to do, what we must do, is respond like John, weep bitterly. John realized, just like Isaiah, that he was a man of unclean lips, among a people of unclean lips! And if no one was worthy to unseal the scroll then what was to become of the state of humanity? And I believe that when we get to this point we begin to realize genuine worship. We begin to realize that God is longing for brokenness, humility—when we get there, we begin to worship. N.T. Wright articulated this realization well:

“When we begin to glimpse the reality of God, the natural reaction is to worship him. Not to have that reaction is a fairly sure sign that we haven’t yet really understood who he is or what he’s done (N.T. Wright, Simply Christian.).”

And this text seems to indicate that a part of glimpsing the reality of God involves acknowledging our unworthiness. We then begin to look for someone who may fit that description. And that brings us optimistically to the rest of the passage.


The sorrowful tone of verse 4 is quickly interrupted by the enthusiastic news of verse 5.One of the 24 elders reassures John that there is no need to cry, there is in fact someone who can open the scroll, an individual who is in fact worthy to do so! Look at how the elder describes him in verses 5-9:


And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll

    and to open its seals,

for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God

    from every tribe and language and people and nation,

and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,

    and they shall reign on the earth.”

I don’t believe there is any other passage of scripture that elevates Christ in a more dynamic and significant way. As an announcer at a boxing event introduces, to a highly anticipated crowd, the undefeated champion of the world, so the elder announces the reigning Lion and Lamb! It is Christ—He is the one, and the only one, who is able…who is worthy…to open the scroll and its seven seals!

And let’s refrain from reading too quickly the text to miss a most profound imagery of Christ here. Verses 5 and 6 convey a rather significant truth about the conquering Messiah, and the means by which He has established His kingdom. Read closely again verses 5 and 6:

“Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.

As we know, the Jews of the 1st century were looking for a messiah who would in fact be an earthly King establishing an earthly Kingdom, who inevitably would put away all oppressing rulers and authorities. So, when Jesus entered the scene claiming to be the anointed one, the religious rulers were more than a little suspicious about the claim. In fact, they counted it as plain blasphemy. And as a result they had him executed on a cross. So much for Christ reigning as king—or so they thought.

In verses 5 and 6 we get a glimpse of how Christ actually did conquer as the reigning king and messiah—he conquered through his death! He is the lion of Judah, the root of David—this points to his kingship. But he’s also the “lamb that was slain”—this is the means by which he conquered. Through his death on the cross Christ conquered sin and death and by his resurrection overcame the power of death allowing all to live forever (1 Cor. 15:53-58).

And so based on his work on the cross Christ then approaches the throne of God and takes the scroll—He alone is worthy to break the seals. And as a result the entire heavenly assembly shakes the walls with adoration, praise….worship!

The song sung to Christ offers us the reason why Christ is worthy to open the scroll (notice the “for” in verse 9, ὅτι equals a causal conjunction) .These statements differentiate clearly the unworthiness of man and the worthiness of Christ:

First, Christ is worthy because he “was slain, and by your blood, you ransomed people for God.” It’s clear, is it not, why in verses 1-4 there was no one to be found worthy? The fact remains, the only requirement worthy of opening up the pages of History, and revealing the outcome of God’s divine and redemptive plan (and by implication resolving the salvation for the world), was the perfect and unblemished sacrifice of God himself. This is the heart of the Gospel! It was “He who knew no sin, becoming sin, that we might be the righteousness of God (1 Cor. 5:21).” And it was by Christ’ sacrifice that our sins were “ransomed,” that is, purchased, bought. Our redemption and salvation was not free—it cost Christ taking the form of a servant, walking our ugly sod, and dying a wretched and spiritually overwhelming death! And as the end of verse 9 makes clear, that salvific event of the cross was available for every nation in the world!

May we just pause for a second and take in the implications of all of this?! I think we may begin to see the foundation of true genuine worship taking place here. Notice, that the assembly in Heaven expresses their gratitude and praise, their adoration and worship, in light of the worthiness of Christ. Worship must always be Christological. It must always be Christ-centric. Once we acknowledge our unworthiness to fix the brokenness of life—our inability to unseal the scroll— and shift our eyes to the only one who is worthy to bring salvation to all—Christ Jesus—then there is nothing left to do but to worship! When we come face to face with the realization of Christ and his salvific work on the cross we must worship! This is what it means to truly worship in spirit and in truth.

  • This is Moses taking his sandals off on Mt. Sinai
  • This is Abraham raising a knife to slay his only son
  • This is David dancing naked in ecstatic joy
  • This is Isaiah in the presence of Yahweh
  • This is Thomas falling down and saying “my Lord and my God.”

May I repeat Wright’s words once more:

“When we begin to glimpse the reality of God, the natural reaction is to worship him. Not to have that reaction is a fairly sure sign that we haven’t yet really understood who he is or what he’s done.


We are unworthy, Christ is worthy. This seems to be the formula given in our passage for

true worship. But I am drawn to one more simple truth this text seems to indicate. Let us read slowly verses 9-10 once more:

And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll

    and to open its seals,

for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God

    from every tribe and language and people and nation,

and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,

    and they shall reign on the earth.”

Notice again the words “you ransomed a people for God.”  Worship is acknowledging our unworthiness, Christ worthiness, to bestow unto us His worthiness! Worship happens when our unworthiness meets Christ’ worthiness. Worship therefore, is an expression of our overwhelming gratitude to Christ for redeeming us to God. And di d you notice the rest of the passage? Through Christ’ sacrifice he has made us a “Kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth!” That’s incredible! The story of Revelation, and the Bible for that matter, points to God, in His divine mercy, taking our brokenness and replacing it with Christ’ perfection! Through Christ, God has adopted us in to His family, called us His own, and has blessed us with every spiritual blessing that is in Heaven! He has taken our unworthiness, and replaced it with Christ’ worthiness! It’s no wonder that for the rest of the passage everyone represented in Heaven can only respond with worship. It’s no wonder that verse 14 ends with these words: “and the elders fell down and worshiped.”

Let me ask you, are you worthy? Perhaps now you pause a moment before answering. Because the answer to that question depends on a proper perspective doesn’t it? If we are asking if we are worthy to fix the brokenness of life based on our own worthiness then the answer is a resounding No! However, if one was to ask if I am worthy to be fixed, then the answer is an overwhelming Yes! Based on the worthiness of Christ I am worthy! I find my identity, my worthiness in Christ. So, may we this morning take time to confess our unworthiness, acknowledge Christ supreme worthiness, and bask in the blessings of Christ’ worthiness in us! As we do I am sure we will find ourselves bowing in worship to our Savior Christ Jesus!



[1] I am aware of the various viewpoints regarding the structure and interpretive stances in the scholarly community. I personally take what is popularly known as the “spiritual” interpretive view and see Revelation in light of the cyclical structure view held by many amillennialist. Due to time restraints I neglected to go into further detail concerning the books structure and its relation to the passage at hand.

What about women preachers?

Note: The following is a response to a question submitted in conjunction with a sermon I preached on 9/20/15 at SonRise Christian Church, Summerville, SC. 

QuestionMy question to today’s question is, if women can’t be leaders or preachers or lead a church is Joyce Meyers wrong?  What’s the difference between a Children’s Sunday school teacher and a preacher?

Answer: Great question! The New Testament teaches that women are to teach other women (Titus 2:3-4), teach children (2 Timothy 1 :3-5), evangelize and disciple (Acts 18:24-28), and serve in the life of the church body (1 Cor 12). However, as far as authority (i.e. Oversight and leadership) and teaching the Bible in the corporate body of the church 1 Timothy 2:12-15 makes it clear that this role is to be done by men. Therefore, I humbly disagree with our sister Joyce Myers. I feel that if she is taking on a role as pastor-teacher then she is ignoring the clear point of 1 Timothy 2:12-15. Furthermore,  those who teach children seem not to be in violation of  1 Timothy 2 because they are not taking on the role as the pastor-teacher of a local church assembly.

It is admittedly a touchy subject and the stance that I take confessedly goes against the cultural norm. However, the Bible must take precedent over our cultural inclinations. Thanks so much for your willingness to dig deeper and for being a great Berean! Here is a fantastic resource to further your study:

The following is a follow-up question along with my answer:

Question: Thank you Pastor Will. I guess I am still a bit confused with my Joyce Meyers question. Not because I think your wrong, the word clearly says that.  I just don’t see how he could deny her heaven due to not following the word. She has saved so many souls. But I wonder by saving so many souls and being she is doing it wrong is she still saving them or leading them to damnation. Surely not right? I know someone that will be knocking on suicides door but listens to Joyce and can be routed in another direction. She gets peace from her sermons and able to put things back in perspective. I hope God has compassion on her (Joyce). Thanks for your never ending patience and love for me.

Answer: Those are compelling questions, and ones that I admittedly struggle with myself. The basic foundation of your thoughts revolve around the question of how someone so successful and influential in communicating God’s truth could miss such a straight-forward passage of scripture. I must admit, I am boggled by it as well 🙂 That moves us into an even more difficult situation–that is, how is it that all of us can read the same Bible and come up with completely different answers and beliefs? Again, not an easy question to resolve. My humble response would be as follows:

First, while I believe that Joyce Myers is incorrect in her application and interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12-15, I don’t believe that necessitates the basic message of the Gospel that results in people receiving Christ as Lord. God can, and does use miss-guided messengers(like myself at times I’m sure)  to reach effectively people with the basic message of the Gospel. A great case study of this in the Bible is Philippians 1:15-18 in which Paul distinguishes between the “Motive” of the speaker and the Result of the “message” given. In other words some can even preach the Gospel with false motives and it still do the job of convicting the lost listener!

Secondly, as to how so many devoted Bible-believers can disagree I propose a few thoughts: First, I think all Bible-believing Christians agree on the “essentials” of the Gospel–The “Bulls-eye” points. That is, what we believe about salvation, Jesus deity, God, The Work of the cross, the resurrection, and the fact that Christ will definitely come again.

However, on the secondary issues (for example women preaching) there are definitely disagreements. I think in light of this we must avoid two extremes.

On the one hand, some respond with subjective relativism. That is, there is no way we can come to the ultimate truth and thus every person’s individual interpretation is fine, so long as we don’t subject anyone else to hold our position. This is dangerous however, to those who believe in the inerrant word of God. We believe that when God wrote the Bible he didn’t mean to communicate 2, 3, or a thousand different ideas, but one. Therefore, the Bible has one interpretation and our job as Bible students is to find out what that is.

On the other hand, there are some who go to the opposite extreme and believe that if you don’t adhere to every belief on every verse of the Bible as they do, then your completely wrong and sinful! This is completely unnecessary however. While we do need to agree on the essentials, we also need to have room to lovingly dialogue about our differences.

So while I think Joyce Myers teaches  some important issues incorrectly I would never advocate her as sinful or unsaved or the like. I do feel compelled to caution others when there are areas of biblical teaching that are off base in my view of Scripture. But these need to be done in a spirit of grace, love and patience. In conclusion I think it is helpful to follow the old adage: “in essentials unity, in opinions liberty, in all things love.”

Love ya, keep up the growth!

Christian Liberty and Starbucks

Note: The following is a response to a question submitted in conjunction with a sermon I preached on 9/20/15 at SonRise Christian Church, Summerville, SC. 

Question: Paul said to not worry about buying meat that was previously used in Pagan rituals. As in consuming the meat didn’t mean that they were supporting or condoning the sin of idol worship. Could that principle be applied to a florist, Baker, etc, providing wedding services to a homosexual couple?

Answer: I think your right in one way . For example , I go to Starbucks. Starbucks openly advocates homosexuality. My buying Starbucks does not mean I support their view of homosexuality. It could be argued however that I may want to spend my money somewhere else ( a Christian coffee company for example) . Nevertheless, the point is I am free to eat and drink anything no matter the source. However, I need to use wise Christian discernment when doing so and not foolishly use my Liberty as a stumbling block to others . Furthermore, in the example you have given, I believe one must do what’s right in their conscience . If it is wrong for a person to sell goods to a homosexual couple then they shouldn’t do it ( see Romans 14-15) .