Last year, I read through the New Testament in Spanish to help learn vocabulary. The Olive Tree App has a helpful feature where you can parallel two Bible versions at once. I could glance at the English side anytime I didn’t understand.
Spanish doesn’t have rule breakers like English, so if you can pronounce the alphabet, you can pronounce words. But, sometimes it was easy to say the words and let my mind wander, since I can’t think in Spanish yet. I often had to pull back and start a section over. This forced me to focus differently; word by word, and to foster comprehension instead of just make sounds. I started reading to decipher what the text said, instead of assuming what it said, or skimming because I’ve read it before.
Skimming and assumption is why it can be difficult to edit your own writing. Sometimes your eyes fly over mistakes—always seeing what you intended to write. I think we sometimes also read the Bible through the lens of what we expect, already believe, or what someone has told us is the indisputable interpretation.
Anytime someone tells me they “just believe what the Bible says,” as though it’s the decisive word for their particular flavor of Christianity, I feel indignant and sad at the same time. God and his word are both knowable and understandable. But, there’s more room for discussion inside that book than there is for exclusion and absolutism. Some people aren’t comfortable in the wild though, and have been “Making the straight and narrow, straighter and narrower since 1606.”
There is only one Lord, faith, God, and baptism—but individual ways to worship and interact with him. Some people are going to be loud, or dance like David, and aesthetes need silence and a plain room. Why wouldn’t the God who made these differences love to see those differences displayed in full freedom and individuality? We know Jesus is the way the truth and the life, and he is the only gate, but sometimes we insist our flavor is the key to that gate.
That’s because we don’t realize how uniquely customized he can be, even though he is unchanging. This is one thing that recently jumped out to me while reading: the individual way that we each see, need, and interact with God. And the unique way he approaches us. When he meets us where we are.
A new work for a new generation and a new year
In the first chapter of Revelation, there’s a complete description of who verses 17 & 18 call “the first and the last, the living one.” See Revelation 1:12-18.
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
In the following two chapters, there’s a declaration to each of the churches. Each time “the first and last” speaks to a church, he introduces himself differently. Most are part of the full description. A few are extra, but found elsewhere in Revelation.
Revelation 2:1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands…
Revelation 2:8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life..
Revelation 2:12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword….
Revelation 2:18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze..
Revelation 3:1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars…
Revelation 3:7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens…
Revelation 3:14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation…
I had a little fun imagining disagreements between these churches. Sardis says, “I just take the first and the last at his word. He has seven stars. We don’t allow people who put their faith in a being who has feet like burnished bronze… I mean, they can come to our fellowship, as long as they talk about the stars, but they can’t, you know, be ordained. Ephesus knows what I mean… their theology is only a little off, with the lampstand part.”
I know I’ve dismissed people and congregations because their experience of God and understanding of scripture was different from my own. I am sorry for that and hope to learn to let people talk about the feet instead of the stars. We can know God, but for now, we don’t have the whole picture. We only know in part. The benefit is there will always be more to learn about him.
It is curious why our unchanging God described himself differently to each church. Based on my personal knowledge and understanding of who God is, I think it’s likely that he represented what each of those churches needed most. Possibly Philadelphia needed doors opened and God was telling them who he is in a way that would specifically comfort them. Perhaps since Pergamum was listening to false teaching, they needed a specific warning from one who has a two-edged sword in his mouth.
Clearly, there was a specific, individualized way God reached you in your generation. The same unchanging God can work uniquely in the coming age as these younger kids need him to. Instead of shaking our heads because all the youth are leaving the church, blaming it on nutrition and social media, we should ask why don’t they see something worth pursuing in our own Christian lives. Is it because our conservative Christianity isn’t reaping the abundant joy God promised? Why are we so focused on the next generation replicating the things that don’t work for us?
Sometimes when I hear fellow believers’ negativity about the world, disparagement and gossip, or see their bondage of fear—I have to wonder what the appeal would be for me if I didn’t already know God. We religious folk should contemplate how God is showing up for us, focus on living a life that bears fruit in keeping with repentance and let him do a new work in the next generation.
For Christmas I received The 100 Names of God devotional by Christopher Hudson. I’m looking forward to the resource this year, and the reminder that God is so much more than I know—and he can fill the unique need of every person everywhere.
Maybe it’s time for a different flavor that will appeal to the pallet of this next generation. I am not saying a different God, I’m just suggesting that the place of worship might not have windows, the uniform might not be a style you like, and the theme song might not be “get married, find a good job and vote.”