Holy for ever and ever is God

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Holy forever and ever is God” by John Bell. It is a setting of (or at least inspired by) verses from the book of Revelation. 

The first two verses praise God as creator and overall sovereign of his creation.  The other three are more specifically addressed to Jesus.   In the book the hymn is suggested as suitable for Ascension Day, when Jesus finally left the earth in bodily form and took up his reign in God’s eternal kingdom.  But it is still suitable for this Easter season, not least because in the fourth verse we declare “Worthy the Lamb who was sentenced and slain! Worthy the Lamb in his rising again!”, the Lamb being Jesus as sacrifice. 

In the last verse the Lamb is sitting on the throne (as king, or judge) having proved himself worthy for the position by living a blameless life on earth and being a willing sacrifice for the rest of sinful humanity. I couldn’t find an appropriate image to depict this, as it is such a contradiction (at the same time suffering lamb and all-powerful king) that all the illustrations I found were contrived or twee. Stained glass artists have usually depicted the sacrificial lamb below the enthroned Christ, and left it to the viewer to try and superimpose these images in some way, for neither image makes sense without the other. That is just one pair of images from Revelation, and not the strangest by a long way. No wonder it’s a notoriously difficult book to understand!

The other reason this is a suitable hymn for the Easter season is that each verse ends with an Alleluia! (very much the Easter acclamation). Tomorrow’s hymn also has alleluias, but in a different setting…

Arise, shine out, your light has come

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany when we celebrate the revelation of God in the birth of Jesus. It’s also a festival of light, both in the spiritual sense of enlightenment, of seeing the world in a new way in the ‘light’ of God’s presence, but also (in the northern hemisphere) marking the latest time of sunrise – 08.40 this morning where I live – after which the days get lighter again.

The hymn I have chosen appears in the ‘Epiphany’ section of the hymn book, although it doesn’t directly address either of those uses of the idea of of light – the literal sunrise, or the birth of Jesus. Instead it takes another way in which the Bible uses the idea of light, when it speaks of the new creation (or ‘New Jerusalem”) to come at the fulfilment of time, a creation in which there will be no violence, no pain, no tears, no death, and also no darkness: “the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” [i.e. the sacrifice of Jesus] Rrevelation 21:23).

This looking forward to a time of perfection is an attractive proposition at a time of pain, isolation and death from the Coronavirus, and a national lockdown in England occurring in the middle of winter. To some people it may be seen as just wishful thinking, but as we saw yesterday with the divinity of Christ and the Communion of Saints, these are very much matters of faith. If we have faith in Jesus as the human incarnation of the eternal father, and in everlasting life with him for those who have died in that faith, then the idea of a whole new creation with Jesus as its light makes sense. And if you ask “what does faith look like?”, I refer you to my earlier blog post in December “Advent Faith” which you will find by scrolling down the recent posts.

The Bible in a Year – 31 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

31 December. Revelation chapters 19-22

According to chapter 20, after all forms of evil are finally defeated, Christ returns to reign with his martyrs (but not the rest of humanity) for a symbolic period of a thousand years, after which all the dead are resurrected to be judged, and either live in paradise (described as the new Jerusalem – a magnificent and vast jewelled city with eternal light) or be thrown into the lake of fire (from which the popular idea of Hell arises).

But on what basis is this ultimate judgement made?  Jesus says here: “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death” (21:6-8).   The contrast is between, on the one hand,  those who are “thirsty” (that is, longing for God’s presence and help) and those who “conquer” (that is, overcome temptation, and persist in faith during trials and persecutions); and on the other hand those who continue to live in ignorance or defiance of God’s directions for life – as I noted on 29 December, the list of sins here is very similar to the prohibited acts in the Ten Commandments.

The danger in interpreting John’s visions is twofold – trying to apply them directly to today’s world when the vision was initially given to 1st or 2nd century Christians; and reading them in isolation from the rest of the New Testament.    Here Jesus was specifically encouraging persecuted Christians to stand firm in their faith, by means of these visions, whereas in his direct teaching his emphasis was on showing love for God and neighbour in practical ways.

So at the end of the year we reach the end of the Bible, and the end of earthly time, in the way that John describes his vision.  To consider together the whole of Christian scripture – all 66 books of it written down over a period of over 1000 years, the last of it nearly 2000 years ago, and covering a longer period of time than that – is the work of a lifetime.  No-one can claim to fully understand either the original meaning or most appropriate interpretation of every part of it. Bible study is both essential and fascinating, with a good guide.

More importantly, it has always been regarded by Christians as a “living book” – when we speak of the “Word of God” we mean not just the written words of the Bible but Jesus himself.  As John understood it, “His name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure (the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints) were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (19:8, 13-15).  That “sword” is usually understood as the combination of written scripture and the continual witness of the Holy Spirit through the gift of prophecy in all ages.  It is that combination – received teaching and the ongoing inspiration of Jesus and the Holy Spirit  – which will keep Christians faithful until Jesus returns in person, and eventually overcomes evil.  With the saints throughout the ages we can echo the last verses of the Bible – “Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” (22:20-21).

The Bible in a Year – 30 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

30 December. Revelation chapters 12-18

I suggested yesterday that in reading Revelation we should focus on the references to humanity rather than to the symbolic or mystical beasts.  In these chapters the references to humanity include several specifically to the followers of Christ.  There are many references to those who have died as martyrs and are shown among the angels worshipping God.  But there are also references to those still on earth in the times of persecution during which the book is set.

In 12:17, “those who keep God’s commands and hold fast to their testimony about Jesus” are opposed by the dragon that had previously opposed the “woman crowned with twelve stars” who probably represents Judaism.  In 13:7 another beast is given power to conquer God’s holy people. In 17:6 the “prostitute called Babylon” (whose seven heads represent seven hills, and therefore is traditionally identified with the city of Rome) symbolically gets drunk on the blood of those who were killed for their testimony about Jesus.  Clearly the Church is faced with persecution, not only from Rome but from the other and less easily identified foes.  And that persecution continues today – just this week there has been another attack on a Christian church in Egypt where Christians are a minority, and it continues unwitnessed in many places around the world.  The same is true, of course, of followers of other religions, as with the Rohingya Muslims now being driven out of Burma.

What the book of Revelation portrays is a world in which, due to the normally unseen forces of evil behind visible events, those who believe in God and try to live his way will always be at risk of attack from those forces of evil for which God, Jesus and those who belong to them will always be seen as enemies.

But it also portrays a world in which, sooner or later, those who do not believe in God or do not try and live his way will eventually find both God and the forces of evil turning on them, and they will suffer even more.  The lucky ones in all this are those who know God and are rescued by him from the worst of the suffering and taken to heaven.  Everyone else is shown suffering unbelievable torment, not in hell but on earth.

The Bible in a Year – 29 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

29 December. Revelation chapters 6-11

The book of Revelation famously includes all kinds of fantastic scenes involving heaven and hell, angels, demons, imaginary beasts, plagues, natural disasters and divine punishments.  Few people would take it all literally, but among all these visions there is clearly a message to be found.  I think we need to look at those verses that refer to ordinary humans, for the overall aim of the revelation seems to be to encourage people to see God at work in otherwise unbearable circumstances.

Within today’s reading the first clear reference to the people of the earth is in 6:15-17, where “the kings of the earth, the princes, generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains”. In other words, the plagues affected all people equally, and neither wealth nor status could have protected people from them.   The other clear reference to life on earth is this : “The rest of mankind who were not killed by plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands: they did not stop worshipping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood … nor did they repent of their murders, magic arts, sexual immorality or thefts” (9:20-21).  That word “still” implies that the plagues, torture and other forms of suffering were intended as signs to persuade people to repent; signs that were ignored.

In these passages we see nothing different from the message of much of the Bible: that in God’s eyes, everyone is equal, whether powerful or slave, rich or poor; and that idolatry, theft, murder and sexual immorality (generally meaning adultery and promiscuity) are the sins that particularly incur God’s wrath.   These are among the sins condemned in the Ten Commandments, and therefore there is no new theology here.

The visions in Revelation might be taken either as referring to some future calamity that is yet to occur, or to events that happened nearer the writer’s time in the Roman empire, but either way, there is clearly intended to be a connection between these events and the lives of ordinary people.  High or low, rich or poor, the word of God comes to us equally: when sin becomes so rampant that God has to intervene, everyone suffers, but those who come out of the suffering with God’s favour are those who kept his commandments and suffered innocently. It is a message for all time.


The Bible in a Year – 28 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

28 December. Revelation chapters 1-5

The book of Revelation or Apocalypse is notoriously difficult to understand, since it contains so much symbolism that people at the time of writing may have understood but which is obscure to us two thousand years later.

What is clear enough from the first three chapters is that the vision of Jesus that was given to John, was intended for the seven local church congregations listed at the start of the book.   And each of them receives a particular message from Jesus, which both (in most cases) praises and (in most cases) criticises them, before offering a promise for those who stay faithful in the face of persecution.   The praises, the criticisms, and the promises are specific to each place, because Jesus always knows that each person and each church community faces particular challenges and has particular strengths.

The praises, if we take them together, includes “deeds, hard work and perseverance” (2:2 and similarly in 2:19), “keeping my word and not denying my name” (3:8), and “remaining true to my name” (2:13 and similarly in 3:4). The emphasis here is on facing persecution, not necessarily by becoming martyrs (though some did) but by being true to the Christian worldview (or as we saw John calling it yesterday, “the truth”) even when to do so requires hard work and perseverance when the world is going in other directions.

The criticisms include “forsaking the love you had at first” (2:4), being “dead though appearing alive” (3:1) and “being lukewarm, neither hot nor cold” (3:16). What those have in common is lacking the outward zeal and inner joy that characterise true Christian faith.  We cannot regain those by our own efforts but have to ask Jesus to send his Spirit on us again. Another criticism is claiming to be spiritually rich when one is spiritually poor (3:17); the opposite of that is holding onto faith in affliction and poverty, which makes one spiritually rich (2:9).   That reminds us of the Beatitudes, where those who are poor in spirit and who suffer for the sake of Jesus are declared blessed.

The promises are expressed symbolically – “eating from the tree of life” (2:7), “not being hurt by the second death” (2:11), “hidden manna and a secret name” (2:17); “authority over the nations” (2:26); “being dressed in white” (3:5), “being a pillar in the temple of God” (3:12), and “the right to sit with Jesus on his throne” (3:21).  None of these relate to our present life but all look forward to eternal life.   One of the threads running through the New Testament is the idea that our rewards for living faithfully in this life will be given us in the next.  The symbolism of chapters 4 and 5 is also about eternal life, in which all creatures in earth and heaven will worship God unceasingly.

Put all these together – the praises, criticisms and promises – and we have an encouragement to seek from Jesus the Spirit who gives us true love, life and warmth to strengthen us with joy in living the Christian life in the face of persecution, in order to attain eternal life which will be filled with praise and worship.  It is of course impossible to really know what such existence will be like, but the Revelation reminds us to look beyond the troubles of this life and stick with Jesus along the way.

The Bible in a Year – 27 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

27 November. Colossians and Philemon

The letter to Philemon is a personal one, whereas that to the Colossians is addressed to the whole church in the area, as several congregations (house churches) are mentioned. But these two books belong together, as Paul refers to several people in both of them – principally Onesimus the freed slave and Philemon his former owner, but also mentioned in passing in both letters are Timothy, Mark and Luke (well known New Testament figures) and also the lesser known Aristarchus, Archippus, Epaphras and Demas.  Clearly they all belonged to the same community.

In the first chapter of Colossians, Paul writes excitedly about Jesus, because without him there would be no Church.  He seems to be struggling to find enough words to describe the revelation that he himself had received from Jesus in a way that would draw his readers towards the same understanding.  For Paul, it was not enough to say that Jesus was the Son of God – that suggests merely a very holy man – or even ‘God taking on human flesh’ which sounds quite a temporary arrangement, since even the resurrected Jesus did not remain in visible form for more than a few weeks.  So he tries to describe Jesus from a universal, eternal viewpoint:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20)

Any attempt at re-phrasing or interpreting that passage risks losing its power.  Every time I re-read it I am reminded of how earthbound and immediate my understanding of Jesus tends to be.  Paul’s concept of time and space was, of course, different from ours. We now know the stars to be more than lights fixed in a dome some fixed distance beyond the earth, and have concepts such as relativity, gravitational waves and the Big Bang that he could not have begun to conceive – unless they were part of his revelation when he was “caught up to the seventh heaven”?

But I think Paul would have welcomed having the language of 21st century cosmology at his disposal.  The interplay between science and religion has never been as exciting as it is now.  Physicists acknowledge they have no idea what “dark matter” or “dark energy” might be – they are just ways of saying that the universe is still unknowable.  And while mathematical models may tell us that there are many more dimensions than the three of space and one of time that we are aware of, no-one has a concept of what they might represent in reality. From that point of view, Paul’s “seventh heaven” actually makes more sense than it did when he wrote it.  Even if, another century from now, those “mysteries” are solved, there will be more.  For God, by definition being beyond anything he/she/it created, is ultimately unknowable. The very fact that somehow the creator could briefly be contained in one very specific created being is at the heart of the Christian mystery that we explore each Advent and Christmas season.

The Bible in a Year – 14 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

14 June. Ezekiel chapter 46-48

Much of these last chapters of Ezekiel is the same sort of material found in the book of Leviticus, suggesting that they were written at the same time (although some people, including whoever produced the Bible reading plan that I am following, insist that all the “books of Moses” were written in his day).


I have little interest in the regulations concerning sacrifices of animals (chapter 46). But the first part of chapter 47 is more interesting as Ezekiel has a vision of water flowing to from the Temple towards the East (i.e. perhaps towards Babylon – remember all these last chapters are said to be a vision he had while still living there).  The water gets deeper as it flows along, and nourishes trees “whose leaves are for healing”. This is very similar to the vision of the New Jerusalem that St John saw in his Revelation. Perhaps what is meant is that the presence of God in the holy city will bring healing to the rest of the world – an idea which makes sense in later Christian understanding of the Church taking the place of Jerusalem, and Christ’s presence being made known throughout the world through the Church.


The reallocation of land to the tribes in chapters 47/48 is strictly equal – inequalities had arisen over the centuries but the return from exile would be a chance to start again with a fair allocation.  No longer is the land east of the Jordan counted as part of Israel, so the tribes that had lived there would now have an equal width strip between the Mediterranean and the Jordan Valley along with the rest.  But Judah and Benjamin would have land closest to Jerusalem, as before.

Thus ends the book of Ezekiel. Tomorrow, Hosea.




The Bible in a Year – 4 May

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

4 May. Isaiah chapters 23-27

These oracles of woe, interspersed with songs of praise, make strange reading. Webb’s commentary that I am following makes sense of them by explaining them as predictions, not of actual historical events (except the oracle against Tyre in chapter 23, which could refer to one of several invasions), but of the final judgement of God against human sin and the establishment of his ultimate reign from Jerusalem with any who would come to him. The oracles therefore belong more in the New Testament tradition of the Revelation to St John, than in Old Testament style prophecy.  Those who reign from Jerusalem  are those who turn to God through Christ, since there is no temple any more and God’s grace has been shown to all people.


If I am to pick out any particular passage it would be the start of chapter 24, headed (in the NRSV) “Impending judgement on the earth”. The images are of both economic and environmental disaster, all because people have broken God’s laws and covenant.  Again, Webb is helpful here is suggesting that the reference is not to the Abrahamic covenant but that with Noah. God promised never again to destroy mankind (at least by a flood), so why does he reveal to Isaiah that he will destroy civilisation?  Because once again people have ceased to be what it is to be human. Long before Abraham or Moses, God put humanity on the earth to be stewards of it and to care for and support each other.


When societies break down so that people are neglected and abused, and the earth robbed for its riches at the expense of the poor, then the most basic of God’s covenants is broken and the consequences are inevitable.  In our day with inequalities rising, hatred and suspicion growing and climate change destroying livelihoods across the world, we need more than ever to understand this and turn back to basics and to God in repentance.