Sunday Morning Greek Blog

February 27, 2023

A Pastor’s Epiphany About Epiphany (Matthew 2:1–12; Isaiah 60:1–6; Psalm 72)

Click Play above to hear the message.

I preached this message on January 8, 2023, the first Sunday after Epiphany (January 6), at Mt. View Presbyterian Church in Omaha. As I say in my message, I had never really given much thought to this “Holy Day,” because the brotherhood I’m associated with today doesn’t typically do anything special with any Holy Days except Christmas and Easter. There may be a divine component as to why I’m posting this almost two months after preaching the message. I was recently drawn into a couple conversations on Lent and Ash Wednesday by friends who are from a Catholic and another mainline Protestant tradition, respectively, and together, the Holy Spirit has been using these experiences to prompt me to take a fresh look at these Holy Days that I had dismissed out-of-hand as traditions of man. Look for another blog post soon on what my thought process has been in that regard. The message is lightly edited for publication.

Historical Background

Epiphany. As English words go, it’s kind of a funny sounding word, don’t you think? When I hear that “piff” sound in the word, it reminds me of the sound I make when I think something is too easy for me. For those outside of mainline denominations, if they know the word at all, it probably doesn’t have any sort of religious or Christian meaning for them: when someone says, “I had an epiphany,” they’re not talking about a cheeseburger from Dinker’s, although that could be a close comparison for burger lovers. Anybody hungry now? In that sense of the word, an epiphany moment is when you see the light, discover your purpose, or understand clearly what action you must take to set your life on a better and more prosperous path.

But for those of us in the Western church, the “Epiphany,” theeeee “Epiphany” is not just some moment you have internally, but it’s a series of events surrounding one person, Jesus Christ, that has impact on the whole human race eternally. It is the short period of time surrounding the birth of Jesus where not only is he revealed as God’s Messiah to the shepherds in the fields, but also to the Magi from the East, wherever that may have been. Now when we were kids and did the Christmas nativity scene in the front of the sanctuary, the Magi were always there with the shepherds. Did you notice in Matthew’s text where the Magi encountered Jesus: it wasn’t in the manger; it was in a house! More on that later. First, I want to look a little bit at the word itself.

Now as I’ve grown and matured as a Christian and a preacher, I’ve come to adopt the view that I should call Bible things by Bible names, where practical, so that when I talk about something biblical, I can point to the Bible and say: “Here it is.” But sometimes we use words that aren’t in the Bible, at least, not in our English translations, to summarize biblical concepts. “Trinity” is one of those words that isn’t in the Bible, but the Bible is pretty clear about the triune relationship among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Word Study on ἐπιφαίνω (epiphainō)

Similarly, the word “Epiphany” is not found in the text of our English translations, but the word is simply borrowed from a family of words we have in the Greek version of the Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. It is an intensified form of a word that means “appear” or “make known.” Half of its uses in the OT Greek text are found in the phrase “make your face shine upon us” (Numbers 6:25 and several passages in the Psalms), and a few other uses refer to God revealing himself to someone.

In the NT, the noun is used 5 times in 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus to refer to either the first or second “appearing” of the Savior. The verb is used by Zechariah in his song of praise in Luke 1 to refer to Mary’s child as “the rising sun [who] will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness.” It’s also used twice in Titus to refer to “the grace of God” and “the kindness and love of God our Savior” appearing.

Now the thing that makes this an “intensified” word, that is, to use the Greek, an EPIphainō and not just a phainō, is the nature of what was revealed. This is where the Magi come in. Historically, according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, the term was first used of a church feast on January 6 in the Eastern church in the third century, and originally focused on the baptism of Jesus, where the Holy Spirit descended like a dove on him and God said, “This is my beloved Son, with him I am well pleased.” To this day, the Eastern Orthodox church still focuses on the baptism of Christ on Epiphany. However, when the Western church adopted the Holy Day, they switched the focus to the visit of the Magi, whose gifts revealed that Jesus was the Son of God, the expected heir of David’s throne, the Messiah. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the Western (i.e., Roman Catholic) church separated out the celebration of the baptism of Christ to the first Sunday after Epiphany, which happens to be today according to the Lectionary we follow here!

Background of the Magi

So who were these Magi and where did they come from? Why did they have such a profound interest in identifying “his star” and following it to find the king? How would they even know about such a star? Was it prophesied somewhere, or was it just some oral tradition that had circulated through the Middle East for centuries?

As it turns out, there are a couple prophecies from the Old Testament that seem to refer to the star, the Magi or kings who would bring gifts, and where they come from. The two OT passages identified every year in the lectionary for January 6, Epiphany, are Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, the latter of which we already read this morning. We’ll come back to those in a moment. Traditionally, for hundreds of years, we’ve believed that these Magi from the East came from Persia, the region of modern-day Iran and Iraq. It’s true that Magi, or wise men, were well respected and wielded a great deal of political power in their heyday, especially as we see in the book of Daniel.

But in the excellent book called Mystery of the Magi by Dwight Longenecker, the author pulls together the history of the Persian Magi from several sources and shows that, by the time of Jesus’s birth, these Magi had lost most of their political power and influence after Alexander the Great conquered their territory and up through the time the Parthians had wrested control from Alexander’s successors. At the time of Christ’s birth, then, the Persian magi had become marginalized to the point of near exile and poverty, and their political ties to the Roman Empire were on such shaky ground that they would not have had the resources or the political influence to make such a trip to see the newborn king, let alone bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Enter the Nabateans. The Nabateans were an up-and-coming nation that inhabited the territory east of the Jordan River, from as far north as Damascus and as far south as the Arabian peninsula, including Midian and perhaps even modern-day Yemen. One of their most prominent cities was Petra, you know, that city with “Treasury” carved out of the side of a cliff. They had begun to come into prominence after the Jews were exiled to Babylon. In fact, many of the Jews who were exiled probably never made it to Babylon, because according to historians, there were several Jewish colonies scattered throughout the region the Nabateans controlled, and several made their way to these colonies instead. These exiles most likely included priests who would have brought with them the knowledge of the prophets, psalms, and Torah to lead their brethren in worship.

By the time of Jesus’s birth, the Nabateans controlled many of the trade routes between Persia and the Mediterranean. As such, they had wealth and access to abundant supplies of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, not to mention some pretty slick technology to capture and provide water for their survival in the desert regions where they lived. Longenecker believes these Magi came from Nabatea, and they would have had a deep understanding of Jewish prophecies, because they had strong ancestral ties to the Jews and strong religious ties to the Temple.

Prophetic Background for Epiphany

Having laid out this background, then, I want us to look first at Isaiah 60 to see why they mention following a star to find the Messiah. Listen to verses 1 through 3:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,

and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.

See, darkness covers the earth

and thick darkness is over the peoples,

but the Lord rises upon you

and his glory appears over you.

Nations will come to your light,

and kings to the brightness of your dawn. [1]

Doesn’t that sound kind of like a star rising? And what about “his glory appears over you”? Kind of sounds like Matthew’s description of the Magi coming to where the star “stopped over the place where the child was.” Where was this place? According to Isaiah 60:14, it is “the City of the Lord, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.” Where were Mary, Joseph, and Jesus? Well according to Matthew, by the time the Magi found him, they were in a house, not a stable. It’s not clear whether they were still in Bethlehem and where the star was in relation to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, but the context seems to suggest they were in or close to Bethlehem, because the area around Bethlehem was where Herod had the children under 2 killed. As such, I think it’s a fair assumption that this is at least the primary prophecy these Nabatean Magi had in mind. But let’s look a little further to be sure (vv. 4–5).

“Lift up your eyes and look about you:

All assemble and come to you;

your sons come from afar,

and your daughters are carried on the hip.

Then you will look and be radiant,

your heart will throb and swell with joy;

the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,

to you the riches of the nations will come. [2]

In Matthew’s story, we don’t have a count of how many Magi came to see Jesus. Again, tradition tries to fill in the gap by assigning one Magus to each gift. We know a bunch of shepherds had come to see baby Jesus in the manger, at the prompting of a “heavenly host” that hovered over them. If the Nabatean Magi thought this was such an important event, wouldn’t more than three of them have come? This would have been a pretty big deal for all of them! Add to that the Nabateans’ profitable trade industry, and you can see the connection to the “wealth on the seas” and the “riches of the nations” that could be brought to Israel.

Finally, vs. 6 names several cities that would have been in Nabatea, and vs. 7 mentions “the rams of Nebaioth.” Because the Nabateans do not have any surviving written documents we’re aware of, some have speculated that “Nebaioth” is actually the kingdom of the Nabateans. Verse 6 even mentions that “All those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense.”[3] At the time, the only source of frankincense known was in Sheba in southern Arabia and Somaliland in Africa.

So it seems pretty clear that Isaiah 60 was in fact one of the prophecies these Magi looked forward to, not just because it predicted the coming of the Messiah, but because the Nabateans recognized that they had a role to fulfill in that prophecy.

Psalm 72 sounds quite a bit like Isaiah 61, the prophecy Jesus read about himself the first time we see him speaking in the synagogue, especially the parts about defending the afflicted, crushing the oppressor, delivering the needy, and rescuing the poor from oppression and violence. Note that vs. 10 also mentions Sheba twice in reference to bringing gifts and gold “kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.” Given all this, it seems highly likely to me that these Magi were important rulers among the Nabateans, both religious and political, and that they had an intimate and rich connection to Jewish religion, culture, and ancestry.

What Epiphany Means for Us

So this is a lot of information here this morning, but what does it mean for us today? The gifts brought by the Magi were not randomly chosen. As we saw in the Isaiah and Psalms passages, they were “planned” long before Christ was born, and these Magi knew that. Gold was brought as a tribute to a king. Today, of course, many of us give of our resources to the church or other organizations that help the needy. We use that money to share the good news of Jesus and the gospel with those who need hope. It reminds me of the parable of the hidden treasure in Matthew 13:44: When the man found the treasure, he sold all that he had to buy the field it was in. The gift of gold is an easy one to figure out for us. My guess is, Mary and Joseph may have used some of that gold when they had to flee to Egypt to provide for their own needs in that short exile.

The gift of frankincense applies to us at a deeper level, the level of the heart. Frankincense was used in the worship ceremonies in the Tabernacle in the wilderness and in the temple in Jerusalem. The rarity of frankincense, along with its pleasing aroma, is what makes it valuable. I think it’s a fair jump, then, to suggest that it can also represent our own individual uniqueness in what we ourselves have to offer to God in worship. Worship is not just a ceremony or a ritual we perform on a regular basis. Worship comes from the root word “worth,” and we show we consider Christ worthy by offering the whole of our uniqueness to him and his service. Perhaps the apostle Paul had this in mind when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 2:14–15: “But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.[4]

Finally, myrrh was used in part to ease severe pain, and also to prepare the body for the grave in that day. On the cross, Jesus was also offered wine mixed with myrrh, but according to Mark’s gospel, he refused it. Myrrh, then, can remind us that each of us must make ourselves ready for that day when we meet our Savior face to face in heaven, and are welcomed into our eternal home.

It occurs to me that Epiphany, then, is really a microcosm of the whole Christian experience. We celebrate the birth and revealing of Jesus as the Messiah, the dedication of our lives to him in worship, and the hope of eternal life that he purchased for us in his death and resurrection. And I have to say, preparing this message has been an “epiphany” for me. As a kid growing up in this church, I never thought much about Epiphany. I guess I was still too pumped up on the adrenaline I got from all my Christmas gifts to concern myself with the gifts presented to Jesus. As an adult, I never forgot my Presbyterian roots, but I had found a spiritual home among a brotherhood that had its own roots in Scottish Presbyterianism, but who didn’t have a separate recognition of this tradition—it was all wrapped up with Christmas. I never had a class in seminary about the traditions and what they signified in the “mainline” denominations.

So once again, I’ll say thank you for allowing me to share with you, and thank you for asking that I follow the Lectionary. I hope and pray our time together this morning has been as enlightening to you as it has been for me this week. Peace to you all. Amen.

[1] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2016. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[4] The New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

April 24, 2022

The Coming King: An Exegesis of Revelation 1:1–8

Listen to “An Exegesis of Revelation”

In the past four months, I’ve explored much about the life of Jesus with you in the Gospels, especially as it relates to the fulfillment of prophecies about Jesus. At Christmas time, of course, we looked at his birth. A couple weeks ago, we looked at some of the prophecies surrounding his triumphal entry and final week up to the crucifixion and resurrection. The Old Testament prophets also told us he would teach in parables (Psalm 78:2||Matthew 13:35).

Variety of Interpretations

Now if you’ve spent much time reading and studying the book of Revelation or the end times in general, you probably know that there are many different views about how to interpret the book, especially as how it relates to the calendar. Views range from the preterists, who believe the end-time prophecies have already been fulfilled, perhaps when the Romans conquered Jerusalem in AD 70, to the postmillennialists, who think Christ will return after a literal 1,000-year reign of the church on earth. Then there are those who think there will be a 7-year period of tribulation prior to Christ’s return and millennial reign, with varying views on when the “rapture,” the transformation of God’s living saints into heaven, happens. And the last major view I’ll mention is that of the amillennialists, who see the church’s current presence on earth as a figurative expression of the 1,000-year reign of Christ, with Christ coming at the consummation of history and establishing his new heaven and new earth.

These differing views have all been put forth by their respective proponents based on well-intentioned study of and meditation on God’s word and historical theology. As someone who spent a great deal of time studying the end times when I was a renewed believer, I’ve seen some of these proponents use the same Scriptures to support their differing views! Add to that that much of the literature on end times is written from an American or Western perspective, but Christians throughout the world at various times and places have at one time or another experienced intense persecution and interpreted the signs of their own respective times such that they thought their generation would be the one to see the return of Christ. So let’s be honest and face the facts—we really don’t have enough solid information to make any absolute statements about when and how Christ will return. And as such, I’m not here this morning to defend any one of these viewpoints.

Setting the Stage

Instead, I believe that the message of the Revelation to John, when taken at the face value of the printed word, is one that can be easily understood. For example, we don’t have to know who or what the four horsemen of the apocalypse represent (or represented) in the historical context (past, present, or future; although we are called to discern those signs); the important thing to grasp is how the events surrounding these players would impact the church, and how the church should respond to those events. So this article, we’ll take a look at the first few verses of Revelation chapter 1 to see how John is setting the stage for us regarding the revelation he received while imprisoned on Patmos, which he recorded for all posterity.


1 The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

Greetings and Doxology

4 John,

To the seven churches in the province of Asia:

Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits l before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,” 

and “every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him”;

and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”

So shall it be! Amen.

8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” [1]

——Revelation 1:1–8

Defining “Revelation”

First, it helps to know what exactly is a “revelation.” In the biblical sense, a revelation (Gk ἀποκάλυψις apokalypsis) involves making something known that was previously hidden and that could NOT have been known by man prior to its being revealed. In Romans 16:25 and Ephesians 3:3, ἀποκάλυψις refers to a mystery. In Galatians 1:11–12, Paul claims to have received the Gospel not from any human source, but directly from Christ. This lines up with the testimony from Acts 9 when Paul is confronted by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and his own testimony that he waited at least three years before going fully public with his conversion to Peter and James.

Revelation is a broad category. A revelation may simply be a statement from God about the truth; some sort of physical sign that appears in the natural world; or a “vision,” which in modern technological terms is similar to a 3-D interactive hologram, except some of the people and things in the vision may have some physical substance to them that the person actually experiences. Usually a vision is limited to one person, and is almost always accompanied by a messenger or angel, as in the current text. This helps give credence to John’s testimony, as he would have otherwise been alone when he received the revelation.

Location and Occasion

The book of Revelation is a very long epistle written to seven churches on or near the western coast of Asia Minor, what we know today as western Turkey. Because it was so long and John needed to get the word out quickly “because the time is near,” verse 3 has the instruction that the entire book be read out loud to the seven churches rather than have separate copies made and delivered to each of the churches. The order of the churches in vs. 10 (and their corresponding letters in chapters 2–3) would have been a typical circuit for anyone who traveled regularly through that region. What probably happened is once the book was read at Ephesus, someone would have travelled to Smyrna to pass it off to the next church, and so on.

What we don’t seem to know, at least, no one in the several commentaries I reviewed knew, is why these seven churches. There were other churches nearby who had already had letters from Paul: Colossae was just a few miles to the east of Laodicea, and the region of Galatia was just east of there. A simple answer, and the one I’ll assume here, is that John functioned as some sort of overseer for these churches, and so he “stays in his lane” and focuses on those churches. With these cities being on an established circuit, we can make an educated guess that there may have been some strategic considerations as well for eventually distributing the message to the rest of the Mediterranean region and beyond. At least one commentator suggested this area could have had the highest concentration of Christians at the time.

Many commentators focus on the number of churches, seven, because that symbolizes completeness, and as such, each in their own way may represent established churches elsewhere in the world. But there are local details that only the believers in the respective churches could have related to, so that might lessen a broader appeal to other churches. At the very least, if other churches besides those mentioned received this letter, they surely would have been able to discern broader principles that applied to their situation, and the grand visions of Revelation in chapter 4 and beyond would have had universal significance to the church as it existed at the time. For now, though, we can set the question of “Why these seven churches” aside and still discern some meaningful truths from the passage.

The OT Connection

Many early– to mid–20th-century versions of our English Bibles do not indicate that the book of Revelation has many, if any, direct quotations or allusions to the Old Testament. But as scholars and translators have studied the book in more detail, and the use of computers facilitated better text comparisons between the Old and New Testaments, they’ve come to discover the book’s extensive connections to the OT.

Verses 4 and 5 are at the heart of what I hope to communicate to you this morning. Not only do they speak to who Christ is, but to our relationship with Christ as well and how he views us in his eternal plan. After greeting the seven churches, Paul opens with a pretty standard greeting formula: “Grace and peace to you.” The word “grace” was rarely used in the OT, and when it was, it usually referred to adornment, graceful speech, or a graceful appearance. Only a couple uses of the word in the NIV could be considered to come close to the NT understanding of grace as a free gift from God, especially for salvation. “Peace” was the more common OT greeting, so John and the other epistle writers use this formula to tie together the new and old covenants when addressing a mixed audience. “Peace” is not just the absence of conflict in the OT context, but a sense of security and acceptance as well.

The next phrase, which is also repeated in vs. 8, tells us who the sources of grace and peace are: “The one who is, and who was, and who is to come” is, of course, God himself, the father. The phrase is a direct reference to the Greek translation of God’s divine name in Exodus 3:14, when he reveals it to Moses at the burning bush: “I am who I am,” or perhaps better “I will be who I will be” (Hebrew: אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה; [ehyeh asher ehyeh] Greek LXX: Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν [egō eimi ho ōn]). In Hebrew, we know that name to be Yahweh, which as a word, is nothing more than a glorified form of the “to be” verb in Hebrew. This refers to the timeless, eternal, self-sustaining nature of God. One other interesting fact about this description: The phrase “who is to come” sounds like it might be a future tense, right? But in Greek, it’s actually a present tense verb. Why is this little bit of grammar important? Because in Greek, the present tense usually implies an action is in process and is not a one-and-done event. God is saying that, even now, he is actively working on coming to us to redeem us once and for all and finally put an end to Satan’s power. We can always count on God’s presence and involvement in the affairs of our lives and in the world around us.

The next source for grace and peace is the “seven spirits before his throne.” This is a little trickier to discern, because John describes the seven spirits differently in each context he mentions them. In 3:1, when addressing the church of Sardis, Jesus says, “These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God….” In 4:5, John says the seven lamps blazing in front of the throne of God are the seven spirits of God. In 5:6, John says the “seven eyes” of the Lamb “are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” At the very least, then, it would seem like these spirits represent a special group of divine beings, perhaps archangels, who have some authority to carry out God’s will on the earth, especially with respect to the judgment events later in the book. However, this may in fact be an expanded way of referring to the Holy Spirit, because then we would have an expression of the Trinity in vss. 4–5: Father, Spirit, Jesus.

If you’re following along in your Bibles, some of you may have a footnote with an alternate translation: “the seven-fold Spirit.” This may refer to a seven-fold description of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 11:2 about the shoot that comes up from the stump of Jesse, and thus support the idea this is in fact a statement about the Trinity:

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—

the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

the Spirit of counsel and of might,

the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord

If this is the case, it would seem these seven spirits (or the seven-fold Spirit) may have a role to play in preparing and protecting believers in the tribulation that John will describe. However we interpret the phrase “seven spirits,” we at least can be assured that God is working in our best interests to bring us grace and peace.

Moving on, we see the final source of our grace and peace is Jesus himself. We’re reminded of who he is and what he’s done for us. He’s first called a “faithful witness” here, which brings us back to Isaiah again, 55:4:

See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,

a ruler and commander of the peoples.

He is the faithful witness because he did all that his father commanded him to, even accepting death on a cross for our sins. This is also why he’s called here “the firstborn from the dead,” because God raised him from the dead and proved once for all that death could in fact be defeated (Psalm 89:27; Colossians 1:18). It’s important here that John reminds his readers of this hope of the resurrection because of the intense suffering some of them may face based on the revelation John is proclaiming.

The final piece in the first part of vs. 5 here is that Jesus is “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” This again hearkens back to the last part of Isaiah 55:4 I read a moment ago. Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

In response to the grace and peace of the blessing from the Father, Holy Spirit, and Jesus, John returns thanks to Jesus and acknowledges what the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit have done not just for him, but for all believers everywhere. First off, he loves us. I think we all know the passage from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” He’s also “freed us from our sins by his blood.” The death of the perfect Lamb of God was powerful enough to cleanse us and make us holy in his sight. Finally, John mentions a promise that goes all the way back to their release from captivity in Egypt and before God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. Exodus 19:5–6 says:

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

What a blessing to know that we have power, authority, and hope in our Savior to face whatever may come our way! And because of that, John can conclude that God deserves all glory and power for who he is and what he’s done for us.

Verse 7 isn’t so much a vision but a mash-up of several OT verses that confirm that God is indeed all powerful and worthy of all glory. Let’s hear it again before breaking it down:

“Look, he is coming with the clouds,” 

and “every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him”;

and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”

So shall it be! Amen.

“He’s coming with the clouds” is a direct quote from Daniel’s vision in 7:13. The gospels use this description of Christ’s return as well. The next few lines about being pierced and the people mourning come straight from Zechariah 12:10. The Jews always recognized these two passages as Messianic from the time they were published after the exile. John is confirming that here.

Verse 8 closes out this passage with God himself saying he is the Alpha and Omega. This also hearkens back to a passage in Isaiah 41:4:

4 Who has done this and carried it through,

calling forth the generations from the beginning?

I, the Lord—with the first of them

and with the last—I am he.”

Long before this, Jewish writers were referring to God as the ‘’Aleph and Tau,’ the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Some Jewish writers went even further and added the middle letter of the Hebrew alphabet between the first and last, which made the Hebrew word ’emeth, which means “truth.” So God calling himself “Alpha and Omega” is nothing new to Jewish Christians who spoke Greek. A few verses later, in Revelation 1:17, Jesus calls himself “the First and the Last.” In Revelation 21:6, God again calls himself Alpha and Omega, only this time he also adds “the Beginning and the End.” In the final chapter, 22:13, we see Jesus taking on both those titles as well, only this time he adds in “the First and the Last” from 1:17. In other words, Jesus affirms that he is part of the Trinity with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is God, not “a” god little g, but the one and only “God” big G.


Revelation can be a difficult book to navigate. It’s full of strange and sometimes bizarre images of multihorned beasts, horses of different colors, and terrible cosmic events. But even if you don’t understand all that, the important thing to understand is what we’ve talked about here this morning. Here’s what I hope you’ll take away from today’s message:

  1. God is in control even in the most difficult times, and his presence is always with you.
  2. God loves you and has freed you from your sins. With that kind of freedom, you can and will do great things for God’s kingdom.
  3. No matter how bad things get around us, we have the absolute assurance that God and his church will win in the end. We don’t know how much of the bad stuff we’re going to have to go through, but we can be sure God will rescue us in the end and bring us safely home to his eternal kingdom.

Go in peace today with the assurance that your sins are forgiven, and that God is preparing a place for you.

[1] Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV®
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™
Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Scott Stocking

My opinions are my own.

February 4, 2012

A Tale of Two Photos

Filed under: Gambling,Matthew Gospel of,Paxton Illinois,Theophany — Scott Stocking @ 12:57 pm

I think it’s time I told this story. This is going to be so much different than my other posts, because I don’t anticipate I will use much Greek or Hebrew, although I am certain I will cite some Scripture.

The story begins back in about 2001 when I lived in Paxton, Illinois. My family and I had moved there in 1999 so I could take a position with Paxton Church of Christ. For whatever reasons, the position didn’t work out: it wasn’t a good fit for me, but I still knew I needed to be in the community. About 2001, the community got wind that the Miami Native American tribe was considering suing the State of Illinois to recover land outside of Paxton so they could build a casino. The community was in an uproar, especially since the mayor at the time came out in favor of it.

After about six months, the hubbub died down, and the Miami backed off as well, because it was obvious they didn’t have a claim on the area (they do have a historic presence a little further east, however, in NE Indiana). Even to this day, one can still see “NO CasiNO” signs around Paxton. But was it all just a show on the part of the anti-casino crowd? I didn’t ask that question until six years later, when the heart of my story begins.

King Richard

In March 2007, I saw an article in the Paxton Record that a local gas station owner, Richard Schwarz, was going to open “King Richard’s Raffle House.” After all the fuss about the proposed Native American casino, I figured it would be a slam dunk to shut this thing down before it got off the ground, but in the long run, there wasn’t much public opposition to the raffle house, even though I had the private encouragement of friends. The city had to pass a special ordinance allowing the “raffle house” to operate, and it had to be in accord with State laws on raffles. Legally any organization in the city that conducted any kind of raffle had to apply and pay the fee. The raffle law was part of all the gaming laws in Illinois (casinos, bingo, slots, etc.), most of which were taxed strictly. Bingo halls, for example, had to pay 5 percent off the top of their revenues, and according to a friend who worked with the Knights of Columbus bingo hall in the area, they were watched pretty closely. As long as such places took care to follow the law, I wasn’t going to oppose them.

Figure 1: The van that delivered the bingo equipment to King Richard’s Raffle House: “The Bingo Store on Wheels”

The raffle law was really designed to cover more traditional raffles, where you buy a ticket and hope your ticket gets drawn for the prize. But when King Richard started decorating the storefront in downtown Paxton in anticipation of opening, what was plastered all over the windows? Construction paper cutouts of bingo balls, with both the letter and the number! So from the start, it was obvious this was going to be an attempt to skirt the bingo laws of Illinois. The State even had a law that said bingo equipment could only be used for actual bingo operations, but the city council didn’t seem to think that was relevant. Figure 1 shows the van that delivered the bingo board in Figure 2. (Sorry about the quality; I took the picture on a nighttime setting, and that never worked too well on my camera.) It also delivered a rather pricey electronic bingo-ball machine that drew the numbers. Players used cards that looked exactly like bingo cards without BINGO on them.

Figure 2: (Sorry about the quality) This is the bingo number board in King Richard’s Raffle House. “BINGO” was covered up on the left of the sign.

Before opening night, April 10, 2007, Schwarz must have realized what trouble he would get in if he continued to promote his operation as “bingo” (he promoted it as “glorified bingo” to the city council) so the bingo-ball cutouts mysteriously disappeared and were replaced with only numbers in circles. Same idea, but somehow he thought that city and state officials would be fooled by the missing letters. Whether they were fooled or not, neither the state nor the city did anything about it. But read on, because the raffle house issue resurfaced in Urbana a couple years later, with different results.

Crunching Numbers

The idea behind the raffle house was that a nonprofit organization could rent the building and equipment and conduct the raffle games to raise money. However, Schwarz owned the equipment and he leased the building. The state law and city ordinance were clear that the charity had to lease the building. Schwarz had to submit financial records to the city on a monthly basis, so I started tracking and crunching the numbers he had reported. What I found was disturbing, confusing, and downright deceptive. What the numbers revealed was that, at least on paper, he was charging the charity $500/night(!) for the building plus $2 per person and $50/night for the city license fee. The average gross receipt per person was over $70. The charity had to agree to a one-month gig at the place, which worked out to a minimum of twelve nights per month. Again, on paper, that works out to almost $7000 per month just to be in the building. I don’t know too many charities that would be willing to expend that kind of money for a separate, temporary building for a month to raise money.

Opening night, seventy-six people paid to play at the raffle house. Table 1 shows what the numbers looked like for that opening night (I obtained the numbers monthly through an official FOIA request presented to the city):




Gross recpts



Hall Exp.

Raffle Exp.

Jars Holding

Net Proceeds

Sponsor Game












Table 1: First-night proceeds from King Richard’s Raffle House.

So the charity (The Trimble Foundation, which Schwarz himself operated), again, on paper, spent $652 to rent a building for one night and got $291 in return. Not exactly a great return on investment. In fact, that’s a loss. The scary thing is, this was the best night for the house until July of that year as far as attendance goes. In fact, the average attendance for April was 32 persons/night the house operated. Now I keep saying “on paper,” because the books show he didn’t charge the hall expense every night. And sometimes, he never charged the full amount, especially if it meant “breaking even” on the night.

On the few nights the house did show net proceeds, there was no “sponsor game.” As you will see in Table 2, there is an amount in the sponsor game column, and that is what went to the charity that night. The sponsor game doesn’t balance with the rest of the numbers. The sponsor games appear to have been an afterthought, a way for the charity to recover some money that night. You will also notice that there is no hall expense recorded for the next three nights, but there is one for the night (April 17) when the house broke even.




Gross recpts



Hall Exp.

Raffle Exp.

Jars Holding

Net Proceeds

Sponsor Game
























































Table 2: The first five nights of the raffle house.

Note also that on three of these nights, prize distribution exceeded gross receipts, sometimes more than double. This was a regular pattern for the house, with 31 of its 111 nights of operation in 2007 showing a prize distribution greater than gross receipts, and that is before factoring in hall rental and other expenses. Note then, that even if the charity only “paid” hall expense on those two nights, a total of $1220, they only got back $427 on those first five nights. I would have backed out in a heartbeat if I had seen those kinds of numbers. When all was said and done, after 111 nights over nine months and half a dozen charities tried to tough it out, Table 3 shows the final damage to all involved. After the Watseka flooding (supposedly many regulars were from Watseka) and the implementation of the smoking ban in Illinois in December 2007/January 2008, the raffle house was no more. Over $250,000 had come into the raffle house, and the net loss to all charities (again, on paper; I suspect Schwarz absorbed most of the loss) was around $35,000 after the sponsor game is figured in.











Gross recpts



Hall Exp.

Raffle Exp.

Jars Holding

Net Proceeds

Sponsor Game

Table 3: The final numbers.

The Battle with City Council

It was one thing to be amazed at how many charities got duped into Schwarz’s scheme. It was equally amazing (and at times amusing were it not for the seriousness of it all) how a bunch of educated men on the city council could be duped by this as well. But then again, maybe that wasn’t so amazing, because all the city had to do was collect the $50/night fee. They never really had any risk for loss. It was all money in the bank for them.

The battle with city hall began in June, after I was fired from a five-year preaching ministry because Schwarz’s charity, unbeknownst to me at the time, had contributed $1000 the previous year to the church. He threatened to withdraw his annual support, which amounted to one tenth of the church’s annual budget, if I didn’t back down. As a man of integrity, I couldn’t. I had carefully researched the Illinois gaming laws and concluded that what Schwarz was doing was wrong, and the city council was complicit, especially since they had passed the ordinance the night before the raffle house opened, and there’s supposed to be a 10-day waiting period before the ordinance is in force in Paxton.

The battle got verbal at times. I even did my best Perry Mason impression and approached the mayor to show him that the proper signatures weren’t on the licenses, which should have invalidated them (if they had been bingo licenses, the State would have invalidated them on the spot). Instead, the city council voted to silence a citizen registering a complaint, because they couldn’t handle the truth. Around October, however, the city proposed some changes to the ordinance that seemed to offer some hope that would shut down the raffle house, or at least force it to offer a legally appropriate raffle. They had adopted some of the language from the state laws that restricted certain activities at the raffle house. I was generally pleased with the progress, and I even said so publicly, but the very next day, something happened that not only caused me to keep my vigilance on the raffle house, but may very well have been a genuine theophany in my own life.

As the Weather Turns

The Tuesday (October 23, 2007) after the committee meeting where the committee announced some of these changes brought some unusual weather. The sky was a brighter blue than usual that fall afternoon, but the wind was blowing from the east, which is extremely unusual for Illinois. At first, some big fluffy clouds began to blow in, but within an hour, clouds had pretty much filled the sky. I thought it was unusual, so when I got back from picking up my daughter from Girl Scouts, I grabbed the camera and walked across the street where I could get an open shot of the sky. I took a random picture of the sky, just to get the clouds and the incredible blue that was showing on the south end of the cloud bank (Figure 3). About 15 minutes later, the kids and I were back in the house, and it got pink outside. This was about a half hour before sunset. I grabbed the camera and we jumped in the car and headed to the west end of town (only a few blocks away), again so I could get a clear picture of the sky. Figure 4 is the amazing view we had that evening of a brilliant sunset. Neither of these photos has been edited. What you see is what the camera caught.

Figure 3: A face in the clouds.

Figure 4: A fiery sunset

I didn’t think much of the first picture, Figure 3, until I was showing it around a school event a few days later, and my daughter said, “There’s a face in the cloud.” Sure enough, I looked at it, and there it was, plain as day. And it was looking right at our house! My spirit (or the Holy Spirit) had told me that Tuesday there had been more to the weather than what met the eye. Even Robert Reese, the weather man for WCIA, commented on pictures others had sent to the station that day about the unusual weather. Now I had some confirmation. To me, anyway, that was the face of God I saw. If you look a little closer at the picture, you might be able to discern half of a second face behind God’s face, one looking directly at the camera. That faces appears to be much more sinister. I decided I probably shouldn’t get too comfortable with what had happened at the council meeting on October 22, and was I ever right.

To Not or Not to Not

When the final proposed changes in the ordinance were publicized in advance of the city council meeting in November, I got them as soon as I could. As I read through the new text, I discovered something very disturbing: where the State statute and the draft version of the city ordinance said “you can not do this” (I paraphrase for simplicity), the text presented to the city council for approval said “you can do this.” In other words, the city ordinance was in direct contradiction to the State statute, a no-no in any State. I made sure I pointed this out to the city attorney and the rest of the city council, but they didn’t seem to have a problem with it. At that point, I knew it was all about the money with them. Their attitude was, why should the state bother with puny little Paxton. They did, after all, have bigger fish to fry, like a governor who was eventually convicted on federal charges and tossed out of office and skyrocketing debt.

By that point, however, it became pretty clear from the numbers that the raffle house was on its last leg. The language that didn’t agree with the state statute wouldn’t really affect organizations that wanted to run traditional raffles, something I never really had a problem with, especially since I knew the integrity of the organizations that conducted the raffles. I knew I had done my best as a citizen to point out the flaws and errors in the system, and only God could take care of the rest.

But that theophany also confirmed in my mind that I had indeed been fighting a good fight, in spite of the criticism I took from my (now ex-)wife at the time. I felt it was important to show my kids that they can stand up against society’s wrongs, even in the face of personal crisis. I felt it was important to maintain a consistent defense against organized gambling establishments in our community. I know I earned the respect of many, but one final event proved to me that I had indeed been on solid ground.

Another Raffle House

About nine months after the raffle house shut down, I received information that a relative of Schwarz’s had a similar operation in Urbana. The tip turned out to be valid, and when I submitted a FOIA request to the City of Urbana for the information about the operation, they discovered they didn’t have any of the financial reports from the owner as State statute required. They eventually sent in an undercover cop who documented that the operation was a cover for bingo, and it was shut down within a week. All I had to do for that was write a letter. Hopefully Paxton’s city council can learn something from Urbana.


The whole series of events with King Richard’s Raffle House may have been the beginning of the end of my marriage, but through it all, I saw visibly God’s hand (and face!) at work. I knew he was with me and watching over me, even though the road was getting extremely rocky. In retrospect, the red cloud bank moving westward may have been as much about God’s anger at the city of Paxton for what they were doing as it was a sign that I should move back to the land of Big Red. It wasn’t too long after that that I started hearing the Husker fight song in my head at all hours of the day. I knew it was inevitable I would return to Nebraska.

I said I would quote some Scripture, so here it is, Matthew 16:1–4 (NIV), and Jeremiah 4:13:

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.

Look! He advances like the clouds,
his chariots come like a whirlwind,
his horses are swifter than eagles.
Woe to us! We are ruined!

I wasn’t looking for a sign that day. Or maybe I was but just didn’t know it. The sky was red that October evening, so I guess that meant fair weather ahead. It took a while to get there, but I think I’ve found my fair weather in Omaha, in spite of the six-plus inches of snow that kept me home today to write this post. Yes, I miss my kids; they fill my thoughts every day. But I have another kind of fulfillment here, one that the provider in me had not experienced in quite some time. My prayer is that each of you will find your purpose and fulfillment in God’s kingdom.


Scott Stocking

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