WHO’S ON FIRST?

Jesus

Nothing – absolutely nothing, should come before God in our lives. What is your first love, really? Jesus is clear here – it should be Him. If Jesus is your first love, He should have first claim on your time, energy and resources of all kinds. This message shows you how much we need to repent, and promises how much we gain when we do.

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Download Revelation Part 7

Revelation #7. The Letter to the Ephesian Church, part 2. Rev 2:1-7.

I want you to know that it is my hope and prayer that you always get more out of any given Bible passage than my sermon notes alone can offer. Sermons, in whatever form, should just be the icing on the cake for disciples of Jesus Christ. Our bread and butter, so to speak, ought to come from our own regular study of scripture, guided and assisted by teaching from sermons. Remember that “you reap what you sow” is a scriptural principle. If you put in fifteen minutes each week, reading the sermon notes during a hurried dinner without cracking the Bible, expect to learn and grow accordingly. If on the other hand, you spend twenty minutes or so with the sermon notes one day, and twenty minutes the next day with the scripture passage, and perhaps review them both on a third day, you can expect much more benefit from it all. Depending on the passage, you might spend twenty minutes or so each day for the entire week simply going over the verses and sermon notes for that week.

I know that some of you will automatically respond with “that is totally unrealistic.” Well, as it happens, that response relates to our sermon today. The basic question that arises from Revelation 2:1-7 is this: What place does Jesus have in your heart?

Last time we talked about the things for which Jesus praised the Ephesian church: an intolerance for Christians who sin openly and without repenting, and an intolerance for false teachers. In addition, they bore up under opposition, hostility and hard labor with endurance and grit. These are important examples that we too, should follow.

But we ended, more or less, with verse three (and a peek ahead to verse 6 also). In verses 4-5, Jesus tackles a problem with the Ephesian church.

The church at Ephesus had a rich spiritual heritage. Paul had spent about a week there early on, but the church there was most likely founded by Priscilla, Aquila and Apollos. When Paul came there to spend some time, a few years later, there was already an established community of Christians. Paul spent two years there (Acts 19:10). After Paul left, Timothy, his protégé, spent many years in the city as one of the leaders of the church there. At some point, the apostle John also arrived and took up residence, training the next great Christian leader, who became the wise old martyr, Polycarp.

In short, the Ephesian church had one of the richest theological traditions of any early Christian church, having been home to no less than six remarkable first-generation Christian leaders, including two genuine apostles and their two protégés. At the time of Revelation, their doctrine was still strong. Their endurance was good. But they had lost something:

4But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent. (Rev 2:4-5, HCSB)

Most commentators, myself included think that “first love” refers to love for Jesus himself. All other loves spring from that. Though the Ephesians were convinced of the truth of the gospel, they had begun to let the love seep out of their commitment of faith. They were zealous for truth, but apparently not particularly zealous for Jesus himself, or for other Christians.

They were committed to Jesus, certainly, but they were far more committed to the ideas of faith in him, than to Him personally. They were missing the emotional and spiritual relationship that Jesus Christ desires with his people. It is no mistake that in speaking to these people Jesus emphasized that he was the one who “walks among the seven golden lampstands.” The lampstands, as you remember from 1:20 are the churches. The point that Jesus is making that he is actually with his people. The Ephesians needed to remember the importance of God’s presence with them, and to fall in love with Jesus all over again.

Just as it is possible to become fiercely committed to the idea of marriage while at the same time neglecting your spouse, it is possible to be committed to truth, while neglecting your relationship with Jesus. Frankly, I see it all the time in people who are conservative and have been Christians for a long time. Sometimes I even recognize it in myself. For a short time I attended a seminary where students were not allowed to announce unauthorized gatherings for prayer, but they were welcome to announce keggers (parties involving lots of beer). Their doctrine was good, but clearly something was wrong with their first love.

Jesus calls the Ephesians (and us) to repent, and to love Him above everything and everyone else. He wants us not just to be faithful and true, but to be actively engaged in relationship with him. He says very clearly that the church or Christian that does not continue in this relational aspect of faith will cease to be the church. The lampstand will be removed (2:5).

This first love message is deep and far reaching. In fact, it is nothing less than the first of the ten commandments. When Jesus was still on earth, someone asked him about the most important commandment:

36“Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest? ”

37He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38This is the greatest and most important command. (Matt 22:36-38, HCSB)

Nothing – absolutely nothing, should come before God in our lives. What is your first love, really? Jesus is clear here – it should be Him. If Jesus is your first love, He should have first claim on your time, energy and resources of all kinds. This brings us back to the beginning of these notes: if you think it’s unrealistic to spend an hour or two learning more about Jesus over the course of a week, how likely is it that he truly is your first love?

If you give to the mission of Jesus out of what is left over after you have spent your money on everything else first, does that really reflect that Jesus is your first love?

If you invest an hour or so a week in Christian community, and the other 167 hours in other things, can you truly say that you love Jesus more than you love anyone (or thing) else?

If you go through your day, doing things you have to do to make a living and take care of your family, and Jesus is not a part of how and why you do those things, how could you claim that you love Him more than anyone else?

Obviously, we can’t all be monks, and just sit in a monastery worshipping Jesus all day. Most of us need to work, and raise kids, and invest ourselves in our communities. But the way we do all that changes when Jesus is our first love. The motivations for what we do change. And when he is truly first, we are willing and able to say “no” to some things (even good things) in order to say “yes” to more time spent with Him in prayer and Bible reading, “yes” to more time and energy invested in a community of his people, “yes” to more concrete actions that advance the kingdom of God.

A few years ago, I knew a good Christian family who was having trouble with one of their children. So they invested more time in sports teams and events, thinking to teach him character and teamwork. Their investment in sports caused them often to say “no” to investing in worship and Christian community. There were many other factors involved, but needless to say, the sports strategy failed. The child became alienated from the family and from God. However, even if their strategy had succeeded in helping the child, their choice clearly communicated that Jesus was not the first love in that family.

I bet a lot of you think I’m talking about you. Actually, I doubt if any of you reading this knows whom I am speaking of, but I do know that it strikes close to home for a lot of people.

Remember, Jesus said this:

37The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. 39Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matt 10:37-39, HCSB)

This is hard to say, and hard to hear. But Jesus very clearly calls the Ephesians to repent. He also calls us to repent. Repentance means we stop doing the things that we shouldn’t be doing, and start making choices that reflect Jesus as our first love. We won’t be able to do these things perfectly, but we are called to a lifestyle of repentance. Even when we fail, we continue on the repentance road.

We might need to repent of putting a career ahead of Jesus, or a relationship, or even family (see above). We might need to repent of putting entertainment above Jesus, or alcohol, or food or other substances. Sometimes it is money. Sometimes it is even loving Christian doctrine more than loving Jesus. But the message of Jesus is clear: He will not stand for anyone or anything to rival Himself in our affections. He must be our first love.

I want to add one more thing. This isn’t just about some “litmus test.” I don’t want to be legalistic. But as we go through Revelation, we will find that God’s plan will force all human beings to make a choice. Pressure, persecution and hardship will get more and more extreme. The message of Revelation is terrific news for people who are totally sold out for Jesus, who have put all their eggs into the one basket of faith in Jesus Christ; in other words, for those who have Jesus as their first love. But for those with divided loyalties, the truth of Revelation will crush them between a rock and a hard place. If you read this, and Jesus is not your first love, it will sound either boring (because you don’t really believe it), or terrifying; perhaps it will even sound like bad news. If you have this reaction as we go on, hear what the Spirit says: Repent!

We need to repent not just so that we can feel good about ourselves, or “to be a better person.” No! We need to repent, or we will be destroyed and the light of our lampstands will be removed! Jesus is uncompromising about this. Read it again:

4But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent. (Rev 2:4-5, HCSB)

Jesus offers forgiveness and restoration for those who repent. There is only one unforgiveable sin, and that is to refuse and malign the work of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32). In other words, the one thing that will keep you from forgiveness is if you are not willing to repent. If we do repent, however, we have forgiveness and new life.

7“Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. I will give the victor the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in God’s paradise. (Rev 2:7, HCSB)

The Garden of Eden held a “tree of life.” Adam and Eve sinned before they ate of it, and then they were driven out of the garden, before they could eat it and gain eternal life as sinners. Jesus is telling us that if we repent, his forgiveness is so complete, that He will so thoroughly remake us without sin, that we will be able to eat of the tree of life. This is nothing less than the promise of eternal life in paradise.

Matthew Henry puts it this way, in the slightly archaic language of his own generation:

They shall have that perfection of holiness, and that confirmation therein, which Adam would have had if he had gone well through the course of his trial: he would then have eaten of the tree of life which was in the midst of paradise, and this would have been the sacrament of confirmation to him in his holy and happy state; so all who persevere in their Christian trial and warfare shall derive from Christ, as the tree of life, perfection and confirmation in holiness and happiness in the paradise of God; not in the earthly paradise, but the heavenly.

Let us “have an ear” and listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.

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The value of selective intolerance

Temple of Artemis

In a culture that was hostile to Christianity, the Ephesian church was intolerant of those who called themselves Christians, and yet indulged in sin and called it OK. They were intolerant of would-be celebrity leaders who taught bad doctrine. Jesus praised them for this sort of intolerance.

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Download Revelation Part 6

Revelation #6.

Revelation 2:1-7. Part A.
In the future, I hope to finish each of the remaining six letters at the rate of one sermon per letter. However, there is some more introductory material that I think is important, so we’ll take the letter to the Ephesian church in two parts.
As I said before, that the number of seven churches were chosen to indicate that these are messages are relevant for all churches at all times; and the particular churches were chosen because their victories and struggles are examples for all believers. So I agree with the great Bible commentator, Mathew Henry, who said:

“What is said to one church concerns all the churches, in every place and age.”

So it is safe to read Revelation 2-3 just as we read Paul’s letters to other churches. They contain warnings, promises and encouragements. In fact, in the case of Revelation 2-3, there is a very structured format in the messages sent to the churches. First, each message emphasizes a particular revelation of Jesus – a certain aspect of his character that the church really needs to focus on (I call this part A). Next, comes an “I know…” from Jesus, as he reveals that he is actively watching over his people. He knows everything they are about, both good and bad. Usually, Jesus commends his people in this section, which I call part B. Part C is a rebuke, where Jesus points out a place where the church needs to repent and grow. Part D describes an action that the Lord wants the church to take in response to the message, and part E lays before God’s people a wonderful promise.
The church at Ephesus is the first one to receive a message. The Ephesian Christians had been in a culture war from day one. By this point in history, Ephesus maintained its status as a great city only because the Shrine to the Greek goddess Artemis was found there. People came from all over the Roman world to worship at the shrine, and naturally, many of the city’s residents made their living from the tourist trade associated with the goddess. Thus in the very beginning Christians had come into conflict with merchants who sold little statues of Artemis (Acts 19). One of the silversmiths who made the statues was even forthright enough to say to his fellow craftsmen,

“Men, you know that we’re earning a good income from this business, and you see and hear what this man Paul has done. He tells people that gods made by humans are not gods. There’s a danger that people will discredit our line of work, and there’s a danger that people will think that the temple of the great goddess Artemis is nothing. Then she whom all Asia and the rest of the world worship will be robbed of her glory. (Acts 19:25-27).”

So the Ephesian church was born into hardship, born into a culture that was immediately hostile toward it.

In “part A,” the special picture of Jesus is that he holds the seven stars in his right hand, and walks among the seven lampstands. What the Spirit is emphasizing is that Jesus Christ is personally present among his people, and he tenderly cares for each, and holds the future of each. This was especially important for the Christians in Ephesus to remember, as we will see.
In part B, Jesus praises them for several things. In the first place, their works, their labor, and their patient endurance (2:2). These are good and faithful Christians. The first word, “works,” indicates working energetically. The second, “labor” includes the idea of hard labor, or even pain. Patient endurance tells that the Ephesians are not sunny-day Christians. They have stuck with it, when it is easy and good, and also when it is hard, and long. Verse 3 fleshes this out even more: they have had to bear many hardships, and they have done so without growing weary. They have spiritual endurance, and grit.

One very helpful thing to do when you read the Bible is to look for examples you might follow. There is much that we could learn from the Ephesians, especially for modern American Christians.

It is common for people in this country to move from church to church, searching for the ones with that feel the most exciting, or which have the best programs, or most convenient schedule. There wasn’t a scent of that sort of behavior among the Ephesians. They stuck with each other, and with their faith, through thick and thin, through exciting times, boring times, hard times, painful times.
There is another wonderful thing about this Ephesian church, something else that Jesus praises: though they tolerated hardship and hard work and pain, they did not tolerate evil. They also tested those who claimed to be apostles (but were not) and exposed their lies.

As I look at the church-at-large in the Western world today, I do not see the sort of passion for truth, and intolerance-of-evil that the Ephesians Christians had. Remember, Jesus praises them for this. Instead, everywhere, I read articles by Christian leaders who seem willing to compromise truth in the name of tolerance, or “reaching out.” I want to be sure you get this. Jesus actually praised the Ephesians for being intolerant of evil. Today, the only evil our culture recognizes is what they call “intolerance.” That is certainly not the case in the New Testament.

Now, I do want to make sure we understand what kind of intolerance Jesus is talking about. He gives us two examples. First, the Ephesians did not tolerate those who falsely claimed spiritual authority over them (false apostles). They tested the false leaders, and found out the truth, and kicked them out of their church. They compared the words of the popular leaders and preachers with what they already knew of Jesus and God’s word, and they did not tolerate someone who claimed to be a Christian, or a good leader, and yet was not. It makes me sad today how our “Christian culture” has become so celebrity oriented. Many, many, people allow themselves to be led by Christian celebrities, and so often we accept what a Christian celebrity says without testing it. So often we are afraid of the crowd, and so we accept what these celebrities say, even when we suspect it isn’t quite right.

The second target of intolerance for the Ephesians was the Nicolaitans. They hated their practices (v 6). This group, and others like it, will crop up again in the next chapter or two, so it is worth spending a bit of time on them here. Early church leaders, writing roughly 100-150 years after Revelation, say that the Nicolaitans claimed to followers of Nicolaus, one of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles in Acts chapter 6 (In other words, a “Christian celebrity.”) They claimed it was OK for Christians to participate in idol-worship, and also in sexual immorality, because Jesus had freed them from all sin. Tertullian (an early church leader) wrote that their practices were so obscene that he declined to describe them in detail. The bottom line is, they tried to use Christian theology to justify sinning.

This reminds me of someone I know personally. The man, let’s call him Andrew (not his real name) was once an alcoholic and a drug addict. He was miraculously healed by Christian minister – with no cravings, no withdrawals symptoms, he simply quit everything. A few years later, Andrew thought to himself, “I’ve been healed from addiction. Therefore, it should be OK for me to have a beer. After all, I’m no longer an addict.” Within a few months he was doing cocaine, and who knows what else, and had destroyed his family by his renewed addictions.

You see, Andrew was not healed so that he could indulge himself without consequence. He was healed so that he was no longer bound by his addiction, so that he could be free. But by indulging himself once more, he became bound once more. This is how it is with sin. We aren’t forgiven in order to allow us to sin without consequence – that is what the Nicolaitans taught. The rest of the apostles taught otherwise:
13For you were called to be free, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. (Gal 5:13, HCSB)

1What should we say then? Should we continue in sin so that grace may multiply? 2Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. (Rom 6:1-4, HCSB)

11So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its desires. 13And do not offer any parts of it to sin as weapons for unrighteousness. But as those who are alive from the dead, offer yourselves to God, and all the parts of yourselves to God as weapons for righteousness. (Rom 6:11-13, HCSB)

The Nicolaitan heresy reminds me of certain people in our own time. Many, calling themselves Christians, believe that there is a vague, over-arching principle in the Bible called “love” (though they are careful not to define too closely what they mean by “love”). The Nicolaitans said that forgiveness means we can sin all we want. The modern day heretics say that love means that as long as we do it in “love,” nothing is a sin.
In fact, according to them, if we say that what someone else is doing is sinful, then we are not “acting in love,” therefore we ourselves are sinning. With this kind of false teaching, modern Nicolaitans undo much of what the Bible actually says.

In fact, scripture teaches us that love is expressed by following the commands of God:

3This is how we are sure that we have come to know Him: by keeping His commands. 4The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” yet doesn’t keep His commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5But whoever keeps His word, truly in him the love of God is perfected. This is how we know we are in Him: 6The one who says he remains in Him should walk just as He walked. (1John 2:3-6, HCSB)

Another one, from John’s second letter:

6And this is love: that we walk according to His commands. (2John 1:6, HCSB)

In addition, according to the Bible, not all that is called “love” is good or Holy:

15Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. 16For everything that belongs to the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle — is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever. (1John 2:15-17, HCSB)

So not all “love” is good. The Love of God provides forgiveness of sins through Jesus, but it does not give us a license to continue to sin. Love does not eliminate any sin.

I think we have plenty to chew on for now.
Jesus praises the Ephesian believers for rejecting this Nicolaitan heresy. We are facing something very similar to the Nicolaitans. What will he say to us about how we handle the distortion of the doctrine of love?

He praises the Ephesians church for not tolerating Christian celebrities who teach bad doctrine. What will he say to us about our celebrity-oriented culture?

He praises the Ephesian church for endurance and grit through hardship, opposition and pain. What will he say to us about how we handle hardship, and about how well we stick with each other even when it is hard work?

Now, in a way this message is incomplete, since we are stopping in the middle of the letter. The end of the letter contains a promise from Jesus if we repent. No matter how badly we may have done up until this point, Jesus does offer forgiveness and newness of life, and the power of the Holy Spirit for us to live as he asks.
Let us take advantage of that right now.

NO ROOM FOR FEAR

Old keys on a old book, antique wood background

Following Jesus often involves some sort of trouble or hardship, in the middle of which we are called to remain faithful and obedient to the Father, even when we don’t understand. Jesus words to each of us today are: “Do not be afraid. I have the keys to death and hades. I have this. I have you. I am the first and the last – I have your trouble surrounded.

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Download Revelation Part 5

Revelation #5. Revelation 1:9-20

John continues his letter with a reminder, and then, his first vision of the heavenly realm.

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

John says he is a brother and partner in three things that “are in Jesus.” I think these things are very important for Christians in our time to remember, or perhaps to realize for the first time. Being “in Jesus” involves each of these things.

First, John writes he is a brother in the tribulation that is in Jesus Christ. The Greek word here (thlipsis) implies pressure, or “being squeezed.” It can be translated, as tribulation, affliction, distress, or pressure. In his gospel, John records that Jesus said that tribulation or affliction will be a normal part of following him. In the passage below, it is this same Greek word that Jesus uses:

33I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33, HCSB)

You will have suffering/trouble/affliction/distress in this world if you follow Jesus. Peter affirms this idea:

12Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. 13Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. (1Pet 4:12-13, HCSB)

We Christians in 21st Western Civilization need to understand this, for two reasons. First, we need to recognize that suffering and tribulation are the present reality for millions of Christians in various places around the world. Like John, we need to act as siblings and partners in tribulation with those Christians who are suffering for their faith more than we. In China, Indonesia, all over the Middle-East and North Africa, our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ are in trouble for believing what we believe and trying to live it in their everyday lives. We need to stand with them in prayer. We need to support those who support them. We need to communicate our love and encouragement to them.

Second, we need to recognize that, as we remain obedient to Jesus, we encounter various types of suffering – not all of them persecution. John Piper writes, in Desiring God:

The suffering that comes is a part of the price of living where you are in obedience to the call of God. In choosing to follow Christ in the way he directs, we choose all that this path includes under his sovereign providence. Thus, all suffering that comes in the path of obedience is suffering with Christ and for Christ – whether it is cancer or conflict.

Following Jesus often involves some sort of trouble or hardship, in the middle of which we are called to remain faithful and obedient to the Father, even when we don’t understand.

Those of you who know me well will realize that I know what I am talking about. More importantly, John knew what he was talking about.

The second thing that is “in Jesus” is “the kingdom.” We examined this in greater depth last week. When we follow Jesus, we belong to His heavenly kingdom. Our primary “citizenship” is in heaven, not in any earthly country. Our primary “fellow-citizens” are those who follow Jesus, whatever country they come from, whatever ethnicity or culture they wear on the outside. There is one other thing about “the kingdom that is in Jesus” and it is this: it means we must obey the King.

The third thing that John says is part of being in Jesus is “patient endurance.” This goes along with suffering/pressure/trouble.  Paul puts it together in his letter to the Romans:

3And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, 4endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. 5This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Rom 5:3-5, HCSB)

In case you were wondering, Paul’s word for “afflictions” is the Greek word thlipsis – the same that John uses, the one we discussed above. We aren’t called merely to suffer, we are called endure it patiently, to stick to Jesus, to have “grit.” This would have been very important for John’s first readers, since, as we shall see, they were facing all sorts of pressures and troubles. John is saying, “You aren’t alone in your struggles. This is part of the deal, this is part of what it means to be ‘in Jesus.’ You aren’t off track and you aren’t doing something wrong. We are all in this together.”

Next, John goes on to share one reason why we should be encouraged as we suffer and endure patiently in Jesus. He records that Jesus gave him a message for seven specific churches, but also to all Christians at all times. And Jesus not only gave him the message, he also gave him a picture of the heavenly reality that should encourage us; a reality that exists even when our lives are in the midst of pressure and struggle.

John says that he was “beginning-to-be in spirit on the Lord’s day,” (my rough literal translation) when he heard a loud voice behind him. I’ll tell you frankly, that I don’t have a clear idea of what that means. I suspect it means that John was meditating, deeply. But here’s something interesting. Even though John was “in the spirit,” the voice he heard came from behind him. It’s not much, but perhaps this is a reminder that even when we do all that we can, we still God to reveal Himself to us. For all his meditation, the voice of God came from a direction he did not expect. The revelation had to be given to him – he couldn’t get it simply by meditating.

John looked and saw a scene with seven golden lampstands, and Jesus standing among them. By the way, my own way of looking at Revelation divides the book into seven “heavenly encounters.” A “heavenly encounter,” for my purposes, is a vision of things as they are in heaven, or from heaven’s perspective. After each heavenly encounter in Revelation follows some content divided up into sets of seven. This vision of Jesus among the lampstands is the first Heavenly Encounter.

Thankfully, verse 20 explains what is going on. The seven golden lampstands are the seven churches to whom the letter is written. I think there is every reason to believe that the seven churches (named in chapters 2-3) were seven actual Christian communities that existed at the time John saw his vision. At the same time, I believe that the Lord chose seven particular churches in order to communicate that this amazing vision is for all Christian churches at all times in history. Remember, the number seven represents God’s complete work. So, I think he picked seven churches (there were certainly more than seven in existence at the time) to show he meant this to be for all of us.

In the midst of the seven lampstands John sees “one like a son of man.” He means Jesus, who consistently called himself “the son of man.” John’s vision of the Heavenly Jesus sounds similar to visions that were seen by Daniel and Ezekiel, down to details like the hair, feet, eyes and the sound of his voice; especially, however, the sense of bright light emanating from him (Daniel 7:9 and 10:5-6; Ezekiel 1:26-27).

Jesus holds seven stars in his hand. Again, we are given an explanation in verse 20. The stars are the seven angels of the churches. I don’t know about you, but this surprises me. I don’t normally think of an individual congregation as having an angel watching out for it.

While we are here, we might as well briefly talk about angels, since there is a boatload of them in Revelation. Though we don’t talk about angels very often, there are 182 verses in the New Testament that mention them directly, and a few others that speak of them indirectly. Sixty-five of the direct verses are in Revelation. Angels are usually portrayed as spiritual beings who do God’s work, often serving God as messengers. Hebrews 1:14 (one of the indirect mentions of them) gives us the clearest description of what angels are:

14Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Heb 1:14, ESV2011)

So, angels do God’s work, and part of what they do for Him is to minister to us who are inheriting salvation through Jesus Christ. Apparently, also, some of them are responsible for individual churches. To put this theologically: That’s awesome. It might also give us a different view of church. There is an angel assigned to your church. Just think on that.

In verse 16, we get our first taste of the weirdness of Revelation: there is a sword coming out of the mouth of Jesus. This is meant to be symbolic. The Apostle Paul pictures a sword as a spiritual weapon:

17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word. (Eph 6:17, HCSB)

The sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth is The Word. For us who follow Jesus, that “word,” that sword, is the Bible. His words are powerful and strong. His words created the universe:

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3All things were created through Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created that has been created. (John 1:1-3, HCSB)

 3By faith we understand that the universe was created by God’s command, so that what is seen has been made from things that are not visible. (Heb 11:3, HCSB)

So Jesus stands among the churches, with the power of his Word evident. Now, listen once more to His words:

17When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. He laid His right hand on me and said, “Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last, 18and the Living One. I was dead, but look — I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades. 19Therefore write what you have seen, what is, and what will take place after this. 20The secret of the seven stars you saw in My right hand and of the seven gold lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. (Rev 1:17-20, HCSB)

“He laid his right hand on me and said, ‘Don’t be afraid!’” How deeply we need this sometimes! We are afraid of so many things: the future, or the future of those we love. We are afraid of financial ruin, or social ruin. We fear pain, and sorrow and difficulty and loss. Most of all, we fear death, and the death of those we love. I invite you to gather your fears up right now. It’s OK. Admit to them, let them show themselves. Now, feel the strong hand of Jesus on your shoulder. Listen to him say: “Do not be afraid!”

And why should we not? Because Jesus is the First and the Last. He has us, and our lives, and everything surrounded. We fear death, but look – he has overcome death, and he holds the keys. Not only that, but he is with his church – he stands among the lampstands. He holds our angels in his right hand.

Jesus is with us. He hasn’t forgotten or abandoned us. He touches us and says “do not fear!”

Will you listen to Him today?

 

GOD’S WORD OVER OUR CIRCUMSTANCES

Hands cupping sun

God has made it so that our identity is that we are truly loved children of God. He has changed our nature from true sinners into truly forgiven and made truly righteous. Our citizenship is in heaven, and our work is as priests of God in everyday life.

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Revelation #4.  Revelation 1:5-8

This is one of those passages that is almost a sermon in itself. I urge you to read verses 5b – 8 out loud, and just listen to the words, and let them sink in. Do that, before you read on.

Now let’s look at verses 5b-6, phrase by phrase:

He who loves us

The Father, who is past present and future; the Son who was martyred for us, was raised from the dead so we could follow, who is ruler over all the earth; The Spirit who is at work in every corner of the world – This majestic, awe-inspiring, all powerful being loves us. We have His attention, his concern. He has chosen to place value on us, in fact, He decided that we are worth dying for. As I undergo uncertainty and struggle and suffering, this word says to me “Don’t ever doubt that I love you. You are precious to me. I have decided it that it is so, and it will not change, no matter what your circumstances look like.”

This is the rallying cry of the entire of Bible.  GOD    LOVES    US.  This is the most important thing we can ever learn. Elsewhere, Paul puts it like this:

31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He did not even spare His own Son but offered Him up for us all; how will He not also with Him grant us everything? 33Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the One who justifies. 34Who is the one who condemns?

Christ Jesus is the One who died, but even more, has been raised; He also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us.

 35Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written: Because of You we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. 37No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us.

 38For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, 39height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! (Rom 8:31-39, HCSB)

He has set us free from our sins by His blood.

This is the part that our culture has lost. People all around us are willing to say that God loves us. They also mean (though they don’t say it directly) that God ought to love us, that there is no reason that He should not. It’s almost as if our culture thinks that is what He owes us. This, of course, takes almost all of the power out of God’s love. If He automatically “has to” love everyone, then His love is no more remarkable than the rising of the sun, or the falling of rain. We aren’t particularly special to God if this is true – it’s just a general, impersonal truth.

But that is not the case at all. The Bible teaches that all have sinned, and caused a rift between us and God (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8 & 10). That sin is not just a mistake or a weakness – it is a moral evil.

14Rehoboam did what was evil, because he did not determine in his heart to seek the LORD. (2Chr 12:14, HCSB)

Rehoboam, son of Solomon did not determine in his hear to seek the Lord. Therefore, what he did was evil. This is the consistent description of sin in the Bible. It isn’t some little mess up. It isn’t just human failing. It is most definitely not morally neutral. Sin is a moral evil. The root of sin is to turn away from God. Since God is the purest and highest good, anything that turns away from Him is evil. Every single book of the Bible affirms this in many ways.

We have all turned away from God, committed moral evil against Him. Yet his love is so great, that

He sacrificed himself, shed his own blood to atone for the moral evil that we have all done. He chose to love us. Romans 5:6-11 puts it like this:

6For while we were still helpless, at the appointed moment, Christ died for the ungodly. 7For rarely will someone die for a just person — though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. 8But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! 9Much more then, since we have now been declared righteous by His blood, we will be saved through Him from wrath. 10For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life! 11And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have now received this reconciliation through Him. (Rom 5:6-11, HCSB)

This reconciliation is offered to all, but not everyone chooses to receive it. It isn’t universal, since many people reject the idea that we are sinners, that we need forgiveness, and that Jesus has provided it for us.

18For I have often told you, and now say again with tears, that many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19Their end is destruction; their god is their stomach; their glory is in their shame. They are focused on earthly things. (Philippians 3:18-19)

We must believe that we need forgiveness for sin, and receive it in faith. When we do, He sets us free from those sins. They don’t have to have any more power in our lives.

And made us a kingdom

This part would be easy to skip over, but it is very important. We, who have received God’s forgiveness and love through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus are a kingdom. This is one of the major themes of the book of Revelation. What it means is that we are first and foremost citizens of God’s kingdom. My allegiance to the Kingdom of God is greater than my allegiance to any earthly country, society or group. This has always been true of God’s people. The author of Hebrews writes about early heroes of the faith:

13These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. 14Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. 16But they now desire a better place — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them. (Heb 11:13-16, HCSB)

I shared Philippians 3:18-19 above. But the next part is for those who do receive the work of Jesu through faith:

18For I have often told you, and now say again with tears, that many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19Their end is destruction; their god is their stomach; their glory is in their shame. They are focused on earthly things, 20but our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21He will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject everything to Himself. (Phil 3:18-21, HCSB)

This also means that my fellow-citizens of heaven are my co-patriots, even before my fellow-citizens of any earthly country:

19So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, (Eph 2:19, HCSB)

In my travels overseas, I have seen this again and again. It is a powerful experience to worship in a foreign land with people from dozens of other countries. It demonstrates the reality of the fact that we who believe are first and foremost citizens of Heaven.

– Priests to His God and Father

We are a kingdom, and not only that, we are a kingdom of priests. I know that sounds boring to most people. However, at the time this was written, the concept of a priesthood was very different from today. Priests at that point in time could marry and raise families (in fact they were expected to). There are several important things about the priesthood that I think John wanted us to understand, and they may not be the things we expect.

First, is that it was priests – and only priests – who were allowed to go into the sanctuary where they believed God’s presence lived. Since Jesus, however, we are all priests in the sense that we can all enter into the presence of God. You don’t need a pastor to mediate between you and God anymore. He has made you a priest in the sense that you can be in God’s presence without someone else making a sacrifice on your behalf.

Next, it was priests who were set aside to serve God. But now, we are all called to serve God, even if we don’t do it officially by vocation. Peter writes about this, in his first letter:

5You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1Pet 2:5, ESV2011)

9But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1Pet 2:9-10, ESV2011)

You are no longer ordinary. Through Jesus, God has made you holy and set you apart, like a priest. True, He calls relatively few people to serve Him with their full-time jobs, but He calls each one of us to serve Him with our full-time lives. I’ve been to parties – especially here in Nashville among music-industry people – where someone says to me, “You’re the first pastor I’ve ever spoken to.” That makes me sad, and not just because of the bad grammar. However, those people have probably spoken to other Christians with whom they work. Many, many people will never talk to a pastor like me, but they work alongside people like you. You are all servants of God. By your actions, prayers and by what you say, you serve God among people in ways that full-time ministers often do not. You are a priest where you work, and in your family, and in your neighborhood.

Some other things about priests. You no longer need someone else to mediate your relationship with God. You can (and should) pray to him directly – you don’t need to have a pastor to pray for you, though most of us are happy to agree with you in prayer. You can (and should) read the Bible yourself. Though it is important to check your interpretations against trained Bible teachers, most of the Bible is easy to understand, at least in the most important points. You will nourish your soul by reading it for yourself.

I will leave you to meditate on verses 7-8 yourself. They reiterate the certainty that Jesus will return in power and that God is in control of all history, past, present, and future.

What is the Lord saying to you today? Which of these phrases will stick with you through the coming week? Ask the Holy Spirit to keep applying His Word to your life now.

LORD OF PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

Jesus with us

The first five verses of Revelation bring us incredible grace and comfort, by reminding who God is.

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Revelation #3. 1:1-5

 We have spent two messages on introductory material. There is much more to learn about the background and writing of Revelation, but my plan is to teach about those things as we go along. That way, you’ll get the information when you need it to understand the text.

I want to clean up just a few details from the first three verses. John says in verse 1 that what he is sharing what “will quickly take place.” This is the best way to phrase it in English because it shows the ambiguity of the phrase. It could mean “it will all take place soon,” or, “it will happen, whenever it happens, suddenly.” Also, at the end of verse 3, “the time is near,” speaks, in Greek, of physical nearness, more than chronological nearness. Make of that what you will, but I keep thinking of Peter, who wrote:

8Dear friends, don’t let this one thing escape you: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. 9The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance. (2Pet 3:8-9, HCSB)

This is very important to keep in mind as we read Revelation.

It is almost as if in verses 1-3 John is preparing his readers. He knows that the contents of his letter (the book of Revelation) are strange and weird. He is preparing us for that. Next, in verse 4, John writes a somewhat more traditional introduction:

4John: To the seven churches in Asia. Grace and peace to you from the One who is, who was, and who is coming; from the seven spirits before His throne; 5and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

John identifies himself simply by his name. Though some Christians believe there was another John, “the elder of Ephesus,” there really isn’t any hard evidence for that. This is almost certainly John the Apostle. The Greek of Revelation is very different from that of John’s gospel and his three letters, but I think that is easily explained. It is likely that John wrote his other works with the aid of an amanuensis, which was, basically, a secretary, or scribe in the ancient world. So, the secretary-person probably helped John with the Greek phrases of his other work (Remember, Greek was not John’s native language). For Revelation, (also sometimes called “John’s Apocalypse”) however, John was a prisoner, on an island that was used as a prison camp. It would have been very surprising if John had the use of a secretary. In verses 1&2, he identifies himself by name, and as the one “who testified to God’s word and to the testimony  about Jesus Christ, in all he saw.” This sounds exactly like the Apostle John in his gospel:

He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows he is telling the truth. (John 19:35, HCSB)

This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. (John 21:24, HCSB)

It also sounds like John in his first letter:

2that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — 3what we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may have fellowship along with us (1John 1:2-4, HCSB)

 14And we have seen and we testify that the Father has sent His Son as the world’s Savior. (1John 4:14, HCSB)

 This is also in John’s third letter:

12Demetrius has a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself. And we also testify for him, and you know that our testimony is true. (3John 1: 12, HCSB)

 I think we should certainly accept that this is John the Apostle. If for some reason, you still don’t want to think it was written by John the Apostle, that’s fine. Let’s understand, however, that Revelation is still the Word of God.

There is no reason to believe that the seven churches of Asia are symbolic, and every reason to believe that they were real, historical congregations of house churches in each of the named cities. When John writes, “Grace and peace to you,” that much is normal for most of the letters of the New Testament. His next phrases, however, are a bit different:

from the One who is, who was, and who is coming; from the seven spirits before His throne; 5and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

This description of God as the one who is, was, and is to come provides us with a clue for the whole of Revelation. Some of what we read in this book is past, some present, some future. God himself is Lord over all three “at the same time,” so to speak. Understanding this will help us to make sense of the some of the crazy things in this book.

When we read “from the seven spirits before his throne,” it sounds a bit strange. Most commentators believe that this is how John is representing the Holy Spirit. That makes sense. The first part (who is, was and is to come) is the Father. Jesus Christ, the Son, is named in verse 5. The seven spirits, then, represent the fullness of the Holy Spirit at work in the world. Later on, in Revelation 3:1 and 4:5, John explicitly calls them “the seven spirits of God.” In other words, together, they represent the work of the Holy Spirit.

This interpretation is bolstered by other parts of the Bible. The prophet Zechariah once had a vision. In the vision, he saw a golden oil lampstand with seven connected lamps, and oil channels running to each of the seven. Zechariah asked an angel what it meant, and this is what the angel said:

6So he answered me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by strength or by might, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of Hosts. (Zech 4:6, HCSB)

In other words, the seven oil lamps symbolized the Holy Spirit. Remember, like Zechariah, John is writing in apocalyptic language. It is reasonable to assume the same meaning: the seven spirits of God are the many-branches of the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Number 7 in Revelation

We might as well pause here and deal with the number seven. For Jewish people, the number seven meant completeness, finality, and perfection.

For John, I believe it especially means the completion of God’s full and perfect work in the world. John, and all Christians after him, believed in a Triune God: one being, made up of three distinct persons, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This means that three is the number of God.

John, and all Jews before him, thought of the number of four as indicating all of creation. We will see this when we get to chapter four in Revelation. Jews as far back as Ezekiel (590 BC, or so) imagined the world as divided into four parts: 1. The Wilderness 2. The Rural Areas 3. The Cities, and Cultures of Humankind 4. The Air.

So seven equals three (the number of God) plus four (the entirety of creation). It signifies God’s perfect work, plan, and will, expressed in the world.

Returning to our text, we don’t worship seven separate Holy Spirits. Instead, John describes him as “the sevenfold spirit of God” or “seven spirits of God” to express the work and will of the Holy Spirit in God’s creation. We are meant to know from this that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world.

Next, John brings Greeting from “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness.” It seems like a somewhat strange title. Aren’t the followers of Jesus witnesses for Christ? Why is He a witness? It might help to  know that in Greek, the word for “witness” is the same as the word for “martyr.” In John’s time, many Christians were being imprisoned, and some were even killed, for holding to their testimony that Jesus Christ is the God-man, savior of the world. I think John means to remind everyone that they are following in the footsteps of the original martyr: Jesus himself. Those who have died for their faith are in the best possible company: Jesus, the faithful martyr. Finally, Jesus is called, Ruler of the kings of earth.

I think, for now, we have enough to apply to our lives. Let’s begin with remembering that our Father is, was, and is to come. Nothing has ever happened to you that God cannot redeem for good (Romans 8:28). Even if you did not know him until later in life, He is the God of your past. If you let him, he can go back even to the muck of terrible things that you did, even to terrible things that were done to you, and redeem them through Jesus Christ. If you struggle with your past, I strongly urge you to pray about it. Invite the Lord of the past into your past. Give him permission to forgive, heal and redeem.

Our Father is also present. Nothing going on in your life right now is out of God’s control. He isn’t wringing his hands, saying, “Oh my! I never thought my people would ever get into this situation! What shall I do?” His plans are sometimes difficult – or even impossible – to understand (we only have to read on in Revelation to realize that). As I write this, I am fighting chronic pain in my left kidney that has been present for more than two years. I also have a new, arthritis-type pain all over my body, and I feel nauseous, two days out of three. But my greatest hope is to know my Father better in this present moment. Of course, I want pain relief and healing. It’s just that I want more to experience Him. And the wonderful thing is, that is what He promises I can have, here and now. He is my God, not just in the past or future, but now.

Our Heavenly Father is also our future. Nothing that comes to us in the future will be without God. When we worry about the future, the primary reason is that we are leaving God out of our calculations. He has already been to the future. He is there, and if we trust him, we can have peace about what is to come. Also, in the ultimate future, we will have more than just peace of mind. This book we are studying tells me that I will have pain relief and healing – if not now, then for certain, one day in the future. Paul wrote:

19If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. (1Cor 15:19, HCSB)

We have an unimaginably glorious, thrilling, joyful, meaningful, PERFECT future waiting for us if we persist in our faith. John will describe it in detail at the end of this book.

Perhaps we need to remember that the Holy Spirit, in all its fullness, is at work in the world, and in our hearts. If we are followers of Jesus, the Spirit of God is in us. Revelation will go on to show us that the Spirit is work all around us in the world, though we usually don’t notice it.

John describes Jesus Christ as the faithful martyr. Sometimes we feel alone in our suffering. Perhaps a divorced woman, suffering the results of the unfaithfulness of her husband, feels all alone in her emotional pain. Maybe a man who lost his wife to cancer feels the death of all his dreams about their future together. Jesus has gone ahead of you. He too died – not just in part, but in every way. And somehow, he took upon himself all of the struggles of humanity. He has experienced all of the same struggles we have:

14Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens — Jesus the Son of God — let us hold fast to the confession. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin. 16Therefore let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time. (Heb 4:14-16, HCSB)

Sometimes, ridiculous as it is, I feel like a martyr. No one else I know seems to struggle like I do. I suspect, however, that my feelings are quite common among all people. Jesus Christ was the faithful martyr who suffered unjustly, yet remained faithful. I am in good company when I suffer in any way. Not only that, but he is with me in my suffering. He is here to give me grace and mercy as I struggle. His presence is right here in the middle of struggles, suffering, and loneliness.

Jesus is also the firstborn of the dead, which is another title of hope. My future is tied to his. His resurrection ensures my own. I won’t always suffer or struggle. There are wonderful things ahead. Paul, thinking of this wrote:

18For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:18, HCSB)

Lastly, John writes that Jesus is also the ruler of the kings of the earth. That seems like a strange title, doesn’t it? When John wrote, there would have been almost no Christians in government, and very little hope (apparently) of there ever being Christians with influence in a worldly government. The most powerful man in the world insisted that others worship him as a god. He and his government were brutal, cruel, immoral and greedy. But John has just seen a vision of the world as God sees it, and he knows that no matter what it looks like, ultimate authority belongs to Jesus. Regardless of how it appears, Jesus Christ is over every king and ruler, and there is no power on earth greater than Him.

When John wrote, the Roman emperor, and everyone around him, believed he was the most powerful man on earth. No doubt, in our time, the current president of the United States believes he is the most powerful man in the world. They are all wrong. Jesus is the ultimate power. Though for a little while, Jesus gives rulers and kings a limited ability to do what they want, the buck stops not with the president, but with Jesus. He is in control. This calls for faith, because it sure doesn’t look like Jesus is in control. Yet, that is why John writes, and shares his vision: to encourage our faith. This is a call to believe these things that John has written. One way to “take hold” of these things in faith is by thanking God for them. I encourage you to take some time right now to thank God for being there in your past, here in your present, and in control of your future. Thank Jesus for his faithful death on our behalf, and that he allows us to be part of his company of witnesses. Even thank him for the “little deaths” that you might have to die here and now, knowing, like Jesus, that our reward is certain. Thank him for his many-splendoured work in the world, and in your heart, through the Holy Spirit. Thank him for being in control of the world, even in control of those who have worldly authority over us.

Let the Holy Spirit continue to apply these verses to your life right now.

REVELATION: THE BOOK OF SEVENS

Cross Tree

These 22 chapters help us keep believing in Jesus when the evidence makes it difficult. Even John the Baptist once wondered if he ought to look for another Messiah to follow. There are times, sometimes long seasons, when life simply doesn’t work very well, and no matter how hard we search, Jesus seems to have disappeared. Maybe he was never there.

“He is here,” John declares, “and He has not disappeared. God has let me see all that’s happening from heaven’s point of view. It’s breathtaking. The lamb is roaring His way through history to complete the Immanuel Agenda.”

–Larry Crabb.

 

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SERMON NOTES

Revelation 2: Introduction, Part 2.

Please bear with me as we spend another message almost entirely on introductory material. Revelation is unique in its complexity and obscurity, and if we truly want to hear what God is saying through this book, we need to put the time in to understand: how it was written, why it was written, and to whom it was written.

I want to make sure that everyone who reads this understands something: I approach this book with extreme humility. I am confident that God created me, at least in part, to bless others with a better understanding of the Bible, and I trust that He fulfills that purpose fairly often. I promise you that I am using my God-given gifts and resources to understand Revelation as best as I can, and to communicate what I am learning, as best as I can. However, I do not claim to be the final authority on Revelation; not even close. But, I know my Father in Heaven, and I know He is able to speak to us through this book, and for that reason alone, I think it is worth your time to follow along as we go through this series. I just don’t want you to get the impression that I think I have Revelation all figured out.

That brings me to another point: We must be prepared to not figure everything out. I guarantee that when we are done with this book, we will all still have quite a few questions, myself included. We are studying Revelation because it is part of God’s inerrant Word, and it is an oft-neglected part. Not only that, but time and time again I have experienced how God can make clear by His Holy Spirit scriptures which were previously puzzling to me. However, in the end, we need to live with some uncertainty in the details. We can do this because we are certain about the One who controls the details – our Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Some of what I say may be new to you, or different from what you had previously heard about particular passages. While I do not claim to have it all figured out (who could?) I trust that the Holy Spirit will be guiding my own study and teaching, as well as your studies and thinking.

My final encouragement is to throw away any “road map” you might want to make from this book, and instead concentrate on listening to what the Holy Spirit wants to say specifically to you through this wonderful book.

A Seven-Part Structure?

One of the fascinating things about this book is that it appears to be structured in sets of sevens. There are seven letters; seven seals; seven trumpets. Then it isn’t so clear for a while, until we get to a fourth set: seven bowls. Most commentators, myself included, think that John probably intended three more sets of sevens, in order to make the book into seven parts, each with seven subparts.

The seven part structure is important, because it represents a special way of writing used in ancient times. These days, Most writers try to organize their writing in certain accepted ways. Speakers do the same thing. Most writers and speakers basically use the following type of outline:

I. Introduction

II. Point A

III. Point B – builds on point A, and adds some new information.

IV. Point C – builds on point A & B, and adds some new information.

V. Summary & Conclusion

Sometimes there are more than three points in the center, but you get the general idea.

Back in ancient times, there was also a common way to write and speak, but it was different from what we do now. Scholars call it “chiastic structure” (pronounced “kai-ass-tik”). Sometimes it was used to write a whole book. Other times it was just used to tell stories or make individual points. Chiastic structure looks like this:

A. First point.

B. Second Point.

C. Third Point.

CENTRAL POINT

C1. Connects back to the third point (C) in some way,, or creates a contrasting parallel to it.

B1. Connects back to the second point (B) in some way,, or creates a contrasting parallel to it.

A1. Connects back to the first point (A) in some way,, or creates a contrasting parallel to it.

One of the things this does is to highlight the central point and make it stand out. It also helps readers to remember how we reached the central point, because of the parallelism or repetition leading back to the end point. Obviously, chiastic structure must be made up of an odd number of points, with a minimum number of five. Seven is a number well suited to these structures, which are also called “chiasms.” They were often used in ancient times to help people memorize oral history. There are many chiasms in Genesis, and also in Homer’s Odyssey, for example. It could be that John made use of chiasms to help him remember what he heard and saw in his vision.

So, all the sevens in Revelation appear to be chaisms. From literary structure point of view, it’s almost like one of those wooden Russian nesting dolls (sometimes called Matryoshka), with chiasms nested in other chiasms.

But the whole seven business in Revelation can be frustrating as well. The four sets of seven I mentioned are quite clear. Most commentators (though not all) agree that Chapters 12 through 14 appear to clearly be another set of “seven significant signs,” which now gives us five total sets of seven:

Part 1: 7 Seven Letters;

Part 2: Seven Seals;

Part 3: Seven Trumpets;

Part 4: Seven Signs; Part

5: Seven Bowls.

 

The remaining two sets – if, in fact, there are two more sets of seven – are rather more controversial. Out of six commentators – seven, if you include me – there is not one that agrees with another about how to organize the other two sets of seven. I think every way of doing it – including my own – seems a bit forced and artificial, compared to the five clear sets of seven.

In spite of the frustration identifying sections 6 and 7, however, almost all scholars are clear that chapters 12-14 make up the heart of this book (the fourth set of sevens), and that is very useful, as we shall see once we get into the text a bit more.

 The First Readers

As with all books of the Bible, the best approach is to try to understand what Revelation would have meant to those who first heard it.  Once we know what it meant to the first readers, and only then, we can begin to apply it to our own lives.

In order to do that, we need to know a bit about the Christians who would have been the first readers of John’s Revelation.

John wrote between 90-95 AD. Jesus had ascended into heaven some sixty years or so earlier, promising to return. And yet he had not returned. Some of the things that Jesus had predicted had apparently come true: the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. But even that event was now 25 years in the past, and still he had not returned. Christians were still a very small minority in the Roman Empire. Some cities had several house churches in them. Others had only one; and of course, there were some cities that had no Christians at  all. Even in the cities where the church was strong (like Ephesus) Christians held no power or influence, and were more or less helpless to defend themselves against discrimination or persecution.

And persecution was becoming more and more of a problem. Revelation was written during the reign of Emperor Domitian. Though several emperors before him claimed to be Divine, Domitian was the first Roman emperor to insist that his subjects worship him as a god. He required everyone in the Roman empire to offer a pinch of incense at shrines that were set up in his honor.

Jews, however, did not have to worship the Emperor. Fifty or sixty years before Jesus was born, A military leader from Palestine, near Israel, supported Julius Caesar in a war against his rival, Pompey. This was Antipater, father of King Herod the Great. Caesar rewarded Antipater by making him Governor of Judea. Caesar, believing (wrongly) that Antipater was a Jew, awarded special privileges to Jews in the Roman empire. One of the most important of those privileges is that they were left alone in the matter of religion and worship. So, when Emperor Domitian required his subjects to worship him, the Jews were exempt.

Christians were initially exempt as well, since the Romans believed that Christians were simply a special type of Jew. However, Jewish people all over the empire felt that Christians were polluting and destroying Judaism. Therefore, when emperor worship became required, many Jews took the opportunity to tell the Roman authorities that Christians were not part of their religion, and therefore were disobeying the law by not offering worship to the Emperor. They often “outed” specific Christians to the authorities, causing them to be whipped, thrown into prison, and sometimes even executed.

Meanwhile, the world continued on its wicked way. Evil people prospered. Idol worship, immorality, oppression, injustice and greed all continued, apparently unchecked by God’s power.

It would have been very easy for Christians at that time to start doubting Jesus. Would he really come back? Was the whole thing even real? Where is he now? Does he even care about us, about our struggles? Doesn’t he see the terrible things being done to his people? Doesn’t he know the monstrous evil in the Roman empire?

Bible commentator Leon Morris puts it like this:

We must not think of [Revelation] as a kind of intellectual puzzle (spot the meaning of this symbol!) sent to a relaxed church with time on its hands and an inclination for solving mysteries. It was sent to a little, persecuted, frustrated church, one which did not know what to make of the situation in which it found itself. (Leon Morris. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Revelation.)

Whenever we deal with a text in Revelation, we need to remind ourselves of these concerns that were very big for the Christians who first read it. We need to consider what the message of Revelation meant to them, in those circumstances, and only then can we begin to apply it to our own time and situation.

Author Larry Crabb gives us a helpful way to look at Revelation:

These 22 chapters help us keep believing in Jesus when the evidence makes it difficult. Even John the Baptist once wondered if he ought to look for another Messiah to follow. There are times, sometimes long seasons, when life simply doesn’t work very well, and no matter how hard we search, Jesus seems to have disappeared. Maybe he was never there.

“He is here,” John declares, “and He has not disappeared. God has let me see all that’s happening from heaven’s point of view. It’s breathtaking. The lamb is roaring His way through history to complete the Immanuel Agenda.”

Because of this, I think we should not get too distracted in the business of unraveling all of it. We should keep our eyes on the big picture. Certainly, at times, we may be able find the meaning of one thing or another. But remember, this isn’t some kind of 1st Century spiritual Sudoku puzzle. It isn’t about solving puzzles. The best way, then, is to focus on the big picture, and the meanings that would be obvious to Christians at the time when John wrote.

So let’s consider the first three verses once more:

1The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave Him to show His slaves what must quickly take place. He sent it and signified it through His angel to His slave John, 2who testified to God’s word and to the testimony about Jesus Christ, in all he saw. 3The one who reads this is blessed, and those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it are blessed, because the time is near! (Rev 1:1-3, HCSB)

Dear brother or sister in Christ, our Lord has not forgotten you. He has not abandoned you. He has a plan, and He is in control of history, empires, cultures and even your life. He is nearer to you than you realize. Do not lose heart!

THE BIBLE’S MOST COMPLICATED BOOK

Rev1

We must not interpret Revelation in a way that addresses only our own time, or the time at the end of the world, or a time in history that has already passed. The Word of God is living and active – it speaks to us now, and to all Christians at all times. We have to interpret Revelation in a way that honors that.

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Revelation: INTRODUCTION

This is the first of a sermon series on the Revelation of John – that is, the last book of the New Testament. This particular message is going to be a bit “lite” on scripture, because it is absolutely necessary to spend some time learning about the background of this book before we study it ourselves. If I were to simply jump into teaching the text of revelation without going over important background information, it would be like serving someone soup with no spoon, or steak with no knife. Revelation is an important book, but it is terribly confusing and difficult at points, and so a thorough introduction is unquestionably required. In fact, I am going to take two weeks to do this. (By the way, although some people call the book “Revelations,” properly speaking, there should be no “s.”)

Revelation is a difficult book to read, because it is not easy, at first glance, to understand what is going on, or what John (the author) is talking about. John records things like a beast with seven heads, and ten horns, and crowns on each horn ( but not on each head!), and a blasphemous name on each crown. It is very difficult to actually picture that. Even if we do successfully paint a picture of that in our minds, what in the world does it mean?

And yet, many powerful concepts and images from Revelation have become embedded in our culture. The Grim Reaper comes from this book, as do the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The numbers 666, 144,000, 4, 7, and 10 are all given significance by this book. The image and expression of “the pearly gates” is from Revelation, as is “judgement day,” and “the book of life.” One of the world’s most well-known hymns – Holy, Holy, Holy – comes from Revelation, chapters four and five.

My local church has asked me to teach through this book. I think this is going to require a certain amount of effort for you, dear readers. Please have patience as I set the stage, because for Revelation, more than almost any other book, the background information is critical.

DIFFERENT WAYS OF INTERPRETING REVELATION

Revelation is, I believe, the most complicated and puzzling book in the entire Bible. Because of that, it is vitally important for us to understand some background about it. One of the issues, is that you have probably heard people say various things about Revelation. Some of them probably contradict each other. Generally speaking, serious scholars have tried to interpret it in four major different ways.

The most common way to look at Revelation is as a prediction of the future; particularly, a prediction of the events leading up to the end of the world and the return of Jesus. This way of interpreting it is called the “futurist” approach. It makes a certain amount of sense, because the book does present itself as a prophecy of the future, right away, in verse 1.

1The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (Rev 1:1-3, ESV2011)

However, a lot of people carry the futurist approach to the extreme. Over the years, extreme futurists (sometimes also called “dispensationalists”) have developed detailed charts and timelines. They attempt to connect every detail of Revelation to some actual event or person that will occur in the end times. While I do believe that Revelation does indeed speak of real future occurrences, I also believe that it speaks of much more than that. Extreme futurists/dispensationalist seem far too confident in their own interpretations, and often treat their interpretations as if they were the actual scripture. I think Revelation is more complicated than they seem to understand. Unfortunately, if you’ve heard much about Revelation, it was almost certainly from extreme futurists.  These are the ones who talk about the seven ages of the church, and the specific place the antichrist will come from, and how the development of a single monetary currency throughout the world is a sign of the end of time. They confidently claim there will be an actual military battle in the modern nation of Israel, and a host of other things that are not directly said by the book of Revelation.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have “preterists,” who believe that Revelation is simply a historical representation of the situation, hopes and aspirations of early Christians. They would say that the only value in the text is to show us what people were thinking at the time it was written. They insist that it is not a prophecy at all. I do agree that Revelation shows us some of the hopes and fears of early Christians, and I think it is important to understand those things if we want to understand the book. However, I believe that Revelation also shows us far more than that. I believe it is, as it claims to be, a Revelation from God.

Other theologians view Revelation as a kind of symbolic prophecy of the entire history of God’s people, from the beginning, until the return of Jesus. We call this the “Historical,” view of Revelation. In this view, we would assume that some of Revelation has already happened, and some is yet to come. If this view is substantially correct, we should easily be able to identify in Revelation those things which have already come to pass. Since it is not at all easy to do that, I can’t embrace this view. Even so, I do believe that some of this book may already have been fulfilled.

Another way to look at Revelation is as a picture of the spiritual realities behind the history of our world. It is a symbolic way of showing what is going on spiritually. This is called the Idealist view. This view has some merit to it: certainly the story of the dragon and woman in chapters 12 & 13 are representations of the spiritual war between God and the devil. And yet, I also believe there are parts of the book that are definitely talking about events in the physical world. One of the primary emphases of the book as a whole is that God really is active in history, that He really will fulfill His promise to judge evil and save those who trust Him. This requires physical events, as well as spiritual.

I believe that all of these ways of interpreting Revelation can be helpful, if used in moderation . However, I think they all fall short, on their own. I think I can help us sort out the merits (and problems) of all these views. It all comes back to our understanding of the Bible as a whole. I believe (along with all orthodox Christians for the past 2,000 years) that the Bible is God’s Word, and that it is useful and relevant for every generation of Christians, past, present and future. Remember Hebrews 4:12:

12For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart. 13No creature is hidden from Him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account. (Heb 4:12-13, HCSB)

So we must not interpret Revelation in a way that addresses only our own time, or the time at the end of the world, or a time in history that has already passed. The Word of God is living and active – it speaks to us now, and to all Christians at all times. This is the biggest problem I have with most of the major views of Revelation: it confines the book to one era of history or another, whether past or future.

So, Revelation speaks of the time of the apostle John. It also speaks of the future. It speaks of spiritual realities and physical realities. The problem is, Revelation jumbles them all together; sometimes, I believe, even within the same verses. Any given vision, or element, might refer to some, or all of these realities at the same time. I think it helps tremendously for us to be aware of that. The following diagram might be useful:

Venn-Revelation 2

So, as we go through the book, and something doesn’t make sense, ask yourself: could this be a spiritual thing, rather than physical? Or a past event, rather than the future? Could it be a combined vision of both past and present, or both spiritual and physical? These sorts of questions can be very, very helpful in unraveling this difficult book.

WE HAVE TO UNDERSTAND THE APOCALYPTIC GENRE

That brings me to subject of genre. We need to be very clear about the genres (styles of writing) used in this book. In fact, this is one of the fundamental “rules” for interpreting scripture. Different types of writing need to be interpreted in different ways. For example, when Isaiah quotes the Lord as saying: “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool” (Isaiah 66:1), it comes in the form of poetic prophecy. We don’t believe that this planet is literally an ottoman on which God rests physical feet. Instead, we take these words as a figure of speech to illustrate a deeper principle, namely that God owns the universe. We understand it this way because the language is clearly poetic. On the other hand, when it says: “Once more war broke out, and David went out and fought the Philistines (1 Samuel 19:8)” we understand that this passage means exactly what it says. It is not a figure of speech. It comes in the context of historical narrative, and is clearly meant to be understood as history, a record of what actually happened.

Like many of the other books of the Bible, Revelation contains several different kinds of writing. It records some specific teachings, it includes prophecies and visions, there are songs of praise in it, and blessings and curses. Much of the book contains what is called apocalyptic literature.

Apocalyptic literature is very obscure, filled with strange images and significant numbers. It is almost like a weird dream. It is also kind of like a code language, where almost nothing is supposed to be taken at face value.

APOCALYPTIC WRITING MUST BE INTERPRETED IN A WAY THAT AGREES WITH CLEAR TEACHING

As we study Revelation, with its strange apocalyptic language, let’s remember that we  always understand and interpret the obscure parts of the bible in light of what is already clearly understood. There is plenty in the Bible that is straightforward; stuff that you have to work hard to misunderstand. Jesus is Lord, and there is no other way to God but him. Life is about relationship with Jesus. The ten commandments are not rocket science. So whenever we come to something that is difficult to understand, stick to the basics, and work to understand it based on what we do know for sure.  Certainly, we cannot base any major article of faith on the book of Revelation alone – we need to see Revelation in the context of the entire Bible.

WE SHOULD NOT GENERALLY TAKE APOCALYPTIC WRITING AT FACE VALUE.

Let’s also remember that much of Apocalyptic literature – and therefore much of Revelation – is not supposed to be taken literally.  Much of what we read will be very symbolic, and not literal. For instance, the number 144,000. The number twelve is a symbol of God’s people. There were twelve tribes of Israel – God’s people before Jesus. There were 12 Apostles chosen by Jesus, representing God’s people since the time of Jesus. The number 1000 signifies completeness. So 144,000 is the symbolic number of all of God’s people, past, present and future (12 multiplied by 12, multiplied by 1000). There are many, many other similar symbolic things in this book. We know that they aren’t meant literally, because they are part of the apocalyptic literature sections of  Revelation.

The main point of this kind of writing is to encourage believers who are going through hard times. The point is not really the details. Instead, what we are to get from it is the big picture that God is in control of history, and has not forgotten his people.

For now, then, let’s return to the first few verses:

1The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (Rev 1:1-3, ESV2011)

John is very emphatic about this Revelation. It was given by an angel, and John bears witness to the Word of God and testimony of Jesus. This is a solemn promise that what we find in this book is indeed God’s word, and that we are blessed to hear it, and keep it. This book takes a little bit more effort to understand than most. But if you put the time in to read all of Revelation, and study the sermons in this series, I’m confident that you, too, will be blessed by this prophecy.