The little, no-account Church

opendoor 2

This is a gracious word to the humble, faithful believer who feels small; perhaps even illegitimate or worthless. Jesus sees your faithfulness to his word. He sees your endurance. You are honored, legitimate and precious in His eyes. Nothing can prevent you from walking through the door He opens for you.

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Download Revelation Part 12

Revelation #12. Revelation 3:7-13

The church at Philadelphia was in a situation quite similar to that at Smyrna. It was apparently a small congregation, which had “little strength;” a literal translation is something like “micro-power.” As in Smyrna, the believers in Philadelphia were faithful, and Jesus has no rebuke for them – only praise and approval. Also, like the Smyrnan congregation, the Philadelphian believers were persecuted by the Jewish community, who accused them to the Roman authorities and took great pains to distinguish between the Christians and “real Jews.” In fact, Smyrna and Philadelphia are so similar that I began to ask myself why Jesus would include messages to both of the churches. Surely the message to one is sufficient for the other one too. The answer is, of course, obvious. He spoke the Christians in Philadelphia because he cares about them too. This re-affirms the idea that the Bible is not only a book from which we derive principles (although it does offer us wonderful principles). The Bible is also God’s personal message to individual Christians. Rather than lumping them in with a bigger church, Jesus speaks directly to the believers in Philadelphia, assuring them that he remembers, he sees and he cares. God is not simply a “mass communicator” – he created our individuality, and he cares about us as individuals.

To fully appreciate the promises given to the Christians at Philadelphia, we have to remember their situation. They were a small congregation, and perhaps “I know you have little strength,” (v.8) refers to the fact that they were not influential or well regarded in their city. Christianity was not in any sense a “major religion” in the eyes of the world in A.D. 90. In fact, it was not recognized as a religion at all. The Jews, who were following one of the “recognized religions,” were telling them that they were illegitimate, deriding them as a cult and insisting that they would be cut off by the Holy God of Israel.

From other New Testament passages, we can guess that the Jews in Philadelphia despised the Christian Church for including Gentiles (non-Jews). During New Testament times Jews insisted that Gentiles could not be holy, and even Jews who didn’t follow ceremonial laws would be considered unclean. In present times of course, Christians can simply and confidently disagree, and get on with their lives. But in those days it was a precarious and uncertain step to become a Christian. It had no external legitimacy (except perhaps for the miracles that were performed by the power of the Holy Spirit). No one would say to a Christian, “sure, your religion is valid.” In the eyes of the world, Christianity was a cult.

Jesus therefore begins his message to the church in Philadelphia with a re-affirmation of his (and therefore their) legitimacy: “The words of him who is holy and true, who hold the key of David. (v.7).” Just that sentence alone would have provided a world of comfort to those in Philadelphia. Jesus is trustworthy. The legitimacy of the Christian faith is based in reality – in truth. He is also holy and he imparts that holiness to his followers. They don’t need the false holiness of the Jews, who called them unholy. They are not a cult, and they will not be cut off from the Holy God of Israel. “The key of David” refers to God’s promise to King David that he would make one of David’s descendants a king forever. The Jews were probably posturing that they alone had the key to salvation (following the law in the Jewish tradition) whereas Jesus reminds his followers that He is the key to salvation. He is in fact, the one who was promised – he is the descendant of David whose kingdom shall never end. In essence, Jesus is saying to the Christian in Philadelphia: “you aren’t the ones who have missed out – they are the ones who missed it. You have the true descendant of David.”

Once again (as in Smyrna), Jesus says that the tormentors of the Christians who claim to be real Jews are not. This is a reference to the concept given in Romans 2:29

28For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh. 29On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart — by the Spirit, not the letter. That man’s praise is not from men but from God. (Rom 2:28-29, HCSB)

Jews classified themselves as “Abraham’s seed” (that is, descendants of Abraham). Paul writes:

“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29)

So Jesus is affirming here to the Christians in Philadelphia that they are legitimately the people of God, “real Jews,” if you will, because of their faith in him. The others who do not put their trust in Jesus are not actually true Jews, in the spiritual sense.

Jesus also says he is the one who opens, and no one can shut; he is the one who shuts, and no one can open. I think this probably refers, first and foremost, to salvation. But I think it includes all of the benefits of salvation, also: love, peace, joy, grace, honor. He is saying that no one can keep these faithful believers out of his kingdom. No one can prevent them from receiving what gives. No one can take away their opportunity to receive from Him.

In verse 8, he says specifically: “See I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut (v. 8).” Again, I think he is saying, “Don’t let anyone take away your peace. No one can keep you out. No one can prevent you from receiving from me. No one can call you illegitimate.”

Jesus says he knows that they have “kept” his word. This is what makes them one of only two churches that he does not criticize. They haven’t had the strength to do much else. They are small, no-account. But they’ve kept his word. And so he is keeping a door open for them. This is one reason I am so passionate about learning the Bible, and teaching others to learn it for themselves. The word “kept” means to guard, and to watch over. They have been faithful to keep it by obeying it, and faithful also to guard the word, and keep it from being distorted and misused. Their faithfulness has not resulted in a large powerful church, but they have done what Jesus wanted them to do.

The church at Philadelphia has also kept Jesus’ command to endure. Endurance is one of the major themes of Revelation, and in fact of the entire New Testament. We need to stick with Jesus, stick with His word even when we suffer. We need to hang in there when it is boring, hard, painful, discouraging, or tough in any way. We need to be willing to make difficult choices in favor of Jesus, and His Word. We need to be in it for the long haul. The church at Philadelphia endured in this way, and Jesus praises them for it.

Jesus promises the faithful in Philly that he “will keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth (v.19).” This is the same word, “keep,” that means to guard, or to watch over. Unfortunately, the word “from” is a bit tricky in Greek. It could mean that Jesus will keep them “right through” the trial (in the midst of it) or that he will keep them from undergoing the trial at all. Also, the word “trial,” in my version is the same Greek word used for testing and temptation. It might be that Jesus is saying, “I don’t need to test your faith any further. I don’t need to keep trying to see if it is genuine. I know you have the real thing.

This might be a good place to point out that there is very little, if any, support in the book of Revelation for the idea that Christians will be “raptured” out the world before anything seriously bad happens during the end times. In fact, this very verse (3:10) with its tricky Greek words is about as close as Revelation comes to suggesting such a thing, and it is a promise only to small number of believers, not to all of the Christians to whom Revelation was written. There is much more support, both from this verse and others, for the idea that Jesus will take care of his own who are living on earth during the tumultuous times preceding his return. The sealing of the 144,000 in Revelation 7 seems to be an expression of this idea. In any case, it is clear that while God’s judgment may not touch Christians, ungodly rulers and authorities will continue to persecute and kill them. If this were not so we would have great difficulty explaining the circumstances of Christians who have suffered unspeakably from the time of Jesus until now. The most Biblical theme about suffering is not that God removes it, but rather that he walks through it with us (see Isaiah 43:1-5; Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-4; John 15:18-21; John 16:33).

Jesus is recklessly generous with his promises to the church in Philadelphia. “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have so that no one will take your crown.” Jesus’ promise to come soon is of course, immensely comforting, and I want us to note that he takes it for granted that these believers already have a “crown.” He tells them to hold on to it, to seize it with both hands. Don’t let anything interfere with it.

He also promises to the over-comer that he/she will be a “pillar in the temple of my God.” Since Revelation actually tells us that there will be no need for a temple in heaven (Revelation 21:22) this has to be figurative language. The “temple” stands for God’s presence with his people. The one who overcomes in this life will never leave the presence of God. God’s name will be written on him/her and also the name of Jesus and of the New Jerusalem. They will belong fully to God.

This is a kind and gracious word to the faithful and humble. You don’t have to be big, you don’t need to be accomplishing great things. The Lord sees your situation. You have limited strength, but you’ve kept His word. No one can keep you out of His kingdom. No one can shut the door he opens for you. He will make those who scorn you right now be humbled before you later.

For application, I want to simply share how all this strikes me. Perhaps that will help you hear what the Spirit is saying to you also.

At this point in my life, I take a great deal of comfort from these verses. In fact, I feel a little bit like the church at Philadelphia. All of our house churches are small, and our ministry organization is small. We have little power. Sometimes, we even look illegitimate. Lately, my health struggles have made my world even smaller. Sometimes, I feel weak. But we have kept God’s word. We have been faithful to it as best as we are able. That has not resulted in growth or increasing power. Here’s a paraphrase of what I hear the Lord saying to me, and to our little churches:

“I know your situation. I know are considered small, weak and of no account. But you have done what is most important: you’ve held on to my Word, and not compromised it. You’ve guarded it from being undermined. You have also kept my command to endure, and I’m proud of you. The world doesn’t regard you, but I do. The world doesn’t know if you are legitimate, but in my eyes, you are. I call you legitimate. Your faith is the real thing. You may be weak, but I have opened a door for you – you don’t have to open it, or hold it open, yourself. Nothing, and no one, can prevent you from receiving what I give you. No one keep you out of my kingdom, out of my grace and love. You will be a pillar that supports my kingdom. I call you mine. I will always be with you.”

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THE LAZY CHURCH

Lazy Church

Sardis was one of the two worst churches to which Revelation was written. Jesus literally has nothing good to say about them. What was their offense? Were they pursuing some particularly bad heresy? Were they pressured by the culture into some terrible compromise? No. In the eyes of Jesus, what made them so bad was that they simply didn’t care very much. Even though they looked good on the outside, on the inside, the truth was that the gospel meant very little to them, and they were spiritually dead.

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Download Revelation Part 11

Revelation #11. Revelation 3:1-7

Just as Smyrna was one of only two churches whom Jesus does not rebuke, Sardis is one of only two churches whom Jesus does not praise for anything (Laodicea is the other one). Situated at the crossroads of five major highways, Sardis was a wealthy commercial center. Perhaps because of this easy wealth, the citizens of Sardis gained a reputation for a certain kind of laxity. The city itself was built on a hill so steep that it was considered by its residents to be an impregnable fortress. However, twice during its long history Sardis was captured by enemies (in 549 B.C. by Cyrus the Persian, and in 281 B.C. by the Greek ruler, Antiochus). Both times, enemy troops scaled the precipice by night and found that the lax Sardians had not even posted a guard. That it happened even once is amazing; that the Sardians failed to learn from history and allowed it to happen again, borders on the incredible. There was, it seemed, something about the culture of the city that lent itself to comfortable, luxurious lassitude.

This cultural characteristic of laxity had evidently penetrated the community of Christian believers in Sardis. There was a apparently no serious persecution of Christians in Sardis, by either Romans or Jews. While at one level this may sound like a good thing, perhaps the reason they were left alone is because they had become so much like the culture around them that there was no need to persecute them. Unlike the churches in Thyatira and Pergamum, there did not appear to be any particular cults leading them astray – they simply drifted through a mediocre faith. As one commentator puts it:

“Content with mediocrity, lacking both the enthusiasm to entertain a heresy and the depth of conviction which provokes intolerance, it was too innocuous to be worth persecuting.”

In other words, they weren’t interested enough in faith to be heretics, and they were so low-key about their convictions that the culture around them didn’t even notice them as particularly different.

Jesus wants to light a fire under these half-dead Christians. He reveals himself as “He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars…” Remember that the number seven in Revelation represents the complete and full work of God. As I mentioned in the second message in this series, the “seven spirits of God” really means God’s perfect work, plan, and will accomplished by the Holy Spirit in this world. The church at Sardis is not perfect or complete. They are so incomplete that they are almost spiritually dead. So, by highlighting the “seven spirits of God,” Jesus is showing a contrast between this church, and the Holy Spirit. What they desperately need is the work of the sevenfold spirit of God.

So, without any kind of praise for them, Jesus starts in on the problems of the Sardian Christians. He minces no words. “You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of my God (v1-2).” The term used for “wake up” is actually “keep watch” or “be alert.” I believe Jesus chose this word carefully to call to mind for the Sardians what happened to their city in the past when those defending it were not alert. This parallel is drawn further when he adds, “If therefore you will not wake up I will come like a thief and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you (v. 3).” With the story of the city’s defeat so well-known and readily available, Jesus makes use of it to warn these straying Christians. On the outside they appear secure, like the fortress of Sardis. But inside they are vulnerable to death and destruction. What happened to the city physically will happen to them spiritually unless something changes.

It’s surprising to me that this is one of the two worst churches of the seven (only this, and the Laodicean church have nothing for which Jesus praises them). Their offense isn’t some great heresy. They aren’t pounded by persecution. They’re just…spiritually lazy. They don’t care that much. And that makes them one of the worst offenders in Jesus’ eyes.

The Christians at Sardis were the ultimate hypocrites. They had a reputation for life, but were in reality dead. What was seen on the outside did not reflect the truth of the inside. I believe that their condition, and Jesus’ response to it, demonstrate an important truth of the Christian life. God wants us to be real with him (and as a result, real with each other also). True relationship has to be based on truth. To whatever extent that we put out false fronts or facades, we are not in real relationship with God and others. Although God knows everything and can see through our “fronts,” a right relationship with him is not possible until we are honest with ourselves and with him about who we really are. David writes in Psalm 51:

“Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and will be clean; wash me and I will be whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:6-7)”

Sometimes we do not want to deal with what is in our “inner parts” but if we are secretly holding on to sin there, we need to own up to it so Jesus can cleanse it. Jesus refers to the Sardians who were not honest about the state of their “inner parts” as those who have “soiled their garments (v 4).” God wants our heart, and he knows when he does not have it. No matter how good we may look to others, God knows the truth about our hearts. No matter how hard we try to keep up appearances, God wants honesty about the real state of our souls. No true cleansing or healing can come without it. Many people desire health and wholeness without going through the pain of owning up honestly to the state of their hearts. Jesus knows better. It is only when we acknowledge brokenness that it can be cleansed and healed.

So he says to these superficial Christians at Sardis: “Remember therefore what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent.” What is it that they had seen and heard? Nothing less than the good news:

“If we claim to have fellowship with him, yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth…If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:6, 8-9).”

He wants them to remember that salvation is based on truth, that everyone is helpless without Jesus – that no one is righteous apart from him. They need to be refilled with the joy of salvation. He also wants them to remember the words of James:

“What good is it brothers if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? …In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. …Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by what I do. (James 2:14,17,18)”

Good deeds cannot earn salvation of course, but the genuineness of salvation is tested in actions. If a person is truly connected to God, good deeds will result. True salvation does not excuse us from good deeds – instead it motivates us to do them in response to God’s love. The Sardian Christians needed to remember this, and to therefore “keep” it as well. If we truly know the word of God, and believe it, it will change how we live. If it doesn’t, we are in danger of spiritual death.

Finally, Jesus calls the Christians at Sardis to repent. Repentance goes beyond mere confession. In confession, we acknowledge our sin. In repentance, we turn away from it. Of course we cannot turn aside from sin without the help of the Holy Spirit, but repentance is simply the expression of our desire and will – with God’s help – to change course from our sinful ways. As always, God simply needs our willingness and he will supply the power.

The church is nearly dead. It’s interesting that this isn’t about the number of people worshipping. It is about the fact that most of those who claim to be in the church are spiritually in a coma, almost dead. But Jesus makes a promise to those who are alive, and who have not “defiled their clothes.” He says that these believers who have remained faithful will “walk with me in White.” I think this might be more clearly translated as “Walk with me, the one who wears white,” because he adds: “in the same way, the victor will be dressed in white clothes.” The white clothes symbolized holiness and purity. Even though these believers are in the midst of people who have defiled themselves, Jesus knows that these few have remained faithful, and they have been given His own purity and holiness.

He also says, “I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name before My Father  and before His angels.” The book of life is found in Revelation chapter 21. If your name is in the book, you receive eternal life in the New Heavens and New Earth. If not, you go into the lake of fire.

I think it is probably that many of the so-called Christians in Sardis were shy about publicly acknowledging Jesus. They weren’t persecuted, but perhaps being open about Jesus meant that you would lose social respect and standing. Talking about Jesus in public might be equivalent to talking about certain bodily functions in public. But to those few that publicly claimed Jesus, Jesus would publicly claim them.

Where does all this hit you? I don’t have a pre-conceived notion, because I don’t even know all of you who read this blog. I’ll just offer some possible applications.

Do you need to wake up spiritually? Are you sort of drifting along, so spiritually innocuous that you don’t offend anyone, so spiritually asleep that you hardly even care? Jesus is offering you a chance to wake up before it is too late. Otherwise, when he returns, it will be too late to have your name written in the book of life, too late to claim Jesus.

Perhaps you are more like me. I don’t think I’m spiritually asleep. But sometimes I get concerned that maybe I am too hard on those I am spiritually concerned about. Jesus is very harsh with these lazy Christians, because he doesn’t want them to be eternally destroyed. The way we respond to Jesus is eternally important. In fact, there is nothing more important on this earth than that. Don’t get lulled into thinking otherwise. You cannot place too much importance on how you and your loved ones respond to Jesus.

This is a church that experienced a long period of peace and prosperity – and it almost destroyed them spiritually. Perhaps we need to remember that sometimes the danger is not in persecution, or even heresy, but rather in peace and prosperity, leading us to become lazy, to feel that we don’t really need the Lord in any significant way.

Let those who have ears hear what the Spirit says today!

ADVENT: THE SEASON OF “SECOND CHRISTMAS”

 

Advent1

The church season of Advent is all about anticipation and expectation: not about Jesus’ birth, but about his return to earth. Sometimes, we have the same sorts of conflicting emotions about the return of Jesus that we have toward Christmas: anticipation, joy, stress and a fear that perhaps we will miss out.

1Dear friends, this is now the second letter I have written to you; in both letters, I want to develop a genuine understanding with a reminder, 2so that you can remember the words previously spoken by the holy prophets and the command of our Lord and Savior given through your apostles. 3First, be aware of this: Scoffers will come in the last days to scoff, living according to their own desires, 4saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? Ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they have been since the beginning of creation.” 5They willfully ignore this: Long ago the heavens and the earth were brought about from water and through water by the word of God. 6Through these waters the world of that time perished when it was flooded. 7But by the same word, the present heavens and earth are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

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.

10But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that day the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed. 11Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, it is clear what sort of people you should be in holy conduct and godliness 12as you wait for and earnestly desire the coming of the day of God. The heavens will be on fire and be dissolved because of it, and the elements will melt with the heat. 13But based on His promise, we wait for the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell.

14Therefore, dear friends, while you wait for these things, make every effort to be found at peace with Him without spot or blemish. 15Also, regard the patience of our Lord as an opportunity for salvation, just as our dear brother Paul has written to you according to the wisdom given to him. 16He speaks about these things in all his letters in which there are some matters that are hard to understand. The untaught and unstable twist them to their own destruction, as they also do with the rest of the Scriptures.

17Therefore, dear friends, since you know this in advance, be on your guard, so that you are not led away by the error of lawless people and fall from your own stability. 18But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2Pet 3:1-18, HCSB)

2 Peter 3:1-18. Advent Week 1,2017

Remember when you were a kid, and it seemed like Christmas would never come? I sometimes enjoy the movie A Christmas Story. It really captures the combination of yearning, excitement and apprehension that some children feel about the holiday. In that movie, Ralph, a young boy, desperately wants a BB gun. He needs it. His heart will not be at peace until he possesses it. Throughout the whole movie he is aching for Christmas to come, but also a bit fearful that he’ll be disappointed.

Jesus also promised us a “second Christmas.” He said he would return some day. In some ways, I think we look at the return of Jesus the same way Ralph in A Christmas Story looks at Christmas. We want the gifts we might get: eternal life, an end to sorrow and suffering, being reunited with those we loved and have lost. Revelation 21:1-5 puts it like this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

That sounds exciting. That sounds like a present we could really look forward to. In fact, in my better moments, I yearn for this. I know my soul won’t be at rest until I receive it.

But at the same time, we have a certain amount of apprehension about second Christmas. What if, when it comes, we are disappointed? What if Jesus was just messing with us when he promised to take us to be with him (John 14:1-6)? What if we are wrong about the whole thing? I think our fears about his return fall into a few different categories. I fear that won’t enjoy the time leading up to it. The holidays between Thanksgiving and Christmas can get hectic and stressful. In the same way, the Bible indicates that the time before Jesus returns will be stressful.

Another thing we tend to worry about it, is this: will heaven really be all it cracked up to be? I mean, I might get bored, singing in the choir, after a thousand years or so. Is our “second Christmas” present really as good as we think it is?

Finally, I think some us worry about this: will we really get the present we want? Or will we be left out? Jesus promised, but what could be taking him so long? Is the promise really for me? Is he even coming back at all?

The apostle Peter, in his second general letter to Christians, addressed some of these issues in 2 Peter 3:1-18. When Jesus first promised to come back, the apostles and the early church expected him within their lifetimes. No one ever dreamed he would wait for 2,000 years or more. So many Christians had begun to doubt, or at least wonder, about this promise. They were excited, but also worried. Here are several points from what Peter writes, that might help us as we look forward to the second Christmas.

  1. Second Christmas (the return of Jesus) is going to come. Scoffers are mocking the promise of Jesus, saying he is never really going to come back. But Peter reminds us that God is not bound by the same rules of time that bind us. A thousand years might be like a day to the Lord, or vice versa. If that is the case, the church of Jesus Christ has only been waiting two days for him to return. It seems like forever – just like Christmas seemed forever away when you were a kid – but it is not forever. God doesn’t count time the same way we do, just like adults see time differently than kids. But he has not forgotten or changed his promise. He will come back. The time-delay is because of God’s mercy and grace (2 Peter 3:9 & 15). He doesn’t want anyone to miss out on a chance to receive the incredible gifts he is bringing. So he is giving the world a chance to repent of sins and self-centeredness, and receive him. We may be apprehensive, but we are dealing with a loving and gracious God.
  2. It really will be good. In fact, it will be better than we can fully understand. This world is full of things that disappoint us. Remember that Christmas present you yearned for as a kid? How much joy does it bring you on a day-to-day basis today? By the time we are adults, if we are wise, we have learned that lasting joy does not come from temporary things. However, heaven is the opposite of temporary. We are promised eternal life, eternal joy. C.S. Lewis, among several other great Christian writers, suggests that our deepest desires are signals to us of what will be fulfilled in heaven:

Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object.

Heaven is not a place where we wear robes and sing in a choir all day. It is the place where our entire purpose for existence is consummated. Our deepest desires are mere echoes of the great Reality that awaits us on the other side of time. Let me give you a specific and surprising example: A lot of people wonder if there will be sex in heaven. The biblical picture we have is unclear. But what is quite clear to me is that the joy and pleasure and intimacy with another person that we want to experience through sex is a pale, weak shadow compared to the stunning fulfilment we will find in heaven. The kinds of questions we raise about heaven are like a little child who is on his way to visit his grandparents, and wants to know if he will still be able to talk to them on the phone when he gets there. We are promised that it is better than we can ask or imagine. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.

  1. This Gift has been promised to us, and we can rely on the promise. Peter says the earth and sky will be consumed in fire, but: “In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. (2 Peter 3:13)” Again this is the same promise reiterated in Revelation 21, quoted above. It is unimaginably good; better than we could ask or conceive of.
  2. The expectation of second Christmas should affect how we live today (2 Peter 3:14).

14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.

Let’s understand something clearly. Too many people get the cart before the horse. We don’t make efforts to be blameless and at peace with God in order to get to heaven and receive these promises. No. It goes like this: because we have these promises, and because we believe Jesus has given them to us out of his grace, our response to get ready for the life he offers. We don’t try to act right in order to receive God’s grace – we receive God’s grace first, and as a result, we make every effort to be blameless and at peace with him. The promise of Christmas can have a wonderful effect on young children. Sometimes, it is because they think they must be good in order to get good presents. But more often, it is the knowledge that at this time of the year, there is plenty of goodness and to go around. They are going to get goodness, and their response is often to be good in return. Ours should be the same, whether we are adults or children. The Lord has promised good to us (Jeremiah 29:11) – let that goodness flow back to him in a response of gratitude.

The fact is this: if we really are looking forward to the return of Jesus as the ultimate Christmas present, it should affect our lives. Worries that might otherwise be a big deal, don’t have to be so dominant. Things that others to do hurt me, don’t have to be unforgivable. God is being generous with me at Second Christmas, so I can spare some of the goodwill, and be generous with love and forgiveness toward others. There are a lot of things we get all tied in knots about, that simply won’t matter very much once Second Christmas comes.

  1. We can be secure in grace. (2 Peter 3:17-18)

17 Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

Peter writes that we should be on our guard. We are not invincible. We might be carried away by the opinions of others, or our own love of sin. However, though we are not invulnerable, we can be secure – Peter himself calls our position secure. He tells us to grow in grace. What does that mean? I think it means that we grow in our understanding of how powerful and incredible God’s grace and love are. Because of what Jesus has done, there is no sin you commit than cannot be forgiven if you repent. There is nothing that can keep God’s love from you. Second Christmas is coming, and it is good, and the promise is yours simply by trusting that it is for you. These verses are about the end of the world. But they are not meant to scare us – they are written to encourage us, and comfort us.

Enjoy Christmas this year. But keep your eyes on the real promise – the Second Christmas, the return of the One who came the first time as a little baby. To focus our thoughts right now, let me close with two more quotes from C.S. Lewis and the weight of glory:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of the morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so someday, God willing, we shall get in.

Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nublae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites us to use. We are summoned to pass in through nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.

 

 

 

Judgmental Jesus

glowing Jesus

Jesus has some very harsh words for those who claim to be Christians, yet do not repent. He has no trouble being judgmental toward Christians who are tolerant of such people. But He offers strength to those who hold on to Him, and the promise of His own fully satisfying Eternal Presence as compensation for the things we lose in this life by following Him.

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Revelation #10. Revelation 2:18-29

There were two small children who had been giving their mother quite a bit of trouble one day. After numerous battles, accidents and minor emergencies, bed-time arrived at last. The woman finally got them safely installed in their beds (which were in the same room) and sat down to few moments of time for herself. She decided to use the time to “baby” herself, so she donned her old raggedy bathrobe, applied a facial cosmetic mask, and sat down to do her nails. Alas, it was not to be. The children were causing a rumpus in their bedroom. She raced into the room, her hair up in towel, the facial mask still in place, and yelled and screamed and ordered them to be quiet. Shocked, they obeyed, and said they were sorry. As she was leaving the room, the mother heard the younger one whisper to the older, “who was that?”

It may be that this was how the church of Thyatira felt when they got their message from Jesus. Jesus revealed himself to them through what may have been a shocking, unfamiliar image. This is what he “looked like”:

“The Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire and His feet are like burnished bronze (v.18)”

This is the only time that Jesus identifies himself as the “Son of God,” and I think there is no mistake in it. Jesus wants there to be no “ifs” “ands” or “buts” about his authority in Thyatira. His Word is absolute. Not only does he come to them in authority, but he comes in anger. The “eyes like a flame of fire” seem to denote that Jesus is not pleased with what has been happening here. It might be said that his eyes are flashing in anger. And finally, the feet like burnished bronze seem to indicate judgment. He is about to trample under his feet those who oppose him.

Immediately after this terrifying picture of Jesus, He begins, as usual, by praising the Christians at Thyatira for some things: love, faith, service and perseverance. Not only that, but He tells them that He knows that they are doing more now that they were at the beginning – in other words they are growing in love and good deeds. Why then, is Jesus revealing Himself as coming in judgement and anger?

Thyatira was not an important city, like Ephesus, Smyrna or Pergamum. It was not a center of either emperor worship, or pagan religion, although both practices were no doubt common there. Instead, the city was basically a “blue-collar” area, an ancient Pittsburgh or Peoria. Several trade and craftsman guilds had their headquarters in Thyatira, and the city apparently was a center for traded goods. It would be safe to assume that many of the people there belonged to a craftsman guild or some sort of “trade association.” In fact, it would have been difficult to participate in trade or industry without membership in the appropriate guild. In some ways, these guilds might be similar to the labor unions at the height of their power during the middle of the 20th century. If you want a job, you belong to the guild. Period.

The problem, however, was this. These trade guilds regularly held “common meals” which were probably dedicated to some pagan god or other. Many of the Christians felt that they had to participate in these feasts or risk losing their livelihood. We can imagine the sorts of rationalization that would be employed. Idols and pagan deities are not real gods, some would argue, so the Christian should be able to attend without compromising his commitment to the one true God. There was an additional complication, however, in that many of these feasts often ended in drunkenness and people having sex indiscriminately. There was a lot at stake in Thyatira, since non-participation in these immoral idol-feasts could result in the loss of a way to make a living. I have to say that I myself as a pastor would have difficulty firmly telling people that they should take action that would probably result in a financial crisis for them. I don’t imagine it was any easier for the church leaders in Thyatira.

In addition to this pressure from the culture, there was also a problem within the Christian community. There was a well-known woman there who taught that is was OK for Christians to participate in idol worship and sexual immorality. Apparently, she even encouraged it. She claimed to be a “Prophetess,” to speak for God. Jesus, however, calls her “Jezebel.” I highly doubt that Jezebel was her actual name. It wasn’t a common name in that area in those days. Instead, I think Jesus is calling her “Jezebel” to show what he thinks of her. In the Old Testament “Jezebel” was the name of the wife of King Ahab of Israel. She was very instrumental in leading the kingdom of Israel away from God, and toward the worship of idols, and she was a thoroughly evil woman. So the name “Jezebel” for the prophetess of Thyatira is meant to reveal her true character, not her actual name. Her character is evil, and her teachings are leading God’s people away from Him, and into destruction. This “prophetess” does not speak for God at all.

I want to make something very clear here. The problem is not simply that a few Christians here and there are falling to temptation and sinning occasionally. These are people who are pursuing a lifestyle of ongoing sin, and teaching others to do the same.

How could this happen? How can a church be growing in faith, perseverance, service and love, accomplishing greater things for the kingdom of God, and yet allow such false teaching and immoral practice? Apparently they knew at some level that her teachings were false – why did they let her continue?

It appears that there were two groups of people within the Church at Thyatira. One group embraced the teaching (promoted by the self-styled “Prophetess”) that Christians could fully participate in idol worship and sexual immorality. They not only embraced the teaching, the but also the actual lifestyle. The second group apparently did not agree with these teachings, nor did they participate, but they tolerated the Christians who did such things, and also those who taught such things. They didn’t rebuke “Jezebel” or her followers.

Tolerance, of course is highly prized in our society today, and I think we have probably already heard the kinds of things that the Thyatirans might have said to persuade themselves not to do anything about “Jezebel.” Have you heard any of these before?

“Oh, I’m not judgmental. ‘Judge not that you be not judged.’”

“We’d better take the log out of our own eyes before we try to remove the splinter from hers.”

“Who’s to say that she isn’t a prophetess? I don’t have an exclusive connection to God.”

“If we say she’s wrong, and people can’t do that, then a lot of people might lose their jobs! We can’t be responsible for that!”

“If we say this is wrong, we might lose some members of the church who really like her and her teachings.”

“I think maybe she’s starting to come around a bit. Let’s just keep praying for her and hope she sees the light.”

Do these sound familiar? You see, the Christians at Thyatira knew that what she did was wrong, but they let her keep doing it. They were timid – they didn’t want to rock the boat. They didn’t want to cause trouble or sound judgmental.

Jesus, however, has no trouble sounding judgmental. Lest anyone wonder, he declares that this “Jezebel” had been given the opportunity to repent, and she spurned it. Therefore, she is going to punished, both only eternally, and also physically, right now, along with her followers. It is entirely possible, considering the nature of their sins, that the Lord would allow them to contract syphilis or some other STD, which in those days, before antibiotics could be painful and deadly. In any case the language suggests a connection between the “bed of adultery” and the “bed of sickness.”

In addition, he says “I will kill her children with pestilence.” I do not think this means her actual, physical children, if she had any. From the context, it is almost certain that when he says “her children,” Jesus means her followers. There will be severe judgment not only on “Jezebel” but also everyone who participates with her. The purpose for the judgment is to show all believers in Asia that while Jezebel is a false prophetess Jesus is the true son of God, and he deals with truth – whatever the outward appearance may be.

Again, let’s make this clear. This isn’t about people who are trying to follow Jesus, but occasionally fail, and fall into sin. This is about ongoing lifestyles of sin, and about endorsing such lifestyles.

Let’s bring into real life in the 21st century right now. As I mentioned last time, we seldom worship statues anymore. But when we center our lives around anything other than God himself, we are engaged in idolatry. If our deepest hopes, comforts or fears are found any place outside of the presence of God, we are idol-worshipers. In addition, no matter what our culture says, sexual immorality is a big deal to God. It is not an option for those who claim to be Christians. Now, I don’t mean that if you have ever sinned sexual you are going to hell. The forgiveness we have in Jesus is real, and powerful, and it overcomes all sins. But it is not an option to claim to be Christian while we continue in a long-term pattern of sinning without repentance – sexually, or otherwise. This isn’t me talking: it is unquestionably what the Bible teaches.

The church at Thyatira sounds haunting familiar to me. Many who call themselves Christians today are willing to serve others and show love to the world, and even to persevere in doing those things. But they are not willing to confront sin. They are not willing to sound judgmental, and in fact, they get angry at other Christians who do try to confront people who persistently live a sinful lifestyle. Our passage today makes it clear what Jesus thinks of Christians who tolerate sinful lifestyles in the church. It isn’t enough simply to “love and serve.” If people claim to follow Jesus, a persistently sinful lifestyle is not an option. Tolerating those who call themselves Christians while they live in unrepentant sin is also not an option. Good works and serving others is not enough if we tolerate sin in this way.

Now, when I say that Jesus does not tolerate these things, and that we should not either, I am not talking about any kind of violence, anger or oppression. We do not have permission from Jesus to hurt others. But we must not call “Christian” what Jesus calls sinful. Paul explains this very well in his letter to the Corinthians:

9I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. 11But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. 12For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? 13But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves. (1Cor 5:9-13, HCSB)

Let’s also be clear about this. This isn’t my opinion. This is what the Lord Himself says to His church. Do not accept as a Christian someone who persistently sins without repentance. In our passage today, Jesus shows his anger at those who say otherwise.

Now, in the case of Thyatira, Jesus simply tells the Church to take a stand. He makes two promises to those who do so, who hold fast until He returns:

1.) Authority over the nations. I believe that this promise is given to drive home the main point. Are you afraid of being judgmental toward fellow Christians? Don’t you know that in the future you will judge even more? Paul says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 6:2-3

2Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? 3Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! (1Cor 6:2-3, ESV2011)

By “saints” Paul simply  means “Christians.” Peter says something similar:

17For the time has come for judgment to begin with God’s household, and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God? (1Pet 4:17, HCSB)

This promise is a reminder that we do have the authority to call sin “sin” and to speak out against wrongdoing. It is not wrong to do so. If we faithfully do it now, he is saying, our authority will continue in greater measure after we are with him.

2.) Jesus also promises “The morning star.”

This is a bit surprising. However, Jesus Himself is called the “morning star” in Revelation 22:16. I think this is the promise that those who repent and persist in faith will receive the eternal glory and satisfaction of the full presence of Jesus Himself. In the New Heavens and New Earth, the presence of Jesus will be enough for all of our needs. He will fill us with eternal joy.

I think this is an important promise for people who stand to lose finances or relationships because of their faith in Jesus. I mentioned this last time, but it is a real possibility that Christians may need to make hard choices in order to continue to follow Jesus. We may need to stay out of certain professions that require us to teach others that immorality is good and normal. We may need to forgo sending children to universities that are actively undermining their faith. We may have to avoid financially lucrative opportunities that put us in morally compromising situations. When we have to do these things, Jesus promises the fullness of his own presence as compensation. He is all sufficient, and nothing we lose in this life compares to the joy and glory and grace of the Morning Star in our lives.

THE COMPROMISING CHURCH

Idolatry

The church at Pergamum resisted persecution, but they began to fall to seduction. With overwhelming cultural pressure around them, they began to compromise. They sought satisfaction in physical things, and it cost them greatly in spiritual things. Jesus told them to repent. He said that he was willing to go to war with them over their compromise with the culture. But he promised to the repentant ones that could find a satisfaction unlike any they could find on earth. They promised to the ones who were willing to not fit in on earth that they would be welcome in Heaven.

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Revelation #9. Revelation 2:12-17

The church at Pergamum was one of the three churches in Asia that we know for sure had experienced overt persecution by the time John was writing. Virtually all the churches existed in a culture that was hostile to Christianity, and I’m certain that being a Christian in Asia during those times involved considerably more sacrifice than being a Christian in America in these times.  Even so, Revelation only clearly identifies three of the seven churches as experiencing overt persecution, and one of these was Pergamum. There was, however, a difference between Pergamum and the other two persecuted churches. In Smyrna, the tribulation was on-going, and the worst of it was yet to come. In Philadelphia, they were also in the middle of it, though Jesus promised to cut it short for them. In Pergamum, the overt portion of the persecution was over. Once again, it is important to understand that all the churches experienced a culture that was against them, even when there was not direct harassment, but those three churches were singled out for direct maltreatment.

Like Smyrna, Pergamum was a center of Emperor worship. Not only that, but they had a hill something like the acropolis in Athens, covered with shrines and temples to various deities. At the very top of this “temple hill” was the altar built for the Greek god Zeus, who was in the mythology of that culture, chief of all gods. It might have been this shrine to Zeus that Jesus was referring to as “Satan’s throne.” Alternatively, “Satan’s throne” could have been an allusion to the pervasive worship of the healing-god Asklepios, who was represented by a snake. A third possibility is that he was making reference to Pergamum’s dedication to emperor-worship, and a fourth is simply that the city was a center for all sorts of pagan worship. In any case, the picture we have of Pergamum is one of virulent paganism; or, in other words, a culture that put a lot of pressure on Christianity.

So, in this pagan environment, the church at Pergamum made it through a difficult time of persecution, during which at least one of their number was killed for his faith (v.13). It is for this that Jesus commends them. However, it turns out that once the persecution was over, the church did not remain unaffected by the culture around them. Jesus says to them:

“But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit acts of immorality.” (v. 14)

To understand this, we need a bit of Old Testament background. Please read Numbers 22:1-25:9 to get the complete picture. Balaam was some sort of Seer, someone who followed the Lord, and from the Lord had a gift of visions, and of blessings and curses. He lived in Mesopotamia. Balak was the King of Moab, which was near Palestine, and he was afraid of the Israelites, who at that time were still wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. Balak saw that the Israelites had defeated everyone they encountered in battle, and so he called for Balaam to come and curse them, in order to defeat them without a military confrontation. Balaam came, in spite of strong warnings from the Lord to stay at home. He was apparently swayed by the huge amount of money that Balak offered him. He tried to curse Israel, but when he opened his mouth, all that came out was blessing for them. Balak, naturally, was not happy with Balaam, and the latter went on his way. That is all the text tells us overtly. But shortly after he left, the Moabite women came to where the Israelites were camped and invited them to Moabite religious festivals, which involved having sex with the women. The Israelites were thus committing a double sin – they broke God’s standards for pure and healthy sexuality (sexual intimacy is to be within marriage only) and they did so in the context of worshipping other gods. It was not a happy day, and God in his anger sent a plague upon the people. Later, in Numbers 31:16, it is revealed that Balaam was the one who suggested that the Moabite women seduce the Israelites. Apparently, although he could not curse the Israelites, he really wanted that money, so he conceived of this plan to derail the Israelites in order that he personally could get his pay.

Apparently something of this sort was going on in Pergamum. The church there could not be destroyed by overt persecution. So Satan’s new plan was seduction. If they couldn’t be forced to deny Jesus, maybe they could be compromised and seduced into it. Thus, with the pressure of the pagan culture around them, some members of the church had begun to take part in the feasts and festivals of false gods. It is important here to understand that the issue is not simply that the Christians are eating meat sacrificed to idols – the apostle Paul clearly says that is OK in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. However Paul placed two conditions on the eating of such meat. First, a Christian should not do it if it causes another Christian to “stumble” – that is, if it causes other Christians to think that idol worship is OK (1 Cor 8:9-13). Second, Paul emphatically rebukes those who deliberately partake in the feast as part of the of the whole worship experience of a false god (1 Cor 10:20). I would guess that the people in question in Pergamum are doing both things – causing other Christians to stumble, and actually participating in idol worship.

Not only were they engaged in such worship, but they also committed acts of sexual immorality. The Greek word for “sexual immorality” means any kind of sexual activity that takes place outside the union of one man and one woman in marriage. Therefore, it covers a host of possibilities. In every place it is mentioned in the New Testament, sexual immorality is condemned as a sin, and it is not right for Christians to engage in it. I realize that this sounds terribly old-fashioned and unenlightened, but it is what the Bible teaches, without a doubt. There are dozens of other verses like these two:

18Run from sexual immorality! “Every sin a person can commit is outside the body.” On the contrary, the person who is sexually immoral sins against his own body. 19Don’t you know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20for you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body. (1Cor 6:18-20, HCSB)

3For you have died, and your life is hidden with the Messiah in God. 4When the Messiah, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. 5Therefore, put to death what belongs to your worldly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry. 6Because of these, God’s wrath comes on the disobedient, 7and you once walked in these things when you were living in them (Col 3:3-7, HCSB)

Now, the thing to remember is that this teaching sounded strange and prudish to the culture that surrounded Christians in the first century. Sexual immorality was just as common and accepted by ancient Greco-Roman culture as it is today.

Apparently, to make matters even worse, the people who had caved in to cultural temptations in this way were teaching others that it was OK to do these things. They not only sinned, but they tried to pass it off as if it weren’t sin, thus sucking more innocent people into the darkness.

Jesus has seen this before, way back in the days of Moses, and is thoroughly angered. His words are blunt: “Repent therefore; or else I am coming to you quickly and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth (v.16)”

The sword here seems to clearly represent the Word of God. The book of Hebrews calls the Word of God a double edged sword (Hebrews 4:12), and here a double edged sword is coming out of the mouth of Jesus, who was called by John (in his gospel) “the word. (John 1:1-14)” What this all amounts to is that Pergamum has the opposite problem to Ephesus. You will remember that the church in Ephesus was doctrinally pure, but struggled with relationship to Jesus. The Ephesian church hated the Nicolaitans and their practices. Here in Pergamum, the problem is false doctrine leading to sinful practice. In fact their error is similar to that of the Nicolaitans. Doctrine does matter, and it is important. So important that Jesus will go to war with his church over it. Sin is sin, and if we fail to call it that, we can expect to hear the judgment of God.

On the other hand, even before he warns of judgment, Jesus calls his people to repent. He holds out not only the possibility of judgment, but also promises for those who hold on to the true faith. He promises first the hidden manna. There are many possibilities here, but it seems most sensible to understand that Jesus is promising a source of heavenly nourishment that is not available to those who don’t know him. These people have tried to satisfy themselves with meat from idol worship, and with sex. But Jesus is offering nourishment for the soul, a food that meets needs in a way that no idol feast and no illicit tryst could possibly meet. At least part of this “soul food” is the Bible, the Word of God. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel describe experiences of “ingesting” the word of God and finding it sweet to the taste. Peter was told to “feed my sheep” by Jesus – to feed them on Jesus’ own Word. But more than just the Bible, it is the promise of a soul fully satisfied by the presence of God himself. When we stop orienting our lives around ourselves and our own desires, and instead center our lives on God (who is, after all, the center of all things) we find a satisfaction that far exceeds any temporary pleasure derived from food or sex. I won’t deny that it takes some self-denial and effort to develop a taste for it, but when we do, we find this is the richest satisfaction in the universe, and the only satisfaction that will truly last.

The second promise offered is the “white stone” with a new name written on it. There are several possibilities for what this is about. In the First Century AD, inns and places for strangers to stay were not as common as they later became. Sometimes, when people from different places became friends, they would each take a stone, and write their names upon it, and then exchange the stones – almost like a business card (remember “card stock” was not invented until many hundreds of years later). So, if I gave you a stone, you would have my name written on it. Whenever you traveled to someplace where I was known, that stone would show people there that you were my friend. If you showed the stone with my name, my friends would offer you a place to stay, and all sorts of help and hospitality.

I like this picture, because when we surrender to Jesus, we become, in a sense, entitled to His name, in the same way as a holder of one of these “business card stones.” The name of Jesus means we will be welcome in heaven, and given a place there. The name of Jesus gives us protection from the devil, and the right to pray to God the Father. Some of the Christians at Pergamum wanted to fit in with the culture. Jesus promises them that if they are willing to not fit in on earth, they would find an eternal place of belonging in His Kindgom.

Another use for white stones was as a kind of “ticket” to admission to feasts. I kind of like this possibility too, because, Jesus is offering these Christians something better than the idolatrous and licentious feasts available to them in Pergamum. Here is a heavenly feast, where a person is known by his “hidden name” – his true character. Jesus knows them as no other can know them, and the feast he offers is for eternity – not simply an unsatisfying, passing pleasure.

A third possibility for the white stone comes from the ancient world of athletics. Professional gladiators trained extensively. In the early stages of training, the gladiator was simply called “apprentice.” Once he had completed a long period of training, the gladiator was given an opportunity to compete. If he was victorious, he received a white stone as a symbol of his achievement, and an elevation of status from “apprentice” to being called by his own name, and given a rank with more privileges. This matches the statement of Jesus that he will give a white stone to “the Victor.” The Christian life often involves self-discipline and training, like an athlete. It involves spiritual battle also. Those that persevere will be rewarded.

Personally, I think Jesus meant for the Christians at Pergamum to think of all three uses of the white stone; they are all meaningful and relevant.

So, what is meaningful and relevant about this text for you today? Are you tempted in certain ways to compromise with our idolatrous and immoral culture? As with the 1st Century Greco-Roman culture, today our culture is highly sexualized, and anything goes between consenting adults. Are you tempted to find satisfaction there? I mean, it seems like everyone else is doing it. Or maybe you aren’t tempted yourself, but you are willing to accept people who call themselves Christians and embrace all sorts of different sexual immorality? Don’t fall for the lie that “it’s about love.” Love is about commitment, and sex in our culture is definitely not about commitment. Love also sometimes means self-denial – again, this is missing from our culture. This is a very big deal for Jesus, as he makes clear here.. Droves and droves of Christians have fallen for the trick of Balaam, just in the last two decades. There can be no mistake, Jesus says: “repent!”

Perhaps your temptation runs more towards idol worship. Not too many people in the Western world worship physical statues anymore. But many, many people center their lives around things that are not God: money, status, pleasure, sports, entertainment and drugs & alcohol are some of the most common. We are also tempted to make idols our relationships; perhaps a romantic relationship, or even a child. Any time we build our identity on something other than God we are worshipping an idol. If anything holds “first place” in your life that isn’t God, it is an idol. Again, Jesus calls us to repent.

I look at the world, and even the huge number of Churches and Christians that are compromising with the world, and I think, “Either I’m crazy, or they are.” I may be crazy, but if so, I’m crazy in exactly the same way that the Bible is crazy; exactly the same way Jesus Himself is crazy. Maybe that’s what you need to hear today: hold on to what you know to be true. Remain steadfast.

It is hard when we don’t fit in with the culture around us. But Jesus promises us (with the white stone) that if we are willing to have no place in our ungodly culture, will always have a place in His kingdom.

The promise Jesus gives for repentance and perseverance are wonderful and soul satisfying. We can be more satisfied than the world dreams of. We are known personally by the Lord of universe, and given access to all of his resources for eternity. There is a better future than the world could ever offer.

Listen to what the Spirit has to say today!

SUFFERING FOR A CROWN

suffering - woman against wall

Suffering is a normal part of the Christian life. We are never given an absolute promise that God will spare us. But we are given the wonderful promises that Jesus is with us in the midst of it, and that, when we follow him, no suffering is meaningless. Suffering on earth accomplishes something wonderful in eternity. Ultimately, because our Lord suffered and triumphed before us, we are people of hope.

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Download Revelation Part 8

Revelation #8. Revelation 2:8-11

 The church in Smyrna at the end of the first century AD was facing tremendous persecution. I have mentioned the general persecution situation before. Domitian was the Roman Emperor at the time Revelation was written. Unlike some of his predecessors, Domitian took the title “Emperor and God, and insisted that everyone prove their loyalty by swearing an oath to the “genius of the Emperor,” and offer a pinch of incense at shrines dedicated to himself. Though Rome did not seek to especially persecute Christians, these requirements are impossible to fulfill for a true Christian, so the result was that many Christians were persecuted because they wouldn’t worship the Emperor. We know that by AD 116, the typical punishment for not worshiping the Emperor was death. It isn’t certain that such was the case at the time of Revelation, but at the very least they would be imprisoned, and since Jesus says “be faithful unto death,” it is likely that some of them were also executed.

Frequently the enemies of Christian people would rat them out to the authorities, hoping to gain the property owned by the Christians, or to eliminate them as business competition. In the case of Smyrna, the city addressed in this letter, Jewish people, angry at what they thought was the blasphemy of Christians, told the Roman authorities about the Christians who wouldn’t worship the Emperor. This was a very big deal in Smyrna, because it was actually the first city to build a temple (not just a shrine) to the Roman Emperor. Smyrna was entirely intolerant of people who didn’t worship the Emperor.

So, what does Jesus say to these believers who are being imprisoned and killed? What does he say about their poverty, and hardship? I want to make sure we understand this: He does not say, “Just have enough faith, and everything will work out well in this life.” He doesn’t say, “if you pray hard enough, you can change this.”

He starts with this: “I am the first and last, the one who was dead who came to life.” Christians in Smyrna were being imprisoned and killed. This is a very, very big deal. I remember when some missionary friends of ours had colleagues who were killed by Muslims on the Philippine island of Mindanao. It was shocking. It can shake you. Jesus is reminding them that he went through it before them, and he is now alive. He has already blazed this trail. On the other side of death, for Christians, is Jesus, who went through it and came out victorious.

Next, he says, “I know what you are going through. I know your affliction. I know your poverty.” Nothing has happened to them of which Jesus is unaware. He isn’t absent, off somewhere, wondering what every became of the church at Smyrna. No, he is watching. He is aware. He is with them.

There is something else. He says, “I know your poverty, yet you are rich.” This is in stark contrast to the church of Laodicea, which we will study later on. While he still walked the earth Jesus urged his followers to store up treasures in heaven rather than on earth. The Christians at Smyrna must have been doing that, and Jesus, speaking from heaven, is reminding them of the eternal fortune that that they have laid up for themselves. He can see it, their fortune is the same place where he is, and he is encouraging them that they have resources where it really matters, and they have wealth that can never fade or spoil, wealth that they will take into eternity. In spite of their temporary poverty on earth, they are rich! He is helping them to remain focused on the eternal goal, rather than the temporary trouble.

The church at Smyrna is one of only two churches which Jesus does not rebuke for anything. He is not displeased with them, and so in this letter we find no section of reprimand like there is for most of the other churches.

He also says this: “Don’t be afraid of what you are about the suffer.”

Suffering, hardship and affliction are a normal part of the Christian life. This is one of those terrifying truths in the Bible. The New Testament is chock-full of verses that make this clear. However, in every place where it warns of suffering, there are also promises of God’s presence, peace and joy in the middle of it. It almost always encourages us to not fear. Here are just a few out of many examples (I will italicize the parts about not fearing, and God’s presence in the middle of hardship, etc.):

1Now this is what the LORD says — the One who created you, Jacob, and the One who formed you, Israel — “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are Mine. 2I will be with you when you pass through the waters, and when you pass through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you. You will not be scorched when you walk through the fire, and the flame will not burn you. (Isa 43:1-2, HCSB)

These verses make it clear that God’s people will pass through flame and flood.  But the Holy Spirit also says, “Do not fear,” and “I will be with you in the midst of these trials.” He says these trials will not overwhelm them. Jesus said this to his disciples:

I 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)

Paul writes to the Thessalonians:

And we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you concerning your faith, so that no one will be shaken by these persecutions. For you yourselves know that we are appointed to this. In fact, when we were with you, we told you previously that we were going to suffer persecution, and as you know, it happened. (1 Thessalonians 3:2-4)

Peter writes:

But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled (1 Peter  3:14)

Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, 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. (1 Peter 4:12-13)

This is only a small sampling of all the verses about suffering in the New Testament. Almost all such verses contain promises that if we endure suffering with steadfastness and faith, it will result in joy, blessings and glory later on. They all tells us that Jesus is with us in the middle of hardship and suffering. Jesus, speaking to the Christians at Smyrna, says the same thing:

“Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. The victor will never be harmed by the second death.”

Jesus also makes it clear that there will be a limit to their suffering, in this case, “ten days.” This could be a literal ten days, but I suspect it is meant to be a word-picture, not a literal number of days. The number ten in the Book of Revelation is mentioned seven different times. Every other time it is mentioned, it appears to be a representation of the power of the devil, or of one his servants. Those other times the number ten appears, it certainly looks like it is a figurative number, not  a literal representation. So, my best guess for “ten days” in this passage is that it means that the Christians in Smyrna are going to feel like the devil has won, and that he is powerful and strong – but only for a limited amount of time, a time set by the Lord. When that time is up, the suffering will end.

Now, let’s be honest, it looks like for some of the Christians at Smyrna, the end of the suffering comes by death. But that is why Jesus promises that those who endure will have a crown of life. There is resurrection for those who remain faithful. Death robs the devil of his prey, if they are Christians. That is why Jesus says:

28Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt 10:28, HCSB)

When we trust Jesus, the devil’s power to hurt is ended by the death of our mortal bodies. But the promise of Jesus isn’t only about being raised from the dead: it is being raised from the dead with a crown. I think that means that when they are raised, they will receive honor and respect, like royalty does on earth. Their hardship is not wasted, or pointless. It means something. Their faithfulness accomplishes something.

Jesus also says that they will not be hurt by “the second death.” Revelation chapter 20 talks about this more extensively. It describes a scene when the dead are raised, and they have to stand before the judgement throne of God. Those who have their names written in the Lamb’s book of life, go on to eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth. Their names are in the book because they trusted Jesus. Those that did not surrender their lives to Jesus have a different fate:

13Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. 14Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev 20:13-15, HCSB)

Therefore, Jesus is promising the Christians at Smyrna that if they endure, their names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Their resurrection will last for eternity; they don’t have to fear death, hell or the lake of fire.

So then, what does all this mean for us today?

Hard times might be coming. Perhaps it will be through persecution, perhaps through something else. I know Christian people who would rebuke me for saying that. They would say that I will bring the hard times upon myself by speaking it. However, that attitude is barely more than superstition, almost a belief in the magic of saying the correct words. I ask, however, whose words are more powerful: yours or God’s? In ancient times, people criticized the prophets who prophesied difficult times ahead, and sometimes even imprisoned them for saying it, but the prophets were right, and the “word of faith” superstitious people were wrong. John said it. Peter said it in his two letters. Paul said it. James said it. The author of Hebrews said it. Jesus said it: and that, my friends, covers the entire New Testament. People who are afraid of saying bad things in case they come true neglect all those verses in the New Testament that teach us that Jesus is with us in times of hardship and suffering.

There are some disturbing similarities between our culture, and that of 1st century  Roman Empire. The Emperors insisted on being worshiped, in part, in order to unify the culture. The Roman authorities did not care if the Christians worshipped Jesus Christ, as long as they also worshipped the Emperor. Rome wasn’t trying to reject the central teachings of Christianity – they just wanted to force everyone (including Christians) to go along with a certain cultural practice for the sake of unity, and to strengthen the government. It wasn’t that the culture hated Christians particularly. It was that, in the eyes of the rest of the culture, Christians wouldn’t play along. Christians were divisive, they were trouble-makers. By their refusal to worship the Emperor, they threatened the narrative created by the status quo.

This is why I am almost positive that unless something changes radically within the next generation or so, Christians will be persecuted in the United States. People already see us in the same way that the Romans viewed the first Christians. It isn’t that Western culture is out to destroy Christianity, but it sees Christians as divisive for not affirming the new status quo. If we refuse to toe the line, there could be trouble. Yet to affirm the status quo in our culture today is to contradict some of the teachings of the Bible.

For the most part, right now, the culture does not have the governmental power to persecute Christians for resisting. However, all of the same attitudes are in place. Even today, we can experience the emotional shame and humiliation of being on the losing side of the cultural war. And already, there are some jobs in which you can be fired for affirming some of the things the Bible teaches. As with the Christians at Smyrna, following Jesus can have real, negative financial consequences. Increasingly, we need to focus on the eternal perspective, and realize that there is more than money at stake.

As I consider all this, I have often wondered if there is anything I can do about it, or any way I can prepare for it. These words of Jesus set my mind at rest. What he wants from me is simply to trust him. He does not want us to be afraid of what the future holds, even when he is telling us that it holds persecutions.

It might seem for a while like the devil has won, like evil people have won. But take heart: don’t be afraid of suffering! Endure. You will find that God has placed a time limit upon the victory of evil. This is a theme repeated several times in Revelation.

Suffering is a normal part of the Christian life. We are never given an absolute promise that God will spare us. But we are given the wonderful promises that Jesus is with us in the midst of it, and that, when we follow him, no suffering is meaningless. Suffering on earth accomplishes something wonderful in eternity. Ultimately, because our Lord suffered and triumphed before us, we are people of hope.

So today, I encourage you to live not for the moment, but for eternity. There is a crown of life waiting for us. There is a resurrection that will not be taken away if we remain faithful. We have a loving Lord who has already suffered and died, and has opened the way for us into an eternal kingdom of joy.

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.