The value of selective intolerance

Temple of Artemis

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

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Revelation #6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another one, from John’s second letter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NO ROOM FOR FEAR

Old keys on a old book, antique wood background

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

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Revelation #5. Revelation 1:9-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you listen to Him today?

 

GOD’S WORD OVER OUR CIRCUMSTANCES

Hands cupping sun

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

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Revelation #4.  Revelation 1:5-8

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

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

He who loves us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And made us a kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Priests to His God and Father

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LORD OF PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

Jesus with us

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

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Download Revelation Part 3

Revelation #3. 1:1-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It also sounds like John in his first letter:

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

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

 This is also in John’s third letter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Number 7 in Revelation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BIBLE’S MOST COMPLICATED BOOK

Rev1

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

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Revelation: INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

DIFFERENT WAYS OF INTERPRETING REVELATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venn-Revelation 2

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

WE HAVE TO UNDERSTAND THE APOCALYPTIC GENRE

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

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

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

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

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

WE SHOULD NOT GENERALLY TAKE APOCALYPTIC WRITING AT FACE VALUE.

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

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

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

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

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

PARTICIPATING IN THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD

seed coins

Obviously, there’s Elephant in this message: if I’m talking about giving to teachers and preachers, that could include me. I don’t think that’s why I’m teaching about this. I think the reason I’m teaching this is because it is the central concern of our text today. But, perhaps I’m not able to really be objective. So, read third John. Read the other verses I share. Evaluate and check what I say. Pray about it. Don’t take only my word for it. You might still receive a blessing from God’s Word through this message.

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Download Overlooked Letters Part 5

Overlooked Letters #5: Third John

Let’s turn now to  Third John. In Third John, John still has the same main concerns as in his second letter: love and truth. In this case, it is love and truth applied to a very specific circumstance: the hosting and helping of Christian ministers.

John writes to a specific person, Gaius. There are three different men of that name in the New Testament. Since it was the most common name in the ancient Roman world, it may not be any of those, but rather a fourth. I don’t think it makes a big difference to us today which particular “Gaius” this is.

John begins by saying, “Dear Friend, I pray that you may prosper in every way and be in good health physically.” I feel the need to forestall any possible use of these verses by teachers of “prosperity.” The wish of good health and “prosperity” was an extremely common formula in personal letters in ancient times. In fact, it was so common, that in Latin, the phrase “good health and prosperity” was often compressed into an acronym, so that it if it was in English, it would look like “GH&P.” We don’t say that in our letters these days, but a rough sort of equivalent would be XOXO, or RSVP, or, “Yours sincerely.” It is certainly not any sort of grounds to support the teaching of the prosperity gospel; it’s just an ordinary way to begin a letter.

John commends Gaius for his faithfulness “in whatever you do for the brothers, especially when they are strangers.” Unfortunately the Greek does not give us any clues as what, specifically, Gaius was doing, and who these “brothers” (who are also strangers) are.

Reading between the lines, and knowing something of the early church, I think the situation was as follows: During the first few centuries of Christianity, some Christians were called by God, and sent out by their churches, to travel around, teaching and preaching about Jesus Christ. In essence, these were missionaries. We have already seen that John warns in 2 John not to support or welcome such people unless they are in the truth; that is, unless they are true Christians, and teach accordingly (2 John 10). But here, he commends Gaius for welcoming those who are true Christian workers, and he rebukes someone named Diotrephes for not doing so.

It is clear that these are not just Christians, traveling from place to place on private business. John says they should be helped “since they set out for the sake of the Name.” So these are Christian ministers, who have forsaken any other means of supporting themselves, and devoted themselves to teaching about Jesus full-time.

Still reading between the lines, apparently, the normal practice was for such teachers to find other believers in a city (if there were any) and stay with them while they ministered. The local believers usually provided them with food, housing and other necessaries. Then, as the missionaries traveled on, the churches in that city would often give them material resources to support them during the next phase of their journey.

The Bible doesn’t record every single detail of such things, but we get some good glimpses of this sort of practice in action in the life of Paul. Paul and Barnabas were sent out by the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1-3). I think it is probable that the church gave them enough food, supplies and money for a fair amount of traveling.

Later, on a different journey, we find Paul, Timothy and Silas traveling from place to place. In Thessalonica, they had to split up, and Paul went on alone (Act 17:14-15). Eventually Paul ended up in Corinth, where he worked as a tentmaker to support himself. Part of the reason he did this, was apparently to spend more time with two new converts, Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:1-3). However, when Silas and Timothy finally rejoined him, Paul stopped working to support himself, and “devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:5). The implication is that Silas and Timothy had brought gifts from other churches to support Paul, so he didn’t have to work as a tentmaker anymore. We know that Philippian church supported Paul on several occasions (Philippians 4:10-17).

Many people do not understand this, and they misread 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul says he gave up his right ask for support as a teacher of the gospel. Paul voluntarily chose not to ask for support from the Corinthian church; but even while he was at Corinth, he was teaching full time (Acts 18:5, above), which means that someone else, (probably one or two other churches from other cities) was supporting him. The only record of his earning a living as a tentmaker is in Acts 18:1-3, and that was, quite clearly, a temporary situation. In fact, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9, tells the Corinthians quite clearly that teachers of God’s Word should be fully supported by churches:

8Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? 9For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. 11If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? 12If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. 13Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? 14In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1Cor 9:8-14, ESV2011, I added the italic format, for emphasis)

That’s pretty darn clear. Paul reminds the Corinthians that he did not ask this from them (though, obviously, he was supported by others, besides the Corinthians) but the whole point of his argument is that he does have the right to be supported by them, since he taught them the gospel.

This should be clear enough, but just in case, there are several other places where the New Testament teaches that it is the responsibility churches to support teachers of God’s word:

17The elders who are good leaders should be considered worthy of an ample honorarium, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. 18For the Scripture says: Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain, and, the worker is worthy of his wages. (1Tim 5:17-18, HCSB)

 6The one who is taught the message must share all his good things with the teacher. 7Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows he will also reap, 8because the one who sows to his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. (Gal 6:6-8, HCSB)

 There are a few more, but you get the picture. So, when we come to 3 John, we see that John is talking about a normal practice in the church. He is praising Gaius for leading his church in giving to missionaries, and he condemns Diotrephes for not supporting teachers of the Word, and for trying to prevent others from doing so.

Now, let’s admit that there is an elephant in the room. I am a teacher of the Bible, and so this concerns me directly. I could be using these verses in a self-serving way, to get you to send me money. I don’t think I’m doing that. In the first place, I haven’t really asked most of you readers for money. Sometimes I remind you to pray for me, and to pray about whether or not you should give to this ministry. But I don’t know for sure that God wants you to give to me particularly. If you gain spiritual benefit from God’s Word through my teaching, I do have the right, as Paul says, to ask for support from you. But let me be clear: like Paul, I am not insisting on that right. That’s not where I’m going with this message. If God does lead you to give to this ministry, by all means, apply what I’m about to say, and then go ahead. But He certainly may be calling you to support some other minister of the gospel. Again, read on, before giving to anyone, and then do as God leads.

I believe that I’m teaching about this subject because this is what is in our text for today, and Christians need to hear it, whether or not anyone happens to support me. However, I’m sure, like anybody, that I have a hard time being completely objective when something so closely concerns my livelihood.

In recognition of that, let me start by encouraging you: search the Bible yourself about this matter. Look at the verses I’ve shared above, and at the letter of Third John: how do you understand those? Decide for yourself what they mean. Check me, check my interpretations.

Second, before you give money to my ministry, or to the ministry of anyone else, consider how to give responsibly. I think two things are helpful in order to do that:

  1. Make sure that whoever you give to is walking in truth. 2 John makes a big deal of truth, and tells believers not to support or welcome those who run beyond God’s word, or distort it. So, don’t give to anyone unless you can be reasonably sure that they are walking in truth. The first two sermons in this series might help you with that.

I think it is also worthwhile, if it is possible, to check someone’s lifestyle. Are they really living as Christians?

Check their credentials. Are there groups of Christians elsewhere who would vouch for the minister, or affirm that the individual does indeed have a call to teach and preach? One indication of that is to see if the minister is ordained or certified by a denomination, church or reputable Christian organization. All these things are part of being in truth. This is what John is doing with his friend Gaius: in verse 12, he affirms that Demetrius, one of the Christian ministers that Gaius could help, “has a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself, and we also testify for him.”

  1. Please pray before you give to anyone’s ministry. Ask God to stop you, if you are not supposed to give. Ask Him how much and how often you should give. Also, please pray for the ministries you give to. Your money could be very helpful to many different ministries. But your prayers are even more helpful. For my own ministry, I would love it if you would both give and pray, but if you are going to pick only one of the two, I would rather you pray for me. So, you can give to this ministry if you like, if you pray about it first, and if you are sure I’m walking in truth. The details are on the Clear Bible website. On the other hand, I have no condemnation for you if you don’t give. I just want you to hear what the Bible says about this, in general.

OK, with that, now may I share some additional thoughts for application?

First, I think we should understand that a normal part of the Christian life should involve giving to support the ministry of those who teach God’s word. John says that to do so is to show faithfulness (verse 5) and love (verse 6).

Second, giving materially is a way to participate in the ministry of others. John says:

“Therefore we should support such men so that we can be coworkers with the truth” (3 John 8).

In some spiritual way, giving with a pure and prayerful heart allows us to be part of what God is doing in the ministry of others. Paul seems to affirm this in Philippians 4:10-17. That’s one reason it’s so important to check out if someone is walking in truth (as above) before you give, because by giving, you are participating in what they are doing. You want to make sure that you are comfortable “participating” in a particular ministry. Perhaps you aren’t called to be a missionary, or Bible teacher. You can still be part of such ministries through giving.

While Paul was writing about this to the Philippians, he said this:

15And you Philippians know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving except you alone. 16For even in Thessalonica you sent gifts for my need several times. 17Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that is increasing to your account. 18But I have received everything in full, and I have an abundance. I am fully supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you provided — a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20Now to our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Phil 4:15-20, HCSB)

So, their giving is a “profit that is increasing to your account,” and is a participation in Paul’s ministry. Verse 19, is so important because it suggests that when we give to others, we can trust God to supply our own needs through His grace. In other words, though we don’t give in order to be blessed, there is a blessing that we can receive when we give.

I pray that you too, can discover that blessing.

 

LOVE AND LIES

Love is easy. This is one of the big lies that destroys marriages, but it also destroys churches and personal friendships. When love gets hard, too many people “bail out” on marriages, churches and friendships. Real love does involve warm feelings. But real love also involves hard work. Forgiving others is hard, sometimes, but it is indispensable to lasting love. Being humble, saying sorry, and admitting that you are wrong are all very difficult, but all vital to real love. Withholding angry retaliation, being patient, listening, serving someone when you are tired and crabby – these are all important parts of true love, and they all take significant emotional energy and self-discipline. There are payoffs, of course. Many times, real love fills us with joy, happiness and wonderful feelings. But we need to know, and to remember, that true, lasting love is sometimes hard work.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Download Overlooked Letters Part 4

Overlooked Letters # 4. Love, and Third John.

 I ran out of time/space in my last message about Christian love. I’d like to finish the topic of Christian love. Since John’s concern is for both Love and Truth, let’s consider some lies about love, and how we can live and love in the truth.

My focus last time was to show you how the Bible teaches that it is of utmost importance that we Christians love our fellow Christians. According to the New Testament, after God’s love for us, this is the most important kind of love. For many of us, that message should convict us that we have to change our lifestyle. If the way we live does not allow time and energy to put into relationships with other Christians, then we will find ourselves disobeying the command of Jesus (2 John 5). If we do not make room in our lives to love our Christian brothers and sisters, we cannot truly claim to be following Jesus.

20If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. 21And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother. (1John 4:20-21, HCSB)

Now, unfortunately, our culture has, in large part, separated love from truth. Remember, John is deeply concerned about both. We need to be aware of cultural lies about love.

One of the biggest lies about love is that it means unconditional acceptance. In other words, if you love me, you will accept, without reservation, anything I do, or don’t do. In fact, our culture is rapidly becoming even more extreme about this, and now many people believe that if you love someone, it means you must agree with, and endorse, all of their choices. Author Rick Warren puts it succinctly:

“Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”

So, contrary to popular opinion, loving our fellow-Christians does not mean that we must agree with them on everything, and endorse everything they do (or don’t). Sometimes, the truly loving thing is to tell someone that they are wrong, or are headed in the wrong direction. The other side of that coin is that just because someone confronts you about something does not mean that they hate you, or are acting in an unloving way. We Christians need desperately to remember this, and to model it to the culture around us. I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again: If I believe you are going to hell (even if I’m wrong in my belief) and I say something to you about it, my motivation is loving – I don’t want you to go to hell. On the other hand, if I truly believe you are going to hell (rightly or wrongly) and I say nothing, I must hate you a great deal, because I’m content for you to go to hell, without warning you. So, many times, the hateful thing is to remain silent, while the truly loving thing is to share your belief.

In Christian relationships, it often isn’t about going to hell; it’s usually more nuanced. But often, we keep silent about things because we don’t want to put the time and effort into having real and genuine relationships with each other. Subconsciously, we know that if we speak, it might cause conflict, and deep down, we aren’t sure we love the other person enough to spend the time and energy to work through that conflict.

Here’s another lie about love that is very destructive, especially in Christian relationships: Love means never having to say “I’m sorry.” It’s a nice idea, I get it. The thought is, if someone really loves you, they will accept and forgive everything you do, and so you don’t have to apologize about anything. In reality, if you really love someone, one of the greatest gifts you can give them is to say: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” If you believe you are never wrong in relationship to someone else, or that you need never apologize, you are not living in the truth, and without truth, real love cannot thrive. Humility, apology, confession and forgiveness are powerful tools that make love grow. Our culture would like to minimize them. Don’t let it happen in the church. Love each other in truth, and that means being humble and saying sorry.

6But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (Jas 4:6-7, ESV2011)

5Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 6Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1Pet 5:5-7, ESV2011)

31Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Eph 4:31-32, ESV2011)

Here’s another cultural lie about love: Physical attraction means love. The vast majority of our movies, television, music, and other popular art promote the idea that the highest expression of love is sexual intercourse. This is one reason the culture is so sensitive about sexual issues – any sort of sexual moral standard is viewed as interfering with “love.” This means the church is in trouble, because a) Churches who are “in truth” teach that sex is only for married couples. So the culture thinks we are somehow restricting true love. b) If sex is the highest expression of love, that means people in the church will never share the highest form of love with each other (unless it’s a weird, perverted cult, which, of course, would not be a true church). So Christian fellowship becomes kind of a “second class” love.

However, the Bible teaches us that highest form of love is self-sacrifice. In New Testament Greek, there are several words for love, including: romantic love (eros), brotherly/friendship love (phileo) and self-sacrificing love (agape). The love of Jesus, and of God, is described as agape. The famous “love chapter” that is often read at weddings – 1 Corinthians 13 – describes agape. All throughout the New Testament, it is agape – self-sacrificing love – that is the highest form of love. That kind of love, we can have in the church among everyone, and it transforms lives. There is indeed no Biblical restriction on this highest kind of love.

Another one: Love is easy. This is one of the big lies that destroys marriages, but it also destroys churches and personal friendships. When love gets hard, too many people “bail out” on marriages, churches and friendships. Real love does involve warm feelings. But real love also involves hard work. Forgiving others is hard, sometimes, but it is indispensable to lasting love. Being humble, saying sorry, and admitting that you are wrong are all very difficult, but all vital to real love. Withholding angry retaliation, being patient, listening, serving someone when you are tired and crabby – these are all important parts of true love, and they all take significant emotional energy and self-discipline. There are payoffs, of course. Many times, real love fills us with joy, happiness and wonderful feelings. But we need to know, and to remember, that true, lasting love is sometimes hard work.

Let me close the topic of Christian love by simply sharing a brief sermon given by the Apostle Paul on this matter. 1 Corinthians 13, “the love chapter” is one of the most-read passages in the Bible, and many people are quite familiar with it. Go ahead and read it on your own. But I want to share a different one, here. This passage below describes many practical ways in which Christians can and should love each other. This is how we should love one-another, Christian to Christian.

1I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

My comment: We can only love by surrendering to God, and presenting ourselves to Him. Then, he can use us. It will be his love, passing through us, to love others.

2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

My comment: this is about rejecting the lies of our culture (as I’ve described) and instead, being conformed to the truth about love, as given to us in the Bible.

3For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one.

My comment: This is talking about humility again.

4Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function, 5in the same way we who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another.

My Comment: We belong to each other. When we come to Jesus, we join a body. Every part (including you) is indispensable.

 6According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts: If prophecy, use it according to the standard of one’s faith; 7if service, in service; if teaching, in teaching; 8if exhorting, in exhortation; giving, with generosity; leading, with diligence; showing mercy, with cheerfulness.

 9Love must be without hypocrisy. My Comment: there we are: truth again.  Detest evil; cling to what is good. 10Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lack diligence; be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. 13Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. 16Be in agreement with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes.

18If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. 19Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. 20But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head.

 21Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good. (Rom 12:1-21, HCSB)