THE GOSPEL CONQUERS!

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The seals begin with a picture of the gospel going out and “conquering.” Before the end, the gospel will be proclaimed to every tribe, language and nation. We Christians are destined to be a part of that.

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Download Revelation Part 16

evelation #16. Revelation 6:1-2

So far, most of what we have studied in the book of Revelation is reasonably clear. Going forward, we enter the parts of the book that are less clear. There are many different possible interpretations for some parts of Revelation, and it isn’t always obvious which is the best. I want to stress that compared to the rest of the Bible, this is unusual. Most of the Bible is not too difficult to understand. We may find layers of meaning, or various nuances in some passage, but the basic message of most of the Bible is not in doubt, and it is not up for debate. This is one reason that many preachers do not use the book of Revelation – it is unusually obscure. In my introduction, I have already shared the various approaches to interpreting Revelation. As we go on, I will try to briefly share the most reasonable perspectives, and then focus on the interpretation that I find most helpful. Occasionally I will also share poor interpretations that are very popular, in order to warn you against them. In fact, I will do that today.

With chapter five, we have finished with the second vision of heaven’s perspective, and we now move on to the second major section of the book of Revelation. In chapter five, John introduced the Lamb (Jesus), and the scroll sealed with seven seals. Now, the Lamb (Jesus) breaks each seal. The first four seals result in a horseman appearing, and going out into the world.

We should keep in mind that these verses, as with much of Revelation, are symbolic “word-pictures,” not literal. John did not mean us to think that an actual horse will come out of heaven, with an actual riders. The horses and riders stand for something else.

There is debate about whether the seven seals are in fact a description of the end of all things, or if they are just preliminaries: the opening battle in a long war, so to speak. I tend toward the idea that the seven seals represent, for the most part, “the beginning of the end.” In other words, I suspect that these are things that take place before the real “end times.” One reason I think this way is because of how I interpret the first seal.

The first seal reveals a white horse. Its rider has a bow, a crown and is sent forth to conquer. The horse that is next after the white one is red, and it is the horse of war. It takes peace from the earth. This gives us a bit of a problem. You would think that the first horse, “conquest” would take peace from the earth, and create war. So these first two horses appear to be almost the same thing. The distinction between conquest and war is very, very small. So what are we supposed to learn from this?

Let me begin by offering you an interpretation with which I disagree, though I think it is quite reasonable: The horse and rider represents a time of conquest. The horses that follow represent widespread war, famine and death, resulting from the ambitions of those who seek to conquer. This could very well be the right understanding of the first seal; in fact, if my preferred idea is wrong, this would be my second choice.

There is another popular interpretation that I don’t care. In this other view, the white horseman represents a single person who will seek to conquer the entire world. Some with this view take it even farther, and suggest that this person is also the antichrist. Revelation was written in Roman times, and in those days, the great threats to the Roman empire were in the east. The Parthians in the east were renowned bowmen. Therefore, the people with this interpretation believe that this conqueror/antichrist will come from Iran or Romania, or from somewhere else in the territories once controlled by the Parthians. I think that this is unlikely to be the correct interpretation. I share this with you, however, because it is very popular idea, and I want to warn you against it. This interpretation relies on many assumptions that go far beyond the actual text. Clearly, none of the other three horsemen are meant to represent actual individual people, so why should this one? There is no mention of the antichrist in the text, so why make that assumption? There is no suggestion as to where the horseman comes from, other than that it is sent by God, so why decide it should come from the ancient realms of the Parthians? The bow is flimsy evidence, at best.

My own interpretation of this text is one that some respected commentators agree with; at the same time, some respected commentators have different ideas. Obviously, I think I’m correct, and I’ll explain my reasoning, but I certainly could be wrong. If I am, I think the first idea I shared above is probably the next best (the idea that ambitions for conquest will lead to warfare, famine and death in the time just before the end times).

I did a little digging into the Greek word for “conquest” (nikao). John uses this word (in various forms) 23 times, throughout his writings. It is found in The Gospel of John, 1 John, and Revelation. Two times this word is used to convey that the power of evil was given a limited amount of time to conquer the people of God. In those instances, that is spelled out clearly. However, every other time John uses it – 20 times – it refers to the people of God overcoming the world, or the powers of evil. In the letters to the seven churches (Revelation chapters 2-3) every single church is given a promise in connection with “conquering.” For example, he says to the church at Ephesus:

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 victor” is a version of this same Greek word, nikao. In other words, it might be better translated: “the one who conquers.” Each of the other seven churches gets a similar promise, using this same Greek word. John also uses this word in connection with the Lamb himself:

And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Rev 5:5, ESV2011)

Outside of Revelation, John uses this word exclusively in connection with Jesus, or his followers, conquering the world:

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)

 4You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them, because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1John 4:4, HCSB)

 3For this is what love for God is: to keep His commands. Now His commands are not a burden, 4because whatever has been born of God conquers the world. This is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith. (1John 5:3-4, HCSB)

In addition, the first horse is white in color. The colors in Revelation are not random. They have significance. The color “white” is mentioned in Revelation 14 times, in addition to this passage. Every single other time, white is associated either with God, or with God’s people. It is the color of Jesus’ hair (1:14); it is the color of the stone promised to the faithful believers in Pergamum; it is the color of the clothing promised to the faithful in Sardis and Laodicea; it is the color of the clothing worn by: the 24 elders (4:4), the faithful martyrs (6:11) and the great multitude of the saved from every nation (7:9). Jesus rides a white horse (19:11) as do the armies of heaven, who also wear white linen (19:14). You get the idea: White symbolizes the purity and holiness of God and his people.

Therefore, I believe “the white horseman who conquers” represents the spiritual victory of God’s people over worldly values and lust, over our own sinful flesh, and over the devil. It represents God’s Word, carried by Christians, going out into very part of the world. It means that before the “end times” begin, Christians will take the gospel to every tribe, language and nation. Jesus, when he spoke with his disciples about end of the world, said this:

9“Then they will hand you over for persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of My name. 10Then many will take offense, betray one another and hate one another. 11Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. 12Because lawlessness will multiply, the love of many will grow cold. 13But the one who endures to the end will be delivered. 14This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come. (Matt 24:9-14, HCSB)

I think the white horseman represents verses 13 & 14 above. It represents the fact that Christians will endure, and be saved, and that the gospel will be proclaimed in all nations. The very beginning of the end is marked by the perseverance of Christians in taking the gospel to the entire world. Later on, Revelation will show us a multitude of Christians from every nation, tribe, people and language. That means that the gospel must be brought to every nation, tribe, people and language before the end can come. This also fits in with the fifth seal. I will talk about it more later, but when the fifth seal is opened, those who have been killed for being faithful to God’s word are told to rest a little longer, until everyone who is going to be martyred has, in fact, been martyred. This implies some sort of work of carrying the gospel into the world, of proclaiming it in places where it is rejected.

So, if this is the case, what is the message for us, today? First, I think it should comfort us. Nothing is going to destroy our faith. We will win the spiritual victory over the world, our own flesh, and the devil. The church will succeed in its mission to take the gospel to all peoples in the world.

Second, I think this should also wake us up to the need for every Christian to get involved in the mission of taking the gospel to every tribe, tongue and nation. Jesus more-or-less said that He will not return to put things right and take us into the New Heavens and New Earth until the gospel is proclaimed to all peoples (Matthew 24:14, above). We trust that God will accomplish his purposes on earth, but we also recognize that he wants to use us to do so. We are supposed to be part of the first seal!

So, does this mean we must all go overseas and become cross-cultural missionaries? Certainly, some people are called to that. But just as certainly, some are called to different ways of spreading the gospel.

One thing that every Christian can do is pray for the gospel to reach every tribe, tongue and nation. Jesus, considering the size of this task, said to his disciples:

37Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. 38Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” (Matt 9:37-38, HCSB)

So we can pray for others to be sent. When they are sent, we should continue to uphold them in prayer. We can pray for specific countries and specific groups of people. I think one of the best ways to be involved in Christian missions is for every church (or, if it is a big church, every small group) to help sponsor a missionary. This means praying, giving financially, and reading the missionary’s letters, in order to better support them. Your group may not be able to fully support a missionary, but you could at least provide some resources.

Another way to help the mission of Jesus is to create resources that can be used by others. These sermons of mine that you read have been used to help start churches in the USA, England, Finland, Brazil, Mongolia, Vietnam, India and East Africa. And those are only the places that I know about.

I’ve alluded to this already, but an additional way to help the cause of Jesus is to give financially to missionaries and leaders who are helping to spread the gospel. I think prayer should always be connected to giving, so if you give financially, be sure that you also pray for those to whom you give.

One of the most effective ways of spreading the gospel is to train Christian leaders from among the people who need to be reached. An Indian pastor, ministering in India, will usually be more effective at reaching other Indians than an American pastor. So we can pray for, and support efforts to train such leaders.

Also, you don’t have to be sent as a missionary to tell people of other cultures about Jesus. In every major metropolitan area in the United States you can find people from dozens and dozens of other countries: people of every tribe, tongue and nation. Never has it been so convenient to spread the gospel to all nations. Even in our rural town of thirty-thousand I met a Muslim man from the little country of Guyana (in the Northern part of South America). We were friends for about two years, until he had to return home. While he was here, we talked about Jesus quite a bit. That’s something you may not realize: it’s usually quite easy to talk about Jesus with people from other countries. In fact it’s usually much easier to talk about Jesus with International folks than it is with Americans. Muslims, in particular, are very open to talk about religion. If a person turned to Jesus while living in the United States, they might return home, and begin to spread the gospel in their country of origin. I think Jesus needs people in America who are simply willing to befriend people from other places, and share their lives – and their faith – with them. For those of you in the LTC network, we can provide some training, if you like, but it’s not rocket science. It simply involves befriending people.

Listen to what the Spirit is saying to you today!

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THE PLAN FOR THE FULFILLMENT OF HISTORY

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This life will never completely fulfill us or satisfy us, because it is not supposed to. The good news is that Jesus Christ is enacting God’s plan to bring history to its ultimate fulfilment, and to bring those who trust him – his people – into the New Heaven and New Earth, where we will be completely fulfilled, and completely joyful.

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Download Revelation Part 15

Revelation #15. 5:1-14

Pieces of Revelation chapters four and five can be found in countless hymns, songs and liturgies. “Holy, Holy, Holy,” is of course, from 4:8. There’s a line in that song: “casting down their golden crowns, around the glassy sea.” This is, clearly from 4:6 & 10. The music group “Casting Crowns” obviously got their name from here. Several of my favorite other hymns reference this part of Revelation. The phrase: “Worthy is the Lamb” is found in probably thousands of Christian songs.

All that shows us that these chapters can, and should, present us with a powerful desire for heaven. These images inspired generations of Christians to live their lives with a view of heaven. Some people object to this. There used to be a very common phrase: “He (or she) is so heavenly minded, he’s no earthly good.” I hate that phrase with a passion. The truth is exactly the opposite. If we do not have a clear picture of the hope that awaits us, and a deep, strong desire for the goodness and joy of heaven, we will be relatively useless as God’s people here on earth.

Let me make sure this is clear. If we are Christians, the best is yet to come. This life will never completely fulfill us or satisfy us, because it is not supposed to. We are made for something better, truer, deeper than this life can offer. And the wonderful news is this: because the of the Lamb of God, we will someday enter the world that we were made for. We will find true joy, total satisfaction and all that we need. Because we know that, we can be patient in the here and now. We can be willing to be less self-centered, because we now that someday, our hearts will be completely satisfied. We can put up with the crushing imperfections of this life, knowing that the best is yet to come. That allows us to work for good here and now, even when it does not directly benefit us. It is those people who are trying to get satisfaction here and now, who aren’t willing to trust and wait, that are not much use in this world to the One who sits on the throne.

Chapter five begins with a scroll, sealed with seven seals (5:1). The NAS version translates it “book,” and indeed, the Greek (biblios) would be literally rendered “book.” However, “book” to the majority of John’s readers would have meant some sort of written document in a scroll form (bound books were relatively uncommon until about hundred years after Revelation was written). The reason this is important is so we can picture what John is picturing. He is seeing a scroll –something like a rolled up poster. Instead of a rubber band to keep it rolled up, there are seven “seals” that keep the scroll from unrolling. A “document seal” in the ancient world was made of wax. The wax was heated and dropped onto the scroll. Usually, the sender of the document made an “impression” on the wax while it was still warm. The “impression” or picture that was pushed into the wax was often from some sort of ring or stamp that had a design on it. The design was usually unique to the owner of the ring or stamp. The reason it was called a “seal” is because the wax was dropped half on the edge of the end of the scroll, and half on the rest of the roll where it met the edge. This resulted in the wax holding the documented closed, or rolled up. On the scroll that John saw, there were seven seals; I would imagine them running across the width of the scroll, holding it closed in seven places. Another way to picture it would be as follows: The scroll held one seal on the outside. After the first seal had been broken, it was unrolled a bit, and another seal was revealed, keeping the rest of the document closed. After this was broken, further on came another seal and another. This certainly would have been an unusual arrangement, and not easily envisaged even by the initial readers of Revelation, though it is favored by many Bible interpreters. I personally prefer to think of the seven seals as found in the first arrangement – all at the beginning of the document.

In any case, the scroll and the seals clearly represent something more than just a written document. The scroll is in fact, God’s plan for the culmination of human history. In other words, the unrolling of the scroll results in God setting in motion the judgment of the world, the return of Jesus Christ and the ultimate salvation of all who know Jesus. The scroll gives meaning to human history. Without this plan, without God’s control and deliberate intervention, human history is just a series of random and meaningless incidents strung together in time. With it, the entire picture is given coherence and hope.

I believe that there is one primary purpose for the seals, and that is that they prevent anyone other than Jesus Christ from “opening the book.” In this way we are given a complete picture of God’s control of history. First, the scroll is in the right hand of the One who sits on the throne – God is holding the plan for the end of history. Second, only one person has the ability to enact this plan, and that is Jesus Christ. It is supremely important to understand therefore, that the breaking of the seals and the opening of the scroll is a GOOD thing, if you are a Christian. John wept bitterly when he thought that the scroll would not be opened – he wanted to see God’s plan brought to fullness. I have spoken with many people who are a bit afraid of Revelation and the things it predicts and teaches. They don’t like the thought of plagues and wars and all that. We must understand however, that to John and to the first readers of the book, the opening of the scroll and the beginning of God’s judgment on the earth was a completely positive thing. They weren’t afraid of the scroll being opened – to the contrary, they were afraid it wouldn’t be opened. Therefore, as we continue through Revelation, we ought to interpret it wherever possible in a way that brings hope and joy to the Christian – for that is how the first recipients of the book read it.

In chapter four we had a picture of God the Father in heaven – on the throne, in control, seeing everything. Now, in chapter five we are given insight into the role of God the Son – Jesus Christ.

Jesus is described as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah;” “the root of David;” and “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, (5:6)” In his Gospel, John remembers that John the Baptist had called Jesus, “the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” (John 1:29). Peter also compares Jesus to a sacrificial lamb (1 Peter 1:19) as does the prophecy about Jesus found in Isaiah 53:7. The fact that Jesus appears as a lamb serves both to identify who John is talking about (Jesus) and what the Lamb’s great work was (to die for our sins).

That this lamb (Jesus) is part of the Trinity –in very nature the same as God – is indicated by the fact that he is “in the midst of the throne” (the most literal translation from the Greek). Once again we are dealing with things that go beyond our dimension, but it is clear enough that at some level, the Lamb is somehow ‘the same’ as the One who sits on the throne, yet also somehow different.

The four living creatures in God’s throne room worship and praise Jesus, the lamb of God. The 24 elders worship and praise him. A multitude of angels worships and praises him. Since the entire Bible is very clear that only God Himself is to be worshipped, this is yet one more strong affirmation that Jesus is in very nature, God. This is exactly what our Christian doctrine of the Trinity tells us (that God is one Being who exists in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

The picture of Jesus as a lamb also reminds us that like a sacrificial lamb, He was perfect in every way. Lest we be led astray imagining a cute cuddly little baby sheep, we are also told that the lamb “has seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God (5:6).” These horns and eyes are not literal – it is a word picture, used to communicate something. “Horns” represent strength throughout the Old Testament, and also elsewhere in Revelation. Although we might be tempted to think Jesus is weak and helpless, this picture reminds us that he is perfect in strength – you can’t get any stronger than seven horns. In addition, of course, he is also “the Lion of Judah.” The eyes, as the verse tells us, represent the Holy Spirit, completing the picture of a God who is “three-in-one.” Here is one, who with all the power in the universe at his command, laid it aside to willingly die for us (Philippians 2:6-11). He died instead of us, to pay the penalty for sins we committed (he committed none himself). By his sacrifice he lost none of his strength, and now arisen offers everyone a chance for a new life – for free. In all heaven and earth there is no one else so powerful or so perfect or so loving as to be able to break the seals of the scroll, and execute God’s plan of judgment and salvation. Only Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God can do it. Only He is worthy.

So taken together, these two things in chapter five tell us that Revelation is a book about Father God’s purposes being fulfilled through the work of God the Son, Jesus Christ and through God the Holy Spirit. This book (like the rest of the Bible) is all about Jesus, and the dark and scary things to come are only supposed to be dark and scary for those who do not know Him. The calamities unleashed by the breaking of the seals are unleashed by Jesus himself; to bring judgment to those who have rejected him, and to allow them one last chance to repent. As we read on, we must bear in mind that redeemed in heaven rejoiced at the breaking of the seals, and the martyrs groaned at how long it seemed to take before it was all brought to completion. The scroll will soon be opened, and it is time to rejoice!

So, let’s try to apply this to our lives right now. In the first place, perhaps some of us need to focus on the power and majesty and authority of God. In this day and age, we tend to not respect authority. But this picture of God leaves no room for insolence. He is God, we are not. This is a simple truth, but it is also very powerful. We don’t get to control things. We don’t get to judge God. He is the Supreme ruler of everything that is. Even Jesus, the compassionate lamb of God, is revealed as perfectly strong and all-knowing.

Secondly, perhaps we need to remember that Jesus Christ is in control of history. It is unfolding according to God’s plan. The seals are broken by Jesus himself; it is Jesus who enacts God’s will through history. If we trust God, we have nothing to fear from international tension, or corrupt politics. We have nothing to fear in the events of our own lives. That is not to say that everything will always work out according to how we want it to; but it is clear that we are never, even for a moment, out of the care of Jesus Christ. Even when things seems chaotic and scary (like much of Revelation) we know that Jesus is working all things for our good. In view of this truth, the apostle Paul writes some of the most comforting words in the entire Bible:

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,8  for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be9  against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.10  35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;

we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:28-38)

I pray that we would have such a clear vision of the joy that awaits us that any tribulation in the meantime seems small in comparison. I pray that we begin to truly desire God to enact his plan in history, to bring his will to culmination and welcome us into the New Heaven and New Earth.

THE THRONE AT THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

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Download Revelation Part 14

Revelation #14. Revelation 4:1-11

We have come to the end of the first section of Revelation. Each of the seven major sections of the book begins with a view from the perspective of Heaven. Section one began with a vision of Jesus, and his words about being the first and last, about having control of all things. After that initial vision, which established the perspective of Heaven, there were seven letters, addressing the concerns among churches here on earth. Now that the entire first section is done, we return once more to the perspective of heaven.

To understand Revelation chapter four, it is useful to think of an analogy. In our world, a thing can move in three different ways: forward-backward; side-to-side; and downward-upward. Every direction is either one of these, or a compromise between them. We call these the three dimensions. If you are using only one dimension, you could draw a straight line, like this:Slide1

If you are using two dimensions you could draw a figure, say a square. The figure is made up of straight lines in combination, like this:

Slide2

If you have three dimensions you could build a solid body, like a cube. Now imagine a world which was only two-dimensional; populated, I suppose, by stick-people. How could we communicate to those two-dimensional people what our three-dimensional world is like? If we simply tried to show them something three dimensional, they couldn’t comprehend it. For instance if we stuck cube in the middle of their world, they would only see a square, where the cube intersected with their two-dimensional plane. A better way might be to draw a cube. It would thus represented in a two dimensional way. Unfortunately, it could easily be misunderstood as simply six squares that are connected, like this:

Slide4

I’m sure you are all thrilled by my grasp of spatial relations, but the point is this: When God tries to communicate with us about heaven and what eternity is like, it can be difficult for us to understand. He tries to use language that we are familiar with, and “word pictures” that help, but ultimately we cannot understand completely until he takes us there. It is sort of like we are living in a different dimension from him. That is why we find some of the language in Revelation so difficult – John is trying to use human words to describe something that human existence cannot fully comprehend. So he says things like: “he was like a jasper; or “the rainbow was like an emerald;” and so on. It’s OK if this is a bit confusing, because it is a bit beyond us. So what we will do as we continue to study Revelation is to seek out the main points that John is making, without getting lost in the sometimes-confusing details. I continue to believe that the major points of most Biblical passages – even in Revelation – are clear.

And so we come to Chapter 4. Remember what chapter one was all about? It was about God in control. Chapter four is a repetition of the same theme – God is in control – using different images to convey the same message. In chapter one God told us he was in control. He said things like “I am the Alpha and Omega, who is, who was and who is to come (1:8),” and “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one; and I was dead and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades (1:17-18).” Now, in chapter four through what John saw, he shows us that he is in control. He shows us this by means of “pictures” that John records.

For example, John sees a throne standing in heaven, and the throne is not empty! There is One sitting on the throne (4:2). The secular people in the 90’s AD were inclined to believe that the Roman Emperor was in charge of the world. Secular people today, though they don’t admit it, are inclined to believe that the throne should be occupied by self. They believe that we are supposed to pursue fulfilment by focusing on our own needs and desires. Others believe that the “throne of the universe” is entirely empty, and we are simply meaningless by-products of a random process.

Revelation chapter four contradicts these world-views. The control of the universe is not up for grabs. The direction of history is not controlled by a worldly ruler. Neither are we in charge of our own destiny. Nor does the universe roll on by mere chance – someone is sitting on the throne of heaven, ruling and directing – Someone is in charge.

When we get to the description of that Someone, we come to one of those places where a five, or ten, dimensional world is trying to communicate with our paltry three-dimensional senses. John says the one on the throne (in case you haven’t figured it out, it’s God) is like jasper and sardius in appearance. The truth is, we don’t know for sure which particular stones John’s language is referring to – the names of precious stones have often changed over the years. I personally resort to the idea that God simply looked amazing, but mostly indescribable to human senses. I place the emerald rainbow in the same category, though the reference to the rainbow could be a reminder that God has never forgotten his promises (Genesis 9:12-17). In any case, it is God’s position (on the throne) and not his appearance, that matters most.

John goes on to describe the rest of what he sees – what I call “heaven’s throne room.” Near the throne are twenty-four other thrones, with twenty-four elders on them (v. 4). There is quite a bit of speculation about who these elders are. They are often said to represent God’s people throughout history: twelve elders for the twelve tribes of Israel (representing the faithful before the coming of Christ) and twelve for the twelve apostles (representing the Christian church throughout history). There are a few clues, however, that suggest that instead these twenty-four elders are not human, but rather are angelic beings. I will not go into all the details here, but suffice it to say that elders “act” more like angels than like redeemed human beings. They appear expedite the prayers of the saints (5:8); they communicate God’s truth to men (7:13-14) and when they praise God they do not sing the song of the redeemed – instead they sing about the redeemed (5:9-10). They also cannot learn the song of those purchased by the lamb (14:3). So they appear to be some sort of heavenly council of elders, perhaps angelic beings who represent the interests of God’s people in the throne room of heaven.

The spirit of God is present in its fullness in heaven’s throne room (as represented by the seven lamps), and the presence of God is forcefully felt by thunder and lightning. God is not just a benign old man – sort of a white-robed Santa Claus – instead, he is an awesome and powerful being. His presence cannot be ignored. The ruler of the universe is not an ineffectual, weak king – he is firmly in control, and has the power to effect his will.

The living creatures are fascinating. They appear elsewhere (in similar form) in Ezekiel 1:4-28 (in a vision which is quite similar to John’s). Once again we are talking about a dimension we know very little about, but my best guess about the creatures is as follows: They represent the fullness of God’s creation, and possibly also they symbolize that his will is done all over the world, and that he knows and sees everything that happens in this world. The lion’s face represents God’s presence in, knowledge of, and provision for, the wild places of the earth. The ox-face likewise tells us that God does his will in, and provides for, the rural areas. The man-face indicates God’s activity in civilizations and cities, and the eagle represents the air. Probably there is no representation of the oceans and waters of the world because in Revelation John usually uses the sea as a picture of all that is evil. The fact that each creature has eyes everywhere indicates that God sees everything. The fact that the creatures are engaged in praising him indicates that all creation is under the authority of God, and gives him glory.

As we continue through Revelation we will be periodically brought back into the heavenly throne room, to be reminded that no matter what is going on here on earth, God is in control. He is awesome, powerful, and nothing escapes his attention. He knows exactly what is going on. When we look at the book of Revelation through this lens (as we should) it becomes a source of great joy and comfort.

Let’s try and make this practical. Is there some area of your life that is bothering you right now? Is there something that you are trying to control, or some outcome you are trying to achieve? Put God on the throne. Let Him be the one in charge. Picture Him dealing with the problem, and leave it with him.

Perhaps there is some area of your life where you feel like God doesn’t even know or care. Rest assured, he is paying attention. He knows exactly what is going on with you. We are called to hold on, even when it is long, and hard, even when it is boring and soul-numbing, because God is indeed at work, even when we don’t see it. As we go through Revelation, we will see that he has a grand plan that will culminate with God himself wiping the tears from your eyes. I’m not exaggerating, listen to the end:

3Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away. (Rev 21:3-4, HCSB)

Listen to what the Spirit is saying to you today!

THE COSTLY GIFT

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When Mary agreed to receive Jesus into her body and her life, it cost her a great deal. She lost the one thing she had to look forward to in a life of crushing poverty – her wedding. She lost respect, and social standing. She lost her home town for many years. But she knew that what she gained was far better than anything she lost. My prayer is that we too, make the same choice as Mary, and unconditionally receive into our lives the Savior of the world, the Lord of our lives, Jesus Christ, and find that what we gain is worth losing anything else.

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 Christmas Eve 2017

Luke 1:26-38. 

Mary

Our first child was supposed to born right around Christmas: we even gave her a Christmas-themed name. Kari and I are different in a number of ways, but we both have trouble feeling comfortable when our house is a mess. We like things neat and orderly. We also prefer to prepare for things ahead of time, rather than waiting until the last minute. So, before our daughter was born, our house was all in order. We thought we were ready.

About a week after we got home from the hospital with our daughter, I looked around our place. There were diapers, and blankets strewn around everywhere. Rumpled clothing lay on the floor where it had been cast off. The kitchen was full of unwashed dishes. Kari and I stared at each other out of bleary, sleep-deprived eyes, and said, “What happened?”

I remember very clearly talking to my mother-in-law on the phone and saying, “It feels like a bomb went off in here.” I also remember thinking, “Why didn’t anyone tell us how difficult this is?”

The truth is, it never really got any easier. There were uncounted dirty diapers. There was throw-up. There were messes, and laundry, and to go anywhere we needed to pack gear that outweighed the baby by about 10-1. Our quiet, orderly life was thrown into chaos. There was crying, and I don’t mean the baby. Aside from all of the chaos on the outside, having a child meant we had to rearrange our priorities. We couldn’t live selfishly anymore. This tiny little person – who couldn’t, walk, talk, eat solid food, or even smile, at first – changed our lives profoundly.

Becoming a father was one of the three greatest things that has ever happened to me. Fatherhood has challenged me, changed me, and made me grow. When you become a parent, you can’t remain exactly the same as you were before.

Now, with that in mind, think about Mary, the mother of Jesus. We think of her as holy and exalted. She carried the divine nature of God, joined to her egg, within her very body. She shared her own blood with Jesus. Think of it – the blood that he shed for the salvation of the world came originally from her. After he was born, she nursed him, feeding him still from her own body. She wiped his bottom when he did what all babies do. And yet, he was ultimately her Lord, her creator, her savior. In some ways, Mary must have had the most unique relationship with Jesus that any human being has ever had.

Even so, I think we can learn from Mary. In many other ways, her experiences were exactly like our own. One of the messages of Christmas, of Jesus coming to earth, is that we are faced with a choice. He isn’t just a sweet little baby. He himself said:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  (Matt 10:34-39, ESV2011)

And yet, we think of Christmas as a time for “peace on earth.” The truth is, Jesus is divisive, because he calls us to respond to him. Even Mary, who, for more than anyone, had a real relationship with a sweet little baby, found that even Jesus as a baby, as an unborn baby, presented her with a difficult choice.

Let’s back up to a young woman entering adulthood. We make much of the fact that Mary was only a teenager, but in her culture, she was considered an adult. She was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter. In that culture, her betrothal meant several things. First, it meant that the marriage was a done deal. Solemn promises and vows had already been exchanged. The only thing different between betrothal and marriage was that the couple did not yet live together, and had not consummated the marriage. Breaking a betrothal was like getting a divorce.

Generally, the betrothal period lasted about a year. I’m not sure why. It’s likely that it might take that much time for bridegroom to raise the necessary money for the bride-price and for the wedding festivities. It would probably also take several months to spread the word and gather any relatives who lived far away.

Wedding festivities lasted for week. The actual “wedding” began with an extensive parade through the town. The bridegroom paraded to the house of his wife, with friends and family accompanying him and celebrating along the way. It was obviously a very public occasion; in a small town, a wedding would be almost like a holiday.

On this occasion, the bride would be wearing the most beautiful clothing that she could possibly obtain. Her hair would be elaborately styled, and all in all, she would feel as beautiful as she ever would in this life. For this one day, all eyes would see her as beautiful.

After meeting at her family’s house, the bride and groom would parade back through the town, again with singing and celebrating, to the home of the groom. Again, they would be surrounded with the joyful faces of friends and families, singing, shouting and joking.

Back at the groom’s home, they would eat one of the most lavish and delicious meals of they would ever have in their lifetimes. A wedding in those difficult times was one of the few places you could count on to eat more than enough of your favorite foods. Guests would look forward to the food alone for months ahead of time. Surrounded by loving family and friends, the bride and groom would be blessed, prayed for and toasted. They wore crowns, and were treated like royalty on this day. After that, after the guests departed, the couple would consummate the marriage, and they would be officially husband and wife.

The angel came to Mary sometime during the year of betrothal. Aside from whatever daily chores she had to do, her life would have been consumed with the details of the coming wedding. In dirt-poor Nazareth, her wedding was one of the only major life-events that Mary had to really look forward to. No one took vacations or pleasure trips, or had the resources for such things. For a young woman like Mary, her wedding was going to be the highlight of her entire life.

Now, enter the angel. He told her that she would become pregnant. It was obvious that he meant right now,  not after she was officially married, but now, before she had ever been with a man. We know from Matthew’s account that Joseph found out Mary was pregnant some time before the wedding celebration, so this may have happened fairly early during the year of betrothal.

And just like that, there went the one thing in all her life that Mary had to look forward to. She didn’t know Joseph very well – engaged couples were seldom in love, or even close to each other, before the marriage. The safe assumption was that Joseph would divorce her before the wedding day. Not only that, but she would have to take on the incredible burden of parenthood all alone.

We know that a quiet divorce was, in fact, Joseph’s plan. God intervened and angel appeared to him also. Trusting God, Joseph did not divorce her. Matthew records that he took her as his wife, but that they did not consummate the marriage until after Jesus was born (Matthew 1:24-25). He doesn’t give any great detail about the timeline – in other words we don’t actually when they were married. Luke, with a little more detail, suggests that they were still only engaged when Jesus was born (Luke 2:1-7).

I highly doubt that Mary ever got her “event-of-a-lifetime” wedding. In fact, I doubt they had any wedding celebration at all. It was quite unlikely that they would do so, because it would only highlight the shameful and disgraceful fact of her pregnancy. If they had the celebration after Jesus was born, it would have been just as bad. Of course, Joseph and Mary knew that there was nothing shameful or wrong going on, but no one else was likely to believe them. If they had a wedding celebration, many guests might have refused to come.

I think this is one reason why both Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census. It was probably sufficient for Joseph to go alone, but they were probably both eager to get out of Nazareth and the shame and disgrace they were under. There are indications that they lived in Bethlehem for almost two years after Jesus was born. The census certainly did not require them to move there. I think they weren’t excited to get back to Nazareth.

Now, understanding the background, I want to say this a different way. When Mary received Jesus into her body and her life, it meant she lost the one cherished event in her whole life that she was really looking forward to. It meant she was exposing herself to disgrace and ridicule, and accepting a very uncertain future. It wasn’t as easy as saying “I get to be the Messiah’s mother? Cool! Bring it on!” By agreeing, Mary was inviting, divorce (without ever getting the fun of the wedding), ridicule and shame. She was relinquishing her only chance to have just one beautiful shining week in a life that was otherwise filled with crushing poverty. This is in addition to all of the “normal sacrifice” that is involved in becoming a parent.

The angel said that Mary had God’s favor. God has a funny way of showing his favor. It probably wasn’t what Mary would have chosen for herself. With all that in mind, listen to her reply:

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38, ESV2011)

Mary’s sacrifice is something we often overlook in the warm-fuzzies of Christmas. We are happy enough to contemplate the little baby Jesus, all clean and quiet. We could hold that little child and feel all peaceful and happy. Mary did. But she also gave up her own dreams to do so, and received much hardship and disgrace in their place. It really cost her something to receive Jesus.

Are we ready to recognize that receiving Jesus costs us our own agenda, or own control over our lives? Mary took Jesus on God’s terms, not her own. It meant giving up something she really wanted, but she was willing to do so. Are you ready to do the same? Can you receive Jesus on God’s terms, and give up your requirements?

Becoming a parent meant a whole lot of self-sacrifice on my part, throughout the years. It has sometimes been very difficult. And yet, I would not hesitate to do it all again. I have gained so much more than anything I’ve lost.

Mary shows us the way. She submitted to God. She agreed to the sacrifice. And though she and Joseph never got their wedding, they found incredible grace and joy. A few months later, talking to her relative, Elizabeth, Mary said these words:

My soul proclaims the greatness of15  the Lord,

 47 and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,

 48 because He has looked with favor

on the humble condition of His slave.

Surely, from now on all generations

will call me blessed,

 49 because the Mighty One

has done great things for me,

and His name is holy.

 50 His mercy is from generation to generation

on those who fear Him.

 51 He has done a mighty deed with His arm;

He has scattered the proud

because of the thoughts of their hearts;

 52 He has toppled the mighty from their thrones

and exalted the lowly.

 53 He has satisfied the hungry with good things

and sent the rich away empty.

 54 He has helped His servant Israel,

mindful of His mercy,16

 55 just as He spoke to our ancestors,

to Abraham and his descendants17  forever.

When we give up our agenda, and humbly say, “I’m your servant, Lord. I’ll receive you on your terms,” we may lose some cherished dream, or control over life the way we want it. But in turn, we do receive the Savior, the healer of our souls, the unending source of grace and unquenchable joy. Mary could have had a week of joy during her wedding feast. She gave that up for an eternity of joy in presence of God. Losing her wedding, being subject to disgrace, she actually felt blessed, because what she received was greater than what she gave up.

For those of you who are parents, you know what we all give up to be good Fathers and Mothers. You know what we take on in added burdens and responsibilities. And yet, you know that every bit of it is entirely worth it.

God invites us to receive a child this Christmas. It involves just as much sacrifice as becoming a parent. But the promise is that what receive is even greater than parenthood, greater than all we can ask or imagine. I’m reminded of the words of the apostle Paul, in Ephesians:

14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3:14-21, ESV2011)

My prayer for all of us this Christmas is that we make the same choice as Mary, and unconditionally receive into our lives the Savior of the world, the Lord of our lives, Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas!

The Poor, Wealthy Church

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The point of repentance is not to get you to try harder. True Biblical repentance means you give up on yourself. You are saying, “I can’t do it, Lord. I don’t have what it takes. My only hope is your mercy.” You turn away from trying to fix things in your own strength, and throw yourself entirely on the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. You are abandoning all hope apart from Jesus, including the hope of making yourself better. If you are to become a better person, Jesus will have to make it happen within you. Your job is simply to trust him to do it.

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Revelation #13. Revelation 3:14-22

I bet this has happened to you. About a week ago, I got myself a cup of coffee, brought it to my office, and resumed work. I spent quite a while on the phone, and then got involved in some interesting study, and my coffee sat on my desk forgotten. While I was photocopying some materials, I remembered it, and reached down to my desk to take a sip. It was tepid and lukewarm, and as many of you know, lukewarm coffee is worse than no coffee at all. I could barely restrain myself from spraying it out of my mouth all over the room. I took the rest of the cup and dumped it out.

Unfortunately, this is how Jesus expresses the spiritual condition of the church at Laodicea. They are lukewarm. This picture stands in contrast to the outward appearance of the city. Laodicea was a very wealthy town, boasting an affluent society. It was a center of banking, and was also known for its fine black wool that was used to produce expensive clothing and carpets. There was a medical school in Laodicea that was famous for its “Phrygian powder” which was used to make a notoriously effective salve for healing people’s eyes. There appeared to be neither outward persecution nor inward strife in the church in Laodicea (in this way it was very similar to Sardis). All in all, those addressed by this letter were very comfortable and well off compared to many of the other cities  in this section of Revelation.

If I had to pick just one of the seven letters that most closely reflects the general state of Christianity in America today, it would be this letter, the message to Laodicea. Of course, I do not mean that all Christians in America today are like the Laodicean Christians. And not all churches are like the Laodicean church. But if we were to generalize about Christianity in the United States in the year 2017, it looks (in general) a lot more like the Laodicean church than any of the other churches found in the seven letters.

The Laodiceans were comfortable, in fact wealthy and well off. While some of us in America may not feel like we are well off compared to our friends and neighbors, the truth is that a poor American is wealthier than 85% of the rest of the world. If you are an American – no matter how your income compares to other Americans – you are among the richest 15% in the world. This is fact. If you were to take a trip to any third world country, and see how most of the people actually live, you would come back knowing beyond a shadow of doubt that you are comfortable. Also like Laodicea, our nation is famous for its wealth, its lifestyle and its achievements.

And unfortunately, also like the Laodiceans, our Christians and Churches tend to be comfortable, placid, and lukewarm. Many of us have settled into an easy routine of going about our own business, and doing the “God thing” once a week (twice a week for the really committed). We have our wealth, and we like it (though we don’t call it “wealth” – we call it “comfortable” or “normal”) and quite frankly, we do not need Jesus terribly much. Our faith is a nice part of our weekly routine, and it gives us a sort of satisfaction, but if we let it dominate our thinking, our decisions and our very lives – well it would be – uncomfortable. The truth is, for many who call themselves Christians, Christianity is not the thing, it is just one thing among many other things that need their attention. Rather than informing all their decisions and determining the direction of their lives, faith, for lukewarm Christians, is merely one aspect of a very full and busy life.

It’s interesting that new converts often find this surprising and disturbing about Christianity in America. Francis Chan is a well-known pastor in San Francisco. He tells about a young gang member who became a Christian. The young man seemed very excited about Jesus. After a few months, however, he quit coming to church. Chan went and found him, and asked why he quit. The former gang member said something like this: “When I was in the gang, all of life centered around the gang. We did everything together. Everything was about what was going on with the gang. I thought being a Christian was going to be like that. But people at your church just come on Sundays, and the rest of life they just go do their own thing.”

There are other converts with similar criticisms of American Churches, and I think they are spot-on. All of life is supposed to be centered around Jesus. Instead, many millions of people call themselves Christians, but, for the most part, Jesus occupies their time and attention for only part of one or two days each week.

This is precisely where the Laodicean Christians found themselves. Like the church in Sardis, they didn’t want to get all charged up about Jesus and cause a stir. Life was fine, and frankly there was so much else to do. Didn’t they need to balance their faith with their other priorities? They had Jesus and _____. Perhaps it was Jesus and the business. Or Jesus and the career. Or Jesus and entertainment. Simply fill in the blank with whatever seems appropriate. I’m sure Jesus was welcome, but he needed to remember to keep his place among all the other things that were going on in their lives.

And that made Jesus want to vomit. That is in fact the literal meaning of the term that is translated as “spit you out (verse 16)” – vomit. Just as the instinctive reaction to lukewarm coffee is to spit it out, so Jesus’ first reaction to lukewarm Christianity is to vomit. A person who has just enough of Christianity to be blasé about it is in the worst position possible, spiritually speaking. Such a person thinks he has the truth, and so will not continue to search, and yet he will not surrender to the truth to the point that it saves him. As with coffee, a lukewarm Christian is worse than one who is not a Christian at all. This is not a new concept in the Bible. Jesus told his disciples that they were to be the salt of the earth. Then he adds:

“But if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” (Matthew 5:13)

Another one I’ve quoted many times:

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)

Christianity in Laodicea was losing its “salty” flavor. It did not look, feel or sound any different from the culture around it. The Christians there were losing their ability to make an impact on the world around them because they were becoming just like the world around them. Oh, I believe they remained morally straight, and outwardly righteous. But their lives were slipping under the control of the same passions and drives that controlled every other person in Laodicea. They were living not for Jesus, but for the same things that the culture was living for – comfort, fame, riches and so on.

The good news is, their condition was not beyond hope. If they had already slipped past the point of no return, Jesus would not have sent this message to them. But he speaks in the strongest possible words in order to draw their attention to the fact that they are in imminent danger of spiritual death. They still have time, but not much, and that is why he uses such vivid language.

First, he draws attention to their true condition. Their true spiritual condition is the opposite of their outward circumstances. They are not wealthy in Jesus – spiritually speaking, they are impoverished beggars (contrast this to those in Smyrna, chapter 2:8-11). They are not clothed in the rich black wool of their city – they are naked and painfully, humiliatingly exposed in the spiritual realm. While their city is famous for eye salve, they remain spiritually blind, in need of not their own salve, but of Jesus’ restorative salve to let them see the truth.

The remedies they need are all provided by Jesus. He has gold, refined in the fire – true spiritual riches that will not be destroyed when the world comes to an end. He has the white robe of righteousness to clothe them with; signifying that their sins are wiped away and they are new creations in him. He has the truth which will destroy their blindness to their own condition and to the things which are truly important.

And what they need to do to receive these remedies is repent.

This concept is absolutely vital for Christians today. The key to restoring spiritual fervor is repentance. In Psalm 51 King David recognized that the joy of salvation returns only with repentance. So with the Laodiceans, when he wants to “heat them up” (as opposed to leaving them lukewarm) Jesus commands that they repent. There are times when he also commands us to repent. He supplies the rest of what we need, but we need to open the door to him by turning away from the things that distract us – not only asking for forgiveness, but asking for the willingness and the power to never turn back to the things which come between us and Jesus.

The older I get, the more convinced I am that the key issue in repentance is to give up our own self. We need to forsake our right to rule our own lives, and let Jesus lead us. We need to surrender our need to control our own lives, or the lives of others. We need to submit our own hopes, dreams, desires and ‘rights’ to the control of Jesus. We need to seek only Jesus, and let him give us these other things as he chooses (or not). You might picture it as taking yourself off of the throne of your own life, and letting Jesus (and nothing else) have that throne. You are abdicating your own personal kingdom to him.

Now, I want to make sure we understand something vitally important. The point of repentance is not to get you to try harder. True Biblical repentance means you give up on yourself. You are saying, “I can’t do it, Lord. I don’t have what it takes. My only hope is your mercy.” You turn away from trying to fix things in your own strength, and throw yourself entirely on the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. You are abandoning all hope apart from Jesus, including the hope of making yourself better. If you are to become a better person, Jesus will have to make it happen within you. Your job is simply to trust him to do it.

This command to repent begins a section where Jesus offers hope. He says “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline (v.19).” His harsh words were not simply because he was angry – he is worried about his people in Laodicea, and he comes to them with such strong correction because he loves them and does not want to see them fall away. In Hebrews, it says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” (Hebrews 12:6).

In addition to giving discipline, Jesus offers an invitation:

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with me.” (3:20).

This verse is of course often used when making an appeal to those who don’t know Jesus. In context however, we see that it is call for those who are already Christians to repent. In the ancient world, dining together represented affection, warmth and intimacy – in short, a good relationship. This is the promise Jesus offers when we repent – he will restore our relationship with himself to a level of closeness and intimacy.

The essence of repentance, as I have said, is giving up self. It is taking self off of the throne of your own life. Jesus promises that the one who repents, paradoxically, will conquer, and once Jesus sits on the throne, he also grants that we will sit with him on his throne. In other words, though it is difficult and sometimes painful, ultimately, we do not lose by putting Jesus on the throne of our life.

What is the Spirit saying to you today? I encourage you to take time to listen, pray, and act on what He says.

The little, no-account Church

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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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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.”

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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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!