THE LAZY CHURCH

Lazy Church

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

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Download Revelation Part 11

Revelation #11. Revelation 3:1-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE COMPROMISING CHURCH

Idolatry

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

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Download Revelation Part 9

Revelation #9. Revelation 2:12-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to what the Spirit has to say today!

NO ROOM FOR FEAR

Old keys on a old book, antique wood background

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

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Download Revelation Part 5

Revelation #5. Revelation 1:9-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you listen to Him today?

 

GOD’S WORD OVER OUR CIRCUMSTANCES

Hands cupping sun

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

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Revelation #4.  Revelation 1:5-8

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

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

He who loves us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And made us a kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Priests to His God and Father

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LORD OF PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

Jesus with us

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

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Revelation #3. 1:1-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It also sounds like John in his first letter:

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

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

 This is also in John’s third letter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Number 7 in Revelation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVELATION: THE BOOK OF SEVENS

Cross Tree

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

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

–Larry Crabb.

 

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SERMON NOTES

Revelation 2: Introduction, Part 2.

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

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

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

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

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

A Seven-Part Structure?

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

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

I. Introduction

II. Point A

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

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

V. Summary & Conclusion

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

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

A. First point.

B. Second Point.

C. Third Point.

CENTRAL POINT

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1: 7 Seven Letters;

Part 2: Seven Seals;

Part 3: Seven Trumpets;

Part 4: Seven Signs; Part

5: Seven Bowls.

 

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

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

 The First Readers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bible commentator Leon Morris puts it like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BIBLE’S MOST COMPLICATED BOOK

Rev1

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

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Revelation: INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

DIFFERENT WAYS OF INTERPRETING REVELATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venn-Revelation 2

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

WE HAVE TO UNDERSTAND THE APOCALYPTIC GENRE

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

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

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

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

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

WE SHOULD NOT GENERALLY TAKE APOCALYPTIC WRITING AT FACE VALUE.

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

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

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

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

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