Judgmental Jesus

glowing Jesus

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

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Revelation #10. Revelation 2:18-29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

SUFFERING FOR A CROWN

suffering - woman against wall

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

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Download Revelation Part 8

Revelation #8. Revelation 2:8-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul writes to the Thessalonians:

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

Peter writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHO’S ON FIRST?

Jesus

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

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Download Revelation Part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember, Jesus said this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The value of selective intolerance

Temple of Artemis

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

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Download Revelation Part 6

Revelation #6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another one, from John’s second letter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NO ROOM FOR FEAR

Old keys on a old book, antique wood background

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

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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.