LORD OF PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

Jesus with us

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

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Revelation #3. 1:1-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It also sounds like John in his first letter:

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

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

 This is also in John’s third letter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Number 7 in Revelation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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REVELATION: THE BOOK OF SEVENS

Cross Tree

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

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

–Larry Crabb.

 

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SERMON NOTES

Revelation 2: Introduction, Part 2.

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

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

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

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

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

A Seven-Part Structure?

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

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

I. Introduction

II. Point A

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

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

V. Summary & Conclusion

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

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

A. First point.

B. Second Point.

C. Third Point.

CENTRAL POINT

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1: 7 Seven Letters;

Part 2: Seven Seals;

Part 3: Seven Trumpets;

Part 4: Seven Signs; Part

5: Seven Bowls.

 

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

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

 The First Readers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bible commentator Leon Morris puts it like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BIBLE’S MOST COMPLICATED BOOK

Rev1

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

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Revelation Part 1

Revelation: INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

DIFFERENT WAYS OF INTERPRETING REVELATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venn-Revelation 2

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

WE HAVE TO UNDERSTAND THE APOCALYPTIC GENRE

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

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

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

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

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

WE SHOULD NOT GENERALLY TAKE APOCALYPTIC WRITING AT FACE VALUE.

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

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

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

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

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

PARTICIPATING IN THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD

seed coins

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

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Download Overlooked Letters Part 5

Overlooked Letters #5: Third John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pray that you too, can discover that blessing.

 

LOVE AND LIES

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

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Download Overlooked Letters Part 4

Overlooked Letters # 4. Love, and Third John.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My comment: This is talking about humility again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DO YOU LOVE YOUR FELLOW CHRISTIANS?

This post is so important, that I’m reposting. For those in our fellowships, we will discuss this on the week beginning June 18.

I love mankind its people I can't stand full

Loving other Christians is part of what you sign up for when become a follower of Jesus. The idea of becoming a Christian, but not being a part of a Christian fellowship is absolute nonsense, and it is not supported anywhere in scripture. As John says elsewhere: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar.” In this context “brother” means “fellow Christian.” We are supposed to show the love of God to the world by how we relate to each other, and that love needs to be demonstrated in genuine, life-changing ways. 

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Download Overlooked Letters Part 3

2 John #3: Loving Fellow Christians

We’ve been talking about John’s concern for the truth. He is also, obviously, very concerned about love:

4I was very glad to find some of your children walking in the truth, in keeping with a command we have received from the Father. 5So now I urge you, dear lady — not as if I were writing you a new command, but one we have had from the beginning — that we love one another. 6And this is love: that we walk according to His commands. This is the command as you have heard it from the beginning: you must walk in love. (2John 1:4-6, HCSB)

Unfortunately, Christian love has often been greatly misunderstood, and not really practiced.

Throughout the New Testament the command to “love one another” is given to Christians, for Christians. It is not a general call to “love the world,” but a command that Christians are to live and act in love specifically toward each other.

I can already hear the indignation coming back at me. After all, aren’t the two great commandments to love God, and love our neighbor? Didn’t Jesus tell the story of the Good Samaritan, to show us that all people are our neighbors? I understand the objections, but I want you to hear me out.

Of course the command: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” applies to all people. Specifically, it is a summary of six of the ten commandments (or seven, if you are Lutheran). We should try to live a “love our neighbors” lifestyle toward the whole world. If we personally encounter someone who needs our help, of course we should help them, regardless of their religious faith, or lack thereof.

But even so, Christians are called to have a special kind of love for fellow Christians. Listen to what Jesus says:

34“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. 35By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, HCSB)

Jesus told his disciples to love one another. Jesus says that “all people” will know that we follow Him when they see the love that we have for one another. It is this special love – among Christians – that will show everyone else that we follow Jesus. It isn’t that we are supposed to hate everyone else, but there should be a commitment to love fellow Christians at a deeper level than “loving all mankind.”

There is no escaping the fact that dozens and dozens of verses in the New Testament tell us to love fellow Christians specifically, and how to go about doing that. Jesus repeats himself in John 15:11-12

11“I have spoken these things to you so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. 12This is My command: Love one another as I have loved you

Jesus is talking to his disciples here, not the world in general. Shortly after, he tells them the world will hate them, but they are to love each other. The rest of the New Testament was written specifically to Christians. Paul often writes about how Christians should treat each other:

12Therefore, God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, 13accepting one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a complaint against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. 14Above all, put on love — the perfect bond of unity. 15And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. 16Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Col 3:12-16, HCSB)

“Therefore, as God’s chosen ones…” In other words: “Since you are followers of Jesus, this is how you are treat each other.” He adds that they are “one body,” which is a metaphor for the church. These verses are similar to dozens of other places in the New Testament. After God’s love for us, the strongest emphasis about love in the New Testament is on love among fellow-believers.

Let’s consider why it is so important for us to love fellow Christians in a special way.

First, because it shows Jesus to the world in a special way. When the world sees real Christian community in action, they will notice it. They will see that there is something different about how we deal with one another. This was the reason Jesus himself gave for his command that Christians love other Christians (see John 13:34-35, above). One of the most attractive things about real Christianity is the genuine, loving relationships between Christians. When those aren’t present, churches become very un-attractive.

Second, Christians are supposed to love each other because love is supposed to be a commitment that has real-life consequences. We are to show the love of God to the world by how we relate to each other (see #1, above) and that love needs to be demonstrated in genuine, life-changing ways. The New Testament is full of exhortations to put love into practice. Here are just a few examples:

14And we exhort you, brothers: warn those who are irresponsible, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15See to it that no one repays evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all. (1Thess 5:14-15, HCSB)

24And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, 25not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25, HCSB)

 31All bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander must be removed from you, along with all malice. 32And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ. (Eph 4:31-32, HCSB)

8But now you must also put away all the following: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old self with its practices 10and have put on the new self. You are being renewed in knowledge according to the image of your Creator. 11In Christ there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all. (Col 3:8-11, HCSB)

1Therefore I, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting one another in love, 3diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us. 4There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope at your calling — 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-6, HCSB)

You can’t love “the whole world” like this. This sort of love only develops when there is real community, when people actually know each other, and “do life” together. This is one reason it is so important for every Christian to be a part of a small Christian community – a group of 5-20 other Christians with whom you meet regularly, and with whom you also socialize and spend time with. That is the context of the New Testament church, and so that is the context for true Christian love.

You cannot truly love 1,000 people at once, not in a way that matters. You may genuinely care for that many people, and be concerned about what happens to them, but when you are dealing with that many people, love is mostly an abstraction – something that takes place primarily in your head and emotions; but it doesn’t make much of an actual difference to how you live, or to those you claim to love. It reminds of the old Peanuts cartoon at the top of the post.

Real love, love that makes a difference, can only grow out of genuine relationships in relatively small communities; in other words: in a New Testament type of church.

The idea of loving “the whole world” is a way to shirk the responsibility of loving that dear Christian brother who has an annoying habit of interrupting everyone, and talking too much. If you “love the homeless” you can go serve in a soup kitchen once a month (or less!), spending a couple hours with people that you will never truly share your life with. Then you can go back to church, secure in your “love credentials” and ignore the lonely, social awkward bachelor there who makes you cringe.

Loving each other in the church forces us to actually have relationships with each other. It forces us to confront our own issues and conflicts, and work through them under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Third, we can’t love from the outside in. Love starts within, and grows. Loving fellow Christians provides us with a solid base from which to spread the love. Genuine love-in-action normally spreads – the nature of love is a desire to include others in the joy we have.. But if we don’t have real love going on in our local body of Christ, it will be very hard for us as a group to love anyone else either. In other words, if you want to love “the world” it has to start with loving your fellow believers. If you can’t love them, you won’t be able to truly love the world either, not in any meaningful or helpful way.

So, what do we do with this message? First, we need to accept that when we become followers of Jesus, we join a family of other Jesus followers.

48But He replied to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers? ” 49And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! 50For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven, that person is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matt 12:48-50, HCSB)

Like a biological family, you don’t get to pick everyone who becomes part of your Christian fellowship. Even so, as in a biological family, we have an obligation to love each other.

8Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law (Romans 13:8)

Loving other Christians is part of what you sign up for when become a follower of Jesus. The idea of becoming a Christian, but not being a part of a Christian fellowship is absolute nonsense, and it is not supported anywhere in scripture. As John says elsewhere:

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

In this context, as in most of the New Testament, “brother” means “fellow Christian.” You can’t be much more clear than that. We need to accept that loving our Christian brothers and sisters, and having meaningful relationships with them, is a normal and vital part of following Jesus.

Second, many of us need to get serious about plugging in to real Christian community. It’s hard to develop real community – that is, real brotherly/sisterly love – without spending significant time and energy with other Christians. We need to find a small group of like-minded Christians, and commit to loving them. We need to make it a priority to spend time with them, do things together, worship together, hang out together. Again, this is a normal part of being a Christian.

Third, within our Christian community, we need to put love into action. We’ll discuss more about that next time. Let me just say this: when I first was confronted with the necessity of loving my Christian brothers and sisters, and opening my life to them, I was very uncomfortable. I’m an introvert. I like my nice little, quiet, orderly life. But when I did open my heart and life to include genuine Christian community, I found that in addition to the hassles, I received a real and lasting joy, and also the priceless gift of true, loving friendships in my Christian family. I have never wanted to go back to my compartmentalized Christianity.

I pray that you will  surrender to Jesus in this matter, and experience the joy and love that I have!

WHAT SHOULD CHRISTIANS FIGHT ABOUT?

tugofwar

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2 John #2. Remaining in the Truth

Last week we talked about the importance of being “in truth.” Next time we will explore more about how being in truth allows us to truly love one another. But the importance of truth, and seriousness of John’s command to not even welcome someone who doesn’t believe and live according Christ’s teaching, calls for a bit more consideration.

Obviously, John is concerned that both individual Christians and even whole churches might be led away from true faith if we welcome as Christians those who are not “in the truth.” He lays out the issue in verses 7-11.

  • There are many deceivers. Those who don’t confess the coming of Jesus in the flesh represent the message of the anti-Christ.
  • If you don’t remain in Christ’s teaching, but go beyond it, you don’t have God
  • If you remain in Christ’s teaching you have the Father and the Son
  • If someone doesn’t bring Christ’s teaching, don’t welcome him into your church

This is an important message for many Christian churches today. Far too many Christians and churches seem almost terrified of coming across as narrow-minded or bigoted. They seem to be afraid of hurting the feelings of those who believe or live differently. Let’s call these, “Wishy-washy Christians” (WWCs). They minimize the importance of truth. If someone asks a WWC, “Do you believe that anyone goes to a real hell, a place of torment for those who reject Jesus?” they might respond with something like, “Well, I believe God is a God of love, and we can’t put limits on that love.” WWCs typically shy away from the hard truths that the Bible teaches about human sins (particularly sexual sins), or the demands of Jesus that we give him our whole lives, and die to ourselves as we follow him. They try to help people avoid feeling guilty about not praying, not reading the Bible, not going to Church, not being involved in real Christian community.

WWCs often say things like “Everyone is welcome! You don’t have to change your life or lifestyle, just come be a part of our community. Of course, Jesus said it differently: “If anyone wants to come after me, let him take up cross, die to himself, and follow me.”

WWCs might say things like: “We don’t judge you just because you have a different opinion about Jesus, or how to be close to God.  Jesus, again, says it differently: “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

John’s words are certainly aimed at Wishy-washy Christians.

Though many churches today seem to shy away from admitting it, the fact is, Jesus calls us to hard choices. When we don’t insist upon truth in our churches, we obscure that, and we are in danger of not remaining in Jesus.

But where, exactly, do we draw the line? How do we apply this business of remaining in truth? How can we insist upon truth, and yet not become a cult that suspects all outsiders?

Because, unfortunately, there are many other Christians who seem to have the opposite problem. These folks can take up ten blog pages explaining how the worship song “Ten Thousand Reasons” will lead to the downfall of Christianity across the entire globe. Let’s call them “Divisive Christians,” (DCs). DCs seem determined in all cases to throw out the baby with the bathwater. So if a movement arises that is leading people to the Lord and helping thousands of people to become true and better disciples of Jesus, but that movement also involves speaking in tongues, DCs seem perfectly willing to warn all Christians that it is probably the work of the devil. DCs are after a pure, untainted theology. What makes up a pure and untainted theology, none of them can seem to agree upon. At their worst, DCs can become cult-like, believing that no one but themselves has a true understanding of Jesus’ teachings.

So how can we apply John’s commands to remain in the truth of Jesus’ and teaching, without becoming either a Wishy-washy Christian, or a Divisive Christian? There is no cut and dried, easy way, but I think there are some principles that could be quite helpful to us. To WWCs, these will probably seem to rigid and judgmental. To DCs, they will undoubtedly seem not rigid enough. I realize I am moving off the text of 2 John as we do this, but I think it is important, and certainly, I think it is relevant to John’s concerns about truth and love.

The New Testament contains many commands to insist upon sound doctrine and Biblical teaching. It tells Christians leaders to contend for the faith, and rebuke and teach those who are wrong. 2 Timothy 4:1-5 is just one of many similar passages:

1I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of His appearing and His kingdom:2Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching.3For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new.4They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths.5But as for you, be serious about everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2Tim 4:1-5, HCSB)

At the same time, many, many New Testament passages warn Christians not be involved in frivolous disputes:

23But reject foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they breed quarrels.24The Lord’s slave must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient,25instructing his opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth.26Then they may come to their senses and escape the Devil’s trap, having been captured by him to do his will. (2Tim 2:23-26, HCSB)

 14Remind them of these things, charging them before God not to fight about words; this is in no way profitable and leads to the ruin of the hearers.15Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth.16But avoid irreverent, empty speech, for this will produce an even greater measure of godlessness. (2 Tim 2:14-16)

So what is worth fighting about? What do we insist upon as the truth that all Christians should walk in, and what things should we not quarrel about? At what point do we refuse to welcome people who call themselves Christians, but differ from us? At what point do we say, “those differences don’t have to divide us?

I think it helps to think of Christian beliefs on four different “levels.” The first level includes those things that we must believe in order to be Biblical Christians. I call this “foundational level” truth. We must insist upon agreement when it involves foundational-level issues, like:

  1. When the self-revelation of God is at stake. The universe exists for the glory of God. Anything that makes him less, that lifts up something higher than God, that makes something other than God and his glory a higher priority, is worth fighting about.
  2. When the revelation of Jesus Christ is at stake. Anything that makes Jesus less than Lord, Messiah, Savior, God-the-Son is worth fighting about. John makes this clear in 2 John 7.
  3. When the Gospel is at stake. Anything that claims we can be saved without Jesus’ death and resurrection, saved without repentance and gracious obedience, is worth fighting about.
  4. When the integrity of the Bible is at stake. We know and believe 1, 2 and 3 because of the Bible. Anything that generally undermines the truth or reliability of scripture therefore also undermines those things. Note, I don’t mean things that undermine a particular interpretation of one or more passages. I mean teachings or behavior that results in the bible as whole being viewed as less reliable or true.

When there is disagreement about things on this “first level” we need to obey the command of 2 John 10-11, and refuse to welcome the dissenters as Christians. If they do not claim to be Christians, we can still welcome them as visitors.

There is a second level of important Christian beliefs. I believe these things are also necessary to agree about among true Christians. Second-level Christian truths may not be entirely central to the faith, but if can’t agree on these things, Christian faith becomes basically meaningless. I call this second level “Doctrinal level” truth (“Doctrine” means “teaching.”)

For instance, the Bible contains many clear verses about Christian sexual morality. Now, we are not saved by obeying the Bible’s teaching about sexuality. We must also admit that this topic is not directly about the nature of God, or the work of Jesus. Even so, the Bible’s teaching on sexuality is so clear and straightforward that if we reject it, we are basically rejecting the Bible as a source of spiritual truth. If we do that, we end up having no basis to believe what the Bible says about God, Jesus, sin or salvation. All of the moral teachings of the Bible (not just sexual morality) fall into this doctrinal level of truth.

One thing that is helpful about doctrinal level truth is that we have 2,000 years of Christian history to help us. The core of Christian belief has been tested by 20 centuries of disagreements and discussions. Doctrinal level truth includes those things that we call “orthodox Christianity” – beliefs that all Christians have agreed upon throughout history.

Let’s make sure we are very clear about this. I don’t mean we should go around automatically condemning those who fail to live according to Biblical morality. I don’t mean we should demand that Christians be perfect. But we must insist that the Bible’s teachings on these issues are good, right and true. In other words, we let the words of the Bible judge our behavior and belief in these matters. If someone rejects these teachings of the Bible as not good, or invalid, we cannot call that person a fellow-Christian. This isn’t about performance, it is about Biblical truth.

There is another “level” of Christian belief. At this third level, we can disagree and still accept each other as Christians, yet the disagreement is serious. Therefore, I call it,  “Contention level,” truth, because at this level, we need to contend for (that is, make arguments for) a true understanding of the Bible. It is different from foundational and doctrinal level truth, because disputes at this level do not mean that one group are true Christians, and the other is not. Even so, we recognize that in contention level truth, usually, one party is in error, and that error should be corrected.

For example, consider the teaching of the “prosperity gospel.” The focus of prosperity gospel is all about this life. It minimizes the eternal hope we have in Jesus. It tends to reduce God to some sort of slot machine that we can manipulate in order to get what we want. I think the teaching of the prosperity gospel is wrong. I think it is dangerous, and tends to lead people farther away from Jesus, rather than closer.

Even so, I am sure that almost all of those with prosperity gospel beliefs are still real Christians. They agree with orthodox Christianity about foundational level and doctrinal level truth. This means that even though they are in error, they are still fellow-Christians. We shouldn’t welcome their teachings, but we can welcome them personally as fellow Jesus-followers.

Again, history can guide us. Orthodox Christianity (that is the core of agreed-upon Christian beliefs) has never included the prosperity gospel as correct.

At a fourth level we find teachings that are in the Bible, but about which many Christians have disagreed about for centuries. I call this “theological level,” truth, because the main people who get worked up about it are professional theologians. It is not necessary that we agree upon all theological level truth in order for us to have good Christian fellowship. We can accept as fellow-Christians people who disagree with us in these fourth level issues. Though we may have our strong opinions, at the theological level, we need to recognize that perhaps our opinions are wrong.

Two examples of this “theological level truth” are the doctrines of Baptism and Communion. The Bible teaches about these things. But some aspects of the Bible’s teaching about these two subjects are not quite clear. Good Christians have disagreed with each other for centuries about these two areas. People who were baptized as babies, and believe that infant baptism is valid, are going to be in heaven. There will also be people in heaven who believe that only adults should be baptized. There is a legitimate case to be made – from the Bible – for both positions. Most importantly, history shows that neither position undermines either foundational or doctrinal level truth, or tends to weaken any part of the Christian message more than the other.

Theological level disputes should not be allowed to cause deep divisions among Christians. Once more, the history of Christian orthodoxy is helpful. 2,000 years have shown us that these disagreements have remained, and have not harmed the core of the Christian faith.

At the fifth level, we find things that definitely should not be an issue between true Jesus followers. I call this the “liberty level” of truth, because the Bible clearly allows Christians to make individual decisions about a number of different things; that is, we have liberty to make our own choices, while remaining good Christians. Liberty level truth includes things like worship styles, and particular ceremonies for worship or other occasions. Special festivals, liturgies, or church seasons should not be issues that divide us, nor should we try to impose them on each other. We have liberty in what we eat, and how (and when) we eat it. There is liberty in whether Christians choose to view movies (and which ones) and in the sorts of music we listen to. There is liberty in whether or not we consume alcohol (as long as we are not getting drunk). There is liberty in whether Christians go out dancing, or play cards, or in a huge number of individual decisions in which we exercise our best judgement as we live our lives of faith in Jesus Christ.

There is a very old saying, dating back about four hundred years: “In essentials Unity, in non-essentials Liberty, and in all Things, Love.” This is a good, quick way to summarize what we’ve been learning here. Let the Holy Spirit continue to lead you as you meditate on these things.