"Jesus Post-Easter: (B) What Does He Want?"
May 6, 2007 Rev.2-3
Messages - Spam or Special?
How do you file your mail? If you're like me, much of what comes to your mailbox is not very personal. A lot of it goes directly to the recycle bin - envelopes, cover pages, unsolicited admail - who really needs another credit card application, anyway? Then there are the regular periodicals you expect and keep; bills to pay - better not throw those out! A smaller percentage is personal correspondence - to this we start to pay particular attention. We hold on to letters from family and friends, putting them to one side to reply to later. But then once in a while comes a very special note, perhaps from a close friend or family member, or maybe even from someone you hardly know but whose life has been touched by yours. These are the special few letters you treasure because they're so encouraging; maybe you have a special place to keep them (mine are in a file labelled "Appreciation, Notes of"). These are the 'keepers' you not only hold on to but pull out once in a while to look at when you need a shot of encouragement. The person has spoken to an area of your life in a way that's very meaningful. Maybe they even spurred you on to invest extra effort in what was kind of a growth area for you.
What would your reaction be if one day, sorting through the mail, you saw a specially marked one with a return address simply, "JC - Ruler of Creation"? And when you opened it, you found instructions and encouragement direct from heaven, addressing exactly what you happen to be going through that moment? Wouldn't that blow you away! You'd find a very special place to keep that mail, and take it out again to study it many times. Jesus' letters to the 7 churches in Asia Minor, found in the 2nd & 3rd chapters of Revelation, are like that. They're key notes of encouragement that the church has filed in its special record book, guided by the Holy Spirit. We pull them out on occasion to refresh ourselves, remember how dearly we're loved by our Lord, and be encouraged when we're encountering hardship or we're weary or perhaps things are a bit flat. We see ourselves to varying degrees in the 7 churches, and are reminded of our high calling, Who it is that is behind our mission, and the precious promises He holds out to those who persevere in following Him.
These were 7 actual churches in Asia Minor, possibly constituting a 'circuit' visited by itinerant early preachers. Several were visited or founded by the apostles (John, Paul) or the disciples the apostles mentored. [MAP] Some commentators (such as the Scofield Reference Bible, or Hal Lindsey) push the interpretation to apply to seven stages of church history (persecution, post-Constantine, Papacy, Reformation, etc.) - but this is not necessary, seems a bit 'forced', and may isolate us from the message rather than help us see its relevance to us today. These were 7 actual churches back then, each with their unique challenges; and though the challenges today may come from different sources, modern churches still need to confront parallel difficulties - coldness, complacency, compromise, and corruption - though the names and particulars have changed.
I Know You
Although there are 7 different letters, they share a common format. There's an address: "To the angel [or, messenger - probably pastor] of the church in (place)". Next, Jesus identifies Himself as the sender - this is the "From": "these are the words of Him who..." - and then follows some description of an attribute of the Lord, reminiscent of last week's vision - walking among the lampstands, eyes like blazing fire, the Faithful and True witness, etc. There's a section starting "I know your deeds" which describes their current situation, often positive. Then there's some observation, analysis, or comment. After that, a section features commands from Jesus to "repent...be faithful...hold on...wake up..." and so on. Finally, each letter concludes with a promise to those who overcome their current challenges; and each closes with an admonition to "hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
Though the format is constant, the content is individually geared to each church. The introduction highlights that Jesus knows our situation, and is the answer to our deepest need. The "From" section - Jesus' self-identification - reminds us this is Him who supports us, holding us in His right hand; He is eternal, the First and the Last, He's conquered death; He has dread power, a sharp double-edged sword; He's the Son of God (not a title Jesus claims often, but in key circumstances, such as His trial (Mt 26:63f); He's the highest authority, holding 'the key of David' which opens and shuts in a way no one can undo; He is the Amen, source of Being, ruler of God's creation. In short, He is Number One - yet He cares about us and is speaking directly to us.
He knows our situation intimately. Each letter has an "I know" section. Archeological research and ancient extra-Biblical literature back up the descriptions we find of these churches in the context of their particular cities. Ephesus was the most well-known city, boasting the temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and an amphitheatre that would seat 45,000 people. Smyrna was a poor church in a rich city. Pergamum was the official centre of Emperor worship in Asia - hence the reference "where Satan has his throne". Thyatira had a woman-false prophetess who was causing problems. Philadelphia was a smaller town so the church had "little strength". Laodicea was a wealthy banking centre, famous for its black wool and eye salve; but it had a poor water supply, having to import water from a hot springs in a nearby town via an aqueduct, which cooled it to luke-warm on the way. Unfortunately the high soda content gave an emetic quality (made you want to up-chuck). Here you can really see how the message is custom-tailored to the town: Jesus says they're 'lukewarm' so he's about to vomit them up. They say they're rich, but He advises them to buy from Him gold, white clothes, and salve to put on their eyes!
Jesus knows our situation; the Holy Spirit-Counsellor is given to believers to "teach [us] all things" and "guide [us] into all truth" - the facts God wants us to know so we can live for Him. In 2:23 Jesus declares "I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds." That's an echo of Jeremiah 17:10 - NLT: "But I know! I, the Lord, search all hearts and examine secret motives. I give all people their due rewards, according to what their actions deserve." Whatever hassle you're facing this week, whatever temptations or triumphs - the Lord knows what you're going through. He wants to help you be an overcomer, as you turn to Him for guidance.
Anybody in leadership knows how important it is to balance criticism with praise - else performance becomes a drag, begrudging and bitter. Jesus begins with praise right off the bat, commending the churches for what they've done right. He says things like, "I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance...I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first..." (2:2,19) He praises the church at Ephesus for testing those who claim to be apostles but aren't really (2:2). Metaphorically, He puts His arm around their shoulders and squeezes them, saying He knows they've persevered and endured hardships for His name, and haven't grown weary; 2:13, they've remained true to His name, despite ongoing persecution and martyrdom. 3:8 They've kept His word and not denied His name; v10, they've kept His command to endure patiently. 2:9 He knows they've had to put up with afflictions, poverty and slander; and 3:4, a few in Sardis have not soiled their clothes (morally speaking) like others. He singles out the good they've done, and commends them for it.
In his book 'The One_Minute Manager', Kenneth Blanchard recommends developing the practice of "one_minute praisings," where the manager (or parent, spouse, etc.) tries to "catch someone doing something right" and then spend a full sixty seconds praising that person for the good deed. This is a lot more difficult than it appears. Where we might not find it difficult to criticize someone for even sixty minutes, many times we find it almost impossible to praise someone sincerely for a full minute. Although Jesus has some hard things to say to some of the churches, He doesn't skip the praise where it's due.
Two of the churches don't really come in for any criticism at all - Smyrna and Philadelphia. They were experiencing hardship at the hands of Jewish persecutors, whom Jesus refers to as "a synagogue of Satan". At Smyrna there were many Jews hostile to Christianity; some of their offspring later joined in the martyrdom of Polycarp in AD 155 (Polycarp had been mentored by the apostle John). Those at Philadelphia had not denied Jesus' name: either to say "kurios Kaisar" ('Caesar is Lord') as required by the Romans, or to deny that Jesus was the Christ/Messiah - as sounded obnoxious to the Jews.
To these churches, Jesus was all encouragement, saying: (2:10) don't be afraid, be faithful; (2:25, 3:11) hold on to what you have until I come. Jesus didn't want anyone to take away their crown: the Greek term (from which comes the name 'Stephen') refers not to the crown of royalty, but the garland crown that was presented to the winner of a competition - like our modern trophies or Olympic medal. The sort of crown awarded to the pageant queen in Miss Congeniality (though this one doesn't blow up!).
Opposition was making it tough for these churches: membership meant something; being a believer might require you to put your life on the line. They were subject to teasing, mocking, harassment, having their possessions taken away from them, and worse. Jesus isn't requiring more of them than simply to endure, hold on, stand fast - as in Ephesians 6:13: "Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand."
That's the situation for many in countries where Christians are persecuted today. I remember in Congo, believers weren't allowed to become political officials because you had to be a Communist. That was just part of the price tag for being a follower of Jesus.
Each of these letters refers to a reward for "him who overcomes": that's a big theme for John, as Jesus had said, "In this world you will have trouble; but take heart! I have overcome the world." (Jn 15:33) 1Jn 5:4 tells us "for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith." What faith is, in Paul's letters, connects with overcoming in John's writings.
You may have heard the saying, "Don't bother trying to find the perfect church: because if you did, as soon as you joined it, it wouldn't be perfect anymore!" It's encouraging to know that of the 7 churches Jesus wrote to, 5 were definitely NOT perfect: they came in for some correction besides commendation. But even here, the correction is a result of Jesus' love for the churches. In 3:19 He puts it plainly: "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.So be earnest, and repent." We're not to lose heart when God rebukes us because He disciplines those He loves: it's a poor and uncaring parent who doesn't help their children "learn to mind" (Heb 12:5-8 / Prov 3:11f).
There are 4 C's Jesus aims to correct: coldness, complacency, compromise, and corruption. Coldness applies to the churches at Ephesus and Sardis. Jesus says, "I hold this against you: you have forsaken your first love.Remember the height from which you have fallen!" And, "You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God." (2:4f; 3:1f) How many of us need our 'first love' for the Lord rekindled? Has the initial fervour we had following conversion sort of worn off? Has faith become routine, devoid of heart or passion - something you 'gotta do'? There's a big danger for the cold church of being hypocritical, keeping up appearances. There's 'reputation' on a human level, but what really matters is our deeds being "complete in the sight of...God". How fresh is your relationship with the Audience of One?
We were watching a TV sitcom in which one of the characters was reading a scarey book. Whenever he found it getting too scarey, he would put it in the fridge freezer - as if that would keep the people in the story from threatening him! Have we fallen into the practice of storing the Bible in the freezer, lest it really grab a-hold of us? Or can we read it fresh each day as a warm love-letter from our Maker-Redeemer-Friend?
Next to Coldness, there's Complacency. This is Laodicea in particular, though Sardis was also a wealthy church. Interesting that the two wealthy churches come in for the strongest blame of the 7. According to 3:17, the complacent Christians at Laodicea say to themselves, "I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing." Jesus counters, "But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked." Spiritually speaking, they were destitute. Jesus counsels this rich church to buy gold from Him that's been refined in the fire - precious gold, so they can become truly rich; to allow him to clothe them and heal their blindness (3:18)
Laodicea was a wealthy banking centre, famous for its black wool and carpets. Blyth isn't a banking centre, but what's it associated with? Wool and leather goods. Let's make sure we're 'rich toward God' rather than complacently well-to-do in the world's eyes (Lk 12:21). Blessed are the poor in spirit - those who know their need of God - for theirs, Jesus insisted, is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:3).
Another problem in the churches was Compromise. They were succumbing to pressure from Emperor worship and Gnosticism. In AD 29, Pergamum became the site of the first temple of the Caesar cult; there was also a throne-like altar to the Greek god Zeus on the crag over the town. Jesus observes, "I know where you live - where Satan has his throne." (2:13) He refers to "Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city" - tradition says he was burned alive inside a bronze bull over top of a bonfire. How gruesome! When there's that fierce a degree of persecution, pressure's on to compromise, to pay lipservice to civil religion while internally thinking you're still a Christian.
Another threat was Gnosticism. Several times the Nicolaitans are referred to: Jesus says he hates their practices. An early church father Irenaeus wrote that the Nicolaitans were Gnostics who "lead lives of unrestrained indulgence". Gnosticism fostered compartmentalization of spiritual and physical lives: to live without moral restraint became a hallmark of some, showing they were supposedly saved by their secret spiritual knowledge and so behaviour didn't matter. Others taught that to defeat Satan you have to enter his stronghold, that is, experience evil deeply - hence the reference in 2:24 to "Satan's so-called deep secrets". The false prophetess Jezebel at the church in Thyatira seemed to be promoting similar teaching, advocating sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols (2:20). These were 2 of the 4 prohibitions listed by the Jerusalem Council (Ac 15:29).
How are we holding out in the area of Compromise? Do we tend to accommodate our beliefs to worldly patterns of living, rather than letting Biblical standards hedge our behaviour? We're not pressured to burn incense to Caesar; but our tax dollars fund abortions. Our provincial budgets rely on gambling and casinos. We allow the state to re-define marriage. Oh, at first we make a ruckus, but we'll adapt. As for sexual immorality - when we turn on the tube or plan our video recording, do we find it easy to resist the seamier titles with R ratings? Guys, have we mastered the "eye-bounce" so we don't treat women like objects, whether on magazine covers or in real life? Let's acknowledge areas where we've got some growing to do, so our deeds may be 'complete'.
The fourth C is Corruption. Leaders in the church were not immune to temptation, then as now. 2:2 refers to false apostles, 'wicked men' - whether charlatans or those who merely preached for profit. In 2:20 Jesus singles out the woman at Thyatira who was misleading other believers; he'd given her time to repent, but she wouldn't, so he was going to 'cast her on a bed of suffering' and 'strike her children dead' - perhaps as had happened to Ananias and Sapphira (Ac 5:5,10). This was serious. There may also have been some occult involvement with the reference to Satan's so-called 'deep secrets'.
In the church today, it's vital that pastors, elders, and leaders of other church ministries take care to live on a high moral plane - resisting temptations of pleasure, profit, and power. When a Christian leader falls, it becomes a possible means for Satan to prompt all those whose lives that leader has impacted to question their faith. Examples here are hardly necessary, unfortunately. Please be praying for our EMC President Phil Delsaut and other church leaders and delegates as they meet this Monday-Wednesday in Calgary.
What Jesus Wants Most
Jesus is Risen - Where is He? (that's what we looked at last week) At the right hand of God, the most exalted position of power in the universe. What does He want? An intimate relationship with His followers. Not just deeds, but love and faith. Intimacy is hinted at in 2:17, "I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it" - that's a secret shared between you and the Lord, for no one else to know. That's like the secrets shared between intimate human lovers.
"Relationship" is written all over these chapters. In 2:28 Jesus promises to give the person who overcomes "the morning star": what's that, we each get the planet Venus? It's a symbol - in 22:16 Jesus says "I am...the bright Morning Star." He gives us Himself. In 3:4 He says those who haven't soiled their clothes "will walk with Me, dressed in white, for they are worthy." 3:21 The person who overcomes will be given the right to sit with Jesus on His throne. Walking with Jesus, sitting with Him - now that sounds like relationship! 3:10 Others will acknowledge "that I have loved you." Then 3:20 has that beautiful picture of Jesus standing at the door and knocking: (NLT) "If you hear me calling and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal as friends." That's the pinnacle - it doesn't get any better than that: sharing supper with the Ruler of the universe. He wants you!
May God preserve us from coldness, complacency, compromise, and corruption; may we be found faithful, holding on 'til He comes. "Dear children, keep yourselves from idols." (1Jn 5:21) Let's pray.