Several years ago a well known musician penned these words, “Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion too. Imagine all the people. Living life in peace…You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will be as one.” These lyrics come from the song Imagine by John Lennon. Now I don’t necessarily agree with all of his sentiments, though I understand them, especially in the fact that almost more wars are fought based on religion than anything else. But can you imagine with me, and with John Lennon a world where there is nothing to kill or die for? Where there are no wars and where people live life in peace and where nations don’t pick up the sword to kill each other. It might be hard to imagine but unless you can imagine it, you will never see it happen. Someone said, “If you can’t imagine it, you can’t achieve it.” And I believe it is no different. William Stafford said, “”Violence is a failure of the imagination.” And there have been many in our world who have had a failure of the imagination. But there have been many also how’s imaginations have led them, like John Lennon to have a vision of living life in peace and where there is nothing to kill or die for. People like Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, and others.
Even if we look back into the story of God, we find people who had imaginations and visions of peace winning out over war and violence. One such person was the prophet Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah was a dreamer. He imagined a new world. Isaiah envisioned a coming day when the mountain of Gods sacred presence will be lifted up, drawing nations to that place to learn God’s way of Shalom.
Last week we talked about the beginning of the story of God from Genesis 1-4. We talked about the idea of God’s original intention for all of his creation which is the biblical idea of Shalom which means peace. We talked about God creating shalom from chaos, choosing shalom in all the relationships he had, and then how humanity chose chaos instead of Shalom. We saw God continually seeking to move his people to Shalom and not chaos. In fact, as we will find out today as we look at the prophet Isaiah, that beginning with Isaiah we see God moving increasingly away from all species of militarism. The Hebrew prophets following Isaiah prophesy about a time of peace, an age of Shalom. They envision a kingdom shaped by harmony like in the garden of Eden, harkening back to Gods’ original intention, a demilitarized domain not of this world, a newly created people whose very identity will be marked by nonviolent shalom making.
No clearer in the book of Isaiah does this dream or vision of a world that is shalom filled than in Isaiah 2:1-5.
Isaiah 2:1-5 says, This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains, it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore. Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
So Isaiah 2:1-5 is a vision or prophecy that the Lord showed Isaiah concerning the future. This vision or prophecy is what will happen at the last days. This term last days refer to the “time of the Messiah” when the anointed of the Lord reigns over the earth. When the rule and reign of Jesus will be fully realized and come in it’s fullness. Jesus rule and reign, what we call the Kingdom of God is a now and not yet reality. Jesus is ruling and reigning now and will come in its fullness at the last days. This expression of the last days is an expression that often takes place in the Old Testament. It does not refer to any particular period and especially not to the end of the world. According to Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, “The vision of Isaiah is ‘an act of imagination that looks beyond present dismay through the eyes of God, to see what will be that is not yet. That is the function of promise in the life of faith. Under promise, faith sees what will be that is not yet.”
So Isaiah writes down this vision that he sees (this vision was also given to Micah- Micah 4:1-3). He sees that the mountain of the Lord will be the tallest mountain in the world, and that all nations will stream to it. What is the mountain that Isaiah is referring to? He is referring to Mount Moriah, which was the exact mountain where Abraham led his son Isaac to. Speculation is that this mount is now known as the Temple Mount. Now, does this really mean that this mountain is actually the tallest and highest of all mountains in the world? Of course not. Isaiah, in his poetic way, in verse 2 is saying that the “government” (think Kingdom) of the house of the Lord shall have preeminence over all levels of human government. Or put in another way, there will be a time in the future when the Kingdom of God comes in it’s fullness and will have preeminence over all other Kingdoms. In Isaiah the rule of God (Kingdom) overwhelms all human empires and the power of militarism by which they acquire and sustain their sovereignty.
In that time, people and nations will flock to the mountain of God or the capital of his government (Kingdom). Nations will move towards him and towards the center. As people move towards God they will be transformed and they will then become fresh, sustained, and a source of life and growth for the earth, as they return from the capital of God’s Kingdom. What will they experience at the mountain of God? They will learn his ways and how to walk in his paths. As we talked about last week and will talk about during this series, his ways and his path is the way and path of shalom. That is what drives God and that is ultimately what should drive us. Once the people and the nations learn the shalom ways of God they will go out from Zion, living out the rule and reign of God in all areas of their lives, and teaching others to walk in the shalom ways of God and to live under the rule and reign of God.
When the people who have learned the shalom ways of God, when they come under the rule and reign of King Jesus, they begin to realize that the way of Jesus is antithetical to way of the world. You have the shalom way of God on one hand and the violent way of the world in the other. Isaiah 2:2-4 makes this clear. This is the vision of the end of war and to the preparation of war. The prophet Isaiah addresses the threat of war with a call to stand firm in faith rather than in taking up arms. The theology here is one is where warfare is understood as lacking to the power to produce the desired effect. Judah’s search for military solutions is understood and faithlessness and human fighting is understood to be counter-productive. The way of God, God’s original intention, is the way of Shalom. He calls the people of God to live out this shalom way of God by beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. By taking weapons of war and destruction and turning them into tools of agriculture. From tools of chaos to tools of shalom. The witness of the book of Isaiah to us today is that it encourages us to acknowledge that although empires will always wage war, that God’s purpose is for all people, especially those who live under the rule and reign of King Jesus, to ‘beat their swords into plowshares’ and to stop preparing for war.
When the Kingdom rules and reigns in the heats and lives of people. When the shalom of God breaks out into the world, nation will not take up swords against other nations, and they will not prepare for war anymore. There will be no more war or preparing for war because there will be a new rule on earth- King Jesus. We long for the day when there is no more need for a military budget, when the money that fires for weapons and armies can go to schools and parks. We realize that we aren’t there right now. All you have to do is look around and see that Isaiah’s vision or prophecy has not come true. Does that mean we don’t have to try to live out God’s ideal, God’s original intention for his creation, that of Shalom in the world because it isn’t happening? How are we to interpret this passage? Were Isaiah (and Micah) false prophets since their words did not and have not come true? Are these passages to be taken metaphorically or pictures of heaven? Are they like other depictions of utopia, too impractical to implement and designed only to get the reader to dream about a new reality? But that is just the point I believe. That if we can’t dream of a new reality, where people put down weapons of violence, destruction, and chaos and pick up tools of peace, construction, and shalom, then we’ll never experience this new reality. Yes we do live in a world of wars and rumors of wars, but this prophecy/vision promises that Israel itself will start living as if these promises are true. The people of God today might be encouraged and empowered by the gospel to practice peace-making at home, at work, in the congregation, and in society and the world at large. What would it mean for the world if Christians, the people of God took seriously the promises within Isaiah about the future? Will the swords be beaten into plowshares? Will nation stop preparing for war? Not this side of the rule and reign of Jesus coming in it’s fullness. But that doesn’t stop those of us who live under the rule and reign of King Jesus to begin living that reality here and now. Members of the Kingdom of God are called to turn swords into plowshares and to be active agents of peace…here and now and not wait until his Kingdom comes in fullness where there will definitely be no more weapons, no more war, no more chaos, no more violence, just the radical shalom way of Jesus and his Kingdom.
So how are we learning the ways and paths of Jesus, the enemy-loving, crucified (and not crucifying) shalom-making Son of God? How are we learning the way and path of Shalom? What does it look like for you and me to beat our sword into plowshare and our spears into pruning forks? What does it mean for those who follow the ways and paths of Jesus and his shalom to not study for war no more? How does this passage apply to our world today and how do we live it out in the midst of our violent, war filled, and non-shalom world? That is what we are going to unpack together.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, push back do you have regarding the Scripture and/or message?
2. In what ways are you seeking to learn the shalom ways and paths of Jesus? Is this a new concept for you and if so, why do you think that is?
3. What does it mean for you and me to “beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks? How do we live out Shalom and not study war anymore in our violent, war-filled world?
4. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?
Today we begin a 6 week series entitled Fight. Over the next 6 weeks we will take a survey throughout all of the Scriptures, from the beginning of the story of God in Genesis, through the Old Testament, to the New Testament and ending in the New Testament book of Revelation. During our series we will explore questions such as: What does the Bible say about warfare and violence? Can a Christian use violence? Go to war? Kill in self-defense? Why does the Old Testament seem to present violence in a positive light while the New Testament seems more negative? Do we kill our enemies (Joshua) or love them (Jesus)?
No doubt that as we sit here around this room and listen to these questions, we all come at these topics probably from varying degrees of differences. But I am hoping that in the midst of differences, that during our time together over the next 6 weeks we can wrestle together with the Scriptures and with each other and come out stronger as a community for it. My prayer is that we would take a hard look at the Scriptures, and at Jesus to see what he might say about these questions that we’ll explore. My prayer is also that in our times of discussion that we can be open, honest, and loving to each other even (or especially) when we might disagree with each other. My prayer is that our discussions will be filled not with “fighting” but with mutual respect, love, and a desire for all of us to grow deeper in our journeys with Jesus.
So this first week of our series we will start where the story of God begins, in the book of Genesis, and we’ll explore the idea of what God’s original intention for all of his creation (which includes humans, animals and the creation that is all around us) was (and I still believe is his continuing intention for all of creation). Before we get to all those questions that we asked earlier, I believe we need to understand God and his intention from the beginning of why he created humanity and all of creation since that will give us some foundation for our later discussions of how to live out his original intention in the world.
I believe his original intention for his creation can be best summed up in the Hebrew word Shalom. Shalom is the word that we find when we see the word peace in the Scriptures. But what does Shalom actually mean? Is it just the absence of war or conflict or is there more to it? Shalom can be best described as well being, wholeness, perfection of God’s creation, prosperity, peace, fullness, abundance, joy and harmony. Or think of it this way, Shalom is the way things are supposed to be.
Let’s look at the first few chapters of Genesis and see where we find God’s original intention of Shalom popping up, and see what it might say to us gathered together today about living out Shalom and God’s original intention in our own, at times, violent world.
In Genesis 1 and 2 we read the story of creation. In Genesis 1:1-2 we read these words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” So we see earth being without form, empty, and dark. Some have even termed this as chaos. That the earth was in chaos.
The rest of chapter 1 and 2 describe God creating everything, giving the earth and his creation form and substance, light, and moving from empty to filling it with every good thing. We see God creating light, water, ground, plants, animals, creatures, and ending up his creating by creating humankind. God creates everything in Genesis 1 and 2 and he brings order (or Shalom) out of Chaos. Genesis 1 and 2 paint a picture of Shalom. That from the beginning, God wanted Shalom to permeate his creation on every level. Genesis 1 witnesses to life as peaceable. Creation is formed without conflict or opposition to God. This totally differs from other creation accounts and stories from the Ancient Near East which usually had conflict right at its heart. Creation, according to the Bible, is not formed with or through violence. This story in Genesis 1 and 2 begins with the portrayal of Gods’ creative, life-giving power. God brings goodness, shalom, wholeness out of the void of chaos. The ‘miracle’ of creation in Genesis 1 is not God creating matter out of nothing (though that is certainly amazing) nearly so much as God creating wholeness out of chaos. Bringing shalom from chaos. And so we see that Genesis 1 and 2 establishes this world that we live in as founded on peace, not violence. Peace is then our default position.
We continue to see shalom all throughout chapter 2 where God interacts with Adam and Eve. We see this idea of wholeness and the way things are supposed to be when it says that the couple were naked and knew no shame. That they were in the Garden, in perfect harmony with each other, with the entire creation that was teeming with life all around them, and with God as well. That they could walk in the cool of the day with God, being totally free and unhindered. That perfect harmony was a reality. Humans with Humans. Animals with Animals. Creation with animals and humans. And all of Creation (Animals, Humans, Creation) with our maker, God. One can’t begin to understand shalom without first understanding or accepting the fact that God is creator. In the beginning, creation was perfect. All things were planned in proper order and relationships by the Creator. God called it all good.
In Genesis 1:26-27 we read these deeply impactful words describing humankind, “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Here is where we get the theological concept and idea of what is called the Imago Dei, or the Image of God. That each and every person who has ever walked the face of this planet, including you and I, are and have been created in the image of God. That part of God’s image has been implanted in ours. Has been rubbed off of God onto us. If we know this, that we are created in the image of God, and then look back to Genesis 1:1-2 where he begins creating out of chaos to wholeness, we get a glimpse of what God might want from us. If we are made in the image of God who brought wholeness (shalom) from chaos, then don’t we have the same ability within us? Human beings, like God, have the power to fashion wholeness out of chaos, peace out of alienation, harmony out of disharmony. Now this ability to bring shalom is confirmed in the New Testament where is says, “Blessed are the peacemakers” which could be translated Shalom-makers. This isn’t to say that we can bring about full Shalom, only God can do that. But that we have the ability to participate with God in his shalom-making in the world. To bring peace to a world that desperately needs it. To bring Shalom between people in conflict. To bring Shalom to the creation that is all around us. To bring shalom into all of our relationships. But there is a problem. And we find that problem in Genesis 3.
Genesis 3 is the account of Adam and Eve in the garden and what theologians sometimes call The Fall. In Genesis 3 we read the account of Adam and Eve choosing their own way instead of God’s way, Genesis 3:1-7, the account of the fall reads this way, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” Here we see that shalom is now broken. The wholeness, the peace, the harmony that existed in the garden up to this moment was broken. You can’t understand shalom without also understanding and accepting the fall. In Genesis 1 and 2 we see God creating order out of Chaos and then in Genesis 3 we see humankind taking that order and reverting it back to chaos. We see enmity, strife, and violence taking the place of shalom. We see people choosing chaos and violence instead of shalom. We see people choosing their own way instead of the shalom way of God. But just because shalom was broken doesn’t mean that it didn’t continue to exist or be possible. In fact throughout much of the beginning chapters of the book of Genesis we see mankind choosing the way of violence while God continues to call out for shalom. God’s original intention for humanity was and continues to be shalom-peace and not violence. And Genesis and the Old Testament move towards this goal.
God chose shalom when he provided Adam and Eve with animal skins to cover their nakedness, even after Adam and Eve chose their own way. God chose shalom by sending them out of the garden, but by also going with them. And God continues throughout Genesis to choose and live out shalom, and calling his creation to live it out was well.
In Genesis 4 we find the first act of violence between humankind. We find the story of Cain killing his brother Abel, and in the midst of this violence we find God calling for Shalom- peace. In Genesis 4:8-16 we read, “ Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.”
God’s response to Cain’s killing is not to kill him but by placing a mark on Cain so that no one else will take vengeance on him. God responses to the first murder, the first act of violence, not with more violence but with grace. A visible presentation of shalom.
As we have seen in these early chapters of Genesis, the beginning of the story of God, lay out pretty clearly, in my estimation, that God’s original intention of his creation (animals, people, creation) is for shalom. Early chapters of Genesis celebrate peace while showing disdain for violence among humans, even as “just” punishment for a killer. God stepping into the chaos of the world and creating order, harmony, and shalom. God meeting humankind with shalom when we chose our own way. God protecting and showing a killer shalom and not vengeance. The early accounts in Genesis including the Creation is the establishment of shalom in a universe that apart from God’s role is disordered, unproductive, and unfulfilling.
So what does it mean to you and I today that the first four chapters of Genesis- the story of God- lays out God’s original intention for his creation- and his original intention is shalom? Where do you need God’s shalom in your life? How do you need God to step into your chaos and bring his shalom into it? What does it look like for you and I, as image bearers, to step into the chaos and work for shalom in all of our relationships and within creation? How can our community here be shalom-makers in the place that God has put us? These are the questions that we are going to unpack together.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, etc..do you have regarding the Scriptures and/or the message?
2. Where do you need God’s shalom in your life? How do you need God to step into your chaos and bring his shalom into it?
3. What does it look like for you and I, as image bearers, to step into the chaos and work for shalom in all our relationships and in creation? How can our community here be shalom makers in the place that God has put us?
4. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?
Today we wrap up our 7 week series looking at the 7 letters to the 7 churches in 7 cities in Asia Minor around 2,000 years ago found in the New Testament book of Revelation chapters 2 and 3.
We have looked at the letters to the church at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Philadelphia. Today we wrap up our series by looking at the letter to the church at Laodicea.
The letter to the church at Laodicea can be found in Revelation 3:14-22. The letter from Jesus, written by John to the church at Laodicea reads like this, “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
So let’s go through this letter and see what this 2,000 year old letter can say to our church gathered together today in Lancaster, PA.
The first thing that we have seen in each letter is a description of the risen Christ always drawn from the pictures of Jesus found in Revelation 1. This is the only letter in which this isn’t the case. Nowhere in Revelation 1 do we read the description of Jesus that is shared in this letter. Jesus is described as the Amen, the faithful and true witness, and ruler of God’s creation. The authority of this letter to the church at Laodicea comes solely and strictly because of Jesus. Because he is the Amen. He is the end and the one who ties everything together. He is the ruler over all of creation. A theologian name Abraham Kuyper put it this way, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” The letter to the Colossians puts it this way in the first chapter (which some theologians say that the church at Laodicea copied and treasured Colossians…which would make the connection even more evident), “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
Once the authority of Jesus is established, and the understanding that what he speaks is true and right, Jesus then begins to speak words to the Laodicean church about where they stand in following him. Where they need to focus effort and time on. His criticisms so to speak. And if you remember from our 1st week of this series, we see that there is no praise for this church. Every other church had at least one thing to praise. Laodicea does not. And the thing that Jesus goes after lie at the heart of the city, and Jesus, through the pen of John, makes his criticisms super contextual. He understands the city, where they are located, what they take pride in, and their back story.
In verses 15-16 we read probably the biggest complaint against the church at Laodicea, that they were just lukewarm when it came to following Jesus. Verses 15-16 are probably one of the most contextual verses in all of the 7 Letters. Verses 15-16 says, I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” You see one of the things you need to know about the city of Laodicea is that they did not have a good water source in their own city. They relied on 2 other sources for their water. The Northern source was in Hieropolis and their hot springs. These hot springs were magnetics for tourists and they were also piped through aqueducts to Laodicea. But when they travel the distance to Laodicea the water was no longer hot, it was lukewarm. The southern source of water was from Colosse and their supply of water came flowing down from high snow-capped mountains. This water source was fast flowing chilly streams of almost alpine-like quality. But again by the time the water ran along the aqueducts to Laodicea it was no longer cold, it was lukewarm. Both hot and cold water became luke warm. The hot water was no longer hot enough to bathe in and the cold water was no longer cold enough to drink. You see hot water heals, cold water refreshes, but lukewarm water is useless for either purposes and can only serve as a medicine to induce vomiting. Jesus is saying that he wishes that the Christians at Laodicea would either outright deny him or turn up the heat of following him and stop playing this game of phony piety. There is more hope for the openly antagonistic than for the cooly indifferent. Jesus wishes the same for us. He wants us to stop playing the religion “game”. He has no interest in religion and in self-made piety. He wants our hearts. He wants a relationship. He wants us to be whole heartedly, passionately, and, to use the cliche, on fire for him and his Kingdom and the things that he is passionate about. What breaks his heart should break ours. What he is passionate about is what we should be passionate about. What his dreams and hopes are for this world should be our hopes and our dreams for this world as well.
Once Jesus talks about the church being lukewarm he begins to confront other issues within the church at Laodicea that also were rooted in the life & history & culture of the city. In verse 17-18 we read, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.”
This statement from the church that they are rich, that they have acquired wealth and do not need a thing, strikes right at the heart of their city. You see Laodicea was a very wealthy city. They stood on an important junction of trades routes running more or less north to south and west to west. They were a prominent banking center for the entire region. In fact when the city was destroyed by earthquake, around the same time that our last city Philadelphia was destroyed, many other cities took money from the Roman empire to rebuild, but Laodicea refused and built the city back up with their own money. This sense of independence and pride in their own resources led to a church that had the exact same traits. They believed that they were rich, that they had everything they needed, and that they could see just fine and really didn’t need anyone or anything else.
But Jesus calls them on the carpet for this. They think they are rich, finely dressed and can see but in actuality Jesus calls them wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. These things strike right where the city of Laodicea put their hope, their trust, and their identity in. They were, as I mentioned a very wealthy city. They were a city known almost exclusively for their medical school. This school specialized in opthalmology. People came from all over to be trained as doctors as well as people came for healing. And this school was also known for an eye salve that was used in treating eyes. The eye salve was called “collyrium,” probably a reference to how it was applied—that is, in the form of plaster or a poultice. Jesus calls them naked, in a city which was known for local farms which produced a particular breed of black sheep whose wool was of a fine quality, which led to some fine fashions made of black wool. So everything they believed about themselves and what defined themselves was turned upside down. They thought they were rich because of the banking industry but spiritually they were pitiful, wretched and poor. They thought they could see and had the eye salve to prove it but they were spiritually blind. They thought they were well dressed in black wool but they were actually spiritually naked.
Jesus then calls on the believers at Laodicea (and all of us) to, “to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” The remedy for being poor, blind and naked is Jesus. He will give real wealth, he will clothe you in white, and he will give you eyes to truly see. He is the one who will truly satisfy all the longings of our heart. He is the one who tells us that blessed are the poor in spirit. The ones who know they don’t have it all together and that they can’t rely on their own strength, their own money, their own ability and knowledge. The church at Laodicea needed to realize that their idea of being blessed was the exact opposite of what Jesus labeled as blessed. And is that any different today? Maybe Laodicea and us as well need to reread and take to heart and to action the beatitudes.
Jesus is lovingly rebuking the church. His criticism comes not from a place of hate and anger, but a place of love and sadness. He says that those that he rebukes and disciplines are the ones that he loves. Just like any parent who loves their kids. You help them determine how to live and do life by giving them boundaries and punishment when they don’t live in those boundaries.
This picture of Jesus loving calling his church back to himself, to reorient their life back to Jesus, to turn from their smug, well-off attitude and turn back to him, is no more evident then in verse 20 which shows Jesus knocking on their door and desiring a relationship. Verse 20 says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” This text is so often misused as Jesus calling on those who don’t know him to come to know him. How many of us have sat through evangelistic crusades hearing the preacher say that Jesus is knocking on the door of your heart and wants to come into your heart, and you can have him as personal Lord and Savior? But that is not what this text is saying at all. He is knocking on the churches door. To a group of people who already supposedly know him, The echoes of stories in the gospels suggest that the one knocking on the door is the master of the house, returning at an unexpected hour while the one who should open the door is the servant who stayed awake. It is Jesus house in the first place, our job is to simply welcome him to his house. And when we welcome him to his house that is when he throws this amazing meal. A meal that anticipates the final messianic banquet.
So my question to us gathered here together today is do we resemble the church at Laodicea? Are we lukewarm to the things of Jesus and his Kingdom? Have we closed the door to a passionate, life-giving relationship with Jesus? Have we become to self-confident in our own wisdom, insight, resources, etc.. that we no longer rely on Jesus? He continues his response to us. Lovingly knocking. Calling us back to himself. Calling us to open up our lives to him. Calling us to return to him. To come back and live under his rule and his reign. What is your response? Will you open the door and come back under the Lordship of Jesus? Will you continue ignoring the knocking and try to handle life on your own? Let’s spend some time unpacking these questions together and seeking to apply these things to our individual and corporate lives.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, applications, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture and/or the message?
2. As Jesus knocks on your door, what for you stands in the way of your opening it to him and his coming in and eating with you (relationship)? What things in your life give you a false sense of security and self-reliance? How do these things get in the way of your relationship with Jesus?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?
So our series entitled 7 Letters is quickly coming to a close. Today we look at the 6th letter, and next week we finish the series look at the 7th letter.
So the last 5 weeks we covered the first 5 letters found in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. We’ve looked at the letter to the churches at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, and last week we covered the letter to the church at Sardis.
This week we cover the letter to the church in a place that sounds very familiar to us, but obviously is not the same place. Today we look at the letter to the church at Philadelphia found in Revelation 3:7-13.
The letter to the church at Philadelphia reads like this, “
“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
As we have talked about with each and every letter, that there are some radically contextual word pictures, images, and thoughts that unless we do some background research on the city we will never truly understand what John is getting at. So let’s talk a little bit about the city of Philadelphia and see what we might learn about following Jesus from this church in the 1st century.
Philadelphia was a city that was located in central Turkey. It was founded in 140 BC at the junction of roads that led to Mysia, Lydia, and Phrygia. Because of it’s location it was sometimes called the Gateway to the East. And also was prosperous city..partly because of it’s strategic location and partly because of the grapes that were grown there. Philadelphia was given the name by its founder Attalus II Philadelphus of Pergamum. And the city was intended to be a center of missionary activity for the Hellenistic way of life. It was also the center of worship of the god Dionysus, which was the god of the grape harvest, fitting for a city known for it’s grapes.
Something else that we need to know about the region in Turkey that Philadelphia was situated in was that in the 1st century it was notorious for earthquakes. In fact Philadelphia had suffered one of the worst earthquakes in its history only 50 or so years before the book of Revelation was written. Much of the city was destroyed and only was rebuilt due to a grant from the emperor Tiberius. Also Philadelphia had also been given two other names in its history (which will show up in the text later). The first being Neocaesarea as a sign of gratitude to Tiberius for his help in rebuilding the city and later Flavia, after the family name of the emperor Vespasian.
Now that we know a little bit about the history of the city of Philadelphia, let’s look at the text and see what we might learn about this church and what it might say to us today gathered together 2,000 years later.
One thing you’ll notice right from the start about this letter is that this is the second of the two letters which have no criticism from Jesus, the other one being Smyrna.
In verse 7 we find the description of the risen Jesus as one who, “is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” There is a close tie in this verse to the description of the risen Jesus in Revelation 1:18 which says, “And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” So in this description we see that Jesus is holy and true. Jesus is holy which connects him with deity and true, which isn’t often used in the Bible when referring to anyone but God. This Holy and True One holds the key of David.
Now what is the key of David? To answer that question we need to look at Isaiah 22:22 which says, “I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” Obviously this key is connected to the next part of the verse when John says that what Jesus “opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open.” Jesus has the key to the door. This door, this opening, could mean many things. It could mean entrance into the heavenly Jerusalem, the heavenly city of David if you will. It could mean the open door is referring to open missionary opportunities. That Jesus is redefining for the church at Philadelphia what their missionary life is supposed to be about. It is no longer about being a missionary for the hellenistic way of life, but about being a missionary for the Kingdom of God way of life. Jesus opens the door for them to spread the culture of the Kingdom throughout the whole region. And from history we know they took that calling seriously and became a missional church and a church planting church. They sent missionaries all over Asia Minor and these missionaries planted new communities of faith wherever they went. So the question that I have for us today gathered here is are we a Philadelphian-like church? Are you and I and our community being missionaries to the places that God sends us everyday? Are we sending people out from us to other places to serve, bless, and be about the Kingdom of God and the gospel of Jesus? What open doors has God set before you? To whom is God sending you? To whom is God sending us? These are questions we’ll be returning to later in our time of discussion.
Another possible meaning to this idea of a closed door and open door is related to the fact that Philadelphia had a very large and influential Jewish population. This Jewish community probably had several thousand in it, had buildings and an active community life. The church on the other hand were probably not much more than 2 or 3 dozen. The Synagogue community was using their civic status to block the advancement of the message of the gospel of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. They were the ones who were “attacking” the church, from the outside, unlike many of the other letters that we have looked at who were being “attacked” from inside the church. The door could refer to the synagogue versus the Kingdom of God. The believers were excluded from the synagogue. That door was shut. But the open door may refer to the opportunity to enter God’s Kingdom. Inclusion vs. Exclusion. God’s Kingdom is about inclusion not exclusion. People may close doors and exclude. But Jesus opens doors and includes. Are we more like Jesus in this or more like the Synagogue? Is our church an open-door for anyone and everyone? Or do we close our doors to people? I’m not saying that we think everything is open and up for grabs, that we don’t have values and beliefs and seek to live by them. I’m praying that we can be an inclusive community open to all while still hold to the Kingdom of God and the gospel.
Jesus, through John encourages the small faith community at Philadelphia and shares with them what they are to be praised for. In verses 8-10 we read, “ I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.”
In these verses we see the fact that this church was small and was seemingly insignificant in the eyes of the world. But not in the eyes of Jesus. That even in the midst of persecution, from the Jewish population of Philadelphia, these followers of Jesus held onto Jesus and never denied him. And here Jesus, through John is actually saying those who follower him are true Jews, and those who don’t, aren’t. This seems very harsh, even harsher than the equivalent statement in Revelation 2:9. But this is not an anti-Jewish statement, this is an inner-Jewish question. Which of these groups can properly claim to be the true Jews, bearing the torch of God’s ancient people? This was common question in 1st century Judaism. And in this Jesus is quite clear, those who follow him, the Davidic Messiah are the true Jews. And those who aren’t the true Jews will experience a reversal of fortunes. You see they expected to have Gentiles submit to them, which was pulled from Isaiah 60:14 which says, “The children of your oppressors will come bowing before you; all who despise you will bow down at your feet and will call you the City of the Lord, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.”
Jesus called on the followers of His in Philadelphia to patiently endure, to wait upon him, and to live out the Kingdom faithfully in their context. They were praised for 3 things: 1. Evangelistic opportunities and being missionaries for the Kingdom of God. 2. Reliance on Christ. 3. Faithfulness to Jesus. And because of those three things Jesus spells out in verses 11-13 what the church at Philadelphia will experience, “Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name.”
When the church, whether at Philadelphia or anyone, lives out and stays true to these 3 things they will be victorious. They will receive a crown, just like the believers at Philadelphia. This crown, is not a royal crown, and refers to a garland or wreath that was used to crown victors in a competition. And so these believers who have held on to Jesus will eventually be victorious, through the victory of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection. And because of that victory they will also be a pillar in the temple. A Pillar that will never be shaken, rattled or destroyed. This is no doubt a reference to the many earthquakes and times that the city came crashing down all around them, and how it seems like pillars always remained standing. In fact if you go to Philadelphia right now you will still find standing pillars. And these believers are just like the pillars who stood whenever thing else crumbled.
And the last promises to the church at Philadelphia point to God’s faithful presence. They will never have to leave the presence of God ever. This obviously points to the many times that the people of Philadelphia would have to leave the city as an earthquake would hit and everything would begin to sway, move and crumble. They would go out in the countryside and wait. And when the earth had stopped moving beneath them they would then go back into the city. No more. These believers would be forever in his presence.
And they would also receive the tri-fold name of God on them and he would vouch for them. They would have a new name, a new identity. They would understand the power of a new name coming from a city that had several different names given to them.
In closing I want to quote NT Wright and what he has to say about the ending of this letter and its’ promises to the believers at Philadelphia. Wright says, “They are the ones, too, who carry the new name- now the triple name of God, of the heavenly Jerusalem, and of Jesus himself, bearing his new name of King and Lord. They are to be marked out publicly as God’s people, as Jesus’ people, as citizens of the city where heaven and earth will be joined for ever. No earthquakes there. Security, vindication, and the ultimate reward for patience. The time of trial is coming on the whole earth, and like a powerful searchlight it will reveal who is holding on to Jesus and his promise of a crown and who isn’t. The Philadelphian Christians are holding on a the moment, they must go on doing so and ‘conquer’ when the time comes. So must we.”
So what can we learn about following Jesus from those early followers of Jesus at Philadelphia? How can we walk through open doors that God has for us? Are we walking through those doors? Are we live as a sent community like Philadelphia? Are we opening doors or closing doors to people? These are some of the questions that we’ll unpack together.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, etc..do you have regarding the Scripture and/or the message?
2. What open doors do you have in your life to share/live/expand the Kingdom of God? To Whom are you being sent to? How can we help you live out the Kingdom of God in the world?
3. Have you ever experienced a closed door in relation to a community of faith? How did that make you feel? How can we as Veritas been better known as an inclusive community and not an exclusive community?
4. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?
Today we tackle our 5th week of our 7 week series entitled 7 Letters looking at the 7 letters to the 7 Churches in Asia Minor found in the New Testament book of Revelation chapters 2 and 3.
We have finished Revelation chapter 2 and we have looked at the letters to the church at Ephesus, the church at Smyrna, the church at Pergamum, and last week we covered the letter to the church at Thyatira. Today we start the first of the 3 letters found in Revelation chapter 3. We’ll be looking at Revelation 3:1-6 and the letter to the church at Sardis.
So let’s look at Revelation 3:1-6, what the city of Sardis was like, and what a 2,000 year old letter might have to say to us gathered together here halfway around the world in a radically different context. And we’ll find out that what the church at Sardis struggled with, is still with us and is still something that, if we are truly honest, we all struggle with.
Revelation 3:1-6 says, “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
One of the things that I have been noticing about each and every letter that we have looked at is the radically contextual nature of each letter. Each letter that is written has images, words, phrases, etc.. that the recipients of the letter would understand and relate to the context of each city. Sardis and the letter to the church at Sardis is no different. So let’s look together at the history as well as the context of the city of Sardis and see how they influence the letter to the church.
The city of Sardis was situated at a junction of 5 different trade roads. Their location on this junction led to the fact that Sardis was a city known for its commerce and trade. These things led to Sardis being a very active and very wealthy city. The city of Sardis was situated on a hill and was thought to be impregnable. It was thought to be secure. They were so secure in this “fact” that they became lax in their “defense” of the city. They fell asleep, if you will, in relation to the protection of the city. This led to the capture of the city twice. In 549 Cyrus of Persia (who is found in various Biblical narratives) took the city. And in 218 Antiochus the great conquered it. In both instances a soldier climb the hill at night and to a place where they didn’t place a guard because they believed that part of the city was impregnable. They fell because a soldier came like a thief in the night. They had fallen asleep and they were captured.
Knowing this history now, history that everyone in Sardis would have known and been taught, let’s see how that played into the letter to the church.
In verse 1 we read the words that describe the risen Christ as who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” This, as I have mentioned before, is a picture of the Risen Christ drawn from the first chapter of Revelation. And in this case it is drawn from Revelation 1:16 where the Risen Jesus is pictured as one who is holding the seven stars. The 7 Spirits of God may refer to the Holy Spirit while the 7 stars are the angels of the churches.
In the second half of verse 1 through verse 3 is different than the other letters in that it actually starts not with what the church at Sardis should be praised for but what they should be criticized for. In verses 1-3 we read, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.”
This criticism no doubt pointed the hearers of this letter right to their history of being taken over by attackers because they had fallen asleep. This would have come home with particular force because of their history of being captured twice. Their reputation around the region was one of being an alive, happening, and a church with lots going for it. But in reality it was a truly dead church. The reputation didn’t match with reality. But they had gone to sleep on their reputation and needed to wake up. Jesus through John charges them with 2 main criticisms…that there works had not been found to be complete, meaning their lives left much to be desired. And secondly the community was spiritual lazy if not dead outright. And if it were to continue, Jesus would come like a thief in the night.
Now this statement that Jesus would come like a thief in the night might sound familiar and is used by Jesus to describe his second coming. But in this letter, John is not referring to his second coming. He again is not doubt making reference to how the city had fallen asleep centuries before and were overtaken by people coming over the wall at night, like a thief in the night. Christ comes in many ways and this is clearly limited to coming in judgment on unrepentant sinners.
So one of the obvious questions for you and I right now is this…have we fallen asleep when it comes to following Jesus? Have we become lax in our spiritual disciplines? Have we got lax when it comes to blessing others? Lax in growing deeper in our journey with Jesus? Lax in sharing life together as followers of Jesus? If so, Jesus has the same words to us as he had for the church at Sardis. Wake up. Strengthen what remains. Repent and Return. Wake Up church!
Now not everyone in the church at Sardis was asleep at the wheel. There were a few people who were still awake, still fighting the good fight, still following Jesus and hadn’t become lax in their lives. We read about them in verse 4 which says, “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.” These few people in Sardis didn’t soil their clothes. Their reputation, their life, and their faith wasn’t compromised and lax. This idea of not having soiled garments is possibly a reference to inscriptions found in Asia Minor that stated that dirty clothing was held to dishonor the deity so that those who were dirty garments were debarred from worshipping. But those whose garments were pure would walk with Jesus dressed in white. This reference no doubt to triumphal processions of rulers who came back as conquering heroes, where people wore white robes. This triumphal procession points to the victory of Jesus. That Jesus through this life, death and resurrection is victorious over sin, death, evil and hell. That Jesus is victorious over the powers which hold mankind in bondage. And that all of us, if we follow him, and stay vigilant in our discipleship we will wear white robes and be victorious over the same things, not through our own power but by Jesus.
And so in that victory, the victory of Jesus, not only will the followers of Jesus be wearing white, a symbol not only of purity, and undefilement, but also a picture of justification, they will also be walking with the victor, who will also be dressed in a white. A beautiful picture of the presence of Jesus in the midst of our own lives. That as we walk this life, awake to the things of Jesus, and asleep to the things of this world, that Jesus will be walking with us. We aren’t alone. We are walking in white with the victorious one.
And when we walk with the victorious one, who has defeated the powers of sin, death and evil, and awake to life in the Kingdom of God, Jesus makes a promise to us. His promise, found in verse 5, “I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.” This is a reference that appears elsewhere in Revelation (Rev. 13:8, 17:8, 20:12, 15,21,27) that also mentions this book of life, elsewhere called the Lambs Book of Life. It is helpful to know that in Greek cities they had official registries of all citizens. Some places kept the grim custom that when a citizen was to be condemned to death that their name would be blotted out of the book so as to not even show that they had even existed. But here Jesus, speaking on our behalf to God the Father, claiming us as his own, is saying that we, through him, are citizens of the Kingdom of God. That because we are alive and awake to his Kingdom that we won’t be condemned and then blotted out of the Book of Life. That Jesus is acknowledging us before the Father much like it says in Luke 12:8, “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God.” And what a beautiful picture that is. Being acknowledged by Jesus as his own, as one who has the identity of Jesus within them, and to be vouched for, so to speak by Jesus when it comes to God the Father, and his Kingdom.
And so what about us? What message does Jesus have to say to us through this letter to the church at Sardis, many of whom had fallen asleep and become lax in their life with Jesus? How have we fallen asleep at the wheel? Where in your life do you need to wake up? In what ways have you been lax in the areas of blessing others, growing deeper in your journey with Jesus, and in sharing life? Let’s unpack these questions together and see how we might wake up, repent, and become alive to the ways of Jesus and his Kingdom.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, application, push back, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture and/our the message?
2. How have you fallen asleep or gotten lax in your following of Jesus? In what area (Blessing the World, Growing Deeper in your journey with Jesus, Sharing Life) do you need to wake up?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?
Today we continue our 7 week series entitled 7 Letters looking at the 7 churches in 7 cities in the Roman Empire, written by John, and inspired by the words to the churches by Jesus.
For the last 3 weeks we have covered Revelation 2 and three of the four letters in chapter 2. We have talked about the letter to the church at Ephesus, the letter to the church at Smyrna, and last week the letter to the church at Pergamum. Today we wrap up chapter two of Revelation with the 4 letter. The letter to the church at Thyatira.
Let’s look at what is the longest letter out of the 7 letters to the 7 churches, which is also to the city that was probably the least important of all the cities and see what we might learn about following Jesus in the midst of our own world.
Revelation 2:18-29 says this, “To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first. Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds. Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.’ To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations— that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’—just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give that one the morning star. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
So let’s first look a little bit at the context for the church at Thyratira and see what we might glean from the city and see if that will shed light on anything that comes out in the letter.
Thyatira, as I said, was probably the least important city of the 7 listed in Revelation 2 and 3. The thing that made it most famous was its trade guilds which specialized in various trades. One of the best known item of commerce, and one that made Thyatira the most money and prestige was the making of purple or indigo dye, which became a kingly color because it was so rare at the time. One of the Biblical characters who was from Thyatira and who was a dealer in linen and especially in purple linen was Lydia who is mentioned in Acts 16:14.
Now these guilds held considerable sway in Thyatira. You see this is more than just some type of Union. These guilds each had a patron god. In fact the patron diety of the bronze trade was Apollo Tyrimnaeus who also happened to appear on local coins together with the “son of God”, who better known to us as the Roman Emperor. These guilds weren’t just about employment, they were also religious or quai-religious. These guilds would hold ceremonies where the industry would be celebrated, they would sacrifice meat to idols, mostly to their patron god, and then eat the meat which had been sacrificed to idols. The powerful trade guilds would have made it very hard or difficult for any Christian to earn a living without belonging to a guild. No guild equals no job. No job equals no source of income to provide for your family. But if the Christians joined the guild, membership meant being involved and attending these guild banquets (more like religious ceremonies) and this meant, as I said before, eating meat that was sacrificed to idols. We’ll return in a bit to this struggle that, no doubt, most if not all of the Christians in Thyatira faced.
So the letter follows the same format as all the others. After the address part of the letter where the letter mentions the church in the various cities, comes the description of the Risen Christ, which also corresponds to a description of the Risen Jesus found in Revelation chapter 1. This description of Jesus to the church at Thratira is found in verse 18 which says, These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” This description of Jesus is also found in 1:14-15. The reference to Jesus being the Son of God may be a statement in direct conflict with the understanding of the day that the son of god was actually the Roman Emperor. This is the only letter to use that designation for Jesus. And so right from the beginning of this letter Jesus is challenging the establishment and letting them know that He and not Caesar is the true Son of God. Jesus, through John, is also speaking directly to the guilds by the description of fire and bronze. In fact Thyatira was well known for it’s smelting of bronze (which obviously you need bronze and fire for smelting).
So following the description of the Risen Jesus we have what the church at Thyatira is to be commended for. What they are to be commended for is found in verse 19, “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.” This shows that there was much to commend the church at Thyatira for. Love- what is probably the most important part of a follower of Jesus life- both for God and for our neighbors. Their deeds, their faith, their serving of their fellow believers and others that God put in their path, and their perseverance all were focused on Jesus and pointing others to him. This was a church progressing, moving forward and growing in these four aspects, as stated that they “are doing more than you did at first.” Unlike the church at Ephesus who lost their first love and was regressing.
Now remember when I mentioned about the powerful guilds, their banquets which were more like religious ceremonies complete with eating meat to their guilds patron deity? And how if you didn’t belong to a guild, it was likely that you didn’t have a job? We come back to that when Jesus through John shares with the church at Thyatira the things that they are to be criticized for, things that are holding them back from following Jesus the way that they should. Verses 20-23 states “Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.” Now we have an OT reference when John refers to this woman in the church as Jezebel. Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab and who seemed to be there cause of her husband’s wickedness. She enticed her husband into worship of Baal, which then in turn led many Israelites into that practice as well. You can read more about Jezebel in 1 Kings 16-22. We aren’t sure if this lady was an official or accepted church leader but we do know that she had a powerful influence within the church through her “prophetic gift”. Knowing the context of Thyatira and the power of the guild, this Jezebel was teaching that freedom meant that they could participate in these guilds, take part in the meals and ceremonies and everything that went with them, and still be following Jesus. And as I mentioned before the things that took place at these guild gatherings are the very things that the church in Thyatira is criticized for, the eating of food sacrificed to idols and to sexual immorality. For you see once one admits that it is all right to attend events in pagan temples or near equivalents, then all the things and practices such as licentious sexual behavior would come with the territory. And so it seems like Jezebel was promoting freedom and that their spiritual freedom could appropriately be expressed both in sexual practices as well as attendance at pagan shrines, cult meals and more ambiguous fellowship meals of the trade guilds.
And while the context is different for us. We don’t have trade guilds that hold religious or quai-religious ceremonies and eat meat sacrificed to idols. But we face the same question that the believers in Thyatira faced. The question that we all need to wrestle with and struggle with is this, “How far should I accept and adapt to contemporary standards and practices.” Or put in biblical terms how can I be in the world but not of the world? You see the church should never and can never deny Christ, yet at the same time we should not deny our membership within society. The mission of Jesus is not served if we as followers of Jesus appear to be old fashioned people who are always trying to retreat from the real world and not engaging the world.
Now Jesus calls the church at Thyatira (and by definition I believe also to us) to continue holding on until the day of his return. To remain faithful to Jesus in the midst of the culture in which they found themselves in (and in the midst of the culture where we find ourselves in). That no matter the struggles that the church was going through and the question of how to engage the culture without succumbing to the culture, that this,more than likely, small band of followers of Jesus were to hold on, to grasp tightly to the hand of Jesus, and to not let go until the end.
Let me say one word more and close out the message before we talk about application together by quoting, as I have done many times before, the theologian and writer NT Wright. He has this to say about the ending of this text and gives us a clue to the vocation that all followers of Jesus have, whether they are in Asia Minor in the 1st century AD or they are in Lancaster, PA in the 21st century. He says this, “Jesus promises to give them the morning star. Since later in the book (22:16) it is Jesus himself who is the ‘morning star’ we probably have here another hint of the level of intimacy which he offers to his people. He will share his very identity with them, as we have just seen him do with his royal authority. But the ‘morning star’ most likely the planet Venus at it’s pre-dawn brightest, is a sign of the special vocation of Christians, not least those “holding on’ when others around them seem to be compromising, under pressure, with local pagan practices. Christian witness is meant to be a sign of the dawning of the day, the day in which love, faith, service, and patience will have their fulfillment, in which idolatry and immortality will be seen as the snares and delusions they really are, and in which Jesus the Messiah will establish his glorious reign over the whole world.”
So what does it look like for you and I today to live out the message that Jesus, through John is calling us to live? To hold on to Jesus? To live a life of love, faith, service, and patience? And what does it look like for you and I to live counter cultural lives, not in the “amish way” so to speak but to live a life that we as followers of Jesus are in the world but not of it? Let’s spend some time wrestling with these questions together.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, applications, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture text and/or message?
2. Share some modern day struggles related to being in the world but not of the world. How can we best live a counter-cultural life while at the same time not leaving the culture? And what does a counter-cultural life that doesn’t leave culture look like?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?
Today we continue our 7 Letters series looking at the 7 Letters written to the 7 churches in the midst of the Roman Empire found in Revelation 2 and 3.
Two weeks ago we look at the first letter written to the church at Ephesus. We looked at the fact that they were able to discern those who were apostles and those who weren’t. They had a great handle on what the gospel of Jesus and was able to know when the gospel was being twisted and distorted, like by the Nicoletians. But the thing that they had against them was the fact that they had lost their first love. They lost the fact that the gospel that they had a great grasp on, was really all about love. Love of God and love of others. And if they had lost that, then they really didn’t have a grasp on the gospel. They were so concerned with right belief, but it didn’t lead to right behavior (love) so to me it wasn’t right belief.
Last week we looked at the second letter written to the church at Smyrna. We looked at the idea that this small group of followers of Jesus were facing trials and suffering and persecution. That they didn’t bow to the threat of punishment, whether that meant prison or death. And that God walked with them through that persecution because he went through it to and came out the other side. He lived, died, and was resurrected. He came out the other side victorious.
This week we tackle the third letter to the third church in Revelation. The letter to the church at Pergamum. The letter found in Revelation 2:12-17. “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives. Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”
So let’s unpack some things about the church at Pergamum and see what it might have to say to us 2,000 years later.
First, let’s do some contextual work looking at the city of Pergamum, which will help us understand the letter to the church there a whole lot better.
Pergamum was never really an important city until it became an independent kingdom of the Attalids after Alexander the great. But it’s importance really look off when the last King of Pergamum willed it upon his death to the Roman Empire in 133 BC. It wasn’t a great trading place due to it’s location 15 miles inland. But what it lacked in commerce, it made up in various other ways. One of those ways was related to a great library in Pergamum that was said to house over 200,000 parchments and the word parchment itself is derived from the name of the city. But probably the most known and greatest asset that the city had was in relation to “religion”. It was a city full of religious beliefs, temples, and idols to gods, goddesses, and people who crowned themselves as gods.
People came from all over Asia Minor to be “healed” by the god Asclepius. It was also described by some as the Lourdes of the ancient world. Lourdes being a place in France known as a place of pilgrimage (Mostly because of supposed sightings and experiences with the “Virgin Mary”). There were temples to Zeus, Dionysis and Athene. But probably one of the biggest “religions”, if you will, in all of Pergamum was in relation to the imperial cult. It was the center of Emperor/Caesar worship and had a temple to Rome as early as 29 BC and added two more later. They took their worship of the emperor seriously and was the principal center for imperial cult worship in this part of the world. There were also a plethora of heathen temples as well.
With that background let’s look deeper into the text found in Revelation 2:12-17. In verse 12 we read these words describing the risen Jesus, “These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.” These words can be also found in verse 16 of chapter 1 which is a total description of the risen Christ that John then refers back to in all his letters to the churches. Verse 16 of chapter 1 says, “coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword”. This picture of the risen Jesus with a sharp-double edged sword coming out of his mouth also appears in Revelation 19:15. In a city devoted to the Roman Empire as Pergamum and home to many imperial leaders who would possess the power to bring the power of the Roman Empire and the power of the sword down on anyone who dissented, John in contrasting the sword of the empire and the sword of the Kingdom of God, being the power of the word of God to change lives and change the world as well as what Hebrews 4:12 says that the word of God can do, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The Roman empire and it’s emperor my wield a sword but Jesus has his own. Not to fight violence with violence but to cut through half-heartedly faith and spirituality. And that is done by the word of God.
In verse 13 we read, “I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.” This letter is written to Christians who lived in the city of Pergamum. The word live means that Christians weren’t just passing through. This was their home and they had to face these difficulties to the end.
What does it mean when Jesus (through John) says that Satan has his throne there, and the idea that Satan lives in the city of Pergamum? There are, I believe, 3 different possibilities for what John is getting at in reference to Satan, his throne and the connection to the city of Pergamum. The first one relates to the worship of the god Asclepius whose symbol was a serpent. The second possibility is that John is referring to the altar of Zeus. The third, and I believe, best possibility of what John is getting at here in this verse relates to the idea of the Emperor and Imperial Cult and the fact that Pergamum was the seat of Roman government in the whole region as well as the fact that emperor worship, as I had mentioned before, was so pervasive.
So let’s take a look now at what they are to be commended for and what they are to be criticized for. We find both of these things in the second half of verse 13 through verse 16 which says, “Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives. Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”
The thing that they are commended for is the fact that even in the midst of trials and persecution and in the midst of emperor worship, the believers at Pergamum didn’t renounce their faith in Jesus. Even when their brother in the Lord Antipas was put to death for his faith in Jesus. Not much is known about Antipas although legend has it that he was roasted in a brazen bull. And so in the midst of that season of persecution they didn’t deny Jesus. They remained faithful.
But at the same time that they remained faithful, there were some who held to the teaching of Balaam and some who held to the teaching of the Nicolaitans (unlike those in Ephesus who knew that the Nicolaitans weren’t teaching the gospel). This reference to Balaam is referring to the story of Balaam in the Old Testament (Numbers 31). The allusion here is spelled out with the reference to Balaam’s teaching of Balak to entice the Israelites to sin. And what were the sins that not only the Israelites fell into in relation to Balaam’s teaching but also in relation to what was taking place in Pergamum? According to Leon Morris in his Revelation commentary here is what the issue was “Two points are singled out, the eating of food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. It is possible that the former refers to meat which had been first been offered to idols and was then sold on the open market and the latter to sexual sins in general. but it is more likely that both refer to idolatrous practices. Feating on sacrificial meat and licentious conduct were usual accompaniments of the worship of idols, both in Old and New Testament times.”
Jesus through John calls on the church at Pergamum to repent or otherwise he will fight against them using the sword in his mouth. And now before you think this is a picture of Jesus putting aside his non-violent, enemy loving life to get violent, this is another picture of the power of the word of God. Jesus clearly means the words that he speaks has the power to either comfort us or confront us.
The ending of the letter is the exhortation to the church at Pergamum which is found in verse 17 which says, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” What does hidden manna mean and what does getting a white stone with a new name written on it? Hidden manna is a reference no doubt to the manna that came down from heaven to sustain the Israelites in the wilderness during the Exodus out of Egypt. There may be an allusion to the Jewish idea that when the temple was destroyed that the prophet Jeremiah hid the pot which contained the manna that was in the Holy of Holies and that when the Messiah came it would reappear.
And regarding the white stone with a new name on it, there are more than 7 different possible understandings. I won’t go into all of them but here are the two that I found most possible and most intriguing. The first one is that there was a custom in the ancient near east, and in Pergamum of guests being given a stone with their name on it as a ticket to admission. Connects with being given entrance into the Kingdom of God. The second one, especially fitting to the issue that the believers were facing in Pergamum that some wanted to blend in and not drawn attention to themselves, and tried to compromise in some areas as not to bring the sword of the Roman empire down on them. You see Pergamum’s great buildings were made from from local black stone. When people wanted to put up inscriptions, they obtained white marble on which to carve them. This was then attached to the side of the building. And so a white marble inscription on the side of a black building would stand out all the more clearly. And so Jesus, through John, was calling the follower of Jesus to stand out more clearly. To not blend in. To not play it safe. To not compromise with the Roman Empire but to follow Jesus with everything and
like a city set on a hill, or a light in the darkness.
So what does the letter to the church at Pergamum have to do with us gathered together here in Lancaster? What might be the areas of compromise that we as individuals and as a church are making so as not to stand out? Where have we lost the “cutting edge”? Our ability to say no to surrounding culture? What other applications to our lives and church can this text speak to us about? These are some of the questions that we’ll unpack together.
1. What thoughts, questions, insights, comments, applications, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture text and/or the message?
2. The church at Pergamum is sometimes called the compromising church. That they compromised to not draw attention to themselves. Where do we tend to compromise with the world? Where have we lost our “cutting edge” and our ability to say no to the surrounding culture?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?
The other week I was attending the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference in Columbus, OH. I attend Annual Conference every year that it is within driving distance because I get to catch up with people that I might not see any other time during the year. I get to develop relationships with friends from California, Arizona, Michigan, Maryland, and even spend time with friends from the Lancaster area. Annual Conference gives me a chance to tell our story, network with various individuals and their churches, share with people how they can support Veritas in moving forward, as well as share any wisdom or insight I might have to others considering church planting or who are in the middle of church planting themselves.
One of the joys of this particular Annual Conference was that I got to catch up with Jeremy Ashworth and John Neff, who are some of the people involved with the E3 Ministry Group, According to their website www.e3ministrygroup.com E3 Ministry group is a creative and innovative coaches and consultants with a passion for bringing a renewed vitality and revitalization to congregations. Our customized solutions and “hands-on” personalized guidance reinforce the process as we recognize that each congregation is uniquely created by God.
Jeremy just released a book with Fred Bernhard entitled Outrageous and Courageous which according to the description in the back of the book is all about making friends and sharing faith. Or what we in the church call relational evangelism. Now when I say the word evangelism, what comes to mind? Immediately my mind goes to street corners, bull horns, tracts, and turn or born tactics. But is that what we are talking about? I can share with you two experiences in my past where I did street evangelism and honestly I never want to do that again. But because we have a bad experience with evangelism, do we swing the pendulum all the way to the other side and say we let our actions speak for us. I know many within Veritas who know they should share their faith but the “models” they have been given aren’t helpful, bring up painful memories, and so it leaves us stuck. That is exactly where Outrageous and Courageous comes in. It’s for people who know that our service needs to go hand in hand with our sharing about Jesus using our words. That evangelism and service aren’t on opposite sides of the spectrum but the opposite sides of the same coin.
There is much to be commended in this book, especially if you flinch everytime you hear someone use the word evangelism. This is for those who have done the street evangelism and found it troublesome. This book is for those who would consider themselves evangelist by nature. It’s for those who wouldn’t be caught dead by called an evangelist. It is for each and every follower of Jesus whether you struggle with evangelism or not. I highly recommend picking up a copy and reading it.
There are several things that challenged me the most and some where actually just almost a side point that seemed almost off the cuff.
As a Church planter I was challenged with this statement, “We know a church planter who specializes in starting congregations from the ground up who says from experience that church planters can and should make contact with at least thirty unchurched people every day.” My first question is How? And I’m not an introvert who isn’t shy to talk with people. How would I meet 30 unchurched people every day? This is an area where I need to spend time working on and developing in my life.
The next two things that challenged me the most related to Jeremy taking a break from writing to go live out what he was talking about.
First, there was the story of the moving van. Jeremy says this, “As I write this chapter, a U-Haul truck has appeared just a few door down from our home. I’ve been looking out my window, watching the family. I’ve not been asked to help, but how would they know to ask me? It’s late And it’s hot outside. But the family looks a bit understaffed at the moment, and after all, I am writing a book on loving your neighbor. I’m going to go out on a limb (in faith?) and interpret the U-Haul as a cosmic invitation. Hold on. I”ll be right back.”
Secondly, there was the story of his son. “At this very moment, I am typing these words, my toddler son has appeared at my feet. He’s holding his new truck. He speaks no words, but he knows what he’s doing. He is looking at me. he wants to play, and his very presence is an invitation. I’ll be right back.”
These two stories probably made the most impact on me as one who works from home and sometimes, to be honest, sees my neighbors and my kids as sometimes in the way of me fulfilling the mission that God has called me to. Boy I am so dumb and broken. My kids and my neighbors are the mission that God has called me to. And if I miss that, I miss everything. Lord help me to be about the mission of discipling my own kids and my neighbors, and be about building your kingdom and not my kingdom.
So if nothing else stands out, maybe this will. Go out and play with your kids. Go out and invite a neighbor to dinner or a whole neighborhood to a picnic. Build friends. And share your faith in the process.
Today we continue our series called 7 Letters, looking at the 7 Letters to 7 churches in the midst of the Roman Empire in Revelation chapters 2-3.
Last week we took a look at all the 7 letters and gave some background behind the letters, the number 7 and how it keeps reoccurring, and also how each letter is structured.
We then took a look at the first of the 7 letters, the letter to the church at Ephesus. We talked about the fact that the did a great job of holding onto the gospel and seeking truth from lie. They did a great job of discerning whether a group of people with “new” practices and thoughts were “orthodox” or not, like how they determined that the Nicolaitans were teaching a false gospel.
But that in strictly being defenders of the gospel, they lost to the truth and crux of the gospel. That being that they lost their first love, the love of God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength and the love of their neighbors.
Today we cover the second letter in Revelation 2. The letter to the church at Smyrna. Now if you remember last week we talked about the structure of the letters and how most of them had both praise and criticism. But we said that 2 of the churches didn’t have any criticism in their letter. And this is the first of the two churches that Jesus doesn’t have any criticism for.
So let’s unpack the text, learn a little bit more about the church at Smyrna, and see where it connects with the church of today.
Revelation 2:8-11 says, “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.”
Smyrna was one of the greatest cities of the region and it was in contention with Ephesus for the title of “First City of Asia.” It had an excellent harbor and a well protected gulf. Smyrna was a faithful ally of Rome in the days before Rome was acknowledged in the region. In fact it was one of the first cities to worship the Roman emperor and it won the honor of erecting a temple to him during the reign of Tiberius.
After the greeting in verse 8 we read these words, also in verse 8, “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” This is of course a picture of the risen Jesus, who lived, was crucified and rose again. It also refers to the description of the risen Jesus in Revelation 1:17-18 which says, “I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!” Everything that follows after this verse is based on the fact that Jesus was victorious over sin, death, evil and hell. That death was conquered by Jesus. And that death doesn’t have the last word. That following death there is resurrection. These words would mean a great deal to those in Smyrna for various reasons. But one of the connections that the city had to the death and resurrection of Jesus is the fact that their city had their own death and resurrection. In 580 BC Smyrna was destroyed by Alyattes, King of Lydia. The city laid dormant and dead until 290 BC. Lysimachus, who ruled Thrace and the northwestern part of Asia Minor after the division of Alexander’s empire, refounded Smyrna.
After the picture of the risen Jesus, Jesus (through John) goes on to share with the church at Smyrna what they are to be commended for. The first thing he mentions is something related to their perceived situation. In verse 9 we read, “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” John is making the reference to the fact that the city of Smyrna was a very wealthy city and for many it led to their prosperity. The city was a place of trade and exports and commercial success. This however didn’t extend to those who were following Jesus, in the material sense. They were persecuted, poor, and afflicted. Jesus was intimately aware of the trouble and struggles that the church at Smyrna was faced with, he faced the same things. He was knowledgable about their afflictions, their poverty, and the slander that was being spoken about them.
They were turned into the authorities by everyone including the Jews, who he makes reference to in the second half of verse 9. Smyrna had a large Jewish population who would often inform on the Christians to the authorities, and who would incite outbreaks of violence against them. It is also quite possible that the churches poverty was due in large part because of the Jewish population in Smyrna. Some believe that the Jewish population in Smyrna pillaged the goods of the Christians in that town. Christianity was not legally permitted in Smyrna and that made it easy for Jews and Pagans to take action against the church.
In verse 10 Jesus (through John) continues to encourage the believers at Smyrna to continue following in his footsteps and to not lose heart even though it looked like, in every way, that they were losing. They were in fact not losing, but actually gaining. They were gaining a crown of life and life in the upside down Kingdom of God. Following in the footsteps of the crucified and risen King, King Jesus.
Verse 10 says, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.”
Jesus is sharing with the church at Smyrna that they were going to face persecution. That they were going to suffer. In fact, many of them were going to end up in prison and some would actually face death. But that they were to remain faithful to Jesus, to not bend to the persecution, and when they were faithful that they would experience victory, life and a crown. This was coming from someone who had been there before. Someone who was intimately aware of persecution, suffering, death, and also resurrection and victory. Jesus (through John) wanted to let the church know that whatever happened that the fate of the Christians and the church in Smyrna were safe in his hands.
John is making a sharp contrast between persecution & death which people fear so much, and life which alone matters. John makes it crystal clear that the believers in Smyrna were going to come out on top. That they were going to be victorious if they remained faithful. That they would receive life, which meant renewed life in God’s new age. Life in his Kingdom, which isn’t just about eternal life after this life (it includes that as well) but life and life to the fullest.
And they would receive the crown of life. That statement has some context behind it in relation to the city of Smyrna. You see Smyrna itself was thought of as a city with a crown, due to the way it’s splendid architecture used the natural advantages of a steep hill to good effect. Also crown refers to a wreath or chaplet and is to be distinguished from the royal crown. The crown that is mentioned here was the trophy awarded to the victor of the games and is also the same word used for the festive garland worm at banquets by all the guests. And so the crown is the victory wreath, which would be specially appropriate in Smyrna, a city famous for its games. So the followers of Jesus who remained faithful to Jesus in the midst of persecution, suffering, and possibly even death would receive the trophy of victory. The crown of life. Of eternal life. Of Life in the Kingdom of God.
The final part of the letter, the exhortation and promise to the church at Smyrna is this, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.” To understand what John is getting at here let me quote from NT Wright, “The final promise points in the same direction (receiving the crown of life). Anyone who is, quite naturally, afraid that they may face death for their beliefs is introduced to the idea to which John will return near the end of the book. There are, it seems, two forms of death. The first is the bodily data to which all will come except the generation still alive when the Lord returns. Jesus has already passed that way, and those who belong to him can know that he will first welcome them on the other side and then, at the end, raise the mto new life in his final new world. Btu the ‘second death’ is the ultimate fate of those who steadfastly and deliberately refuse to follow Jesus, to worship the one God who is revealed in him. The ‘second death’ will, it seems, do for the entire personality what the ‘first death’ will do the for the physical body.”
Jesus is saying to not worry about going through the first death, if you know him. Be content to grow through it with Jesus. After all, he went through it and came out victorious. He died and came to life and so will you.
But what does this letter to the church at Smyrna facing some serious persecution have to say to us gathered together here in the United States in the 21st century? Where we don’t face the kind of persecution that they faced and we don’t face the persecution other brothers and sisters in Jesus in other countries face right now? What is the take away from this letter? What do you think Jesus might write to the church at Veritas regarding persecution and how to endure and be victorious through it to the other side? Let’s talk about that for a bit.
1. What thoughts, insights, questions, comments, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture text and/or the message?
2. How do we in the United States apply this message to the church at Smyrna when we aren’t persecuted? What application to our daily lives can we make from the letter to the church at Smyrna?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what are we going to do about it?
Today we begin a 7 week series called 7 Letters, looking at the 7 letters found in Revelation 2-3. These 7 Letters were written to 7 different churches in the midst of the Roman Empire/Asia Minor over 2,000 years ago. We’ll be taking a look at each of the 7 letters and seeing what these 7 letters to various churches that were in existence 2,000 years ago might have to say to us gathered together as a church in the midst of the 21st century. While these letters are very contextual to each church, using language, metaphor, and images that were connected to each local church, these letters also speak to us about where we are as followers of Jesus both individually and corporately.
These 7 Letters all follow the same structure. Each letter begins with a greeting. Then the greeting is followed by a title of the risen Christ taken from the description of Jesus found in Revelation Chapter 1. Then following a description of the Risen Christ, John (the author of the letters under the inspiration of Jesus) writes words of praise for each local church, with the exception of Laodicea). Following the praise section, comes a section of criticism for each local church with the exception of Smyrna and Philadelphia. Then comes a warning, an exhortation which begins with “He who has an ear…” and each letter finishes with a promise.
You’ll also notice this seven fold structure where churches 1 and 7 are in grave danger, churches 2 and 6 are in excellent shape and churches 3,4, and 5 are in the middle, neither very good nor very bad.
If you are keeping track you’ll notice something that stands out. It is the number 7. It appears throughout the book of Revelation but here it appears in that there are 7 letters to 7 churches, and 7 sections of each letter. If you have looked at the Scriptures at all you’ll realize that 7 is a very important number. In fact in Revelation alone the number 7 appears over 24 times. In the Bible 7 is one of the numbers of perfection or completeness.
So with that little bit of background we can now unpack together the first of the 7 letters. The letter to the church at Ephesus which is found in Revelation 2:1-7.
The letter to the church in Ephesus in 2:1-7 says this, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
The first of the seven letters is to the church at Ephesus. To understand more about what is happening in this letter, we need to take a look at the city of Ephesus for a bit. Ephesus was the most important of the seven cities in Revelation 2 and 3. Ephesus had the largest population of the 7 cities, estimated at around a quarter of a million people. It was a center of business, commerce, education, and religion. And Ephesus was the most obvious center of imperial power (think Roman Empire) in the region. So it makes sense that John starts his 7 Letters to the church at Ephesus.
After the greeting to the church at Ephesus, John grabs a picture of the risen Jesus from Revelation 1:12-13 which says, “I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.” He uses these words in Revelation 2 then to describe Jesus. Notice the similarities, “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.” The seven lamp stands are the seven churches and Jesus is walking among his churches. This gives us the picture of Christ as present in the trials, struggles, and life of the churches that John is writing to. Jesus knows the churches intimately and knows what good things are taking place and also the things that need to be corrected.
Once John is finished with the picture of the risen Christ, he turns the corner and shares what the Risen Christ has to say to the church at Ephesus; both the praise and also the criticism. In verses 2-3 we read the praises and verses 4-5 we read the criticism.
The praise found in verses 2-3 for the church at Ephesus is that the worked hard, they were patient even under threat and persecution and they have drawn a clear line between those who were really following Jesus and those that weren’t. It seems like the church at Ephesus was truly concerned with doctrinal “purity”. They were rightly concerned about the gospel and making sure that they were always on the lookout for individuals or groups who tried to teach strange new ideas or who tried to introduce strange new practices. Just look at verse 6 which says, “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” This verse shows the Ephesian believers carefully discerning between truth and not truth. What these Nicolaitans taught is still a mystery. Ancient and modern scholarship haven’t been able to find out much about this group. Even though nothing is known about this group, this much is known, that this group wasn’t seeking to destroy the church from the outside. This group was claiming to present an improved and modernized version of the gospel. But the church at Ephesus was strongly rooted in the gospel and in doctrine as to understand who were the wolves in sheep’s clothing.
But there was a problem with the church at Ephesus and their strongly rooted doctrinal purity. Their concern for doctrinal purity or what some people call orthodoxy didn’t lead to the most important of Christian virtues, that of love. Love of God with all that they had and love for their neighbors. Jesus criticism of the church at Ephesus is this, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had a first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did and first. If you don’t repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place.” They were rightly concerned about the gospel but they forgot the heart of the matter. They had yielded to the temptation, ever present to Christians, to put all their emphasis on sound teaching. In the process they lost love, without which all else is nothing. They were so concerned with orthodoxy (right belief) that they forgot about orthopraxy (right action). In fact their right belief didn’t lead to right action, which then to me isn’t right belief. If your right belief doesn’t lead to loving God and loving others, than it isn’t right belief. If it is all about being doctrinally pure and right then you would fit very well with the Pharisee’s who were all about being doctrinally pure and right but weren’t loving at all. Or you would fit very well in the Reformation when people were so concerned with doctrine (which definitely needed correction) but then would kill other people who didn’t quite fit into their theological framework. Reformers like Martin Luther and Calvin and others who were being taking to task by the Catholic church and were being persecuted turned around and persecuted others, mostly the Radical Reformers known as the Anabaptists. Their call and desire for right belief didn’t lead them to love God more or love others more. It actually led to bloodshed, war, and hate. Which the gospel of the Kingdom of God is totally opposed to and is at odds with. Their right belief didn’t lead to love and so therefore, in my opinion, their right belief wasn’t right.
So the church at Ephesus was so concerned with right doctrine that they had forgotten or forsaken their first love. The first love that God calls each of us to, to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbor as ourself. If they didn’t return to their first love, Jesus would remove their lampstand. This is a church that obviously listened to the letter and did return to their first love (for a while at least). In the early second century Christian writers were holding up Ephesus as a great example of Christian faith, life and witness. It held a place of preeminence and held one of the great 5th century church councils. There was once a thriving Christian witness there. But go to modern day Ephesus and the surrounding towns and one thing will stand out, there is no active church in that place (or if there are they are in hiding). This is what Jesus precisely warned the Ephesian church about in verse 5.
Jesus then lays out 3 steps to the Ephesian church in order to recover their first love. Their first love for God and for others. First, they needed to remember their first state. That first state when they loved Jesus with everything and was taking that love to their neighbors. To go back to the first days when they had come to know the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus. Secondly, they needed to repent. To turn around 180 degrees and go back to where they were. To go back to their first love. And lastly, because Christianity is not basically negative, they needed to do the things they did at first. The works they did that flowed out of their first love for God and for others.
At the end of the letter to the church at Ephesus comes the exhortation and promise found in verse 7 which states, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what they Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” This is one of the places where this letter is super contextual and uses an image that would be familiar to all those in Ephesus. NT Wright in Revelation for Everyone has this to say about the exhortation and promise found in verse 7. “The great temple of Artemis had within its extensive grounds a wonderful garden focused on a particular tree which was used, not only for a sacred shine; but as the focal point of a system of asylum. This tree even featured on some of the local coins. Criminals who came within a certain distance of it would be free from capture and punishment. It is not accident, then, that this letter finishes with the promise that God, too, has a ‘paradise’, a beautiful garden with the ‘tree of life’ as its heart.”
So if Jesus were to write a letter to the church at Veritas, what would he include from this letter? Have we forsaken our first love? Have we gotten so focused on right doctrine (orthodoxy) that we forgot right action (orthopraxy)? Where in our lives (both individually and corporately) do we need to remember our first state, repent, and do the things we did at first? What is God saying to us through John and his letter to the church at Ephesus? Let’s spend sometime talking and applying the letter to the church at Ephesus.
1. What thoughts, questions, insights, comments, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture and/or the message?
2. What things stand out to you in regards to the connection between the church at Ephesus and our church? Have we forsaken our first love? Are we too focused on doctrine to the demise of right action? How can we remember, repent, and return?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?