The past decade or so has seen movies and TV shows that feature the walking dead… zombies. Young people find them entertaining, they like the adventure of imaging trying to survive in this fantasy world. I remember my youngest son, in urgent dialogue with his friends, discussing strategies to survive the zombie apocalypse.
Those creepy movie characters are great illustrations for the problem of the church at Sardis. One of the city’s features was a cemetary of “a thousand hills.” They were burial mounds which could be seen from seven miles away. It also featured the largest synagogue yet found in the ancient world. This synagogue suggests a Jewish community in the thousands.
You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead
In a spiritual sense, Jesus writes this letter to a church of zombies. He holds the seven spirits/stars. He knows the living from the dead. He has the authority!
It is easy to fake it. You can put on your Sunday best, a big grin, recite the Lord’s prayer and Apostles Creed. Raise holy hands and speak in tongues. Whatever the public practice, it can be faked. But we can’t fake it with Jesus. After the previous two letters it is startling to find such harsh warnings to a church who is not named for such bad outward behavior. In fact, they are the opposite. They seem to have good outward behavior. The problem is on the inside.
Jesus is harsh in this passage but all is not lost. He offers hope for those who will listen and obey. He shares a string of verbs; Wake up, strengthen, remember, keep it, repent. It is easy to go with the flow. Sometimes peer pressure, even in the church, can be a bad thing. We can fall asleep at the wheel and live like the walking dead.
Sardis had history of being sacked twice because of complacency. They thought they were safe and failed to keep watch over the city walls. The same can happen in the church. Despite our good, protestant, evangelical, reformation theology… our works really do matter. (v2) The promise to those who will listen and follow is white garments and our name written in the book with indelible ink.
It’s all about keeping our hearts alive! It is about continuing to worship Jesus with our whole life. Living for His mission and not for our own personal goals. How will we respond to His call?
The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father.
Authority and the place of humans on earth is a difficult topic to consider. We are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26) yet are fallen (Rom 3:10). Yet, Jesus still chooses to use men. In fact, He gave them “authority” to preach, over sickness and evil spirits (Mark 3:14-15, 6:7). In Ephesians it says we are seated with Him in heavenly places! (Think "throne")
Both “authority” and “power” are used throughout scripture to speak of our place. I don’t think we are hearing it. Most folks I know have settled to “go to church” rather than “be the church.” Most I know sit around hoping someone would give them a name tag with a title instead of dealing with the broken things all around them. Many of us don’t take our healing seriously and therefore we are powerless to lead anyone. "Fear" or "selfishness" are often the controlling powers in our lives rather than the power of God. We are left in a pointless wandering on earth like Cain (Gen 4:14) instead of like Abraham (Gen 12:1-3; Heb 11:8-12). I am preaching to myself here.
Understanding how this authority works itself out can be a bit confusing. But, Jesus “appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach 15 and have authority to cast out demons.” (Mark 3) The mantra of evangelicals has long been “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Matt 28:19) In fact, the very reason he has predestined us is that we might look like Jesus. (Eph 1:3-14) We are empowered by the Holy Spirit so that we can tell the story of God. (Act 1:8) Somewhere in the midst of testifying about God's story in our lives, helping people grasp the mission of God, and dealing with our own junk we see healing take place. We find sickness and evil spirits being pushed out.
We must be serious about two things. Our spiritual formation and the mission of God. As we grow in Him we can make a difference for Him (Rom 12). What is my mission? Am I taking my spiritual formation seriously?
As we walk through the letters to the church of Revelation 2 & 3, we have discovered both Pergamum and Thyatira having similar problems. Both of them are answered, in part, by the ruling from the Council of Jerusalem found in Act 15. Here the Church is trying to define the deal breaker for this new understanding of walking with God. It turns out that it is not about traditions and ceremonies, i.e. circumcision. But rather, it is about the devotion of our hearts. Whom do I worship?
Do I worship the almighty, creator God or do I worship something else? The truth is, it can be hard to prove simply by looking at one’s life. We can do outward things but the gaze of our heart is the real issue. For this reason, Jesus comes with laser eyes (Rev 2:18, 23). He searches our hearts. He goes beyond outward observances and sees what we really love. He sees what idols hold our attention. This discussion gives us a filter for who we should join ourselves to in our mission to bring God’s Kingdom to earth. Do we co-labor with the “Jezebel” of Rev 2:20 or not?
In this study we find that this issue is raised in the Acts 15 text. Immediately after the Council of Jerusalem we find Paul and Barnabas in a “sharp dispute” (V 36-41). They have a blow up over a guy named John Mark. Barnabas wants to work with him and Paul does not. It gets so bad that they go separate ways. Then the issue is over. The story seems weird. Why is it here? Is Acts simply a news account of everything that happened or is it a story with a purpose? I had a professor who said something like, “the book of Acts is the story of Jesus continuing in His mission through the Church in the midst of internal and external opposition.” This is a case of internal opposition. People struggle to get along. This particular incident is not condoned or denied. It just is. Yet, Jesus continues His mission through the church. And now He does it with two missionary teams instead of one!
There are times that we find we can no longer work with someone else. It isn’t a deal breaker issue as far as the legitimacy of the faith, we just simply cannot work with them, follow them, or co-labor with them. It’s okay. A failure that we often see is when we choose to malign them because of the issue. Sometimes we fail by moralizing our preferences. And so the Baptist hate the Methodists, etc… Notice that Paul does not malign Barnabas or vice versa. They just go separate ways.
It is worth noting that later on Paul speaks highly of both Barnabas (1 Cor 9:6) and John Mark, even requesting that John Mark join him in ministry (2 Tim 4:11). Can I disagree with others and still consider them valuable? Can I disagree without maligning? Do I moralize my preferences, making them deal breakers?
Thyatira is the recipient of our next word from Jesus. The problem is basically the same as the previous, Pergamum. The problem has two stages. The first stage is some problematic teaching would lead to “sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.” The second stage is that the church of Thyatira is tolerating this teaching. Our current setting is one that says tolerance is the supreme virtue and this letter brings this thought to task. Jesus says we are supposed to push back because what we teach matters!
This city was one of trade. A probable scenario was that trade guilds had formed and certain popular thoughts and behaviors were expected if you were to be included in the guilds. It turns out that, just like today, cultural norms have a lot of influence in our social, political, and economic spheres. Should I risk losing business so that I can support my family by speaking up and rocking the boat? This is the hard stuff of faith. We must decide whether God is in charge or not and act accordingly. It turns out that we are here to carry out His mission of improving the world. We are to renovate the place and sometimes that means some massive remodeling. Not an easy task!
These people would likely feel they have no power in the world they live in. They do not feel in control or safe in their ability to do business. To these people, Jesus writes that He will give them “authority over the nations!” It’s as if we could have the confidence to speak out and to be intolerant of stuff that is out of line. Jesus is in charge. He sees through all facades and can stomp down the biggest enemy. He says He will give us authority. Remarkable!
Pergamum receives the 3rd letter in the series from Jesus. There is a pat on the back along with a stern warning. The church is in a bad place. A physically bad place, that is. It’s called Satan’s throne! A follower named Antipas was martyred there. And yet the Church has stayed true to the faith!
But… there’s a problem. The Church has allowed a group of troublemakers in their midst. A group that holds to doctrines and practices that lead people astray. Jesus, with Sword in mouth, threatens to bring war on these troublemakers. It turns out that causing others to stumble is a really bad thing. To stand in the way of the mission of God is satanic. Just ask Peter (Matt 16:23). To allow people in our midst to lead others astray is a really bad thing. Times are changing my friends. This is a prophetic word for our times. The Church is slipping in its stance on truth and righteousness. We must not tolerate it! I don’t see how else we could interpret this text.
I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.
The letter ends with a great offer of hope to those who listen and follow. They will receive hidden manna. “Manna” is the miraculous food that sustained the Hebrews when they first escaped from Egypt. “Hidden” can remind us of the food that is supernatural. The inner strength to sustain us in our time of need. The hope is not only for sustenance, but also for reward. The English says a “white stone.” The word for “white” can mean “brilliant.” The word for “stone” means a small pebble that has been worn smooth in a river bed. It sounds more like a gem than a stone. More ornamental than paperweight. More like a stone from the Ephod of the Priest where each stone stood for one of the tribes of Israel. Yes! To those who overcome, they will receive one of these gemstones with their personal name on it. They are called by name by the good shepherd who watches over their souls.
If you follow Jesus, you are one of these people. He sustains you and He rewards you! You are precious in His eyes. He loves you, He cares for you, He will never leave you. The one with the Sword is our champion. He protects us until the end. Follow Him!
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it
What is prosperity and what is the proper perspective about it? The church of Smyrna was persecuted and some of the oppression was experienced economically. You can imagine a pagan culture, devoted to Rome, and how it would respond to this odd, new, sect of Judaism. They would not hail Caesar. They did not accept the Roman way. They did not fit in.
Jesus says to them that in their poverty, they are rich. The Apostle Paul said it similarly about learning contentment (Phil 4:12). Our culture is a little different. We don’t live in first century Roman culture. Today, things may be growing in hostility toward our faith, but Chick-Fil-A (clearly Christian) is still a leading fast food restaurant and many pastors live in celebrity-like status. Christians do not typically experience an economic disadvantage. If anything we still experience an advantage because of the hard work ethic and good character which are the fruit of a genuine Christian faith.
This letter to Smyrna challenges our perspective. Do you feel rich or poor? If my mind goes immediately to finances then I’ve been drinking the American Kool-Aid for too long. Jesus implies that prosperity is not about economics. Furthermore, this letter presses "perspective" to an extreme because it tells us not to fear death.
Death is the certain enemy of us all, no matter the culture. But those under persecution feel it most. To the people of Smyrna, it was very real. But Jesus says to them (in a matter of words) “I have mastered death, do not fear!” We don’t so much fear death theologically but we do in real-time. We are concerned with heart disease, stroke, and cancer just to name a few. These things steal our life and the worry can steal our vitality.
John Eldredge writes an encouraging word in “All Things New” in regard to how we think about where it is that we are headed and hope in general.
Jesus is the great overcomer! He has overcome death and therefore offers us a life free from its fear. What's weighing heavy on you? Jesus offers life, live well and live fully!
The church of Ephesus is the recipient of the first of the letters. (Rev 2:1-7)
This church does some things well and gets a pat on the back. But, it is missing the most important thing of all and to continue in this pattern could be catastrophic. How we live is very important. It indicates what is going on in our hearts. And it also can be faked. But, Jesus sees through it. He knows all.
Verse by verse:
To the angel of Ephesus. Once again we have this reference about “angel.” Literally it means messenger and could mean a supernatural or human messenger.
From the one from the vision of chapter 1. Specifically referencing the seven stars and lampstands in v12, 13, 16, 20.
Verse 2 & 3
He knows! Specifically, He knows the deeds, hard work, and perseverance. I think of this as what we have accomplished, the hard work that went into it, and the struggle against opposition that we endured. This is commendable and is illustrated with the following works.
Big Problem: Forgotten first love!
Solution: Remember and repent. One of the most powerful tools we have for repentance is memory. When we can remember our heart’s position then that can change us. We can reload that old memory into our current attitude and it can drive us to the proper way of living. This can work with any relationship. Birthday parties for our children help us remember when they were born and were little and our fresh heart for them. It stirs up our love. Wedding anniversaries remind us of that early infatuation with our bride and the early days of passion. Remembering the early days of our faith bring up the zeal and new found trust in our God that we have just come to know in a deep way.
Warning: The God of the lampstands will remove our place among the lampstands. If we do not keep our love for God fresh, we prove our unbelief. We are just fakers, posing our way through life and He can tell the difference.
Hate practices: An unexplained group called the "Nicolaitans" has some bad practices. They are not enumerated but are obviously opposing the way of Christ. The name can be traced back to the Hebrew meaning "destruction of people." It is bad stuff, whatever it is precisely. Notice that they get points for hating the “practices” and not necessarily hating the people. I am reminded that those who do evil are held captive by the enemy. We should still desire them to be redeemed but stand opposed to their way of life and teaching. Some of what is said of the OT reference (Numbers 24:1-3) is that they condone “upholding the liberty of eating things sacrificed to idols as well as committing fornication.” Think of the groups today that condone illicit behavior and still claim that they are Christian. This group is growing and it is not good.
Life: The offer to the one who overcomes (a refrain which we will hear each week) is that they get to eat from the tree of life! (Gen 3:24, Rev 22:2) The proverbs have a verse that connects this teaching nicely (4:23).
Above all else, guard your heart,
Our heart… our love really matters! For men it is relatively easy to go into task mode. This isn’t just men. Anyone who has had to endure a lot has learned to turn off their heart and just push through. This is a survival mechanism to get through hard times. But, it can go awry. When we forget our first love we forget our actual motivation. Then we begin to serve for the wrong reasons. We do it out of legalism or to look good. We serve with a heart of stone rather than a heart of flesh. We get the cart before the horse and Jesus says this is really bad. We must keep our hearts alive. We must keep the greatest commandment to love our God and then also the second to love one another. After all, this is how others will know who we are and be drawn to God! (John 13:35 & chapters 14-17)
The Revelation is written to people who suffer persecution. Imagine the feeling. You come to know the God of the universe, the one who created everything. And then your life gets worse! This is not easy.
Who does God use to write down this important message? Our friend John who is going through some persecution of his own. He can relate. He will be heard. How compassionate of our God to use this messenger to relate to His persecuted bride!
The Voice: v10-11 tells us about a powerful voice with a message for the church.
The Vision: v12-16 give us a powerful vision. It is awe inspiring. A list of the physical description goes beyond what we typically get about bible heroes. Think of Moses, Abraham, David, Elijah, or Jesus. How much physical description is given of these people? But in these 5 verses we get a description that could inspire Tolkein to create fantastic creatures.
The Explanation: v17-20 tells us who this mystery voice and vision belong to. It’s Jesus! Like Mary Magdalene in the garden, or the guys on the road to Emmaus, the blinders have been removed and we see that this great one is Jesus. He is unveiled as the source of a myriad of Old Testament visions. Jesus is the Almighty God and He “gets it!” He died but now He is alive. He saw it all. He understands our pain. And He is the all powerful creator. We are in good hands!
Do you feel alone? Do you feel abandoned by God and mistreated by the world? Take heart, Jesus gets it!
We have begun a time of study in the first 3 chapters of the Revelation. I thought it would be helpful to document the main points as we go. This is a bit of a geek fest.
Who, what, when, where…
First of all, this “book” of the Bible is a letter. Here are some basics.
Title: The Revelation (This is the short title. Scholars say we could think of the first 3 verses as the title. Also note, this is SINGULAR, there is no “s” at the end. We have instituted among ourselves a harsh and demanding demerit system. If anyone says “Revelations” then the whole group gets a demerit)
Through: Jesus, Angel, John (we assume the Apostle John)
Purpose: To tell us about future events
When was it written: Estimates are In the range of 54-96 AD.
Soon: Verses 1 and 4 say “soon” and “near” in the ESV version. There is a sense of urgency and anticipation. This is not a fearful thing but rather a hopeful thing. Written to a persecuted people who needed encouragement, this letter of the coming of an all powerful rescuer is exactly what they needed to hear. This is exactly what we need to hear as well in a time when discouragement is at an all time high. Suicide is a major killer in the USA. Psych drugs are a best seller by pharmaceutical companies. Relationships are a mess in the home as well as in public spheres where hatred is constantly spewed at one another in social media settings.
We discussed that this is a tough pill to swallow because we are reading this 2,000 year old letter about something happening soon. How are we to take it? Has it not yet happened? Is “soon” a very flexible sort of word? Will it ever happen?
One author referenced the fact that all of the New Testament talks this way. We are to live with a constant expectation that God will show up and that we should have hope. Others talk about the flexibility of the word “soon” in light of eternity. What may seem like a long time to us is just a moment in that perspective. Another idea is that these moments of God’s visitation to us are constantly happening as bad leaders fall over the course of history such as various Pharaohs, Nebuchadnezzar, Nero, and Domitian. Our bad times will pass and the key to our surviving them is in keeping His word in hope. We contribute to the Kingdom of God as we live well right now and one day He will come in finality to do away with evil once and for all. Be filled with hope, He is coming soon!
Bear witness: The path of our receiving this letter comes through a chain of faithful witnesses. The path of the letter testifies with God to Jesus to angel to John to churches. And then within the churches it has continued from readers to listeners and around and around it goes. All who participate in this activity are called “blessed” in v3! A very important details is that we not only bear witness in word but also in deed as the blessing reminds us to "keep" what is written. Obedience has always been important. People are more likely to listen when we are people of integrity. Fakers can be sniffed out very quickly. The word for “witness” is a form of the Greek “Martyreo” which exists in noun and verb versions and is where we get our English word “Martyr.” The most extreme example of a martyr is someone who dies for what they are bearing witness to. The word is found 3 times in these first 8 verses. Twice in v2 and once in v5. This connects back to the calling of the first humans to “be fruitful and multiply” Gen 1:28 and continues through Jesus’ commission to his people to “Go into all the world and preach the good news…” Mark 16:15. Bear witness to Jesus and you will be blessed.
Jesus is the Almighty God: Much is made of Jesus in these very few introductory sentences. Verses 5-8 hit us with a tsunami of facts about who Jesus is and what He has done. As we take the time to list each one, and to dig up verses where each idea is reinforced, and look up where the idea originates in the Hebrew scriptures, and consider what difference it makes to us. As we do this we cannot help but be filled with awe in remembering why we believed in the first place and why we can walk in much confidence and hope.
I think we would all agree that one thing we need in our lives is access to God's resources. Where we tend to diverge is in how we access those resources. I listened to this featured podcast and was reminded that God's resources are like light, and that they come through "stained glass." Sometimes the stained glass attracts us and sometimes it repels us. But, it is not about the stained glass. It is about the resources of God. I invite you to experience the fullness of God's resources. This may mean overlooking some of the methods you may receive them, perhaps even getting a bit uncomfortable in order to receive what He has to offer. This podcast is available as a YouTube link below and also through your favorite podcast app.