Last night we gathered as friends via video and read John 12:1-11.
1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
This was a dinner party the night before the week of His Passion. Certainly Jesus knew what this week would hold. It was the whole reason He had come. This was His big life event. Like the opening night of a broadway show, a superbowl, stanley cup, world series game…
I have a friend who was a pitcher on a college baseball team. He shared about the odd, OCD-like behavior that he and other pitchers shared. There was so much pressure on the pitcher to throw the ball with just the right nuance to create a fastball, curveball, screwball… They would do things like; step up on the mound, spit to the left, stamp their foot three times, look to the left, then the right, wind up and pitch. If anything disturbed the sequence, they would step off the mound and start the process over again. Such pressure of the big moment caused them this strange and precise mechanical behaviour. It helped them manage the stress.
Jesus had gathered for a dinner party where He is honored for His miracle with Lazarus which is recorded in the previous chapter. Here He is, heading into His biggest moment, and He reclines at the table with Lazarus and others.
The air is filled with Mary’s loving act of perfumed worship as well as the rancid stench of Judas' greed. Worship and sin floats in the air for all to breathe. Jesus allows the worship, stills the complaint, and shares the meal with his friends and enemies. We are reminded of the words of the psalmist.
You prepare a table before me
Judas is present at the meal, and in the city around them the “chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.”
Jesus attends this dinner with no indication of strife or anxiety of any kind. The chapter before we see his tears of compassion. A few days later we will see him sweat like drops of blood. The bible does not hide his emotion. But we do not see it in this passage.
He ministers to Mary by receiving her worship, to Martha by receiving her meal, to Judas but confronting his sin, to Lazarus by celebrating his life, to the other friends in fellowship. Certainly He knew that soon, one of His disciples would betray Him, another would deny Him, all would abandon Him, and the Father would forsake Him. We cannot fully comprehend the pressure that was on Him, yet He continued, ministering to those around Him. Loving them gently while violence awaits Him.
He could do this because He could see beyond the cross to the joy set before Him. He could sing with the Psalmist:
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
Lord, in our anxiety and nervousness of this strange moment, let us find peace in your presence. Let the reminder that we will dwell in Your house forever fill our hearts with much confidence. Let Your love and care remind us that while You had to walk alone, we never will. For You are always with us. While we may keep distance physically from one another, we stay close in heart and in prayer. And Your rod and your staff will comfort us. To You we give our praise!
Being confident while standing on jello is not such an easy thing. The slightest movement anywhere on the surface causes everything else to move as well. How can we have certainty in uncertain times? Here is one way to answer that question from my own experience.
I have certainty because…
A well known church leader of the 20th century said that the letter to the church in Laodicea is a very fitting letter to the church of America. It’s kind of harsh. The problem in Laodicea was that the church there was spoiled by comfort. They had become lackadaisical about their faith. The American dream tells us that if we work hard, we can find material comfort. The warning of this letter is that material comfort can lead us to a lazy faith. Jesus says that they are like drinking lukewarm water. It’s not refreshing cold water on a hot summer day, it’s not soothing hot water on a cold winter day. It’s a yucky lukewarm sip that makes you want to spew.
But Jesus is gracious. He doesn’t leave them there. He invites them to come to him. Just as Isaiah (Chapter 55) invited His people to come and buy what they need, Jesus invites them to do the same. He states His love for the people in His rebuke. He thinks they are worth pursuing! He calls them to invite Him in. It’s like He is just outside the door knocking. All they have to do is hear the knock and open the door. If they will do that then an intimate dinner party will begin. Jesus actually wants time with us, but He won’t barge in. He wants us to ask Him. We must admit our need of Him. As soon as we do, He shows up and everything gets better.
The truth of the matter is that we are needy. The sooner we can admit it, the better. As much as we don’t like to admit it, we need Jesus. We need him every hour. The dinner party awaits!
Doorman ( noun): a person (especially a man) whose job is to stand next to the main door of a building (such as a hotel or apartment building) and help people by opening the door, calling taxis, etc.
Visiting big cities reminds me of movies and days of the past. They would have doorman standing at buildings to open the doors and likely to also serve as bouncers. There is a welcoming presence as well as a sense of safety when you see these guys dressed in their official uniforms.
The letter to the church in Philadelphia features Jesus as the doorman. It turns out that these people were oppressed in some sense. “Little power” v8. They seem to be oppressed by a group of leaders that Jesus calls “liars” and gives them the name “Synagogue of Satan.” From the letter you get the sense that they are a group that does not accept followers of Jesus. They bar them at the door, so to speak. But Jesus comes along and with the cheerful and repetitious, “behold” (not seen in all translations). It is a command to be amazed, to look and see what wondrous thing He is doing.
He commends them for keeping His word and for not denying His name. For living out a patient endurance. He promises to them that He will open the door and no one can shut it. He will welcome them in, making them a pillar in the temple. He will protect them from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world. He will give them a new name, three times over. Just imagine after not being accepted for years and years. And then finally being accepted in such a high and exalted way. Plus all the haters around you are forced to grovel at your feet and see the truth that you are one of the beloved of God.
Jesus promises to be our rescuer. When the people around you, don’t accept you. When they spread nothing but hate. When you feel like the bottom of the barrel. Jesus loves you. He tells you are on the inside, not the outside. You are celebrated, safe, and loved.
Do you know someone that needs to hear this good news? Go and tell them!
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!
A shepherd and his journey