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.
And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.
This truth about Jesus is communicated in Luke 2:40 and shortly after in 2:52. Previously it was said very similarly of his cousin John (1:80) and in the Old Testament of Samuel (1 Sam 2:26). Here we find examples of what the Proverbs implore us to do (Prov 1:8)
Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction
Samuel, John, and Jesus model for us something that is celebrated throughout scriptures. We are encouraged to grow in our humanity in every aspect. It is maturity. We could break it down specifically into spiritual formation or discipleship, but scriptures really do talk to our whole life. In a sense, everything is spiritual. Or, said another way, everything in our life is affected by our spirituality.
We are constantly encouraged to remain on a trajectory of growth. We never stop, never check out or retire. We should ask ourselves, “Am I growing? How am I growing? In what ways have I fell back on autopilot?”
I am not talking about an overachieving, works-based, frenetic way of life. I am talking about an honest assessment and a plan to grow. I’ve heard it said that we should all have a “Paul” (a mentor) and a “Timothy” (an apprentice). There is something good about having people in your life who encourage and sometimes challenge you forward as well as to have someone that you are pouring into. When I have people that I feel a sense of responsibility for, I tend to stay on a path of growth. When I am completely on my own I tend to check out.
Here are some questions that could be asked to begin to assess and create a plan:
Growing is good. Embrace it and enjoy!
Up, In, and Out - A community that’s going somewhere.
The video on Up, In, and Out has stuck with me. I like the simplicity, the categories it provides, and the "interconnectedness" of each of the components. It also seems doable and resonates to my experience.
I was listening to NT Wright recently and he was encouraging folks to be connected to a local church. He says that he cannot pastor someone through a podcast. We need a pastor who knows us well enough to speak into our lives and to be there for us when we have a need. I love the sentiment, but have never experienced it. Church in America is different than Reverend Wright’s British context. We typically have large churches and if the Pastor remembers your name he certainly does not know about your needs, or how to speak into your life.
But, he got my attention. I can’t pastor myself. Expecting a young christian to pastor themselves is outright dangerous. We need support, encouragement, guidance, and accountability. We need someone to check our ideas to make sure we don’t go off into wackyland. Sometimes I need friends who push me a little. I love it when I feel pushed and when it is totally not intended to be that way. When a friend shares a conviction and how they are wrestling with a topic and I find that it pierces my soul and makes me wrestle as well.
I need this kind of community. Where we go a bit deeper than the surface talk. Where we share actual joys and actual struggles. Where we have fun together and even weep together. In the end it is a community where we are actually transformed by a constant pressing of the gospel message into our souls. This is very hard to experience in a Sunday morning environment or any other event oriented relationship. Do you have this sort of community?
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Changing your clothes seems hard when you’re a child. For a grandparent, it’s hard to watch those little munchkins wrestle to get the shirt on or off. But when we grow up a little, it gets easy. We learn to change all sorts of things besides clothing. There are a/c filters, tires, even jobs and neighborhoods. Changing habits can be a bit harder. Such as adding physical exercise to life, or adopting a specific diet. Harder still is changing in character.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed
The Bible commands “be transformed” in Romans 12:2.The idea is communicated in dozens of other places but in this one it is a clear, brief command. For grammar geeks it is particularly interesting because it is a command but it is passive. A better English translation might be “let yourself be transformed” or “let God transform you” as the NLT puts it. In other words we are told to do something but we are not the one to do it because we are passive in it. So, we have to choose to allow transformation to happen. But we are creatures of habit. Changing our character (or allowing it to be changed) can be very hard.
Our tendency is to fake it. It goes like this. We start going to a church, we hear the gospel message, and we genuinely respond in faith. Then we find ourselves on the inside. God changes some things very quickly if we stick with it. We also watch the other people and start acting like they act. We want to be on the inside. We want to be accepted and liked. So, often we fake it. We hide undesirable activities and character traits and get into a new rhythm of life. But the command still says “be transformed.” The grammar of it is in the present tense. So, it could just as well say “keep on being transformed.” There is so much more growth to be had. But sometimes the effort to grow is more than we want to expend. So, we just hide it. We fake it.
I am reminded that much of the Bible speaks to a crowd rather than to an individual. I think we ought to read it as a crowd in order to get the proper effect. In other words, I am not to just sit in my room alone and be transformed, but I am to do this in community. I do well when I talk about my struggles with my close friends and ask them for help and prayer. Hebrews 10:24 in the NLT reads “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works.” Spiritual growth is a team sport. This is a struggle for our tendency to pose… our tendency to hide and fake it.
I feel like if we could just admit it and embrace it, we would be so much better off. I remember people wearing shirts in the past that said “me too.” If we adopted that posture it might do us some good. I struggle too. We are in this together. Let’s help each other grow.
We read the story of Abraham and can’t help but chuckle at some of his bizarre decisions. He gives up his wife, saying she is his sister, to the Pharaoh of Egypt. He decides he will help God to give him a child by taking his wife’s maidservant as a wife. Again, Abraham gives up his wife to another king calling her his sister. (And creepy enough, Sarah was his half-sister!)
And yet, the writer of Hebrews exalts him.
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.
There is a lesson in the way the story of Abraham is recalled. They don’t recall his failures but instead recall his success. It’s a given that men will fail. We often can’t get out of our own way… we trip ourselves. Abraham was remembered for his faith and even for the right things he did. This is good news for those of us who have botched the plan more than once. We are not remembered by our good Father for all the times we did it wrong, but instead are remembered for all the times that Jesus did it right!
In this we can glean another lesson. Behind all our good and bad deeds is a good Father who is redeeming the world. He intended a world that would reflect his goodness and He is making it so. He is blessing the nations. He is changing hearts, one by one. He is using the very creatures who messed it all up to make it all right again.
On Father’s Day we can be reminded that we have a good Father. His goodness overshadows our shortcomings. As we watch Him clean up our messes time after time, we can learn to praise Him for the redemptive work that He is doing. As we cheer on these works, and marvel at His wisdom, we find ourselves imitating His wonderful ways. We find ourselves being transformed, slowly but surely, into the creatures that He desires.
Happy Father’s Day!
A shepherd and his journey