Revelation 3:1-6


Revelation 3

1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

Chuck Swindoll once told the story of a high school teacher who finally reached his limit. His class was lethargic, indifferent, unengaged, and utterly bored. Finally, in the middle of a class, after yet another particularly-long and overly-exaggerated yawn emanated from the class, the teacher stopped, slammed his book closed, walked to the board, took out his marker, and wrote this word in huge letters: APATHY.

Sitting up front were two of the slackest teenage boys the earth has ever seen. At the teacher’s dramatic behavior they stirred from their slumber and studied the word he had written. One of the young men squinted his eyes and stared intensely at the word. He then nudged his compatriot and asked, “Hey, what does a-pay-the mean?” His friend glanced up at the word, chuckled, locked his fingers behind his head, stretched out his legs in front of the desk, yawned, and said, “Who cares, man?”

Apathy. It is defined as “lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern.” It is when you are there but not really there. An apathetic life is one that just walks through the world largely indifferent, lacking passion, drive, or conviction.

If you could put a scarlet “A” on a church you would put one on the church of Sardis and the “A” would stand for “Apathy.”

Sardis: a comfortable, wealthy, unprepared city with a comfortable, wealthy, unprepared church.

1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.

Sardis was being destroyed by comfort, not by (1) persecution or (2) false teachings, neither of which are mentioned. Scott Duvall writes:

No mention is made of persecution from without or false teaching from within because the primary problem is a wholesale assimilation to the surrounding culture.[1]

That is a good way of putting it. Douglas Moo concurs and observes:

John does not mention anything like the persecutions at Smyrna and Pergamum or the heresies of the Nicolaitans. It may be that this church had not suffered disturbance from without and that its troubles stemmed from its comparatively sheltered existence. The temptation for the sheltered is always to take things easy, and they readily become slack.[2]

This reality of death masquerading behind a façade of life—this apathy, this lack of vitality, this lack of genuine passion and conviction and movement forward in the Kingdom life—was spoken of before by Jesus. For instance, consider how Jesus calls out the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

It is possible to appear to be alive but to in reality be dead. It is possible to keep the blood flowing and the machinery in operation while lacking anything resembling actual life. When this happens we make a mockery of the Lord God and we position ourselves for judgment.

So I would like to talk to the dead people walking among us: the apathetic, the indifferent, the alive but not really, the here but not really. And I would like to ask this question: How can we avoid the swift destruction that will come upon the compromised life? Jesus outlines five needs for such a person.

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Revelation 2:18-29


Revelation 2

18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze. 19 “‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. 20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. 22 Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come. 26 The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 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. 28 And I will give him the morning star. 29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

A bad reputation is a hard thing to shake and a bad reputation unfairly created through false accusation is a cruel thing indeed. But sometimes, every now and then, bad reputations are earned. One example of a justly-deserved bad reputation involves a woman who appears in the Old Testament and then is named again in Revelation. I am talking about Jezebel.

The word “Jezebel,” when applied to someone, is usually not a compliment. Jezebel’s bad reputation continues on into our day. To get at the general sentiment concerning her we might consider the 1951 Frankie Lane hit song “Jezebel,” which goes like this:

Jezebel, Jezebel

If ever the devil was born without a pair of horns
It was you, Jezebel, it was you
If ever an angel fell, Jezebel, it was you
Jezebel, it was you

If ever a pair of eyes promised paradise
Deceiving me, grieving me, leavin’ me blue
Jezebel, it was you

If ever the devil’s plan was made to torment man
It was you, Jezebel, it was you

Could be better that I never know a lover such as you
Forsaking dreams and all for the siren call of your arms

Like a demon, love possessed me, you obsessed me constantly
What evil star is mine, that my fate’s design should be Jezebel?

If ever a pair of eyes promised paradise
Deceiving me, grieving me, leavin’ me blue
Jezebel, it was you

If ever the devil’s plan was made to torment man
It was you, Jezebel, it was you, night and day, every way
Jezebel, Jezebel, Jezebel![1]

Well! That is harsh! But I am going to argue that in this case it is fair and accurate. But who was Jezebel and why was/is she so loathed? Jezebel, we are told in 1 Kings 16:31, was “the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians.” In 1 Kings 16:29-34 we read:

29 In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab the son of Omri began to reign over Israel, and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. 30 And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him. 31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. 32 He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33 And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. 34 In his days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho. He laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the Lord, which he spoke by Joshua the son of Nun.

So Jezebel was a pagan princess who married a King of Israel and brought her idolatry into the nation. Furthermore, in 1 Kings 18:4 we read that “Jezebel cut off the prophets of the Lord” and that Obadiah had to hide one hundred prophets in caves from her. Furthermore, Elijah the prophet had to flee the murderous wrath of Jezebel after he defeated the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 19). In the end, Jezebel’s demise was as brutal and disturbing as her life. We read of it in 2 Kings 9.

30 When Jehu came to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it. And she painted her eyes and adorned her head and looked out of the window. 31 And as Jehu entered the gate, she said, “Is it peace, you Zimri, murderer of your master?” 32 And he lifted up his face to the window and said, “Who is on my side? Who?” Two or three eunuchs looked out at him. 33 He said, “Throw her down.” So they threw her down. And some of her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses, and they trampled on her. 34 Then he went in and ate and drank. And he said, “See now to this cursed woman and bury her, for she is a king’s daughter.” 35 But when they went to bury her, they found no more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands. 36 When they came back and told him, he said, “This is the word of the Lord, which he spoke by his servant Elijah the Tishbite: ‘In the territory of Jezreel the dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel, 37 and the corpse of Jezebel shall be as dung on the face of the field in the territory of Jezreel, so that no one can say, This is Jezebel.’”

My goodness! Then, amazingly, after all of this and after all of the years that pass, we find her here in our text, in the church of Thyatira in Revelation 2!

20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.

But how can this be? How can dead Jezebel be in the New Testament church of Thyatira in Asia Minor at the end of the first century? It is because the name “Jezebel” represents a type and that type had become a member of Thyatira. I believe there actually was a literal woman in the church of Thyatira and that she was so like Jezebel of old that Jesus used her name as a warning to the church. Let us unpack what it means that Jesus warned the church about Jezebel in her midst.

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Matthew 12:22-32

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Matthew 12

22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

In 1942 C.S. Lewis made is famous argument concerning the identity of Jesus that is known today as “The Lewis Trilemma.” Here it is:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to…Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.[1]

Christians and non-Christians alike have argued about the validity of Lewis’ argument since he first made it on BBC radio and then again when it appeared in his classic work Mere Christianity. The debate is over the logical cohesion and force of the argument. That particular issue is not my concern here. What is my concern here is the fact that Jesus, in our text, appears to offer something similar. I am not saying that the Lewis Trilemma is in the New Testament. Rather, I want to show that Jesus shows the Pharisees that if He was not who they alleged He was then He must be the one that they did not want to admit He was! In this way, there is a parallel between the Lewis Trilemma and Matthew 12:22-32. In this passage, we see three proposals offered concerning who Jesus might be.

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John McCallum’s Revealed

41GAH+19+rL._SX342_SY445_QL70_ML2_Much like he did in his earlier work, The 23rd Pastor: Pastoring in the Spirit of Our Shepherd LordJohn McCallum, long-time pastor of First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Arkansas, has given us all a gift in his book Revealed: The Sweeping Story of Revelation. The book consists of a series of sermons John preached on the book of Revelation. The sermons are accessible, biblically faithful, winsome, engaging, well-illustrated, and warmly evangelistic. This is a “big picture” consideration of Revelation that is not so “big picture” that it traffics in non-substantive vagueries. On the contrary, John offers solid exegetical insights throughout and touches on some of the major questions and controversies concerning the book as well, but he repeatedly calls the reader back to what matters most: the beauty and glory of Jesus Christ and His victory and how these things can carry us through these difficult days.

I’ve known John for some years now and these messages are vintage-McCallum. John is a wordsmith. The influence of folks like Eugene Peterson, Calvin Miller, and Will Willimon is evident here. At times you can hear the influence of Fred Craddock as well. Let me be very clear on this point: this is a compliment, not a criticism. John’s voice is his own and he never mimics. I am simply saying that his way of approaching the text and his tone and homiletical voice reveals the influence of these men, just as we all inevitably reveal our influences. John has a poetic-bent to him and I very much enjoy and connect to and am moved by the way he expresses biblical truth in his sermons and written works.

I guess reviews are supposed to try to find something to critique. I have no criticism of John or his work. He is a friend whose advice I often seek out. I did have the thought after reading this book that I wonder if we are all reaching a point where World War II examples are losing some of their evocative force for younger people. Maybe not. I don’t know. I use a good many World War II illustrations myself. John has used a number of them here. But John’s book did cause me to chew on that question and I’m chewing on it even now. (I’ll have to ask my daughter what she thinks of World War II era illustrations!)

Regardless, this is great stuff. It is a good overview of Revelation. More than that, I would say that this book is a good orienting book. It really helps the reader set a true trajectory as he or she embarks on journeying through Revelation, and, in this journey, McCallum does a masterful job of showing that the North Star is Jesus.

Get this book!

Robert Gundry’s The Church and the Tribulation

41LpmNCXZtL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Robert H. Gundry is a New Testament scholar of no small reputation (and, occasionally, no small controversy: see here and here) whose work needs to be reckoned with. I find him curious at times and, frequently, quite helpful. So when I saw that he had published a book in 1973 that is considered by some to be the most stalwart defense of the post-tribulational position, I decided to read it.

The Church and the Tribulation is indeed an important work. Agree with Gundry or not, the depth of scholarship in this work, the seemingly exhaustive and careful consideration of the primary eschatological texts, and Gundry’s consideration of the various arguments and counter-arguments lend this work a certain weight. There is way too much shallow writing and thinking about eschatology in the conservative Christian book market, so works of genuine scholarship ought to be celebrated whether they are for your position or against it. Prior to reading Gundry’s work, I would have said that George Eldon Ladd’s The Blessed Hope was the most important work arguing for post-tribulationism that I have read (I do *not* claim that I have read enough to be able to have an opinion on “the most important work” on this or that position overall). Now I would say Gundry’s book is.

The book is a very detailed look at a very large number of passages as well as, at the end, an overview of the historical development of the pre-tribulational position. But to summarize, let us just say that Gundry does not see a pre-tribulational rapture of the church in the pages of the New Testament and does see a great deal of evidence for the presence of the church on earth during the tribulation. He offers a very interesting look at the whole question of the relationship between Israel and the church and offers a pretty strong biblical pushback against dispensational assumptions on this point (showing, for instance, how certain prophecies spoken over Israel were clearly fulfilled in and by the church). Gundry’s section on the Olivet Discourse is also an interesting pushback against certain dispensationalist assumptions and should be considered. The section on imminence is quite interesting and Gundry argues therein that a close examination of New Testament passages concerning expectation and watchfulness apply consistently to a post-tribulational rapture. Furthermore, he unpacks the phrase “the day of the Lord” and persuasively shows that it cannot include the tribulation and is to be applied to Christ’s return at the end of the tribulation.

That day cannot begin until after the revelation of the Antichrist and the apostasy, after the ministry of Elijah, after the celestial phenomena between the tribulation and the posttribulational advent, in short, not until after the tribulation. Paul’s admonition to be prepared for that day and his explanation that Christians will recognize the approach of that day require a connection between the last generation of the Church and the arrival of the day of the Lord. Hence, the Church will continue on earth throughout the tribulation until the beginning of that day. (Kindle Location 1577)

I think, after a first reading (and I intend to re-read this work sooner rather than later), that this is a sufficient conclusion to reach: if one holds to a pre-tribulational rapture or if one is curious as to the question of the timing of the rapture, Gundry’s book should be read. If, after having read it, you still hold to the pre-tribulational rapture, ok. But you will have engaged a serious and substantive counter-proposal in your reading of Gundry’s book and you will be the better for it.

Highly recommended!

Revelation 2:12-17


Revelation 2

12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. 13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 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.’

Sometimes the opening sermon illustration writes itself. Listen. This is an actual article:

“Hinduism no Barrier, it Seems, to Keeping Job as Priest in Church of England”

INDIA, September 8, 2006: A priest with the Church of England who converted to Hinduism has been allowed to continue to officiate as a cleric. The Rev. David Hart’s diocese renewed his license this summer even though he had moved to India, changed his name to Ananda and daily blesses a congregation of Hindus with fire previously offered up to Nagar, the snake God. He also “recites Gayatri Mantram with the same devotion with which he celebrates the Eucharist,” according to The Hindunewspaper. The Hindu this week pictures him offering prayers to Lord Ganesh in front of his house. However, he still believes he is fit to celebrate as an Anglican priest and plans to do so when he returns to Britain. Mr. Hart, a former chairman of Christian Aid in Loughborough and chaplain at Loughborough University, now serves in the Hindu temple in Thiruvananthapuram, a village in Kerala, southern India.
He was initiated as an Anglican priest in 1984 and, before leaving for India, was serving the Diocese of Ely. Anthony Russell, the Bishop of Ely, sent Mr. Hart his license, along with a personal letter, just three months after Mr. Hart published a book, Trading Faith: Global Religion in an Age of Rapid Change, in which he writes about his conversion to Hinduism. Mr. Hart is the international secretary for the World Congress of Faiths, the world’s oldest interfaith organization, and is a strong advocate of pluralism. He says in his book that Hinduism is an especially tolerant and open faith.
In an interview with today’s edition of Church Times, Mr. Hart admits that he had not told Dr. Russell that he had converted, but said that he would be amazed if his conversion were treated with any suspicion. “I have neither explicitly nor implicitly renounced my Christian faith or priesthood,” he said. The renewal of his license was sponsored by the Rural Dean of Colombo in Sri Lanka. Mr. Hart believes that his change to Hinduism would be “read in the spirit of open exploration and dialogue, which is an essential feature of our shared modern spirituality.” He also said that he would continue to celebrate as an Anglican priest when he visited England, but he would visit a Hindu temple while there. However, not everyone in the Church of England is impressed by Mr. Hart’s passion for Hinduism. Pauline Scott, the team vicar of St. James, in Stretham, said that she would oppose any attempts by Mr. Hart to celebrate in the Ely Diocese.[1]

A priest. In the church of England. Who “daily blesses a congregation of Hindus with fire previously offered up to Nagar, the snake [g]od.” While remaining a priest!

Now, listen to Leon Morris’ description of the city of Pergamum, the city in which the third of the seven churches of Revelation resided:

It was an important religious centre. People came from all over the world to be healed by the god Asclepius, and Pergamum has been described as ‘the Lourdes [a Catholic shrine in France] of the ancient world’. Zeus, Dionysos and Athene also had notable temples in the city. Pergamum was a centre of Caesar-worship, and it had a temple dedicated to Rome as early as 29 BC . It attained the coveted title neōkoros, ‘temple-sweeper’, before either Smyrna or Ephesus, and took its devotion to emperor-worship seriously. In due course it added a second and a third temple in honour of the emperor. It was the principal centre of the imperial cult in this part of the world. But emperor-worship was not its sole religious activity. Behind the city was a great conical hill, the site of a multitude of heathen temples.[2]

And what was the symbol of Asclepius, the god of healing? The serpent. The snake.

It might be argued that the church in every age is metaphorically faced with the same challenge: will it keep its worship centered radically and exclusively on the Lord Jesus Christ, or will it make room for the snakes. Whether it is David A. Hart in India offering fire to Nagar the snake god or the Christians of Pergamum having to combat the subtle influence of Asclepius or modern American Christians being tempted to the altar of various gods and idols, the church must decide: will we be a people focused solely on Jesus, or will we not? Will we make room for snakes in our hearts or will we not?

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Matthew 12:9-21

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Matthew 12

9 He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. 15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all 16 and ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: 18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. 19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; 20 a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; 21 and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

There is an interesting old debate among theologians that has to do with two Latin expressions: ipsissima vox (the very voice) and ipsissima verba (the very words). Basically, those who argue for the ipsissima verba position say that in the New Testament what we have are the exact literal words of Jesus precisely as He said them. Those who argue for the ipsissima vox position argue that what we have in the New Testament is the very meaning of what Jesus’ actual words meant whether or not the New Testament writers actually recorded his very words exactly as He said them.[1]

My point is not to enter into that debate as it relates to the writing of the New Testament. My purpose in mentioning it is because it seems to me that this ipsissima verba/ipsissima vox distinction can help us understand what was happening between Jesus and the religious authorities when it came to His performing miracles on the Sabbath. Simply put, I would like to argue that the Pharisees focused so much on the very word “sabbath” that they detached it from and therefore missed the very voice of God concerning the Sabbath!

Patrick Miller points out that the word for “rest” is “sabat” which literally means “stop.”[2] This is where we get the word Sabbath. The Pharisees were absolutely obsessed with that word “stop.” They were so focused on that word that that they allowed it to deafen them to and then distort the voice behind it. All they knew was you were supposed to rest, that is, “stop,” on this day and they loaded that one basket with all of their eggs! And, to enforce the ipsissima verba of the Sabbath they made rules upon rules! Stop doing this! Stop doing that! Stop! Stop! Stop!

Then Jesus comes along and does works of mercy and compassion on the Sabbath. Those works violated their understanding of the word. Jesus had not stopped as they thought He should! But Jesus seems, time and time again, to be pointing them to the ipsissima vox, the voice that gave the word, and to be saying to them that they had missed the voice in their fixation on the word.

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Revelation 2:8-11


Revelation 2

8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. 9 “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’

There are some haunting images of the city of Smyrna (known today as Izmir) from 1922. In that year, after Smyrna had been batted around in the aftermath of World War I by the Greeks and the Turks, a great and devastating fire broke out. Pictures of Smyrna in flames are the haunting images I am speaking of. Mike Pole writes of the fire:

Several American and Empire ships were in the Smyrna harbour but were under orders not to intervene as this would ‘breach neutrality’. They watched, and photographed, the developing disaster. As the city erupted into flames behind them, thousands of Greek/Armenian/Christian civilians massed on the waterfront, along a strip called ‘The Quay’. The heat from the burning city grew so great that luggage and even horses caught fire, and could be felt on the ships in the harbour.

At the same time, either local civilians or elements of the Turk army (or both) killed and raped, and small boats over-full of panicking people capsized, and people drowned. A minimum of 10,000 people died, more likely several times that. Eventually the moral values of some naval personnel over-rode their orders and they started picking up survivors from the water.[1]

The one picture in particular of the people of Smyrna crammed onto The Quay is, to me, in many ways, an apt picture of what the Christians of Smyrna must have felt around 1800 years prior: the threat of fiery death behind and the danger of the impassable sea ahead. To judge by our text, many of them must have felt trapped just as these poor folks were in 1922.

Sometimes I wonder if we understand just how overwhelmed these first century Christians must have felt. Scott Duvall observes that “according to one estimation the total population of the Roman Empire in the late first century was sixty million, of which five million were Jews and fifty thousand were Christians.”[2] Just think about that. There truly must have been times when Christians at the time of the writing of Revelation felt very much as if they were stuck on The Quay!

And it continues for many today. John McCallum writes:

In 2018, 1 in 9 Christians experienced serious persecution—a 14% increase over the previous year. And roughly 70% of the world’s Christians today live without the right to worship freely. So when they worship, they know what that means: potential persecution.[3]


And persecution can happen in subtle ways too. While it must be said that, overall, American Christians know little of anything of the persecution faced by Christians the world over, it is also true that there are likely people in this very room who have indeed paid a price for following Jesus. There are likely people in this very room who know the feeling of The Quay: fire behind, water ahead, and a prayer for help to almighty God.

If that is you, the letter to the church of Smyrna is for you.

And if it is not you, then the letter to the church of Smyrna is also for you, for it might just help you to care enough for suffering Christians around the world…and it might just move you to cry out to God on their behalf in prayer.

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Matthew 12:1-8

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Matthew 12

1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

Legalism—the adding of man-made rules and restrictions to the commandments of God—inevitably misses the heart of God. More than that, it usually ends up becoming a parody of itself. Richard John Neuhaus gives one amusing example of this:

Many years ago an evangelical publisher brought out a book by C. S. Lewis with his picture on the back of the dustjacket. He was holding his hand in an odd way, as though there was something in it, but there was nothing there. Around his head was a large cloud. It was, of course, a cloud of pipe smoke, but the publisher, in order not to offend, had brushed out the pipe, with the result that Lewis’ head was surrounded by this numinous nimbus. My classmates and I referred to him as See Shekinah Lewis.[1]

So there you have it. It is an amusing example and, in truth, a metaphor for all legalism. You have (1) a man-made law (i.e., no pipes), (2) an earnest effort to obey this man-made law (i.e., airbrushing out the pipe), and (3) a confusing and slightly amusing result (i.e., What is that cloud of smoke hanging over Lewis’ head?!).

Of course, legalism is not always amusing. Oftentimes it is downright deadly. It is always dangerous. Jesus confronted the religious leaders about their legalism more than once in the New Testament. Matthew 12 gives us one such example.

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Revelation 2:1-7


Revelation 2

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’

One of the greatest descriptions of being in love that I have ever read is Leo Tolstoy’s description of Levin after Kitty, who he loves, expresses her love for him in Anna Kerinina. Listen to how this sensation of being in love affects Levin:

            All that night and morning Levin lived perfectly unconsciously, and felt perfectly lifted out of the conditions of material life. He had eaten nothing for a whole day, he had not slept for two nights, had spent several hours undressed in the frozen air, and felt not simply fresher and stronger than ever, but felt utterly independent of his body; he moved without muscular effort, and felt as if he could do anything.  He was convinced he could fly upwards or lift the corner of the house, if need be.[1]

Does that sound familiar to you? Do you recall the first feelings of the love you realized existed between you and another? Do you remember its effect on you?

Now I ask you: how do we go from that kind of thing to sitting in a restaurant across a table from our spouses barely speaking for the better part of an hour? How do some couples go from finding one another’s quirks charming and endearing to wanting to murder the other over the cap not being put back on the toothpaste? How do we go over genuine over-the-top concern at the slightest cough from our beloved in the first blushes of love to “Could you please take some Nyquil or something, I’m trying to sleep?!”

How do we forget our first love?

I do not know, but I know this: if love is not cultivated it is forgotten.

As it goes with our love for one another, so it goes with our love for God.

The seven letters of Revelation are written to seven churches in Asia Minor and, indeed, to the church throughout space and time. They are written to us. The first is to the church of Ephesus, an extremely important city in the ancient world of which we have some amazingly well-preserved ruins today. It was a prosperous and large city with a temple to the goddess Artemis that was considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. Artemis loomed large in Ephesus, as historian Holly Beers writes:

In Greek mythology Artemis and her brother, Apollo, are born to Zeus and Leto. Artemis serves as her mother’s midwife in this origin story, delivering her twin brother, Apollo. The Ephesians appropriated this myth and transferred its geographical location to a grove outside their city, a move that served to support their special relationship with Artemis…During the period of the New Testament, the historical evidence points to the likelihood of Ephesians hosting two major festivals in her honor every year. One was a celebration of her birth, complete with music, dancers, sacrifices, feasts, and priests acting out the role of demonic protectors of Artemis during her birth, frightening away the goddess Hera. The second was the Artemisia, which likely included competitions in music, theater, and athletics. There is also some evidence for female priestesses as officials of her temple.

Along with being associated with a general focus on health and safety (as her name was often understood to communicate those values), Artemis was acclaimed as greatest, holiest, and most manifest along with the titles “Queen of the Cosmos,” “Lady” (female version of “Lord”), and “Savior.” She was a specific kind of savior to the many women who petitioned her for safety in childbirth. She was the patron goddess of Ephesus, and her temple, the Artemision, was built outside the wall, a little over a mile from the city center. The Artemision was famous in antiquity, known as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world for its size and grandeur. It measured approximately 140 by 75 yards (four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens) and included 127 columns that stood over 60 feet high. The works of many of the greatest sculptors and painters of the day decorated it, and because of its financial deposits—assets that included land and water—and ability to lend money, it functioned at the center of the city’s economic life.[2]

In addition to this, there was also in Ephesus a temple to Domitian, the Emperor under whom John was exiled to Patmos and under whom the church of Ephesus was suffering. It was to this church in this socio-politico-religio-context that the words of Christ in Revelation 2 come.

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