Saturday, April 25, 2009

Among the Lampstands: Revelation 2:1-29 (part 1)

The first chapter of the Revelation of Jesus Christ closed with a visionary description of Jesus among the churches, pictured as lampstands. This section of the book is the address of our Lord Jesus Christ to seven churches.

Once in a while I get tough questions, hard questions from two kinds of people: those who really want an answer; and, those who like to stir things up--or at least try to. I enjoy searching out meaningful answers with those who genuinely ask. The rarest occasion from time to time brings questions I really don't like. These are the most difficult questions, the kind of question I really wish had never been asked. Approaching this section of the book of Revelation, I find myself face to face with the first of these two questions.

The question posed is, "what modern-day church, in your experience and opinion, is most vibrant and God-honoring, and why?" ((**Sigh**)). I would like to say it is "this" church or "that" church, but the truth of the matter is that I cannot name any particular church or churches. To do so is to make a statement about myself that I am really in no position to make (and perhaps that is the point of the question). Now, I like "this" preacher and "that" pastor, and I must say that out of all the churches I have either served or attended, I find our current fellowship most agreeable; however, I cannot answer the question as it is presented. Now, I can say in a general sense the most vibrant and God-honoring churches are those that preach an uncompromised gospel, teaching the whole counsel of scripture, but I cannot name one specific church. I can also say that those who call themselves a church and give little or no regard to the gospel and scripture should not be called a church at all. Let's be clear: only those who have been reconciled to God in Christ Jesus are of the body, the Church.

The second question is tough, too: "What if Jesus sent a letter to your church? What would He say?" I could say honestly, "I don't know"; but, since there is a "what if" at the beginning of the question, I imagine he might address us Southerners not as lampsticks but as rows in a garden. Our church might be addressed with three rows of squash, four rows of turnips and five rows of lettuce: squash indifference, squash criticism and squash gossip; turn up for worship, turn up with a smile, turn up with your Bible and turn up with a visitor; let us love one another, let us welcome strangers, let us be faithful in obedience, let us worship in Spirit and truth, and let us give.

I believe our Lord Jesus Christ really has has sent a letter to my church. Actually, I believe He sent seven--the same ones He sent to your church, and we can begin to read those letters starting right here in Revelation 2.

Ephesus (2:1-5): Orthodox and Sterile.

The apostle Paul had some extended experience with the Ephesian church. The first time he came to them, he did not stay for long, but would return "if God wills" (Acts 18:19-21). The second time he came, he met twelve men with spiritual concerns (to say the least). Paul preaches Christ and they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus and recieved the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-7). For the next three months, Paul preaches in the synagogues, reasoning and pursuading the Ephesians with the gospel--then something happens. Some became "hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the people" (19:9a). What did Paul do? He separated himself from these disobedient and hardened people and he took with him those who continued to obey the gospel (19:9b).

Over the next two years, some amazing things happened in terms of words and works related to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul preached the gospel and God made Himself known through miracles by Paul's hand. When Jesus was magnified, people believed, repented, confessed their sins and evil practices--they even burned their magic books! (19:17-18) As Paul was preparing to leave and go to Jerusalem, another disturbance flared up concerning the Way (19:23). The problem was that people were turning from their idols, putting the idol-makers out of business and making the gods worthless! The tradesmen got together and started a riot and "the city was filled with confusion" and swept up two of Paul's companions in the fray (19:29). People were literally at odds with one another--Christians standing on one side and idolaters on the other.

Paul and his companions left Ephesus and was in a hurry to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost. From Miletus, he called the elders of the church and, among other things, reminded them of his gospel ministry and his suffering for preaching. He also warned them to be on guard as overseers -because "savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock" and to remain on alert (20:17-35).

The seven-star holder had some good things to say about the Ephesian church (perhaps He feels their weight in His hand, so to speak): they did not tolerate evil persons; they rooted out the liars; they perservered with patience, laboring for Jesus names' sake without weariness. The One who walks amidst the lampstands also had some things to say about their sin (one can almost picture Him leaning in close and inspecting each candle): they left their first love. They broke the first commandment. Love for God in Christ was less glowing than at first. True religion shows itself not in the initial flare-up, like lighting the match, but in the burn.

Jesus tells them to remember from where they have fallen, and do the deeds they did at first or else He is coming to remove the whole candlestick. He does not say He is going to put them out, but remove the whole candlestick. They are about to flicker out themselves. For the Ephesians, the Lord Jesus Christ wants light.

Remembering begins with repentance. Turn from sin, just as they did at the beginning. Only then can one get back to the ministry of obedience and having a soft heart before the Lord. This will not drive people away, but will draw others who are being obedient together. They are to keep putting away idols and turning out those who creep in to harm the flock.

The blessing for doing this is not merely that they remain as candlestick, but that they will be made partakers of the tree of life which is in the paradise of God!

Smyrna (2:8-11): Faithful and Assaulted

Smyrna is another church with Pauline experience, and by that I mean suffering. Despite all the beatings, stonings, whippings, imprisonments, etc. Paul and his entourage kept preaching Christ, "strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith and saying, 'Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.'" (Acts 14:22). Smyrna is a church on the verge of experiencing great suffering because they stand for Christ. This church should be a problem for Western Christianity. The First and the Last, who became dead and is living has some insight into what Smyrna is about:

1) He knows what they are doing. What they do shows who they really are. When a person becomes a Christian, there is no guarantee that life will be better. Standing for Christ is not easy. What Jesus promised was an abudant life. What does that mean? "Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (2 Timothy 3:12) God's Word tells us there is a blessing in suffering, even to "count it all joy when you fall into different kinds of temptations, knowing that the trying of your faith works patience." (James 1:2-3) This means that when we pray for patience, guess what we will get? We get to grow through trials!

2) He knows how they are suffering for what they are doing. The people of this church are doing things as obedient Christians that is causing the world to make life difficult for them. Notice how Jesus identifies Himself to this church: the one who was dead and is not living. Jesus did not die of natural causes or because He sat in a quiet corner nursing His ideas in whispers. Church history begins with martyrdom. Polycarp, a student of the Apostle John, was burnt alive in Smyrna because of his refusal to give worship to Ceasar. The church in Smyrna is about to go to prison for their faith. They are taking a stand against Satan. This is so distressing that The One Who Is Living tells them not to be afraid. He tells them to be faithful till death.

Here is something to consider: are you being persecuted for your faith? Made a little uncomfortable? Are you sharing the gospel at all? Do people have enough to complain about the good news you are preaching? If you are living your faith out before others, how can you tell if anyone is noticing? Are waves of revival following as you leave Wal-Mart? The body of Christ in everywhere but the West is throbbing with the pain of persecution and death because of their stand for the gospel. We struggle about giving a gospel tract to a perfect stranger.

3) He knows their richness in poverty. These people lost everything because of the gospel and have gained the riches of heaven because of the gospel. Heirs of the Kingdom of God! The world hates poverty, yet is inundated with it. Our Lord Jesus Christ notices poverty and is the King of His people who are in poverty. The difference is that the poverty of the world comes by sin--the church of Smyrna is impoverished because of their work for the Kingdom.

4) He knows the true from the false. John Gill ((1697–1771) explains most clearly there are people "who asserted themselves to be the true Israel of God, Jews that were so inwardly, regenerate persons, or truly Christians; for the Christians, baptized persons, were by the Heathens called Jews; but these were not, they professed Christianity in words, but in works denied it; they were men of bad principles and practices, and both blasphemed the ways and doctrines of Christ themselves, and caused them to be blasphemed by others also; they were false Christians, nominal professors, and shunned persecution for the Gospel; who were not what they would be thought to be: these were the broachers of heresies in this period of time, in which there was a multitude of them, and which chiefly respected the doctrine of the Trinity, and the person of Christ; and they were introducers of Pagan and Jewish rites into the church, and were men of flagitious lives and conversations, and paved the way for the man of sin."

Pergamos (2:12-17): Faithful on the outside, compromised on the inside.

While we may gloss over this church in a particular fashion, we would be amiss to ignore the scathing rebuke our Lord Jesus Christ brings to this church: they keep within themselves false teachers. These would rather bring lies concerning God and speak falsely against Him people and the church was tolerating their teachings. These were a stumbling block and the church would not remove them. These openly practiced idolatry and sexual immorality without rebuke. These were clearly doing things hateful to God and the church did not have God's heart in the matter.

Jesus is described to this church as The One Who Has The Sharp Sword and this is what He tells them. "Repent! But if not I will come to you quickly, and will fight with them by the sword of My mouth." (2:16). He is telling the church to repent and if they do not turn from their sin, then He will come to them quickly and will fight His enemies with the sword of His mouth; that is, His Word.

Sounds like a good thing: If I don't repent then God's enemies will get a little visit. Don't miss the point: He will come to those who do not repent with a sword that cuts two ways. The godly who tolerate evil will not remain uneffected by a visit from God's Word. There may be those who hold fast His name and have not denied the faith, but what are they doing allowing the world in the church?

Thyatira (2:18-29) Insignificant, yet, determined.

A most unusual place, Thyatira.
Geographically: out of the way.
Religiously: nothing signifcant--no temples, nothing.
Politically: overlooked.
Militarily: designed to be captured in case of invasion to slow down the enemy.
Commercially: small trade and site of dye manufacturing.

The One With Flaming Eyes and Feet Like Polished Bronze not only looks right through them, but passes a judgment concerning them but not without recognizing their strengths: good deeds, love, faithful, works of service, perservance, etc. Again, these words come from the one who not merely walks among the candlesticks, but scrutinzes them carefully, inspects them. What He reveals about their weaknesses is astounding:

1) They tolerate. With full knowledge of what was going on in their midst, they failed to confront a significant problem;
2) The problem: Jezebel. Someone who was clever of deception, manipulative, dominant, viscious, schemer, inflential and wicked. To top that off, this person assumed a position of leadership and through this was influential in leading people astray, rejecting repentance and putting forth her own immorality.

The Lord Jesus Christ pronounces the future for both the Jezebel-like woman, but also for those who pattern their thinking and behavior after her. Unless there is repentance, each one will receive what is theirs according to their deeds.

But what about the faithful ones, the ones who were not swept away under this influence? Christ promises that they would receive no extra burden. Instead He promises to give them authority and the person of Christ Himself, the Morning Star.

APPLICATION and "END" to part 1:

I like Chuck Swindoll's concise application here (from "Letters to Churches," 1982)

1. Big problems can occur in obscure places, so don't be surprised;
2. Timely words can encourage demoralized individuals, so do don't be hesitant;
3. Wrong teaching can come from gifted individuals, so don't be misled;
4. Deceptive actions hurt the innocent, so don't be stubborn.

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