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Archive for the 'Gems in John' Category

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Gems in the book of Revelation

Part 141 - Revelation 11:1-18
Persecution is limited

Revelation 11 is yet another one where it is hard to find any very helpful verse. Gems are hard to come by! Yet this is the concluding chapter of the first part of Revelation and will have been designed to encourage the Christians of those days. And that is the problem: what is largely meaningless for us will have been full of meaning for them. We have to remember that this vision was designed to help and encourage the members of the seven churches and they were in a tricky position. It was clear that considerable persecution was likely to affect them very soon. The comments on Smyrna and Pergamum indicate that the problems had already started in those two cities. So we have to try and read this chapter as if we were them. Not easy, it is widely regarded as the most difficult passage to understand in all this difficult book.

There are many references to the Old Testament in these verses, not always from the bits we are likely to know well either. The prophecy of Zechariah provides the main structure for the vision. It is there (Zechariah 2-4) that we find a man measuring Jerusalem, two witnesses: Joshua the High Priest and Zerubbabel the King, two olive trees and two pipes for the oil lamps. There are also many references in these verses to the writings of other prophets, particularly Ezekiel.

The fundamental question is: who are the two witnesses and why are there two of them. General opinion seems to be that they stand for the Christian church and all its members who are likely to be persecuted in the near future. Why two? Probably to allow reference to the two outstanding prophets: Moses and Elijah. Elijah was taken direct to heaven rather than dying. In spite of the account of his burial in Deuteronomy it was also widely thought that Moses went directly to heaven. Moses was the prophet of words above all else (in spite of what happened in Egypt) and Elijah was the great prophet of action. So they were good models of what the infant churches should be.

Seven years represented an ideal length of time so half that, listed here as 42 months or 1260 days, represented a shortened ideal period, a set short period, not a long one. So for a short and defined period of time the churches would have a significant and successful time of witness in which many would come to faith. Then the beast (Rome, through the emperor) would attack them, persecute them, kill many of them until the whole Christian movement would appear to be dead. Usually when you are dead you are dead but this is the book of Revelation where such logic does not operate! But then they would revive, life would come to them as it did the bones of Ezekiel 37, and they could look forward to golden days of life in heaven and, of course, life on earth.

Here is the gem of this chapter. It looks as though we too in many parts of the world may be facing a period of greater persecution and loss of freedom to witness coming from both secularism and Islam. We too can rely on these things not lasting for ever and eventually there being a great revival when the Spirit wind of God comes back and breathes on the bones of the church to make it once again a mighty force in all the world.

It was said a long time ago that the ‘blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’ and that has proved to be true many times over. It has seldom, or never, been so obvious as what has happened to the Chinese church over the last 70 years. Most onlookers reckoned the communist take over in the 1950s would be the death of the church but when the oppression finally eased in the 1980s it was discovered that the tiny church of the 1950s had grown many times over and was amongst the strongest and most vibrant churches of any country in the world.

How we react to all this will depend very largely on which country we live in. Many of us are fortunate enough to live where these things seem only remotely possible. For a few of us it may well reflect the future for the church in your country, not a prospect to be welcomed, even if the outcome will eventually be good. We are but human and can only reflect the situation we are in and are likely to be in for years ahead.

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Gems in the book of Revelation

Part 138 - Revelation 6:9–15
Patience!

The first four seals gave us an all too accurate picture of the state of the world caused mainly by the failure of mankind to resist the work of the devil. The obvious question to ask is why. Why does the Creator God not take action to stop the world; to judge mankind for its great errors and renew the world right now, without further ado. The fifth seal answers that difficult question by telling us what the view of the martyrs for their faithfulness to Jesus is. No wonder they took this position for, if the Lord God had acted sooner they would not have been martyred. So their great cry is “how long, oh Lord, how long”. They want the great judgement to begin right now and so they would be avenged.

They have to wait, in the same way as in Genesis 15:16 Abraham, impatient to secure the land he had been promised, was told that he had to wait until the sins of the Amorites reached their peak and they were only then to be judged. So the martyred ones had to wait, and so do we. It is tempting to suggest that our current world has seen the zenith of the activities of the first two horsemen: the conquest by leading individuals of first one country or part of the world and then another; and in Fascism, Communism and extreme Islam the pinnacle of attempts to reorganise people at whatever cost; the height of the pressures of of famine and disease are still to come in spite of our ever increasing ability to increase crop yields and control disease. Are there still to be world-wide crop problems and mega-uncontrollable diseases still to come? We must hope not but they would fit the situation outlined here.

In the meantime, before those things happen, perhaps the sixth seal is suggesting that there will be a great crash for the welfare of those who think they have it all. The picture John paints is highly symbolic. Earthquakes, eclipses of the sun, and impossible events like stars falling to earth were the way that they talked of great calamities in his day. It seems that the fear of these things was greatest amongst the rich and powerful of the world. Serve them right we may think. But it does go on to say that everyone else also panicked in the face of what seemed to be happening. Perhaps the major plus here is that they would all seem to be recognizing that these events were part of the results of the judgement of the Creator God and of the Lamb.

We, like the martyred ones, have to wait in patience for God to act. He has a plan for the world. It has to descend to even more difficult situations before it will be ripe for judgement. In the same way as fruit picked too early when it is not ripe is no good so the direct action of the Triune God now would be too soon. We have to wait.

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Gems in the book of Revelation

Part 133 - Revelation 3:21
Lukewarm

The ‘gem’ is in the promise that ends the letter following the words ‘to the one who is victorious’. Here is the rest of the letter :
4 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
21 To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne,just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

The last of the seven cities is probably the best known one. Laodicea was the most important and wealthiest of three cities relatively close together in the Lycus valley. Unfortunately, it did not have a good water supply of its own so it had to get water from the other two; from Hierapolis where the water came from hot springs and was heavily mineralised. By the time it reached Laodicea it was lukewarm and not really drinkable. Alternatively, the water from Colosse was cold mountain water but it had to come so far in the heat of the day that it was no longer cool but well warmed up. Hence the picture of the situation of the city as applied to the church - ‘neither cold nor hot’ and fit to spit out. The riches of the city were founded on banking, a medical school focused on ophthalmology (eye treatments), and a particular type of black sheep’s wool. All these facts are used in the description of the church as being ‘poor, blind and naked’.

It all adds up to the most remarkable description of any of the churches in terms of their surrounding situation. There is no mention of any sort of persecution or antagonism from neighbours, so we must conclude that their problem was apathy. There was simply nothing in their situation that excited any sort of positive reaction.

That is a situation all too familiar in much of the Western world. Because our culture says that everyone’s ideas are as good as those of the next person we encounter no real resistance to our beliefs except the sort of comment of ‘that’s what you think, that is fine for you, but I think differently’ we too can be described as lukewarm in our beliefs, and thinking we are doing fine as a society, a church or an individual when the reality is that we are spiritually ‘poor, blind and naked’.

The solutions offered are interesting. First there is the well-known ‘I stand at the door and knock … open the door ... and I will eat with that person’ statement. This is often used as a call to unbelievers to faith but, in context, it is a call to the lukewarm believer to let Jesus have a greater and complete role in their lives in the figure of having him sit down to a meal with the person.

Then there is the even more startling suggestion that the one who is a truly victorious believer will have a significant part in the final judgement ‘the right to sit with me on my throne’. The mind boggles at the very idea! It suggests that Messiah Jesus is so close to his believing people that he will share his sovereignty, his progress and even his justice with them. Yet it is in line with other statements in scripture: ‘Do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world’ (Paul in 1 Corinthians 6: 2). What a challenge it is to live in a way worthy of such trust and confidence!

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Gems in the book of Revelation

Part 129 - Revelation 2:17

Puzzles in Pergamum

 

The ‘gem’ is in the promise that ends the letter following the words ‘to the one who is victorious’. Here is the rest of the letter :
To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. 13 I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.
14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
17 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.

This letter to Pergamum is full of puzzles. We do not know what the things said about the church actually refer to, nor do we know quite what the gifts for those who were victorious mean. However it would be a pity to do only 6 gems for the 7 churches - so here goes!

Pergamum was a considerable city with more than 120,000 inhabitants. It had a vigorous and prosperous life so there will have been a great many small firms giving an active but somewhat chaotic life to it. This seems to have been reflected in the church. We do not know exactly what the imitation of Balaam implied - he seems to be vilified in the New Testament for what he did when the Israelites were in the plains of Moab although the Old Testament account scarcely seems to merit such ill favour. What the Nicolaitans taught we do not know. We can conclude that the church was a bit of a mess with several factions teaching things that were quite wrong.

Yet, even so the church had remained faithful through persecution severe enough to lead to the martyrdom of at least one man, It is probable that the main problem the church members faced when not being actively persecuted would arise from the need for those involved in the main trades to belong to the appropriate guilds. There will have been a Baker’s guild, a Butcher’s guild, a Tent Maker’s guild etc. The problem these caused members of the church was that they would hold regular social meetings, which members would be obliged to attend, at which there would be much feasting, much eating of food offered up at the idol temples, much drinking and much revelry often of a sexual nature. The big and contentious question was how Christian were to cope with all that. They were the same sort of problems that caused so much trouble in the church in Corinth and indeed in the churches all round the Roman/Greek world but seem to have been particularly acute in Pergamum since it is said to be ‘where Satan has his throne’ (Revelation 2:13).

Jesus told the members of the church to repent else he would ‘fight against them with the sword of my mouth’ strongly suggesting that things were very wrong and it is words and argument that are needed to put things straight.

As a result of all their difficulties and struggles the promised gifts for the victorious are ‘hidden manna’ and ‘white stones with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it’. Both those are puzzling. The best guesses seem to be: first, that the hidden manna is a reference back to the journey of Israel through the wilderness when they ran out of food. The people of the church in Pergamum will receive something, still hidden, which will encourage and sustain them for their onward journeys of faith. Second, the white stones are an even greater mystery, particularly in the matter of whose name is on them. Pergamum was built on a very dark, almost black, rock and white stone tablets were used for inscriptions. Was the name the very special name of Jesus “ that no one knows but he himself” mentioned in Revelation 19:12 etc.?, It is possible. Or was it the new name that was to be given to every disciple to fulfil the prophecies of Isaiah 62:2 (“The nations will see your vindication, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will bestow”). This latter would seem the most likely. They would be given a new name signifying a new start in life and a new relationship with the Lord.

The problem of fitting into the culture we are in and in which we have to live is very real for us all. The promises of new spiritual food and a new relationship with the Lord are wonderful promises for us all. So despite the puzzles of Pergamum there are good and rich things to be learnt here.

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Gems in the book of Revelation

Part 128 - Revelation 2:11

No second death.

 
The ‘gem’ is in the promise that ends the letter following the words ‘to the one who is victorious’. Here is the rest of the letter :

8 To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
11 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.

The church in Smyrna had its problems and was soon going to get more and greater ones! We don’t know how John knew enough to say this unless it was a prophecy. More serious persecution was coming their way. It wasn’t a rich church, as people normally counted richness, but they were rich in the way they lived their lives, particularly their spiritual lives. Jesus, through John, is promising them that he will be with them whatever may happen to them so they should be high in confidence, in courage and faithfulness. Then he makes a promise to them that is hard to understand: “you will not be hurt at all by the second death”. There are two problems here: what is the second death and why should they be at all concerned about it anyway.

Second death is a phrase that only appears in Revelation at 20:6 and 14, and 21:8. The first of these says that those who share the first resurrection (with Jesus) have nothing to fear from it, the other two are both about ‘the lake of fire’. This seems to be about the place of everlasting torment often mentioned in the New Testament, particularly by Jesus in places like the parable of the sheep and he goats where he says ‘depart from me, you who are cursed into the eternal fire’ (Matthew 25:41) and this is ‘eternal punishment’ (Matthew 25:46). These statements seem very much at odds with the other things Jesus said.

There are places in the world where such language would be deemed right and proper by the followers of other faiths in relation to the ‘infidels’ but for those of us in the Western world it strikes a strange note. It may simply be a different way of expressing things where only analogies can be used but it still seems very strange.

The best way round the problem is probably the word picture drawn by C. S. Lewis in his children’s book The Last Battle (one of his children’s books about Narnia but they are full of deeply spiritual insights!). At the end of the book and the world all the characters, human, animal and mythical, are forced to look into the eyes of Aslan, the lion, who is the image of Christ. ‘When some looked the expression of their faces changed terribly - it was fear and hatred …. And all who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to his left and disappeared into his huge black shadow …. The watching children never saw them again. I don’t know what became of them. But the others looked in at the face of Aslan and loved him though some of them were very frightened at the same time. And all these came in at the door, in on Aslan’s right. …’.
‘I don’t know what became of them’ is a very wise comment we should take for ourselves.

The faithful people of Smyrna did not have to worry about such things for they would not ‘be hurt at all by the second death’. The same goes for all those who are faithful in these days!

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Gems in the book of Revelation

Part 126 - Revelation 1:16

Words

 
The main theme behind much of this passage and right on into the next two chapters about the seven churches is words, summarized in the image of the sharp double-edged sword coming out of his mouth. John was on the island of Patmos ‘because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’, which probably means he had been banished there because the authorities did not like the effects of his preaching, his words, in his home area. Then the ‘voice like a trumpet’ tells him to write things down. That instruction is repeated in 1:19. All these are about words, conveying to people the message about Jesus and his kingdom.

All of which gives us some major problems in this 21st century. As never before including the time John was living, the emphasis of communication is switching from spoken and written words to pictures. Never before have people been able to produce pictures as easily as they can now in this age of computers, laptops, ipads and smart-phones. There used to be a saying that a picture was worth a thousand words but that is no longer true. Too many pictures are how too many people want to be entertained and informed. Pictures, moving pictures on these devices, suffer one great disadvantage - they are swiftly gone and cannot be easily recalled while a book can be read, referred to, looked back at and generally thought about before one moves on.

What would a truly modern day image of Jesus look like? He would not have a sword representing words coming out of his mouth; he might well be carrying a laptop shining with golden radiance all around it!

We must not avoid the implications of this remarkable change. In this country the original job of Sunday Schools was to teach the children of the poor to read so that they could read the Bible. What must we do to encourage people not used to reading to turn to the scriptures and read them, regularly consistently, in big chunks so that they get the sense of them properly, with true understanding so that their ideas are personally developed and not those implanted from some other authority?

 

Then there are the many millions round the world who cannot read anything in their own mother tongue because it does not yet exist or they are illiterate anyway. Do we support the agencies that are constantly working to try and remedy that situation?

The crucial part of the discipling that Jesus instructed us to do (Matthew 28: 19) is to lead people to understand something of the wonders of the Word that he has given us. That is easy for those of us who are written word oriented in much that we do. It is not so easy for the many more people who do not naturally turn to reading for their pleasure but prefer the many images of today. Our, your - the readers - task is to lead many more people to a proper understanding of the Word of God.

The seven stars and seven lampstands amongst which John stood, and was to work, were representative of all churches of all ages. Let us stand amongst them with something of the same sense of urgency and devotion that John did in his day and generation that we should teach those struggling with words.

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