REVELATION #35: THE CULTURE CLASH

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We have now come to the point when Western Culture is, in fact, incompatible with  Biblical Christianity. By using the image of the prostitute, John tells us that there is a certain kind of attraction toward ungodly culture. We are prone to be drawn into it. To remain Christian, and to pass on the Christian faith to future generations, we are going to have to live lives that are radically different in the eyes of our culture. We are going to have to be the church, no matter what it costs. John saw this inevitable clash of cultures in his time, and explains, for all time, the reasons behind it. 

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Revelation #35. Revelation #17.

We have come to another one of those places in the book of Revelation that is just plain weird. However, I believe that we can make at least some kind of sense of this. In the first place, remember that we can use the chiastic structure of Revelation to help us. At the end of the third major section of Revelation (the trumpets), there was an interlude. The interlude at the end of section 3 was about the struggle for God’s Word to go forth. You might say it was from the perspective of the good guys, who had to suffer and even die; although, ultimately, they were vindicated.

We are now at the end of section 5 of Revelation (the bowls of wrath). This section is related to section 3 (the trumpets), and so, here too, we have an interlude. This interlude (chapters 17-18), coming after section 5, is from the perspective of the bad guys. Evil, corruption, and depravity appear to be winning. And yet, ultimately, they will be thoroughly judged and defeated.

The thought in the first interlude was that the witnesses to God’s truth would complete their mission. However, we did not see the final result back there in chapter eleven. The thought here, in the second interlude, completes the first: the judging of the evil powers of this world. God is wrapping things up, leaving nothing unfinished in his task of putting everything right.

There are many specifics in chapters 17 and 18. Whenever we feel that we are getting bogged down in the details of those things, we should return to the big picture; the ideas I have just expressed here.

Chapter 17 introduces us to the woman and the beast, and then “explains” them (if you can really call it an explanation). Like the first interlude, it is one of the more confusing passages in the most confusing book of the Bible. Let’s take this piece by piece:

1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me: “Come, I will show you the judgment of the notorious prostitute who sits on many waters. 2 The kings of the earth committed sexual immorality with her, and those who live on the earth became drunk on the wine of her sexual immorality.” 3 So he carried me away in the Spirit to a desert. I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and 10 horns. 4 The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She had a gold cup in her hand filled with everything vile and with the impurities of her prostitution. 5 On her forehead a cryptic name was written: BABYLON THE GREAT THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE VILE THINGS OF THE EARTH. 6 Then I saw that the woman was drunk on the blood of the saints and on the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. (Revelation 17:1-6 HCSB)

This prostitute is not a literal person. She is a representation of all world empires, governments, and powers that seduce people away from God, and that persecute God’s people. Throughout the Bible, the practice of idolatry is often called a kind of spiritual adultery, or prostitution. So it is here. I believe she represents both the ongoing ungodly world powers, and also a particular empire or civilization that will be present at the very end of world history. The description of her shows that the civilizations she represents are wealthy and corrupt. She is named “Babylon” but again, I believe that is a “code word” for any civilization or empire that leads people away from the worship of the one true God, and which persecutes God’s people. The reason it is in a kind of “code” is because, unquestionably, at the time of John, it meant the Roman Empire: verse 18 says:

And the woman you saw is the great city that has an empire over the kings of the earth.

Also, by using a symbolic name, the Holy Spirit allows this to be applicable throughout world history, although, as I said, I think there will also be a particularly, “ultimate” version of Babylon during the last days before Jesus returns.

I want to point out something else that I believe is important. God’s people were represented by the picture of a woman, a mother, in chapter 12. Here, we have the devil’s counterpart: an adulterous, evil woman, a prostitute. The devil can only imitate and corrupt God’s creation. He has nothing new of his own. In God’s Kingdom, we have the bride of Christ, the mother of the Messiah. The devil’s imitation is a prostitute, a woman full of wickedness and evil.

The same is true of the beast. Jesus is “the one who is, who was and is to come.” In verse 8, the beast attempts to imitate Jesus, but fails. He is the one: “who was, is not, and will come again, only to be destroyed forever.”

Verses 7-17 attempt to explain the “secret meaning” of the woman and the beast. If you are like me, the explanation is worse the puzzle. Verses 9-14 speak of 18 different kings. Or maybe, it is only 12 kings, or possibly 11. Or, perhaps, it is speaking not of kings, but of kingdoms and empires. John says five kings have “fallen,” another one is, and another is yet to come. Many, many people get bogged down trying to figure out which rulers or empires John is prophesying about. Some say these are Roman emperors. Others connect them to various world powers from ancient Egypt all the way to the present. The problem is, neither one of those theories fits the actual facts of world history. I caution you not to get sucked into that sort of thinking. As I have said before, that sort of thinking creates a situation where the book of Revelation is only relevant to a few specific people at a few particular points in time. Instead of letting the text speak into our lives about how we live right now, we spend time trying to “solve the riddle,” as if the Bible is just an interesting puzzle.

So, if we aren’t meant to figure out who or what these rulers represent in history, what are we supposed to do with this text? I think we are meant to understand, in general, that throughout history there is a connection between evil, ungodly world empires (the Great Prostitute), and the underlying work of the devil (the heads and horns of the beast). That doesn’t seem like such a stretch when you think about the reigns of people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, and Pol-Pot, along with ancients like Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.

When it appears as if evil and ungodliness is running unchecked throughout the world, this text tells us that God knew these things would happen. He has a plan to deal with it. He isn’t shocked, surprised and wringing his hands. He will make everything right.

I think we are also meant to understand that the end of human history will be characterized by a particularly corrupt, wealthy, idolatrous empire.

Finally, we are to be encouraged by the fact that evil devours itself. Ultimately, the dark spiritual power of the beast will turn upon the corrupt, idolatrous world empire. Evil itself will be made to serve God’s purposes:

16 The 10 horns you saw, and the beast, will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, devour her flesh, and burn her up with fire. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to carry out His plan by having one purpose and to give their kingdom to the beast until God’s words are accomplished.

Once more, the question is, where does this leave us? I believe that in the past 15 years, our culture has become far more anti-Christian than we realize. I am not talking about persecution. But the worldview that now dominates Western Culture is not only not Christian, but it is in true opposition to the Christian world view. I saw a TV episode the other night, in which the main plot had to do with sexual identity. I realized that it wasn’t just disagreeing with some of the particulars of  the Bible – it was an entirely different way of looking at what it means to be a human being, a way that flatly contradicts the Christian vision of humanity. I think that TV episode (which was 6 years old) is a reflection of what most of our culture already believes. According to it (and, I believe, our culture at large), your very identity is defined by whom you desire sexually. The greatest evil possible is to deny someone the opportunity to behave however they see fit, especially when it comes to sex. Self-denial, in the current world view, is not just difficult, it is tragically wrong; there is no place for it, not even as a way of loving another person self-sacrificially (that was one of the plot points of the episode). There is no greater authority than the desire of each individual to be whomever they want to be. That means, that no one, not even God, has the right to tell someone that anything they want is morally wrong, or even unhealthy. But Jesus calls us to surrender to his authority, and to deny ourselves, so that we can find true life:

24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).

37 The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. 39 Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matthew 10:37-39)

Suddenly, John’s picture of a great prostitute manipulating cultures seems uncomfortably close to home. John is saying that our culture is under the influence of evil, depraved spiritual power; he is using very lurid, picturesque imagery to do so. The cultures of the world are not neutral. They are influenced by the beast, which is to say, they are influenced by the devil and his demonic forces. The cultures of the world are captive to spiritual prostitution.

By using the image of the prostitute, John tells us that there is a certain kind of attraction toward ungodly culture. We are prone to be drawn into it.

John, in his vision, was shocked and astonished by this (v 7). I think most of us are, also. I believe the time has come for Christians to pay attention, and to see that our culture is neither good, nor morally neutral, but completely opposite to a Christian vision of humanity and God. Again, I do not meant that we are being persecuted. But I do mean that the world view of Western culture is antithetical to the Christian world view, and seeks to replace it. Practically speaking, we may have to change how we live in order to avoid getting sucked in. Author Rod Dreher, in The Benedict Option urges us to consider carefully how we live:

The time was coming… when men and women of virtue would understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who wanted to live a life of traditional virtue.

We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.

He points out not only cultural developments, but also legal decisions that have changed how the laws views Christian beliefs. Speaking of the Obergefell decision of the Supreme Court, he says:

Post-Obergefell, Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists.

He continues:

We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.

I agree, wholeheartedly. From now on, it is going to cost us to be Christian. I think we need to carefully examine the TV shows, movies and music that we consume. If we continue to absorb this anti-Christian worldview without thinking critically about what we watch and listen to, our beliefs will eventually conform to the culture, and be truly anti-Christian. We may have to limit the kind of things we watch, and the media we consume.

Some careers may no longer be appropriate for Christians. A year or two ago, a county clerk in Kentucky was jailed for not issuing a marriage license to a gay couple. In the eyes of the law, she was wrong. I think she was wrong to continue to be a county clerk with the beliefs that she holds, though I completely understand her position. I’m very sad that our culture has come to this, but I believe it has. I think that many Christians in various positions in government may need to consider resigning in order to remain true to their faith. Christians also may not be able to have other certain careers, because to do so would cause us to violate Christian ethics. The list of careers that violate our ethics is likely to grow in the coming years.

If we are to remain Christian, we are going to look radical to a culture that has radically changed in the past twenty years. John tells us that there is a spiritual reason for this, and also that God will eventually take steps to hold accountable the powers that are responsible.

Let the Spirit speak to you today.

REVELATION #26. THE VICTORY IS ALREADY WON.

Falling Dragon

Maybe you find yourself in a situation like that of the first Christians to read Revelation. You’ve tried to follow Jesus. You’ve been faithful, but sometimes it seems like it isn’t working out. Life is still hard, and sometimes it costs you to be true to Jesus. You look around and see others who don’t care about Jesus, and they seem to be doing great. It’s easy to be discouraged. We need to remember that there is a war going on. In war, we expect opposition. Our enemy hates us. But take heart. The Enemy is already defeated. He is just lashing out in bitterness as he is destroyed. If you have truly given yourself wholeheartedly to Jesus, there is no permanent harm the devil can do to you.

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Revelation #26.  Revelation 12:7-12

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them!

But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (ESV. Revelation 12:7-12)

Let’s do a quick check-in with the original recipients of the book of Revelation. Many of them were persecuted. Many of them had lost property and homes. Some of them had seen friends and/or family members imprisoned, and even, in some cases, killed for their faith in Jesus. In other places, faithful Christians were watching as some members of their church compromised with the culture. People who call themselves Christians were going to idol feasts, justifying it because they needed to do so in order to continue on in their careers. Other Christians were beginning to believe things that neither Jesus nor the apostles had ever taught. Still others were falling into sexual immorality, and other types of sins. All of this would have been extremely traumatic for the faithful followers of Jesus. In various ways, John’s vision (the book of Revelation) provided comfort to them. In this fourth section in the book of Revelation, John is offering yet one more perspective of hope for those who remained faithful to Jesus. He is describing what they are going through as part of an ongoing spiritual war. The first Christians, as they read this next section in Revelation, would have been reassured: what they are going through is not random. There’s a reason for it: the devil is at war with God and his people.

In the first part of this section, John provided the set up for the spiritual war. In the third and fourth parts, he is going to warn his readers by showing them that at times it will indeed look like the devil is winning. However, this can also be assuring, since it means that their negative experiences have an explanation. But before he does that, we have our passage for today. In this passage, he’s making sure that we understand (before we get to the more difficult bits ahead) that the outcome of the war is not in doubt. God has already won; the devil is no match for God Almighty, and he has been thrown out of heaven.

John tells us very clearly that the dragon is “…that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” So, he is telling us in a picturesque way about the rebellion of Satan, and his fall from heaven. Other, more clear parts of scripture tell us that Satan has been active in the world since the time of Adam & Eve. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that what John is describing is something that happened long ago. There are some other clear parts of scripture that speak of a spiritual battle:

10 Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and by His vast strength. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil. 12 For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. 13 This is why you must take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand. (HCSB Ephesians 6:10-13)

Our passage in Revelation tells of the devil and many “fallen angels” coming to earth; later in the passage it describes him trying to make war against Christians. The apostle Paul tells us, in a very clear passage, that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil.”

It sounds crude and primitive, but the true Christian faith has always believed that there is a real being whom we call the devil, and there are evil/fallen angels whom we call demons. When you think about it, it isn’t that strange. We believe that humans are not merely physical, but also spiritual. 99% of the world’s population throughout history, and even still today, believes that also. I mean it should be obvious. Take love, for instance. There are certain physical actions and sensations that go along with love. But the main experience of love cannot be examined physically under a microscope, or subjected to tests by the scientific method. Even if someday the chemicals involved in love were discovered, that would not encompass the metaphysical thing – the spiritual thing – that we call love. Though we are grounded in the physical realm, the experience of being human is primarily a spiritual experience. We are more than our bodies.

If we believe there are good things in the spiritual realm, why couldn’t there also be bad things? The Bible’s explanation of these things (which includes the devil and demons) makes sense out of the actual experiences of human beings.

In addition, the Bible’s teaching about spiritual warfare keeps Christians from thinking that other human beings are enemies.  As Paul writes, our real enemies are not flesh and blood.

Next time we will consider the spiritual war in greater depth, because the next few verses describe the dragon making war on those who follow Jesus. But before we get into that, I want to make sure we get the message of this passage. The basic message of our verses is this: The devil has already been defeated, and his days are numbered. God has already won.

Some religions (and philosophies) are dualistic. That means they believe that good and evil are equally balanced. In a dualistic system, evil might win just as easily as good. One is as strong as the other. But Christianity is not dualistic. We believe that God is the only uncreated, eternally existing being. Everything else has a cause, a reason for existing. But even atheists understand that at some point, there must be one thing that is the originator of all other causes, something which has no cause itself. Logic demands it. We Christians believe that God is that ultimate being.

This means that there is no entity in all of existence that can be a true rival to God.

As far as I can recall, we learn the names of only two angels in the Bible: Gabriel, and Michael. Gabriel seems to be primarily a messenger for God: he delivered the news of John the Baptist to Zechariah, and the news of Jesus to Mary. Michael, on the other hand, is described by Jude as an “archangel,” which implies that he was a leader among other angels. There is also an obscure incident in the book of Daniel. Daniel is praying, and doesn’t get an answer for three weeks. Then, an angel comes to him, and says that he was held up, because he had to contend with “the prince of Persia” (Daniel 10:10-14). Most people think this is describing warfare between God’s angels and demons. Next, the angel tells Daniel that he was helped in this battle by Michael, who is apparently a prince among angels. And that is all I know about that. I think it is probably best not to spend too much time on such things, because the Bible itself doesn’t mention them often. To me, it seems like a little glimpse into things that we won’t understand until Jesus returns. The main thing I want you to understand is this: God did not even need to fight Satan himself: he had Michael do it. Not only is the devil not as powerful as God, he isn’t even as powerful as God’s best angels.

One time, Jesus sent out 72 of his followers to do ministry. Among other things, he gave them the authority to drive out demons. When they went out, they found out that the demons left when they commanded them in the name of Jesus.

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (ESV, Luke 10:17-20. Bold added for emphasis)

The power of Satan was decisively broken by God. In terms of straight-up power, Satan has very little. What I mean is this: the devil cannot simply overpower any being that serves as God’s agent. Jesus here declares that his followers have authority to tread on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy. I don’t think he means literal snakes and scorpions. He means that he has given his followers power to defeat the devil and his demons.

This power is only given to those who trust Jesus, however. Once, there were some people who heard about the power of Christians to drive out demons. These people were not Christians themselves. Here is a brief summary of their story:

13Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. (Acts 19:13-16, ESV2011)

On our own, human beings are very vulnerable to the devil. But in Jesus, we share in the victory over the powers of evil. This is why, after Satan is thrown out of heaven, those who rejoice say this:

10And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Rev 12:10-11, ESV2011)

Now, obviously, that is not talking about Michael’s victory over the devil. It is talking about those who follow Jesus on earth. The authority of Christ conquers the devil. The blood of the lamb (that is, the sacrifice of Christ for us) and the word of our testimony (that is, claiming the authority and the blood of Christ in our own lives) – these are now the things that conquer Satan on earth.

This is really a several part series. Next time we will talk specifically about the spiritual war, and what it looks like, and how to practically engage the authority of Christ, the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony. But for now understand this: the devil is fighting a battle that is bitter and humiliating for him, because he has already lost, and his time is short. We who are in Jesus need not fear any evil; we only need to humbly trust in Jesus.

Maybe you find yourself in a situation like that of the first Christians to read Revelation. You’ve tried to follow Jesus. You’ve been faithful, but sometimes it seems like it isn’t working out. Life is still hard, and sometimes it costs you to be true to Jesus. You look around and see others who don’t care about Jesus, and they seem to be doing great. It’s easy to be discouraged. We need to remember that there is a war going on. In war, we expect opposition. Our enemy hates us. But take heart. The Enemy is already defeated. He is just lashing out in bitterness as he is destroyed. If you have truly given yourself wholeheartedly to Jesus, there is no permanent harm the devil can do to you.

Take a few minutes to think about these things, and be alert for what the Holy Spirit may bring to your mind as you do.

 

LOVING OBEDIENCE…OBEDIENT LOVE. JOHN 15:9-12

Loving Obedience

In the Bible, the opposite of rules is not “no rules.” It is loving relationship. It is a completely different paradigm.

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Single Sermons. Loving Obedience. John 15:9-12

 9“As the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you. Remain in My love. 10If you keep My commands you will remain in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commands and remain in His love. 11“I have spoken these things to you so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. 12This is My command: Love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:9-12, HCSB)

This is a stunning passage of scripture. We could spend weeks finding new and wonderful things in these few verses alone. I don’t have weeks, so let’s see if we can break off a digestible portion of this wonderful part of God’s word.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. It’s easy to drift over this quickly, but just stop for a minute and listen. How does the Father love Jesus? In the first place, he is the heavenly Father. His love has no limit. His love has no flaws. The Father has loved Jesus eternally. Here on earth, our love is hampered by our limited capacities. It is corrupted by our sinful flesh. Sometimes, loving others is a lot of work. At times, we lose patience with those we love; we get irritated with them; we become frustrated, or just plain weary. None of those things are a factor in the way the Father loves Jesus. Therefore, none of those things are a factor in the way Jesus loves us.

In fact, Jesus offers us the same experience of love that He has as a member of the Holy Trinity.

God is a Trinity – that is, He is one God, and yet he exist in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is something here that is beyond the grasp of human imagination (incidentally, the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the best arguments that Christianity is not made up by people – human beings would have come up with something more understandable). Between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit there is a constant flow of love and joy. Jesus tells us “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” He is, amazingly, offering us the kind of daily experience of love and joy and grace that He himself has. His own experience of the Father’s love is deep and abiding. It is not something that goes away, and it is something that sustained Him and influenced Him every weary day of His time on earth. I’m reminded of what Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-19, ESV2011)

We need the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, strengthening us, in order to even begin to understand the love that Jesus Christ has for us. It is beyond our ability to know completely, it is abundantly far more than all that we could ask or think. The unfathomable, unlimited love of Jesus for us is the bedrock for everything else in our lives. Particularly, it is the foundation upon which the rest of this text is built. We’re going to talk about what it means to keep the commandments of Jesus. But we cannot begin to understand what this means without the foundation of his all-surpassing love for us.

Abide in my love. “Abide” is not a word that we use very often anymore. Some good synonyms might include: remain, dwell, rest-upon, stay, be, exist-in. We are to dwell in the love of Jesus. We are to rest upon it, to exist continually in it.

Everything in our entire lives ought to be built on one foundational fact: that God loves us. If we get that fact wrong, there will be a host of other things in our lives which we will get wrong, and many things will not make sense. This is not to say that when we truly grasp by faith that God loves us, everything makes sense, and nothing ever goes wrong. But if we build our lives on any other basis than the love God has for us, sooner or later the uselessness and hopelessness of it all will come crashing in.

For many of us, there have been times, perhaps brief periods, when we have truly understood how much God loves us, and those times stand out as high points in our walks of faith. But much of the time, though we know it with our minds, we find it hard to believe that God truly delights in us. On Monday morning at 8:30 when the boss is upset and you’re still smarting from the fight with your spouse, it seems difficult to feel God’s love, and almost impossible that His love should make a difference in your situation.

In John 15, Jesus is inviting us into an abiding experience of His love. He appears to be offering a life wherein most of the time, we will be conscious of God’s love for us, and that love will make a real difference in our daily experiences. Jesus did not simply come down from heaven, hand us a one way ticket redeemable upon our death, and say, “See ya when you get there.” No in His invitation to abide, He is offering a life that is different in quality, right here and now. And the central fact affecting the quality of our lives is meant to be His affection for us.

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. Now we hit the difficulty. Many times when we read this phrase after the other two we think, “Aha! I knew it was too good to be true. Now the other shoe has dropped. Sure, God loves us: but only if we obey his commands, only if we can be good enough to earn his love.”

As we look at these verses, it is important for us to understand the concept of “paradigm.” A paradigm is a way of looking at the world. Paradigms tells us how to interpret our experiences. We all have paradigms, and use them every day. Think about it. The color green does not actually mean “go” and red does not mean “stop.” But in the driving paradigm, we interpret those colors to indicate those things.

When it comes to obeying God, and keeping his commands, it is common to find two different and extreme views,. The first view says, “Jesus died to forgive us [this is true]. His death took away the power of the law to condemn us [also true]. Therefore, once I’ve prayed the sinner’s prayer and ‘gotten saved’ I can go off and live my life however I please [this is not true].”

The second view goes like this: “Even the New Testament – after Jesus’ death and resurrection – tells us we need to obey God [true]. It says we should be holy and righteous people [true, but we need to understand this in the proper way]. Therefore not only should we try to live sinless lives, we actually can do so [not true]. Therefore, if we sin, we may not be true Christians [really not true].”

The underlying problem with both of these approaches is the paradigm. They both view our faith as set of rules. One way thinks we have to follow them; the other way thinks we are free from them. But the paradigm in both cases is about following rules. Both ways of understanding the scripture are legalistic, because they view obedience to Jesus as something to do with the law.

However, in the Bible, the opposite of rules is not “no rules.” It is relationship. It is a completely different paradigm.

In the book of John, Jesus relentlessly pushes the idea that real life only found in a daily faith relationship with Him. In fact, that is the central message of the entire New Testament. What Jesus says here in John 15:10 about keeping his commands can be properly understood only in the context of relationship with him. And in fact, that is true of any verse about obedience in the entire Bible. The paradigm is not rules and laws, but rather, relationship.

Marriage (the way God intends it to be) is supposed to be the strongest and most enduring voluntary relationship we have with another person. That is why the Bible often uses marriage as an illustration of our relationship with the Lord (Ephesians 5:25; Isaiah 54:5, 62:4-5; Jeremiah 3:15, 31:32; Hosea 1:2, 2:19-20; Revelation 19:7-9). That’s also why I often use it as a sermon illustration. It is applicable once again here.

What brings a husband and wife together? Does the man sign up to follow rules laid down by the woman, then, if he follows those rules correctly, they get married? Of course not. They are brought together by love. But what about after the marriage? Do they say, “I know love brought us together, but we are married now, and from here on our marriage will based on fulfilling the rules we have for each other.” Ridiculous.

So, if marriage is not based on rules, does that mean that I am free to go have an affair if I want? Also ridiculous. Why? Because there are certain things that destroy love, and destroy relationships, and having an affair is one of those things.

I think one of the biggest problems we have in marriage is that we fail to see how our actions affect the love between us. We don’t realize (or we pretend not to) how our actions have the potential to either help or harm the relationship. So when a wife wants her husband to quit going out to bars with his buddies, it isn’t that she’s trying to base their relationship on rules. What she’s really trying to say is “when you do that, it injures the love we have between us. It hurts me and it hurts our relationship.” When the husband says, “I’m looking for more from you in our physical relationship,” he isn’t trying to say that he only loves her because of what happens in the bedroom. He’s saying, “This helps to build my love for you, and therefore it helps our relationship.” These aren’t rules. They are relationship builders (or relationship busters). Because I am married, my behavior conforms to certain standards. These are not rules I follow – I live this way because I love my wife.

It will put tremendous pressure on a marriage if one or both spouses start looking at behavior toward each other as rules, instead of actions that affect the quality of love.

Jesus is telling us today, it’s the same with him. He uses the language of “commands” and “obedience” because there is supposed to be submission on our part to the Lord. But what it is all about is relationship. Listen clearly: “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love….You are my friends if you do what I command you.” He’s saying, “this is all about our relationship. If you love me, your behavior will reflect that. If you know that I love you, your behavior will show that also.” John writes about this more in his letters:

For this is what love for God is: to keep his commands. Now His commands are not a burden, because whatever has born of God conquers the world. This is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith. (1 John 5:3-4)

And this is love: that we walk according to his commands. This is the command as you have heard it from the beginning: you must walk in love. (2 John 6).

In other words, “keeping his commands” is all about that faith-relationship of love we have with Jesus. You should be able to tell I love Kari, not only because of the ring around my finger, but also because of how I behave with regard to her. You should be able to tell I love Jesus, not just because of a cross around my neck, but because of the way I behave with regard to Jesus.

Let me suggest one more thing. I don’t always feel like listening when Kari wants to talk. I don’t always feel like being kind or encouraging. I don’t always feel like helping her with things or doing her favors. But sometimes I do those things even if don’t feel like it, because the more I do, the closer we become; and the closer we become the more I actually want to do those things. Also, of course, the closer we are, the more I enjoy and treasure our relationship.

What I’m saying is, I choose to behave in such a way that I become closer to my wife. In the same way, obedience is a pathway to intimacy with God. The more we live as he asks us to, the easier it is to continue to make choices that increase our closeness to him. The more we obey, the more we learn to love Him, and our satisfaction and fulfillment – and our joy – grows.

When we remember that Jesus said this about keeping his commands in the context of abiding in Him it is impossible to doubt that he is talking about how we are behave in relationship with him. Basically, he is saying, “this is how to grow in my love and stay living in me. This is how you and I get closer.”

So what are the commands that Jesus wants us to keep? What are these things that help us grow closer to Jesus? In John chapter 6, some came to Jesus, wondering about this.

“What can we do to perform the works of God?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “this is the work of God: that you believe in the One he has sent” (John 6:29)

Another time, some experts on Jewish law came along and asked, “What’s the most important commandment to obey?” Jesus summed it all up when he said:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

In other words, to obey is to act in love. This exactly what we have been learning. Love for God and neighbor is obedience, and obedience to these commands (which really sum up all of the commandments) demonstrates love for God and neighbor. If I love my neighbor, I will not steal from Him. If I love God, I will listen to Him and His will for my life. If I love God I won’t sin, because that hurts him. If I love my neighbor, I won’t sin, because that hurts her.

Now, in reality, I don’t always love perfectly in action. From the way I talked about marriage, you might think I’m the perfect husband. Not even close. Sometimes, not only do I not feel loving, but I don’t act in a loving way either. That’s true in my relationship with the Lord, and with others also.

But we need to realize this: through dying on the cross, rising again and sending the Holy Spirit, Jesus has made it possible for anyone to keep his commands. There are people who believe we can attain perfect behavior in this life. They are mistaken, and they take a very poor approach to understanding the Bible. But the power of Jesus’ death on the cross is such that when we fail, forgiveness is available to us, and we can continue as if we never failed to obey Him. While we don’t reach perfect behavior, through Jesus, our Spirits are counted as perfect by God. Because we are in relationship, not under law, we repent, receive the love and grace and forgiveness God has made available to us, and so continue on in obedience. Through Jesus’ work, it possible for us to be in, and to stay in, right relationship with Him.

When I hurt Kari, or vice versa, it doesn’t mean divorce. Instead, we come to each other honestly, talk it over, ask for, give and receive forgiveness, and then move on. Remember, marriage is supposed to be a reflection of God’s relationship with us, and that is exactly how it works with the Lord.

Spend a few minutes now, reflecting on what the Lord is saying to you.

Revelation #25. Manifesting Jesus in a Hostile World.

Rev #25

God’s people are in the business of bringing Jesus Christ into the world. Jesus came physically, through the people of Israel. Today, the church still has the task of helping Jesus to be manifested to the world. We do this primarily as Jesus told us, by making disciples. In this we may be opposed. We may become distracted by pleasure, or wealth, or power. But if we trust the Father of our hearts, He will show us that He alone has everything we need, and no enemy can defeat him.

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Revelation #25  Revelation 12:1-6

We have come to the fourth section of the book of Revelation. Although it isn’t quite as clear as it is with the seals, bowls, and trumpets, this section is also made up of seven sub-parts: the seven significant signs. Last time, I pointed out that in the second major section (the seals), Revelation describes all of history, in broad strokes. Parts two (the seven seals), four (the seven signs; the section we are now studying), and six (the seven-part victory of Jesus) all do this same thing in one way or another. However, the main focus for the seven seals was on the earlier history, the era before the beginning of the “end times.” The main focus of part six (the seven-part victory of Jesus) is on the end of history and the new heavens and the new earth. Here in part four, the focus seems to be fairly balanced between beginning, middle, and end.

So, as we go forward we will see that this section backs up all the way to the great war in heaven between Satan and God’s angels, which, we assume, took place before the beginning of human history. We move quickly from there to the birth of Jesus, and then to the persecution of the church, and the spiritual war as it is played out on earth, ending once more with the final victory of Jesus, which, obviously, is still to come.

Before we plunge in, remember the first readers of Revelation. They were marginalized and shamed by their culture. Many of them were persecuted; many had lost property, and a few had lost their lives for Jesus. They were wondering if God remembered them; they were wondering if he really was coming back, if he really was going to make everything right.

Particularly significant for Revelation chapter 12, four of those original churches were dealing with significant spiritual warfare. Jesus told the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia that they were dealing with “synagogues of Satan (Rev. 2:9 & 3:9);” that is, people who had given themselves over completely to rebellion against God, people who had become deeply influenced by the devil himself. I’m sure it also implies that some people there were possessed/oppressed by demons, and that there was opposition to the Christians in the spiritual dimension of life. Pergamum was called the place “where Satan’s throne is (Rev. 3:13),” which probably involved the same sort of spiritual warfare. In Thyatira, people were dabbling in the occult – “the deep things of Satan (Rev. 2:24),” which, again would result in both physical and spiritual opposition to those Christians. For these folks, the devil was a very real and present enemy.

With all that in mind, let’s begin with the first sign:

1A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 stars on her head. 2She was pregnant and cried out in labor and agony as she was about to give birth.

 Virtually all of the “early church fathers” (who lived from the mid-200s AD to about 800) saw this woman as representing the church. If we go with this idea, the crown of twelve stars represents the twelve apostles. The fact that she is “clothed with sun” is just a way of describing the righteousness that Jesus Christ has given to his people, the church. Some people think the moon under her feet represent heretics, which the church, in her purity, defeats. They are under her feet to show victory.

In modern times, it has become more popular to interpret the woman as representing the people of Israel. If this is the case, the 12 stars represent the 12 tribes. There are both problems and advantages to both interpretations. I think it is probably best to simply say that this represents, in general, the people of God throughout history, whether the faithful in ancient Israel, or those who truly follow Jesus throughout all of history since his death and resurrection.

The woman is pregnant, and about to give birth. In the first place, she gives birth to the Messiah (more about that later). In addition, if you think about it, the church is always in labor, always trying to see Jesus Christ “birthed” inside every human heart. Jesus talked about being born again:

3Jesus replied, “I assure you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4“But how can anyone be born when he is old? ” Nicodemus asked Him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born? ” 5Jesus answered, “I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. 8The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:3-8, HCSB)

So, although the main picture here is about the coming of Jesus into the world, there is an ongoing sense in which the church is continually in labor for Christ; that is to see him born in the lives of new disciples.

The text continues:

3Then another sign appeared in heaven: There was a great fiery red dragon having seven heads and 10 horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. 4His tail swept away a third of the stars in heaven and hurled them to the earth. And the dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she did give birth he might devour her child. (Rev 12:3-4)

 The Dragon is described in greater detail in the next sign (the war in heaven). There, he is clearly named: “the ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan.” In our verses here, we see that he has seven heads, and ten horns and seven crowns (diadems) on his heads. Once again, this is not a description of the physical appearance of the devil. Instead, this description symbolizes certain spiritual truths about him. Most commentators think the red color shows that the devil is murderous. In fact, Jesus said as much:

44You are of your father the Devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and has not stood in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks from his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of liars. (John 8:44, HCSB)

In addition, the form of Satan (the dragon) shows that he is trying to be like God. That is what the devil wanted from the very beginning. He tempted Eve with that very thing:

5“In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:5, HCSB)

Isaiah describes the devil in Isaiah chapter 14:12-15. One of his characteristics is that he wants to be like God; in fact, he wants to replace God with himself:

12“How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! 13You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; 14I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ 15​But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit. (Isa 14:12-15, ESV2011)

The Apostle Paul also mentions that the devil tries to impersonate God, or God’s servants:

14And no wonder! For Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15So it is no great thing if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their destiny will be according to their works. (2Cor 11:14-15, HCSB)

So, do you remember that the Holy Spirit, in the book of Revelation, is represented by “seven spirits?” Here, the devil is trying to set himself up as God – with seven heads, to mimic the sevenfold Spirit of God. He has seven crowns on his heads. The crowns (sometimes called “diadems”) show that the devil claims to be a ruler – again, in opposition to, and imitation of, God, the ultimate ruler. This dragon also has seven horns.  A horn, in Bible times, represents strength. So ten horns means “a lot of strength.” Satan is trying to imitate the strength of God.

Many of the early church writers thought that the “fallen stars” represented heretics: those who were in the church, but through heresy, have fallen away. Many modern commentators, however, believe that when it says “his tail swept a third of the stars from the sky,” it means about a third of the angels in Heaven followed him. Those “fallen angels” who followed the dragon are the same beings that we call demons today. The following scriptures seem to suggest this interpretation:

4For if God didn’t spare the angels who sinned but threw them down into Tartarus and delivered them to be kept in chains of darkness until judgment… (2Pet 2:4, HCSB)

 6And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.  (Jude 1:6, ESV2011)

Our text for this time goes on:

5But she gave birth to a Son — a male who is going to shepherd all nations with an iron scepter — and her child was caught up to God and to His throne.

 I think we can safely say that the child is meant to represent Jesus. One reason we can know that is because he “is going to shepherd all nations with an iron scepter.” The concept of “an iron scepter” was associated with the Messiah for a long time. Psalm 2 was considered by the Jews to be in part, a prophecy about the coming Messiah. Needless to say, Christians agree. In that psalm it says that the Messiah (Jesus) will use “an iron scepter.”

8​​​​​​​Ask me, ​​​​​​and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, ​​​​​​the ends of the earth as your personal property. 9​​​​​​​You will break them with an iron scepter; ​​​​​​you will smash them like a potter’s jar!’” (Ps 2:8-9, NET)

And here in the book of Revelation, John writes this:

26The one who is victorious and keeps My works to the end: I will give him authority over the nations — 27and he will shepherd them with an iron scepter; he will shatter them like pottery — just as I have received this from My Father. (Rev 2:26-27, HCSB)

So, Jesus promises his followers that they will share in his ruling, mentioning that the iron scepter is part of what he has received from the Father. Later on in Revelation, we have yet one more picture of Jesus using an “iron scepter.”

11Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse. Its rider is called Faithful and True, and He judges and makes war in righteousness. 12His eyes were like a fiery flame, and many crowns were on His head. He had a name written that no one knows except Himself. 13He wore a robe stained with blood, and His name is the Word of God. 14The armies that were in heaven followed Him on white horses, wearing pure white linen. 15A sharp sword came from His mouth, so that He might strike the nations with it. He will shepherd them with an iron scepter. He will also trample the winepress of the fierce anger of God, the Almighty. (Rev 19:11-15, HCSB)

The point of all this is not the iron scepter itself. It is that the iron scepter in our text today means that the child represents Jesus. This is also confirmed when we see that he is caught up not only to God, but also to His Throne. The first readers of Revelation would have connected this with the promise in chapter 2:26-27, which I just mentioned above. It  would have reminded them to continue to persevere.

Finally, the text concludes like this:

6The woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared by God, to be fed there for 1,260 days. (Rev 12:1-6, HCSB)

This part is harder to interpret. As I said before, 1,260 days means, symbolically, half of God’s perfect amount of time. Many people believe that these tribulations about which Revelation speaks will last for exactly seven years. I think the number seven is symbolic, not literal. It could be however, that this is a repetition of the idea from chapter 11, that for half of the tribulations of the end times, the church will be kept safe and protected, and the other half of the time, God will allow it to be “conquered” physically (but not spiritually). The fact that she goes to the wilderness, where she is nourished by God probably indicates that the church is dependent on God, having no other resources. This certainly would have been true for those first Christians, who had no social standing or political power.

Let’s look for some applications for us today. First, I think it is worth remembering how God sees his people. The picture we have is of a woman, shining like the sun, adorned by the stars and moon. When giving instructions to husbands, Paul writes about what Jesus has done for the church:

25Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph 5:25-27, ESV2011)

Because of the work of Jesus, this is how God sees us: shining like the sun, full of splendor, without spot or wrinkle, holy, without blemish. Yes, we still need to repent of the works of the flesh. Yes, we still need to walk closely with Jesus. But understand that Jesus has fully and completely cleansed us, and in God’s eyes, his people are beautiful. We may be ignored by the culture around us, or even scorned and shamed. But in the eyes of our Lord, we are shining like the sun. We can lift up our heads, no matter what other people think of us.

Second, God’s people are in the business of bringing Jesus Christ into the world. Jesus came physically, through the people of Israel. Today, the church still has the task of helping Jesus to be manifested to the world. We do this primarily as Jesus told us, by making disciples.

Third, the devil opposes such work. He waits to devour and destroy. It may seem hard to manifest Jesus to the world. It may feel like everything is falling apart, and we will fail in our task. Yet, we, the church are protected and nurtured by our God. We should not try to rely on money, status or worldly influence. Our only resource is God, and he is more than enough to defeat the devil and sustain us until it is time to be with him forever.

Listen to what the Spirit says to you today!

Revelation #17 WAR, FAMINE, DISEASE & DEATH: IN ALL THINGS, GOD IS IN CONTROL

4 H-Men

You need not fear the terror of night, or the arrows of war, or the plagues. God is in control of history. He is using the sinful and horrible works of humankind to bring about his purposes. In the simplest possible terms, God is putting things right. Even the sorts of things that make us think God is not paying attention are, in fact, being used to prepare the world for the end of the old, broken, sinful order and the beginning of the new, joyful, perfect order.

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Revelation #17.  Revelation 6:3-17

I want to clarify a few things. My best guess about the seven seals (or, rather, the first six) is that they do not represent God’s final plan to bring history to its fulfillment, but rather, they show us what it will be like in the era before the true “end times.” Some people might even say that we are already living in the days of the first five seals, and have been since the time that Revelation was written. I think that idea might be the correct one.

To recap what we covered last time: The seals begin (I think) with the gospel being carried into all the world, to every distinct linguistic/cultural group. I think this shows us that God is merciful. The terrible judgments which are coming will arrive only after every “tribe of people” has had a chance to repent and receive Jesus. This reminds me of what Peter wrote about the coming of the end of the world:

6Through these waters the world of that time perished when it was flooded. 7But by the same word, the present heavens and earth are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

 8Dear friends, don’t let this one thing escape you: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. 9The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.

 10But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that day the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed.

 11Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, it is clear what sort of people you should be in holy conduct and godliness 12as you wait for and earnestly desire the coming of the day of God. The heavens will be on fire and be dissolved because of it, and the elements will melt with the heat. 13But based on His promise, we wait for the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell. (2Pet 3:6-13, HCSB)

Peter is describing what John sees in Revelation. God is patient. The White Horse of the gospel must go into the entire world, because God does not want anyone to perish. He withholds judgment, in order that more people might be saved. But once all peoples have had an opportunity to repent, judgment begins. Even that judgment, however, culminates in the promise of a New Heavens and New Earth.

We must remember that all of what follows in Revelation is enacted as part of God’s plan. This can be a challenging idea, because the plan enacted by God involves disaster, war, injustice, bloodshed and death. How can these terrible things be part of God’s plan? How could a good, loving God inflict this upon the world he claims to love?

I think the best answer is found in the cross of Jesus Christ. Surely, God did not actually want Jesus to feel pain. Surely, he wasn’t happy that Jesus suffered. The Jewish leaders and the Romans committed many sins when they put Jesus on the cross: lying, selfishness, lust for power, and murder. Based upon the rest of the Bible, we know for certain that God did not want them to sin this way. And yet, it was God’s will to save those who put their trust in Jesus. It was his will to use the suffering and death of Jesus as the way to save us.

So you see you have two varieties of God’s will. There is God’s perfect, or ideal will. He doesn’t want anyone to suffer. He doesn’t want anyone to sin. But there is also God’s practical will. Practically speaking, God allows things that are conflict with his ideal will, but only in order to ultimately accomplish that ideal will. So, although the suffering of Jesus was not his ideal will, he allowed it, practically speaking, in order that his ideal will could be accomplished, and all people could be saved through Jesus. Now, this does not mean that he endorses sin, or that he is happy to see people suffering. It simply means that he is in total control of the universe, and even when it seems that He is being thwarted, He is actually working to accomplish His purposes. John Piper puts it like this:

For example, the death of Christ was the will and work of God the Father. Isaiah writes, “We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God.… It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (53:4, 10). Yet surely, as God the Father saw the agony of His beloved Son and the wickedness that brought Him to the cross, He did not delight in those things in themselves (viewed through the narrow lens). Sin in itself, and the suffering of the innocent, is abhorrent to God.

Nevertheless, according to Hebrews 2:10, God the Father thought it was fitting to perfect the Pioneer of our salvation through suffering. God willed what He abhorred. He abhorred it in the narrow-lens view, but not in the wide-angle view of eternity. When the universality of things was considered, the death of the Son of God was seen by the Father as a magnificent way to demonstrate His righteousness (Romans 3:25–26) and bring His people to glory (Hebrews 2:10) and keep the angels praising Him forever and ever (Revelation 5:9–13).

Therefore, when I say that the sovereignty of God is the foundation of His happiness, I do not ignore or minimize the anger and grief God can express against evil. But neither do I infer from this wrath and sorrow that God is a frustrated God who cannot keep His creation under control. He has designed from all eternity, and is infallibly forming with every event, a magnificent mosaic of redemptive history. The contemplation of this mosaic (with both its dark and bright tiles) fills His heart with joy.

Therefore we should keep in mind that these things unleashed by the seals are under the control of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Much of this looks like chaos; the results of most of these seals look like bad things. However, God is in control. He himself initiates the breaking of the seals. The things that are unleashed upon the world have only as much power as God permits them to have.

So, in our text, next, comes the red horse of War. For most of human history, war has existed on the earth. However, I think the red horse tells us that God will make use of war to bring people to repentance and faith in Jesus. We have a present-day example of this, happening right now.

In the middle-east, the group ISIS has created terror, war, and civil war. This has led hundreds of thousands of people to flee toward Europe. Those who have entered Europe are disillusioned with Islam, and interested in a different way to have a civil society. They have begun to flock to European Christian churches, asking about Christianity. Thousands of Muslims have become Christians as a result.

Surely, it is not God’s will that ISIS kills and persecutes people, or that Syrians fight each other in civil war. Yet, God knew that they would do so, and he has made use of the situation to bring thousands of Muslims to faith in Jesus Christ.

I believe the red horse is talking about exactly these sorts of things. War is the result of human sin. But God will allow some of it in order to fulfill his ultimate plan, a plan that includes the abolishment of war. As I said earlier, it may be that we are in the time of the first five seals right now. The wars of the twentieth century were certainly unprecedented in human history in terms of destruction and death. War will mark human history until the end.

The third horse, the black one, might be a bit confusing at first:

The horseman on it had a set of scales in his hand. 6 Then I heard something like a voice among the four living creatures say, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius — but do not harm the olive oil and the wine.”

The horseman is calling out prices for food. A “quart of wheat” was about the amount needed to feed a person for one day. A denarius is the amount of money a common laborer would make in one day. These sorts of prices would mean that it takes everything a person could earn just to buy enough of the cheapest food to feed a family. Therefore, the black horse indicates a time of great economic hardship and/or famine. Oil and wine were also considered basic necessities, but these were not to be touched. Therefore, the hardship that is described here though severe, is not entirely catastrophic. People would survive, though not comfortably.

Once more, we have seen famines and food shortages all over the world throughout history. This could mean that we are in “the time of the seals,” already, or it could be that as the end approaches, the economic hardship becomes more severe and widespread throughout the world. I tend toward the first interpretation, again, trusting that God is using these things to get people to repent and listen to him.

The fourth horseman is “pale,” or sometimes “green.” I think what John is trying to describe is the color of a corpse. The name of the horseman is “Death,” but it is not death in general. The text specifies that this seal has authority to kill one quarter of the earth by means of violence (the sword); famine, plague and wild animals. Death, naturally, goes along with war and famine.

The fifth seal reveals the souls of the martyrs: those who have been killed because they trusted in Jesus, and would not deny him or give up their faith. By the way, some translations have it “the people who had been killed…” I think the best way to translate it would be “the souls who had been slaughtered…” This is one reason that I believe Christians have a kind of consciousness after death, even before the final resurrection. This is one of several places in the Bible that seems to indicate that Christians, after they die, are with the Lord spiritually, but are still waiting for their resurrected bodies.

The cry of these martyrs affirms what I’ve been saying about the seals. They want God to execute his plan for the final judgment. That means that these seals are a good thing. They are told to wait until the full number of Christians who will die for Jesus is completed. That implies that the gospel must first go out into all the world, particularly into places where it is not welcome.

The sixth seal is problematic if we are trying to impose a strict and specific time-line on Revelation, because it looks like nothing less than the end of the world. Many of the Old Testament prophets use the sort of language found here in Revelation 6:12-17 to describe “the day of Lord” which is typically seen as the end of the world (Joel 2:31, 3:15; Isaiah 13:9-10; Jeremiah 4:23-28).

Obviously, the language is very figurative. Clearly, if the sun “blacked out” for even a little while, all life on earth would cease. If the sky was “rolled up as a scroll” presumably the atmosphere would be gone, and consequently so would all terrestrial life. If every mountain was moved from its place, how is it that the people go hide in the mountains?

I want to point out also that the people are terrified by the wrath of “the one seated on the throne, and of the lamb.” In other words, it isn’t the world falling apart that scares them, it is that they are confronted with a holy and righteous God. They are confronted with God’s righteous judgment, and it terrifies them. This indicates that the people affected by this are not the people of God.

It appears then, that the sixth seal introduces the end of the world in general terms. The real point is, of course, that God is following through on his promise to the martyrs – he is judging the world and bringing things to an end. The time frame in relation to other events in Revelation is not explicitly spelled out.

So where does this leave us? First, I think we should recognize that even when it is difficult to understand what God is doing, he is actively working for His people. There will be justice. He will put things right. As I said a few weeks ago, he works all things to the good for his purposes and his people (Romans 8:28). As I read this part of Revelation, I am also reminded of Psalm 91:

1 The one who lives under the protection of the * Most High

dwells in the shadow of the * Almighty.

 2 I will say1  to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,

my God, in whom I trust.”

 3 He Himself will deliver you from the hunter’s net,

from the destructive plague.

 4 He will cover you with His feathers;

you will take refuge under His wings.

His faithfulness will be a protective shield.

 5 You will not fear the terror of the night,

the arrow that flies by day,

 6 the plague that stalks in darkness,

or the pestilence that ravages at noon.

 7 Though a thousand fall at your side

and ten thousand at your right hand,

the pestilence will not reach you.

 8 You will only see it with your eyes

and witness the punishment of the wicked.

You need not fear the terror of night, or the arrows of war, or the plagues. God is in control of history. He is using the sinful and horrible works of humankind to bring about his purposes. In the simplest possible terms, God is putting things right. Even the sorts of things that make us think God is not paying attention are, in fact, being used to prepare the world for the end of the old, broken, sinful order and the beginning of the new, joyful, perfect order.

Revelation #13 The Poor, Wealthy Church

RG.jpg

The point of repentance is not to get you to try harder. True Biblical repentance means you give up on yourself. You are saying, “I can’t do it, Lord. I don’t have what it takes. My only hope is your mercy.” You turn away from trying to fix things in your own strength, and throw yourself entirely on the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. You are abandoning all hope apart from Jesus, including the hope of making yourself better. If you are to become a better person, Jesus will have to make it happen within you. Your job is simply to trust him to do it.

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Revelation #13. Revelation 3:14-22

I bet this has happened to you. About a week ago, I got myself a cup of coffee, brought it to my office, and resumed work. I spent quite a while on the phone, and then got involved in some interesting study, and my coffee sat on my desk forgotten. While I was photocopying some materials, I remembered it, and reached down to my desk to take a sip. It was tepid and lukewarm, and as many of you know, lukewarm coffee is worse than no coffee at all. I could barely restrain myself from spraying it out of my mouth all over the room. I took the rest of the cup and dumped it out.

Unfortunately, this is how Jesus expresses the spiritual condition of the church at Laodicea. They are lukewarm. This picture stands in contrast to the outward appearance of the city. Laodicea was a very wealthy town, boasting an affluent society. It was a center of banking, and was also known for its fine black wool that was used to produce expensive clothing and carpets. There was a medical school in Laodicea that was famous for its “Phrygian powder” which was used to make a notoriously effective salve for healing people’s eyes. There appeared to be neither outward persecution nor inward strife in the church in Laodicea (in this way it was very similar to Sardis). All in all, those addressed by this letter were very comfortable and well off compared to many of the other cities  in this section of Revelation.

If I had to pick just one of the seven letters that most closely reflects the general state of Christianity in America today, it would be this letter, the message to Laodicea. Of course, I do not mean that all Christians in America today are like the Laodicean Christians. And not all churches are like the Laodicean church. But if we were to generalize about Christianity in the United States in the year 2017, it looks (in general) a lot more like the Laodicean church than any of the other churches found in the seven letters.

The Laodiceans were comfortable, in fact wealthy and well off. While some of us in America may not feel like we are well off compared to our friends and neighbors, the truth is that a poor American is wealthier than 85% of the rest of the world. If you are an American – no matter how your income compares to other Americans – you are among the richest 15% in the world. This is fact. If you were to take a trip to any third world country, and see how most of the people actually live, you would come back knowing beyond a shadow of doubt that you are comfortable. Also like Laodicea, our nation is famous for its wealth, its lifestyle and its achievements.

And unfortunately, also like the Laodiceans, our Christians and Churches tend to be comfortable, placid, and lukewarm. Many of us have settled into an easy routine of going about our own business, and doing the “God thing” once a week (twice a week for the really committed). We have our wealth, and we like it (though we don’t call it “wealth” – we call it “comfortable” or “normal”) and quite frankly, we do not need Jesus terribly much. Our faith is a nice part of our weekly routine, and it gives us a sort of satisfaction, but if we let it dominate our thinking, our decisions and our very lives – well it would be – uncomfortable. The truth is, for many who call themselves Christians, Christianity is not the thing, it is just one thing among many other things that need their attention. Rather than informing all their decisions and determining the direction of their lives, faith, for lukewarm Christians, is merely one aspect of a very full and busy life.

It’s interesting that new converts often find this surprising and disturbing about Christianity in America. Francis Chan is a well-known pastor in San Francisco. He tells about a young gang member who became a Christian. The young man seemed very excited about Jesus. After a few months, however, he quit coming to church. Chan went and found him, and asked why he quit. The former gang member said something like this: “When I was in the gang, all of life centered around the gang. We did everything together. Everything was about what was going on with the gang. I thought being a Christian was going to be like that. But people at your church just come on Sundays, and the rest of life they just go do their own thing.”

There are other converts with similar criticisms of American Churches, and I think they are spot-on. All of life is supposed to be centered around Jesus. Instead, many millions of people call themselves Christians, but, for the most part, Jesus occupies their time and attention for only part of one or two days each week.

This is precisely where the Laodicean Christians found themselves. Like the church in Sardis, they didn’t want to get all charged up about Jesus and cause a stir. Life was fine, and frankly there was so much else to do. Didn’t they need to balance their faith with their other priorities? They had Jesus and _____. Perhaps it was Jesus and the business. Or Jesus and the career. Or Jesus and entertainment. Simply fill in the blank with whatever seems appropriate. I’m sure Jesus was welcome, but he needed to remember to keep his place among all the other things that were going on in their lives.

And that made Jesus want to vomit. That is in fact the literal meaning of the term that is translated as “spit you out (verse 16)” – vomit. Just as the instinctive reaction to lukewarm coffee is to spit it out, so Jesus’ first reaction to lukewarm Christianity is to vomit. A person who has just enough of Christianity to be blasé about it is in the worst position possible, spiritually speaking. Such a person thinks he has the truth, and so will not continue to search, and yet he will not surrender to the truth to the point that it saves him. As with coffee, a lukewarm Christian is worse than one who is not a Christian at all. This is not a new concept in the Bible. Jesus told his disciples that they were to be the salt of the earth. Then he adds:

“But if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” (Matthew 5:13)

Another one I’ve quoted many times:

37The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. 39Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matt 10:37-39, HCSB)

Christianity in Laodicea was losing its “salty” flavor. It did not look, feel or sound any different from the culture around it. The Christians there were losing their ability to make an impact on the world around them because they were becoming just like the world around them. Oh, I believe they remained morally straight, and outwardly righteous. But their lives were slipping under the control of the same passions and drives that controlled every other person in Laodicea. They were living not for Jesus, but for the same things that the culture was living for – comfort, fame, riches and so on.

The good news is, their condition was not beyond hope. If they had already slipped past the point of no return, Jesus would not have sent this message to them. But he speaks in the strongest possible words in order to draw their attention to the fact that they are in imminent danger of spiritual death. They still have time, but not much, and that is why he uses such vivid language.

First, he draws attention to their true condition. Their true spiritual condition is the opposite of their outward circumstances. They are not wealthy in Jesus – spiritually speaking, they are impoverished beggars (contrast this to those in Smyrna, chapter 2:8-11). They are not clothed in the rich black wool of their city – they are naked and painfully, humiliatingly exposed in the spiritual realm. While their city is famous for eye salve, they remain spiritually blind, in need of not their own salve, but of Jesus’ restorative salve to let them see the truth.

The remedies they need are all provided by Jesus. He has gold, refined in the fire – true spiritual riches that will not be destroyed when the world comes to an end. He has the white robe of righteousness to clothe them with; signifying that their sins are wiped away and they are new creations in him. He has the truth which will destroy their blindness to their own condition and to the things which are truly important.

And what they need to do to receive these remedies is repent.

This concept is absolutely vital for Christians today. The key to restoring spiritual fervor is repentance. In Psalm 51 King David recognized that the joy of salvation returns only with repentance. So with the Laodiceans, when he wants to “heat them up” (as opposed to leaving them lukewarm) Jesus commands that they repent. There are times when he also commands us to repent. He supplies the rest of what we need, but we need to open the door to him by turning away from the things that distract us – not only asking for forgiveness, but asking for the willingness and the power to never turn back to the things which come between us and Jesus.

The older I get, the more convinced I am that the key issue in repentance is to give up our own self. We need to forsake our right to rule our own lives, and let Jesus lead us. We need to surrender our need to control our own lives, or the lives of others. We need to submit our own hopes, dreams, desires and ‘rights’ to the control of Jesus. We need to seek only Jesus, and let him give us these other things as he chooses (or not). You might picture it as taking yourself off of the throne of your own life, and letting Jesus (and nothing else) have that throne. You are abdicating your own personal kingdom to him.

Now, I want to make sure we understand something vitally important. The point of repentance is not to get you to try harder. True Biblical repentance means you give up on yourself. You are saying, “I can’t do it, Lord. I don’t have what it takes. My only hope is your mercy.” You turn away from trying to fix things in your own strength, and throw yourself entirely on the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. You are abandoning all hope apart from Jesus, including the hope of making yourself better. If you are to become a better person, Jesus will have to make it happen within you. Your job is simply to trust him to do it.

This command to repent begins a section where Jesus offers hope. He says “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline (v.19).” His harsh words were not simply because he was angry – he is worried about his people in Laodicea, and he comes to them with such strong correction because he loves them and does not want to see them fall away. In Hebrews, it says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” (Hebrews 12:6).

In addition to giving discipline, Jesus offers an invitation:

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with me.” (3:20).

This verse is of course often used when making an appeal to those who don’t know Jesus. In context however, we see that it is call for those who are already Christians to repent. In the ancient world, dining together represented affection, warmth and intimacy – in short, a good relationship. This is the promise Jesus offers when we repent – he will restore our relationship with himself to a level of closeness and intimacy.

The essence of repentance, as I have said, is giving up self. It is taking self off of the throne of your own life. Jesus promises that the one who repents, paradoxically, will conquer, and once Jesus sits on the throne, he also grants that we will sit with him on his throne. In other words, though it is difficult and sometimes painful, ultimately, we do not lose by putting Jesus on the throne of our life.

What is the Spirit saying to you today? I encourage you to take time to listen, pray, and act on what He says.

Revelation #11 THE LAZY CHURCH

Lazy Church

Sardis was one of the two worst churches to which Revelation was written. Jesus literally has nothing good to say about them. What was their offense? Were they pursuing some particularly bad heresy? Were they pressured by the culture into some terrible compromise? No. In the eyes of Jesus, what made them so bad was that they simply didn’t care very much. Even though they looked good on the outside, on the inside, the truth was that the gospel meant very little to them, and they were spiritually dead.

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Revelation #11. Revelation 3:1-7

Just as Smyrna was one of only two churches whom Jesus does not rebuke, Sardis is one of only two churches whom Jesus does not praise for anything (Laodicea is the other one). Situated at the crossroads of five major highways, Sardis was a wealthy commercial center. Perhaps because of this easy wealth, the citizens of Sardis gained a reputation for a certain kind of laxity. The city itself was built on a hill so steep that it was considered by its residents to be an impregnable fortress. However, twice during its long history Sardis was captured by enemies (in 549 B.C. by Cyrus the Persian, and in 281 B.C. by the Greek ruler, Antiochus). Both times, enemy troops scaled the precipice by night and found that the lax Sardians had not even posted a guard. That it happened even once is amazing; that the Sardians failed to learn from history and allowed it to happen again, borders on the incredible. There was, it seemed, something about the culture of the city that lent itself to comfortable, luxurious lassitude.

This cultural characteristic of laxity had evidently penetrated the community of Christian believers in Sardis. There was a apparently no serious persecution of Christians in Sardis, by either Romans or Jews. While at one level this may sound like a good thing, perhaps the reason they were left alone is because they had become so much like the culture around them that there was no need to persecute them. Unlike the churches in Thyatira and Pergamum, there did not appear to be any particular cults leading them astray – they simply drifted through a mediocre faith. As one commentator puts it:

“Content with mediocrity, lacking both the enthusiasm to entertain a heresy and the depth of conviction which provokes intolerance, it was too innocuous to be worth persecuting.”

In other words, they weren’t interested enough in faith to be heretics, and they were so low-key about their convictions that the culture around them didn’t even notice them as particularly different.

Jesus wants to light a fire under these half-dead Christians. He reveals himself as “He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars…” Remember that the number seven in Revelation represents the complete and full work of God. As I mentioned in the second message in this series, the “seven spirits of God” really means God’s perfect work, plan, and will accomplished by the Holy Spirit in this world. The church at Sardis is not perfect or complete. They are so incomplete that they are almost spiritually dead. So, by highlighting the “seven spirits of God,” Jesus is showing a contrast between this church, and the Holy Spirit. What they desperately need is the work of the sevenfold spirit of God.

So, without any kind of praise for them, Jesus starts in on the problems of the Sardian Christians. He minces no words. “You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of my God (v1-2).” The term used for “wake up” is actually “keep watch” or “be alert.” I believe Jesus chose this word carefully to call to mind for the Sardians what happened to their city in the past when those defending it were not alert. This parallel is drawn further when he adds, “If therefore you will not wake up I will come like a thief and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you (v. 3).” With the story of the city’s defeat so well-known and readily available, Jesus makes use of it to warn these straying Christians. On the outside they appear secure, like the fortress of Sardis. But inside they are vulnerable to death and destruction. What happened to the city physically will happen to them spiritually unless something changes.

It’s surprising to me that this is one of the two worst churches of the seven (only this, and the Laodicean church have nothing for which Jesus praises them). Their offense isn’t some great heresy. They aren’t pounded by persecution. They’re just…spiritually lazy. They don’t care that much. And that makes them one of the worst offenders in Jesus’ eyes.

The Christians at Sardis were the ultimate hypocrites. They had a reputation for life, but were in reality dead. What was seen on the outside did not reflect the truth of the inside. I believe that their condition, and Jesus’ response to it, demonstrate an important truth of the Christian life. God wants us to be real with him (and as a result, real with each other also). True relationship has to be based on truth. To whatever extent that we put out false fronts or facades, we are not in real relationship with God and others. Although God knows everything and can see through our “fronts,” a right relationship with him is not possible until we are honest with ourselves and with him about who we really are. David writes in Psalm 51:

“Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and will be clean; wash me and I will be whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:6-7)”

Sometimes we do not want to deal with what is in our “inner parts” but if we are secretly holding on to sin there, we need to own up to it so Jesus can cleanse it. Jesus refers to the Sardians who were not honest about the state of their “inner parts” as those who have “soiled their garments (v 4).” God wants our heart, and he knows when he does not have it. No matter how good we may look to others, God knows the truth about our hearts. No matter how hard we try to keep up appearances, God wants honesty about the real state of our souls. No true cleansing or healing can come without it. Many people desire health and wholeness without going through the pain of owning up honestly to the state of their hearts. Jesus knows better. It is only when we acknowledge brokenness that it can be cleansed and healed.

So he says to these superficial Christians at Sardis: “Remember therefore what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent.” What is it that they had seen and heard? Nothing less than the good news:

“If we claim to have fellowship with him, yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth…If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:6, 8-9).”

He wants them to remember that salvation is based on truth, that everyone is helpless without Jesus – that no one is righteous apart from him. They need to be refilled with the joy of salvation. He also wants them to remember the words of James:

“What good is it brothers if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? …In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. …Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by what I do. (James 2:14,17,18)”

Good deeds cannot earn salvation of course, but the genuineness of salvation is tested in actions. If a person is truly connected to God, good deeds will result. True salvation does not excuse us from good deeds – instead it motivates us to do them in response to God’s love. The Sardian Christians needed to remember this, and to therefore “keep” it as well. If we truly know the word of God, and believe it, it will change how we live. If it doesn’t, we are in danger of spiritual death.

Finally, Jesus calls the Christians at Sardis to repent. Repentance goes beyond mere confession. In confession, we acknowledge our sin. In repentance, we turn away from it. Of course we cannot turn aside from sin without the help of the Holy Spirit, but repentance is simply the expression of our desire and will – with God’s help – to change course from our sinful ways. As always, God simply needs our willingness and he will supply the power.

The church is nearly dead. It’s interesting that this isn’t about the number of people worshipping. It is about the fact that most of those who claim to be in the church are spiritually in a coma, almost dead. But Jesus makes a promise to those who are alive, and who have not “defiled their clothes.” He says that these believers who have remained faithful will “walk with me in White.” I think this might be more clearly translated as “Walk with me, the one who wears white,” because he adds: “in the same way, the victor will be dressed in white clothes.” The white clothes symbolized holiness and purity. Even though these believers are in the midst of people who have defiled themselves, Jesus knows that these few have remained faithful, and they have been given His own purity and holiness.

He also says, “I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name before My Father  and before His angels.” The book of life is found in Revelation chapter 21. If your name is in the book, you receive eternal life in the New Heavens and New Earth. If not, you go into the lake of fire.

I think it is probably that many of the so-called Christians in Sardis were shy about publicly acknowledging Jesus. They weren’t persecuted, but perhaps being open about Jesus meant that you would lose social respect and standing. Talking about Jesus in public might be equivalent to talking about certain bodily functions in public. But to those few that publicly claimed Jesus, Jesus would publicly claim them.

Where does all this hit you? I don’t have a pre-conceived notion, because I don’t even know all of you who read this blog. I’ll just offer some possible applications.

Do you need to wake up spiritually? Are you sort of drifting along, so spiritually innocuous that you don’t offend anyone, so spiritually asleep that you hardly even care? Jesus is offering you a chance to wake up before it is too late. Otherwise, when he returns, it will be too late to have your name written in the book of life, too late to claim Jesus.

Perhaps you are more like me. I don’t think I’m spiritually asleep. But sometimes I get concerned that maybe I am too hard on those I am spiritually concerned about. Jesus is very harsh with these lazy Christians, because he doesn’t want them to be eternally destroyed. The way we respond to Jesus is eternally important. In fact, there is nothing more important on this earth than that. Don’t get lulled into thinking otherwise. You cannot place too much importance on how you and your loved ones respond to Jesus.

This is a church that experienced a long period of peace and prosperity – and it almost destroyed them spiritually. Perhaps we need to remember that sometimes the danger is not in persecution, or even heresy, but rather in peace and prosperity, leading us to become lazy, to feel that we don’t really need the Lord in any significant way.

Let those who have ears hear what the Spirit says today!