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We Christians are called to live in this world, and love our fellow Christians, and also those outside the family of faith. But we are also called to be spiritually, morally and ethically different from the world around us. We are not supposed to be absorbed into the culture, but rather, we are to be “salt” and “light” for culture around us. That means we must be radically different from it. It means we cannot be full participants in any worldly culture.

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The whole of Revelation chapter 18 is about the fall of “Babylon.” Remember from last time that “Babylon” is a kind of code word for all world empires, governments, and powers that seduce people away from God, and persecute God’s people.

Verses 1-8 give us an overview of what is going on, and why. Verses 9-10 look at the judgment of Babylon from the perspective of world rulers: the wealthy and elite of ungodly culture. Verses 11-17 give us the perspective of the “business sector,” and verses 18-19 tell us about the working class (those who are not Christians). Verse 20 tells us what God’s people think. Verses 21-24 pronounce the final doom of Babylon.

I want to focus on verses 1-8, because that gives us the entire overview, plus, we get to see some more chiastic structure!

When I was in seminary, my friends and I took several classes from one professor whom we loved dearly, and deeply respected. As a sign of our love and respect, we occasionally gently mocked him by imitation. He was the one who introduced us to the concept of chiastic structure, and it seemed like he was always saying, “Consider this text, you see. The chiastic structure is evident in verses…”

I realize I have become that guy. Once again, I want to point out to you some chiastic structure in the book of Revelation. I fear I deserve any mocking I might get. But in all seriousness, I think that when we look at the structure of chapter 18, verses 1-8, we will be able to understand it much better. Hang with me, because I believe that the Holy Spirit really will speak to you through this text, if you only give Him the chance.

Remember chiastic structure always uses an odd number of points: sometimes three, or five; but in the book of Revelation, it is always found in sevens. Remember, in the introduction to this series, I explained that Revelation is a book of sevens; indeed, it has sevens within sevens. This isn’t some secret code: it is just a way of thinking that was common to the ancient Middle East, particularly, ancient Jews.

Chiastic structure looks like a “V” laid on its side, like this >. The first point is connected to the last. The second is connected to the second-to-last, and so on. The middle point is usually the most important point.

Before we examine these points, let’s remember our context. The first readers of Revelation were either persecuted by their culture, or they were in danger of being seduced by it. Either way, that culture was pagan, they worshiped many gods, and they were offended by the idea of only one true God. Christians were perceived as people who wouldn’t go along with culture, troublemakers. Those first Christians would have rejoiced to hear about the downfall of Babylon. This was very, good news. It meant that God was finally vindicating them, and holding accountable the people who had done evil to them. It was also a warning to those who were in danger of becoming just like the culture around them. The future of that pagan, pluralistic culture is destruction.

Now, let’s see what the text has to say.

  • The first and seventh points (verses 1, and 8, respectively) are about the fall of Babylon. The first part declares that she will indeed be destroyed; the seventh point shows us that she will be destroyed quickly, and that God’s judgment cannot be escaped.
  • As you can see, the second point (verse2) talks about what happens after the judgment: Babylon has become a ghost town, haunted by shades of evil. The fifth point contrasts that with how Babylon was before: she glorified herself and lived in luxury.
  • The third and fifth point (verses 3, and 5-6) talk about the sins of Babylon. The third point describes them, and fifth point shows that she will be held accountable for them.
  • The fourth point is placed in the middle because we are supposed to pay attention to it. That is the point where I want to spend the majority of our time today.

This “main point” is verse four:

4Then I heard another voice from heaven: Come out of her, My people, so that you will not share in her sins or receive any of her plagues. (Rev 18:4, HCSB)

It is only logical to assume that every culture that ever exists will be ungodly, at least in some respects, because it is formed by fallen human beings. But some are worse than others. In the culture of Western Civilization (Europe, America, New Zealand & Australia) we are moving farther and farther away from Biblical principles. (This is not true, by the way in Africa, and certain parts of Asia). At one time, it was possible to be a meaningful participant in mainstream Western culture, and also to be a true Christian, holding on to Biblical principles and values.

I believe that is no longer true.

Now, I don’t want to overstate the case, or sound alarmist. Mainstream America, for instance, still honors some values of the Bible, like racial equality, and care for the poor. By the way, those are principles that come originally from the Bible. Some secular people may be surprised to hear that. Christians need to remember that, also.

However, more and more of mainstream culture is contradicting other Biblical truths. Sexual immorality is not only commonplace and accepted, it is truly celebrated. The very idea of absolute moral truth is now mocked. If you believe that some things are always right and some always wrong, many people will think you are narrow-minded and mean-spirited. The same goes if you believe that there is one true God. If you simply state what the Bible says about certain behaviors, mainstream culture calls you a bigot and a hate-monger. In fact, many, many Christian beliefs are now labeled as hate.

The pressure to go along with culture is enormous. Christians are not hate-filled people, any more than the general population, so it hurts to have others think of us that way. Sometimes, it would be easier to pretend that the Bible doesn’t say what it actually says, or to pretend we don’t believe it. From there, it is a very small step to actually not believing the Bible.

The currency of our culture has become media, especially entertainment: Television, Music, Movies, Social media, News outlets, and (though, unfortunately, last and least) books. The vast majority of these kinds of media are pumping out messages that are odds with the truth of the Bible. They celebrate sexual immorality. But our text today tells us that will bring on God’s wrath:

For all the nations have drunk the wine of her sexual immorality, which brings wrath. (Revelation 18:3)

Media, more and more, celebrate violence, especially violence against women. They celebrate heroes who get things done, but whom are people of bad character. The celebrate the pursuit of the self-centered life. We are encouraged to satisfy ourselves, even that hurts others.

The business world has also changed. Greed is considered good in our culture, but that too, is judged as one of Babylon’s sins. The profit motive, which motivates capitalism, is a positive thing. But greed is something else. Greed is never satisfied, nothing is enough. Greed makes a person pursue more, and more, as the all-consuming goal and passion of life. Greed often leads people to cut corners, and to deceive others. I spent three years in the business world. I saw it time and time again: Bosses asking me to deceive clients so we could charge them more; the temptation for myself to allow someone to misunderstand a situation, so that I could personally make more money. The Bible, however, warns many times about greed, and the pursuit of wealth.

9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Timothy 6:9-10)

17 Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. 18 Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, willing to share, 19 storing up for themselves a good reserve for the age to come, so that they may take hold of life that is real. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)

There used to be a myth about putting a frog in a kettle. If you dropped a frog into boiling water, it would jump out immediately. But if you put it in a pot of cool water, and then very, very, slowly increased the temperature it would sit in the pot until it was boiled to death. It turns out that with regard to actual frogs, that isn’t true. But it is a great analogy for Christians. Imagine you were watching television in 1990. Suddenly, due to a weird flux in the space-time continuum, your TV set is now receiving programs from 2018. I am convinced that if that happened, there would outrage, across American culture. People would decry the violence, the immorality, the main characters who are so flawed that they would the bad guys, not the heroes, in 1990.

But the same people who would have been outraged in 1990 are alive today, and they are not outraged. That is because as they culture has changed, so have they. This includes many, many Christians. If we continue to consume media without thinking critically about it, it will change our views. If we let our non-Christian friends and family influence the way we think and live, we will become more like them, and less like Jesus. If we continue to participate in the kinds of things that are culture thinks are normal, we will simply be absorbed into the culture.

That is why our text today says “Come out! So that you will not share in her sins, or receive the judgment that is coming again her.”

So, how do we come out of the culture?

I don’t think there is one easy answer. But there are two basic principles that I believe we desperately need to follow.

The first principle is to make the Bible – God’s Word – a greater influence on our life than any other media. Rather than imitating the “hero” of Breaking Bad, we need to imitate Jesus. Many Christians typically spend hours and hours consuming secular media, and rarely, if ever, read a book by Christian, or listen to Christian music, or watch a show that is compatible with Biblical values. Above all, we need to devote ourselves to taking the truth of the Bible into our hearts. This means making some hard, self-disciplined decisions about what else we read or watch. If, after watching a show, you find yourself in sympathy with a drug dealer, there is a real issue. Can we agree on that? Or have we come too far already to see that this is a problem?

I don’t want to be a legalist, and start making lists about what you can, and cannot watch or read. But can we use some common sense? And can we at least acknowledge that the biggest influence in our lives should be God’s truth, not a television show? If you are going to watch certain shows, can you pause, and make observations about what is in conflict with God’s Word, so that you are aware of it, and can limit how it influences you?

The second principle is to find true Christian community with a small group of people. Your primary place of community should be with people who also value the Word of God, people with whom you can share your life, and with whom you can be strengthened and encouraged in faith.

Neither of these principles is easy. But they are a matter of spiritual life and death. We simply cannot drift along with mainstream culture. It will destroy our faith. Therefore, we need to pursue both these two things – God’s Word, and Christian community – as if our lives depended on it, because they do. Jesus warned about this:

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty again? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on by men. (Matthew 5:13)

If we drift along with culture, we will lose our saltiness, and not only will we be in danger of losing salvation, but we also will fail to help anyone else to find God’s love and grace.

Let me be clear, I’m not talking about moving to monasteries and withdrawing entirely from the world. We Christians are called to live in this world, and love our fellow Christians, and also those outside the family of faith. But we are also called to be spiritually, morally and ethically different from the world around us. We are not supposed to be absorbed into the culture, but rather, we are to be “salt” and “light” for culture around us. That means we must be radically different from it. It means we cannot be full participants in any worldly culture.

Our primary influences need to be God’s Word, and God’s people. If we can live that way, then we will remain in the love of God, and have a chance of influencing others toward Jesus Christ.

Revelation #10 Judgmental Jesus

glowing Jesus

Jesus has some very harsh words for those who claim to be Christians, yet do not repent. He has no trouble being judgmental toward Christians who are tolerant of such people. But He offers strength to those who hold on to Him, and the promise of His own fully satisfying Eternal Presence as compensation for the things we lose in this life by following Him.

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Revelation #10. Revelation 2:18-29

There were two small children who had been giving their mother quite a bit of trouble one day. After numerous battles, accidents and minor emergencies, bed-time arrived at last. The woman finally got them safely installed in their beds (which were in the same room) and sat down to few moments of time for herself. She decided to use the time to “baby” herself, so she donned her old raggedy bathrobe, applied a facial cosmetic mask, and sat down to do her nails. Alas, it was not to be. The children were causing a rumpus in their bedroom. She raced into the room, her hair up in towel, the facial mask still in place, and yelled and screamed and ordered them to be quiet. Shocked, they obeyed, and said they were sorry. As she was leaving the room, the mother heard the younger one whisper to the older, “who was that?”

It may be that this was how the church of Thyatira felt when they got their message from Jesus. Jesus revealed himself to them through what may have been a shocking, unfamiliar image. This is what he “looked like”:

“The Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire and His feet are like burnished bronze (v.18)”

This is the only time that Jesus identifies himself as the “Son of God,” and I think there is no mistake in it. Jesus wants there to be no “ifs” “ands” or “buts” about his authority in Thyatira. His Word is absolute. Not only does he come to them in authority, but he comes in anger. The “eyes like a flame of fire” seem to denote that Jesus is not pleased with what has been happening here. It might be said that his eyes are flashing in anger. And finally, the feet like burnished bronze seem to indicate judgment. He is about to trample under his feet those who oppose him.

Immediately after this terrifying picture of Jesus, He begins, as usual, by praising the Christians at Thyatira for some things: love, faith, service and perseverance. Not only that, but He tells them that He knows that they are doing more now that they were at the beginning – in other words they are growing in love and good deeds. Why then, is Jesus revealing Himself as coming in judgement and anger?

Thyatira was not an important city, like Ephesus, Smyrna or Pergamum. It was not a center of either emperor worship, or pagan religion, although both practices were no doubt common there. Instead, the city was basically a “blue-collar” area, an ancient Pittsburgh or Peoria. Several trade and craftsman guilds had their headquarters in Thyatira, and the city apparently was a center for traded goods. It would be safe to assume that many of the people there belonged to a craftsman guild or some sort of “trade association.” In fact, it would have been difficult to participate in trade or industry without membership in the appropriate guild. In some ways, these guilds might be similar to the labor unions at the height of their power during the middle of the 20th century. If you want a job, you belong to the guild. Period.

The problem, however, was this. These trade guilds regularly held “common meals” which were probably dedicated to some pagan god or other. Many of the Christians felt that they had to participate in these feasts or risk losing their livelihood. We can imagine the sorts of rationalization that would be employed. Idols and pagan deities are not real gods, some would argue, so the Christian should be able to attend without compromising his commitment to the one true God. There was an additional complication, however, in that many of these feasts often ended in drunkenness and people having sex indiscriminately. There was a lot at stake in Thyatira, since non-participation in these immoral idol-feasts could result in the loss of a way to make a living. I have to say that I myself as a pastor would have difficulty firmly telling people that they should take action that would probably result in a financial crisis for them. I don’t imagine it was any easier for the church leaders in Thyatira.

In addition to this pressure from the culture, there was also a problem within the Christian community. There was a well-known woman there who taught that is was OK for Christians to participate in idol worship and sexual immorality. Apparently, she even encouraged it. She claimed to be a “Prophetess,” to speak for God. Jesus, however, calls her “Jezebel.” I highly doubt that Jezebel was her actual name. It wasn’t a common name in that area in those days. Instead, I think Jesus is calling her “Jezebel” to show what he thinks of her. In the Old Testament “Jezebel” was the name of the wife of King Ahab of Israel. She was very instrumental in leading the kingdom of Israel away from God, and toward the worship of idols, and she was a thoroughly evil woman. So the name “Jezebel” for the prophetess of Thyatira is meant to reveal her true character, not her actual name. Her character is evil, and her teachings are leading God’s people away from Him, and into destruction. This “prophetess” does not speak for God at all.

I want to make something very clear here. The problem is not simply that a few Christians here and there are falling to temptation and sinning occasionally. These are people who are pursuing a lifestyle of ongoing sin, and teaching others to do the same.

How could this happen? How can a church be growing in faith, perseverance, service and love, accomplishing greater things for the kingdom of God, and yet allow such false teaching and immoral practice? Apparently they knew at some level that her teachings were false – why did they let her continue?

It appears that there were two groups of people within the Church at Thyatira. One group embraced the teaching (promoted by the self-styled “Prophetess”) that Christians could fully participate in idol worship and sexual immorality. They not only embraced the teaching, the but also the actual lifestyle. The second group apparently did not agree with these teachings, nor did they participate, but they tolerated the Christians who did such things, and also those who taught such things. They didn’t rebuke “Jezebel” or her followers.

Tolerance, of course is highly prized in our society today, and I think we have probably already heard the kinds of things that the Thyatirans might have said to persuade themselves not to do anything about “Jezebel.” Have you heard any of these before?

“Oh, I’m not judgmental. ‘Judge not that you be not judged.’”

“We’d better take the log out of our own eyes before we try to remove the splinter from hers.”

“Who’s to say that she isn’t a prophetess? I don’t have an exclusive connection to God.”

“If we say she’s wrong, and people can’t do that, then a lot of people might lose their jobs! We can’t be responsible for that!”

“If we say this is wrong, we might lose some members of the church who really like her and her teachings.”

“I think maybe she’s starting to come around a bit. Let’s just keep praying for her and hope she sees the light.”

Do these sound familiar? You see, the Christians at Thyatira knew that what she did was wrong, but they let her keep doing it. They were timid – they didn’t want to rock the boat. They didn’t want to cause trouble or sound judgmental.

Jesus, however, has no trouble sounding judgmental. Lest anyone wonder, he declares that this “Jezebel” had been given the opportunity to repent, and she spurned it. Therefore, she is going to punished, both only eternally, and also physically, right now, along with her followers. It is entirely possible, considering the nature of their sins, that the Lord would allow them to contract syphilis or some other STD, which in those days, before antibiotics could be painful and deadly. In any case the language suggests a connection between the “bed of adultery” and the “bed of sickness.”

In addition, he says “I will kill her children with pestilence.” I do not think this means her actual, physical children, if she had any. From the context, it is almost certain that when he says “her children,” Jesus means her followers. There will be severe judgment not only on “Jezebel” but also everyone who participates with her. The purpose for the judgment is to show all believers in Asia that while Jezebel is a false prophetess Jesus is the true son of God, and he deals with truth – whatever the outward appearance may be.

Again, let’s make this clear. This isn’t about people who are trying to follow Jesus, but occasionally fail, and fall into sin. This is about ongoing lifestyles of sin, and about endorsing such lifestyles.

Let’s bring into real life in the 21st century right now. As I mentioned last time, we seldom worship statues anymore. But when we center our lives around anything other than God himself, we are engaged in idolatry. If our deepest hopes, comforts or fears are found any place outside of the presence of God, we are idol-worshipers. In addition, no matter what our culture says, sexual immorality is a big deal to God. It is not an option for those who claim to be Christians. Now, I don’t mean that if you have ever sinned sexual you are going to hell. The forgiveness we have in Jesus is real, and powerful, and it overcomes all sins. But it is not an option to claim to be Christian while we continue in a long-term pattern of sinning without repentance – sexually, or otherwise. This isn’t me talking: it is unquestionably what the Bible teaches.

The church at Thyatira sounds haunting familiar to me. Many who call themselves Christians today are willing to serve others and show love to the world, and even to persevere in doing those things. But they are not willing to confront sin. They are not willing to sound judgmental, and in fact, they get angry at other Christians who do try to confront people who persistently live a sinful lifestyle. Our passage today makes it clear what Jesus thinks of Christians who tolerate sinful lifestyles in the church. It isn’t enough simply to “love and serve.” If people claim to follow Jesus, a persistently sinful lifestyle is not an option. Tolerating those who call themselves Christians while they live in unrepentant sin is also not an option. Good works and serving others is not enough if we tolerate sin in this way.

Now, when I say that Jesus does not tolerate these things, and that we should not either, I am not talking about any kind of violence, anger or oppression. We do not have permission from Jesus to hurt others. But we must not call “Christian” what Jesus calls sinful. Paul explains this very well in his letter to the Corinthians:

9I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. 11But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. 12For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? 13But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves. (1Cor 5:9-13, HCSB)

Let’s also be clear about this. This isn’t my opinion. This is what the Lord Himself says to His church. Do not accept as a Christian someone who persistently sins without repentance. In our passage today, Jesus shows his anger at those who say otherwise.

Now, in the case of Thyatira, Jesus simply tells the Church to take a stand. He makes two promises to those who do so, who hold fast until He returns:

1.) Authority over the nations. I believe that this promise is given to drive home the main point. Are you afraid of being judgmental toward fellow Christians? Don’t you know that in the future you will judge even more? Paul says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 6:2-3

2Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? 3Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! (1Cor 6:2-3, ESV2011)

By “saints” Paul simply  means “Christians.” Peter says something similar:

17For the time has come for judgment to begin with God’s household, and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God? (1Pet 4:17, HCSB)

This promise is a reminder that we do have the authority to call sin “sin” and to speak out against wrongdoing. It is not wrong to do so. If we faithfully do it now, he is saying, our authority will continue in greater measure after we are with him.

2.) Jesus also promises “The morning star.”

This is a bit surprising. However, Jesus Himself is called the “morning star” in Revelation 22:16. I think this is the promise that those who repent and persist in faith will receive the eternal glory and satisfaction of the full presence of Jesus Himself. In the New Heavens and New Earth, the presence of Jesus will be enough for all of our needs. He will fill us with eternal joy.

I think this is an important promise for people who stand to lose finances or relationships because of their faith in Jesus. I mentioned this last time, but it is a real possibility that Christians may need to make hard choices in order to continue to follow Jesus. We may need to stay out of certain professions that require us to teach others that immorality is good and normal. We may need to forgo sending children to universities that are actively undermining their faith. We may have to avoid financially lucrative opportunities that put us in morally compromising situations. When we have to do these things, Jesus promises the fullness of his own presence as compensation. He is all sufficient, and nothing we lose in this life compares to the joy and glory and grace of the Morning Star in our lives.



The church at Pergamum resisted persecution, but they began to fall to seduction. With overwhelming cultural pressure around them, they began to compromise. They sought satisfaction in physical things, and it cost them greatly in spiritual things. Jesus told them to repent. He said that he was willing to go to war with them over their compromise with the culture. But he promised to the repentant ones that could find a satisfaction unlike any they could find on earth. They promised to the ones who were willing to not fit in on earth that they would be welcome in Heaven.

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Revelation #9. Revelation 2:12-17

The church at Pergamum was one of the three churches in Asia that we know for sure had experienced overt persecution by the time John was writing. Virtually all the churches existed in a culture that was hostile to Christianity, and I’m certain that being a Christian in Asia during those times involved considerably more sacrifice than being a Christian in America in these times.  Even so, Revelation only clearly identifies three of the seven churches as experiencing overt persecution, and one of these was Pergamum. There was, however, a difference between Pergamum and the other two persecuted churches. In Smyrna, the tribulation was on-going, and the worst of it was yet to come. In Philadelphia, they were also in the middle of it, though Jesus promised to cut it short for them. In Pergamum, the overt portion of the persecution was over. Once again, it is important to understand that all the churches experienced a culture that was against them, even when there was not direct harassment, but those three churches were singled out for direct maltreatment.

Like Smyrna, Pergamum was a center of Emperor worship. Not only that, but they had a hill something like the acropolis in Athens, covered with shrines and temples to various deities. At the very top of this “temple hill” was the altar built for the Greek god Zeus, who was in the mythology of that culture, chief of all gods. It might have been this shrine to Zeus that Jesus was referring to as “Satan’s throne.” Alternatively, “Satan’s throne” could have been an allusion to the pervasive worship of the healing-god Asklepios, who was represented by a snake. A third possibility is that he was making reference to Pergamum’s dedication to emperor-worship, and a fourth is simply that the city was a center for all sorts of pagan worship. In any case, the picture we have of Pergamum is one of virulent paganism; or, in other words, a culture that put a lot of pressure on Christianity.

So, in this pagan environment, the church at Pergamum made it through a difficult time of persecution, during which at least one of their number was killed for his faith (v.13). It is for this that Jesus commends them. However, it turns out that once the persecution was over, the church did not remain unaffected by the culture around them. Jesus says to them:

“But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit acts of immorality.” (v. 14)

To understand this, we need a bit of Old Testament background. Please read Numbers 22:1-25:9 to get the complete picture. Balaam was some sort of Seer, someone who followed the Lord, and from the Lord had a gift of visions, and of blessings and curses. He lived in Mesopotamia. Balak was the King of Moab, which was near Palestine, and he was afraid of the Israelites, who at that time were still wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. Balak saw that the Israelites had defeated everyone they encountered in battle, and so he called for Balaam to come and curse them, in order to defeat them without a military confrontation. Balaam came, in spite of strong warnings from the Lord to stay at home. He was apparently swayed by the huge amount of money that Balak offered him. He tried to curse Israel, but when he opened his mouth, all that came out was blessing for them. Balak, naturally, was not happy with Balaam, and the latter went on his way. That is all the text tells us overtly. But shortly after he left, the Moabite women came to where the Israelites were camped and invited them to Moabite religious festivals, which involved having sex with the women. The Israelites were thus committing a double sin – they broke God’s standards for pure and healthy sexuality (sexual intimacy is to be within marriage only) and they did so in the context of worshipping other gods. It was not a happy day, and God in his anger sent a plague upon the people. Later, in Numbers 31:16, it is revealed that Balaam was the one who suggested that the Moabite women seduce the Israelites. Apparently, although he could not curse the Israelites, he really wanted that money, so he conceived of this plan to derail the Israelites in order that he personally could get his pay.

Apparently something of this sort was going on in Pergamum. The church there could not be destroyed by overt persecution. So Satan’s new plan was seduction. If they couldn’t be forced to deny Jesus, maybe they could be compromised and seduced into it. Thus, with the pressure of the pagan culture around them, some members of the church had begun to take part in the feasts and festivals of false gods. It is important here to understand that the issue is not simply that the Christians are eating meat sacrificed to idols – the apostle Paul clearly says that is OK in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. However Paul placed two conditions on the eating of such meat. First, a Christian should not do it if it causes another Christian to “stumble” – that is, if it causes other Christians to think that idol worship is OK (1 Cor 8:9-13). Second, Paul emphatically rebukes those who deliberately partake in the feast as part of the of the whole worship experience of a false god (1 Cor 10:20). I would guess that the people in question in Pergamum are doing both things – causing other Christians to stumble, and actually participating in idol worship.

Not only were they engaged in such worship, but they also committed acts of sexual immorality. The Greek word for “sexual immorality” means any kind of sexual activity that takes place outside the union of one man and one woman in marriage. Therefore, it covers a host of possibilities. In every place it is mentioned in the New Testament, sexual immorality is condemned as a sin, and it is not right for Christians to engage in it. I realize that this sounds terribly old-fashioned and unenlightened, but it is what the Bible teaches, without a doubt. There are dozens of other verses like these two:

18Run from sexual immorality! “Every sin a person can commit is outside the body.” On the contrary, the person who is sexually immoral sins against his own body. 19Don’t you know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20for you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body. (1Cor 6:18-20, HCSB)

3For you have died, and your life is hidden with the Messiah in God. 4When the Messiah, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. 5Therefore, put to death what belongs to your worldly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry. 6Because of these, God’s wrath comes on the disobedient, 7and you once walked in these things when you were living in them (Col 3:3-7, HCSB)

Now, the thing to remember is that this teaching sounded strange and prudish to the culture that surrounded Christians in the first century. Sexual immorality was just as common and accepted by ancient Greco-Roman culture as it is today.

Apparently, to make matters even worse, the people who had caved in to cultural temptations in this way were teaching others that it was OK to do these things. They not only sinned, but they tried to pass it off as if it weren’t sin, thus sucking more innocent people into the darkness.

Jesus has seen this before, way back in the days of Moses, and is thoroughly angered. His words are blunt: “Repent therefore; or else I am coming to you quickly and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth (v.16)”

The sword here seems to clearly represent the Word of God. The book of Hebrews calls the Word of God a double edged sword (Hebrews 4:12), and here a double edged sword is coming out of the mouth of Jesus, who was called by John (in his gospel) “the word. (John 1:1-14)” What this all amounts to is that Pergamum has the opposite problem to Ephesus. You will remember that the church in Ephesus was doctrinally pure, but struggled with relationship to Jesus. The Ephesian church hated the Nicolaitans and their practices. Here in Pergamum, the problem is false doctrine leading to sinful practice. In fact their error is similar to that of the Nicolaitans. Doctrine does matter, and it is important. So important that Jesus will go to war with his church over it. Sin is sin, and if we fail to call it that, we can expect to hear the judgment of God.

On the other hand, even before he warns of judgment, Jesus calls his people to repent. He holds out not only the possibility of judgment, but also promises for those who hold on to the true faith. He promises first the hidden manna. There are many possibilities here, but it seems most sensible to understand that Jesus is promising a source of heavenly nourishment that is not available to those who don’t know him. These people have tried to satisfy themselves with meat from idol worship, and with sex. But Jesus is offering nourishment for the soul, a food that meets needs in a way that no idol feast and no illicit tryst could possibly meet. At least part of this “soul food” is the Bible, the Word of God. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel describe experiences of “ingesting” the word of God and finding it sweet to the taste. Peter was told to “feed my sheep” by Jesus – to feed them on Jesus’ own Word. But more than just the Bible, it is the promise of a soul fully satisfied by the presence of God himself. When we stop orienting our lives around ourselves and our own desires, and instead center our lives on God (who is, after all, the center of all things) we find a satisfaction that far exceeds any temporary pleasure derived from food or sex. I won’t deny that it takes some self-denial and effort to develop a taste for it, but when we do, we find this is the richest satisfaction in the universe, and the only satisfaction that will truly last.

The second promise offered is the “white stone” with a new name written on it. There are several possibilities for what this is about. In the First Century AD, inns and places for strangers to stay were not as common as they later became. Sometimes, when people from different places became friends, they would each take a stone, and write their names upon it, and then exchange the stones – almost like a business card (remember “card stock” was not invented until many hundreds of years later). So, if I gave you a stone, you would have my name written on it. Whenever you traveled to someplace where I was known, that stone would show people there that you were my friend. If you showed the stone with my name, my friends would offer you a place to stay, and all sorts of help and hospitality.

I like this picture, because when we surrender to Jesus, we become, in a sense, entitled to His name, in the same way as a holder of one of these “business card stones.” The name of Jesus means we will be welcome in heaven, and given a place there. The name of Jesus gives us protection from the devil, and the right to pray to God the Father. Some of the Christians at Pergamum wanted to fit in with the culture. Jesus promises them that if they are willing to not fit in on earth, they would find an eternal place of belonging in His Kindgom.

Another use for white stones was as a kind of “ticket” to admission to feasts. I kind of like this possibility too, because, Jesus is offering these Christians something better than the idolatrous and licentious feasts available to them in Pergamum. Here is a heavenly feast, where a person is known by his “hidden name” – his true character. Jesus knows them as no other can know them, and the feast he offers is for eternity – not simply an unsatisfying, passing pleasure.

A third possibility for the white stone comes from the ancient world of athletics. Professional gladiators trained extensively. In the early stages of training, the gladiator was simply called “apprentice.” Once he had completed a long period of training, the gladiator was given an opportunity to compete. If he was victorious, he received a white stone as a symbol of his achievement, and an elevation of status from “apprentice” to being called by his own name, and given a rank with more privileges. This matches the statement of Jesus that he will give a white stone to “the Victor.” The Christian life often involves self-discipline and training, like an athlete. It involves spiritual battle also. Those that persevere will be rewarded.

Personally, I think Jesus meant for the Christians at Pergamum to think of all three uses of the white stone; they are all meaningful and relevant.

So, what is meaningful and relevant about this text for you today? Are you tempted in certain ways to compromise with our idolatrous and immoral culture? As with the 1st Century Greco-Roman culture, today our culture is highly sexualized, and anything goes between consenting adults. Are you tempted to find satisfaction there? I mean, it seems like everyone else is doing it. Or maybe you aren’t tempted yourself, but you are willing to accept people who call themselves Christians and embrace all sorts of different sexual immorality? Don’t fall for the lie that “it’s about love.” Love is about commitment, and sex in our culture is definitely not about commitment. Love also sometimes means self-denial – again, this is missing from our culture. This is a very big deal for Jesus, as he makes clear here.. Droves and droves of Christians have fallen for the trick of Balaam, just in the last two decades. There can be no mistake, Jesus says: “repent!”

Perhaps your temptation runs more towards idol worship. Not too many people in the Western world worship physical statues anymore. But many, many people center their lives around things that are not God: money, status, pleasure, sports, entertainment and drugs & alcohol are some of the most common. We are also tempted to make idols our relationships; perhaps a romantic relationship, or even a child. Any time we build our identity on something other than God we are worshipping an idol. If anything holds “first place” in your life that isn’t God, it is an idol. Again, Jesus calls us to repent.

I look at the world, and even the huge number of Churches and Christians that are compromising with the world, and I think, “Either I’m crazy, or they are.” I may be crazy, but if so, I’m crazy in exactly the same way that the Bible is crazy; exactly the same way Jesus Himself is crazy. Maybe that’s what you need to hear today: hold on to what you know to be true. Remain steadfast.

It is hard when we don’t fit in with the culture around us. But Jesus promises us (with the white stone) that if we are willing to have no place in our ungodly culture, will always have a place in His kingdom.

The promise Jesus gives for repentance and perseverance are wonderful and soul satisfying. We can be more satisfied than the world dreams of. We are known personally by the Lord of universe, and given access to all of his resources for eternity. There is a better future than the world could ever offer.

Listen to what the Spirit has to say today!

Revelation #5 NO ROOM FOR FEAR

Old keys on a old book, antique wood background

Following Jesus often involves some sort of trouble or hardship, in the middle of which we are called to remain faithful and obedient to the Father, even when we don’t understand. Jesus words to each of us today are: “Do not be afraid. I have the keys to death and hades. I have this. I have you. I am the first and the last – I have your trouble surrounded.

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Revelation #5. Revelation 1:9-20

John continues his letter with a reminder, and then, his first vision of the heavenly realm.

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

John says he is a brother and partner in three things that “are in Jesus.” I think these things are very important for Christians in our time to remember, or perhaps to realize for the first time. Being “in Jesus” involves each of these things.

First, John writes he is a brother in the tribulation that is in Jesus Christ. The Greek word here (thlipsis) implies pressure, or “being squeezed.” It can be translated, as tribulation, affliction, distress, or pressure. In his gospel, John records that Jesus said that tribulation or affliction will be a normal part of following him. In the passage below, it is this same Greek word that Jesus uses:

33I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33, HCSB)

You will have suffering/trouble/affliction/distress in this world if you follow Jesus. Peter affirms this idea:

12Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. 13Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. (1Pet 4:12-13, HCSB)

We Christians in 21st Western Civilization need to understand this, for two reasons. First, we need to recognize that suffering and tribulation are the present reality for millions of Christians in various places around the world. Like John, we need to act as siblings and partners in tribulation with those Christians who are suffering for their faith more than we. In China, Indonesia, all over the Middle-East and North Africa, our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ are in trouble for believing what we believe and trying to live it in their everyday lives. We need to stand with them in prayer. We need to support those who support them. We need to communicate our love and encouragement to them.

Second, we need to recognize that, as we remain obedient to Jesus, we encounter various types of suffering – not all of them persecution. John Piper writes, in Desiring God:

The suffering that comes is a part of the price of living where you are in obedience to the call of God. In choosing to follow Christ in the way he directs, we choose all that this path includes under his sovereign providence. Thus, all suffering that comes in the path of obedience is suffering with Christ and for Christ – whether it is cancer or conflict.

Following Jesus often involves some sort of trouble or hardship, in the middle of which we are called to remain faithful and obedient to the Father, even when we don’t understand.

Those of you who know me well will realize that I know what I am talking about. More importantly, John knew what he was talking about.

The second thing that is “in Jesus” is “the kingdom.” We examined this in greater depth last week. When we follow Jesus, we belong to His heavenly kingdom. Our primary “citizenship” is in heaven, not in any earthly country. Our primary “fellow-citizens” are those who follow Jesus, whatever country they come from, whatever ethnicity or culture they wear on the outside. There is one other thing about “the kingdom that is in Jesus” and it is this: it means we must obey the King.

The third thing that John says is part of being in Jesus is “patient endurance.” This goes along with suffering/pressure/trouble.  Paul puts it together in his letter to the Romans:

3And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, 4endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. 5This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Rom 5:3-5, HCSB)

In case you were wondering, Paul’s word for “afflictions” is the Greek word thlipsis – the same that John uses, the one we discussed above. We aren’t called merely to suffer, we are called endure it patiently, to stick to Jesus, to have “grit.” This would have been very important for John’s first readers, since, as we shall see, they were facing all sorts of pressures and troubles. John is saying, “You aren’t alone in your struggles. This is part of the deal, this is part of what it means to be ‘in Jesus.’ You aren’t off track and you aren’t doing something wrong. We are all in this together.”

Next, John goes on to share one reason why we should be encouraged as we suffer and endure patiently in Jesus. He records that Jesus gave him a message for seven specific churches, but also to all Christians at all times. And Jesus not only gave him the message, he also gave him a picture of the heavenly reality that should encourage us; a reality that exists even when our lives are in the midst of pressure and struggle.

John says that he was “beginning-to-be in spirit on the Lord’s day,” (my rough literal translation) when he heard a loud voice behind him. I’ll tell you frankly, that I don’t have a clear idea of what that means. I suspect it means that John was meditating, deeply. But here’s something interesting. Even though John was “in the spirit,” the voice he heard came from behind him. It’s not much, but perhaps this is a reminder that even when we do all that we can, we still God to reveal Himself to us. For all his meditation, the voice of God came from a direction he did not expect. The revelation had to be given to him – he couldn’t get it simply by meditating.

John looked and saw a scene with seven golden lampstands, and Jesus standing among them. By the way, my own way of looking at Revelation divides the book into seven “heavenly encounters.” A “heavenly encounter,” for my purposes, is a vision of things as they are in heaven, or from heaven’s perspective. After each heavenly encounter in Revelation follows some content divided up into sets of seven. This vision of Jesus among the lampstands is the first Heavenly Encounter.

Thankfully, verse 20 explains what is going on. The seven golden lampstands are the seven churches to whom the letter is written. I think there is every reason to believe that the seven churches (named in chapters 2-3) were seven actual Christian communities that existed at the time John saw his vision. At the same time, I believe that the Lord chose seven particular churches in order to communicate that this amazing vision is for all Christian churches at all times in history. Remember, the number seven represents God’s complete work. So, I think he picked seven churches (there were certainly more than seven in existence at the time) to show he meant this to be for all of us.

In the midst of the seven lampstands John sees “one like a son of man.” He means Jesus, who consistently called himself “the son of man.” John’s vision of the Heavenly Jesus sounds similar to visions that were seen by Daniel and Ezekiel, down to details like the hair, feet, eyes and the sound of his voice; especially, however, the sense of bright light emanating from him (Daniel 7:9 and 10:5-6; Ezekiel 1:26-27).

Jesus holds seven stars in his hand. Again, we are given an explanation in verse 20. The stars are the seven angels of the churches. I don’t know about you, but this surprises me. I don’t normally think of an individual congregation as having an angel watching out for it.

While we are here, we might as well briefly talk about angels, since there is a boatload of them in Revelation. Though we don’t talk about angels very often, there are 182 verses in the New Testament that mention them directly, and a few others that speak of them indirectly. Sixty-five of the direct verses are in Revelation. Angels are usually portrayed as spiritual beings who do God’s work, often serving God as messengers. Hebrews 1:14 (one of the indirect mentions of them) gives us the clearest description of what angels are:

14Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Heb 1:14, ESV2011)

So, angels do God’s work, and part of what they do for Him is to minister to us who are inheriting salvation through Jesus Christ. Apparently, also, some of them are responsible for individual churches. To put this theologically: That’s awesome. It might also give us a different view of church. There is an angel assigned to your church. Just think on that.

In verse 16, we get our first taste of the weirdness of Revelation: there is a sword coming out of the mouth of Jesus. This is meant to be symbolic. The Apostle Paul pictures a sword as a spiritual weapon:

17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word. (Eph 6:17, HCSB)

The sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth is The Word. For us who follow Jesus, that “word,” that sword, is the Bible. His words are powerful and strong. His words created the universe:

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3All things were created through Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created that has been created. (John 1:1-3, HCSB)

 3By faith we understand that the universe was created by God’s command, so that what is seen has been made from things that are not visible. (Heb 11:3, HCSB)

So Jesus stands among the churches, with the power of his Word evident. Now, listen once more to His words:

17When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. He laid His right hand on me and said, “Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last, 18and the Living One. I was dead, but look — I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades. 19Therefore write what you have seen, what is, and what will take place after this. 20The secret of the seven stars you saw in My right hand and of the seven gold lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. (Rev 1:17-20, HCSB)

“He laid his right hand on me and said, ‘Don’t be afraid!’” How deeply we need this sometimes! We are afraid of so many things: the future, or the future of those we love. We are afraid of financial ruin, or social ruin. We fear pain, and sorrow and difficulty and loss. Most of all, we fear death, and the death of those we love. I invite you to gather your fears up right now. It’s OK. Admit to them, let them show themselves. Now, feel the strong hand of Jesus on your shoulder. Listen to him say: “Do not be afraid!”

And why should we not? Because Jesus is the First and the Last. He has us, and our lives, and everything surrounded. We fear death, but look – he has overcome death, and he holds the keys. Not only that, but he is with his church – he stands among the lampstands. He holds our angels in his right hand.

Jesus is with us. He hasn’t forgotten or abandoned us. He touches us and says “do not fear!”

Will you listen to Him today?




We must not interpret Revelation in a way that addresses only our own time, or the time at the end of the world, or a time in history that has already passed. The Word of God is living and active – it speaks to us now, and to all Christians at all times. We have to interpret Revelation in a way that honors that.

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This is the first of a sermon series on the Revelation of John – that is, the last book of the New Testament. This particular message is going to be a bit “lite” on scripture, because it is absolutely necessary to spend some time learning about the background of this book before we study it ourselves. If I were to simply jump into teaching the text of revelation without going over important background information, it would be like serving someone soup with no spoon, or steak with no knife. Revelation is an important book, but it is terribly confusing and difficult at points, and so a thorough introduction is unquestionably required. In fact, I am going to take two weeks to do this. (By the way, although some people call the book “Revelations,” properly speaking, there should be no “s.”)

Revelation is a difficult book to read, because it is not easy, at first glance, to understand what is going on, or what John (the author) is talking about. John records things like a beast with seven heads, and ten horns, and crowns on each horn ( but not on each head!), and a blasphemous name on each crown. It is very difficult to actually picture that. Even if we do successfully paint a picture of that in our minds, what in the world does it mean?

And yet, many powerful concepts and images from Revelation have become embedded in our culture. The Grim Reaper comes from this book, as do the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The numbers 666, 144,000, 4, 7, and 10 are all given significance by this book. The image and expression of “the pearly gates” is from Revelation, as is “judgement day,” and “the book of life.” One of the world’s most well-known hymns – Holy, Holy, Holy – comes from Revelation, chapters four and five.

My local church has asked me to teach through this book. I think this is going to require a certain amount of effort for you, dear readers. Please have patience as I set the stage, because for Revelation, more than almost any other book, the background information is critical.


Revelation is, I believe, the most complicated and puzzling book in the entire Bible. Because of that, it is vitally important for us to understand some background about it. One of the issues, is that you have probably heard people say various things about Revelation. Some of them probably contradict each other. Generally speaking, serious scholars have tried to interpret it in four major different ways.

The most common way to look at Revelation is as a prediction of the future; particularly, a prediction of the events leading up to the end of the world and the return of Jesus. This way of interpreting it is called the “futurist” approach. It makes a certain amount of sense, because the book does present itself as a prophecy of the future, right away, in verse 1.

1The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (Rev 1:1-3, ESV2011)

However, a lot of people carry the futurist approach to the extreme. Over the years, extreme futurists (sometimes also called “dispensationalists”) have developed detailed charts and timelines. They attempt to connect every detail of Revelation to some actual event or person that will occur in the end times. While I do believe that Revelation does indeed speak of real future occurrences, I also believe that it speaks of much more than that. Extreme futurists/dispensationalist seem far too confident in their own interpretations, and often treat their interpretations as if they were the actual scripture. I think Revelation is more complicated than they seem to understand. Unfortunately, if you’ve heard much about Revelation, it was almost certainly from extreme futurists.  These are the ones who talk about the seven ages of the church, and the specific place the antichrist will come from, and how the development of a single monetary currency throughout the world is a sign of the end of time. They confidently claim there will be an actual military battle in the modern nation of Israel, and a host of other things that are not directly said by the book of Revelation.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have “preterists,” who believe that Revelation is simply a historical representation of the situation, hopes and aspirations of early Christians. They would say that the only value in the text is to show us what people were thinking at the time it was written. They insist that it is not a prophecy at all. I do agree that Revelation shows us some of the hopes and fears of early Christians, and I think it is important to understand those things if we want to understand the book. However, I believe that Revelation also shows us far more than that. I believe it is, as it claims to be, a Revelation from God.

Other theologians view Revelation as a kind of symbolic prophecy of the entire history of God’s people, from the beginning, until the return of Jesus. We call this the “Historical,” view of Revelation. In this view, we would assume that some of Revelation has already happened, and some is yet to come. If this view is substantially correct, we should easily be able to identify in Revelation those things which have already come to pass. Since it is not at all easy to do that, I can’t embrace this view. Even so, I do believe that some of this book may already have been fulfilled.

Another way to look at Revelation is as a picture of the spiritual realities behind the history of our world. It is a symbolic way of showing what is going on spiritually. This is called the Idealist view. This view has some merit to it: certainly the story of the dragon and woman in chapters 12 & 13 are representations of the spiritual war between God and the devil. And yet, I also believe there are parts of the book that are definitely talking about events in the physical world. One of the primary emphases of the book as a whole is that God really is active in history, that He really will fulfill His promise to judge evil and save those who trust Him. This requires physical events, as well as spiritual.

I believe that all of these ways of interpreting Revelation can be helpful, if used in moderation . However, I think they all fall short, on their own. I think I can help us sort out the merits (and problems) of all these views. It all comes back to our understanding of the Bible as a whole. I believe (along with all orthodox Christians for the past 2,000 years) that the Bible is God’s Word, and that it is useful and relevant for every generation of Christians, past, present and future. Remember Hebrews 4:12:

12For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart. 13No creature is hidden from Him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account. (Heb 4:12-13, HCSB)

So we must not interpret Revelation in a way that addresses only our own time, or the time at the end of the world, or a time in history that has already passed. The Word of God is living and active – it speaks to us now, and to all Christians at all times. This is the biggest problem I have with most of the major views of Revelation: it confines the book to one era of history or another, whether past or future.

So, Revelation speaks of the time of the apostle John. It also speaks of the future. It speaks of spiritual realities and physical realities. The problem is, Revelation jumbles them all together; sometimes, I believe, even within the same verses. Any given vision, or element, might refer to some, or all of these realities at the same time. I think it helps tremendously for us to be aware of that. The following diagram might be useful:

Venn-Revelation 2

So, as we go through the book, and something doesn’t make sense, ask yourself: could this be a spiritual thing, rather than physical? Or a past event, rather than the future? Could it be a combined vision of both past and present, or both spiritual and physical? These sorts of questions can be very, very helpful in unraveling this difficult book.


That brings me to subject of genre. We need to be very clear about the genres (styles of writing) used in this book. In fact, this is one of the fundamental “rules” for interpreting scripture. Different types of writing need to be interpreted in different ways. For example, when Isaiah quotes the Lord as saying: “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool” (Isaiah 66:1), it comes in the form of poetic prophecy. We don’t believe that this planet is literally an ottoman on which God rests physical feet. Instead, we take these words as a figure of speech to illustrate a deeper principle, namely that God owns the universe. We understand it this way because the language is clearly poetic. On the other hand, when it says: “Once more war broke out, and David went out and fought the Philistines (1 Samuel 19:8)” we understand that this passage means exactly what it says. It is not a figure of speech. It comes in the context of historical narrative, and is clearly meant to be understood as history, a record of what actually happened.

Like many of the other books of the Bible, Revelation contains several different kinds of writing. It records some specific teachings, it includes prophecies and visions, there are songs of praise in it, and blessings and curses. Much of the book contains what is called apocalyptic literature.

Apocalyptic literature is very obscure, filled with strange images and significant numbers. It is almost like a weird dream. It is also kind of like a code language, where almost nothing is supposed to be taken at face value.


As we study Revelation, with its strange apocalyptic language, let’s remember that we  always understand and interpret the obscure parts of the bible in light of what is already clearly understood. There is plenty in the Bible that is straightforward; stuff that you have to work hard to misunderstand. Jesus is Lord, and there is no other way to God but him. Life is about relationship with Jesus. The ten commandments are not rocket science. So whenever we come to something that is difficult to understand, stick to the basics, and work to understand it based on what we do know for sure.  Certainly, we cannot base any major article of faith on the book of Revelation alone – we need to see Revelation in the context of the entire Bible.


Let’s also remember that much of Apocalyptic literature – and therefore much of Revelation – is not supposed to be taken literally.  Much of what we read will be very symbolic, and not literal. For instance, the number 144,000. The number twelve is a symbol of God’s people. There were twelve tribes of Israel – God’s people before Jesus. There were 12 Apostles chosen by Jesus, representing God’s people since the time of Jesus. The number 1000 signifies completeness. So 144,000 is the symbolic number of all of God’s people, past, present and future (12 multiplied by 12, multiplied by 1000). There are many, many other similar symbolic things in this book. We know that they aren’t meant literally, because they are part of the apocalyptic literature sections of  Revelation.

The main point of this kind of writing is to encourage believers who are going through hard times. The point is not really the details. Instead, what we are to get from it is the big picture that God is in control of history, and has not forgotten his people.

For now, then, let’s return to the first few verses:

1The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (Rev 1:1-3, ESV2011)

John is very emphatic about this Revelation. It was given by an angel, and John bears witness to the Word of God and testimony of Jesus. This is a solemn promise that what we find in this book is indeed God’s word, and that we are blessed to hear it, and keep it. This book takes a little bit more effort to understand than most. But if you put the time in to read all of Revelation, and study the sermons in this series, I’m confident that you, too, will be blessed by this prophecy.

1 Corinthians Part 5: Judgment. 1 Corinthians chapter 4

Download 1 Corinthians Part 5

In these first few chapters of Corinthians, Paul has been taking the Corinthians to task for their underlying spiritual immaturity. One manifestation of that immaturity is that they were splitting up into little cult-like groups following one particular leader – even though the leaders were absent, and did not wish them to behave that way.

Last time we looked at how Paul said to them that there is only one foundation – Jesus Christ – and that Christians will receive (or not receive) rewards for how they build upon that foundation. The passage we will look at this time is a continuation of those thoughts, which all come in the broader context of the pride and immaturity of the Corinthians.

If you remember, at the very beginning of this letter, Paul opened with a reminder of all that the Corinthians had in Christ. In Christ, they were perfect. In Christ, they had all wisdom, all spiritual gifts. Once more, Paul pauses to remind them of this. In fact, he points out how foolish it is to exalt one apostle above another, because all them, their teachings and their “style” belong to the Corinthians through Jesus Christ. So he writes:

21 So then, no more boasting about mere mortals! For everything belongs to you, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future. Everything belongs to you, 23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

Once again, the answer is not for the Corinthians to reform themselves – it is to go back to the well – to find their strength, their joy, their very life, in Jesus Christ. If they do that, they will be building wisely upon the foundation of Christ, and there will be no purpose in splitting up to follow the various apostles as if those apostles somehow meant anything apart from Jesus. They already have everything in Jesus.

Paul closes out this entire first section of the letter with chapter 4:1-21. There are two things I want to look at in this section.

By the way, as we go through this book I want to point out that I am not covering every little thing that could be covered in every single verse. Mostly, I am trying to listen to the Holy Spirit, and see what he wants to say to us, at this time, through this part of the bible. I am consciously by-passing some things that we could examine at greater length. Hopefully, I am doing that as the Spirit leads.

The first (and main thing) I want to examine today are Paul’s words about being evaluated, (or as some translations say, judged). Paul says he and Apollos are examples for all believers in this respect. He says that we are servants of Christ and managers of God’s mysteries. He goes on:

In this regard, it is expected of managers that each one be found faithful. It is of little importance that I should be evaluated by you or by a human court. In fact, I don’t even evaluate myself. For I am not conscious of anything against myself, but I am not justified by this. The One who evaluates me is the Lord. Therefore don’t judge anything prematurely, before the Lord comes, who will both bring to light what is hidden in darkness and reveal the intentions of the hearts. And then praise will come to each one from God.

Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the saying: “Nothing beyond what is written.” The purpose is that none of you will be inflated with pride in favor of one person over another.

In Western culture today, there is a great deal of confusion about judging. One of the most misused and misunderstood verses of the Bible is Matthew 7:7 “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” This does not mean we can’t call sin, “sin.” It doesn’t mean that we can’t say what the Bible says, which is that the only way to be saved is through faith in Jesus Christ. For example, when confronted with someone who says “All religions lead to the same God and the same heaven,” I don’t need to pass judgment. I can simply say what the Bible says: “Jesus said, I am the Way, the Truth, the Life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” Acts 4;12 says “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved.” I am not judging anyone. I am simply repeating what the Holy Spirit has already said. I don’t have to do it in an attitude of condemnation. I can simply pass on the information that the Spirit has given me through the Bible.

If I say “adultery is wrong” I am not making the judgment – I am simply affirming what the Holy Spirit Himself said through the Bible. Actually, it is when I insist on saying something that the Bible does not say – like that all roads lead to heaven – that I am making that judgment myself.

So when Jesus said not to judge, and when Paul says human judgment doesn’t matter, they are not saying we should just ignore the Bible – in fact, they are saying the opposite – let God do the judging, not our own biased opinions. In fact, in the very next chapter, Paul is going to apply God’s Word to someone who is sinning. He will call a certain behavior sin. He will tell the church to have nothing to do with the sinner until he repents. This is not judging someone – it is simply saying what God has already said. The actual decision of that person’s eternal future is still up to God.

In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul is talking about a specific kind of judgment – we are not judge someone else’s Christian life and service when sin is not an issue. He said the same thing in Romans 14.

Who are you to pass judgment on someone else’s servant? Before his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand (Romans 14:4)

What Paul is saying is this: “You Corinthians are picking sides, and saying ‘Apollos is better than Paul. Paul is better than Peter.’ But Apollos, Paul and Peter are not accountable to you. God will judge how well they have served him. Your judgment about that is irrelevant.”

There is a lot of freedom as we walk with Jesus. There are many things that the Bible neither commands, nor forbids. For instance, not to shock you, but the Bible does not forbid smoking. I think we all know that smoking is extremely bad for your health, so it’s definitely not a good idea to do it. But if you are already hooked, understand this: You may be killing yourself physically, but you aren’t sinning every time you light up. We are not supposed to judge each other on these matters.

There are other things which are important, but which bible believing Christians disagree upon, and have for centuries. We all agree that baptism is important. But there is some discussion about how to do it, and what it means. I think what the Holy Spirit is saying to us through passages like these, is “follow me to the best of your understanding, and don’t condemn others who have a different understanding than you.”

We make evaluations based upon outward appearances. We looked at this a few weeks ago when we studied 1 Cor 1;26 – 2:16. We see a person with an outwardly successful life, and say “she’s doing well.” Actually, that’s judgment we aren’t qualified to make.

I don’t think New Joy has a problem with this, but you’ve probably been in churches in the past where people were judged based upon the clothes they wore to church.

Sometimes, it’s a positive judgment. But this isn’t any more right than a negative one. We might judge a person who does a lot of outward good works to be Holy. People are always surprised when a Deacon at the church who volunteers at homeless shelters suddenly turns out to be a child-abuser, or runs off with his secretary. This surprises us because we are making judgments we have no right to make. We’ve judged the man “good” by what he does on the outside.

We often make judgments based upon our traditions, our culture or what we are used to.

Churches are usually fairly traditional. By that I mean, many churches place a great value on tradition. That’s often a very good thing. However, because of this value of tradition, we may tend to have a negative view of things and people that are different from those traditions. The Bible claims that it is the revelation of God. It is different from, and has authority over, human-made traditions. So just because something is traditional, does not necessarily mean it is biblical. And something that we view as not traditional (according to our traditions) may in fact be more biblical than our traditions.

Paul’s emotional discourse after he makes these statements shows us something about the effect of making judgments. Even though Paul does not regard their evaluation of him as valid, it is still painful to be wrongly judged by others. Paul says it is of little importance that he should be evaluated by the Corinthians (4:3). I believe he means it, and was inspired by the Holy Spirit to say it. At the same time, though the evaluation of the Corinthians was not important to him spiritually, I think it is safe to say that Paul was deeply hurt emotionally by their attitude toward him. He is saying, in a godly and righteous way, that he deserves better from them.

Our brothers and sisters deserve the same from us. We can – in fact we must – say what the bible says. There are times when we need to point to brothers and sisters that their behavior is against what the Holy Spirit teaches through the Bible – Paul himself does that many times in this very letter, following this section. But even so, the actual judgment of that person is God’s responsibility, not ours.

Even more, we have no business bringing our evaluation or judgment to another believer when neither sin nor biblical truth is an issue. My sister in Christ is not my servant. She doesn’t exist on earth to do my work. She is here for God’s work. I should encourage her and help her. But it is not my business to evaluate how well she is serving God.

My biggest problem, practically, with this passage, is Tom. Paul says he doesn’t even evaluate himself. My biggest temptation is not to evaluate you, but rather me. But Paul says this is equally wrong. I don’t even have the authority to judge myself, because I do not live to serve myself, but Jesus.

Once again, we are in the realm of grace. We are called hear to give grace to others, and also receive it for ourselves. What will you do?

1 Corinthians #3. Upside Down World. 1 Cor 1:26 — 2:16

Download 1 Corinthians Part 3

C.S. Lewis writes about heaven in his little book, The Great Divorce (the book is not about marriage or divorce, it is about heaven and hell). The main character arrives in heaven and witnesses many different interesting, joyful and fearful things. At one point, he sees a procession coming toward him. Angels are dancing around a person who is approaching, throwing flowers on the ground as they go. A choir of boys and girls stride alongside, singing the most beautiful music ever heard. Dozens of bright and beautiful animals also attend this celebrity. The person is a woman, clothed in brilliant light, beautiful beyond imagination. The main character in the book immediately assumes this must by Mary, mother of Jesus.

“Is it?…is it?” I whispered to my guide.

“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith, and she lived at Golders Green.”

“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”

“Aye, she is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

This is one of the points that Paul is making as he writes to the Corinthians. Apparently the Corinthians were proud of themselves spiritually, and they were drawn toward things that looked good on the outside. That was one reason that had begun to follow human leaders – they liked the way it looked to be associated with people they felt were successful or of good reputation.

But Paul is reminding them that God doesn’t work the world does, and he doesn’t evaluate things the way the world does. As the Holy Spirit said to Samuel:

Do not look at his appearance or his stature, because I have rejected him. Man does not see what the Lord sees, for man sees what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart. (1 Sam 16:7)

This is a major theme throughout the entire Bible, and Paul is reminding the Corinthians of this. Throughout Biblical history, God chose differently than most people would have. He used Jacob, the second born (and in those days the first born was considered to be most important, while other siblings were mere accessories). He chose Judah, not Reuben the first born of Jacob. He also chose Joseph, the 11th of twelve brothers. He chose Moses, the youngest of three siblings, a man who was not much of a speaker, to lead the people of Israel. He used a prostitute, Rahab, to help the invading Israelites, and she became an ancestor of the greatest king of Israel, who was himself the eighth brother in an ordinary family. He chose a teenage girl to be the mother of messiah. He chose a bunch of under-educated, thick-headed fisherman to bring to the world the eternally significant news of salvation through Jesus Christ. As Paul writes, God has consistently chosen the foolish, the weak, the despised and the things of no account. Jesus himself painted the same sort of picture of God’s kingdom:

At that time Jesus said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to infants. (Matt 11:25)

But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matt 19:30)

The greatest among you will be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matt 23:11-12)

In addition, the Corinthians themselves were not much account, when you got right down to it. Paul reminds them of this. He may be trying to poke a hole in their pride, but I think he was also encouraging them to put their confidence in God’s work, not in outward appearances, not in human leaders, and not in themselves.

Paul does not exclude himself from all this. In chapter 2, he says that he belongs in the category of foolish, weak and despised in the world’s eyes. If you remember from the first message on 1 Corinthians, Paul did in fact, arrive in Corinth shaken by his recent experiences in Macedonia. He isn’t just being polite – from all that we know, he would have been physically weak from travels and beatings, and emotionally fragile from the rejection and hatred that had been directed at him almost everywhere he went. Paul is reminding them that it was not his preaching or wisdom or impressive personality that led them to Jesus – it was the power of the Holy Spirit.

I think all this is very important to us in America in the 21st century. In America, we love winners. We love success. We often think that bigger must mean better. Let’s be honest here. Don’t you believe that the CEO of Wal-Mart is doing better than the owner-operator of a local appliance-repair store with two part-time employees? And by “doing better” don’t we really mean running a bigger operation, and making more money? But the small-time owner might be much happier than the CEO. He might have a better marriage, and have better relationships with his kids. He might have more significant positive impact on the lives of those around him, than the CEO. But we are inclined to judge only on external successes, and those are mostly judged on size and money.

Some of you have become aware that your pastor now drives a clean, nice-looking Mercedes-benz. People might observe that and say “He must be doing all right.” I hear people make those kinds of judgments about others all the time. But think about it – what kind of conclusion is that? Does the Mercedes say anything about my marriage? Does it say anything about my happiness, or how close I am to the Lord? Plus, most of you don’t know how much or little I paid for it. As it happens, the car is 16 years old with 142,000 miles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with it, but as measure of how anyone is really doing in life, a car is flat-out ridiculous.

I’m tempted to do the same thing as a pastor. I can start to think big churches are doing well, just because they are big, and I wonder about small churches – just because they are small. The church that Jesus left behind him was small. Paul started a bunch of churches, but most of the evidence suggests that they were all quite small.

Sometimes we get ourselves a tiny bit of depth, and we go beyond what looks good and start glorifying what sounds good. I think this is why so many people are led astray into the prosperity gospel. It sounds good to say that following Jesus is a way to get health and wealth in this life. You can build a big following quickly that way. Others sit and listen to preachers or mentors who put on a great show, but when it’s all over, there was very little substance to it. People in Germany used to say that when they listened to Adolf Hitler, they were mesmerized, but if they were told in cold factual, unemotional terms what Hitler actually said, they were appalled and repelled.

I take two things from this. First, I should be encouraged if I feel sometimes like I am of no account and insignificant in this world. God uses people like that. The world’s evaluation is meaningless. If I am small, weak, foolish, no-account, then I just might be useful and important in God’s kingdom.

Second, I need to learn to evaluate things the way God does, not the way the world does. Paul talks about this in chapter 2, verses 6-16. Paul says we can’t understand God’s way of thinking through human wisdom and learning and logic. He says instead, that we need revelation. Revelation is simply God revealing his Truth to us. Paul says this happens through the Holy Spirit. We can’t get it for ourselves by logic or judging with the world’s standards and tools. We need to ask for it and receive it from the Holy Spirit. We need to ask God to show us his way of looking at things. And we get that perspective because the Holy Spirit lives inside of us, and reveals spiritual truth to us.

There are many things we can learn without God’s revelation. We can learn the laws of gravity, and calculus1 and how to make soup without special revelation from God. But if we want to see ourselves and others the way God sees us, we need revelation. If we want to know what God is up to in our lives, we need it. If we are to be effective in blessing others with God’s love and grace, we need His revelatin through the Spirit.

Now, I want to make some things clear. God’s ultimate, special-revelation is the Bible. He revealed his truth to the human writers of the Bible, and they wrote it down. All other revelation must be judged by the Bible. In other words, if you have a revelation that adultery is not sinful, it is not a revelation from God, because God’s ultimate revelation, the Bible, already tells us that adultery is wrong.

But we are supposed to live in a daily relationship with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. We should expect the Spirit to speak to us and reveal truth to us. (John 14:25; 15:26; 16:13-15)

When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak whatever He hears. He will also declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, because He will take from what is Mine and declare it to you. Everything the Father has is Mine. This is why I told you that He takes from what is Mine and will declare it to you. (John 16:13-15)

The bible and the daily interaction with the Spirit work together. According to Paul in this passage, without God’s spirit, we wouldn’t really even get what the Bible is saying. We need the Spirit in us, doing what Jesus said he would do, which is to explain and teach us all that Jesus said. Without the Spirit, and His revelation, the Bible won’t make much sense to us.

As we consider these things today, let the Spirit reveal his truth to you. Maybe he is calling you out for judging by outward appearances and getting caught up in the standards of the world around us. Maybe he is speaking to you about feeling small and insignificant. Maybe he is just encouraging you to get closer to Him, so that you will know him better.

1Actually, I’m not sure that I could learn calculus without God’s special revelation.