COLOSSIANS #13. THE STRUGGLE IS REAL: AND SO IS OUR HOPE.

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Colossians #13  Colossians 2:1

 1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:1-3, ESV)

As I write this, the covid-19 craziness is spreading all over the globe. Italy, Spain and several other countries are in full lockdown. There is a lot of uncertainty about the future. Even if you don’t fear getting the virus for yourself, the extreme measures that have been taken could seriously affect our lives for some time to come. I have been suffering a surprising and inexplicable pain for more than five years. If I have learned anything from it, it is that if my hope is truly, fully grounded in Jesus, suffering, uncertainty and hardship will be used for my good. I can deal with whatever comes, if my hope in Jesus is solid.

One of the ways to cultivate that hope is by immersing ourselves in God’s Word, the Bible. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate, I think, to take this time to do that every day on our own, and every week together.

With that in mind, let’s continue in Colossians chapter 2.

Paul has been talking about how he is working, and yet it is Christ who works through him. In chapter 2 verse 1 he assures them that his toil is for the sake of the Colossians, also for the other Christians in their region (Laodicea was nearby, to the north of Colossae, a journey of a day or two). I want to make sure we don’t rush over something here. Paul says that he has a great struggle for these Christians. His struggle did not involve physically being with them. It did not involve him working with them personally. It’s not like he is there personally leading them closer to Jesus. In fact, he freely admits that he has never met any of them face to face! How then, can he be struggling on their behalf?

I think that there are three pieces to Paul’s struggle. In the first place, Paul’s ministry was always aimed to benefit the entire church of Jesus Christ, wherever they were. He taught people who could teach other people, so that men and women that he didn’t even know could hear the gospel from someone besides himself. He was building not one local church, but a whole movement.

As part of his work for the church-at-large, Paul also labored at the writing of letters like this one, so that the true teaching of Jesus could be spread by the written word. The writing of these letters was no small thing to Paul. There was no text messaging, no email, no mass-produced paper or ink. In the ancient world, a letter was a very big thing, and often people would labor for days over a letter. You wouldn’t want to waste ink or paper until you were perfectly sure what you wanted to say.

Let me describe a typical letter-writing process from that time and place. Paul apparently had some issue with his eyes, so typically, one his companions served as an amanuensis (think “secretary”) to do the actual writing. Paul would speak out the words he wanted to say. His “secretary” would  probably have used a large flat container of wax. The words were carved into the wax. Then, it was read back to Paul, and he could decide if he wanted to make any changes, or rearrange any of his thoughts. They would correct grammatical errors, typos, and clarify things. They might make two or three versions of the letter in wax (or sometimes, they may have used chalk and slate, if it was available). After Paul had everything the way he wanted it, the “secretary” would carefully use ink and papyrus to copy out the finished product. The whole process could take days. I can testify myself that good writing is hard work. It isn’t physical labor, like building a house, but anyone who has ever written a book knows that it takes a great deal of mental and emotional energy, and a lot of self-discipline. The word “struggle” certainly applies. I might say, with Paul, “I want you know, brothers and sisters, what a labor and struggle of love it is to bring you these messages.”

Second, Paul struggled in prayer. Later in the letter, Paul writes:

12 Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. (Colossians 4:12, ESV)

The word “wrestling” above is the same Greek word as “struggle” in 2:1. (For language geeks, 2:1 has it in the form of a noun, and in 4:12 it is a verb). I said a minute ago that writing can be hard work. So can prayer. It can, in fact, be a struggle to pray. Paul was deeply engaged in prayer for all of the Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians. He didn’t just say, “Jesus, please bless the Gentiles.” Here is an example of how he prayed for people:

15 This is why, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 16 I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength (Ephesians 1:15-19, CSB)

 

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21, ESV)

12 And may the Lord cause you to increase and overflow with love for one another and for everyone, just as we do for you. 13 May he make your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Amen. (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13, CSB)

11 In view of this, we always pray for you that our God will make you worthy of his calling, and by his power fulfill your every desire to do good and your work produced by faith, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified by you, and you by him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12, CSB)

4 I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and the faith that you have in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ. (Philemon 1:4-6, CSB)

Prayer is no small thing. Jesus told us to pray, and gave us the Lord’s prayer as format. In case you didn’t know, the Lord’s prayer is not just “a prayer.” It is an outline, teaching us how we should pray. We are told to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Jesus himself spent a great deal of time in prayer, and if He needed to do that, then we need it even more. The early church devoted themselves to just four things. The word “devoted” means that they persisted in it, and were deeply committed to it. One of the four things was prayer.

The apostles believed that prayer was one of their most important responsibilities. When the church came to them for help in ministry to the poor, this is what they said:

2 The Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching the word of God to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2-4, CSB)

Prayer is vitally important, and Paul engaged in it so deeply that he called it part of his struggle.

There is a third element that I think Paul was referring to when he said that he was engaged in struggle for these Christians he had never met. The third thing is this: Spiritual warfare. In Ephesians, Paul writes:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens. (Ephesians 6:12, CSB)

 

8 Be sober-minded, be alert. Your adversary the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour. 9 Resist him, firm in the faith, knowing that the same kind of sufferings are being experienced by your fellow believers throughout the world. 1 Peter 5:8-9

I would remind us who are afraid at the current world craziness, that Christians throughout history have faced tremendously difficult times. This is nothing new, and Jesus is, and always has been a certain, sure, hope in times of trouble. I have been in pain for five years, and you can’t accuse me of having never faced hard times. I know it is easy to say. But I have lived in suffering, and found Jesus to be up to the challenges I face.

Another Spiritual warfare verse:

1 Now the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will depart from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, 2 through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. (1 Timothy 4:1-2, CSB)

In John 14:30, Jesus refers to the devil as “the prince of this world.” There are many other verses like these. Now, the idea of spiritual warfare is not intended to be an excuse. We don’t get to say: “The devil made me do it!” We are still responsible for what we do, or don’t do. However, we need to be aware that we don’t live in neutral territory. The world around us is under evil spiritual influence, spirits that do not submit to God. Our own flesh was born in sin and tends always to rebel against God. And the devil himself, along with his demons, constantly lie to us. They try to discourage us, daunt us and scare us. We are in a war. We should have a wartime mentality against our flesh, against the godless influences of the world, and the devil. We should not be surprised when it is hard to follow Jesus well, and we should not be ignorant of the reasons it is hard.

Jesus said some very important things just before he was arrested. Here is one of them:

3I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, ESV)

If someone says to you that being a Christian is easy, they are either just ignorant, or lying. Jesus himself said we would have trouble in this world. Peter writes that we shouldn’t be surprised at trials. James says we should rejoice when we have them. Do not expect that following Jesus should make life go well here and now.

There is a joy that comes with following Jesus, and a sense of “rightness” and goodness about life. We have vast resources of love and courage and strength that are available only in Jesus. But following him does mean that everything will go well in life. Quite the opposite. The struggle is real, and should be expected. We need to plan and act accordingly.

At the same time, we don’t need to be afraid. We will have trouble in this world, but Jesus also promised that at the very same time, we could have peace in Him. Seek it, and you will find it.

IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL

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I’ve been recently convinced that I need to start writing about my pain. Ultimately, what follows will be a chapter in a book. Perhaps it can be helpful to those who are concerned about what the future holds in these uncertain times. Sorry, no recording this time. This week, this is what I have to offer:

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Oh, my brothers and sisters who are in pain and suffering, my heart cries out with you.

I know your confusion, your hurt, your anger at God, your frustration when others don’t understand. I know how insensitive well-meaning friends can be, hurtful without even realizing it. I know the dark lonely hours you spend, wondering if it will end, why it won’t end, why won’t God just do something?

This is for you. This is for me. This is for your loved ones who suffer with you. This is for us.

This is also for those who watch our suffering and don’t understand. You have compassion, but you don’t know exactly what to think, or how to act around your struggling friends.

This is also for those of you who secretly suspect that there must be some reason, perhaps a hidden one, why other people suffer and you don’t. You may not say it, but it crosses your mind that perhaps we suffer because of hidden sin, or because we spoke bad things into our lives. Perhaps we poor souls failed to follow the simple rules for godly living that will result in peace and prosperity for everyone wise and disciplined enough to stay on the path. To you, especially, I say: pay attention. Your souls are in grave danger. Give up pride, seek humility, read on and learn, lest you find your hands empty on the only day true rewards are given. I don’t give such warnings lightly.

Let me begin with my story. To be clear, I don’t think I have suffered more than anyone else. I am not competing with anyone here to see who has it worse. If you want to claim your suffering is worse than mine, I won’t argue one bit. I freely admit that I know dozens of people that I would never want to trade places with. That’s not what this is about. What I do want you to know that, at least in some way, I do know what suffering is. I am in it, even as I write this.

I am in pain.

Physical pain. Severe, constant, relentless, unending pain.

It started with a kidney stone. Not all kidney stones are equally bad. But the worst kidney stones, what I call “the real kidney stone experience,” is generally the worst pain anybody ever experiences in one’s life while remaining conscious. I have spoken with several women who delivered babies without any painkillers, and who have also had kidney stones. They report that the kidney stones are far worse. I’ve spoken to war veterans who were shot, and shredded by shrapnel. They report that kidney stones are far, far more painful than combat wounds. I have had several surgeries, including the kind where they make a large incision, and the post-surgery pain never remotely approached the real kidney stone experience.

A “real kidney stone” produces a pain so severe that if you can’t get relief within an hour, you desperately hope, and even pray, that you will die quickly. It is pain to the point of insanity. This is what I call 10/10 pain. If you have this level of pain, you seek medical help immediately. If you think you can go without medical help, you are not experiencing 10/10 pain. According to some doctors, most people don’t experience that level of pain ever in their lifetimes.

I have experienced it at least five times.

Due to two small tumors that developed when I was about thirty-five years old, I began to pass kidney stones roughly every six months. This went on for more than ten years until the problem was finally detected, and the offending tumors removed. I have passed somewhere around twenty-five stones.

Not every stone I had reached that 10/10 level of pain, but, as I mentioned, four of them did (more on the fifth time momentarily). The others may not have reached that level of insanity, but even a level of 7/10 puts you in a place where most of your energy and time is devoted to dealing with and riding out the pain. At that level, you might be able to watch TV, or play a mindless computer game to try and distract yourself, but meaningful work or interaction is not possible for more than a few minutes at a time. Most people take strong drugs if things get to 7/10. If those don’t work, the next step is the emergency room. By 8/10, and certainly by 9/10, everyone is heading there.

It took weeks at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic to identify and correct my tumor problem. My body finally stopped producing new stones, though, at that point, I still had several more in my kidneys waiting to pass. The Mayo clinic also explained what was causing the continuing pain problem.

All of that severe, intense pain that recurred regularly for more than ten years gradually changed my body. It did two things. First, it caused a rare kind of physical damage that cannot be surgically repaired. Second, it damaged my nerves. The end result is that even though I no longer produce them, I still feel the same pain as if I am passing kidney stone. I feel this pain all day, all night, every day for the past six years. That’s 2,190 days of kidney stone pain, or 52,560 hours, but who’s counting?

Of course I take pain medication for it. If I didn’t, I would have been dead a long time ago. What I have now is a virtual kidney stone that will never pass. That means the pain will never end. Medication does not really remove the pain. Most days I live at a 5/10. That’s halfway to insanity. On an average week, my pain creeps up to 7/10, or 8/10, two or three times. This is while I am taking pretty significant pain medication. Once in a while I’ll experience a few good days, where I might get down to four out of ten. Three out of ten is as rare as the Minnesota Vikings going to the Superbowl. This is not a low level of pain, pain I can ignore. If I take nothing for it, I end up in the emergency room. The last time I waited too long to medicate, I hit 10/10 pain for the fifth time.

If you want to try and experience what I feel on a minute by minute basis, trying lying flat on your back with your knees up. Tuck a golf ball just below your rib cage, two or three inches to the left of your spine. Now, rest all of your torso weight on that golf ball. That might approximate my daily, 5/10 pain experience. I am a strong, stoic person, so I may not be admitting to how much pain I really have. My wife tells me that I typically undersell it.

There is a reason I am emphasizing how bad my pain is, how difficult my daily life is. I want you to understand that what I go through is almost unbelievable, because what I want to say next is even more difficult to believe, but it is far more important.

I am so thankful to God for this pain.

I am closer to Jesus because of this pain.

Now, I don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture. Of course I struggle. Sometimes, I just don’t know how I can get through a day. I write a little. I try to go for a short walk. A car ride of more than forty-five minutes is certain to ramp up my pain something fierce. Sometimes playing a simple computer game helps distract me enough push the pain back just a little. I spend most of the time sitting or lying with a hot bag of rice on my kidney, which is the only thing that sort helps, besides medications that I should only take when I’m desperate. And I get desperate too often. I worry about getting the medications that keep me sane – many of them are controlled substances, and sometimes doctors make mistakes and that leads to lapses in getting what I need.

I want to be writing. I want to write this book. I want to finish the fifth in my mystery series. I want to write a book about house church. Meanwhile, I know I am called to feed the sheep of Jesus by teaching them Word, and by teaching them how to learn the Word for themselves. How can I do these things, things to which I feel strongly called, if all I can do is writhe in pain?

I need to remind myself to stop thinking in days. I need to remember to think moment by moment. Now is a good moment. A combination of things is keeping it at 5/10, and possibly I’ve had a few minutes of 4/10. I’ve just written five hundred words in one sitting. Before the pain, that would about a quarter of what I would have called a decent writing session. Maybe I should call that win for these days. Even now I feel the pain, crouching like a menacing shadow just beyond the light. It is growing. This good moment clearly has an expiration, and it isn’t far off. Soon it will be back to the grind.

But before I quit, I want to make sure you understand something of earth-shaking importance: There is something greater than the pain, something so good, so true, that even though the pain does not become less, it becomes less important.

Because I have been afflicted, I have experienced the love of God in a more deep, intense way. I am more certain than I have ever been of his love for me, and of mine for him. Experientially, I belong more fully to Jesus than I have ever before. This is not in spite of my suffering, but because of it.

I recently heard someone comment on the hymn, “It is Well With my Soul.” She said, “I wish I could have that. It just wish that it could be well with my soul, no matter what is going on.”

Brothers and sisters, today I do have that. It is well with my soul, in the middle of this moment-by-moment struggle, in the middle of five years of disappointed hopes and dead ends, and unanswered prayers. It is well with my soul as I cannot help but grunt or sigh in agony. It is well with my soul, though the prayers of thousands on my behalf have not been answered as asked. It is well with my soul as I toss and turn and squirm and try desperately to get comfortable to grab few hours of restless, unfulfilling sleep. It is well with my soul as I watch my writing career slowly grind down and lose momentum, because I do not have the energy to fight with this pain and do everything else I want to.

What I am about to say might require some major readjustments in your thoughts and attitudes. Especially, it  might require some adjustments to your heart.

It can be well with your soul too.

 

COLOSSIANS #10: FILLING UP WHAT IS LACKING IN SUFFERINGS OF CHRIST

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When we Christians suffer well, trusting God and his purposes, even when we don’t understand them, it is a powerful testimony to the world. It shows the world that there is something so good, so powerful that even suffering is redeemed. It shows the world that suffering and love can, and do, go hand in hand. When we suffer well, it is like we are teaching the world about the sufferings of Christ.

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Colossians #10. Colossians 1:24-26 (Part B)

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. Colossians 1:24-26

This is the second sermon on the same set of verses: Colossians 1:24-26. If you have not read the first sermon on this passage (Colossians #9), please go back and do that now. Some of what we learn in this sermon absolutely depends upon what we already received from the previous one.

We began last time by examining Paul’s words: “I rejoice in my sufferings.” Those are powerful words. Until we understand how it is possible to rejoice in our sufferings, we cannot understand this next phrase: “I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

If you stop and think about it, this is a very puzzling phrase. What does it mean to fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ? How can Christ’s afflictions be lacking? Does this mean that the death of Jesus is not enough, and we need to suffer in order to be saved?

Paul uses some unusual language in this little phrase, but there is one other place that uses almost exactly the same Greek wording. That other verse comes in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The Philippian church collected some money and sent it Paul  to help support him as he worked for the kingdom of God. Paul was in Rome at the time, a long way from where they lived, so they sent the gift with a man named Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus arrived in Rome with the money, and he also assisted Paul in the work, but at some point, he got sick, and almost died. Paul says that he considered this sickness of Epaphroditus to be suffering for the sake of Christ, and he wrote this:

Therefore, welcome him in the Lord with great joy and hold people like him in honor, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up what was lacking in your ministry to me. (Philippians 2:29-30)

The phrase “to make up for what was lacking” is almost exactly the same in Greek as our verse today where he says, “I am filling up what is lacking” in Christ’s sufferings.

In the first place, it is interesting to note that Epaphroditus was not persecuted.  “He came close to death for the sake of the Lord” because of an illness. This should show us that anything and everything that happens to us as we try to live for Jesus is “for the sake of the Lord.” His suffering was no less suffering for the Lord, even though it was not persecution, but “ordinary sickness.”

Next, let’s consider how Epaphroditus “made up what was lacking” in the ministry in the ministry of the Philippians to Paul. He didn’t raise the money himself. Also, Paul does not mean that Epaphroditus added the last, needed twenty dollars. What was lacking in the Philippian gift was a person to deliver it, to make sure that Paul got it. Epaphroditus made up for that lack. He provided the delivery, and the personal touch. He personally represented the love and fellowship the others felt for Paul.

So when Paul says he makes up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ he does NOT mean that the suffering of Jesus was not enough to bring forgiveness of our sins. The whole New Testament is quite clear that the death of Jesus was entirely sufficient to forgive our sins, to make us holy and restore our relationship with God:

11 Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. 12 But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 13 There he waits until his enemies are humbled and made a footstool under his feet. 14 For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy. (NLT, Hebrews 10:11-14, bold formatting added for emphasis)

18 Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. 19 Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous. (NLT, Romans 5:18-19)

1 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. 2 And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. 3 The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. 4 He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. (NLT, Romans 8:1-4)

So, the sufferings of Jesus are entirely enough to save us. We cannot add to the salvation that Jesus obtained for us. His sufferings are not “lacking” in power to save us. But there is one thing that Christ did not accomplish while he was here on earth. He did not tell every human being about himself. He gave that assignment to the apostles, and to the whole church. Therefore, what “is lacking” in Christ sufferings is that not everyone has heard about those sufferings, nor understood what they mean. Just as the Philippians needed someone to deliver a generous gift, so Jesus needs Paul – and us – to bring the good news of his gift to the world. What is lacking is, in essence, the delivery of the gift.

Paul, and the other writers of the New Testament, take it for granted that bringing the good news to others will involve suffering.  Epaphroditus became physically ill while serving Jesus, and it is counted as suffering for the sake of Christ. So, in essence the sufferings of Christ – in his body, the church – will not be complete until all the world has heard the good news.

John Piper puts it like this:

What is lacking is that the infinite value of Christ’s afflictions is not known and trusted in the world. These afflictions and what they mean are still hidden to most peoples. And God’s intention is that the mystery be revealed to all the nations. So the afflictions of Christ are “lacking” in the sense that they are not seen and known and loved among the nations. They must be carried by the ministers of the Word. And those ministers of the Word “complete” what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ by extending them to others…

…Paul exhibits the sufferings of Christ by suffering himself for those he is trying to win. In his sufferings they see Christ’s sufferings. Here is the astounding upshot: God intends for the afflictions of Christ to be presented to the world through the afflictions of His people. (John Piper, Desiring God)

Let me give it to you in a different way. When people suffer, mostly, they just want it to stop. Suffering is seen as universally bad. Suffering creates problems for most people. Many people even turn away from the idea of God, because they feel that a good God would not allow anyone he loves to suffer.

Certainly, the Bible says that God the Father loves his Son, Jesus Christ. Yet Jesus Christ experienced a terrible, eternal quality of suffering that we can only begin to guess at. However, The suffering of Jesus was an act of love, because it saves those who trust him. The suffering of Jesus also shows us that Jesus was looking beyond temporary pain into eternal glory.

When we Christians suffer well, trusting God and his purposes, even when we don’t understand them, it is a powerful testimony to the world. It shows the world that there is something so good, so powerful that even suffering is redeemed. It shows the world that suffering and love can, and do, go hand in hand. When we suffer well, it is like we are teaching the world about the sufferings of Christ.

I am utterly convinced that many people have been encouraged by seeing me navigate this life of pain in faith. I think it has had a deeper impact on both me, and others, than there would have been from a miraculous healing. When people see that even in my suffering I find Jesus to be a good, all-sufficient savior, then I am, in a sense presenting the sufferings of Jesus to them. Because I am a  member of the body of Christ, it is not my suffering, but the suffering of Jesus.

Again, from John Piper:

Since Christ is no longer on the earth, He wants His body, the church, to reveal His suffering in its suffering. Since we are His body, our sufferings are His sufferings. Romanian pastor Josef Tson put it like this: “I am an extension of Jesus Christ. When I was beaten in Romania, He suffered in my body. It is not my suffering: I only had the honor to share His sufferings.”  Therefore, our sufferings testify to the kind of love Christ has for the world. (John Piper, Desiring God)

Suffering is an opportunity. It provides us with a chance to experience the grace of God in a special way. In addition, it allows us to present the worth of Christ to the world in a very compelling manner.

Just a few weeks ago, a prominent Christian singer from Bethel church lost her two year old daughter to sudden death. This was a terrible tragedy. It was also an opportunity for God to give that family special grace, and for them, by trusting that grace, to show the world the surpassing value of Jesus Christ. Instead, they chose to very publicly pray for the resurrection of the child. Though I have my small share of suffering, I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose a young child suddenly. I am not judging them, but I want us to use their example as a thought experiment.

Suppose God had answered their prayer for the resurrection of their child. What then? Yes, it would be a great miracle. But it would also leave hundreds of thousands of other stricken parents wondering why God did not choose to raise their child. It would tend to make people believe that the value of trusting God is mainly in what we can see, mainly in him making our lives better here and now. But that is not a Biblical viewpoint.

What if these parents had responded differently? What if they had immediately leaned into the grace of God to trust, even when they cannot understand? What if they had been able to say, “This is the most horrible thing I have ever experienced – and yet, I find that God’s grace is enough. I don’t understand, but I trust him, anyway.” I believe that would have been more powerful, and more helpful to others, than the resurrection of a single child among the millions of those who die young and tragically.

Between these past two weeks, we have learned that it is possible to rejoice in suffering, and also that suffering is a means by which God’s people can show the world that He is good, and He can be trusted. It would be foolish to go and look for ways to suffer. However, if and when you do find yourself in hard times, press into Him, trust Him. Once more, I leave you with one of my new favorite bible quotes:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (ESV, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

COLOSSIANS #9: REJOICING IN SUFFERING

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Jesus promises a future so good that our present struggles are tiny in comparison. He promises His own presence to be with us, and to strengthen us to endure suffering. He promises to take our present trials, and turn them into future blessings for us. All this means that we can truly rejoice in our sufferings.

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Colossians #9. Colossians 1:24-26.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. (Colossians 1:24-26)

I am typing this on my laptop computer. The laptop is being supported by a large book called “The World’s Great Religions.” This has me thinking: Christianity is unique among the world’s great’s religions for many reasons. One of the ways Christianity is so different is because of how our faith helps us come to grips with suffering.

Hinduism tells us that suffering is all our own fault. It is karma in action. Every person suffers because of what they did, either in this life, or in some previous life. Buddhism tells us that suffering is meaningless. It is an illusion. We should not let it bother us. Islam and Judaism tell us that suffering is something to be endured patiently. It is evil, but God can help us through it, and we will be rewarded if we endure it well.

Only Jesus Christ makes it possible to actually rejoice in our sufferings. Paul’s statement here that he rejoices in his sufferings is repeated in many other places in the Bible. The bible teaches us not only that Jesus Christ can help us as we suffer, but also that suffering can be a source of joy and blessing:

Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance (James 1:2-3)

You rejoice in this, though now for a short time you have had to struggle in various trials (1 Peter 1:6)

A man who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him. (Jas 1:12)

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part (2 Corinthians 8:1-2)

Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah (1 Peter 4:12-13)

4I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy. (2 Cor 7:4)

I could add a number of other verses. I could also add my own testimony. As I have surrendered in faith to Jesus, my sufferings of chronic pain have become for me a source of blessing and joy. Now, don’t get me wrong. I would love to see the pain end. There are days when it is a real hassle, and I get a little crazy trying to figure out how to cope. But I can also say that I am truly grateful for the pain. It has brought me closer to God. It has broadened and deepened my perspective on many things. I say, without hypocrisy, that my suffering has been a blessing. Though my pain is often difficult, Jesus has removed all evil from it.

One thing that can help us to rejoice in our sufferings is an understanding that this world is not all there is, and because of that, our struggles in this life are not as powerful or significant as the all the good that is coming to is in the future. Imagine you have an old-fashioned scale for comparing weights. There are two sides to the scale. On one side, place all of your struggles and sufferings. On the other side, place all of the blessings that God has given us through Jesus Christ, including our future eternal life. All of the good we have in Jesus Christ far outweighs all of the sufferings we experience in this life. Paul says that there is no comparison between the two:

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NLT)

The good does not always outweigh the bad if we are only looking at this life. We must include eternity in the calculation. That is part of what Christianity is about. We can rejoice in sufferings because we know that this life is not all there is, and what we have coming is far, far better than anything we have yet experienced.

We will indeed find in the future that things are so good, the pain that we experienced in this life doesn’t even matter in comparison. But there is even more. We find not only that the good far outweighs the suffering, but also that the suffering provides some of the “raw material” that God uses to create future good for us. In other words, God doesn’t just “outbless” the suffering, he actually takes it and turns it into goodness for us.

17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.
18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. (Romans 8:17-18)

To share in the glory we must share in the suffering. That means that suffering is not just an evil to get through. Suffering is actually the means to glory. When we suffer as we follow Jesus (whatever the cause of suffering) God actually takes that suffering and turns it into future glory and blessing for us. Suffering  here and now creates blessing for us in eternity.

We have a glimpse of this when we consider the cross of Christ. Jesus Christ suffered terribly for our sins. On a spiritual, or metaphysical level, his suffering was unbelievably worse than we can even imagine, for the Bible appears to suggest that he suffered the eternal torture of hell. But the very source of his suffering – the cross – is the very source of his victory and glory. Without the suffering, there would be no glory. Without the pain, there would be no healing. Suffering and glory are deeply connected.

So we rejoice in sufferings because they are small compared to future blessings. We rejoice also because our sufferings are actually turned in to some of those future blessings for us. There is a third reason to rejoice in sufferings, and that is that God is with those who suffer in a special way. In Philippians, Paul writes:

10 My goal is to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death (Philippians 3:10)

Paul seems to be suggesting that suffering creates a special kind of fellowship with Jesus himself. The promises of scripture never guarantee that we will not have to suffer – quite the opposite. But the bible does promise that when we suffer, he is with us.

2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:2-3)

God is with us when we suffer. Jesus was the only one who had to suffer alone. On the cross, in order to carry our sins, he was entirely alone. All others are comforted, if they are open to it, by the presence of God with them in suffering.

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I want to add another thought. Some people are not sure what sorts of suffering “count” as suffering for Christ, and what is only ordinary hardship that is found in this life. Let’s do a thought experiment to help understand this.

Imagine you are an American, and you take your family to Indonesia to be missionaries. You are there because you are serving the Lord. While you are there, you get malaria. Is that suffering for the Lord? It seems reasonable to say so. You are in Indonesia because you are serving the Lord, doing what he has called you to do. Following his call on your life led you to be exposed to malaria. If you had rejected his call on your life to be a missionary in Indonesia, you would not have been exposed to it.

Now, what if you are a Christian who was born and raised in Indonesia? You are following Jesus, and he leads you to be a carpenter, raise your family in faith, and be the Light of Jesus to your friends and neighbors. While living your life in your own country, surrendered to Jesus, you get malaria. Is that suffering for the Lord? I would again say yes. You, too, are serving the Lord the way he has called you to. You too, are living a life of surrender to Jesus. When we belong to Jesus, everything we do, and everything we experienced occurs in Jesus, and for Jesus.

The apostle Paul lived his life for Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 11:16-29, he mentions some of the ways in which he has suffered for Jesus. He certainly includes various persecutions in his sufferings. He also mentions being shipwrecked. He counts dangerous river crossings as part of his trials endured for the sake of Christ (2 Cor 11:26). He adds danger from robbers, from wild animals, from cold and exposure, and from traveling through the wilderness. He counts hard work as part of his suffering for Christ, as well as sleepless nights and going without food and drink.

When Paul was in prison in Rome, the Philippians sent him a gift. The gift was delivered by a man named Epaphroditus. After Epaphroditus arrived in Rome, he got sick. He became so ill that he nearly died. His sickness was not the result of persecution. There is not mention of the fact that it came from some moment when Epaphroditus was doing some amazing act of ministry. It was just “ordinary sickness.” But Paul describes it like this:

29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me. (Philippians 2:29-30)

Epaphroditus was living his life in surrender to Jesus. Therefore, when he got seriously ill, Paul describes it as nearly dying for the work of Christ.

My point is this: If you allow it, God will redeem all suffering. It isn’t just special, “holy circumstances” that count as suffering for Christ. Whatever trials come your way as you live in Christ are counted as suffering for Christ. And these are the trials – often ordinary, everyday hardships – in which we can and should rejoice.

Let the Spirit speak to you about this right now. Think of some area of your life, or in the life of someone you care about. Picture putting that suffering into some kind of container, and then deliver the container to Jesus. Let him take it. He will walk with you. He will give such a future that this problem seems small. He will take that container of suffering, and change it into eternal joy and blessing for you.

Trust Him.

GIVING THANKS FOR THE BAD THINGS

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THANKFULNESS 2019

This will not be a normal, full-length sermon. I want to spend this week in Thankfulness. Although Thanksgiving is not one of the feasts given in the Law of Moses, it is certainly a Biblical idea. Look at a small sample of verses about thankfulness from the New Testament:

Rejoice always! Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  (1Thess 5:16-18, HCSB)

And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.  (Col 3:15-17, HCSB)

Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving.  (Col 4:2, HCSB)

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable — if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise — dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:4-8 HSCB)

6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-7 NIV)

Literally hundreds of times, the Bible exhorts Christians to be thankful. As we look at the small sample of such verses above, it is clear that Christians are supposed to be people who live with an attitude of continual thankfulness toward God. Taking it one step further, to having a feast-day for thanksgiving is only natural. It should never be consider necessary, however: Jesus has done all that is necessary. But a festival of thanksgiving can certainly be useful in orienting our hearts toward God in the right way.

This year, I want us to spend some time in real thanksgiving. I’ll offer some thoughts to help keep us focused and oriented. Many people have discovered that thankfulness can absolutely transform your life. So, for example, say you have a job that you really hate. But, if you start each day by thanking God for the things you don’t hate, you find that it balances out the negatives in your life, or at least, it does to some degree. I often start my thanksgiving with something small, like hot water as I take a morning shower, and towels, and coffee. The more I thank the Lord, the more I think of other things I can thank him for. Many, many people have found this sort of thing to be very helpful in maintaining a peaceful heart and positive attitude.

I want to challenge us this year to take it one step further. I speak from personal experience when I say that I have learned to thank God even for things that I really, really don’t like. To do so, is an act of trust. When I thank God for something that I wish he would change, I am acknowledging that He is in control, and I am not. I am reorienting myself around the truth that he knows better than I do. I am agreeing with his Word, that:

We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

This can be tremendously freeing. It can create a vast reservoir of peace and joy in your life. I know this to be true, because I have experienced it. In my struggle with chronic pain, I began to find real peace and joy when I started to thank God not, in spite of the pain, but for the pain. At the same time I began to thank him for all of the other stupid stuff that was going on my life that I wished was different.

When I started doing this, it was  pure act of will. I said, “I think I need to do this Lord. So, I don’t feel thankful, but even so, I am thanking you for this pain.” I went on and thanked him for financial hardship, and several other things. One of the first times I did this, Kari and I did it together. I won’t say we ended by feeling truly thankful, but we did start to feel a little bit more peace.

As it became more of a habit, I can now say that I am truly thankful for the pain (not just in spite of it). The pain is still there. I still have to figure out how to cope with it. But the fact that I am suffering is not a source of angst or frustration with me. God is working through it to create the best possible outcome for me, and I am so thankful for that.

So, this season, won’t you join me? Join me not only in focusing on the good things, but also in thanking God for the things we wish he would change.

I recognize that I didn’t arrive at this point on my own. It was a gift of God, who, by the Holy Spirit, empowered me to begin thanking him in this way. If you are willing, he will give you the same gift. Let’s ask him to do that right now, so that we can begin to experience the height of joy and depth of peace that thankfulness can bring.

Revelation #5 NO ROOM FOR FEAR

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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?

 

Revelation #3 LORD OF PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

Jesus with us

The first five verses of Revelation bring us incredible grace and comfort, by reminding who God is.

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Revelation #3. 1:1-5

 We have spent two messages on introductory material. There is much more to learn about the background and writing of Revelation, but my plan is to teach about those things as we go along. That way, you’ll get the information when you need it to understand the text.

I want to clean up just a few details from the first three verses. John says in verse 1 that what he is sharing what “will quickly take place.” This is the best way to phrase it in English because it shows the ambiguity of the phrase. It could mean “it will all take place soon,” or, “it will happen, whenever it happens, suddenly.” Also, at the end of verse 3, “the time is near,” speaks, in Greek, of physical nearness, more than chronological nearness. Make of that what you will, but I keep thinking of Peter, who wrote:

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. (2Pet 3:8-9, HCSB)

This is very important to keep in mind as we read Revelation.

It is almost as if in verses 1-3 John is preparing his readers. He knows that the contents of his letter (the book of Revelation) are strange and weird. He is preparing us for that. Next, in verse 4, John writes a somewhat more traditional introduction:

4John: To the seven churches in Asia. Grace and peace to you from the One who is, who was, and who is coming; from the seven spirits before His throne; 5and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

John identifies himself simply by his name. Though some Christians believe there was another John, “the elder of Ephesus,” there really isn’t any hard evidence for that. This is almost certainly John the Apostle. The Greek of Revelation is very different from that of John’s gospel and his three letters, but I think that is easily explained. It is likely that John wrote his other works with the aid of an amanuensis, which was, basically, a secretary, or scribe in the ancient world. So, the secretary-person probably helped John with the Greek phrases of his other work (Remember, Greek was not John’s native language). For Revelation, (also sometimes called “John’s Apocalypse”) however, John was a prisoner, on an island that was used as a prison camp. It would have been very surprising if John had the use of a secretary. In verses 1&2, he identifies himself by name, and as the one “who testified to God’s word and to the testimony  about Jesus Christ, in all he saw.” This sounds exactly like the Apostle John in his gospel:

He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows he is telling the truth. (John 19:35, HCSB)

This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. (John 21:24, HCSB)

It also sounds like John in his first letter:

2that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — 3what we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may have fellowship along with us (1John 1:2-4, HCSB)

 14And we have seen and we testify that the Father has sent His Son as the world’s Savior. (1John 4:14, HCSB)

 This is also in John’s third letter:

12Demetrius has a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself. And we also testify for him, and you know that our testimony is true. (3John 1: 12, HCSB)

 I think we should certainly accept that this is John the Apostle. If for some reason, you still don’t want to think it was written by John the Apostle, that’s fine. Let’s understand, however, that Revelation is still the Word of God.

There is no reason to believe that the seven churches of Asia are symbolic, and every reason to believe that they were real, historical congregations of house churches in each of the named cities. When John writes, “Grace and peace to you,” that much is normal for most of the letters of the New Testament. His next phrases, however, are a bit different:

from the One who is, who was, and who is coming; from the seven spirits before His throne; 5and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

This description of God as the one who is, was, and is to come provides us with a clue for the whole of Revelation. Some of what we read in this book is past, some present, some future. God himself is Lord over all three “at the same time,” so to speak. Understanding this will help us to make sense of the some of the crazy things in this book.

When we read “from the seven spirits before his throne,” it sounds a bit strange. Most commentators believe that this is how John is representing the Holy Spirit. That makes sense. The first part (who is, was and is to come) is the Father. Jesus Christ, the Son, is named in verse 5. The seven spirits, then, represent the fullness of the Holy Spirit at work in the world. Later on, in Revelation 3:1 and 4:5, John explicitly calls them “the seven spirits of God.” In other words, together, they represent the work of the Holy Spirit.

This interpretation is bolstered by other parts of the Bible. The prophet Zechariah once had a vision. In the vision, he saw a golden oil lampstand with seven connected lamps, and oil channels running to each of the seven. Zechariah asked an angel what it meant, and this is what the angel said:

6So he answered me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by strength or by might, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of Hosts. (Zech 4:6, HCSB)

In other words, the seven oil lamps symbolized the Holy Spirit. Remember, like Zechariah, John is writing in apocalyptic language. It is reasonable to assume the same meaning: the seven spirits of God are the many-branches of the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Number 7 in Revelation

We might as well pause here and deal with the number seven. For Jewish people, the number seven meant completeness, finality, and perfection.

For John, I believe it especially means the completion of God’s full and perfect work in the world. John, and all Christians after him, believed in a Triune God: one being, made up of three distinct persons, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This means that three is the number of God.

John, and all Jews before him, thought of the number of four as indicating all of creation. We will see this when we get to chapter four in Revelation. Jews as far back as Ezekiel (590 BC, or so) imagined the world as divided into four parts: 1. The Wilderness 2. The Rural Areas 3. The Cities, and Cultures of Humankind 4. The Air.

So seven equals three (the number of God) plus four (the entirety of creation). It signifies God’s perfect work, plan, and will, expressed in the world.

Returning to our text, we don’t worship seven separate Holy Spirits. Instead, John describes him as “the sevenfold spirit of God” or “seven spirits of God” to express the work and will of the Holy Spirit in God’s creation. We are meant to know from this that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world.

Next, John brings Greeting from “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness.” It seems like a somewhat strange title. Aren’t the followers of Jesus witnesses for Christ? Why is He a witness? It might help to  know that in Greek, the word for “witness” is the same as the word for “martyr.” In John’s time, many Christians were being imprisoned, and some were even killed, for holding to their testimony that Jesus Christ is the God-man, savior of the world. I think John means to remind everyone that they are following in the footsteps of the original martyr: Jesus himself. Those who have died for their faith are in the best possible company: Jesus, the faithful martyr. Finally, Jesus is called, Ruler of the kings of earth.

I think, for now, we have enough to apply to our lives. Let’s begin with remembering that our Father is, was, and is to come. Nothing has ever happened to you that God cannot redeem for good (Romans 8:28). Even if you did not know him until later in life, He is the God of your past. If you let him, he can go back even to the muck of terrible things that you did, even to terrible things that were done to you, and redeem them through Jesus Christ. If you struggle with your past, I strongly urge you to pray about it. Invite the Lord of the past into your past. Give him permission to forgive, heal and redeem.

Our Father is also present. Nothing going on in your life right now is out of God’s control. He isn’t wringing his hands, saying, “Oh my! I never thought my people would ever get into this situation! What shall I do?” His plans are sometimes difficult – or even impossible – to understand (we only have to read on in Revelation to realize that). As I write this, I am fighting chronic pain in my left kidney that has been present for more than two years. I also have a new, arthritis-type pain all over my body, and I feel nauseous, two days out of three. But my greatest hope is to know my Father better in this present moment. Of course, I want pain relief and healing. It’s just that I want more to experience Him. And the wonderful thing is, that is what He promises I can have, here and now. He is my God, not just in the past or future, but now.

Our Heavenly Father is also our future. Nothing that comes to us in the future will be without God. When we worry about the future, the primary reason is that we are leaving God out of our calculations. He has already been to the future. He is there, and if we trust him, we can have peace about what is to come. Also, in the ultimate future, we will have more than just peace of mind. This book we are studying tells me that I will have pain relief and healing – if not now, then for certain, one day in the future. Paul wrote:

19If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. (1Cor 15:19, HCSB)

We have an unimaginably glorious, thrilling, joyful, meaningful, PERFECT future waiting for us if we persist in our faith. John will describe it in detail at the end of this book.

Perhaps we need to remember that the Holy Spirit, in all its fullness, is at work in the world, and in our hearts. If we are followers of Jesus, the Spirit of God is in us. Revelation will go on to show us that the Spirit is work all around us in the world, though we usually don’t notice it.

John describes Jesus Christ as the faithful martyr. Sometimes we feel alone in our suffering. Perhaps a divorced woman, suffering the results of the unfaithfulness of her husband, feels all alone in her emotional pain. Maybe a man who lost his wife to cancer feels the death of all his dreams about their future together. Jesus has gone ahead of you. He too died – not just in part, but in every way. And somehow, he took upon himself all of the struggles of humanity. He has experienced all of the same struggles we have:

14Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens — Jesus the Son of God — let us hold fast to the confession. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin. 16Therefore let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time. (Heb 4:14-16, HCSB)

Sometimes, ridiculous as it is, I feel like a martyr. No one else I know seems to struggle like I do. I suspect, however, that my feelings are quite common among all people. Jesus Christ was the faithful martyr who suffered unjustly, yet remained faithful. I am in good company when I suffer in any way. Not only that, but he is with me in my suffering. He is here to give me grace and mercy as I struggle. His presence is right here in the middle of struggles, suffering, and loneliness.

Jesus is also the firstborn of the dead, which is another title of hope. My future is tied to his. His resurrection ensures my own. I won’t always suffer or struggle. There are wonderful things ahead. Paul, thinking of this wrote:

18For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:18, HCSB)

Lastly, John writes that Jesus is also the ruler of the kings of the earth. That seems like a strange title, doesn’t it? When John wrote, there would have been almost no Christians in government, and very little hope (apparently) of there ever being Christians with influence in a worldly government. The most powerful man in the world insisted that others worship him as a god. He and his government were brutal, cruel, immoral and greedy. But John has just seen a vision of the world as God sees it, and he knows that no matter what it looks like, ultimate authority belongs to Jesus. Regardless of how it appears, Jesus Christ is over every king and ruler, and there is no power on earth greater than Him.

When John wrote, the Roman emperor, and everyone around him, believed he was the most powerful man on earth. No doubt, in our time, the current president of the United States believes he is the most powerful man in the world. They are all wrong. Jesus is the ultimate power. Though for a little while, Jesus gives rulers and kings a limited ability to do what they want, the buck stops not with the president, but with Jesus. He is in control. This calls for faith, because it sure doesn’t look like Jesus is in control. Yet, that is why John writes, and shares his vision: to encourage our faith. This is a call to believe these things that John has written. One way to “take hold” of these things in faith is by thanking God for them. I encourage you to take some time right now to thank God for being there in your past, here in your present, and in control of your future. Thank Jesus for his faithful death on our behalf, and that he allows us to be part of his company of witnesses. Even thank him for the “little deaths” that you might have to die here and now, knowing, like Jesus, that our reward is certain. Thank him for his many-splendoured work in the world, and in your heart, through the Holy Spirit. Thank him for being in control of the world, even in control of those who have worldly authority over us.

Let the Holy Spirit continue to apply these verses to your life right now.