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?

 

HOLDING ON

 

davidcontemplates

 

When we are faced with trouble we have several options. Maybe we blame and abuse ourselves and slip into self-absorbed despair. Perhaps we blame others and feel better by thinking about that. Maybe we are more positive, and jump and try to control and fix the situation. David did not do any of these things. Instead, he simply held on to God.

 

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1 Samuel #28. 1 Samuel Chapter 29. David in Jeopardy (again).

A few weeks ago we observed that though David went to live among the Philistines without consulting God, things seemed to go well for him. But starting this chapter, and culminating in the next two, we will learn why it was a mistake. Remember, though, even though David made this mistake, God was gracious and continued to work for David and through him.

At the beginning of chapter 28, David gets put in a very difficult position. He has deceived king Achish of Gath into believing that he has been attacking Israelites. So when all the Philistines together begin a campaign against the Israelites, Achish invites David along. In fact, it sounds almost like a test of loyalty. He says to David, “you know of course, you and your men must come along with me.” I love David’s answer. “Good. You will find out what I can do.” Notice, he doesn’t say who he is going to do it to. I think David secretly meant, “Good, you’ll find out what kind of warrior I am when I have to fight you.” Achish, believing as he does that David has truly defected to the Philistines, does not catch the possible double meaning. Instead, he feels that David has passed the test of loyalty, and he even offers David to be his lifetime bodyguard. So David is on his way to the war between the Philistines and Israelites – but he is on the wrong side.

Now, I want you to picture how it was for David and his men. David has consistently refused to hurt Saul. They have never attacked fellow Israelites. But now, suddenly, they are marching to war against Saul and the people of Israel, allied with their long-time hated enemies, the Philistines. I can’t imagine that David’s men were happy about this.

They will have two choices. First, they could do what they appear to be doing, which is, to remain allies with the Philistines, and fight on their side during the battle. This could create considerable emotional and spiritual turmoil. They may find themselves facing friends and relatives, and truthfully, they don’t believe in the righteousness of the Philistine cause for war. If they do this, they will be traitors, and Saul, for all his unfair suspicions in the past, will be proved right in the end. If they win, they will have destroyed their country, and no on in Israel would ever accept David as king again. If they lose, they will have destroyed themselves.

Their second choice is to betray the Philistines in the middle of the battle. But that would be problematic for several reasons. First, it shows them as faithless to the Philistines who have treated them fairly kindly for more than a year. Also, if they do that, they will be immediately fighting behind enemy lines, surrounded by the enemy army. Casualties would be very heavy. Another thing is, the Israelites may not understand what David’s men were doing, and if they were able to fight through and link up with Saul’s army, the Israelites might start fighting them anyway. Remember there were no cell phones or radios for them to communicate their intentions to the Israelite army. Finally, Saul’s history shows that even extreme demonstrations of loyalty do not convince him for long. There is no guarantee that turning on the Philistines would actually win Saul’s favor. Saul might even take the battle as an opportunity to kill David, even if he knows that David is helping him.

This is not a good time for David. It is possible that he wrote Psalm 38 at this time (though not certain):


1 O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath!
2 For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.
3 There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.
4 For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.

…..
12 Those who seek my life lay their snares
those who seek my hurt speak of ruin

and meditate treachery all day long.

We don’t know what David would have done – it is not clear in the text. I suspect that he had some vague thought that Saul might be killed in the battle, and then he could rally the Israelites himself. We’ll never know, however, because the Philistines interfered. David was allied with king Achish of Gath. But there were five Philistine kings all together. Each Philistine King ruled over a city and some surrounding territory. When the other four kings saw that Achish had David and 600 Hebrew warriors with him, they objected strenuously. They couldn’t trust him, and so reluctantly, Achish sent David back to the town he had given him, Ziklag. David objects to Achish, and I’m not sure if the objection was genuine, or merely to maintain the deception that he was truly loyal.

In any case, it seems to me that the Lord arranged things to get David out of a very difficult position. David had placed himself there, by deceiving Achish about who he was raiding over the past year. It was his own fault that he was between a rock and hard place. But the Lord extricated him anyway. This is more evidence of God’s incredible, undeserved grace.

So David and his men did not take part in the battle, but traveled home to Ziklag. It took them three days to get back, and when they arrived they received a horrible shock – it was burned to the ground, and all their wives, children and possessions were gone. The Amalekites were very wily. They had seen that the Philistines and Israelites had focused all their attention on one another. So they raided all the through the southern territories of both peoples, finding only defenseless towns and villages, for all the men had gone off to war.

David and his men were devastated at the loss of their families. It says:

4 Then David and the people who were with him raised their voices and wept until they had no more strength to weep. (1Sam 30:4, ESV)

When the grief was over, anger kicked in. But it was chiefly anger against David. His men had fairly good reasons to complain. David had led them to settle with the Philistines in the first place. David had not let them be at peace in Ziklag, but had raided the Amalekites, arousing their ire. David had decided to deceive the Philistines into thinking they were allies. Therefore it was David’s fault that they had marched away with the Philistine armies, leaving their families defenseless. The men talked not just of mutiny, but of stoning David to death. Stoning wasn’t considered murder – it was considered just punishment for gross wrongdoing.

Try and get inside the mind of David for a minute. There is no doubt that he himself had made a mess of things. He didn’t have many good options to start with, with Saul chasing him, and people betraying him, but even so, all his choices of the past 18 months had led to this mess. He had lost his own family. He had lost the families of his faithful men, and all the possessions they had finally been able to accumulate after years of homelessness. Now his men were turning on him.

There were several options for David at that point. He could have said, “yes, go ahead and stone me.” That would have been the response of despair and giving up. He could have been angry. War leaders in those days had a great deal of authority over their men. He was, after all, God’s anointed. He could have rebuked his men, and blamed them for some of what happened. After all, there is no doubt that they had been happier in Ziklag than wandering homeless in the desert. He would have been within his rights to execute the ringleaders of the rebellion. He could have tried to fix the problem himself immediately, trusting in his own strength and wisdom to pull off some kind of miracle.

Instead, it says:

But David strengthened himself in the LORD his God. (1 Samuel 30:6)

The word “strengthened himself” is the Hebrew word transliterated “chazaq.” It means to seize upon, to lay hold of with obstinate persistence. The sense it gives us, is that David focused and fastened his heart, mind, soul and strength on God and God alone, and held on for dear life. He did not immediately try to fix anything or even to defend himself. He just held on to the Lord.

Once more, we see evidence of David’s faith-filled heart. There is no doubt that he has already made some very bad decisions in his life. He is in a mess created by some of those unfortunate choices right now. But his instinct is always to turn back to the Lord. That is the life of faith. It isn’t about performing perfectly, or even performing well. It is about grabbing ahold of the Lord through faith, and holding on for dear life, through good and bad, through the evil brought about by others and the messes brought about by yourself. This, and this alone, is what made David such a great man.

We can see how David’s focus on the Lord brought him back on track. He already knew that the Amalekites were God’s enemies. Clearly, they have already attacked, and this is war. It was certainly David’s right to pursue them and bring them to battle if he could. It would be easy just to assume, and then act. But David, after strengthening himself in the Lord, also humbles himself, assuming nothing, wanting earnestly to hear from God. So before doing anything else, he inquires of the Lord.

Once more, “inquiring of the Lord” most likely involved a sacrifice and a worship service, and possibly even a fellowship meal. It wasn’t a quick thing. But David took the time to worship the Lord, and to lead his men to do the same, before anything else was done.

I want to pause and consider a few things here. I hope David’s life is showing us that perfection is not necessary – only faith is. But think for a moment about your typical response when you are in difficulties. Do you waste time and energy blaming yourself? Do you tend to trust yourself to come up with a solution? Do you want to control the situation and work it out, essentially save yourself? Or maybe your response is depression and despair. You might tend to think the worst will happen to you, so you may as well get resigned to your fate. Perhaps you even blame yourself and accept that you deserve the disaster because you brought it on yourself. Maybe you typically take another approach – you blame others, and get angry at them when things don’t go well. It helps you feel better or more righteous to say it is someone else’s fault.

I think we all tend toward one or more of these things when trouble comes. I want to encourage us, however, to be more like David. He didn’t do any of these. Instead, he fastened his hope and trust on the Lord. Like a bulldog latching on and not letting go, he focused on God with all his soul, heart and strength. All the energy that he might have put into controlling the situation, or blaming others or blaming himself – he put into holding on to the Lord. Don’t put your energy into blame, or self-abuse. Don’t even put your energy into fixing things. Put all your focus into obstinate faith. This is just as true even when you know it is all your own fault.

It is also possible that David wrote Psalm 91 somewhere around this time, either while he strengthened himself in the Lord, or perhaps after his battle with the Amalekites. But whether or not he wrote it, then it is relevant here:

1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High; will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler; and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.

9 Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place-
the Most High, who is my refuge-
10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you; to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name.
15 When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation