Revelation #13 The Poor, Wealthy Church

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

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Revelation #13. Revelation 3:14-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another one I’ve quoted many times:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In addition to giving discipline, Jesus offers an invitation:

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

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

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

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

CAN YOU BE RICH AND BE A JESUS FOLLOWER?

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We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

 

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Matthew #68 Matthew 19:23-26

As always, I want to remind you that we deeply appreciate your prayers for us!

23Then Jesus said to His disciples, “I assure you: It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven!24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

25When the disciples heard this, they were utterly astonished and asked, “Then who can be saved? ”

26But Jesus looked at them and said, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matt 19:23-26, HCSB)

These words come right after the rich young ruler leaves, sadly choosing to keep his wealth rather than follow Jesus. Verse 25 says that the disciples were utterly astonished at the words of Jesus about wealthy people. To be honest, I’m tempted to be utterly astonished at the disciples. It’s not like this is the first time Jesus has talked about money. Earlier, he said:

“No one can be a slave of two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot be slaves of God and of money. This is why I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? (Matt 6:24-25, HCSB)

If this is the case, it shouldn’t be so surprising that the wealthy have a difficult time entering the kingdom of God. Most wealthy people, whether they admit it or not, are serving money. Since they can’t do that while also serving God, it stands to reason that it would be hard for them to enter the kingdom.

In the parable of the Sower, Jesus warns that wealth is a great spiritual danger:

22Now the one sown among the thorns — this is one who hears the word, but the worries of this age and the seduction of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. (Matt 13:22, HCSB)

All in all, Jesus’ words, and the subsequent teachings of the apostles, leave us with the clear understanding that wealth is a significant obstacle to being a disciple of Jesus. I think it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that some of you reading this might be surprised and a little bothered that I put it so bluntly. But I think it really is as simple and blunt as that. I’ve already shared three different places where Jesus warns about this. Rather than argue the point myself, I ask you to also prayerfully consider the following scriptures:

But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But you, man of God, run from these things, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. (1Tim 6:9-11, HCSB)

5Your life should be free from the love of money. Be satisfied with what you have, for He Himself has said, I will never leave you or forsake you.6Therefore, we may boldly say: The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? (Heb 13:5-6, HCSB)

9The brother of humble circumstances should boast in his exaltation,10but the one who is rich should boast in his humiliation because he will pass away like a flower of the field.11For the sun rises with its scorching heat and dries up the grass; its flower falls off, and its beautiful appearance is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will wither away while pursuing his activities. (Jas 1:9-11, HCSB)

Come now, you rich people! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming on you. Your wealth is ruined and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your silver and gold are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You stored up treasure in the last days! (Jas 5:1-3,

HCSB)

16So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth.17Because you say, ‘I’m rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,’ and you don’t know that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked,18I advise you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich, white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed, and ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see.19As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be committed and repent. (Rev 3:16-19, HCSB)

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

All of this appears to be quite clear: the pursuit of wealth and the guarding of it are generally very negative things for Christians. We need to understand how terribly counter-cultural this is. Money is THE idol in Western culture, and in fact, in much of the world. We deeply want to cherish the belief that we can pursue wealth and Jesus at the same time. We desperately do not want to believe that wealth is an obstacle to entering the kingdom of God, because frankly, we want wealth, and we want eternal life insurance too.

I think the reasons we want wealth are precisely the reasons it is a problem. We want wealth in order to make a better life for ourselves here on earth. That keeps us focusing not on eternal things, but on temporary, trivial things. When we pursue wealth, we become very serious about things that are more or less meaningless in the light of eternity, and we do not have time for what really matters. We want money as a way to make our lives a little more like heaven, and in doing so, we reduce our desire for the real thing. As C.S. Lewis puts it,

We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

I would add that another of the things we “fool about with” is the acquisition of wealth.

We also want wealth as a form of security. We think that if we have enough money, we will have fewer worries. In other words, we want wealth because we think it is a better way to peace of mind than trusting God.

I know a number of people who are much wealthier than me (which, to be fair, isn’t hard to be). I know some who make several hundred thousand dollars each year. I know others who could liquidate their assets and have a million dollars cash within a few weeks. One thing that surprised me the first few times I met such people, is that they are very concerned about money. I tend to think that if I had that much, I wouldn’t be worried. But as a matter of fact, these people appear to worry about money even more than I do. Can I say it this way? Money will not often bring you peace, and even in those rare times it does, it is a false peace that leads you away from trust in God.

Now, I am sure that some few people get wealthy as they follow Jesus. If you just happen to become wealthy while you live your life as Jesus’ disciple, committing yourself fully to Him and His purposes, it’s probably not a problem. If your goal is never money, but always Jesus, then you might be able to handle wealth in a spiritually appropriate way.

Notice that in our text today (Matthew 19:23-30) Jesus does not eliminate all hope for the wealthy – he says all things are possible with God. In fact, we know of three wealthy people who, unlike the rich young ruler, did follow Jesus. The first is Matthew, who gave up the source of his wealth (his tax collection business) to follow Jesus. The second is Zacchaeus, also a tax collector, who also gave away a great portion of his wealth after meeting Jesus. The third is Joseph of Arimathea. We don’t know whether or not he remained wealthy after becoming the disciple of Jesus.

But I have to be honest with you. Most people don’t get wealthy by following Jesus, and it is not because they are “doing it wrong.” It could happen, but following Jesus is not a reliable means to financial prosperity. Jesus himself was never wealthy. It didn’t work out for wealth for Peter, Andrew, James, John, Nathaniel, Simon, Philip, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, or Thaddaeus – the eleven faithful apostles. The other close disciples of Jesus who failed to become wealthy include: Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, Silas, James (the half-brother of Jesus). In fact, we know for sure that there were very few wealthy Christians during the time of the New Testament. Even throughout history since that time, when you think of the “great” Christians through the ages, the ones who really made a difference, they were usually not wealthy. You might argue that Saint Francis of Assisi became great precisely because he gave up his wealth. Augustine, Martin Luther, Wycliffe, Thomas a Kempis, and many, many more either gave up wealth to follow Jesus, or never had it.

If what you really want is wealth, or even really good financial security, I think you need to make a choice between that and Jesus. Decide which one it is, and if it is money, you might as well stop pretending it is God. It’s not like He doesn’t know. Now, I’m not saying that this can never be a struggle. Of course it is a struggle. Jesus isn’t saying that it is easy. But you will wear yourself out, and never win any part of the struggle if you go on deceiving yourself by thinking that you can have both the ambition to follow Jesus, and also the ambition to be wealthy. Am I wrong about this? Re-read Jesus’ words yourself, and the other New Testament verses I’ve shared, and see if there’s any other way to interpret them without twisting them around.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying that wealth is inherently sinful. But these verses do show us that wealth is inherently spiritually dangerous. From a spiritual perspective, wealth is like high explosives. Most of the time, most people have no need to have them. However, in certain, limited situations, it could be very useful to have high explosives around. But if you do have them, you must handle them very, very carefully, or they will blow up and destroy you. I think this is kind of like the picture we have of wealth from the bible.

I want to cover one more thing. There is nothing in the bible that says poverty is a virtue, like faith, or love or patience. Jesus isn’t saying “part of being righteous is being poor.” The point is not that we must be poor, but rather, that wealth should mean nothing to us. If wealth means nothing to us, and we focus on following Jesus, we might end up wealthy with the temporary riches of this world. We might also end up impoverished, at least in the eyes of the world. We might also be somewhere in between. The point is, it shouldn’t matter to us, one way or another.

I think the writer of the following proverb has a pretty good insight:

8Keep falsehood and deceitful words far from me. Give me neither poverty nor wealth; feed me with the food I need.9Otherwise, I might have too much and deny You, saying, “Who is the LORD? ” or I might have nothing and steal, profaning the name of my God. (Prov 30:8-9, HCSB)

Paul makes a similar case:

But godliness with contentment is a great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. (1 Timothy 6:6-8)

Let me make this practical by sharing some things from my own life. By the way, I don’t share what follows as some sort of covert attempt to get you to send me money – I’m just trying to make all of this real and practical to my own life, because I want to live with integrity to the scripture, and I’m sharing it here because I hope that it may help you get real and practical with the scripture in your own life.

I believe the Lord has called me to write and preach these messages, to serve the small churches I am serving, and to write mystery novels, and to perform music with my wife. Following Jesus, for me, practically, means doing these things. The thing is, sometimes this means we live on the edge financially. This past week we incurred more bills fixing a single vehicle than we made for the entire month. It’s not that the repair was outrageous, but our income was even lower. I don’t know where the money will come from, but I know that Jesus says, “trust me.” I am absolutely open to doing some things that make more money, if Jesus leads me to them, but I want to follow Jesus, not the money. Our way of life right now might eventually become unsustainable, but frankly, I’ve expected that to happen for several years now, and it hasn’t yet come to that.

I sometimes daydream about what it would be like to not worry about money. I think of what I would do if I had a big pile of cash. If I am honest, in my daydreams I do give a lot of my money away, but I also enjoy a lot of it by traveling, upgrading to a car made in the current decade, and so on.

But my daydreams are interrupted by the knowledge that Jesus tells me I don’t have to worry about money right now. Having more or less has nothing to do with it; not worrying about money comes down to trusting Jesus in my real, everyday life. He also tells me I can be generous with what I have right now, and that He looks at the heart and proportion of the gift, not the dollar amount.

In the end, Jesus wants us to make decisions based on what it means for how we relate to him. The rich young ruler made his decision based upon what would happen financially. That is the heart of the matter.