Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Letters to the Seven Churches (Revelation 2-3)

Had lunch and a spot of tea with someone I used to do PTC with and who was once theologically-correct and zealous for the truth, but had a few years ago inexplicably and suddenly stopped all bible studies and declined to go to church. No reason was given except sian-ness. It's always very sad to meet her because much as I love her and want the best for her, no amount of urging or pleading or reasoning will ever force her to recover her first love and avoid the certain judgement of God.

She asked what book of the Bible we were studying in ARPC now. The Book of Revelation, I replied. She perked up and wanted to know more. Come for service lor, I suggested. Then she figured she could download the sermons online. Perhaps...perhaps...my sporadic wimpy prayers for her shall be answered...

It is a well-known fact that the Book of Revelation is great for drawing non-Christians and lapsed Christians (is the latter term an oxymoron?) to hearing the gospel. Many people expect to find something more exciting than the normal Pauline letters or boring Gospels in the Book of Revelation. Well…

Take the seven letters in Revelation 2-3. They are very much shorter than any extant Pauline letter and follow a generally similar format:
  • Greeting: "to the angel of the church in [x] write…"
  • Description of Jesus: generally part of the description of him from Revelation 1:12-20
  • Commendation: what the church is doing right
  • Condemnation: what the church is doing wrong
  • Warning about what the church is doing wrong
  • Promises to those who overcome/conquer
The individual letters are full of symbolism and it is impossible to find out from the passage what the symbols mean. We should be wary of anyone who claims that they are able to figure all the details out because the text itself does not give answers to what, for example, the white stone (2:17) might mean or details of the theology of the Nicolaitans. However, many of the rest of the symbolism is easily understood in light of the rest of the Bible. So while we can't work out all minutiae, we are able to look at the whole picture and get a fairly straightforward view of what is being said.

The 7 named cities are real cities. They did exist historically. And the letters are real letters to those 7 churches, addressing their specific problems. However, there were more than 7 churches in Asia then, and in view of the repeated use of the number 7 throughout the rest of the Book of Revelation, the book could be one single letter to the whole church (7 being the symbol of wholeness, totality and completeness). It contains a message to the whole church. What is said to each church must be heard by entire church. It is one letter for all (hence, it is the Book of Revelation (singular) NOT the Book of Revelations (plural)).

Commendations
The church in Ephesus (2:1-7) is commended for its zealousness for the truth. They are hardworking, endure patiently and do not tolerate those who are evil but test teachers to see if they are false. They also hate the Nicolaitans (probably false teachers). Some people, who prefer to think that all truth is relative, might call them intolerant and hard because they hold to "their truth" strictly. But this so-called tolerance is a fallacious blinding of oneself to reality since all subjective truths cannot be all objectively true of reality at the same time. And it is worth noting that this holding fast to the truth and hating everything that is not true is not condemned by Jesus but actually commended.

The church in Thyatira (2:18-28) is commended for its love, faith and service and patient endurance, and that their latter works exceed the first. They are the opposite to Ephesus in this regard.

The churches in Smyrna and Pergamum (2:8-11, 2:12-17) are faithful and not fearful even though their own people are being killed (2:13). There's no disapproval for Smyrna because Jesus doesn't write just to find fault with people. He writes to encourage. The Smyrnians might seem poor but Jesus assures them that they are rich. They appear to be having some trouble with Jews who seem to think that they themselves are God's people, but are not and are instead slandering the true people of God; they are members of the synagogue of Satan. With their father, the devil, these Jews will persecute the church. Members of the church will suffer and be thrown into prison. This will be a time of testing for the church. But Jesus assures them that this will go on for only 10 days; a limited period of time (see Daniel 1:12).

Like the church in Smyrna, the church in Philadelphia (3:7-13) is facing persecution. Although they are weak, they have kept the word of Jesus and have not denied his name. They have kept Jesus' word about (note: not with!) patience endurance. So Jesus who holds the keys of David (see Isaiah 22:19-22) will set open a door which no one is able to shut and will keep them from the universal judgment of the world. When the pressure is on Jesus' people and they look and feel weak, the holy and true Messiah assures us that he will keep his people safe and sound.

Condemnations and Warnings
The church in Ephesus (2:1-7) has forgotten/lost/abandoned its first love. "First" could mean first in time/chronology or first in priority. It could be love for God or love for neighbour or love for the gospel. Whatever it is, the church has lost its love and must repent and recover it. If not, Jesus will take away their lampstand and snuff out the church. Are we zealous for the gospel but have lost our love for God, for neighbour, for the gospel? It is foolish to be full of love but ignore truth. But truth without love is nothing. It seems a bit harsh to be destroyed for being unloving, but love is essential part of the gospel. There is no gospel without love for God, for neighbour and for the gospel itself. Truth without love must therefore be falsehood.

The church in Pergamum (2:12-17) is like the one in Smyrna which is being persecuted. The persecutors are both outside and inside the church. Inside the church, false teachers have been tolerated and people within the church have been led astray and been confused into idolatrous immorality (see account of Balaam and Balak in Numbers 22-25, 31:15-18). They are to repent. If not, Jesus who rules by the sword of his mouth, his word, and will come and judge them. What is the character of our church and our Christian gatherings? Do we hate false teaching and act to cut false teachers away? Or are we too non-confrontational and cowardly to do so and do nothing in the guise of being loving and giving them another chance? Beware and repent, for Jesus will come to us soon and war against us with the sword of his mouth!

Like the church in Pergamum, the church in Thyatira (2:18-28) tolerates false teaching. This false teacher comes as a Christian and preaches Christ to the church but adds on to the gospel, teaching and seducing people into practising sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols, and so leads them down the path to destruction and death. It is tempting to be bored with the plain gospel and be fertile soil for false teachings that suggest that there is more that is needed to be saved: speaking in tongues, great spiritual experiences of joy, happiness, peace or calm (usually termed as being "filled with the Spirit"), good and charitable works, partaking of communion etc. There might be external conformity in being loving and serving in various ministries and even being persecuted for our faith. But if there is the inner corruption of false teaching and immorality we are destined only for death and destruction. There are some people who are like that, and there are some denominations which encourage such external conformity with fatal inner rottenness.

The church in Sardis (3:1-6) seems to be having a relatively peaceful time. They are neither beset by suffering and persecution nor subject to corrupting heresy taught by false teachers. It seems so peaceful that they have fallen asleep and their reputation for being alive is completely wrong! Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die. We might be comfortable in a church with our close social circles and frequent communal outings (usually called "fellowship outings" or "socials"). But if we are indifferent and apathetic about God, the gospel and the growth of our neighbours, then we are little more than social clubs and the buildings in which we meet and call our Church, are little more than ecclesiastical sun-and-rain-shelters. We must wake up before Jesus comes like a thief against us!

The church in Laodicea (3:14-22) is the opposite of the one in of Smyrna: it thinks it is wealthy and prosperous but it is actually poor. The Laodiceans think they are independent and need nothing but in Jesus' eyes, they are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked. They are lukewarm and completely useless. But Jesus is rebuking them not to condemn them at present but to save them from future condemnation because he desires fellowship with them, for he disciplines those he loves.
Holman Hunt in his popular painting(s) "Light of the World" (actually Hunt thought this theme so important that he painted it three times at different points of time in his life) misunderstands this verse (though John Ruskin tried hard to force a more "evangelical" reading of his protégé's work): he renders Jesus as a pre-Raphaelitian man in that white nightie holding a lamp padding up to the door of our hearts at night to knock uncertainly and hopefully at it, pleading to be let in. Popular reading has it that the door has no handle on the outside and can only be opened from the inside, suggesting that Jesus waits helplessly as we ponder whether we should let the poor man in from the cold night into our hot and toasty living room.

The image of Jesus in the previous chapter of Revelation as well as Revelation 2-3 and in the rest of the Bible is very different: here is the king of glory, Son of Man, the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega, the Almighty, the God of Israel, the holy and true one, the one who is who was and who is to come. All glory and power and strength is his. And he is pounding powerfully on the door with the intention of waking the inhabitant up, not to beg to be let in, but to warn him to repent urgently, for he is about to spit him out from his mouth in judgement. Are we nominal Christians who merely acknowledge Jesus as Saviour and God? Repent before he hurls us from his mouth!

Promises to the Overcomers/Conquerors
All the promises and assurances that Jesus gives of the future to those who overcome and conquer truly find their consummation in the final chapters of the book in Revelation 21 and 22.

What does it mean to overcome and conquer? From Jesus' words, it is not about casting out evil spirits or having amazing powers to do miracles or even being a triumphant church or Christian experience. To overcome and conquer means to be faithful even unto death; to cling to the truth and hate and reject false teachers and to have love for God, neighbour and gospel to the end. For faith without works, a mere verbal affirmation of who God is without any change in our lives, is useless. Although it is not our works that saves us, if we claim to have faith but we are not changed to conform more and more to the mind and person of Christ, the reality of our faith is in doubt.

Do we persevere in the truth and love God, our neighbours and the gospel even if the going is difficult? To the one who overcomes, Jesus will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God (2:7; 22:1-5 cf Genesis 3:22-24): the gift of eternal life living in perfect relationship with God, under God's rule, in God's beautiful land.

Do we suffer because of the gospel? Are we unpopular? Slandered? Persecuted at home, by family, friends because we are on the side of God? Do not fear, for Jesus has put a limit on the time of testing. And if we overcome, we will be given the crown of life, and not be hurt by the second death, the lake of fire and sulphur (2:10-11, 20:15, 21:8).

Do we look and feel weak and powerless? Are we under pressure from all sides? Hold fast and Jesus will keep us safe from judgement, and let us reside in God's temple; having relationship with God, under God's rule, in God's house, so that all peoples from all nations will acknowledge (3:9, cf Isaiah 45:14, 49:23, 60:14) that we are his people and he is our God (3:12b, 22:4).

Are we zealous for the truth and jealous for God's name? Do we hate false teachers and false teachings? Do we deal severely with them even when others accuse us of being unloving and sowing disunity among the church? To those who overcome, Jesus will give some of the hidden manna; the bread of life and blessed provision of God for those who trust him, and a white stone with a new name written on it; a pure new identity in Christ, cleansed by his blood (2:17, Isaiah 62:2).

Do we hold fast to the plain gospel we have without taking away anything or adding anything? Are we undistracted by fresh heresies of how we can be more spiritual/Christian? To him who conquers and keeps Jesus' works until the end, Jesus will give authority over the nations (2:26-27, 19:15, Psalm 2) to reign over together with him and the morning star (2:28, 22:16).

Do we live as a community of God's people, fully alert and aware of God and his word, his design for the world and zealous for his kingdom, overcoming temptation to be an ineffectual social club? Jesus will find you worthy and will never blot out your name from the book of life (3:5-6, 21:27).

Do we head the warnings of Jesus to repent urgently? We shall have fellowship with him and reign with him (3:20-21).

There is no point asking ourselves which of the 7 churches we are. This isn't a cheap psychological New Testament quiz forerunner of Quizilla. There is one letter and one message. Each of these seven churches is us. All the churches gathered together are us. Whole message needs to be heard by all Christians.

The ultimate writer of this one letter is the Creator and Rule of the World. He is also the coming Judge. The letter is both a warning and an encouragement not to see as the world as the world sees it but to see what is the true reality. We might look like we are poor but we may in fact be rich. We might look like we are rich and want for nothing but we may indeed be poor and naked. We might look weak when Jesus is in fact sustaining us and protecting us from judgement. We may be zealous for truth but neglect love for God, neighbour and gospel. We might be zealous for love and service and might even suffer for the gospel but we might tolerate false teachers. We might look alive when we might in fact be asleep and almost dead.

The overcomer and the conqueror is the person who is faithful, who endures suffering while clinging to the truth and hating all false teaching. He has an ear to hear what Jesus says to him as a member of the church and puts it into practice in his life. To him, Jesus gives the tree of life, the crown of life and deliverance from eternal death, the hidden manna and a new name, rule over the nations, an entry in the book of life, residence in the temple of God and the throne.

Are we sleepy or lukewarm? Wake up and repent!

God will not tolerate our nonsense forever. And he will come suddenly, like a thief in the night, to judge us for what we have done. If you know that the judgment is what must soon take place, wake up and repent! For when the judge comes, you will be caught unawares and then it will be too late.

Members of the church must warn and encourage each other. We have a great and urgent responsibility to urge one another to cling to the truth and to love for God, gospel and neighbour. We must deal severely with the heretics and their followers, encourage the weak and weary, rebuke the unloving and falsely confident and slap awake those who have fallen asleep.

"Be ready!" warns Jesus,"I am coming soon!"

*******

Heaven Now (Revelation 4-5)
The Revealing Book of Revelation (Revelation 1)

*******

Great God, What Do I See and Hear

Great God, what do I see and hear?
The end of things created!
The Judge of all men doth appear,
on clouds of glory seated.
The trumpet sounds, the graves restore,
the dead which they contained before!
Prepare, my soul, to meet him.

The dead in Christ shall first arise
at that last trumpet's sounding.
caught up to meet him in the skies,
with joy their Lord surrounding.
No gloomy fears their souls dismay,
his presence sheds eternal day
on those prepared to meet him.

The ungodly, filled with guilty fears,
behold his wrath prevailing.
In woe they rise, but all their tears
and sighs are unavailing.
The day of grace is past and gone;
trembling they stand before his throne,
all unprepared to meet him.

Great God, to thee my spirit clings,
thy boundless love declaring.
One wondrous sight my comfort brings,
the Judge my nature wearing.
Beneath his cross I view the day
when heaven and earth shall pass away,
and thus prepare to meet him.

[Another version of the final verse reads:
Great God, what do I see and hear:
the end of things created!
the Judge of all men doth appear,
on clouds of glory seated:
low at his cross I view the day
when heaven and earth shall pass away,
and thus prepare to meet him.]


Words: Sheffield Psalms and Hymns, 1802, William Bengo Collyer, 1802, 1812 and Thomas Cotterill, 1819
Music: Nun freut euch (Geistliche Lieder, 1535, Wittenberg)

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