Revelation 2 – Letters to the Seven Churches (part 1)

Read Revelation 2

After seeing Jesus, John is told to write a letter to each of the seven churches, represented by the seven lampstands.  These letters could simply be letters to each of those churches, addressing issues that were present at that time.  However, with the greater arc of this book being to the Church Universal, limiting the writing and its meaning in that way wouldn’t necessarily fit the whole of the book of Revelation.  Notes in my Study Bible suggest the possibility of these letters being a “preview of church history in its downward course toward Laodicean lukewarmness.”  Another possible interpretation would be that these letters represent the “characteristics of various kinds of Christian congregations that have existed from John’s day until the present time.”  Being that we believe God’s Word to be “living and active,” each and/or all of these could have some semblance of truth to them.

The words for each church come from Jesus, but His introduction in them bears one of the different characteristics of His appearance, found in chapter one.  Each difference is based on the message that is coming to them, both the tone and the type of message.

The Church in Ephesus:

By now, the church in Ephesus is quite familiar to us.  Having read Paul’s letter to them as well as some discussion around the church in other letters, we know that the city was one of great importance and as such, the church there faced a number of challenges from false teachers both outside and inside the church.  To that, though, Christ speaks words of praise; they have readily resisted those teachings including those of the Nicolaitans, a heretical sect that had worked out a compromise with pagan society.

Yet, in the midst of this battle, they seem to have forgotten that which is most important, love.  It’s easy to begin with love but as many in relationships know, love takes hard work and dedication to continue on in.  This isn’t simply true in human relationships, it is also very true in our relationship with God.  We need to hold onto this love because it is that love, the love of God in Jesus Christ, that will bring victory in the end.

The Church in Smyrna:

Smyrna was a city that was closely affiliated with Rome and therefore desired greatly to worship the Emperor.  It was also home to a very large Jewish population that was hostile to the church there.  Christians here likely experienced a lot of persecution, something that Jesus Himself was familiar with.  Jesus’ words are those of encouragement to persevere despite the conditions there for their true home and true victory lie in something much greater than this life.

The Church in Pergamum:

The city of Pergamum was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and as such it was the official center of emperor worship in that region.  This gives light to the comment that “satan’s throne” was there and it also explains why Jesus uses the image of the sword in His introduction.  Antipas is traditionally known as the first martyr in Asia.  His death makes some of the things we hear about terrorists doing today look tame.

Though they have remained faithful in the midst of intense persecution and cultural pressure, Jesus still calls them out on some false teachings that they continue to allow within the church.  It is not enough for us to remain open and functioning as a church in the midst of persecution.  If we give in and allow for culture and heresies to change us, we might as well not even be there.  True victory comes from faith in Jesus Christ, the true victor, not in remaining physically present at the expense of salvation.

The Church in Thyatira:

Thyatira was a military outpost known for its guilds and trading.  It is also known for being the home of Lydia, a prominent woman in the early church.  This may be one of the reasons for the images Jesus uses in his introduction; refining fire and burnished bronze are both things that would be familiar to this city, their worth, having been refined, was much greater.  Jesus commends the church here for their growth, how things seem to be getting better.  Yet, just one is growing does not mean that evil things within its bounds can be tolerated.

Yet, just one is growing does not mean that evil things within its bounds can be tolerated.  This has applications both personally and corporately.  Sometimes, when things are going well, we want to ignore the negative things that might be happening so as to not create waves.  To this, Jesus says “no”.  He is not in the business of comfort, nor does He desire half growth… we cannot keep our pet sins as we continue to grow and be sanctified.  True victory comes in wholeheartedly following Jesus, putting off all other things.



Romans 13 – Government and Freedom

Read Romans 13

It seems like a contradiction in terms to talk about submission to an entity and freedom in the same thought process.  Yet Paul navigates this ambiguity well, speaking into a context in which many people question whether or not to follow Ceasar or not.  To be fair, the Roman Empire was known for the “imperial cult,” or the worship of their current ruler.  This person was raised to “god status,” often times after they died, and were worshiped along with the pantheon of Roman gods and goddesses.

In this context, it is not difficult to see why Paul would have to address the place of government in the life of new Christians.  Along with the Jewish influence of wanting to throw off Roman rule, it was a rather tenuous place to be.  Those who didn’t participate in the imperial cult worship risked arrest and possibly even death.

Paul recognizes God the Father’s ultimate authority upon the earth.  No matter who the ruler is, it seems, that person’s power and authority has been given by God and therefore we must honor that.  But when stated like this, it makes no sense to worship that ruler as their power is limited. One wouldn’t worship a governor because their seat was given to them; therefore worship would be directed to one who gave the power.

This is the manner in which Paul sets up honoring earthly authority while reserving worship for God alone.  As a matter of fact, doing this acknowledges God’s sovereignty, places us in a position of trusting His work and His will, even if we don’t understand it.  Despite the political divisions that we see in the U.S. today, Scripture still calls us to honor the authority; which ultimately means trusting God’s choice, His will, and His work.



Introduction to Acts

The book of Acts is the first book following the Gospels but is also linked very closely to them, particularly the book of Luke.  Acts is Luke’s second volume, a companion book the Gospel of Luke, that follows the expansion of the Church after Jesus ascends into heaven.

At the beginning, Jesus gives a charge to His followers before He returns to heaven.  “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  This is effectively the “thesis statement” for the book of Acts.  Luke follows the work of Peter and the apostles, and then the work of Paul as the message of Christ spreads in ever expanding circles throughout the Roman Empire.

Acts is the only book deemed “historical” as a writing genre.  What this means is that there is less teaching associated with it and more recording that takes place.  We will see more narratives of things that happened and less of the teaching that we have seen Jesus doing in the course of His ministry.  That said, there is still plenty that God’s Word will teach us in this book.

Finally, a note about the language of the “early church” that refers to Acts and is used in our contemporary church today.  We will observe a number of ways that the Church functioned in the setting of the first century under Roman rule.  The book of Acts is by no means “prescriptive” of the “ideal” church, but rather a record of God’s faithfulness in building the Church.  Rather than trying to copy what they did, something incredibly difficult for us in the 21st century, it is important that our focus is drawn to the One who provided for, empowered, and sustained the Church in these difficult times.



Day 356: 1 Peter 1-5; Courage in the Midst of Suffering

As we continue in our reading, we come to the books of first and second Peter.  Tradition holds that it was the Apostle Peter that wrote these two books, probably while he was in Rome.  Whether or not this is true, I guess, is besides the point.  Reading today you’ve probably picked up on a common theme that has been prominent, especially in the latter letters of Paul and these general letters that have gone out to the whole church.  As the Church continued to grow and spread out throughout the Roman Empire, it continued to face a great deal of persecution and struggle.  The Roman government acknowledged the Church as a sect of Judaism, something that was not necessarily beneficial to Christians.  The Jews has often been hostile to Roman rule, which caused many believers to be persecuted on behalf of the Jews.  More than that, the Jews themselves obviously didn’t accept the Christians as well, thus causing more persecution.  Many believers lost all that they had, their homes, businesses and any sort of ability to sustain a living for themselves and their families, all because they professed faith in Christ.  The further on we go in the first century, the more this becomes prevalent.

Peter, or the writer of First Peter, knew this and was writing into this very issue.  The Church had been scattered throughout the Roman Empire; this letter is addressed to the churches throughout what is no known as Turkey.  Peter also addresses this letter “To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion.”  He could mean a number of things here.  Returning once again to Dr. Robert VanVoorst’s book Reading the New Testament Today, VanVoorst writes that Peter could be referring to “spiritual exiles” in that all believers are spiritually exiled from the fully realized kingdom of God and reign of Jesus Christ here on earth.  Another reason could be an implication that the writer was looking to target a Jewish audience as well, using words like “exile” and “dispersion” which show up in the Old Testament a great deal.  In any case, it is clear that Peter is writing to many churches during a time of increased persecution.

One of the main points that Peter is making in this letter actually speaks directly into this time of trial and struggle and in many ways echoes the book of James.  Peter is imploring the believing community that they are called to live lives of faith and to testify to Christ Jesus, even if it brings them troubles in this life.  From the very beginning, Peter talks about the salvation that we receive in Christ Jesus, and continues by saying “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’

It may be easier in life to acknowledge faith in church and even in our speech with other Christians, yet hiding it from the rest of the world so as to not face persecution.  However, this is not the way that we as disciples of Christ are called to live.  In my discipleship class this year we have talked at great length about what it means to be a disciple of Christ and what that looks like in our lives and in the lives of the church.  Ultimately this is lived out in the calling that we have had since the beginning, To Love God and To Love Neighbor.  This is the greatest commandment that Jesus testifies to and that even Israel was called to.  This calling has two aspects, an inward action to love God and to love neighbor, and an outward action to show the love of God in our lives and to do that towards our neighbor.  Faith and Christian discipleship are not something to be lived out only in the Church building on Sunday mornings, they are things that are to be lived out EVERYDAY, they are the out flowing of what happens on Sunday morning.

What does this look like?  Peter addresses this by saying that it looks, first and foremost, like having Christ as the cornerstone of our  lives.  It also shows up in our submission to authority and respect of it in the world (whether we agree with it or not).  It shows up in how we love and treat our family, with love and respect.  It shows up in our vocations, even if it leads to suffering or persecution (a word I use in the lightest of senses because Christians in North America do not truly know what it means to be persecuted to the point of imprisonment and death).  It also shows up in our we interact with other Christians as well, which brings us back around to the notion of discipleship.  Peter exhorts the “elders” among them to be good shepherds of the flock, something that we often loose in our churches today.  Older folks do not feel that they can relate to the younger generations, or that the young have any desire to listen to them, but they do and the church is in desperate need of people that are solid in their faith to come alongside the young and immature so that they can be built up into Christ.

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.  And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.  Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.  Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.  And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.  To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.



Day 335: 2 Corinthians 1-4; Intro to Second Corinthians

As we enter into reading the second letter that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, we need to start by recognizing two things.  First, we have to remember that this isn’t a direct continuation of the first letter that he wrote, as if the letter was so long that he couldn’t put it into just one volume.  A period of time has passed since the writing of 1 Corinthians, a period in which is seems that Paul has indeed visited the church and that the visit was “painful.”  We also need to take into consideration, as this writing takes place, that there may have been several correspondences that took place between the time of the writing of 1 Corinthians and now, some of which may have been added into this writing as it took shape as one of the books of the Bible.

Paul opens his letter with a greeting, like many of the other greetings that he writes in the different letters to the churches throughout the Roman Empire.  He then talks about the current situation that he and his traveling companions have found themselves in.  Yet even in the many trials that Paul has faced, he doesn’t lose faith in God and even points to the greater desire of God in these hard times to turn to Him and rely completely on His strength.  However, Paul is not saying this in a way that is showing how good he is while at the same time showing how bad the believers at the church in Corinth are.  Instead, Paul is giving God the glory for the faithfulness that He has show in their sufferings.

In his writing, Paul talks about some of the issues that have been going on with his journey and his change of plans.  He seems to go into considerable detail about why the plans are changing and even feels the need to defend his decision to not return to Corinth.  In this, he also talks about a “sinner” among them.  It could be that these situations are related and that there is some conflict that is going on within the church in Corinth or possible between some leaders and Paul.  In any case, Paul has been directed by God not to return to Corinth and is instead writing to them to explain all of this.

The final chunk of today’s reading comes in the form of a discussion about the New Covenant and its superiority over the old.  Paul talks about the triumph that they had in Troas, preaching the Gospel of Christ there.  It seems that they had considerable success in their spreading of the Good News there, yet even in this Paul remains humble and gives the credit to Jesus Christ.  It is not what they do or even what they writing that is the main thing, but what the Spirit of God is doing on the hearts of those who hear the Gospel that is important to Paul.  He then makes a turn towards relating this to the people of Israel and their handling of the Old Covenant as well.  So concerned they are with what has been written and even what Moses said, and yet it is like a veil over their hearts as that cannot truly understand what actually means.

Really, we have said this many times before, but here Paul is saying it again, the Law is not something that brings salvation and neither do the sacrifices of animals bring about forgiveness.  These are things that were set in place to give light to a greater hope in the grace of God in Christ Jesus.  The Law dictates things to do in order to remain in God, yet in Jesus Christ these things are done and fulfilled.  It is, however, only through these things that we can really understand the significance of what Jesus did on the cross.

It is this hope, Paul goes on to say, that causes us to not lose heart.  In Jesus Christ we have a hope for something greater, something better than the struggles of this life.  He writes at the end of chapter four, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,  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.



Day 259: Daniel 10-12; Daniel's Visions of the Future (Part 2)

Today’s reading continues the visions that Daniel has regarding the future and times to come.  As we get to chapter 10, we are nearing the end of Daniel’s life.  By some estimates he would be about 80 years old by now which may have been the reason that he was still in Babylonia rather than returning with the exiles to Judah.  In any case, while he is still in Babylonia he has yet another vision, one that is again very similar in nature to that of John’s revelation that is recorded for us.  What we are reading about, as the messenger explains to Daniel after the vision, is the future that Israel was to experience in an empire that continuously changed hands and passed from leader to leader over the next several hundred years.  The messenger describes the rise of Medo-Persia, Greece and then its divided kingdom, and finally of Rome.  This happens over the course of about 500 years and, like the visions in chapters 7-9 that we read yesterday, is a kind of expansion on the dream of the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had.

While we certainly don’t have time to go through all the events that happen in this time period, and I certainly don’t really want to bore you with an unnecessary history lesson, I think that there are some events that happen here that are important as they are the fulfillment of different parts of Daniel’s dream.  So, at the risk of seeming lazy, I’m going to link some events and names that are important to this time in history.  The links will be to wikipedia sites so you can take it for what its worth.

Babylonia
Medo-Persia
Greek (Macedonia) Empire
Roman Empire

Darius
Cyrus the Great
Alexander the Great

Diadoche (Division of the Empire of Greece into the 4 Kingdoms)

Antichus III
Ptolemy V
Seleucus IV
Antiochus IV Epiphanes (probably one of the most interesting and pivotal people of the inter-testamental period of 2nd Temple Judaism.  Led to the Maccabean revolt)

Like chapters 7-9, the last chapters of Daniel have been subject to a great deal scrutiny and study and have been cited in a number of different doctrines regarding the true meaning of Daniel’s visions and the end of time.  We need to remember that Scripture is not to be read as if it was some sort of a code that is to be broken.  The Word of God is not meant to be difficult to understand, as if God was revealing Himself through the Scriptures in a way that is difficult to figure out.  That statement itself is a contradiction.  The word “revelation” literally means to reveal in a way that is understandable, and that is what Scripture is… the Revelation of God to humanity.  We need to remember this as we read through Scripture… This doesn’t change just because we are reading the prophets and their obscure visions.  Even here, God is revealing Himself to His people.  They will be going through a great deal of change and upheaval even while they are back in their homeland, but we see here that God is in control of even this.  While it might seem like the world is going crazy around them, God is still at work in these trials.

Perhaps we can learn something from this too.  While we would probably like to hear that there are hidden meanings that we can spend years and years trying to unpack, I think the words of comfort and truth that are contained here are much more important.  We live in a world today that is volatile and corrupt.  It seems like every day some new war, uprising, bombing, killing, or accident has taken the headlines by storm.  If its not that, we end up hearing about corruption in government and business, poverty, disease, and injustice everywhere.  Yet even in this God is in control and is at work.  The governing nation of the world turned over four or five times in about 600 years, yet through it all God was at work to bring about redemption.  He is still at work, even now in the turmoil of this world, to bring about the ultimate redemption at the end of time, when evil will be defeated and the Lord will set up His throne on earth and all things will be made new and right.



Day 255: Daniel 1-2; Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar's Dream

The life of the prophet Daniel took place concurrently with that of Ezekiel and Jeremiah.  Both Daniel and Ezekiel would have been taken with the first wave of captives that were taken around 605 B.C.  With Ezekiel being a priest and Daniel being of noble blood, it is possible that they would have even known each other.  However, unlike the other prophets that we have read so far, Daniel does not include messages of judgment against the people of Israel or the surrounding nations.  In fact, Daniel is more of an example of what it meant to live faithfully for God while in exile.  While others that had been taken captive willfully defiled themselves before God by eating food that was sacrificed to idols, Daniel and his three friends remained true to their faith and to God, and for this God blessed them.

Nebuchadnezzar's Dream of the Statue Photo Credit: http://pastorjeffdickson.blogspot.com

Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream of the Statue
Photo Credit: www.pastorjeffdickson.blogspot.com

As a book, Daniel also provides key prophesies about the future.  In many ways, when many people think about prophesy, they think about some of the obscure prophesies of the future that we will read in the latter part of this book.  Many of these have to do with the immediate and somewhat distant future of the region, about the change of power between nations, and the coming of the Messiah.  Sadly, there are many people that think that Daniel is actually a book to be decoded and that in some way it will give us clues and hints to the second coming of Christ and things like the Rapture and Tribulation.  While again, I do not claim to be a Biblical scholar, in studying a lot of these interpretations, their failing lies in the fact that they do not consider the whole unity of Scripture and take single verses out of context to prove their own theories.  Like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, all these writings must be considered within their greater context, historical, cultural, and Biblical, so that we can have a better picture of what God is trying to tell us through the writings of Daniel.

Fortunately for us, there are some things that come up in Daniel that are actually given interpretations on the spot.  For these, it is important for us to listen to what God reveals through Daniel so that we do not ourselves misinterpret them.  These interpretations also give us insight into other visions and dreams that come about later in the book.  The first of these dreams that we encounter is that of Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon.  For people in this day and age, dreams were a great deal more significant than they are for us.  Many considered dreams to be messages from the gods, which explains why a king would surround himself with advisers, wise men, and even magicians, to help interpret signs and dreams.  After having his dream he presents his “wise guys” with an impossible request; impossible that is for any human and the man made gods they worshiped.  However, to the God that knows all and sees all is able to reveal this to Daniel without any problem.

Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the statue Photo Credit: www.andrew.sterling.hanenkamp.com

Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue
Photo Credit: www.andrew.sterling.hanenkamp.com

What Daniel reveals is that the dream Nebuchadnezzar has is about the future and about the his kingdom and those to follow.  Each of the kingdoms, it seems, decrease in splendor while increasing in strength.  Gold is one of the more malleable of metals, Iron the least.  Gold is one of the most precious metals, Iron the least.  While Daniel doesn’t give us too much of an interpretation of what nations the metals stand for, modern interpretations indicate:

  • Gold stood for the Babylonian Empire spanning 606 B.C. to 539 B.C.
  • Silver stood for the Medo-Persian Empire spanning 539 B.C. to 331 B.C.
  • Bronze stood for the Grecian Empire spanning 331 B.C. to 146 B.C.
  • Iron stood for the Roman Empire spanning 146 B.C. to 476 B.C.

Most of the disagreement comes from the meaning of the “Iron mixed with clay” that the feet of the statue were made out of.  Some would say, with good reasoning, that this stand for the “revived” Roman Empire which was actually the latter part of the Roman Empire which was divided into smaller provinces and eventually fell to the influence of multiple other nations.  Other interpretations state that the feet represent the “10 nations” of Europe that existed after the Roman empire.  Still others think it represents the current days that we are in and that somehow things like the United Nations is a clear fulfillment of this prophecy.  While I don’t think that you could say with any confidence that the U.N. is a “clear fulfillment,” I can say with marked assured that the point of the dream is not the statue at all… it is the Rock.

The Rock that is not formed by human hands comes in and smashes the statue to oblivion and then is set up on earth like a massive mountain.  The interpretation of the Rock is also very clear: “In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold.”  Daniel speaks here of the Kingdom of God, not a kingdom set up by humans, but one that God Himself will establish here on earth.  God has revealed to Nebuchadnezzar and to all people the ultimate plan for this world and it does not involve human kingdoms, but heavenly ones.  The Lord, the only King and Head of this World, will set up His Kingdom here on earth, a process that began with the first coming of Jesus and will be completed when He comes again in His glory.