Saturday, March 5, 2016

Letters From God: to the Church in Sardis

Sardis: Revelation 3:1-6

We have been through four of the letters to the seven churches in Asia as found in Revelation 2 and 3, and today we continue with Sardis. Before we get to the letter, a little about the city of Sardis. Sardis was a city of wealth and fame. They were the first to make gold and silver coins, as gold was mined there. They claimed
to be the first to discover the art of dyeing wool.
So they were wealthy. They faced the opposite trouble as the church in Smyrna, who was told, “I know your poverty, but you are rich.” In Smyrna, as is often the case here, there were money issues. The church didn’t have much money, but what they had was more important spiritually. So much that in spite of their lack of monetary wealth, God considered them rich. But this wasn’t the case for the church in Sardis. They were comfortable. They lived in a place where it was OK to be Christian; they didn’t face persecution from the outside, and they were free from heresy or false teaching on the inside. It would seem like the perfect church.

I remember being moved from one church to another, and I met with the previous pastor who was retiring. He was excited to tell me about all the money the church had, and the plans for a new building. But what he didn’t tell me was that the church was stuck and was in the midst of its own civil war. He didn’t tell me that the leader of the food pantry was mean and nasty. He didn’t tell me that one of the leaders was sowing seeds of discontent and adultery. He was just excited that they had money.

Sardis was even worse. In the rest of the letters to the churches, they all start out with a compliment. You’re doing great here, but here is where you’re not doing so well. But in this letter, it starts out: I know your deeds. You have a reputation for being alive, but you’re dead. One church I served told me they had been lulled to sleep. But they weren’t dead. Just sleeping. But I have been in dead churches. There are dead churches that look dead. One church I know of  had dwindled down from being the largest church in town to being unable to pay their bills. They hadn’t seen a profession of faith or baptism in years. They were still hurt over a church split that had happened 20 years before. And they were extremely angry when the district superintendent closed the church. But they were a dead church.

But while those are the obviously dead churches, Sardis doesn’t look like that. I’m sure Sardis had the best building in town. They might have been full every week. But I’ve seen churches that are full but they’re dead. When Jesus is never even mentioned in a church service, you might wonder if you’re in a dead church. When the church is all caught up in cultural issues but hasn’t seen a single person accept Jesus as savior, they might be dead. When an attitude of “do whatever you want to” is fostered in the church, it might be dead.

Even if it looks alive. In Mark 11, Jesus and his disciples encounter a fig tree in leaf, but it had no fruit. Jesus cursed the tree, and it withered. And many churches or professing Christians have leaves – we look the part – but no fruit. The Bible tells us that we will be known by our fruit. The church in Sardis had no fruit. That’s what was supposed to differentiate a living church from a dead church.

Are we a living church, or are we, too, dead? What is our fruit?

There is good news, though. We see in this passage that the church in Sardis has been proclaimed dead, but we also see that they have been given commands. You wouldn’t think someone who is dead could respond to a command, but this is the joy of following Christ; he is a God of second chances.

Although the church in Sardis has been pronounced dead, it still had the possibility of restoration to life.[1] Christ, who knows their deeds, has not found any of them carried out fully. They started right, but then they gave up to accommodate the pagan culture around them. Their hearts were lacking, and without the right heart, nothing they could do is enough. If your heart is wrong, no amount of good works is enough. The church in Sardis had built a name for themselves in the community, but in God’s eyes, they hadn’t measured up.

So in verses 2-3, he tells the church to: Be watchful. Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent.

I found the history very interesting here. The first command, to be watchful, would carry special weight in Sardis. Twice in its history the acropolis had fallen to the enemy due to a lack of vigilance on the part of the defenders. In 549 b.c. Cyrus captured the acropolis by deploying a climber to work his way up a crevice on one of the nearly perpendicular walls of the mountain fortress. Late in the third century the city was again captured in the same way. A Cretan by the name of Lagoras discovered a vulnerable point and with a band of fifteen men made a daring climb, opened the gates from within, and allowed the armies of Antiochus the Great to overpower them. To consider oneself secure and fail to remain alert is to court disaster,[2] and this is a main theme throughout the Bible and especially Revelation.

So they are to be watchful. Watch out.

They are also told to strengthen what remains. Perhaps they started with good works and they are being commanded to complete them. But the context is that they are to remember what they’ve been taught – remember why they exist as a church in the first place. Why are they there at all? What are the remedial, foundational teachings of the church? What are their key beliefs?

Once they go back and remember why they exist, and what they’re supposed to be doing then the next command is clear; do what you’re supposed to be doing!

And the last command is repent! This is illustrated in 2 Kings 22, where Hilkiah the High Priest found the book of the Law in the Temple. King Josiah tore his robes in anguish and inquired of the Lord. Then the people gathered together and renewed the covenant with God. King Josiah destroyed the places where the people worshiped other gods and got rid of the mediums and spiritists, the household gods, the idols and all detestable things, and the people finally celebrated the Passover, which hadn’t been done in years. Repenting means stopping what you are doing, turning 180 degrees around, and going in the opposite direction. It’s not enough just to quit doing wrong, but instead, do what’s right.

And so, if the believers in Sardis are willing to do this, if they become overcomers, Christ promises that he will acknowledge their names before his Father and the angels. This is a clear reflection of Matthew 10:32, where Jesus says, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.” Faithfulness in trial now is to be rewarded beyond measure in the life to come.[3]

[1] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 94). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[2] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (pp. 93–94). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[3] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 97). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Letters From God: to the Church in Thyatira

Thyatira: Revelation 2:18-29

It’s been a while since I’ve been here, but when I was here last, I had started going through the seven letters written to the seven churches in Asia, as recorded in Revelation 2-3. As we started through them, it’s amazing how relevant these words are today, even though they were written nearly two thousand years ago to a people far from us physically and culturally.

Thyatira was founded as a military outpost by the Greeks, but fell to the Romans and enjoyed stability and prosperity. It was known as a center of manufacturing and marketing. In Acts 16, we meet “a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira.” It’s often good to live in a prosperous city, but there was a problem. The manufacturing sector was dominated by trade guilds whose membership was intertwined with religious observances. Think of trying to serve pork in a closed Muslim nation. It’s not going to happen. You can try, but you’re going to have trouble. At best. What I’m saying is that in Thyatira, to belong to a trade guild, to buy and sell, you have to buy into their religious observances. In a city whose economic life was dominated by trade guilds in which pagan religious practices had become the criteria for membership, Christian converts would be faced with the problem of compromising their stand at least enough to allow participation in a common meal dedicated to some pagan deity. To reject this accommodation could mean social isolation and economic hardship.[1]

Into this context, the letter is written from the Son of God. There is a reason that this title is used; here in Thyatira, they worshiped a deity who was a combination of Apollo and the emperor (who they called Apollo incarnate). Thus it is not the emperor or the guardian deity of Thyatira, but the resurrected Christ, who is the true son of God. [2]

The Son of God has blazing eyes, which comes as a reminder that God can perceive even our deepest thoughts and motives. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:13) So as we read this letter, we can understand that with his blazing eyes, Christ can see through the seductive arguments of Jezebel and those who were being led astray by her teaching. Feet like burnished bronze convey the idea of strength and splendor[3], with which he can stamp out any opposition to his rule. 

But in the difficult context, the people of the church are known for their deeds, their love and faith, and their service and perseverance, and that they are doing more now than even what they did at first.

But there is a problem. The letter wasn’t written just to say, “Great job; you’re doing fine.” The problem is Jezebel. Probably a prominent woman within the church who was influencing the people of God to forsake loyalty to God by promoting a tolerance toward and involvement in pagan practices.

In other words, she was convincing Christians that it wasn’t so bad to conform to the cultural standards around them. Tolerance is a big word in American culture; it used to mean “to put up with” what others were doing, even if you don’t like it or approve of it. But lately it has come to mean “fully accept what others are doing and never speak ill of it.” But the reality is: sin is sin. Even if it is widely accepted in the culture around you, that doesn’t make it right. While the sin in Thyatira was participation in pagan rituals in order to gain acceptance with the trade guilds, the church is often guilty of accommodation.

The Lutheran Church of 1930s Germany accommodated the Nazis, turning its back on the atrocities committed. Parts of the church in America are guilty of accommodation to culture as they change their rules about homosexuality. It’s easy to point fingers at “them” but where are we guilty of accommodation here in Zambia? We are often guilty of accommodating the dangerous “health and wealth” gospel, saying if you work and pray hard enough, then you’ll get money and health and if you are sick then you must be guilty of sin. Friends, the Bible doesn’t say anything like that. Jesus even says that we will have trouble in this world.

We are often guilty of allowing, even supporting men who sleep around, never speaking out about marriage being between one man and one woman. We are guilty of accommodation when we turn a blind eye to gender based violence, even within the church. We are guilty of accommodation when we not only allow sin but celebrate it.

We often think of Jesus like a grandmother, kind and forgiving and nice, but kind of a pushover. When I was a boy and I went to my grandmother’s house, my mother would tell her, “Only one hour of TV.” But since I didn’t have a TV at home, I wanted to watch TV all day, and my grandmother would let me.

That is not Jesus’ character! Did you hear what he said about Jezebel? This isn’t very popular in worldly culture, but Jesus says: I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds. Doesn’t sound like a kindly old grandmother, does it? While we’re on the subject, let’s throw out the picture of Jesus who just accepts us where we are and leaves us like that. Jesus loves us too much to leave us in our sin, but he will allow us to make our choice. He won’t force us to follow. But if we don’t follow, be prepared to suffer the consequences of our choices.

So Jesus tells the church that severe consequences are coming for those who accommodate the sinful world. A good lesson for us today. And for those who remain faithful, his only command is to hold on to what you have until He returns. What do they have? They have the Holy Spirit. They have His commands. They have faith. They have love. They have increasing good deeds. And to the victorious, he gives authority and a morning star. Now, it is unclear just what the morning star is, but suffice it to say, we will be rewarded for our faithful allegiance to Christ, that which allows us to overcome in the hostile environment of pagan values and practices.[4] The letter concludes with the exhortation: Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount the same way. If you have ears, hear what the Spirit is saying to us today. And if you hear, obey.

[1] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 86). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[2] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 85). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[3] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 85). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[4] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 90). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Letters From God: to the Church in Pergamum

Pergamum: Revelation 2:12-17

12 “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. 13 I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.

14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.  15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.  16  Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

17 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.

Humans were created to worship.  Even when someone has rejected God, they inevitably find themselves worshiping something. We build great temples to what we worship – we worship sport, so we build Independence Stadium. We worship wealth and build great cities full of skyscrapers. We worship science and we build great universities. The city of Pergamum, called “by far the most distinguished city in Asia” was a wealthy Roman city and a center of worship, of four major deities: Zeus, Athena, Dionysos, and a healing god called Asklepios (who they designated “savior”) whose shrine attracted people from all over the world.

This was also the Asian center of emperor worship – the first place in Asia given permission to build a temple to worship a living leader. It was also the place where the church was most likely to come into conflict with Rome. In this provincial capital, the proconsul was granted the “right of the sword” – the power to execute at will – we see Christ introduced as him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. This would remind the threatened congregation that ultimate power over life and death belongs to God.[1]

We often forget that God has ultimate power over life and death, especially when we live in places where everything else is worshiped. And Revelation 2 describes Pergamum as “where Satan has his throne.”

Throughout the Book of Revelation, we see Rome portrayed as the center of Satan’s activity in the West (cf. 13:2; 16:10), so Pergamum had become his “throne” in the East.[2] But in these difficult conditions, the church in Pergamum had remained true to the name of Christ. They hadn’t denied their faith by yielding to the pressure of burning incense to the emperor and declaring “Caesar is Lord.” Not even in the days of Antipas, who was put to death in their city, did they renounce their faith.[3] Interestingly enough, this Antipas, about whom little is known, is given the Lord’s own title from Rev 1:5—“faithful witness.” [4]

Last week we saw a contrast between the riches of Smyrna and the poor Christians, and this week, the contrast is between where the Christians live and where Satan lives. The same place is home to two contrasting groups. When Christians live “where Satan lives” it is not surprising that Christians are being martyred.

In societies such as ours, people often hold two contrasting worldviews simultaneously. One can proclaim to be a Christian while still holding on to traditional spiritual beliefs that actually contrast with Christianity. And this was true in Pergamum as well. Even though the church had remained faithful in the midst of persecution, they were guilty of allowing within their number some who held the teaching of Balaam. This teaching was related to Balaam’s activity in advising the Midianite women how to beguile the Israelites into acting treacherously against the Lord, which led to the Israelites turning to worship Midianite gods and participate in their sacred meals.[5]

Unfortunately, in Pergamum, some within the church had decided that accommodation was the wisest policy. They taught the way of compromise. This is where the United Methodist Church in the United States is leading. There are multiple recommendations on line for General Conference that compromise solid biblical teaching in order to accommodate sinful culture. While it was only part of the church who had allowed false teachings to corrupt them, still, even those who do not speak up are guilty because every Christian has the responsibility to keep one another accountable, to exhort and encourage one another.

Verse 16 has the harshest language we’ve seen. Jesus tells them to Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. Actually those are somewhat comforting words, as Ephesians 6:17 says that the sword of the Spirit is the word of God. And listen to Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

The prospect of being judged by God’s Word is actually a comfort, because God’s Word never changes. Sometimes human expectations change – you can be asked to do a certain task but then instead you are asked why you didn’t do something else. But God’s expectations do not change. God’s commands do not change. So when culture demands that we change to match culture, we can say, “sorry, God’s word hasn’t changed.” When American groups try to change the discipline of the church to match ever-changing American culture, to accept sin as normal and normative, the African delegates to General Conference need to stand firm on the unchanging Word of God. We all have a duty as Christians to refute false teachings in the church. Otherwise we stand as guilty as those who are spreading the false teachings.

So to the victorious, those who stand firm in the face of persecution and of false teachings, God makes a promise. He promises them manna – you remember that manna was how God fed the Israelites when they were wandering in the wilderness for forty years. God miraculously provides for his people. However, in this context, we see manna as a contrast to the food sacrificed to idols supplied by the false teachers.[6] It is the food of the heavenly banquet, the entry ticket to which is the white stone, engraved with a new name, given by God. Like God called Gideon “mighty warrior” and renamed Simon “Peter” – the Rock, God has a new name for each of his faithful children., including for you. You are no longer defined by the world. You are defined by God. Now live for him.

[1] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 79). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[2] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 79). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[3] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 80). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[4] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 80). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[5] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 80). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[6] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 82). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.