Sunday, April 24, 2016

Letters From God: to the Church in Laodicea

Laodicea: Revelation 3:14-22

The second and third chapters of Revelation contain seven letters to the seven churches in Asia. We have looked in-depth at each letter, and we have heard again and again: He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. We have seen the reminder to return to our first love, to persevere in the face of suffering and persecution, to hold fast to solid Christian doctrine, to keep free from moral compromise, to remain spiritually alive, and to hold on. Today we hear a harsh warning to those who are lukewarm Christians.

This letter is from the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation, the reliable witness with true testimony. Because he is the firstborn of God’s creation and in him all things were created, he rules over it all.

This letter comes to the church in Laodicea, the wealthiest city in its region. It was famous for its fertile ground for grazing sheep, especially a breed with a luxurious black wool. They had a well-known banking industry and a famous medical school.

But Laodicea had one major weakness. They had a lack of fresh water. The city’s location had been determined by the road system rather than by natural resources. Thus water had to be brought in from springs ten kilometers away through a system of stone pipes approximately one meter in diameter.

In this context, we hear the familiar “I know your deeds,” deeds that are neither hot nor cold. We have to understand this saying within its physical context. Remember I said that the city of Laodicea had no water supply of its own? But only 10 km north, was the city of Hierapolis, which was famous for its hot springs. They were said to have medicinal value, and people would come from all over for their healing powers.

Meanwhile, nearby in Colossae, there was cold, pure water, perfect for drinking. But in Laodicea, they had neither. So here, in this letter, Jesus is making a contrast. The church in Laodicea “was providing neither refreshment for the spiritually weary, nor healing for the spiritually sick. It was totally ineffective, and thus distasteful to its Lord.” Jesus’ response shows more than just distaste. He wanted to spit them out, to spew them from his mouth. They made him want to vomit.

They see themselves as wealthy and self-sufficient. They look at their beautiful church buildings, their ornate sanctuaries, their fabulous choir robes, and they congratulate themselves on what a wonderful church they are. The church meetings are where people go to be noticed. People in these situations love their titles, love their positions, love the accolades… But Jesus sees them instead as “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.” What they see as their strengths are really their greatest weaknesses! Contrast that with Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:9: But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

Jesus responds to their supposed strength by telling them that since they are poor, they need to buy, from Christ, gold refined in the fire. By this, he means spiritual wealth. Stop relying on your money, and focus on Christ. Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13 both record Jesus’ words: You cannot serve both God and money.

Jesus also tells them they need white clothes as well to cover the shame of their nakedness. This was a subtle dig at the famous Laodicean black wool, but it was also the symbol of righteousness used all over the book of Revelation. Listen to how it is put in Isaiah 61:10 I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

While Laodicea was known for its famous medical school and exported a medicinal eye salve. They were confident of their clear vision into spiritual matters, but they needed their own eye salve to restore sight. This is a reminder of Jesus’ words from John 9:39, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

But Christ isn’t finished with these wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked Laodiceans. Jesus reminds them that Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. Proverbs 3:11–12 states, My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. Jesus is not rejecting Laodicea. This is important. Though their deeds make him want to vomit, he is not rejecting them! He tells them to be earnest and repent.

He stands at the door, knocking, waiting for their earnest repentance. Many times we interpret this as evangelistic – reaching outside the church, but this message is directed to the church, to the self-deluded church members. In their own blind self-sufficiency, they have, in effect, driven Jesus out of their congregation! So Jesus requests permission to enter and reestablish fellowship.[1]

If they do, Jesus offers a double reward. First, in the here and now, Jesus will re-enter the congregation and fellowship with them. He also offers an eternal reward, where he invites the overcomer to rule with him. This is what Paul wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:12: If we endure, we will also reign with him.

Jesus then finishes the letter with a familiar exhortation: He who has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. If we merely read this or listen to it and don’t let the Spirit transform us through it, we are as bad as the church in Laodicea, who thought they could do it all without Christ.

[1] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 113). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Letters From God: to the Church in Philadelphia

Philadelphia: Revelation 3:7-13
It has been a while since I have been in the pulpit here. But before Easter Revival, when I last preached here, we were looking at the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia, as recorded in the Book of Revelation.

Today we get the letter to the church in Philadelphia. Some of the churches were doing pretty well, but there were some problems. Mostly with churches trying to coexist with the culture by inviting un-Christian aspects of the culture to infiltrate the church. So many of the letters are punctuated by sharp warnings. But not the church in Philadelphia. If you want to think of it this way, think of going to charge conference and presenting your report, and instead of picking at the little details, the DS and those assembled have nothing negative to say.

The name “Philadelphia” means “city of brotherly love.” But the Christians here were receiving a less than loving response from the Jewish community. In fact, the church was being persecuted by them. A little side fact: at this time, Christianity was a part of Judaism. There was no clear split yet – this is why Paul was sent first to the Jews. The Messiah Himself was Jewish. But it seems that the synagogue in Philadelphia was in line with the hostile and unbelieving Jews who Jesus accused of belonging to their father, the devil in John 8:44. He even calls them the “synagogue of Satan.” They had evidently expelled the Christians from the fellowship. So into this context, they receive a letter from Jesus, the holy one, the true one. Jesus was set aside, which is the meaning of the word “holy,” set aside for the messianic task. But he wasn’t just set aside for the task – where the English reads “true” the Greek carries the connotation of “the faithful one.” So not only was Jesus set aside, but he is faithful and will be faithful to carry his task to completion.

Jesus is portrayed as holding the key of David – what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. Jewish readers would be familiar with this terminology, as it comes directly from Isaiah 22. This term is a “metaphorical expression indicating complete control over the royal household.” The language of Isaiah is used to present Christ as the Davidic Messiah with absolute power to control entrance to the heavenly kingdom. It may be an intentional contrast with the practice of the local synagogue in expelling Christian Jews; only Jesus has the authority to admit or exclude anyone from the New Jerusalem.[1] 

This stands as a reminder that it is Jesus himself who has the power over who is in his kingdom and who is not. And to those who keep his word, he has placed before them an open door. This open door has two meanings – we just talked about the open door that Jesus has opened with the Key of David, so it does not matter that the door to the synagogue has been closed, the door into the messianic kingdom remains open.[2]

The second insight we can gain from the open door is that this city remains a ripe field for missionary activity. It is like when Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, telling of his intention to stay in Ephesus, (1 Corinthians 16:8-9) because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.

These two often go hand-in-hand. A great open door often is accompanied by a great many who oppose. In Luke 10, Jesus was sending 72 of his followers out on a mission trip, and He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Luke 10:2). There is something interesting that happens when you honestly pray this prayer. When you pray for the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into the fields, the Lord of the harvest often answers by sending you. Not some missionary. Not a pastor. Not a bishop or district superintendent. But you.

Jesus makes a promise to those who keep his command and endure patiently. He will keep them during the hour of trial. He also promises that he will be glorified in our actions when he says the false Jews will come and worship. That is to be understood as acknowledging that the church is the object of Christ’s love and that with his return their faith in him will be vindicated.[3]

But Jesus offers a bigger reward. He will make the faithful into a pillar in the temple of God. In other words, he will install them permanently in his presence. He will claim them as his own and in three ways write his claim on them – God’s Name, the name of the city where they belong, and Jesus’ victorious name.

If you have ears, listen to what he has to say to the churches.

[1] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 100). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[2] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 101). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[3] Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 102). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.