‘Come Up Here’ (Revelation 4:1)


Today, many American congregations are casualty-strewn battlefields of the “worship wars,” in which defenders of traditional hymns, pianos, and organs face off against partisans of contemporary choruses, guitars, and drums. Such wars, I fear, reduce the worship of God to a question of style rather than substance: “How do we worship?” instead of “Whom do we worship, and why?” Revelation 4–5 counters this reductionism with a mind-expanding vision of God and his Lamb, whose character and actions call forth our unceasing, full-throated, knee-bending “glory and honor and thanks” (4:9).

Let’s take a closer look.

The worship of God begins with an invitation.

John writes, “After this, I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this’” (4:1). This trumpet-like voice is clearly that of Jesus Christ (see 1:10, 17–20), who has just dictated to John letters to the seven churches of Roman Asia (chapters 2–3).

Now, as John hears the voice, he sees an open door in heaven. In the letter to the Laodicean church, Jesus Christ said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (3:20). The Laodiceans had closed their hearts to Jesus, but Jesus had not closed his heart to them—nor to us. Rather, through John, he calls to us to walk through heaven’s door and into God’s presence. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

The seven churches certainly needed help in their time. Ephesus needed love; Smyrna, endurance; Pergamum, truth; Thyatira, holiness; Sardis, authenticity; Philadelphia, courage for its mission; and Laodicea, wholeheartedness. Some of them (Smyrna, Pergamum, and Philadelphia) were tested by persecution. Others (Thyatira and Laodicea) were tempted by laxity and luxury. Whatever its situation, each church needed a fresh vision of God in order to understand its temporary circumstances in the light of his eternal glory.

It goes without saying that we need help in our time too. Like Thyatira and Laodicea, we are tempted by laxity and luxury rather than tested by persecution, as is too often the fate of our brother and sister Christians around the globe. Our lives in America are so healthy and wealthy that we forget God, neglect our prayers, loosen our morals, and live easy lives. If we see God, we will not be easily tempted to do such foolish things.

Worship is a way of seeing God. Through worship—whether by means of prayer, Scripture meditation, singing, or living a holy life (Rom. 12:1–2)—we take our eyes off our selves and focus our mental vision on God. As John looks through heaven’s door, he sees many things, including “twenty-four elders” (4:4), “four living creatures” (4:6), and “many angels” (5:11). But at the center of his vision is “one seated on the throne” (4:2) and a Lamb (5:6), God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son. Everything else exists “around the throne” (4:4, 6; 5:11). In worship, as in reality, God is central; all else is peripheral.

Peripheral, but not unimportant. Jesus says, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” The worship of God is not irrelevant to everyday concerns. Rather, worship helps us keep those everyday concerns in proper perspective.

Are you tested by adversity? Are you tempted by prosperity? Are you burdened with anxiety? Then, “Come up here”!

Wholeheartedness: The Seventh Mark of an Ideal Church (Revelation 3:14–22)


The seventh and final mark of the church, according to Revelation 2–3 is wholeheartedness.

It is a character quality that the church in Laodicea lacked (Rev. 3:14–22). Listen to what Jesus says to them: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Three times in two verses, Jesus drives home the point that the Laodicean Christians were neither extreme in their faith nor extreme in their disbelief. Theirs was a complacent, half-hearted Christianity at best.

And their complacency flowed from prosperity: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” In one of his Father Brown stories, G.K. Chesterton writes of an Eastern mystic who declared, “I need nothing.” This declaration frightened Father Brown because a person who needs nothing does not need God. Whatever their religious pretensions may have been, deep in their hearts, the Laodiceans felt themselves to be without need.

Commentators point out that Laodicea was a prosperous city known for its textiles and eye salves. Perhaps this is why Jesus frames the Laodicean Christians’ need in such materialistic terms: “you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” The Laodiceans had access to fine clothing and good medicine, but they lacked that necessary richness of spirit that God supplies us for the journey to heaven. “I counsel you,” Jesus entreats them, “to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.”

In my opinion, Christ’s message to the first-century Laodicean church is a pertinent message for the twenty-first-century American church, perhaps the most pertinent of all the seven letters. We American Christians are healthy, wealthy, and free to worship God according to the dictates of our consciences, without fear of persecution. We are almost unique in church history for our prosperity and liberty. And yet, we too—like the Laodiceans—are complacent. Our wealth, which allows us to worry about our wants rather than our needs, blinds us spiritually, making us think we are better off than we really are. In the very state of needing nothing, we show how much we need God. We have full stomachs; we need whole hearts.

The letter to Laodicea ends with Christ standing at a door and knocking. When I grew up, preachers often used this image as an invitation for nonbelievers to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts. But, in context, the image is of Christ standing at the door of the church, asking those who already believe to let him in. It is a fitting conclusion to the seven letters. The church will be marked by love, suffering, truth, holiness, sincerity, mission, and wholeheartedness—but only if we invite Christ to be present among us.

He is knocking. Will we answer?

Mission: The Sixth Mark of an Ideal Church (Revelation 3:7–13)


Mission is the sixth mark of the church (Rev. 3:7–13).

Before Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, he gave his disciples what we now call the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18–20). This commission consists of three elements: the fact of Christ’s authority, the command to make disciples, and the promise of Christ’s presence.

We see the same three elements at work in the letter to the church in Philadelphia.

Fact: “The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” Jesus Christ is God’s key master, who opens doors of opportunity for his mission-minded followers.

Command: “Behold, I have set before you an open door which no one is able to shut.” Although Jesus Christ has the power to shut doors of opportunity in such a way that no one can open them, he does not use that power in his churches. Rather, he only opens doors so that we might “go” and “make disciples.”

The church in Philadelphia was providentially prepared to walk through such an open door. John Stott comments: “Philadelphia was situated in a broad and fertile valley which commanded the trade routes in all directions. Sir William Ramsay wrote that the intention of the city’s founder had been to make it a centre for the spread of Greek language and civilization. ‘It was a missionary city from the beginning.’ So it may be that Christ was intending that what Philadelphia had been for Greek culture, it was now to be for the spread of the gospel.”[1]

Promise: “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” A missionary church never seeks out conflict with others, but conflict comes to it nevertheless. Wherever the church shares the good news of God’s love, powerful interests oppose it. At the church in Pergamum, that powerful interest was the Roman imperial cult and the ius gladii (“power of the sword”) that enforced it. At the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia, that powerful interest was the Jewish synagogue, which Jesus refers to as “the synagogue of Satan.”

I read those four words with trepidation. Looking backward from Auschwitz at the relationship of Jews and Christians, I see how Gentile Christians used such descriptions to hatefully, wrongfully, and unjustly persecute Jews down the centuries. Such persecution was, is, and always will be a sin. But to understand these words in their historical setting we must remember that Jesus Christ, the letter writer, is a Jew, as is John, his amanuensis. Also, in the first century when Revelation was written, Judaism was a large community of faith but Christianity a small one. Auschwitz is an awful reminder that for centuries Christians persecuted Jews. Philadelphia is a small reminder that for a brief time, persecution flowed in the opposite direction.

But if we understand the mission of the church rightly, we will see that persuasion, not persecution, is the way the church of Jesus Christ should accomplish its mission. Christ has set before us an open door to tell others of his love for them. Sometimes, such evangelism will result in conflict. Knowing that Jesus Christ is with us, let us go through the door anyway.

 

[1] John Stott, The Incomparable Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 180.

Sincerity: The Fifth Mark of an Ideal Church (Revelation 3:1–6)


Sincerity—also known as authenticity—is the fifth mark of the church (Rev. 3:1–6).

Its opposite is hypocrisy, which derives from a Greek word for actor. Just as an actor dons a costume and assumes a character for the stage, so a hypocrite dons a public persona that is at variance with his private self. The church in Sardis was a hypocritical church: “I know your works,” Jesus says. “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”

Several years ago, I read an article praising hypocrisy in The New Republic. The author did not voice a full-throated praise of that vice—he was not a fool!—but he gave it two cheers. Why? For the simple and common sensical reason that hypocrisy is socially useful. It is better to live next to a hypocritical saint than a sincere sinner, after all. However vicious he may be in private, the former does nothing in public to shock the neighbors or frighten the horses. In an age such as ours that equates authenticity with being rude, crude, and lewd, a little hypocrisy could go a long way.

Nevertheless, despite its social utility, hypocrisy is spiritually deadening. God created our inner and outer selves to match. So, who we are and who others perceive us to be should be the same. But it takes much energy—spiritual, moral, and psychological—to maintain integrity from the inside out. Hypocrisy allows us to spend less energy on the inner self while spending the same amount of energy on the outer self. We keep up appearances, but inside, we are weakening from a lack of resources.

Interestingly, the larger the gap between our inner and outer selves becomes, the greater our commitment to legalism grows. Legalism is a merely external morality, an ethic only of rules. It is well suited for hypocrites, who are concerned with appearances but do not have the interior strength to obey God’s commandments from the heart. So, in Matthew 23, we find Jesus deriding the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and their legalism. The two fit hand in glove. Jesus advises us to follow the Pharisees’ rules, which, as external norms of behavior, are well and good, but not the Pharisees’ example, which is rotten to the core. They “clean the outside of the cup and the plate,” Jesus says, “but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (verse 25).

The remedy for hypocrisy is repentance. “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die,” Jesus counsels the Sardinian Christians, “for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then,” he goes on to say, “what you received and heard. Keep it and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”

We need not choose between hypocritical sainthood and sincere sinfulness. A third option is available: sincere sainthood. But we must choose it today.

Holiness: The Fourth Mark of the Ideal Church (Revelation 2:18-29)


The fourth mark of the church is holiness (Rev. 2:18-29).

At the church of Thyatira, there was a woman whom Jesus refers to as “Jezebel.” The name is aptly chosen, for just as the Jezebel of the Old Testament had done (1 Kings 16:29–34), this woman led God’s people astray. Specifically, she convinced some of the Thyatiran Christians “to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.”

We readily understand Jesus’ condemnation of sexual immorality. Although the Old Testament often uses the language of adultery as a catchword for idolatry (e.g., Hos. 9:1), in the church of Thyatira, the sexual immorality was real. For Christians, the marriage bed alone is undefiled (Heb. 13:4).

But what about the eating of food sacrificed to idols? In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul argues that a Christian may eat such food unless doing so violates another person’s weaker conscience. In 1 Corinthians 10, however, he seems to reverse course, laying down an absolute prohibition: “You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (verse 21). The key to interpreting these two chapters correctly is the context of the eating. Is the food eaten at a pagan temple or a private home (8:10, 10:25–27)? And who else is at the table: a person with a weak conscience or a strong one (8:7, 9, 12–13; 10:28–30)?

At Thyatira, evidently, some Christians ate food sacrificed to idols at a pagan temple or in the context of a pagan feast. Thus, their eating was not a matter of Christian freedom but of religious infidelity. Their sexual immorality also was a matter of religious infidelity, for pagan idolatry typically included temple prostitution and other sexual rituals. No wonder, then, that Jesus refers to the prominent Thyatiran woman as Jezebel, for she influenced Israel to worship foreign gods (1 Kings 16:31–33).

Why would the Thyatiran Christians be tempted by such idolatry? Possibly for reasons of economic survival. According to Robert H. Mounce, “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 problems of compromising their stand at least enough to allow participation in a common meal dedicated to some pagan deity.”[i]

The antidote to religious compromise is holiness. We usually interpret holiness as a synonym of moral behavior, which it is, at least in a secondary sense. Its primary sense is “set apart,” however. In Leviticus 20:26, for example, God says to Israel: “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” Holiness means, first of all, that we are wholly the Lord’s and owe ultimate allegiance to him alone. Only then—as a consequence of such consecration—does holiness mean moral behavior.

Not all the Thyatirans had compromised themselves. Jesus speaks of their works, love, faith, service, and patient endurance. Such virtues are the fruit of setting ourselves apart for God.

 

[i] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 86.

Truth: The Third Mark of the Ideal Church (Revelation 2:12-17)


The third mark of the church is truth (Rev. 2:12-17).

Situated on a conical hill more than a thousand feet above sea level, the city of Pergamum dominated the Caicus River valley below it. Its name, in Greek, means “citadel,” which it certainly was: a fortified city, both powerful and prestigious. The proconsul of Roman Asia resided there, exercising the ius gladii or “power of the sword” over the inhabitants of the province. The Greek gods Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, and Asklepios each had a temple there. Augustus and Trajan erected temples for the worship of deified Caesars such as themselves within the city, making Pergamum the center of the imperial cult in Roman Asia.

No wonder, then, that Jesus describes Pergamum as the place “where Satan’s throne is,” “where Satan dwells.” No wonder, then, that Antipas loses his life there, for martyrdom occurs whenever and wherever the church and the world collide. And no wonder, finally, that Christ reminds the Pergameme Christians that he “has the sharp two-edged sword,” “the sword of my mouth.”

That sword is the ius gladii of Jesus Christ, the mark of his office and the instrument of his power. Describing Christ at his Second Coming, John writes: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron” (Rev. 19:15). It is, of course, the word of God, “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). It is also the Christian’s only offensive weapon (Eph. 6:17).

Such a weapon comes in handy at Pergamum, both for opposing the proconsul’s unjust power and the imperial cult’s untrue religion. We Christians always need to be reminded that what we see with our eyes is not the only reality. The citadel of Pergamum is not the City of God. The proconsul’s ius gladii is a wet paper knife compared to Christ’s two-edged sword. And the thrones of the Greek gods and Roman emperors are not God’s Throne.

Unfortunately, some of the Christians at Pergamum had become overwhelmed by the obvious power of the proconsul and the imperial cult. They had listened to the eternally bad advice of Balaam (Num. 31:16, 25:1–5). They had compromised their faith and begun to participate in the pagan cults of gods and emperors. They ate “food sacrificed to idols” and practiced “sexual immorality”—the sacraments of Pergameme idolatry. Jesus Christ praises the Christians of Pergamum who had remained faithful to him, but warns those who had not: “Therefore, repent,” he says. “If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.

The sword of Christ, the word of God, protects us from the delusion of the “citadel.” We must always speak Christ’s simple truth to the world’s obvious power, calling all people to hear and heed the word of God. For in it lies their salvation—and ours.

Lincoln’s Creed


20130527-075212.jpgIn 1920, William E. Barton published The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, a now classic study of the development of Lincoln’s faith. “Lincoln’s religious was an evolution,” Barton wrote, “both in its intellectual and spiritual qualities.”

Lincoln’s religious identity seems to have moved through three stages: (1) a Calvinist Baptist in childhood; (2) a skeptical, freethinker in young adulthood; and (3) and a not-altogether-orthodox Christian in mature adulthood.

“Too much of the effort to prove that Abraham Lincoln was a Christian,” Barton wrote, “has begun and ended in the effort to show that on certain theological opinions he cherished correct opinions.” Lincoln didn’t. For example, he evidently believe in evolution and universal salvation, and he had doubts about Christ’s virgin birth.

“Abraham Lincoln was not a theologian,” Barton went on to say, “and several of his theological opinions may have been incorrect; but there is good reason to believe that he was a true Christian.” By this, Barton meant that Lincoln had “a right attitude toward spiritual realities and practical duties.” (In my opinion, Lincoln was neither an infidel nor an orthodox Christian, but something in between.)

Barton concluded his study with “a series of short quotations [of Lincoln’s] from documents, letters, and addresses, certified authentic and touching directly upon points of Christian doctrine.” He organized these quotations into what he called “The Creed of Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words.”

In honor of Lincoln’s birthday—he was born on February 12, 1809—I’ve posted that creed below, adding footnotes that link individual phrases to their sources in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. This is the online version of Roy P. Bassler’s authoritative series of the same name.

 

The Creed of Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words[1]

I believe in God, the Almighty Ruler of Nations,[2] our great and good and merciful Maker,[3] our Father in Heaven, who notes the fall of a sparrow, and numbers the hairs of our heads.[4]

I believe in His eternal truth and justice.[5]

I recognize the sublime truth announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history that those nations only are blest whose God is the Lord.[6]

I believe that it is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, and to invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.[7]

I believe that it is meet and right to recognize and confess the presence of the Almighty Father equally in our triumphs and in those sorrows[8] which we may justly fear are a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins to the needful end of our reformation.[9]

I believe that the Bible is the best gift which God has ever given to men. All the good from the Saviour of the world is communicated to us through this book.[10]

I believe the will of God prevails.[11] Without Him all human reliance is vain.[12] Without the assistance of that Divine Being, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.[13]

Being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, I desire that all my works and acts may be according to His will; and that it may be so, I give thanks to the Almighty, and seek His aid.[14]

I have a solemn oath registered in heaven[15] to finish the work I am in,[16] in full view of my responsibility to my God,[17] with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives me to see the right.[18] Commending those who love me to His care, as I hope in their prayers they will commend me,[19] I look through the help of God to a joyous meeting with many loved ones gone before.[20]

 

Notes

[1] William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 300. This book is a reprint of the 1920 first edition published by George H. Doran Co. Chapter XXIII is titled, “The Creed of Abraham Lincoln.”

[2] “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” March 4, 1861.

[3] “To John D. Johnston,” January 12, 1851.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “First Inaugural Address.”

[6] “Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day,” March 30, 1863.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Proclamation of Thanksgiving,” July 15, 1863.

[9] “Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day.”

[10] “Reply to Loyal Colored People of Baltimore upon Presentation of a Bible,” September 7, 1864.

[11] “Meditation on the Divine Will,” [September 2, 1862?].

[12] “To the Friends of Union and Liberty,” May 9, 1864.

[13] “Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois,” February 11, 1861.

[14] “Reply to Eliza P. Gurney,” October 26, 1862.

[15] “First Inaugural Address.”

[16] “Second Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1865.

[17] “Message to Congress,” March 6, 1862.

[18] “Second Inaugural Address.”

[19] “Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois.”

[20] “To John D. Johnston.”