Church: Why Bother? (Revelation 2-3)


 
Why bother joining a church filled with sinners who need to repent?
 
I regularly hear people say, in effect, “Jesus is just alright with me,” to quote the Doobie Brothers. Very few, on the other hand say the same thing about the church. As far as they are concerned, the church is corrupt. “Christ? Yes! Church? No!” They like their Jesus neat.
 
Now I understand this attitude quite well. In fact, I sympathize with it. Ever since the televangelist scandals of the late 1980s, I have been sensitive to the ways in which church leaders abuse their positions of power for personal gain. The recent scandals in the Roman Catholic priesthood drive home the same point with fresh relevance.
 
And yet, I do not see how a church’s all-too-obvious sins obviate our need to join one. After all, everyone one of us—clergy and laity, churched and unchurched—is a sinner who needs to repent. Groucho Marx once quipped that he would never join a country club that would accept him as a member. When people highlight the church’s faults as a reason not to join it, they are saying the same thing: “I would never join a congregation that would have a sinner like me as a member.” We often criticize the church’s hypocrisy. How quickly do we attack our own?
 
In his letters to the seven churches, Jesus Christ never argues for the importance of joining a church. He assumes its importance. So, permit me to make the argument for him. Why join a church filled with sinners who need to repent? Two reasons:
 
First, Jesus Christ came to earth to establish the church. Notice that each of the seven letters is addressed to “the angel [singular] of the church in Ephesus,” etc. (2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). The recipient is singular, but the instructions are for all the church’s members. Jesus evidently thinks of those members as a collective entity. That is also why John refers to each church as a singular “lampstand” (1:13, 20) and the universal church as a singular “bride” (19:7; 21:2; 22:9, 17). Jesus’ intention was not merely to save souls one by one, but to make them all “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (1:5–6).
 
Second, we are responsible for one another. Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). His answer was no. God’s answer is always yes. Thus, for example, the church in Pergamum was responsible to correct its false teachers (2:14–16) and the church in Thyatira to guide its sexually immoral members to repentance (2:20–25). You see, as I already stated, we all are sinners who need to repent, and misery loves company. Being a sinner is a heavy burden, the weight of which can be borne if shared among friends. “Bear one another’s burdens,” Paul writes, “and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
 
So, why join a less-than-perfect church? Jesus wants us to. And we need to.
 
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The Fleas Come with the Dog (Revelation 2-3)


 
Perhaps you are ready to concede that the modern church is a sinful one in need of correction. But surely the early church was different! Surely the churches of the apostolic age were exemplary congregations, their holiness refined by the fires of martyr-making persecution!
 
Well, no.
 
With the exception of Smyrna and Philadelphia, Jesus Christ finds something to correct at each of the churches of Roman Asia: Loveless orthodoxy at Ephesus (2:5), heretical teaching at Pergamum (2:14–15), sexual immorality at Thyatira (2:20–23), hypocrisy at Sardis (3:1), and spiritual apathy at Laodicea (3:15–17).
 
The pages of the New Testament are replete with even more examples of the sins and shortcomings of the first-century church. Take Jesus’ handpicked inner circle, for example. The Twelve constantly bickered over their respective positions on the apostolic organization chart (Mark 9:33–37). James and John—nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder”—had anger management issues (Mark 3:17, Luke 9:51–56). Judas stole from the apostolic purse (John 12:6) and betrayed Jesus unto death (Mark 14:10-11, 43–50). Peter denied Christ three times (Mark 14:66–72). Thomas doubted (John 20:24–29).
 
“No church ever existed in a pure state,” writes Eugene Peterson. “The church is made up of sinners. The fleas come with the dog.”[i]
 
In late August 2002, I traveled to northwestern China with my father and several male relatives to visit churches in the cities of Xining, Lanzhou, and Guide. Most likely, you have never heard of those places, but they are a prominent part of my heritage. From the late 1920s to the late 1940s, my grandparents—as well as my great uncle and great aunt—served as missionaries in that region of the world, sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with people who had never heard it. Working with national Christians, they started several churches that, by God’s grace and the skin of their teeth, survived communist persecution and the Cultural Revolution.
 
A driving force in those churches’ survival was Pastor Mung, who has since gone to be with the Lord at the ripe old age of ninety-five. In the face of imprisonment, discrimination, and ill health, Pastor Mung led the church of Xining (and outlying areas) through a long period of growth and spiritual renewal. Because of advancing age, however, he had divided his pastoral responsibilities between two younger colleagues. When my relatives and I entered China, we learned that these two young pastors did not like each other, would not cooperate together, and were allowing their personal animosity to poison the Christian community.
 
The fleas come with the dog indeed.
 
And yet, perhaps there is a note of hope in the recognition that there is no “golden age” of the church, neither in first-century Roman Asia nor twenty-first-century China. The same God who shed grace on those imperfect churches can shed grace on us. He used them to accomplish his will; he can use us too. All that we need to do is “repent” (2:5, 16, 21, 22; 3:3, 19).
 
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[i] Peterson, Reversed Thunder, 51.

“The Joy of Policy Manuals” by David P. Gushee


As a senior pastor, I strive to keep a balance between ministry and maintenance. For example, this afternoon, I visited with a family in my church, one of whose members has cancer. In my book, that’s ministry. Last night, however, the chairman pro tempore of my board and I presented an update on our church’s renovation project in an informal congregational meeting. Buildings, salaries, insurance policies, etc. are maintenance issues. Generally speaking, pastors and parishioners prefer ministry over maintenance. What we often fail to see is that maintenance (the "business" side of church) is absolutely crucial if we are to do ministry (the "spiritual" side of church). Part of the business side of church is workplace rules and regulations. Far from hindering ministry, such things make ministry possible. In this vein, check out David P. Gushee’s excellent post, "The Joy of Policy Manuals," on Christianity Today’s website.

Letters from Jesus (Revelation 2-3)


 
In Revelation 1, Jesus Christ appears in glory, standing in the midst of his churches. In Revelation 2–3, he writes letters to those same churches, filled with words of affirmation, correction, and promise.[i] Although originally addressed to churches in first-century Roman Asia, Jesus’ letters speak to issues faced by twenty-first-century American churches as well. Indeed, as John Stott points out, they identify “seven marks of an ideal church,”[ii] which make them perpetually relevant to each church in every age.
 
Throughout Christian history, pastors have written letters of spiritual direction for entire congregations, as well as for individual seekers, converts, and emerging church leaders. Paul is a master of this form of pastoral guidance; thirteen New Testament books are letters bearing his name. In fact, the letter is the primary literary genre of the New Testament, encompassing all its books except the Gospels and Acts.
 
Letters fit hand-in-glove with spiritual direction for several reasons. First, they are personal. A writer pours out his soul to a similarly souled reader, inviting that reader into a partnership of spiritually formed thoughts, feelings, and actions. Just so, good spiritual direction requires a partnership between the mentor and the one being mentored.
 
Second, letters are deliberate. A writer carefully crafts sentences to communicate meaning through particular words and turns of phrases. The right words draw the reader closer, but the wrong ones needlessly push away. So also, the good spiritual director offers counsel circumspectly, for what he says will either help a younger Christian along or throw obstacles on the spiritual path.
 
And third, letters are occasional. A writer reacts to the circumstances of his reader. Many of Paul’s letters—the Corinthian correspondence, for example—are responses to the problems faced by his churches. So also, good spiritual direction utilizes both the successes and failures of the one being mentored as “teachable moments” where praise can be given and grace applied.
 
Although we usually envision Jesus Christ as a preacher, sitting upon a hillside teaching the masses, we must learn to think of him as a pastoral letter writer par excellence, for that is what Revelation 2–3 shows him to be. Each of his seven letters is personal: To all seven congregations he reveals something of his multifaceted personality (2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). And each letter is occasional: The words “I know” appear throughout as a testament to Christ’s knowledge of his congregations’ triumphs and defeats (2:2, 3, 9, 13, 19; 3:1, 8, 15).
 
And most importantly, each letter is a masterpiece of spiritual deliberation, of words particularly chosen to produce a desired effect. Eugene H. Peterson detects a pattern in the structure of each letter: “There is, first, a positive affirmation; second, a corrective discipline; and third, a motivating promise.”[iii] Affirmation: “I know….” Correction: “But…” (2:4, 14, 20; 3:1). Promise: “To the one who conquers…” (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21).
 
We ought to pay attention to this pattern of spiritual direction, for it teaches us about ourselves and about how we ought to treat one another. We learn that Jesus Christ loves us—sinners that we are—although he refuses to leave us in our sins. Instead, he affirms our little triumphs, corrects our big faults, and promises us his eternal kingdom, if we but “conquer” through his power. And we learn that we should treat one another as Christ does. What graces we have received—of affirmation, correction, and promise—we must pass along to all.
 
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[i] Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 50.
[ii] John Stott, The Incomparable Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 177–181.
[iii] Peterson, Reversed Thunder, 50.

Jesus Christ, Now! (Revelation 1:17–20)


 
Have you ever wondered what Jesus Christ is doing at the present moment? His resurrection and ascension into heaven occurred 2,000 years ago, after all. What is he up to now?
 
Revelation 1:12–20 answers that question. It describes Jesus Christ in glory, standing in the midst of his churches. We have already seen that verses 12–16 are theology not portraiture, and we must make a similar judgment about verses 17–20, which are figurative rather than literal. You should get comfortable with the figurative language, by the way; the Apocalypse is full of it.
 
How do we know when John’s language is literal and when it is figurative? Well, we must remember that John is simply reporting what he saw. In verses 12–20, John saw Jesus “in the midst of the lampstands,” with “seven stars” in his right hand and “a sharp two-edged sword” protruding from his mouth. So, John is literally reporting what he saw.
 
But in prophetic visions, what is seen and what is meant by it are not necessarily the same thing. Certainly not here! Jesus Christ himself says to John, “the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” The vision is thus a “mystery” to be explained. On some occasions, John explains the meaning of what he saw (e.g., 17:3, 9–12). On others, he does not. Consequently, we must exercise due diligence as we read Revelation and not assign a literal interpretation to what John meant to be taken figuratively, nor vice versa.
 
So, what does the figurative language of verses 12–20 mean? It means that Jesus Christ is present with his churches, exercising authority over them through his word, and giving them more than sufficient power to escape the trials and temptations of the present age. Do you see this? Let me help you.
 
First, Jesus Christ is present with us, his churches. This is the obvious point of him standing in the midst of the seven lampstands, which are the seven churches, as we have already seen. Why portray the churches as lampstands? Because the lampstand was an implement in the tabernacle and later the temple (Ex. 25:31–37, 1 Kgs. 7:49) and thus holy to God, as is the church. And because Jesus Christ calls his church to be a light to the world (Matt. 5:14–16).
 
Second, he is exercising authority over us through his word. This seems to be the meaning of the two-edged sword that protrudes from his mouth. Elsewhere in the New Testament, such a sword is identified with the Bible (Eph. 6:17, Heb. 4:12). In the letters he dictates to the seven churches (Rev. 2–3), Jesus Christ applies that word to concrete issues facing each church.
 
Third, he is giving us sufficient power to escape trials and temptations. John describes Jesus holding “seven stars” in his “right hand,” the hand of power, authority, and security. These stars are interpreted as “the angels of the seven churches,” but this interpretation is difficult. Is the angel the church’s guardian angel? Its pastor or leader? Its prevailing spirit? All three interpretations have been argued by the commentators. It seems to me that however one inteprets the angels, what Jesus is holding is us–his churches. The letters to the seven angels (chapters 2–3), though addressed to the angel of the church, are in reality intended for the church as a whole, as the grammar and overall context make clear.
 
John’s vision and its meaning both are comforting, for Jesus Christ has not left us alone in a world that is alternately hostile and indifferent (Matt. 28:20). No! He is with us, right now!
 
Do you sense his presence? Does your life show it?
 
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The God-Man (Revelation 1:12-16)


 
Revelation 1:9–11 introduces John’s vision of Jesus Christ by reporting his commission to “write what you see.” Verses 12–20 describe what John actually saw: Jesus Christ in glory (verses 12–16) standing in the midst of his churches (verses 17–20). We should pay close attention to John’s description of Jesus Christ.
 
·        General appearance: “one like a son of man”
·        Clothing: “a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest”
·        Hair: “white like wool, as white as snow”
·        Eyes: “like a flame of fire”
·        Feet: “like burnished bronze”
·        Voice: “like the roar of many waters”
 
Now, this is not the picture of Jesus I have always carried around in my mental wallet. For one thing, Jesus has brown hair, right? For another, in the children’s church flannel graphs I grew up with, Jesus wears a white robe with a blue sash, not gold. Yellow eyes? No, brown—possibly blue. And while I understand the well-tanned feet—Jesus wore sandals after all—I am a bit put off by the thought of Jesus being a loud mouth. This is not my Sunday school Jesus.
 
And it is not intended to be. John’s description is theology, not portraiture. He shows Jesus in simile—“like” this, “as” that—not realistic detail. Nor is John’s description original to him. It is built on allusions to Daniel 7:9, 13; and 10:5. The general appearance of Jesus Christ alludes to Daniel 7:13, his clothing, eyes, feet, and voice to 10:5. But his hair alludes to Daniel 7:9, which gives us a hint of who Jesus really is.
 
Daniel 7:9 describes God as “the Ancient of days” whose clothing “was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool.” John takes these two similes and applies them to Jesus Christ, thus likening him to God. Elsewhere in his Revelation, John applies God’s titles to Jesus Christ, for example, “the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8, 21:6, 22:13). Robert H. Mounce comments, “The ascription of the titles and attributes of God to Christ is an indication of the exalted Christology of the Apocalypse.”[i] Simply put, for John—and for all Christians—Jesus Christ is God.
 
God, but not the Father. In Daniel 7:13–14, “one like a son of man” comes before “the Ancient of days.” Although we should not push John’s language beyond his intention, it seems to me that through these allusions, John is hinting at the doctrine of the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is a man, but not only a man. And he is divine, but not as God the Father—as God the Son.
 
Of this God-man, Daniel prophesies that he will receive “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” He goes on to say of him, “his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” Surely this is an accurate prophecy of what Christians in fact believe about Jesus Christ: “he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).
 
So, John’s picture of Jesus is not the Sunday school picture you and I grew up with. It is very different—and infinitely better!
 
Listen to The Daily Word online.
 


[i] Mounce, Revelation, 58.

The Christian Life (Revelation 1:9–11)


 
Revelation 1:9–11 introduces a new section of the Apocalypse, a vision of Jesus Christ in glory, dictating letters to John for the seven churches. The vision extends from 1:9 to 3:22. Before we look at Jesus, however, let us look at John, noting these things especially:
 
·        Self-description: “your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus”
·        Location: “the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus”
·        Situation: “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day”
·        Commission: “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches”
 
Several important truths about the Christian life are apparent in these words.
 
First, Christian life is lived with others. The church is a family in which all are brothers and sisters. It is a “close mutual relationship” (koinonia) in which each is a “partner” (synkoinonos) to all. No Christian is an orphan; none should be alone.
 
Second, Christian life is difficult. In general, “Life is hard,” as M. Scott Peck famously put it. But the Christian life is particularly hard. And we experience its hardness “in Jesus.”
 
For some modern believers, a suffering Christian is an oxymoron. According to them, a Christian by definition is healthy, wealthy, and safe. Disease, poverty, and setbacks in life demonstrate a lack of faith, not an abundance of it. The New Testament everywhere refutes this pernicious heresy. “Indeed,” Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:12, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” The word of God and the testimony of Jesus did not save John from imprisonment on Patmos; they put him there!
 
But third, Christian life is rewarding. Christians experience difficulty in the present, but they hope for “the kingdom” in the future. The kingdom of God is a main theme of the Bible. It describes both God’s right to exercise authority over us and the righteousness, peace, and joy that result when he does so.
 
Fourth, between the suffering and the reward, between the tribulation and the kingdom, Christian life demands patient endurance.
 
But it is not powerless endurance. John speaks of being “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” In the New Testament, the Spirit is the preeminent sign of the inauguration of God’s kingdom in “the last days” (Acts 2:14–21). And “the Lord’s Day”—that is, Sunday—is so named because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on that day. We await a future resurrection, but even now we experience divine power: “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul writes. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19b–20). Jesus Christ lives within us. The Holy Spirit is poured out upon us. These twin realities make our endurance of tribulation possible.
 
Finally, then, Christian life is evangelistic. Jesus Christ commanded John, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches.” Christians are not the only people who suffer the world’s difficulties. But we are the people who know the joyous good news of God’s coming kingdom. Even now, we experience its power. We must share this joyous gospel with others.
 
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An Outline of the Christian Faith, Part 4: Sovereignty (Revelation 1:8)


The word amen is Hebrew for “So be it!” We use it at the end of our prayers as an expression of hope that God will answer our requests. Used at the end of a doxology, however, the word has a different connotation. It is not so much an expression of hope as one of confidence: “It most definitely is!” rather than “So be it!”
 
The reason for the difference between the amen of hope and the amen of confidence is that in our ignorance, immaturity, and iniquity, we too often ask for things we should not have or cannot handle, at least not at the present moment. We hope for such things, but we are confident that God in his knowledge, wisdom, and holiness will always instead give us exactly what we need precisely when we need it.
 
Have you ever wondered why such hope and confidence are possible? Why we pray to God and praise his character? Earlier, I said that theology gives rise to doxology, faith to praise. But it is just as true that doxology directs us back to theology. We pray to and praise God because of who he is and what he does. Lex orandi, lex credendi: The law of prayer determines the law of belief, as the early church often put it.
 
Revelation 1:8 turns from doxology to theology, from a word of praise to a word about God: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’” says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” John repeats these expressions elsewhere in his Apocalypse:
 
·        “the Alpha and the Omega” (21:6 and 22:13), which has the same basic meaning as “the first and the last” (1:17, 2:8, 22:13) and “the beginning and the end” (21:6, 22:13)
·        “who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4, 4:8, 11:17)
·        “the Almighty” (1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7, 14; 19:6, 15; 21:22)
 
Each of the phrases expresses God’s sovereignty. As Robert H. Mounce explains, “Alpha and Omega represent the Hebrew Aleph and Tau, which were regarded not simply as the first and last letters of the alphabet, but as including all the letters in between. Hence, the title sets forth God as the sovereign Lord over everything that takes place in the entire course of human history.”[i]
 
The doctrine of God’s sovereignty is the source of the Christian’s greatest comfort and deepest perplexity. It comforts us because “we know that for all who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). Undoubtedly, the Christians in Roman Asia who first received John’s Revelation needed such comfort, which derives from a Latin word meaning “to give strength.” They needed strength to face the difficult days of imperial persecution that lay in their immediate future. Our days are differently difficult, but we need strength too. And so we pray.
 
God’s sovereignty is also the source of the Christian’s greatest perplexity, however, because we do not know how God accomplishes his will in the face of our rebellious willing. Scripture never solves the riddle of divine sovereignty and human will, probably because we would not comprehend the solution anyway. But it does call us to prayer and praise, to the submission of ourselves to God. For as our character and desires conform to his, our “So be it” gradually becomes his “It most definitely is!”
 
And for that, I think, we can all say a hearty “Amen!”
 
Listen to The Daily Word online.
 


[i] Mounce, Revelation, 51–52.

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