All That Jesus Continues to Do and Teach (Acts 1:1-5)

Many people like Jesus, but they dislike the church. Jesus has a winsome personality, wise words, and a way with human relationships. All too often, the church doesn’t. Consequently, many follow Jesus; few join a church.
Acts 1:1-5 shows us why Jesus and the church are inseparable and how to realign the church with Jesus.
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
Luke, who wrote these words, wrote two books. The Gospel (“my former book”) narrates “all that Jesus began to do and teach.” By implication, Acts narrates all that Jesus continues to do and teach. But in Acts, people are Jesus’ agents in history. He acts through them.
We cannot separate Jesus and the church, then, because Jesus does not. It is “my [Jesus’] church” (Matt. 16:18). It is “the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27). It is “the bride of Christ” (Rev. 19:7). To separate Jesus from his church is theft, dissection, and divorce.
But how do we realign the church with Jesus when it is misaligned?
First, the church must be God-centered. Jesus’ message was “the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43). This was the message he taught his disciples (Acts 1:3). And this was also the early church’s message (Acts 8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:31). God must be at the center of our words and deeds.
Second, the church must be Jesus-focused. It must preach what Jesus preached. But it must also preach what Jesus did for humanity through his death (“suffering”) and resurrection. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Third, the church must be Spirit-empowered. We cannot speak Jesus’ message and proclaim the salvation that comes through him without the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is an overwhelming experience of divine power (Acts 1:5, 8).
Fourth, the church must be relational. The church is not a building or an institution, it is a fellowship. Jesus demonstrated the nature of this fellowship by “eating with them,” i.e., his disciples. The church is a dinner party for friends.
And fifth, the church must be missional. During the forty days after his resurrection, Jesus gave “instructions” (literally, “a command”) to “be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). Whatever blessings of grace the church receives through Jesus, Jesus commands it to share with others. There must always be room for another friend at the table.
God-centered, Jesus-focused, Spirit-empowered, relational, and missional: This is the paradigm for the church, in Acts and in every age. Who wouldn’t join such a church?

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Love Remains (1 Corinthians 13:8-13)

(This TDW was originally written a few days after 9/11. ~ GPW)
The events of this week remind us of the radical impermanence of the world.
Who would have thought – on Tuesday, September 11, before 8:45 a.m. – that the day would end with the deaths of nearly 5,000 victims and the total destruction of the Twin Towers and the partial destruction of the Pentagon? Who would have thought that a peaceful nation would, within minutes, be transformed into a nation gearing up for war? Who would have thought that the terror visited upon other, distant nations would be visited upon us?
Life, strength, peace – gone in minutes. Sic transit gloria mundi. Thus passes the glory of the world.
In 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, Paul articulates the permanence of Christian love in contrast to the impermanence of everything else. The Corinthian Christians needed to hear this message because they had elevated impermanent things – the gift of tongues – onto a pedestal that one day would topple over. Life passes. Strength passes. Peace passes. The gift of tongues passes, as do the gifts of prophecy and knowledge. But love remains.
We are like children, Paul writes, who grow up. Activities appropriate to youth are inappropriate for grown men and women. Privileges reserved for adults are unavailable to children. Our very speech reflects the change; the halting lisp of childhood gives way to confident talk of serious adults. Our thinking matures. We are born, we grow, we live, and we die. Life passes. But love remains.
Faith itself passes away, as does hope. They are necessary only as long as God delays the final establishment of his kingdom and we enter into his rest. We believe in and we hope for only until our faith becomes sight and our dream a reality. When that happens, we no longer know partially, we know fully, and are fully known. Faith and hope pass. But love remains.
Why? Love remains because God is the only permanent reality, and God is love. Classical theology defines God as the unmoved mover, the being who shakes the heavens and the earth without being shaken. More recently, Clark Pinnock has called God “the most moved mover,” in recognition that his heart of love beats for suffering humanity. God remains, and so love remains.
At this moment in our nation’s history, love is – at the very same time – both close to and far from our minds. When we consider the victims of these terrorists’ attacks, our hearts go out to them and to their families. Throughout the nation, citizens have generously donated their prayers, their time, and even their blood to help those who are suffering. This is good. This is human life as God intended it to be lived.
And yet, I have also heard voices raised in anger. Calls for merciless and indiscriminate war against the citizens of Muslim nations, regardless of whether they perpetuated or supported the men who terrorized us all on Tuesday. This is bad. This is human life as Satan intends it to be lived. Love for our enemies, which Christ commanded, is far from our minds.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for justice, and if justice must come through the prosecution of war, then so be it. But after war, then what? In his second Inaugural Address, at the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln expressed thoughts that we must keep in mind when we are done with our war: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Charity for all. A just and lasting peace with all nations. That is what God is calling us to help establish once the coming war is justly prosecuted. The battle passes away, but love remains.
Sic transit gloria mundi. But not the love of God.

Agape Never Fails (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

The word “love” is one of the most indiscriminately used words in the English language. The statements “I love God,” “I love my children,” and “I love chalupas at Taco Bell” all use the same words to describe radically different emotional states. After all, if you love God and chalupas in the same way, then either God does not mean too much to you or chalupas mean far too much. Either way, your love is misplaced.
The Greeks have an advantage over us English-speaking folks, for they employed four words for love: storge, philia, eros, and agape. Storge is the word they used to describe familial affection. Philia – from which we get the word Philadelphia – is the word they used to describe friendship. They used eros to describe not merely sexual (i.e., erotic) love, but any love that is directed toward an object of high value. (Love of a beautiful woman, a fast car, and chalupas are all erotic insofar as the lover holds them in high value – which just goes to show that erotic love is not necessarily rational. I mean, really, chalupas?) Finally, there is agape, a word that under Christian influence came to describe selfless love. Often, agape is directed at an unworthy object.
Agape is the term Paul uses for love in 1 Corinthians 13.
The problem with the Corinthians is that their love was of the erotic kind. I don’t simply mean that some of them were sex-obsessed (although that is true as well). I mean, more broadly, that they directed their affections only toward objects that they considered to be highly valuable. They eros-ed philosophy and rhetoric because they valued wisdom and eloquence. They eros-ed to eat meals at pagan temples because they valued their spiritual freedom and individual rights. They eros-ed to speak in tongues because they valued mystical experiences and displays of spiritual prowess.
They eros-ed when they should have agape-d. They loved worthy objects when they should have loved unworthy ones, just as God had loved them. They should have agape-d the other parties in their many quarrelsome disputations. They should have agape-d the weaker brothers and sisters whose consciences they violated by eating meat sacrificed to idols. And they should have agape-d their non-tongues-speaking neighbors who had other, less dramatic spiritual gifts.
At the end of the day, in other words, the Corinthians had loved selfishly when they should have loved selflessly, for that is the primary distinction between eros and agape. Eros is love given with hope of return: a beautiful woman to satisfy desire, a fast car to sate the need for speed, and chalupas to fill an empty stomach. Agape is love with no hope of return; it is given gratis. Agape is grace.
And so we read in verses 4-7: “Agape is patient, agape is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Agape does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Beautiful women age. Fast cars break down. Chalupas only satisfy till we’re hungry again. But, as verse 8 puts it, agape never fails.

Without Love, You Ain’t Nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Sandwiched between two very practical chapters on the nature and use of spiritual gifts stands 1 Corinthians 13 – the “love chapter.” Too often, we divorce the “love chapter” from its literary context and read it at weddings. Of course, 1 Corinthians 13 applies to the relationship between a husband and a wife, but first and foremost, it applies to how members of a church should treat one another.
The Corinthians, it turns out, did not know how to treat one another. Their common life was characterized by “jealousy and quarreling” (3:3). They ate food sacrificed to idols, indifferent to the effect their actions might have on fellow Christians with “weaker” consciences (8:9-13, 10:23-33). In their common meals, the rich would “pig out” and leave the poor with little if any food to eat (11:17-22). And now, in chapters 12-14, we learn that some of them elevated one spiritual gift (speaking in tongues) above all others and opened that gift in such a way that others couldn’t open their gifts.
Against such spiritual selfishness, Paul shows a better way – love. Verses 1-3 describe three common ways that people attempt to be spiritual. Without love, however, Paul argues, such attempts are ultimately pointless. Let us examine these three verses more closely.
Verse 1 describes the way of experiential mysticism: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels….” Throughout the history of religion, even in the history of Christianity, people have tried to be spiritual by means of mystical experiences. Such experiences defy intellectual definition. They go the heart of emotion and leave the mystic with an overwhelming sense of being in touch with the divine. Such experiences tend to promote narcissism, for the mystic becomes so caught up in personal experiences that he or she forgets to care for others. When spiritual gifts become self-centered, the giver is no better than an annoying noise – “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Verse 2 describes the way of intellectual excellence: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains….” Many people attempt to be spiritual by attaining knowledge and understanding of the heights and depths of the faith. They read endlessly, write without ceasing, argue fine points of doctrine, and strive mightily to figure things out. All of this is well and good, for God desires that we not only experience him but understand him as well. Nevertheless, the pursuit of intellectual excellence in Christianity is pointless if we do not gain knowledge and understanding for the benefit of others, as well as ourselves. It is possible, in the pursuit of truth, to lose one’s way and be rendered null and void as far as the gospel is concerned.
Finally, verse 3 describes the way of ethical stoicism: “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames….” Some people, realizing the dangers of experiential mysticism and intellectual excellence, resort to right living as the test of true spirituality. They engage in radical acts of selflessness and generosity and martyrdom. They give their all to the poor and their life to the flames. And yet, even they do not truly love. Perhaps their ethic is motivated by self-righteousness or duty or guilt. Whatever they case, they do good things in a bad way. They live selflessly, but without love. Such ethical stoicism is unprofitable: “I gain nothing.”
Experience, intelligence, and moral behavior are all equally important aspects of Christian spirituality, but first and foremost, there must be love. As the song says, “Without love you ain’t nothing, without love.”

The Seventh Mark: Wholeheartedness (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?
Listen to The Daily Word .

The Sixth Mark: Mission (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.
Listen to The Daily Word online.

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

The Fifth Mark: Sincerity (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.
Listen to The Daily Word online.

The Fourth Mark: Holiness (Rev. 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.”[1]
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.
Listen to The Daily Word online.

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

The Third Mark: Truth (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.
Listen to The Daily Word online.

The Second Mark: Suffering Revleation 2:8-11)

The first mark of the church is love. The second is suffering.
Please do not misunderstand me. Christians are not masochists. We do not fetishize suffering or go looking for martyrdom. But if two thousand years of Christian history are a reliable guide, martyrdom may come looking for us.
I freely concede that persecution and martyrdom are far from the minds of most American Christians. For all the religiously conservative complaints about secular humanist domination of the media, the fact is that Americans have near-total freedom to practice, publicize, and proselytize for their respective faiths—or non-faiths, as the case may be. No one, to my knowledge, rots in an American jail because he or she is a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, or atheist.
The same freedom of religion does not obtain for many Christians around the world. Nina Shea marks the disparity with these words:
Millions of American Christians pray in their churches each week, oblivious to the fact that Christians in many parts of the world suffer brutal torture, arrest, imprisonment, and even death—their homes and communities laid waste—for no other reason than that they are Christians. The shocking untold story of our time is that more Christians have died this century simply for being Christians than in the first nineteen centuries after the birth of Christ. [Think about that!] They have been persecuted and martyred before an unknowing, indifferent world and a largely silent Christian community. And as their suffering intensifies, our silence becomes more stark.[i]
John’s Apocalypse is not silent about the persecution of believers. Rather, for John, Jesus is a martyred Christ and his followers form a martyr’s church. Revelation 1:5 and 3:14 describe Jesus as “the faithful witness.” (“Witness” translates the Greek word martys, from which we get the English word martyr.) Antipas, the Pergameme martyr mentioned in 2:13 is also a “faithful witness.” We share Christ’s title, it seems, when we share his fate—the cross.
These days, we ask ourselves. “What would Jesus do?” But as John Howard Yoder points out, “there is no general concept of living like Jesus in the New Testament.” He goes on to argue, “There is thus but one realm in which the concept of imitation holds…. This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power. Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility. Thus—and only thus—are we bound by New Testament thought to ‘be like Jesus.’”[ii]
Like Jesus, the church at Smyrna faced persecution and death (Rev. 2:8–11). And like Jesus, the Smyrnans were promised “the crown of life” for enduring those horrible realities (verse 10; cf. Heb. 12:1–2). Although they did not seek suffering, they were willing to endure it for Christ’s sake.
Why? Because of love. John thus correlates love and suffering as the church’s first two marks. Indeed, they are inseparable, for as John Stott notes, “A willingness to suffer for Christ proves the genuineness of our love for him.”[iii]
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[i] Nina Shea, In the Lion’s Den: A Shocking Account of Perseuction and Martyrdom of Christians Today and How We Should Respond (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1997), 1; emphasis added.
[ii] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 130, 131.
[iii] Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 178.

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