Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Revelation to the Churches (To Whom Was this Written?)-Rev. 1:4-8

In lieu of the profundity of what we are about to read and study, I can’t think of a better way to introduce this next passage other than to read the words of John and then proceed to the 5 elements that together comprise his incredible introduction to the seven churches in Revelation 1:4-8.

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Revelation 1:4-8-“John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood—and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father—to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.  Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. So it is to be. Amen. ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’”

1. Greeting-1:4a

In Revelation 1:1-3 we witnessed the introduction of the Book of Revelation. Here, we witness John’s introduction to the direct recipients of this work. As is the case with most other New Testament epistles, Revelation contains an author, recipients, and a corresponding greeting—“John to the seven churches that are in Asia, grace to you and peace” (1:4a). In this case, the author is the apostle John (see our notes from 1:1-3), the recipients include (at least immediately/directly) seven churches in Asia, and the greeting is “grace and peace.” While we’ve already spent some time discussing the author, one might be wondering “why seven churches?” Is there something significant about each of them? Does the number seven simply denote completeness? Is each church representative of a coming age in church history? It is more likely that God taps John to write to these seven historical churches because they represented typical assemblies in their respective regions—typical, that is, regarding their histories and spiritual state (Thomas, 64). In other words, the seven churches adequately identify and represent the various spiritual situations that were present in the contexts surrounding each one.

Each of these churches were in what was referred to as “Asia” in the first century. Unlike what we know to be Asia today (China, Mongolia, India, etc.), this designation refers to a Roman province located across the western third of the peninsula called Asia Minor (in modern day Turkey) on the coast of the Aegean Sea. This Roman province was one of the richest regions of the empire and it is where John the apostle spent the last years of his life. As best as can be put together, John left Jerusalem in the late 60s AD while the Jewish people were in rebellion against Rome and went to Asia where he became the recognized leader of the Asian churches. It is almost certain that John knew these seven churches of this region well and was the credible and respected candidate God used to speak to each one.

The initial greeting is simple and standard—“grace to you and peace” (1:4b, see also Rom. 1:7). As this greeting is also found in many of Paul’s letters (with the exception of 1 and 2 Timothy), when the believers in these churches heard these words, they probably associated what followed (the contents of Revelation) with the letters received earlier from others (Paul, Peter, etc.) or at least viewed the present work as sharing the same authoritative qualities as previous apostolic works.

What Revelation and these other letters offer by way of a greeting reveals their source of encouragement—“grace and peace.” It is the grace of God that made the Word of God known in the Scriptures (every book in general, every letter specifically, and Revelation in particular). It is also the grace of God through these Scriptures that reveals the source of salvation—Jesus Christ—who saves believers by grace through faith. Those who receive and embrace these words and the gospel therein will experience the “peace” of God—that is the ultimate peace that a person can enjoy.  These are the ideals that John introduces in the greeting to the churches. As we will soon learn, many of these churches were in the throws of persecution and extreme pressure. Others were tempted to replace the gospel with false doctrine. Still others were near dead! Revelation wants to begin its message to these congregations from a posture of grace and peace since these two blessings are essential not only for the individual but for the churches they belong to as they persevere on the world’s stage.

2. Greeter-1:4c-5a

Though John is responsible for writing down the greeting offered, the greeter is identified in the latter part of verse 4 and into verse 5 by means of three prepositional phrases each beginning with “from” in the NASB. First, the greeting is offered “from Him who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4c). This unique phrase alludes to the LXX (Septuagint/Greek Old Testament) reading of Exodus 3:14 (where God identifies Himself as the I AM) and focuses on God’s eternal nature (past, present, and future). This connection to Exodus 3:14 indicates that this first prepositional phrase identifies God the Father. As God the Father is the sovereign Lord who controls the future, he now uses his knowledge to inform and encourage his people about their destiny on earth and in heaven (Wilson, ZIBBC, 252). In other words, the churches are being greeted by the one who knows how it all pans out in the end! Who better to offer an encouragement for the present?

However, the greeter is also identified by a second prepositional phrase—“and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne” (1:4d). While some believe that these seven Spirits refers to seven archangels recognized by Judaism, a better case can be made for this to be a reference to the Holy Spirit of God. Not only does the immediate context suggest that the “seven Spirits” is parallel to “Him who is and who was and who is to come” and what follows after (“and from Jesus Christ”), but later these seven Spirits are described as the Lamb’s seven eyes sent out into the earth (Rev. 5:6).  Before that these seven Spirits (or what the NIV calls the seven-fold Spirit) are witnessed before the throne as blazing lamps (Rev. 4:5). Not only that, but Zechariah 4:1-10 identifies seven lights on gold lampstands and refers to these as the eyes of the Lord which range throughout the earth. Finally, Isaiah 11:2 mentions a seventh attribute of the Spirit—the Spirit “of the fear of the LORD”—is added to the other six. With all of this in mind, it is appropriate to interpret the “seven Spirits” as a loaded title for the single and sole Holy Spirit of God (i.e. the third member of the Trinity). “Since the plurals of Revelation 1—seven spirits, seven churches, and seven angels—all become singular in chapters 2-3, John’s emphasis may also be on the distinctive ministry of the Holy Spirit to each church” in their respective context (Wilson, ZIBBC, 252).  

God the Father and God the Spirit both greet the church. Two members of the Trinity accounted for so far. Want to try for a third?

The opening of verse 5 rounds out the trinitarian greeting to the churches when it identifies God the Son—“and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5a). Parallel to the two members that precede Him, Jesus is identified by his own set of appositional (descriptive) phrases that celebrate different episodes of his ministry. “The faithful witness” recalls Jesus’ role as God’s greatest ever revelation to the world (Col. 1:15) and the one who best testifies to the truth (John 18:37).  “Firstborn of the dead” (or, after taking into account the Genitive of source, “Firstborn from among the dead”) implies that after Jesus died he was the first to be gloriously raised to resurrected life (see 1 Cor. 15:20-28). “The ruler of the kings of the earth” predicts his future existential reign over the kingdom of God which has dominion over all (1 Tim. 6:14-15).

In all, the greeter identified in verses 4-5a is the Trinity—God the Father, God the Spirit, and God the Son. This Trinity is conspicuous throughout the entire book and reminds the church of its proper destination of worship. The Trinity introduced creation (Gen. 1), introduced Jesus’ earthly ministry (a ministry that was necessary to save creation) (Matt. 3:11-17), and is identified here as encouraging the saints as they anticipate a new creation and ultimate salvation (Rev. 1:5a).

Triads figure prominently in the book of Revelation. As you read and study the Apocalypse of John, try to identify how many groups of “threes” you can find in its pages. Let me give you a taste of how prolific they are. There is a triad in verse 2  (seen in the three elements of John’s testimony), in verse 3 (“blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it”), and there is also a triad used to identify God the Father in verse 4 (“who is and who was and who is to come”). They are literally everywhere! While not every triad is of special theological significance, this pervasive use of 3 throughout the book is one example of its careful organization and beauty.

3. Gratefulness-1:5b-6

After having identified the greeting and the greeter, we now come to the presumed response of those who receive the greeting—gratefulness. In an eruption of praise, Jesus Christ is celebrated in response to God’s greeting to the church. First, Christ is celebrated for his love—“to Him who loves us” (1:5b). Not only has Jesus proved his love in his first coming, he will prove it again in his second coming. For the meantime, the love of Jesus will carry the churches and the church through each and every epoch.

Christ is not only celebrated for his great love, he is also praised for his ability to save—“and released us from our sins by His blood” (1:5c). The verb means “to release from control, to set free.” Under the Old Testament ritual law, the blood of the sacrifice of t he Day of Atonement freed Israel from its sins temporarily. The Jewish people had also been freed from Egypt by the blood of the Passover Lamb (Keener, IVP BBC, 728).

This is the second time the Exodus narrative has been mentioned in connection with the book of Revelation. As you are counting triads in your reading and study, see if you can spot this book’s many allusions to Moses’ conflict with Pharaoh, the plagues, and the salvation of God’s people found in the second book of the Bible.

These Old Testament images foreshadowed Christ’s redemptive work on the cross whereupon he provided the satisfaction for sins to God once for all in a blood offering to end all blood offerings (Heb. 10). In spilling his own blood, he broke the chains of sin and released believers from the penalty thereof. (By the way, the image of blood is something else that figures prominently in the rest of the Book of Revelation. However, aside from the Lamb’s description in chapter 5, it isn’t Christ’s blood that will one day be spilt). 

Christ is also celebrated as the King and Ordainer in verse 6—“and He has made us to be a kingdom” (1:6a). (By the way, did you happen to see that most recent triad—“to him who loves us, and has freed us…and has made use to be a kingdom and priests…”—I’m telling you, they are everywhere). This final praiseworthy role that Jesus satisfies is twofold. First, John successfully highlight’s Jesus office as the sovereign Ruler over his domain. Though the Jews expected this upon Christ’s first advent (and then rejected him because he didn’t look the part), this passage predicts that Jesus is the coming King of a very real kingdom made up of kingdom citizens. Second, Jesus also successfully ordains the saved as priests of God the Father. These two ideas—kingdom citizens and priests—come together here and also in (I’ll give you three guesses…) Exodus!

Exodus 19:6-“You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

The apostle Peter saw this promise fulfilled in Christ for all believers (both Jew and Gentile). 

1 Peter 2:9-“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”

The one who loves, saves, and appoints his people is celebrated by the recipients of this revelation. John writes “To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Rev. 1:6c). In other words, this doxology asks for what is true of Christ now to be celebrated into eternity.

4. Glimpse-1:7

Following this doxology of gratitude is a glimpse into the future. First, the reader is made aware of what will happen—“Behold, He is coming with the clouds” (1:7a). The language of the verse is drawn from Daniel 7:13.

Daniel 7:13-“I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of days and was presented before Him.”

The reference in Daniel is a prediction of the emerging Messiah who comes to save his people.

John goes on to reveal that “every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. So it is to be. Amen,…”” (1:7b). In other words, while Daniel speaks directly to the Jewish people in exile, Revelation universalizes the reference to include people from every tribe on the earth—including “those who pierced Him.” Zechariah 12:10 also talks about this latter group.

Zechariah 12:10-“I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced, and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn.”

To whom does this refer? Perhaps Matthew 24:30 helps us with an answer.

Matthew 24:30-“And then the signs of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory”

It would appear as though Matthew blends Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 12:10 to identify those who do not repent of their sins and embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who are not pierced in their heart upon hearing the truth about Jesus (like those in Acts 2) prove that they are still in their sin—the same sin that pierced Jesus’ hands, feet, and side. These include Jews who rejected Jesus and the lost who deny Him. Even the lost will see him, and, when he returns, they will not be celebrating, but mourning.

Four things can be gleaned from this brief glimpse into the future. 1. Jesus is coming back with the clouds, 2. Every eye will see him, 3. His pierced body will be seen especially by his executors (those still in their sin), and 4. Everyone left on the earth when this happens will mourn because of him. “Since only unbelievers are depicted as mourning in Revelation (cf. 18:9, 11, 15, 19), they are the ones who become remorseful at Jesus’ coming when they recognize him whom they have rejected” (Wilson, ZIBBC, 254).  This would suggest that when this prophecy is fulfilled, one better find themselves already with the Lord and not witnessing His return from the earth’s perspective. This is one piece of evidence for a rapture. If those on the earth are mourning and the church is celebrating, then it would suggest that at this point (particularly during the events covered later in Revelation) the church and the lost are in two different realms. Put more simply, the church might already be in heaven when the events in Revelation take place. This would indicate that some event has already transpired in which the lost and saved are separated.

5. God-1:8

John ends the introduction to the churches with a presentation of the God who is about to provide the revelation they will soon receive. This he does by means of, you guessed it, another triad, this time in the form of a threefold description. First, God –that is the trinitarian God already introduced—is cast as the most ultimate being—“I am the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev.  1:8a). “Some Greco-Roman writers called the supreme deity the ‘first,’ but the Old Testament (Isa. 41:4) and now Revelation calls the God of Israel the first and the last. This is what is meant by the first and last letters of the Greek Alphabet” (Keener, IVP BBC, 729). Through this expression, John sets the one true God’s transcendence over and above the supposed transcendence of pagan gods.

Second, God is cast as the most present being—“who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev. 1:8b). Though before and after all things, God is also at work in human history (indicating his immanence). In fact, he is very near and involved in the details both now and on to the end of the world.

Third, God is framed as the most powerful being (omnipotence)—“the Almighty” (1:8c). Of the ten occurrences of this divine description in the New Testament, nine are found in the Apocalypse of John. Historians believe that the use of this descriptive title followed contemporary language (that is contemporary to John) as Greek-speaking Jews often called God “the omnipotent,” “all powerful,” or “the Almighty” (Keener, IVP BBC, 729).

So What?

Though this exciting work is directly addressed to the seven churches of Asia Minor in the first century, applications can still be made for the church today. After all, the greeter in this passage is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow and we as his church are still thankful for his great love for us, his Son’s sacrifice on our behalf, and the opportunity we now have as citizens of his coming kingdom and priests of the Father. At least one major takeaway is witnessed in this important introduction that might be highlighted by the following question—“how will you react when Jesus returns?” Will you, having apprehended the grace of God know peace or will you mourn as one who is still implicated in the same sins for which Jesus was pierced? It is not a matter of IF Jesus is returning, but WHEN. Where will you be standing when every eye beholds him? Standing with Jesus or against him? Rejoicing or mourning?

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Why are we doing this?)-Rev. 1.1-3

As I have prepared for this study over the last several months I’m been excited to share with colleagues and other local church leaders that our church would be taking an expository journey through the Book of Revelation. This has been met with all kinds of responses. Big eyes, eye roles, and the occasional “wow,…good luck” have betrayed many different sentiments people have about this book and the preaching thereof. One local preacher even said something to the effect of “Woah man! I’ve only preached through chapters 2-3 (covering the seven churches).” Still others have wonder why I don’t spend time on, as they put it, “something more important/applicable.” These comments and inquiries have left me asking, “Why are we doing this?” or “Why are we going to devote all this time as a church to this particular work?” It is an honest question that I am prepared to answer today as we open up our study in 1:1-3. In this opening passage, John answers four important questions that together will help us all justify and/or legitimize our current study of this book.

1. What is it?-1:1a-b

This opening phrase “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” serves as the title of the work and even in this heading so much can be gleaned as we seek to  answer “what is this book?” First, “revelation” is the NASB translation of the word Ἀποκάλυψις (apocalypse) which literally means “unveiling.” Though many today associate the term “apocalypse” with the doom and gloom that some believe will accompany the end of the world (no doubt in part because of what is contained in this book), apocalypse/unveiling also distinguishes a genre of literature in which one would find the following phenomena: heavy symbolism, angelic mediums, episodes of cosmic catastrophe, showdown between good and evil (dualism), and figurative language. If you are familiar at all with the contents of this book then you can probably see why “apocalypse” is a fitting designation. However, all of these characteristics that one would find in an apocalyptic work seek to “unveil” something of great significance—most often an event in which the divine and earthly meet in some radical and culminating episode. In this case, one doesn’t need to wonder what this might be, for John answers this in the genitive phrase that follows “the Revelation,”—“the Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Before we even see the throne room, meet the horsemen, watch the seals being broken, hear the trumpets, witness the beasts, and enjoy the battle of Armageddon, John makes it absolutely clear from the beginning that this work is mostly concerning about a person—Jesus. Even further,  the clever use of the genitive case (of…), suggests that Jesus (and his future coming), is not only the content of the apocalypse/unveiling, he is the source of the revelation itself—i.e. “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” and “the Revelation from Jesus Christ.” In other words, Jesus is not only given the star role in the unfolding drama, he is its playright! This ought not be surprising, for Jesus’ central role in God’s revelation is a theme throughout the Scriptures. Just listen to how John opens another book that he wrote.

John 1:1ff-“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

Not only that, but just listen to these words from Hebrews:

Hebrews 2:10-For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.” 
Added to these considerations is Jesus’ unique capacity as the greatest of all revelations of God Himself.

Colossians 1:15-18-“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.”

These passages and what is found in the opening lines of Revelation suggest that just as Jesus was a central figure in the creation of the world in the beginning so too will Jesus be the principle agent in bringing about the new earth. Not only that, but the same Jesus who proved to be the author of salvation past (justification) in his first coming, will also be the author of salvation future (glorification) upon his second coming. Finally, when it comes to God revealing himself, it should come as no surprise that Jesus would be used to do that even and/or especially at the end of all things. Therefore this work is not just the Revelation/unveiling of Jesus Christ and the Revelation/unveiling from Jesus Christ, it is the Revelation/unveiling that is Jesus Christ. How is that for a loaded title!

Because Christ is Revelation’s ultimate focus, source, and priority, to pick up this book hoping to reach any other terminus but him is misplaced. As I preach through this work, I want you to know that, in keeping with this title, I am hoping that we all come to understand Christ more by how he is portrayed in the end. Throughout our study we will discover why this must be the case.

However, while some are tempted to delimit the Book of Revelation to merely an apocalyptic work, it is important to understand that it is also epistolary.  Epistolary means letter-like and, to be sure, the Apocalypse of John does suffer similarities with other letters from the first century. After all, don't chapters 2-3 consist of 7 letters to individual churches? Is not John named as the author (much as Paul identifies himself in his many letters)? Is not John commanded to write things down in letter form (1:19)?  The epistolary quality of Revelation is hinted at as early as verse 1 when John continues by saying “which God gave Him to show to His bondservants.” God gave Jesus Christ a message to be shared to his servants—a letter to be circulated among the early churches and the global church thereafter. When one considers the gracious nature of God’s Revelation in general and this book in particular, it is clear from the beginning of this work (with the inclusion of this verb didwmi) that God was not obligated to provide what we know as “the Apocalypse of John” today. Instead, he gave it freely. This he did in order (as the text says) “to show” something of some significance. In fact “show” (deiknumi) is defined “to make known the character or significance of something by visual, auditory, gestural, or linguistic means.” Revelation fits this definition to a tee, perhaps more than any other work in the canon, as it’s contents reveal God’s revelation in highly visual ways (by means of its many figures, descriptions, and symbols), auditory ways (in the recorded worship services that are throughout the work), gestural ways (as the placement of characters proves significant in the action that is described), and in linguistic ways (as witnessed in some of the most sophisticated literature ever produced). Show also reinforces the apocalyptic nature of the work which, at is core, is an unveiling of things once left to mystery. So, one might say given what has been discussed thus far, that the Book of Revelation is an Apocalyptic letter.

However, even this is incomplete as verse 1 continues by making known what is being shown/revealed—“the things which must soon take place” (1:1c).  This highlights the prophetic element inherent within the book. John solidifies the prophetic nature of the book when he says in verse 3 “blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy.” Prophecies, especially biblical prophecies, are given in order to tell us what is going to happen (concretely, not purely figuratively). In other words, there is a “there there” to biblical prophecy. Though prophecies do persuade and provide moral instruction, they do this by predicting what is really going to take place (and with great precision).

Applied to the Book of Revelation verse 1 indicates that what is found in this work is highly sophisticated. Everett Harrison concludes that Revelation “is apocalypse with respect to its contents, a prophecy in its essential spirit and message, and an epistle in its form.” To understand what it has to say well, one must take into consideration the unique form it possess (unique in the panoply of ancient literature, even all literature ever produced). 

2. Where did it Come From?-1:1d

Alright, then “where did it come from?” Like many apocalyptic works, there is an angelic medium delivering the message to the recipient—“and He sent and communicated it my His angel” (1:1d). This is not unusual as God often delivers important messages through angels (See Daniel, Mary, etc.). When divine revelation is of some significance, a special messenger is called for. Though an angel fits the bill often in this work, sometimes (as we will soon see), Jesus Himself will play the part of messenger and speak directly to John the apostle.

From God’s mind, revealed through Jesus, delivered by an angel, the message of Revelation was unveiled “to His bond-servant John” (1:1e). Which John? It might surprise to learn that as many as seven different Johns have been proposed by different people throughout history. However, many of these suggestions are easily dismissed (John Mark, John the Baptist, Cerinthus, some other John, and someone using the name of John the Apostle as a pseudonym). The two most likely possibilities are John the elder (an early church leader) and John the young apostle of Jesus Christ (author of the Gospel of John and the Johannine epistles). Those who argue for the elder cite differences between John’s gospel and Revelation (grammatical, linguistic, and otherwise). However, when one takes into consideration the differing genres, time that separated the production of the Gospel and Revelation, and the content presented, there is little reason why this is a real problem for those who believe the apostle wrote it. Not to mention, there is widespread early church support for apostolic authorship (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, et al). At the end of the day the best evidence suggests that John, the last surviving apostle, wrote this incredible work while exiled on the island of Patmos.

And who better to write this book than the one who made the most compelling case for Jesus’ divinity in his gospel? In fact, both Revelation and the Gospel of John share at least one common theme: God is revealing himself through Jesus Christ as Savior of the World. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is shown to be the incarnate Logos that ushered in the church age. In Revelation, Jesus is depicted as the victorious ruling Savior who upon purging a sinful world and vanquishing enemies, ushers in an eternal heaven.

So, the transmission of the contents of the book of Revelation is as follows: the mind of God—revealed through Jesus Christ—delivered (mostly by means of an angel)—to John the apostle.

3. How was it put together?-1:2

Once delivered to John, how was it put together? John answers this in verse 2—“who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.” In writing this book, John is simply reporting words and visions of God. Though all Scripture is inspired by God and a product of God’s Spirit revealing divine content to human writers who then, in concert with his direction, write the message down in their own hand, John’s apocalypse, more than many of the other works of the Bible, leans more heavily on the side of dictation.

Compare the writing of this work to say a Pauline epistle. In one of Paul’s letters the apostle is sitting down and thinking through what he would like to say to a particular church after carefully deciding how it ought to be organized and presented for a specific agenda as best fits the needs of a particular community of believers (all, once again, under the control of the Holy Spirit). In Revelation, God is revealing exactly what John needs to record via visions and specific verbiage. While Paul was motivated to write his letters from personal concern and then granted permission to do so under the Spirit’s authority, John’s retirement (exile) on Patmos is interrupted by Christ himself and he is then told “sit here, watch this, and write down what I tell you to record.”

As verse 2 closes, the Christo-centric focus of this book is once again on full display—“and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.” Ultimately, through all that John would witness (glorious and hideous, wonderful and terrible, awe-inspiring and tear-jerking), the message is predominately concerned with Jesus Christ—His person (God the Son, Revealer, Savior, and Victor), and his work (past present and future).

4. Why was it created?-1:3

You might imagine that such a Christo-centric (Christ-heavy) book would get a lot of attention in the church today. However, unfortunately, many are afraid of this book, believe it is beyond their grasp, or have acquired a bad taste in their mouths left over after witnessing those who abuse and misuse the text. This is why we must ask and answer this last question, “why was it created?” It is high time that the church return to this work after having established Christ as the aim of its study and glean all that it can from this final installment of the canon. If you won’t take my word for it, consider what John says in verse 3—“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy and heed the things which are written in it.” In other words, this book was created to be read, heard, and applied rightly.

All three of these activities associated with this text (reading, hearing, and heeding) are present participles, indicating ongoing activity. It was John’s desire that the church preoccupy itself with the contents of this book and consistently read it, hear it preached, and heed (obey/apply) it rightly in their context. If this was true for the church in the late first century, it certainly remains true today.
After all, as John mentions at the end of verse 3—“the time is near.” Capping off this brief but profound opening comment of his introduction, John adds a sense of urgency. As the apostle observed the world around him and the pressure and persecution the church faced in his context, he was convinced that the day was near when the prophecies in this book would come to pass. Truly, people in every generation have believed that theirs is the last generation to see the last days. In at least one way, they are correct. Everything post-resurrection fits the “last days” designation. However, whether or not we are yet in the very last of the last days remains to be seen. All I can say with any certainty is this, “It is later than it has ever been” (Ron Dickson)—i.e. “the time is near.”

So What?

It is for these reasons that we enter this study. We pick up this book to read, come to this church to hear it preached, and seek to apply it to our lives because we are called by the apostle to do so (1:3). Out of devotion to our Lord and Savior, we approach this work because of its preoccupation with Jesus Christ (1:2). Out of love for our heavenly Father, we gladly accept this revelation that God has graciously made available to his bondservants (1:1). In other words, studying revelation is an exercise of obedience, theological investigation, and deepening relationship.  There is so much to be excited about as we get going.

However, to fully enjoy this study, one must ask these preliminary questions of himself/herself: “Are you living a life of obedience to Spirit?” “Is Jesus the center of your life?” “Do you yet have a relationship with the heavenly Father?” Friends, what John is going to reveal to us in this book is a two-edged sword—a bipolar message that is meant to on the one hand inspire, encourage, and strengthen the church (those who already have a relationship with Jesus) and, on the other hand, warn, challenge, and even frighten the lost (those who do not yet have a relationship with Jesus). If you happen to fall in the latter category, the time is near and there is no time like the present to accept what Jesus provided when he first came so that you are ready when he returns.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

All Hands on Deck: Serving Hands-Rom. 12:4-8

Today we are completing our “All Hands on Deck” series. Over the last several weeks we have taken a look at the strategy this church has in place for accomplishing our mission of knowing Christ, growing in Christ, and showing Christ to the world. For Crystal Spring Baptist, we believe that corporate worship (present hands), prayer (praying hands), obedience to the Word of God (obedient hands), and dynamic community (sharing hands) are integral as this ship seeks to persevere on the high seas of our present culture. All of these, in some way, contribute to the task that God has handed us of making disciples in this world. However, there is one more element, one more set of hands that must be present in order to accomplish our God-given mandate—serving hands. Paul discusses this final important element of mission strategy in Romans 12:4-8.

The church in Rome has been in the classroom for eleven chapters thus far in the book of Romans, learning the essence of the gospel and the greater nuances of its many implications. In light of everything Paul has covered up to this point, he encourages those reading this letter to get up and do something about what they have learned in verse 1 of chapter 12. In fact, if Romans 1-11 discuss how someone is saved, then 12-16 discuss how a believer ought to live in light of their salvation.

The first thing that Paul draws the reader’s attention to is the nature of the body of Christ. He states, “for just as we have many members in one body, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (12:4-5). The believer ought not think of himself as a solitary being, spiritually autonomous, or totally self-sufficient. Instead, a believer must think of his/herself as a member of a larger body. In fact, a prideful believer trying to go through life alone, is as ineffective at doing the Lord’s work as an arm would be detached from its torso and that from its brain or a solitary shipmate trying to run an aircraft carrier by his/herself. Similarly, believers in Rome ought to think of themselves as one piece of the greater body of Christ.

Continuing with his body metaphor, Paul suggests that while all are members, all “do not have the same function” (12:4b). Therefore, this idea of being a member of the body of Christ is not degrading to individuality or diversity. Though all are equally members, all have different functions that help contribute to the success of the entire organism. In other words, it is not as though all believers look the same, act the same, or serve in the same way. If this were the case, it would be like having nothing but legs or being totally covered with eyes (or nothing but captains or artillery men!).There is not just one right way to serve the Lord. Instead, all members serve the Lord in their own unique and God-glorifying way! Just imagine what this church would be like if all were preachers!!! Isn’t one enough! J Thank God for His diversity.

However, these many diverse members are not separate entities, but many parts of one united whole (cue the army slogan: From many, one). The church in Rome needed to understand that they depended on each other, leaving no room for pride. They were the “body” in Rome, a united whole of diverse individuals who were brought together, “in Christ.” This is the unifying principle. The unity of the church in Rome was possible only “in Christ.” One had to be a believer “in Christ” (that is understanding and accepting the grace of God for salvation described in chapters 1-11), in order to be a part of this body. The same is true of church’s today who accept the Bible as the Word of God.

What this verse describes is really an all for one and one for all mentality. Believers are all different members of one body that exists, in part, for the service of each of its individual appendages. For, not only are believers “one body in Christ,” they are also, “individually members of one another” (12:5).  “No Christian is an Island” and to call someone a self-sufficient Christian is a contradiction of terms.

Now that the members of the body have been observed and attention has been drawn to their diversity and unity, Paul wants the church in Rome to also recognize that each member is gifted with its own skill set, “since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (12:6a). Not only is each member of the Body of Christ different (as an eye is different from a nose or a leg different from a lung), each member is also uniquely gifted (as an eye is gifted to see and a nose gifted to smell, etc.).

However, how much good does a lung do if it is not actually being used to breathe? How far could anyone travel if the legs were not moving? How long would someone last if the liver failed to actually filter blood as it is designed to do? Not long. In fact, we would presume a body like this to be dead. Paul did not want to write to a corpse of a church. He also did not want to receive, in response to this letter, a death certificate from the local morgue in Rome. This is why he calls upon the church in Rome to actually “exercise them [the gifts] accordingly” (12:6b).

It would seem that the law of thermodynamics applies to the spiritual members of the church body. If an arm of the church is not moving properly, it will atrophy and die. This is why it is important for all members of the church to be actively exercising their gifts, abilities, and talents accordingly. A church cannot be rightly used to accomplish the mission of God and serve its members if its individual parts are not being put to good use. Instead, unused parts of a church body are signs of a dead or dying church.

Up to this point, the church at Rome would have understood that each of them was a part of a greater whole and that each had been uniquely gifted to serve in discreet ways. However, a list of potential gifts had not yet been provided and many might have wondered, “What might my gift be?” A believer cannot be expected to exercise his/her gifts unless he/she knows his/her gifts in the first place.

This is why Paul provides a list to get the church thinking. This list is not the only list of spiritual gifts given in the New Testament (see also Eph. 4; 1 Cor. 12) and therefore should not be understood as an exhaustive representation of the possible gifts that God bestows. This also does not mean that every believer should expect all of these in his/her life. In fact, some argue that the first gift mentioned is not even available today. This is the gift of “prophecy,” “if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith” (12:6c).

This unique office, accordingly to Paul, needs to be exercised in proportion of faith, perhaps in the same way the lungs are encouraged to breath in proportion to the amount of oxygen the body requires. Depending on how one defines the word “prophet” here will determine whether or not this gift is available today. Regardless, prophets played a huge role in the early church and continue to play a role in the preserved words of Scripture, rendering them a very important member of the church body.

A possible gift for all believer’s to consider is service. This word, which is the same root word used in the word for deacon, describes somebody who is interested in the practical needs of others. Such a person in the life of the church at Rome, or in any church for that matter, might be likened to a set of arms that are judged by how well they are able to carry and handle different things. Someone with the gift of serving will be judged on how well they practically serve others (go figure). 

Another possible gift for those in the church to look for is the gift of teaching. However, this gift is not for everyone.

James 3:1-“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.”

Teachers are held to higher standards and will fall under greater scrutiny. Teaching was an ancient and honorable profession in the Jewish culture. In the New Testament world, teaching primarily involved moral instruction. Elsewhere, the Bible makes it clear that there are different requirements a teacher must meet. However, those who are called to this important task will be found faithful and judged according to how well they teach in the same way a brain is judged by how well it can interpret information. If you are a gifted teacher, you ought to be teaching.

If teaching provides guidance for what people ought to do, encouragement helps them achieve it. The next gift that Paul mentions is exhortation, “he who exhorts, in his exhortation” (12:8a). These are those who are natural born cheerleaders, offering aid by means of their words of encouragement no matter what the situation may be. These might be likened to a mouth that is only as good as what comes out of it. Encouragers in the church at Rome need not be silent. Instead, they ought to be affirming the work and serving by means of their sweet words so that the mission of God can move forward, even when things get tough. 

Similarly, if a person’s gift is contributing to the needs of others, then generosity is what is demanded, “he who gives, with liberality” (12:8b). This gift is perhaps the most general as everyone in the body of Christ has something to give and is compelled to give at the very least, 10% of their income to the Lord. However, some love to give above and beyond and are always happy to give more to those who need it.  This does not mean that others are not required to contribute. However, those who love to give ought not cease in giving of their lives to the Lord in service to the body of Christ.

Another gift that Paul takes time to mention is leadership, “he who leads, with diligence” (12:8c). Leaders are to carry out their responsibility with diligence. Although leadership in today’s world is often seen as the result of ambition, persistence, and good fortune, Christian leadership is essentially a service carried out for the benefit of others. Again, this is a gift with its own set of requirements and special level of scrutiny. Other passages demand that leaders meet these requirements and promise a higher level of judgment one day before God for them (see 1 Timothy and Titus).

The last gift that Paul elucidates is mercy, “he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness” (12:8d). Though this gift seems emotive, “mercy” as understood in the first century involved caring for others in tangible ways, especially the less fortunate and elderly. Those who have a special place in their hearts for the afflicted need to be about the business of showing mercy in tangible ways with cheerfulness.

A couple of things are worth pointing out in this list of gifts. First, it is not as though Paul believed each believer only had one of these gifts and could neglect the others. Instead, Paul wants people in the church to play to their strengths and capitalize on their strong suits. Second, gifts are not static, they are variable. In other words, your gift could change over time or be altered depending on need. In fact, you may be gifted for something that you would not naturally enjoy because there is a need where you are at. Don’t think that God cannot move in your heart and life to use you in different ways at different times and in different situations. Ultimately, Paul’s message to the church in Rome is to use their gifts, whatever they are, in serving the church and seeing the mission of God accomplished.

So What?

These three observations have taught us several very important things. First, we have learned that we are not on our own. Instead, we are all members of one body, working together to accomplish the mission to know Christ, grow in Christ, and show Christ in the world while serving one another in the Lord. Though we are all equal in that we are all members of the body, we are different and uniquely gifted to perform varying roles in this god-glorifying enterprise. Whether you are an arm, leg, lung, mouth, head, or hand, you are necessary for the church’s survival as it engages the world for Christ.  

In response to this, I encourage you to discover your unique giftedness and then exercise your giftedness in every way that you can. Ask yourself this morning—How am I serving? Friends we need all hands on deck—present hands, praying hands, obedient hands, sharing hands, and serving hands. There are people drowning on the high seas of this culture that need rescuing and we have been recruited for the search and rescue mission.

Monday, August 6, 2018

All Hands on Deck: Sharing Hands -1 Thess. 5:8-11

So far in our “All Hands on Deck series” we have learned about how important it is to have present hands (corporate worship), praying hands, and obedient hands (that is, to the Word of God) as we seek to accomplish the mission of God on board the ship that is the church. In so doing, we have come to appreciate that corporate worship is not a mundane ritual, but an integral part of our mission to know Christ, grow in Christ, and show Christ in this world. We’ve also been reminded that before anything, prayer must be offered from a genuine heart that is dependent on the Lord and expectant for His answer. Furthermore, we proved that that the Word of God gives us our marching orders and must be revered above all other narratives.  Today, as we continue our series, we are going to celebrate yet at another important element of the strategy our church has for accomplishing our great mandate while on the high seas of our culture—meaningful relationships. After all, how effective is a crew going to be if there is no camaraderie among its ranks.  

Relationships have proven absolutely essential in my life. In fact, the old adage, “it is not what you know; it is who you know” helped give me several jobs, recruit workers for this church, and accomplish different tasks and responsibilities. Relationships have picked me up when I was brought low, surrounded my family when we needed it most, and have helped conform me more into Christ’s image. Relationships are paramount to the life and health of every church. Paul understood this when he wrote to the church in Thessalonica—a small church in a brave new world (sound familiar). In 1 Thessalonians 5:8-11, Paul presents three elements of relationships that are important for us to keep in mind as we work to accomplish the greatest mission ever given.

I. ELEMENT #1: The Occasion for Relationship-5:8

The verses leading up to this passage address the coming age, “the times and the epochs” (5:1). In these times, Paul predicts that the Lord will come like a thief in the night, there will be destruction, and darkness will sweep across the planet. However, those to whom this letter is addressed (the church body in Thessalonica), need not worry, for they are called, “sons of light,…” (1 Thess. 5:5). To be a person of the day means to be illuminated with the life of Christ, who is “the light.” Therefore, Paul says “since we are children of the day…” there are certain encouragements necessary for the ministry to go forward during the difficult times to come.

John 8:12-“Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, "I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life."

Those who have the light of Christ are called to live in the coming age (the age in which we are living right now) conspicuously different from the world around them.

Sons and daughters of light are to live “soberly” in a world that is out of control. This word means to be in complete control over one’s thought processes and thus not in danger of irrational thinking.
Consider what people are like when they are inebriated. Often when people are drunk they are inhibition free, willing to do embarrassing or even dangerous stunts on a whim or a dare. This often ends in disaster. Stammering around, those who are drunk or high yield control of their mind any number of substances, rendering them open to irrational and nonsensical thinking.

This is prohibited for those who are sons and daughters of light. And before you redact this command to literal sobriety from alcohol, consider the general principle to which this image is pointing. Christians are not to yield control of their minds over to anyone or anything except the Holy Spirit. In other words, alcohol is not the only thing Christians can get drunk on or a buzz from. Success, possessions, image, money, sex, etc. Paul’s call for the church in Thessalonica is to be sober in all areas. In a world of stammering drunks, believers are to remain clear-headed and steadfastly focused.
What causes this level of focus in a world that is like a bar offering an assortment of spirits? Paul quickly changes metaphors to answer this question, “having put on the breast-plate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation…” (5:8). Standing on the threshold of the coming age, complete with destruction and darkness, and drunkenness, Christians should arm themselves for action with self-control by means of a breast-plate and helmet.

The Roman breastplate referred to here would have covered a soldier from his neck to his waist and protected his most vital organs. This is what “faith and love” does for the believer’s spiritual lives. Faith and love protect the believer from the coming onslaught of evil.

Consider the nature of these two terms for a moment. Both faith and love are transitive, meaning they require an understood object as the recipient for the action they imply. A disciple cannot exercise faith without placing that faith in something or someone. Similarly, a disciple cannot love without an understood person or object receiving and reciprocating that love. The greatest of all objects of faith and love is God Himself that is demonstrated most clearly in intimate relationship. 

While the breastplate protects the vital organs, the helmet protects the head, the seat of the mind and reason. In the believer’s case, protection comes in the form of hope through salvation. The salvation of the disciple was the source of hope for all in the early church and remains the most appropriate source of hope for the believer today. The church at Thessalonica would have to rely on the hope of their salvation when things would get rough, and so should we.

These verses teach us that one must be dressed and behaving appropriately in order to make the most of the relationships God has provided us. It is similar to a crew on board a navy vessel. They have protocols in place for proper behavior and dress in a certain way in an effort to foster unity and camaraderie.  

Sobriety, preparedness, and hope provide an opportunity for relationship to take place in the life of Jesus’ disciples. It is hard to have a functional relationship with a drunk or someone who is unprepared for such or someone who is hopeless. Sobriety, faith, love, and hope create an amazing opportunity for believers to have a relationship with God and with other disciples. However, what 
paved the way for this opportunity in the place?

II. ELEMENT #2: The Allowance for Relationship-5:9-10

“For God has not destined us for wrath” (5:9a). The disciple is allowed to enjoy relationship with God and His people because God has not and will not assign wrath to them. Why would He spill out His wrath on those that He has saved? Why would He punish those who have apprehended the grace of God through Christ? The wrath that is to come upon the world in the days that Paul predicts here will pass over those who already belong to God.

This is not unlike what took place for the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. In the same way God’s wrath passed over the doors of the Hebrew slaves, His wrath passes over His children in the last days, rendering a relationship with Him possible and welcome.

In the place of deserved wrath, God provides the ultimate gift, “obtaining salvation” (1 Thess. 5:9). This is the antithesis of wrath reserved for those who are not in the faith. For Jesus’ disciples, the greatest judgment is usurped by the greatest grace, punishment and penalty is overwhelmed by love and welcome. God’s gift of salvation is the definition of supererogation. (Take time to define supererogation).

This greatest of all gifts was given by means of the greatest of all acts, the Passion of Jesus Christ, “through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us…” (1 Thess. 5:9c-10). The cross is where light shined in the darkness to bring the opportunity of faith to the faithless world, love in the midst of hate, and hope in growing despair.  As mentioned in Hebrews 10:19-25, Jesus’ flesh is the doorway through which all disciples enjoy relationship with God (see also Jn. 10:9; 14:6).

Paul concludes this thought by giving the reason for the salvific work of Christ in the first place—relationship, “so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him…”(1 Thess. 5:10b). The purpose of Jesus and His cross is restored relationship with God together with other believers. God did come to die to save individuals, He died to save a church! However, what does Paul mean by “whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him…”? A clue to the meaning of this is given in verse 6.

1 Thess. 5:6-so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober.

Paul’s point here is that Christians are assured life together with God and in meaningful relationship with brothers and sisters, whether they are spiritually watchful or not. The relationship given to believers through Christ’s sacrifice is unconditional—there are no strings attached. Does this then give the believer’s license to act poorly? Absolutely not! (mh ginoita-to adopt another Pauline word). Instead, the unconditional nature of this precious gift should motivate disciples to make the most of the relationship that has been made possible through Jesus.

III. ELEMENT #3: The Command for Relationship-5:11

One way for the disciple to make the most of their relationship with God is to capitalize of his or her relationships with others in the body of Christ, “Therefore, encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing…”(5:11). The command here is to “be actively consoling one another through various means, building each other up.” It describes a vibrant community of like-minded people spurring each other on as the world continues to propel itself toward destruction. Think of crew members on board a war vessel inspiring each other with battle hymns and pep talks. This is something that Paul wanted to continue to see in the church of Thessalonica and it is something that he commends of them as well, “just as you also are doing.” Evidence that this church was already excelling in this endeavor can be seen earlier in Paul’s letter.

1 Thess. 4:9-10-“Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more,…

The church of Thessalonica made it their habit to be about the business of building each other up and encouraging one another. This phenomenon of mutual encouragement, through vibrant relationships within the body of Christ, is built on the foundation of their collective relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Paul says to this church, “keep doing what you’re doing because of what Christ has done for you.”

So What?

This calling upon the church of Thessalonica is not unlike the calling that has been placed upon us here in South Roanoke. As Jesus’ disciples, we are commanded to make the most of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ by giving ourselves to meaningful relationship with our brothers and sisters here in this local body. This is one way in which we will know Christ, grow in Christ, and show Christ to others. “Some Christians try to go to heaven alone.... But believers are not compared to bears or lions or other animals that wander alone. Those who belong to Christ are sheep in this respect, that they love to get together. Sheep go in flocks, and so do God’s people”- Charles Spurgeon
But what is Crystal Spring doing to help foster this kind of community? What are we doing here to help you make the most of each other?

The answer is found in our more intimate group settings, both in the Sunday morning hour at 10:00am and on Wednesday nights at 6:00pm and 7:00pm. These groups meet not because we feel like we have to do something at those times or because we want to be like other churches or for my health. We offer these opportunities for your benefit as times in which you can learn from each other, encourage one another through prayer, and build each other up as we all strive to live soberly in this world around us. Our commitment is to do the best we can to make these groups assessable, approachable, and worth your time. Are you making the most of what is being offered whenever you can? You are not making the most of your relationship with Christ (the groom) if you are not making the most of your relationship with the church (his bride). Whatever you do, don’t miss out on all that God would have you gain through this phenomenon called relationship. For it is in the crucible of godly relationships that we grow more sober, faithful, and hopeful in an increasingly inebriated, faithless, and hopeless world.