Revelation 3:7-13 – Love and Obedience

Chuck Colson quote

“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:

These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.

I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (NIV)

Over thirty-five years ago, the late Chuck Colson, a former White House Counsel and founder of Prison Fellowship, wrote a timely and influential book entitled Loving God.  In it, he presented a simple yet biblical premise concerning the life of every believer in Jesus: The way to love God is to obey God.  Everything turns on our listening to God and doing what he says to do.

Jesus himself communicated to the church at Philadelphia (not Pennsylvania, but ancient Asia Minor, now present-day Turkey) affirming their faithful obedience of the message.  Because of their steadfast observance of the gospel, the Philadelphian believers would be protected and loved by Jesus.

The church at Philadelphia did much more than offer a confession of loving God – they affirmed that confession through loving obedience to Jesus. In some Christian circles, we call this “living into our baptism.”  That is, it is one thing to experience the sign of baptism as being set apart by the Holy Spirit for a relationship with God through the person and finished work of Jesus.  It is quite another thing to “live into” this reality by knowing God’s Word and dutifully obeying it.

Human beings are complex creatures in their psychology, sociology, and history. However, there is at least one simple straightforward biblical truth we all can live into: To love God is to obey God. Therefore, it is quite necessary for us to spend extended times reading and knowing our Bibles well so that we can adhere to what it says.

“It is not what we do that matters, but what a sovereign God chooses to do through us. God doesn’t want our success; He wants us. He doesn’t demand our achievements; He demands our obedience. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of paradox, where through the ugly defeat of a cross, a holy God is utterly glorified. Victory comes through defeat; healing through brokenness; finding self through losing self.” –Chuck Colson

Gracious God, thank you for the message of good news that in Jesus Christ I have forgiveness of sins.  Help to hold onto this gospel through all the vicissitudes of life so that obedience springs from my heart in all things by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Revelation 3:1-6 – Remember

Sardis
Ruins from the ancient city of Sardis, the capital of the kingdom of Lydia, in present day western Turkey.

“To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (NIV)

When Christians think of biblical epistles (letters) to churches, the Apostle Paul might immediately come to mind. Yet, contained within the first three chapters of Revelation are seven succinct letters to seven different churches.  What makes these short bursts of exhortation so powerful is that they come from Jesus himself.  Yes, that Jesus – the Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church.  So, it seems to me that Christ’s observations about the church carry more weight than anybody else’s thoughts.

And the thoughts of Christ were about how far the church was from completing the work of God. So, Jesus gave a pointed admonition, almost like a parent trying to awaken a teenager in the morning. “Wake up!” said Jesus because he found the church’s obedience incomplete and lacking strength. If this were the Apostle Paul talking, he would likely have framed it this way: “You have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

Our Lord went directly to the heart of the church’s life… that is, death.  The stark reality is that these statements from Jesus remain penetrating and relevant for today’s church. So, what is to be done about the situation of spiritual death and dryness in the church?  Jesus did not leave the church hanging but in a few compact words let them know exactly what they are to do to remedy their spiritual malady: Remember. Obey. Repent.

The Seven Churches of Asia - York Minster
The Seven Churches of Asia, stained glass window in York Minster, England.

Sometimes, if not many times, we may tend to forget the things we need to remember and remember the things we are to forget. We are to follow God in his pattern of remembering and forgetting. God has said:

I wipe away your sins because of who I am. And so, I will forget the wrongs you have done. (Isaiah 43:25, CEV)

I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins. (Jeremiah 31:34, CEB)

I will forget their sins and never again remember the evil they have done. (Hebrews 10:17, ERV)

When it comes to those who have wronged us, we are to emulate God’s grace, mercy, and kindness through forgiveness. To “forget” does not mean performing a personal lobotomy but simply not to hold an offense against another by continually bringing it to mind. On the other hand, God remembers his promises to his people. Likewise, we are to constantly bear in mind what God has put before us to remember:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26, NRSV)

We are to have an abiding remembrance of the Lord Jesus, the very person who spoke to the church hundreds of years ago. It is in those times when we become distressed that we must center our memory on Christ:

We must focus on Jesus, the source and goal of our faith. He saw the joy ahead of him, so he endured death on the cross and ignored the disgrace it brought him. (Hebrews 12:2, GW)

Remembering Jesus Christ sets us on the path to fulfilling the work of God and completing that which has been given us to do. This is precisely why I choose to follow the Church Year and remember time by having it centered around the life and ministry of Jesus.

Always think about Jesus Christ. He was brought back to life and is a descendant of David. This is the Good News that I tell others. (2 Timothy 2:8, GW)

I have been a constant example of how you can help those in need by working hard. You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35, NLT)

Let us remember together in prayer:

Awesome Lord Jesus, your words penetrate to the core my being.  Strengthen me by the continuing presence of yourself through the Holy Spirit so that my every thought, word, and deed is done in your holy Name. Kindle in my heart a vision of your love and shine the light of your victory over sin, death, and hell over this dark world. Continually take me to yourself; keep me in your wounds and mindful of your presence so that I shall fulfill all the will of God for my life through your divine enabling. Amen.

Revelation 14:12-20 – Enduring to the End

Judgment Day by William de Kooning 1946
Judgment Day by William de Kooning, 1946

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”

Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand! Another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, “Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” So, the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.

Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” So, the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for about two hundred miles. (NRSV)

The Scripture meditations I offer each day are based in the daily readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. The readings are designed to move us through the whole of the Bible in a three year cycle; and, they are arranged so that Thursday, Friday, and Saturday readings anticipate the Sunday scriptures, and the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday readings reflect on Sunday’s texts. Today’s New Testament lesson is such a reflection on Sunday’s Gospel reading of Christ’s Parable of the Weeds (Parable of the Wheat and Tares).

Jesus made it clear in the parable that it is not our job to weed out evil. This will be done by the angels at the end of the age. Well, here we are in Revelation with a grim look into the future as to how it all shakes-out. And, as you can readily see, it is not a pretty picture. Those among us who are visual learners and picture the words in their minds, their stomachs might just be turning about now.

The entire book of Revelation was originally meant to encourage believers in Jesus to persevere, endure, and keep going in their commitment to Christ. As they were undergoing difficulty and even persecution for their faith, this apocalyptic vision of the Apostle John was to instill hope that it will not always be this way. There is a time coming soon in which the problem of evil will be taken care of, once for all.  Until that final day of judgment comes, we are to hold fast to our faith and continue to keep the commandments of Christ.

Judgment Day by Aaron Douglas 1939
Judgment Day by Aaron Douglas, 1939

The wrath of God has always been an issue with various people throughout the ages. In contemporary theology, it is common to have groups of folks polarized between either making God out to be constantly angry and looking to zap people, or dismissing God’s wraith altogether as some outdated and antiquated idea. Neither of these approaches will do.

God’s anger and wrath exists, yet it is never divorced from God’s love. Rather than viewing wrath and love as two sides of the same coin, I believe a healthier and more biblical understanding is to discern God’s wrath as an expression of God’s love. I will explain….

When God bends to observe us in the world and sees injustice, war, poverty, oppression, trauma, and abuse from narcissistic people who exalt themselves above others and use them for selfish purposes, I am here to say to that God is not okay with this! Whenever God looks at the world and sees governments, institutions, corporations, and even churches which maintain structures that keep others from becoming all that God intends for them to become, Divine compassion is stirred along with a determination to bring about justice and righteousness.

Only God has the combination of willingness, power, and ability to handle the evil of this world in a way which is both just and loving. I fully realize there are many times when we wonder if God is really watching, or not, and are curious if he is aloof and uncaring to our plight. There is a day when the dramatic will happen, but that day is not today. For now, God is patiently and carefully working his love into the fabric of this world in a way that will not destroy the innocent and compromise the integrity of the righteous.

So, until the time is ripe for God to act in a more decisive manner by equipping angels with scythes and bringing in the final harvest, we experience pain and hurt. We sometimes are misjudged and misunderstood by others. We often get shafted by systems which are supposed to be helping us. We can, however, be assured that God is working behind the scenes, planting seeds of love and grace, and tending to the growth till the time is right to gather the abundant crop. Acting too soon and going off half-cocked without enough information is what we humans tend to do. Not so with God.

So, the fact of the matter is that justice and injustice will co-exist side-by-side for a while. Righteousness and evil will be found together everywhere we go, including our own hearts – holding both our altruistic motives and our evil inclinations.

Sisters and brothers, let us endure, persevere, and be patient. God is good and will not forget your deeds done in faith, your actions inspired by hope, and your work animated by love.

Lord Christ, you came into the world as one of us, and suffered as we do. As I go through the trials of life, help me to realize that you are with me at all times and in all things; that I have no secrets from you; and that your loving grace enfolds me for eternity. In the security of your embrace I pray. Amen.

Revelation 2:8-11 – Persevering to the End

perseverance

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:

“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death. (NRSV)

What is unique about chapters two and three of Revelation is that Jesus himself is the speaker to seven different churches. Today’s New Testament lesson is addressed to the church at Smyrna, which was a large and beautiful port city in the ancient world. Jesus was letting the believers in Smyrna know they were about to experience severe persecution. However, they need not be fearful and can remain faithful because their Lord knows all about suffering. The church’s perseverance under such trouble would result in the crown of life, given to them by Jesus himself.  This was surely an encouragement to the believers as they underwent difficulty.

The congregation at Smyrna was facing imprisonment and, for some, even death for their faith. The heart of the message by Jesus is to remain faithful.  There will always be cowards and those with weak faith who will fold when the going gets tough. Yet, persecution and hardship have a way of purging the soul as well as the church of its dross.

Suffering is inevitable; how we handle adversity when it comes is completely under our own control.

Few of us reading this will ever likely face a hardship that could result in martyrdom. Knowing there are brothers and sisters in the faith throughout the world who do face daily hardship for their devotion and beliefs puts our own troubles in a different light. The daily irritations and trials God puts in our way to refine us and shape our faith certainly seem small compared to imprisonment and martyrdom. Yet, no matter who we are and where we are located on this earth, whether facing uncommon hardship or banal difficulty, the afflictions of both body and soul come to us as opportunities to lean into faith and love Jesus to the end.

Our Lord is not looking for perfect people, just faithful followers willing to endure suffering with the truth that our Lord stands with us. 

Whatever our current circumstances may be, Jesus offers us his perspective on it. He knows precisely what is going on and understands the spiritual resources you and I possess for each adverse situation we encounter. In fact, few of us really discern the largess of internal resources are within us because of Christ’s redemptive work and the Spirit’s abiding presence – not to mention the very personality God graciously gave us in the womb before we were even born. Even though it seems, at times, we lack strength, wisdom, and courage for what is ahead – Jesus has supreme confidence in us to maintain faith and endure through our afflictions.

Life is not a sprint. Life is a marathon.

To finish the race we need to be in good spiritual health. The perseverance of the saints will happen as we run step after step with boldness despite fear of the unknown future around the bend. This requires the equipment of risk, vulnerability, accountability, and steadfast love which is both received and given. Perhaps most of all it requires keeping our heads up and running toward the promise of reward at the finish. The crown of life is an image of both congratulation and celebration of a race well-run and the enjoyment of unending fellowship with our Lord for whom we have endured so much.

When all is said and done, and the end of the age has occurred, we will be able to look back in hindsight and see that it was really Jesus who all along was fortifying us to keep standing and keep going. Christ is so vested in us that he continually ensures our ultimate victory through a constant presence of help and encouragement. The heritage of both Reformation and Holy Scripture testify to this truth:

“All our progress and perseverance are from God.” –John Calvin

“I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6, CEB)

May the grace of Jesus sustain you; the love of God surround you; and, the encouragement of the Spirit surprise you, today and every day. Amen.

Grant, O God, That we may never lose the way through our self-will, and so end up in the far countries of the soul; that we may never abandon the struggle, but that we may endure to the end, and so be saved; that we may never drop out of the race, but that we may ever press forward to the goal of our high calling; that we may never choose the cheap and passing things, and let go the precious things that last forever; that we may never take the easy way, and so leave the right way; that we may never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown.

So keep us and strengthen us by your grace that no disobedience and no weakness and no failure may stop us from entering into the blessedness which awaits those who are faithful in all the changes and chances of life down even to the gates of death; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

William Barclay, Prayers for the Christian Year