Revelation 2:8-11 – Spiritual Endurance

The remains of ancient Smyrna in Izmir, Turkey

This is what you must write to the angel of the church in Smyrna:

I am the first and the last. I died, but now I am alive! Listen to what I say.

I know how much you suffer and how poor you are, but you are rich. I also know the cruel things being said about you by people who claim to be Jews. But they are not really Jews. They are a group that belongs to Satan.

Don’t worry about what you will suffer. The devil will throw some of you into jail, and you will be tested and made to suffer for ten days. But if you are faithful until you die, I will reward you with a glorious life.

If you have ears, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. Whoever wins the victory will not be hurt by the second death. (Contemporary English Version)

Jesus not only speaks in the four Gospels of the New Testament; Christ also speaks in the final biblical book of Revelation to seven different churches.

In today’s New Testament lesson, Jesus addresses the church at Smyrna – a large and beautiful port city in the ancient world, on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea (present day Turkey). 

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. Words coming directly from their Lord and Savior must surely have been an encouragement to the believers as they underwent extreme 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. 

The seven churches of Revelation which Jesus addressed

There will always be those who are faint of heart with weak faith, giving up 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 will likely never 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 devotion and beliefs puts our own troubles in a different light.

The daily irritations and trials that 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.

Jesus 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 within us because of Christ’s redemptive work and the Spirit’s abiding presence – not to mention the very personhood God graciously gave us in the womb before we were even born.

Even though it seems, at times, we lack the 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. And to finish the race we need to be in good spiritual health. The perseverance of the saints will happen as we run – step by step, stride by stride – with boldness, despite fear of the unknown future around the bend.

Spiritual endurance requires becoming comfortable with risk, vulnerability, accountability, and the 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.

After 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 the Reformation and Holy Scripture testify to this truth:

“All our progress and perseverance are from God.”

John Calvin (1509-1564)

“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

Job 1:1-22 – A Better Way Through Impossible Suffering

Satan Going Forth from the Presence of the Lord by William Blake, 1825

In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.

His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would arrange for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.

One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied.“Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”

Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them, and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
    may the name of the Lord be praised.”

In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. (New International Version)

Much of life is a mystery. We simply do not know why some things happen. And it’s likely we won’t have answers to many of our vexing questions, this side of heaven. From our limited human perspective, **** happens, and that’s about all we can say about it. 

There are times in Holy Scripture, however, when the veil between heaven and earth is peeled back long enough for us to catch a glimpse of mystery. Today’s Old Testament lesson is such a story. 

Job was a wealthy man and had everything this earthly life could offer. What’s more, he was a pious godly person of faith. It was commonly understood that those two things always went together. So, when we see behind the curtain and are privy to a conversation between God and Satan, the devil himself points this out – that Job only praises God because of how good he has it.  Even with this understanding of what was behind Job’s misery, we still see the mysterious God allowing Satan to operate with only God-knows reasons why.

Whenever calamity strikes, or bad news causes us to slump in our chairs, or adversity hits unexpectedly, or trouble smacks us upside our life like a sledgehammer, it’s only human to begin wondering what we did wrong or what we did to bring on such a terrible set of circumstances. 

But the truth is this: We just don’t always know. 

Yes, I fully understand that statement is hard to swallow; it even sucks. For example, no amount of understanding why my grandson has a rare form of epilepsy will make the pain go away. All my wonderings about his future isn’t going to help my daughter. It’s an impossible emotional place to be. It’s sad and it’s frustrating.

Yet, there is a better way.

Although there is so much we don’t know, we do know Job’s inconceivable response to the mystery of God. He made an incredible confession of faith, despite the most awful of circumstances. Job made the affirmation:

“When I was born into this world,
    I was naked and had nothing.
When I die and leave this world,
    I will be naked and have nothing.
The Lord gives,
    and the Lord takes away.
Praise the name of the Lord!”

Job 1:21, ERV

Rather than spending all of our emotional energy trying to figure out an answer to our “why” questions, perhaps the more sage response is to confess our faith in a radical trust of God. 

Using these actual words from Job can be a necessary start to navigating the troubled waters of evil which swirl around us, even if we have to say them over and over again to believe them.

I know I do.

Almighty God, every good thing I have in my life comes from you. It is your prerogative whether I continue to have those things, or not. Whatever happens, whether it causes heartbreak or happiness, is completely known to you. I trust that you know what you are doing, and I completely throw myself upon your mercy through Jesus Christ, my Savior. Amen.

James 2:17-26 – Faith Works

Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department; I’ll handle the works department.”

Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.

Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That’s just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?

Wasn’t our ancestor Abraham “made right with God by works” when he placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial altar? Isn’t it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are “works of faith”? The full meaning of “believe” in the Scripture sentence, “Abraham believed God and was set right with God,” includes his action. It’s that weave of believing and acting that got Abraham named “God’s friend.” Is it not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works?

The same with Rahab, the Jericho harlot. Wasn’t her action in hiding God’s spies and helping them escape—that seamless unity of believing and doing—what counted with God? The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse. (The Message)

True faith is shown as the genuine article by how it acts and responds in real life situations. 

Christians are saved for a purpose. Christian faith is much more than mere intellectual knowledge of Jesus Christ. We are to take our knowledge of Christ’s redemptive events and put it into daily practice.

There were folks in today’s New Testament lesson who were justifying a lack of action with statements such as, “I’m not wired that way,” “That’s not my gift,” “We pay our pastor to do the ministry,” “This church is not meeting my needs,” “Let the next generation deal with change.”

Anyone in the habit of complaining without doing anything to be part of the solution needs to get an active faith. Every believer in Jesus Christ is called to ministry. All Christians are gifted by God for service. And God expects us to use those gifts to build up the Body of Christ. The church suffers when we do not all participate with the abilities God has provided.

Faith apart from action is impossible. It’s like saying I can bench press 400lbs. just because I read about it in a muscle magazine; or, that I can produce corn just because I saw a farmer in a field. 

There are no atheistic demons. The glimpses of Satan we get in the Bible lead me to think he likely has the entire Bible memorized and knows it quite well. Knowledge, however, by itself, is useless.

The Great Blondin, walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls, 1859

In the nineteenth century, a famous tightrope walker from France, Charles Blondin, once strung a cable across Niagara Falls from the American side all the way to the Canadian side. Thousands of people watched him do his theatrics across the falls.  He walked back and forth, people applauding wildly. Then to further wow the crowds, he put a blindfold on and went back and forth. He also rode a bicycle back and forth, and then pushed a wheelbarrow back and forth.

As the story goes, while pushing the wheelbarrow back and forth, he called out to the crowd on one end, inquiring whether or not they thought he could successfully push the wheelbarrow across with a human being riding in the wheelbarrow. The crowd went berserk: “Sure you can. You’re remarkable. We believe in your abilities. You are the greatest.” On and on they went, to which Blondin responded, “Then someone volunteer. You come right up here, single file, form a line, and get in the wheelbarrow to prove your trust in my ability.” A deafening silence overtook the crowd. There were no takers.

Intellectual belief is one thing. It is quite another thing to place complete trust in Jesus Christ. Knowledge without an active commitment is about as helpful as a backseat driver.

Faith is a big word in Scripture and life. It encompasses the totality of how we come to Jesus Christ and how we live for him. So, when talking about faith, it is important to distinguish between saving faith and sanctifying faith. 

If we are fuzzy on our understanding and application of these two spiritual realities of salvation and sanctification, we will sleepwalk through life as zombies living in two different worlds of the living and the dead.

“Salvation” is a term used a lot in the church. In Christianity, it means to be delivered from sin, death, and hell.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, a person is “saved” by knowing about the work of Christ on the cross and trusting this has taken care of the sin issue once for all. 

Through repentance and faith in Jesus, there is salvation. A person cannot earn it, accomplish it, or buy it. Salvation is a gift that comes by faith in the person and work of Jesus. It is a one-time event of trust.

“Sanctification,” on the other hand, begins when we become believers in Jesus. The word means “to become holy,” or, “to be set apart for God.” Sanctification is not a singular event; it is a lifelong process. Whereas saving faith is a gift given to us without effort, sanctification requires much effort. We work, struggle, and expend lots of energy to live the Christian life. 

“Grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone.”

Dallas Willard

When a student receives a college scholarship, it is a one-time event, granted to the student. She now possesses it and is able to attend school without trying to earn the money to pay for it. Yet, the scholarship was given for a reason – so that the student can now focus entirely on their studies and/or sport. The work is just beginning.  More blood, sweat, and tears will take place living into that scholarship than the student could ever imagine. It won’t be easy. It will consume the student’s waking hours for the next four years.

When the Apostle James talks about faith, he is primarily referring to sanctifying faith, to believers who already professed saving faith in Jesus. They were granted a full-ride scholarship in the kingdom of God. Now the work begins. And, just as a student will surely become discouraged at points throughout their education, wondering if they ought to drop out, so the Christian will face tremendous adversity and challenge in living the Christian life.  There is a lot of spiritual training and studies to do so that faith will be strengthened for a lifetime of service.

Abraham was saved from an empty way of life and given a gift of grace to move to a better country. Abraham did nothing to earn this favor. God just chose him, period. Abraham sojourned as a pilgrim throughout the land God gave him, which mirrored his spiritual sojourning and learning to be a follower of God.

Abraham’s faith was demonstrated by what he did. The way genuine faith develops and grows is in the fiery trial of adversity and hardship.

Christianity is not a matter of continual upward triumph; it is a downright hard work of faith development as we learn to be followers of Christ. Spiritual maturity happens through sanctifying faith by means of difficult life circumstances.

Rahab, a completely different person than Abraham, was a prostitute who lived in the red light district of Jericho. Abraham is a recognized giant of faith. Rahab is an almost overlooked example of faith. All of us likely fall somewhere in between these two people – graced and called by God to live into our sanctifying faith through continual spiritual exercise.

Rahab’s faith and actions worked together. She honestly believed the city of Jericho would experience God’s judgment, and, so, she housed the visiting Israelite spies.

Maybe we need to expand our understanding of faith to include people we might typically exclude. 

No one is outside the realm of faith. So, let’s not be quick to judge those with dubious lives and backgrounds, as well as the poor and needy. If we do not know their stories, or why and how they ended up in this station in life, we may make unwarranted assumptions, and turn our backs on the needy.

We must not sanitize Rahab as someone other than who she was – and because of her faith she ended up being an ancestor of Jesus himself.

Needy people are not dumb, clueless, helpless, or ignorant; they are resourceful and resilient. They need Jesus, too. Yes, people make choices, often bad ones. Yet, nobody says to themselves, “When I grow up I want to be a prostitute or maybe a porn star and live in a red light district with a pimp who abuses me and gets high on heroin.” 

People too often back into behaviors due to a lack of positive relational connections and just trying to survive whatever crisis is going on in their lives.  The church can be a social connection for them to become grounded in something other than their past experience.

God grants faith scholarships to the rich and the poor, from every race, ethnicity, and background imaginable across the entire earth.

From the standpoint of faith, Abraham and Rahab are on the same level. Neither of them did anything to receive God’s grace. And God does not grit his teeth to show favor – the Lord genuinely loves us – and sincerely loves and likes all kinds of people.

Saving faith means life is just beginning. True salvation produces good works. Both Abraham and Rahab, along with all God’s people throughout the ages, exhibit sanctifying faith by persevering through hardship and allowing God to grow their faith.

Therefore, submit to hardship. Find solace in God and Scripture. Pray and worship like you mean it. Lean into community. Keep your eyes of faith open to what the Lord is doing around you.

Faith works. So, embrace it. Enjoy it. Live into it and with it always.

Ephesians 6:10-20 – Spiritual Combat

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.

And pray for me, too. Ask God to give me the right words so I can boldly explain God’s mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike. I am in chains now, still preaching this message as God’s ambassador. So, pray that I will keep on speaking boldly for him, as I should. (New Living Translation)

When I think of the Apostle Paul, I think of a guy who had a bucket load of boldness, who did not sidestep tough situations, but who fearlessly stepped into the world with the good news of God’s grace in Christ. 

Maybe Paul was that way because of prayer and the prayers of God’s people. Maybe what stands in the way of people knowing Jesus and believers maturing in faith is a profound lack of intense, consistent, and sustained prayer. Maybe too many of God’s people have been duped by the enemy of our souls to retreat in a bubble of fear, unable to effectively engage God’s big world with confidence.

Paul told the Ephesian Church what kind of practical and vital obligations were needed to put aside fear and flourish as Christians….

Be strong in the Lord because we are in an invisible war.

There is an unseen world all around us. We serve an invisible God, and we have an invisible enemy. Satan and all his wicked spirits exist. They are organized for war with methodical schemes and strategies designed to blunt our spiritual development and the expansion of God’s benevolent kingdom. The enemy seeks to render us ineffective in our walk with Christ, unproductive for God, and all knotted up inside in a broken mess so that we are weak, not strong.

The names of our invisible enemy in Scripture tells us the kind of diabolical and methodical work he is doing to snare us: 

  • Satan (the adversary who opposes us)
  • Lucifer (the shining one who comes looking like the light but only delivers darkness)
  • Beelzebub (lord of the flies, who is a false god promising protection and help apart from God)
  • Belial (the evil one, who seeks to have us engage in sin instead of righteousness)
  • Tempter (offering alternative plans to the will of God)
  • Accuser (the false judge, using criticism to bully people into shameful submission)
  • Prince of this world (the architect behind all systemic evil)
  • Devil (the diabolical one who engages in spiritual guerilla warfare against God’s people)

The unseen wicked spirits of this dark world pull out whatever technique they can to turn us from knowing who we are in Christ and how we are to really live. They seek to distract us from our mission, to keep us busy fighting among ourselves, so that we will put our ultimate confidence in anything or anyone but Christ.

Put on the armor of God and prepare for spiritual battle.

Satan is a defeated foe. The nails that crucified the Lord Jesus, and the power of God that raised him from the dead, ensured Satan’s doom.

Although we stand in the victory of the Lord Jesus, the world, the flesh, and the devil still dog us at every turn. So, we must discover and dislodge every threat to our spiritual growth and the mission of the church to step into the world with the gospel of grace. 

Jesus said he will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against us. The picture is not one of the church being defensive and only responding to threats, but of a church pushing forward and storming the gates. 

The promise we have is that we can engage the enemy to the point of hell itself – and will not be burned by demonic enemy fire. Therefore, we are not to hunker down in self-protective foxholes; we are to engage the enemy with our spiritual armor on.

  • Put on the belt of truth. We need to combat the demonic lies. The truth will set us free. Lies will place us in bondage. Shame will keep us in the dark shadows. We are to embrace Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. The truth is that we belong to God. We are not to fight demonic fire with fire. Instead, we fight Satan with the waters of baptism, remembering who we are in Christ. Just as the wicked witch of the west was killed with water, so we are to fling our baptismal water in the face of the enemy and watch him melt away.
  • Put on the breastplate of righteousness. It protects our heart as we push forward and engage the enemy. Satan is aiming for our hearts, so it is vital that they are well-guarded. Our hearts belong to God. Before we chose God, God chose us before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4).         
  • Put on the gospel shoes of peace. Satan and his minions are trying to cause chaos, unrest, and division.  We are to be ready for his methods through embracing God’s peace and harmony with others. We are to use our shoes, both for digging in and standing firm, and stepping forward into situations as peace-makers. Those who ready themselves with the gospel of peace live differently, openly, with grace and integrity.

Take up your spiritual weapons and do battle.

Whereas the spiritual armor is protective, giving us a solid defensive posture, our spiritual weapons help us to go on the offense and walk into the struggle.

  • Take up the shield of faith. Extinguish all the nasty flaming arrows of the evil one. The Roman phalanx was a rectangular military formation where the army took their shields and connected them together for protection and the ability to push forward, engaging the enemy. This tactic helped the Romans to conquer most of the known world of the time. It was based not on individual ability but on the strength of the entire army working together. The devil seeks to divide and conquer. Yet, there is strength in numbers, that is, as long as we work together!  Linking our shields together through unity, fellowship, and encouragement is absolutely necessary if we are going to win the battle.
  • Take up the helmet of salvation. Active transformation through the renewing of our minds enables us to avoid retreating and going back to old sinful patterns of thinking. We need mindfulness, not mindlessness, aware of who we are in Christ and actively occupying our thoughts with God’s Word.
  • Take up sword of the Spirit. This is the word of God. The written word is to be the spoken word. Our primary offensive weapon in the battle against the evil one is God’s Word. It needs to be read, memorized, meditated upon, learned, talked about, and, used by speaking it aloud.

Be alert and pray.

Prayer is to undergird everything we do. The early church was effective and successful through prayer. They all joined together constantly in prayer (Acts 1:14). They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly (Acts 4:31).  The early apostles re-arranged their busy schedules so that they could give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). Believers in Jesus pray.

Whenever prayer takes a back seat to everything else, believers end up fighting the wrong battles with the result of a lot of friendly fire where people get spiritually and emotionally hurt. Our battle is not with flesh and blood human beings; it is with Satan and his wicked spirits. Fight them, not each other!

Conclusion

The spiritual forces we are up against are wicked, evil, cunning and do not observe any kind of Geneva Convention rules when it comes to war. They are out for blood. Therefore, we must be ready and put on our spiritual armor, take up our spiritual weapons, and move forward with the word of God and prayer. This present darkness requires that we be at our best. Our very lives depend on it.