Friday, November 29, 2013

Messages to the Church Revealed (Pergamos) ...

The revelations of Jesus Christ as our God, not just our human companion who walked among us began in this book John wrote with a powerful description of Christ walking amidst the candlesticks that represent His church.  As the messages are conveyed, a particular aspect of that original description is revealed as being relevant to the church who He has a message for.  In this case, it was to the third church on the list of seven, entitled Pergamos.  Historically the city of Pergamum located in Asia Minor or what is now modern day Turkey was renowned for its temples of worship to Greek and Roman deities.  It is said to have built a hospital run by priests who allowed snakes to slither over you at night in order to gain the divine blessing of healing.  It also is reported to have had a great bronze altar constructed for human sacrifice to the Greek god Zeus, where its victims were tied and placed inside, and slowly roasted to death with a fire built under the belly of the bronze bull.  In short, this was not a city known for tolerance, dissent, or the worship of the true God.  And yet, a church took root in this place, and grew to the point of membership in the seven that Christ would relay His messages to.
John relays the message of Christ to this church beginning in chapter 2 and verse 12 saying … “And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges;”  You will recall the sharp two-edged sword proceeded from mouth of Christ in that earlier passage.  It is and remains the words of Christ that has the power to cleave us from our slavery to selfishness, or see us cut away from the presence of our God.  Our following of Christ, our submission to Christ, in order that we may be remade by Christ, is the basis of our salvation.  The law, and the prophets, and even the scriptures, without Christ are meaningless.  This was a truth that saw the Pharisees relinquish their claim on the true religion of our God, and the Christian church rise up in its place.  What was once His church was cut away by a refusal to embrace Christ, and what had now arisen needed to be cleaved of self by that symbolic two-edged sword.
John continues in verse 13 saying … “I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan's seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.”  Jesus begins by once again stating He is fully aware of the status of the church at Pergamos.  He knows how His Holy Spirit has been poured out there and what works have been done as a result.  In this case it is the strength of the faith of these people, despite their location and even despite persecution.  Jesus makes 2 references to this city as being where the seat of Satan is, and where Satan dwells.  One could interpret this as being a reference to the altar or throne of Zeus as being the seat of Satan where he is master of the house, and obviously comfortable living there.  The practice of human sacrifice alone is the height of Satan’s religion as he takes from God the thing most precious to God.  Children being sacrificed represent even more of a triumph for Satan, as they are more innocent having had less time to embrace the choices of self-slavery that lead to more ripples of pain.  So the literal ideas of this kind of practice being where Satan is seated is certainly a valid interpretation.  However, it may miss the deeper picture.
The seat of Satan is not constrained to an ancient bronze bull where humanity was sacrificed.  It may also lie in our hearts, where we refuse to yield our human control over to a Savior who longs to free us from the pain and death we embrace.  The place where Satan is comfortable to dwell is not only constrained to a temple built for a pagan god, but is a temple of our bodies that we have customized by a history of self-indulgence where service to self is the highest form of religion and most deeply learned behavior.  We can no more tear down our worship of self, than the stones could remove themselves from the old temple of Zeus.  Both places must be torn down by an outside force.  It is Christ who can tear down our internal altars to self, and remake our bodies as temples of service to others instead of repositories of slavery to self.  It is in our submission to His words and teachings and example of pure love to others we find relief from the pain of our chosen existence.  The lesson here is that even though the surroundings might be considered the heart of darkness and evil, even there salvation from Christ can be found.  It is not our surroundings that determine our proximity to God, it is our willingness to be His, and submit ourselves to Him.  It does not matter where we submit to God, only that we do.
There was one of note, who did just this.  Though little is known from history about the martyr to the faith mentioned as Antipas (obviously not Herod), what is clear from this reference by Christ is that Antipas valued his Christ more than his life.  Tradition or speculation might allow us to believe Antipas died inside that bronze altar, broiled alive for his refusal to sacrifice first to the Roman Emperor before resuming his normal preferred style of worship.  Or perhaps, there was a conspiracy to have him eliminated by the priests who ran the snake hospital, when merely the words of Christ and his healing power were freely given to those in need in that place.  The contrast of healing freely given by the followers of Christ, and the means required and filthy practices of the priests of snakes would have been abundantly clear to the people in need.  In any case, Antipas was killed, because he would not add to his claims of belief an acknowledgement of other gods besides the only true God Jesus Christ.  Antipas would not lie to save his own life, nor would he engage in common practices to shield his true beliefs and allow him to continue to witness and work the ministry for the community.  Instead Antipas thought it a better witness to live in the truth of Jesus Christ alone, and forego his human life in the clear faith of what would be a later life with Christ.  Notice too, Jesus does not declare that since Antipas died, that he is now with Him in paradise.  It was not an instant reward Antipas received, he would sleep until the return of the Lord, but he would once again know the joy of reunion with the Christ he was willing to die for.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the church of Pergamos had clearly resulted in the strengthening of the faith, and the clinging to the name of Christ.  However the message was not all one of encouragement, but also a challenge of what lay ahead.  John continues in verse 14 … “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.”  Within the church, not just outside of it, a section of its members had embraced the idea that freedom was intended for them to be free to gratify self, no longer restricted by the tenets of the law or Jewish traditions.  These members believed forgiveness was granted ahead of their sin, and that restriction itself was no longer binding.  Satan was up to his old tricks, and was sticking with what works.  Balaam had counseled Balak of old to destroy Israel from within, by enticing them with prostitutes and temple feasts of food dedicated to idols.  The symbolic eating of this food, drinking of this wine, and engaging in gluttony and promiscuity had succeeded in drawing the Israelites away from the worship of the true God.  The strategy was once again at work, this time within the Christian faith at Pergamos.  Notice it was not adultery named in this warning, but rather fornication.
Those members as yet unmarried in Pergamos held to the idea that since they were still unwed, they could have intimate relations of a sexual nature with anyone they pleased.  The law itself does not address pre-marital sex after all, it only addresses marital fidelity once the commitment is made.  And both Peter and Paul had revelations that we were no longer bound to the traditions of dietary purity as determined in living a Kosher lifestyle.  However, the counsel of God on our dietary habits was noted as early as the distinction in the number of animals that entered the ark of Noah, 7 clean, only 2 unclean.  Gluttony was more the problem, as both it and promiscuity, reveal a slavery to self that results from a heart that has not yet submitted the things most precious to it, to Christ.  We fear the removal of cherished sins from our lives by the reforming power of Christ.  This is because we do not see the damage these cherished sins are causing us and our victims.  We destroy our own self-worth and kill it in others as we treat what should be sacrosanct as common place.  Thus intimacy is destroyed, and replaced only with an insatiable need for self-gratification.  Our sexual experience is warped to one of self-service, not service to the one we love.  Our diet is gratified any cost, and our bodies suffer from our indulgence and lack of better choices.
This phenomenon was within the church of Pergamos in that day, as it is in our own.  How often we reason that sexual fidelity is only needed after marriage.  How often we reason that what we eat and drink does not matter anymore.  And how often we bear the consequences of the pain we embrace in our choices, sometimes blaming God later for the diseases our choices have resulted in.  In our quest for self-gratification we live lives of mediocrity instead of lives of excellence.  We have relationships that are at best mundane instead of marriages that bring a sense of fulfillment and purpose no one could ever take away.  Our potential to live a real life is denied by our stubborn refusal to let go the chains that are binding us to our pain.  But as we give ALL of ourselves to Christ, what is removed from our lives is the deception of living “good enough” and an awakening to a life of infinite potential.  Our relationships can be founded on what it means to truly love another and in so doing we begin to see each other as God sees us.  We begin to value each other as God values us.  And our lives become real lives, not merely an existence that hardly matters.  We, like the member of Pergamos, need to hear the message of Christ and abandon the deception of self-indulgence.
John continues in verse 15 … “So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.”  Again notice, Christ does not hate the people referred to as the Nicolaitans, but only their doctrines and beliefs and deeds as noted earlier.  The chief doctrine of the Nicolaitans which had already invaded the church at Pergamos and our own, was not dissimilar of that of Balaam; a perversion of our freedom into freedom TO sin, instead of freedom FROM sin.  In the case of the Nicolaitans in this instance it extends sexual promiscuity not only before marriage but after it.  Consent from a partner to allow sexual exploration outside of marriage does not constitute consent from God.  The two-edged sword of His word reveals that monogamy is not outdated by “modern” thinking.  It is instead insurance to preserve intimacy between 2 people in order that they may truly “know” each other, serve each other, and uplift and strengthen each other as dates all the way back to Adam and Eve.  We are better as a combined unit, than we are alone.  We complement each other, and help strengthen each other in the Lord.  But when we forsake the unity we find in monogamy, we find ourselves alone, and thus weakened against what the enemy places in front of us.  Marriage itself is not a defense against our enemy, but a faithful marriage based in Christ, founded in submission to Him, can provide a strong deterrent to the evils we would have encountered alone.  It is why Adam and Eve were counseled even in perfection to remain together, a truth no less meaningful for us today.  And a truth forsaken by those who embraced the ideas of cheap grace of the Nicolaitans who preferred pre-ordained forgiveness over reform and an abandonment of the pain of self-slavery.
John continues in verse 16 … “Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”  The warning to both of these groups within the church, is to repent.  The first and foremost priority of our Lord, is ALWAYS our redemption.  It is not condemnation that is presented first, but instead always redemption.  Condemnation is what we bring upon ourselves when we refuse the course of redemption.  It is automatic, it is the default of a lack of action, or refusal to embrace redemption.  The people who embrace these ideas are warned and counseled to repent in order to find redemption.  If they do not, Christ does not abandon them, but does come quickly and fight against them with the words and sword of His mouth.  Those who finally and fully refuse redemption will be cut away from the presence of our God.  This is not His preferred course of action, but it is not one He will refuse to take.  Those who will not abandon the ideas of placing self first through submission to Christ, will find themselves cut away from the body of His church.  The two ideas of God are in a conflict we cannot win.  If we place self first, we find Christ last, and eventually do not even want Him around at all.  But if we repent and submit to Christ, He can remake how we think, and what we want, and thus what we do.  Christ remains there for us.  He awaits our repentance, and thus our invitation for Him to remake our lives and free us from our chains to self.  There can be only one God, it is not us, it is Christ.
John concludes this message of Christ to Pergamos and us in verse 17 … “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.”  Here the Holy Spirit joins His promise to we who listen to the word of Christ to His church, or to us.  What must be overcome again is our propensity to serve self, exhibited in our gluttony and disregard for the results of eating and drinking whatever we want.  We must overcome our propensity to desire sexual gratification before or after marriage as degenerating only to self-gratification instead of service to only one other.  And these ideas can only be overcome thru repentance to Christ, and full submission of our diet, and of our sexuality to Him alone.  When we do this, we are promised “hidden manna”.  We are promised food that originates in heaven and is provided to us as we have need.  Remember that manna could not be stored any longer than the day it was needed, except on Sabbath.  “Hidden”, means it may not be immediately seen as to where it comes from, but the only source of Manna was always and remains only heaven, from the provision of our Lord.  In effect, He tells us we need not worry about starvation, we are intended for far more than that.
But the promise does not end with merely an assurance that our temporal physical needs will be met.  As is always the case of gifts from our Lord, He has so much more for us than just that.  Here He reveals that our identity itself is to be a gift from Him.  A “new name” is to be chosen and written in white stone (purity) and “given” (not earned), to we who know what it means to be remade by Christ.  Even our names, or how we are known, is to be changed and made pure by Christ.  Our very identity is to be made new.  This revelation of who we are is to be shared only to each of us by Christ Himself.  It is not something others will know, only us.  This reminds us, that intimacy is not just something that originates or is intended in a marriage.  It is something that Christ wants with each of us.  Intimacy is important because it starts first between us and God.  Only then can we begin to experience what it means with another.  Intimacy requires commitment, and a personal one-on-one focus between ourselves and in this case God.  It is through this close and intimate bond that Jesus picks our new name, and reveals it written in a white stone, only to us.  That is how close our God wishes to be with us.  He wishes to know us in a way that no one else can.  He wishes for us to know Him in a way that is unique to us, in effect, a way for us to know Him, like no one else can.
This kind of desired intimacy is not something that is unique to our generation.  But since creation each of us has been so uniquely created that the pattern does not repeat or have a duplicate in all of time or space.  This is the level of personal intimacy God has with each of us, as He has made each of us that level of unique and special to Him.  Our God is not looking for group think, and group values, and group praise – instead He is looking for a deeply personal, deeply intimate relationship with each and every one of us.  We praise Him in secret and He values and accepts our gratitude.  He needs no public display of what is in our hearts, but rather values what our hearts truly offer.  Antipas knew that intimacy and was willing to die rather than see it corrupted.  The destruction of intimacy through promiscuity was not only intended to ruin our relationships here on this earth, it was intended to ruin intimacy between us and our God.  Monogamy was not meant to be a restriction, it was meant to be the ultimate revelation of how personal we are to our God.  It is a recognition of our uniqueness and His desire to be intimate with each of us.  Monogamy in our earthly relationship can be a reflection of the intimacy we share with God, directed at each other.  And thus through submission to Christ, our marriages can become something way more than they are today.  They can become a source of strength, service, and fulfillment that no one could ever take away.  In this message to Pergamos, is revealed how Christ values His intimacy with us, and how a unit of 3, is so much better than the solitude of one.
And the messages were not over yet …

Friday, November 22, 2013

Messages to the Church Revealed (Smyrna) ...

John continues relaying the messages revealed to him for the church of Jesus in chapter 2 of Revelations and verse 8 … “And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;”.  Again the author is identified as Christ.  This time the revelation is centered around our concept of time.  Christ says of Himself, that He is “the first and the last”.  In this Christ reminds us that He pre-dates our existence, and will last beyond it.  In this sense, time is not measured in earthly consecutive days and hours, but in the vastness of eternity.  This perspective on the reality of our God, should inspire us to think and believe that our earthly lives are NOT the end game God has in mind for us.  There is an existence outside of how we measure time here that is of far more importance.  That existence is not bound by the limitations of this one, and is only possible through the mechanism of Jesus Christ.
Next Christ again describes Himself as one who “was dead and is alive”.  Death itself could not hold our creator in its grasp, nor will it have any power over those who the Creator extends the gift of salvation to.  Should we lose our mortal lives, there is hope beyond our sleep.  There will be an awakening like Christ was awakened and through His power, we will live again, in an existence where time has no meaning and decay is a thing of our long distant past.  But our resurrection has more meaning than just from our physical condition of death, it also has relevance in our spiritual existence.  When we embrace sin, we embrace the pain and death that comes with sin.  They are inseparable.   But the power of Christ and His redemptive love, can resurrect us from our current spiritual condition of death, and show us what it means to truly live, now and after.  We need not wait for the final resurrection to be raised unto life today.  We can experience what it truly means to love others, as Christ loves them, and in so doing, know the bliss and perfection of the gift He offers in the here and now.  This resurrection is possible ahead of our physical graves, and carries immediacy and relevance to us today.
John continues in verse 9 … “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.”  Jesus begins His message to Smyrna to once again remind them that He is engaged and aware of what is happening in that church.  He knows what works His Spirit has inspired among the believers there and what the results of that outpouring has been.  He praises the patience and forbearance in tribulation.  He notes the perceived poverty, but reveals that the lack of earthly wealth has not diminished in any way the treasure of wealth that has been laid up in heaven.  It was common practice in the early church that upon joining, a member would sell everything they owned, and donate the entire amount to the church, to be shared with anyone who had need.  This was way beyond the concept of tithing.  It was literally a 100% commitment to God, with nothing held back for ourselves.  But the end result of course, was a complete lack of personal finances, position, or earthly wealth.  Here Christ endorses this practice and reminds us that our sharing of our means is aligned with heaven and is more important than any hoarding of our means.
Then Christ addresses the topic of blasphemy.  He does not state that the false claim of these blasphemers is that they claim to be God, but rather they claim to be Jews, when in fact they are of the synagogue of Satan.  While Christ Himself setup the original religion and practices the Jewish people followed since the days of Creation (the Sabbath), Adam (sacrifice), Abraham (dedication and circumcision), Moses (the Law on the tables of stone), Solomon (the construction of the Temple), Nehemiah (the restoration of the Temple).  Christ had also come as the Messiah, and was the fulfillment of all the prophecies that pointed forward to His work of our redemption.  Upon rejecting Him, what was once His own religion; rejected now its own God.  To claim that salvation exists outside of Christ, or to claim that control and self-actions can lead to salvation, is to blaspheme the reality of our God.  It is Satan who values control.  It is Satan who tells us we need no one but ourselves to live as we choose and be the authors of our own ideas of salvation.  It is Satan who tempts us to see the forms and practices of our religion supplant the Christ of our religion.  His synagogue is not some dark place where believers wear red robes and do blood rituals.  Instead they masquerade as fine Christian chapels and mega churches with believers dressed in full business attire, but whose hearts have never been submitted to anything outside of themselves.  Those who claim to be Jews but are not, follow every idea and variation that keeps Christ out of the center stage of our salvation and instead “self” located there.  When we trust to our own strength, whether in “partnership” with God, or completely because of our own actions, we deny the reality of the need of our Messiah, and join with those who are labeled of the synagogue of Satan.
John proceeds in verse 10 … “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”  The message to Smyrna is not a happy one.  There is no message of peace and prosperity, of earthly wealth and ease, of blessings and happiness in this world to the church of Smyrna or to us.  There is after all, a war raging all around us, one of Good and of Evil.  This war will inflict casualties, and evil is aimed fully at hurting God, by hurting the thing He cares most about … us.  The devil will throw us into prison.  In those days, the prisons were no clean, cable-TV, three meal a day institutions.  They were dark, dank, disease ridden dungeons, where food was a luxury and isolation could be the norm.  The devil intends both then and now, to offer us the contrast of earthly poverty and suffering for the sake of our belief in Christ, as compared to the wealth and ease of trusting to ourselves.  If the members of the Smyrna church would but deny their Lord, they could live long happy lives of self-indulgence and ease.  But if not, they would be made to suffer, and be tested in courts of law and outside of any justice, for the beliefs they clung to.  The message says they would have tribulation for ten days.  Perhaps this was literal and meaningful to them at the time they received this message.  Or perhaps this would be interpreted as prophetic, meaning they would have 10 years of tribulation.  Perhaps both. 
But what was most interesting about this message, was the hope offered with it.  Christ begins by saying “Fear none of those things”.  He begins by telling His faithful followers, that Satan has no real power over any of them.  Prison is not something we should fear or worry about.  In fact, death itself is not something we should fear or worry about.  After all He has just said, He Himself was dead and is now alive.  There was a reason He began His message with that greeting.  For if we continue to submit our will and our lives and our very existence unto Christ, He will grant us a “crown” of life.  Crowns symbolize royalty and kingship.  They are rare.  They are not intended for everyone in general.  But in this, everyone who clings to Christ and values His ideas of our existence over what we can see and experience in the here and now, will in fact be considered His royalty.  A status which we do NOT deserve; we are NOT kings and queens, yet He values us this much.  He has served us, as if we were.  He has done for us what is normally only done for kings and queens, yet He did it for us when we were but slaves to our sin and our selfishness.  He freed us from being slaves.  And now He elevates us to being considered royalty, a royalty that is not based in receiving praise but in serving others.  We are to be made kings and queens of service, as He is the God of service and love to others.  It is barely within our comprehension to be so treated by the God of the universe, who had to die in order that we might truly live.  This promise, and these ideas reflect the level to which God loves us and His church.
John relays the conclusion of this message as he pens in verse 11 … “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.”  Again the message is joined by words from the Holy Spirit of Christ.  It is intended for we who believe, for it is we who have an ear.  Again what must be overcome is self, the desire to rely on control, or the forms of religion instead of the Messiah of our religion, the blasphemy of thinking there is salvation outside of the gift of Christ.  And how will these ideas be overcome?  Only as we submit our will, our desires, and our very lives to the will of Christ.  When we do this, we are promised that the hurt of the second death will not come our way.  We will not know the sleep of eternal non-existence that comes at the final destruction of all that is evil.  Instead we will know the crown of life that He has given to us despite what we had earned.  We will know the gift of life He has given us though we deserve the second sleep that remains upon those who refused His gift and denied His salvation, preferring to trust to themselves and their own ideas about salvation.
The message to the church at Smyrna reminds us that bliss in this world is not on the menu.  Our gospel is not one based in the ideas of happiness, wealth, and fulfillment in this world, but in the next one.  Our treasure is not found in our monetary acquisition, but in its full distribution to those in need.  These ideas are at complete war with most of American society and social values.  Indeed the early Christian church followed an extreme version of communism, not capitalism.  They prized giving away everything they owned, not hoarding it.  They were truly persecuted for their stubborn belief in His gift of our salvation, not merely suffering “perceived” slights or dispersions.  They were cast into prisons and killed for what they believed, not just ridiculed for having faith.  The message for Smyrna reminds us of the reality of the war that continues to rage between Satan who is bent on our destruction, and God who is bent on our redemption.  And it offers us hope, that while we submit ourselves fully to Christ, there is life worth living.  It begins here, and but it is intended for an existence that well beyond anything we will know in this world of pain, sin and self-obsession.
And the messages would continue …

Friday, November 15, 2013

Messages to the Church Revealed (Ephesus) ...

The first church of the seven was identified as Ephesus.  John begins in Revelations chapter two, by immediately revealing the source of the message; its author is Christ.  Verse one states … “Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;”  It is Christ who holds the seven stars, or seven angels of the seven churches in his right hand.  It is Christ that walks amidst the seven golden candlesticks or amidst HIS church.  Here again Christ asserts His ownership for His church.  John is not the owner.  The local pastor is not the owner.  Even the members do not “own” their own church body.  Christ alone does.  The message itself appears to be targeted at not only the church, but to the angel of the church.  This may imply that the message will be to the people, but that even after the people are gone, it remains a message the angel is to hold for this church in perpetuity.  But whether the message was prophetic, or immediately relevant, or both; what was clear was that it came from Christ.  It was not the opinions of John in this instance; it was the word of the Lord.
John continues relaying what he is told in verse 2 … “I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: [verse 3] And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.”  To begin Christ starts by insuring His followers understand that He is fully aware, and actively engaged in His church at Ephesus.  The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the early days of the church of Jesus has borne fruit.  The people who follow Christ have labored to spread His gospel, they have been patient, and they have not stopped their efforts to spread His gospel merely because it is difficult physically on them.  In addition, they have suffered the burden of having to contend with “false” apostles.  Imagine how hard it must have been for an early Christian church with no form of mass or immediate communications to tell when a stranger comes claiming to be an apostle (who no one has ever met), from a genuine apostle (who no one has ever met).  They did not have Facebook or any way to look up the credentials of these folks.  Instead they would have to bring them into their midst, welcome them as is the Christian way, and only over time observe that self-interest, and self-motivation were the only objectives of these false messengers.  They were posing as believers, only to gain monetary advantage, taking what was shared and pocketing it much like Judas before them.  Sometimes these fakers would act as spies for the Jewish authorities to attempt to bring persecution to the true leadership of the church.
Because the mantra of the church of Jesus was to love everyone without precondition, the revelation of false apostles with hidden motives and agendas was neither easy nor immediate.  It puts the church in that contentious position of hoping for redemption, yet having to deal with the reality of refusal of that redemption from one of its own.  Here Christ acknowledges that not every person who claims to be an apostle is truly an apostle.  Claiming to follow Christ, does not make it so.  Claiming to have authority from Christ in the leadership position, such as an apostle, does not make it so.  To truly follow Christ, one must be the servant of all, not attempt to control all.  It is this difference that clearly marks those who through submission have been changed by Christ, and those who are merely claiming His name in order to gain advantage over others.  In general Christ acknowledges that the efforts of the church at Ephesus have had a positive impact.  However, that is not where the message ends.
John continues in verse 4 … “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.”  Perhaps the most heartbreaking words that might come from the mouth of our God; a message that we, His followers, have “left” our first love – Him.  The love of Christ being first and foremost in our hearts is the key from which all other actions and motives flow.  When the love of Christ is made secondary in any way, what follows is a reliance on self that creeps into our Christianity and into our thinking.  We begin to take credit for the spiritual works as if they came from us, instead of flowing through us with their source in Christ alone.  We begin to see ourselves as in a better spiritual condition than we are, because we begin to compare our relatively holy lives, with those who are not nearly so spiritually mature and perfected.  To lose our first love, is to seek another to fill its place.  In a marriage it is akin to seeking another lover, another partner, someone else.  In spiritual terms, it is the supplanting of love of Christ, for love of religion, or power, or control, or self.  If Christ is not kept at the center of our thinking and our love, if we do not seek to submit ourselves fully to Him, we cut ourselves off from the mechanism of our change, and the need for it.
Christ continues His admonition in verse 5 … “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.”  Remember that we are fallen because we are our own worst enemy.  It is not the devil who “makes” me sin, it is my own desire to do so, I need almost no encouragement from Satan to do what I already want to do.  If I am to stop sinning, I must seek first the only One who is able to remake my desires and cause me to change what I want, and therefore what I do.  The first “work” of our salvation is to submit our will to Christ.  It is why we repent.  When we see ourselves as we truly are, when we see the extent of our selfishness, and our literal eagerness to put Christ back on the cross so that we can have only a moment’s perceived pleasure that comes from self-gratification – we realize just how far our own selfishness will go.  We are no different than the persecuting priests, or Roman guards who tortured our Lord for their own amusement.  It is our amusement that has required His sacrifice.  And it is He alone who can change how we think, and what we love, in order that sin is no longer the temptation it once was.  It is our hearts that must change, before the works of our hands will.  This is the “first works” the church must return to.
If we do not.  We face a self-imposed removal from the presence of Christ.  Our candlestick, our symbolic representation of the perfection Christ is able to perform within His followers, will be removed by our refusal to embrace full submission to His changing and reforming power in our lives.  This is NOT the inclination, or choice, Christ wishes to make.  If it were, He would not waste time, warning us of our self-chosen fate.  This admonition, like every other from the mouth of Christ, was not meant to be a threat to us, but a wake-up-call on how to avoid the pain we so often choose.  Christ is working again for the redemption of His church, not for its condemnation.  But He is also plainly stating a truth, that when we refuse to put Him first, we are putting ourselves on the path of separation from Him, which He will be unable to stop.  Our choice, at the end of the day, rules our fate.  If we choose to forsake our love of Christ, and replace it with love of self, we cut ourselves off from our only hope of salvation.  Christ will not continue to keep an entire church at Ephesus holding a place in the golden candlesticks merely because it once did, or for history’s sake, or in a vain hope they will return.  If we forsake following, and lean on self, our vanity will see us removed and replaced with those who truly do see their need and follow, trusting in Him, and not in themselves.
As the message comes to a close, a further word of encouragement is offered.  Christ continues in verse 6 … “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”  Notice first, Christ does not advocate or endorse hatred for a person, or group of people.  He is specific to say “the deeds of”.  It is the sin Christ hates, NOT the sinners, for we ALL are sinners.  In this the church has followed His lead.  The Nicolaitans of this day, are not much different than many within most of our Christian churches of today.  They misinterpret the message of grace.  Instead of seeing grace as the means of redemption FROM sin, they see it as a vehicle TO sin freely.  They mistake the argument of Christ willingness to forgive, as His sanction that any sin or any act is OK, because right or wrong He will forgive it anyway.  This phenomenon has sometimes been referred to in our day as “cheap grace”.  The idea that nothing we do matters, because we have already been saved, and will remain so, because of the power of Christ.  And once this concept is embraced, most folks generally apply it to sex, or greed, or most other forms of self-indulgence.  The most fundamental flaw in this thinking, is a distortion of the nature of sin.  Instead of seeing sin for the pain it causes others and ourselves, we buy into the devils ideas that sin = fun.  When in fact, sin = pain.  Were we to see sin in that context, we would not seek to find more ways to embrace sin, but rather the only way we can be made free from sin and the pain it brings to others and ourselves.  Christ came to free us from our pain and our sin, not to give us a way to deepen ourselves in it.
The first message concludes in verse 7 … “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”  John now adds a message from the Spirit of Christ, the unity of the Godhead working in concert for our redemption.  He that hath an ear, is we who are believers, if we purport to be followers of Christ, we should take heed to this message.  He does not constrain the message only to those few at Ephesus, but offers a broader audience, in fact all of us, to take notice.  To him “that overcometh”, so first what is it that must be overcome.  The loss of our first love, the replacement of Christ first, for self first, the embracing of the idea that sin is OK simply because forgiveness is there – in short what must be overcome is our own will and desires.  And “how” must self be overcome?  If we are the enemy, we will not cure ourselves.  If we are diseased, it cannot be us who cures us.  Instead we must be made clean.  Instead we must have our chains of slavery to self, broken by the only One who can.  If we are to see a victory over self, it must come from beyond ourselves.  Our salvation will be His gift to us, our role will be to accept it.  We must humble ourselves to see we NEED His gift, as we will be unable to obtain it on our own.  We must submit who we are to Him, in order that He can change how we think, what we want, and therefore what we do.  This is the overcoming that is promised to us by the Spirit.  It is the overcoming that is the promised reward.  What follows is only icing on the cake, not the cake itself.
To eat from the tree of life is to live forever.  It was the tree of life that Adam and Eve were denied access to, once they had embraced sin.  To live forever in the condition of sin, is not life, it is torture.  But once sin has been removed forever from our thinking, our motives, and our deeds, then real life can begin.  Then to live forever is no longer torture but perfection and bliss.  To be in the paradise of God, is not merely to be in the city of Heaven which he has designed and built and upgraded in order that we could share it with Him.  To be in the paradise of God, is to know the absence of self-obsession, and the fullness of selfless service to others, in short to know love, is to know loving others.  Our quest to be loved has long been fulfilled, for Christ has loved us, before we even existed.  To love others is the real agenda.  It is the real paradise, the real heaven.  The purpose of the revelation of Christ to His church in Ephesus, was not to remain stagnant until the day of His returning.  It was to embrace their first love of Christ in the here and now; to see the paradise of God active and alive in their lives in the here and now.  This was possible and achievable in the here and now, but ONLY through the seeking of Christ first and foremost, only through a recognition of our need of Him, and a submission and trust in Him to work in us, what He has promised.
And the messages would continue …

Friday, November 1, 2013

Revelations: The Nature of God Revealed ...

Jesus was known of His disciples as the man they had spent three and a half years with while He ministered here on earth.  This was the only context they had known Him in.  They saw glimpses of His divinity, but never the full picture of it.  John was now to reveal Jesus Christ to the masses, out of the context of the friend he knew, and in the role of the God we worship.  John begins with his introduction in verse 9 of his book Revelations in chapter one saying … “I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. [verse 10] I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,”  John begins by identifying himself as our brother, not as our leader, or our prophet, or as the bishop of the church, or as any other hierarchical figure in Christianity, but merely as our brother.  He further states that he too suffers in tribulation (both physical and spiritual) in the waiting for Jesus Christ.  He was in the Roman prison colony of Patmos because of his preaching of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ.  John witnessed to what he saw of the life of Jesus, but he also used scripture to illuminate the truth of Jesus Christ.
John then goes on, and says that he was “in the Spirit”; given the prophecy that follows, this is likely to be interpreted as being touched by the Holy Spirit, or filled with the Holy Spirit.  It happened on “the Lord’s Day”.  The only day throughout all of scripture to be directly associated with God was the Sabbath set at creation, verified in the law, and rested upon by Christ even during His sleep of death while in His work to redeem us.  Nowhere in scripture is found any directives to change this day, or discontinue its observance.  And so, both the early Christian church, as well as the traditional Jewish faith continued to observe the Sabbath to try to keep it Holy.  Though the Christian church had a bit different perspective on what that meant in terms of service to others.  John continues that behind him he hears a great voice, as of a trumpet.  Trumpets are loud.  They are clear.  They are musical.  It is not just a large crash, or big bang of something falling that grabs John’s attention – instead he refers to it as a voice.  A voice has purpose, and clarity.  But in this instance, the voice is loud, and requires attention.  The voice has structure and meaning and will continue to reveal to John a deeper of picture of Jesus Christ.
John repeats what the voice states in verse 11 … “Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.”  The voice is that of Jesus Christ already identified as the Alpha and Omega, the first and last of our salvation, and of existence.  John is directed to write what is revealed in a book.  A book implies that this will not fit in a traditional letter, it is going to be more content that a letter would usually contain.  And it’s audience would be the seven churches, or the Christian church of his time.  Now the key centers of Christianity in that day that comprise the church of Christ are revealed by name.  All seven were in reasonably close proximity in the Roman province referred to as Asia, sometimes called Asia minor.  On a recent map all of them would be located within the country of Turkey.  What is most interesting personally about the designation of these seven churches to me, is that none of them were tied to any political centers of power, either historical, current or emerging.  Jerusalem was once the capital of Israel and housed the Ark of the Covenant within the temple Solomon built.  The actual Mercy Seat where the physical presence of God dwelt with His people was there for years.  But no more.  Regardless of where God had been, or who comprised His church before, His current church was now only to be made up of those who follow Christ.
Rome was the current political power of the day, Athens and Babylon preceded it.  No churches of Christ were identified in any of these political capitals as being part of the seven.  Instead, seven cities, of no special significance, located in a province of no special significance, but each containing followers of Jesus Christ made up the representation of His church.  The marriage modern Christianity would appear to love to nourish between the power of the state and the morality and values of Christianity does not reflect what the leader Christ revealed about Himself or His church.  Christ was never interested in politics, or the power of the state.  He was however always interested in people and whether they would allow Him to give them the gifts of perfection through the submission of their will to Him.  Following Christ, not leading Him, or attempting to compel others to join with Him, or attempting to mandate the morality of others in His name – no, Following Him implies submission.  It is in our submission we find salvation, not in our vain attempts at control or power.  Christ built His church under the pagan power of the Roman empire.  Politics were not in support of His church, and rather were determined to see it ended.  Yet Christ did nothing to overturn Roman rule while here on earth or after His ascension.  Instead He did what really matters, He focused on turning only the hearts of His followers.  This would one day change the entire world.
John now knows who will be the immediate audience for book he is to write.  But as this voice was coming from behind him, he wishes to see who is speaking and turns around.  He continues to pen what he sees in verse 12 … “And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks;”  There is often a distinction made between the Old and New Testaments regarding the covenant between God and His people.  But it is interesting that the symbolism used in the Old Testament sanctuary finds new purpose in the New Testament revelation of Christ.  John sees seven golden candlesticks, it is easy to picture a Menorah in this instance in some variation.  For one just like it is described in the original sanctuary worship service of the Old Testament days of Moses and what would follow. 
Having seen the candlesticks, John turns his attention to Christ in verse 13 he continues … “And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.”  John identifies the person in the midst or middle of the candlestick as “like” the Son of Man.  He resembles Jesus that John knows, and uses language that was used by the King of Babylon in the days of Daniel’s three friends who were cast into the fiery furnace; one who is like unto the Son of Man.  Nebuchadnezzar recognized Christ, even without ever having met Him that we know of, and John recognizes Him as well.  Next John sets about describing the attire he sees, eerily similar to that of a traditional temple priest.   Clothed with garment down to the foot, and wearing about the waist and thighs a “golden girdle”.  It was not long ago that Christ had girded himself with a simple towel to wash the feet of his disciples, now that same implement seems to show He is still working in service to His church, and for their salvation.
John then sets about to describe Jesus the Man he knows as God continuing in verse 14 … “His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; [verse 15] And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.”  The purity of God is reflected in his head and hair as they are white as snow.  This is not to designate Christ as being of Arian decent, nor to decry his Palestinian heritage or perhaps previously olive complexion.  It is instead to remind us, that our God is not bound by our divisions or national ideas, or heritage of ethnicity.  Instead He bears characteristics that we do not find in ourselves.  He has a head and hair, though white as snow.  But his eyes are neither brown, green, nor blue; they are instead as a flame of fire.  John cannot see much of His skin due to the full length garment, but His feet are as fine brass, still burning in a furnace.  In our day the CGI effects in movies like the Terminator where seemingly liquid metal gels into the appearance of a man might be a good allegory.  And again John reminds us that His voice, is not merely the voice of a man, but as the sound of many waters.
John then describes items Jesus is carrying in verse 16 … “And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.”  In the right hand of Christ are seven stars, John does not know what this means at first, nor does he fully understand the imagery of the candlesticks as yet.  But out of His mouth went a two-edged sword.  Coming from the mouth of Christ are the words and teachings of Christ.  I AM that I AM had given His laws once to His people.  But in the life of Christ, was revealed the motives behind the laws, and the lesson of what it means to love and serve others, even to the point of offering His life for them and us.  Those words of Christ and teachings of Christ were a TWO edged sword.  Or in other words, they CUT both ways.  They both liberate and condemn.  They both save and judge.  Those who will hear the word of Christ, will be saved by His power to cut the evil out of the minds and hearts.  Those who will refuse to hear the words of Christ, are cutting themselves off from the only source of their salvation and are dooming themselves to be cut off from His presence forever.  The teaching of Christ, the fulfillment of the mission of Messiah, is that we ALL need a savior.  We are NOT to save ourselves.  This is a lesson even modern Christianity could stand to re-learn.  Those who put self at the center of their religion find no room for Christ there, and thus find only the doom of isolation from Christ.
The sun is difficult to stare at when it shines without clouds at noon day.  If you attempt it, you will likely lose your sight altogether.  The countenance of Christ is so bright, John can only describe it in that way.  His purity, His love is so intense, that as you gaze upon it, it is too bright for the selfishness still within us to stand.  Our evil compels us to recoil or withdraw from the presence of such purity.  As such John falls prostrate as he describes in verse 17 … “And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:”  John sees in himself the unworthiness of standing in the presence of perfect love and purity, and falls before God expecting to be dead.  Instead, the familiar hand of the one he loves placed upon him, perhaps helping him up, and the familiar greeting … “Fear not”.  How often John has heard those words from the voice of God, and how often they were needed.  Even before the message is delivered to John, Christ pays attention to the needs of John, and FIRST assuages his fears.  Then He continues saying again He is the first and the last, the beginning and ending of our salvation, of our transformation, of our perfection, and of our existence.
Christ continues in verse 18 … “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.”  Christ identifies himself as the man they knew and the life he spent with them.  He reminds them that He died for us, and is now risen for us.  He also states that He will be alive forevermore, there will be no future death for Him again.  And in addition He holds the keys of “hell” and of “death”.  “Keys” are needed to open prison doors.  They are needed for our freedom.  Hell is the condition of life while separated from God.  Any existence cut off from the presence and author of love, is ALREADY hell.  You do not need fire and flames to torture the flesh, if you are unable to love and be loved, and know only the pain of self-love and the slavery it causes.  You are already alive in hell.  You are already the prisoner of hell.  And no prisoner ever frees himself from this condition or state of existence.  However, Christ holds the keys to freedom from it.  Death, or the sleep of non-existence, is also something that Christ can free us from.  He can raise us from the dead, both our minds and bodies, but also from the death of our spiritual condition of self-focus.  He can raise us from the death we have embraced of our spiritual nature, and put life in its place, life that is found, rooted, and grounded in Christ alone.
Notice Christ does not hand John the keys.  No angel holds the keys.  We are not to be partners with Christ in freeing ourselves from our conditions of hell or of death.  We are to be freed BY Christ from these conditions and from Him alone.  Buddha, and Mohammed, and Moses, do not carry these keys.  There is no path to self-enlightenment.  There is no level of self-denial that will result in freedom from hell or death.  There is only Christ.  The two-edged sword has the power to cure us, or if we reject it, the inevitable result of seeing us trapped where we are, cut off from His presence.  The whole goal of our salvation was to bring us home to Him, to restore us into the presence of that kind of purity, without the stain of self to cause us to wither away and recoil. 
Christ then gives John his mission in verse 19 … “Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;”  John is to record everything that has just transpired.  The timeframe for relevance will be … “things which are” … or messages that are needed today in the present timeframe of the audience of John.  But also they are “things which shall be hereafter”, or messages that are intended for those who will live beyond the immediacy of the audience of John’s readers.  Again the messages of these revelations have meaning in more than one timeframe, but key to any interpretation is the central premise of revealing Jesus Christ.  Outside of Jesus Christ, there can be no proper interpretation of scripture, the law, or the prophecies contained here. 
Christ then reveals the meaning of the symbolism John has just witnessed to him as He continues in verse 20 … “The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.”  The seven stars represent seven angels that work and minister to each of the seven churches, one a piece.  The seven candlesticks that Christ was walking amidst are His churches that he has just listed before.  Christ is establishing that these churches belong to Him.  He has assigned angels to minister to those churches.  He does not designate that each church belongs to its current pastor, or evangelist, or its founder, or committee of church board members, or elders, or deacons, or even its members.  Each church belongs to Christ.  Each member, or leader, all belong equally to Christ, to be led by Christ, and taught by Christ, and saved by Christ.  It is not the structure of the governance of the church that saves us, but the only real leader, Christ.  It is not our position of service that makes us any more or less important than other members of the church, our value is found in the love of our leader, Christ.  We belong only to Him.  We are His.  It is that which gives us value.
And the revelations of Christ had only just started …