Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Vision of the Son of Man (Revelation 1:9-20)

John provides readers with information about when and how he received this divine revelation. He received when he was in exile for following Jesus. Perhaps John, because he was a prominent leader of the church, had been separated from fellow believers, although his description of himself is one that indicates that he cannot be separated from them because they belong to the same family, serve in the same kingdom, endure the same opposition and have the same determination to continue.
John received the revelation through the Spirit. While it is difficult to grasp what John means by being in the Spirit, the outcome is obvious. Such will receive deeper understandings into who Jesus is and what he is doing. In John’s case, it probably means a special experience connected to him undergoing divine inspiration as he receives from Jesus a book that will be included in the Bible. 

John provides a description of Jesus and then records the demands of the Saviour.
The description of Jesus
John describes Jesus as present with the seven churches of Asia. The Saviour is about to send a letter to each, so we can deduce that Jesus has been investigating what has been occurring in the spiritual life of each congregation. 

The first detail that John mentions about Jesus is that he is like a son of man. We might assume that John is pointing to the humanity of Jesus here, and that is true. Yet he has a special kind of humanity, one that is marked by unique abilities. Our minds should be drawn to the prophecy of Daniel 7 in which one like the Son of man received a kingdom from God the Father, which happened to Jesus when he ascended. So what we have here is a description of the ascended Saviour. 
John then describes how Jesus is dressed. The long robe and the golden sash remind us that Jesus is dressed like a priest. Of course, Jesus is a special kind of priest, linked to the order of Melchizedek. The difference between that priesthood and the priesthood of Aaron was that Melchisedek was a king as well as a priest. Jesus is both a king and a priest.
Next John notes that the hair of Jesus was very white. In the vision that Daniel saw, it was the Ancient of Days (God the Father) who is said to have such hair. Therefore it is possible to regard this detail as indicating that Jesus is also divine. Moreover, a hoary head is linked with wisdom as well as with dignity. The least we can deduce from the reference to hair is that Jesus possesses the wisdom to deal with the issues he has seen in the seven churches. 

Another suggestion that is made regarding the white hair is that it points to purity or holiness of character, and it is the case that often in the Book of Revelation the colour white means holiness (as in the white robes that are mentioned). Our thoughts can go to what the seraphim say about Jesus in Isaiah 6, ‘Holy, holy, holy.’ The one who searches the churches is wise and holy.
The eyes of Jesus are like a flame of fire. I suppose John means penetrating vision, able to see everything that is going on in the churches. It is an interesting question to ask, ‘What would John have said about those churches if he had decided of himself to send letters to those churches?’ John did not possess such vision as Jesus and the apostle may have commended some of the churches that Jesus criticises. For example, John may not have perceived that the church in Ephesus had left their first love or that the church in Laodicea did not have the Lord’s presence at their services. But Jesus sees clearly what is going on, and his focus does not lose intensity.
John then says that the feet of Jesus were like bronze in a furnace, which must be connected to the description of his eyes being like fire. A metal was put in a furnace to purify it. Therefore, when a person saw a metal in this condition he knew that it was pure. The illustration is not suggesting that Jesus became pure; instead it is affirming that he is pure. I suppose another way of looking at this description would be to compare the feet of Jesus with the feet of the members of the seven churches. None of them were totally pure, but some of them were marked by great impurity. Given that Jesus is described here as acting in judgement, we can see in the reference to the fiery feet a picture of crushing judgement.
Then there is the loud voice of Jesus. John likens the voice to the noise of the Mediterranean Sea that dashed against the island on which he was exiled. Perhaps he heard its waves every day, drowning out all other noises. Such a sound could not be silenced by all the powers of man. When Jesus speaks, he will be heard, and he has come to speak to the seven churches.
John then points out that Jesus was holding seven stars in his right hand. He explains to John that each star represents an angel connected to each of the seven churches. Some see them as the messengers who will take the letters to their respective destinations. In saying that they are in his right hand, he is assuring John that the messages will get to their destination – a right hand was a place of power and was a sign of guidance. John may have wondered how he could get his messages from Patmos to the churches. Jesus informs John that the messages would reach their destinations.
Next, Jesus is described as having a sharp sword coming from his mouth. On several occasions, the Bible or the Word of God is likened to a sharp sword. Paul informed the Thessalonians that when Jesus returns, one of his actions will be to slay the man of sin by the sword of his mouth. The messages that Jesus is going to send will have a powerful edge to some of them because he has found evidence that he will need to wield his sword.
The final detail that John mentions is the brightness of the face of Jesus. John, of course, had seen this feature literally when Jesus was glorified on the Mount of Transfiguration. Here, John says that Jesus will be like the noon-day sun. On the Mount of Transfiguration, the shining of his face had been a blessing because it revealed that he was divine. On this second occasion, I suspect the shining of the face indicates judgement. After all, it is not good for a person to be unprotected against the brightness of the midday sun.
What else can we say about this vision of Jesus? First, it is a vision – we cannot deduce from this description that literally Jesus has white hair and burning eyes. Second, the vision tells us that Jesus is an awesome figure. ‘Awesome’ is one of the most misused words of our day – but it is not misused when said of Jesus. Third, the vision informs us that Jesus is the Assessor of his churches. There is no reason to limit this activity to the seven churches of Asia. He assesses all congregations.
The response of John
I suppose John initially may have imagined that Jesus was coming towards him to destroy him. We can see that he crumpled, so astounded and afraid was he. He must have been afraid because Jesus told him not to fear. There is an obvious sense in which this incident is like how Isaiah reacted when he had a vision of the greatness of Jesus in Isaiah 6.
From certain points of view, the response of John is surprising. When Jesus was here on earth with his disciples, John had a very close relationship with Jesus, expressed in how he used to lean Jesus’ breast. Moreover, it is likely that Jesus and John were cousins because a case can be made for saying that John’s mother Salome and Mary were sisters. Why did John respond in this way? He had new insights into his own nothingness and into the greatness of Jesus.
John’s response tells us how wrong it is to be flippant about Jesus. He is not only great in prestige, he is full of power, and when in his presence one is very much aware of who he is. John’s response was that he knew he should bow, but not bow as a merely symbolic gesture. The apostle does not only have a mental grasp of the greatness of Jesus, he feels it and is compelled to fall at his feet.
I suspect that this response is missing from much of the contemporary church. Jesus is our shepherd, he is our guide, he is our counsellor – they are biblical relationships, but governing them is the fact that he is Lord. And it may be the case that the reason John received a gracious response from Jesus was because he responded correctly to Jesus.
The comfort from Jesus
The Saviour responds quickly to his stricken disciple. First, with his right hand, he touched John. This was the hand in which John had seen the seven angels of the church. It was the hand that symbolised his royal power. In touching John, Jesus assured him that divine power was there to help him. And if God be for us, who or what can be against us?
John points out that the divine action of touching him was accompanied by words from Jesus about himself. The Saviour was aware of John’s fear and the answer for his fear was to focus on truth about Jesus. What did Jesus say about himself? First, he says who he is and then he points out what he has done. He is the eternal God (the first and the last) and the source of life (the living one). And he defeated death and is the sovereign over it.
What does Jesus mean when he says that he is the first and the last? First, it is a claim to deity because this is a title used of God in Isaiah. Second, it is a claim to certain activities that only God can do. As the first, he brought the universe into existence – he originated it; as the last, he will bring the current cosmos to an end.
Jesus also says that he as the Living One has the keys of death and Hades. He is describing the state of those who die. Death is the door into Hades and no one goes there except by the permission and activity of Jesus. No one gets out of it either without his permission and activity. John knows that his exile in Patmos might end in his death. After all, Jesus did not tell John to deliver the letters himself. If it does end in death, the same hand holds the keys as touched him shortly before. Jesus is calling John to have confidence in him.

Having given John comfort and confidence, Jesus reaffirms his commission to John to write what he will include in his book. And he tells John the three types of things that he will include: things that he has already seen (the vision of Jesus), the things that are (the state of the churches, the throne room in heaven, the judgements on the earth), and the things yet to come (the resurrection, the return of Jesus, the renewal of the cosmos).

The Church in Pergamos (Rev. 2:12-17)  

Pergamos at that time was the capital of the Roman province of Asia. It was a cultural centre, possessing a very large library of 200,000 volumes, and in order to help the development of this library the city rulers encouraged the use of a new form of writing material.  It was also known as a place of medical cures (the famous Galen lived there), although even they were connected to pagan forms of idolatry, with the god of healing depicted in the form of a serpent. Sadly, it had the dubious record of being the first city in the province to build a temple for emperor worship. Unlike the church in Smyrna, whose persecutions involved the Jewish synagogue, the church in Pergamos faced trouble from Gentile sources.

As we think of such a place, it is a wonder that there was a Christian church in such a city. But that is a reminder that the gospel of Christ succeeds in most unlikely situations.

It is possible that Jesus alludes to a local feature when he describes himself as the one with a sharp two-edged sword. He may be referring to the fact that Pergamos was governed by a Roman proconsul, a position of almost unlimited authority. The symbol of authority was a sword. Whether that be the case or not, it is evident that Jesus is describing himself as a judge.

Jesus, of course, does not need earthly weapons in order to be a judge. When he comes to judge, all he has to do is speak. He possesses divine authority, which no-one can disobey. We are told by Peter that judgement begins at the house of God (1 Pet. 4:17), and this is what was happening to the church in Pergamos.

Jesus reveals that he knows three things about them that please him. First, he knows their labour, all that they did for him. He appreciates every action done for him. Second, he knows their location; twice he links it with Satan, the god of this world – Jesus knows about the subtlety and malice of the devil. Third, he knows their loyalty, even when facing intense opposition that included martyrdom.

The activities of God’s people are best seen against the circumstances in which they live. Jesus knows both the difficulties and dangers that his people in Pergamos faced. This knowledge he has is not discovered from a distance, but is the result of fellowship with his people in their troubles. Not only is he the sovereign judge, he is also the sympathetic friend, able to help in such times.

Nevertheless, Jesus, in his examination of the church, found major problems. To understand what is meant, we need to realise that pagan worship affected every aspect of life in the city. One could not take part in trade guilds or social occasions without participating in pagan rituals, which involved both feasting and immorality. The problem in the church was that some, who followed the teachings of an obscure group, the Nicolaitans, were saying that there was nothing wrong with taking part in those gatherings. But the reality was, that while Satan had not got through the front door by persecution, he had got through another door by false teaching. 

The church was guilty of two sins. First, some of them were guilty of compromising the clear standards of Jesus. They may have had excuses. It may have been a response to the persecution they had faced or they may have wanted to remain on good terms with the city’s guilds. In the process, they had compromised their faith in Jesus by giving the impression that it was not sinful to take part in the pagan rituals. But Jesus likens it to the occasion when Balaam tricked the Israelites into immorality (Numbers 22–24). The second sin was committed by all the church, and it was toleration of the minority’s behaviour. Why they did this is not said. 

The church in Pergamos seemed content with the situation, but Jesus was not. He will not allow his kingdom to be compromised. He has a message for all the church and a threat to the compromisers. His message is the same one as he gave to the church in Ephesus, that of the necessity of repentance individually and corporately.

Jesus also provides comfort for his people in Pergamos. The promise contains two details: the eating of the hidden manna and the receiving of a white stone. The hidden manna is an allusion to the food that God miraculously provided for his people Israel as they journeyed through the desert. In John 6, Jesus says he is the fulfilment of what the manna depicted, food from God.

Today Jesus is hidden in heaven from the eyes of humans. But that does not mean that he is not the food that sustains his people. Jesus feeds his people with himself, and he does this in a variety of ways and by a mixture of diets. He feeds them privately and he feeds them corporately. His diets include promises of forgiveness, guidance, protection; he nourishes them by conveying to their hearts his own character. Jesus does all this secretly, which is why it is called ‘hidden’ manna. And he will also feed his people with himself in the eternal state.

In addition to giving himself as manna, Jesus also promises to give a white stone to each of his people. The issuing of a white stone had several meanings in the ancient world. First, when a person was in court for a crime, if he was pronounced innocent he was given a white stone. The meaning of Jesus’ promise includes the public declaration of innocence that will be made concerning his people at the Day of Judgement. Second, when a person was invited to a public feast, he was given a white stone with his name on it. Here is Jesus’ assurance that his people will be invited to the eternal feast, the marriage Supper of the Lamb. Third, Jesus promises that each of them will still have an individual, secret relationship with him in heaven; this is what is signified by the words, ‘which no man knows except the one who receives it.’

The obvious feature of this message of Jesus is grace for the undeserving. We don’t know how the believers in Pergamos responded to their letter. But we do know how we are responding to this passage of the Word of God.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

The Great Exchange (2 Corinthians 8:9)

Paul was in the process of gathering a church gift to help struggling believers in Jerusalem. The time was drawing near when he would take it to Jerusalem and so he writes to the church in Corinth to complete what they had promised to give. And to help them do so, he mentions the example of Jesus and what he gave.
This is not the only time that the example of Jesus is used as a motivator in Christian living. Paul in Philippians 2 provides a beautiful description of the descent and exaltation of Jesus, but the reason why the apostle included it was to encourage humility in the lives of the Philippian believers. The author of Hebrews in chapter 12 tells his readers to consider how Jesus ran his race because his example would encourage them. Peter makes a general comment when he mentions that Jesus left us an example that we should follow in his steps.
Our first response to this example might be one of surprise because, after all, Jesus is perfect and we are imperfect. Yet we know that when we are training an apprentice we don’t use an inferior person or method as the standard. We can also say that this method is strategic because who would not want to be like Jesus? And the method also is a sanctifying because it is a guarantee of as well as a method of sanctification.
Paul describes what happened to Jesus as ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Grace, as we know, speaks of divine favour, but sometimes we need to be a bit more specific when explaining it. I would suggest that here grace is an expression of kindness motivated by love. Moreover, the grace experienced is a common one in that it has given benefits to every Christian – we can see that Paul uses the word ‘our’ to express this. So he is not highlighting something that only happened to an elite few.
The staggering feature of the grace of Jesus is seen when we consider who he is. Paul reminded the Corinthians that Jesus was and is marked by great dignity. When he describes Jesus as Lord, Paul could be referring to who Jesus was before he was born, or he could be referring to the position Jesus received at his ascension. Either way, we are being reminded of his greatness. The title ‘Lord’ points to two relationship features: first, since he is Lord, we are his glad slaves; second, since he is Lord, he is our gracious sustainer who blesses us out of his resources.
The riches of Jesus
Many people wonder how rich Donald Trump is and how many billions he may have. The obvious detail is that he does not possess all the riches of America. There are others who are richer than he is. But that cannot be said about the Lord Jesus. No one is richer than him. What can we say about his riches?
First, Jesus was rich eternally. It is true that some people are born wealthy, although it will take them a few years to realise how much they have. This was not the case with Jesus. He has never been ignorant of what he possesses. It is important to observe that while Paul says Jesus became poor, he does not say that Jesus became rich. He always was rich.
Second, Jesus was rich entirely in the sense that everything was his. The universe that he created in all its vast extent all belonged to him. Even if we go beyond the universe and think about the relationship he had with the other divine persons in the Trinity everything belonged to him. He possessed all the attributes of God in full. We can think of examples: he enjoyed the peace of God, he exercised the power of God, he experienced the love of God, all whether from him or to him.
Third, Jesus was rich effortlessly. Nothing he had was a drain on his ability. He upheld the universe by the word of his power. He interacted constantly with the other members of the Trinity. Many a wealthy person worries about whether he can retain what he has, of whether he has the necessary ability to withstand what may happen. In contrast, Jesus kept his riches effortlessly.
Fourth, Jesus was rich endlessly. Although he had to engage in a new activity when he became poor, he did not engage in it by losing what was his. He never ceased to be fully divine and he remained the heir of all things. We could say that the future was his, and that is very important for us to recall when we think about the benefits that come to us because he became poor. 
The poverty of Jesus
Jesus became poor in a very unusual way. Usually we become poor by losing something whereas he became poor by adding something, his human nature. The poverty of Jesus is connected to the time he spent here. So we can think briefly about aspects of his poverty.
Jesus became poor at his conception. Obviously, this was a great miracle, given that no male was involved. Yet we should remind ourselves that he became a man in the way that others do, by being born. He did not devise a new means of appearing, one that would highlight his divine background. It was all very low key, even although it required a miracle at conception for it to happen.
The conditions of his birth remind us of poverty. Even the location where he likely was born was not in a stable because the manger for the sheep was usually in the open-air. Mary and Joseph were poor – she had to offer the poor person’s offering when she went to the temple after her birth for symbolic cleansing. Of course, we should remember that most people would have been poor at that time.
Yet we should not limit his poverty to occasional lack of finances. The character of his hometown ‘Nazareth’ contributed to his poverty. To begin, it was a place that was not in the public perception of things. When he began his ministry, one of his first disciples was Nathaniel from Cana, the man in whose heart was no guile. Initially when he was told that Jesus came from Nazareth, his response was, ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ Cana was only six miles from Nazareth, yet Nathaniel had never heard of Jesus. Paul reminds us that Jesus made himself of no reputation, the poverty of One who refused his rights of recognition.
The place where his poverty reached its climax was Calvary. There Jesus was numbered with the transgressors even although he was sinless. That was where he paid the penalty for our sins, and it cost him a sense of his greatest treasure, the sense of the presence of his Father. And when he died, his body was placed in a borrowed tomb, even although the universe was his.
The riches of Christians
Paul reminds the Corinthians that incredible riches came their way through the poverty of Jesus. Perhaps our minds go to verses that mention the possession of eternal life, or to a verse like the one in Ephesians 1 where Paul says that believers have been blessed with every spiritual blessing. There are many of them that we can mention, but here are some briefly.
The first is that we have been pardoned all our sins. It was our sins that made us poor, but when we repented of them and put our trust in Jesus we were forgiven them all. At our conversion, we were forgiven freely and fully. We did not purchase pardon and all our sins – past, present and future – were all forgiven.
Then there is the marvellous position that he gives to every believer – they all become sons of God. Each of them is given a right to each of the privileges of the family of God, which includes continual access to the heavenly Father in prayer wherever they happen to be at any given moment. Connected to this position of family membership is the many promises of help and comfort that contain the assurance of the presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
In addition to the riches of pardon and of the position of family membership, there are the riches connected to our prospects. What prospects do we have as Christians? We can divide them into what happens when we die and what will happen when Jesus returns. When we die, our spirits go to heaven and when Jesus returns our bodies will be resurrected and we will then dwell in the new heavens and new earth for ever. We are joint-heirs with Jesus. Earlier we noted that the future was his. If we are joint-heirs with him, then the future world of glory must be ours as well.
How do we respond to this verse? If we are believers, we should show gratitude towards Jesus if he has made us rich in spiritual things. We can then imitate Jesus in working to make others rich (evangelism). And as Paul indicates here, the fact that Jesus helped us with spiritual poverty will lead us to help those who are in states of physical poverty.

If you are not Christians, you should think about how poor you are spiritually – without pardon, position in God’s family, and prospects of glory to come. Yet it is not enough to think about it. Embrace him by faith, if you have not done so yet. And then you will be rich.