Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Arrival of the King (Revelation 4 and 5) 

In the structure of the Book of Revelation, we now move into another way to look at circumstances. Chapters 1–3 looked at seven different churches. Chapters 4–7 cover the period from the ascension of Jesus to his return. The ascension of Jesus is described in chapters 4 and 5; the activity of Jesus between his ascension and his return is described in chapter 6 and 7:1-8; and the outcome of his saving activities is described in 7:9-17. 

The experience of John in Revelation 4 and 5 answers some questions that readers of the letters to the seven churches must have had. Those readers would be aware that the churches have real problems. And they would have seen that Jesus is the answer to the problems. Yet where is Jesus and what power does he possess to deal with those circumstances? The answer is to think of the ascension of Jesus. In Revelation 4, John describes the place where Jesus now is (even although Jesus is not mentioned in the chapter). What did he see? 

The heavenly throne room (Rev. 4) 

The first object that John sees is a throne.On the throne sits one marked by purity and beauty, and the vision highlights those features by comparing him to various jewels. Jewels were items of beauty and were items through which light shone. Defects could be seen easily. Of course, as far as literal jewels are concerned, the light is external to them. With regard to the One on the throne, the light is internal. There were no defects in the One on the throne. Instead only purity and beauty were revealed by him.  

We can work out from other references that the One portrayed here is God the Father. The Son and the Spirit are later mentioned as being in other locations in this vision. This means that here we have a different person revealed as, say, in Isaiah 6 because we are told in John 12 that the One Isaiah saw was the Son of God. We could ask why only the Father is seen here as on the divine throne. The answer I would suggest is that here we are focussed on God as he works out the plan of salvation, and in that regard the Father is the one who sends the Son as the Servant and, along with the Son who is the Mediator of the covenant, sends the Spirit as the Comforter. 

Next John sees a rainbow, which is a reminder that God rules on his throne according to his own promises. The rainbow was given to Noah as an indication that God would never again destroy the earth by a flood. It also functions as a reminder to God not to destroy the earth with total judgement. So I think we are meant to remember that detail as we read about various judgements sent on the earth and its inhabitants. 

Then John notes some lesser thrones, occupied by twenty-four elders, indicating that heaven is a place of delegated power. We are not told who the elders are, only that they are holy creatures (dressed in white) who rule (crowns of gold) under God. They are probably angels who have been given a special authority by God (Ps. 89:6-7). 

From the throne came lightnings, thunders and voices. This is very similar to the way God appeared on Mount Sinai when he gave the law. These phenomena remind us of his opposition to sin; they are often used in the Bible as pictures of God’s anger and judgement. 

John also noticed the presence of the Spirit, illustrated by the seven lamps of burning fire. The fire tells us that he is holy and the number seven points to his perfection. He is described as standing before the throne, indicating his readiness to serve the interests of the throne. Yet unlike mere creatures, he is able to look at the One on the throne and he can do so because he is equal with him in power and glory. Maybe they are depicted as waiting for Someone to arrive. 

Then John mentions the sea of glass, which reminds us that heaven is a place of peace because nothing that causes disturbances is found there. The sea also functions as a barrier to keep out unwanted intruders. 

John also notices the cherubim, strange looking creatures who are similar to the seraphim mentioned in Isaiah 6. They are depicted as seeing all that goes on. This may suggest alertness as well as knowledge. 

Heaven is a place of praise, as seen in the song of the cherubim and of the elders. The cherubim celebrate the holiness, power and eternal existence of God and the elders praise him as the great Creator. The elders, angelic beings who have been given authority by God, cast their crowns before the throne of God, confessing that he alone is King. 

The effect of this description is to stress both the majesty and the mystery of God. Compared to him, all the pomp of earthly rulers is but tinsel. But there is someone missing from the scene of chapter 4, for both the Father and the Spirit are mentioned, but not the Son, which brings us to a problem articulated by the angel at the beginning of chapter 5. 

The problem identified by the strong angel (5:1-4) 

John mentions a scroll sealed with seven seals. The fact that the scroll is sealed indicates that it is complete. Yet itcannot be opened until all the seals are taken off. I think the scroll is the book of life, and we are told in chapters 6 and 7 what the seals are, which are taken off one by one. When the last one is removed, the contents of the scroll will be revealed at the second coming of Jesus. 

The scroll is said to have writing on both sides. This may mean that on one side was the name of the scroll (such as Book of Life) or perhaps a summary of the contents of the scroll. The latter would have been done with a sealed scroll in order to tell someone what was inside it.

The problem that the angel has identified concerns finding one able to open the scroll. The angel cannot do it, even although he is a strong creature. One assumes also that the One on the throne cannot open the scroll. The implication is that it is not appropriate for One who is only divine to open the book. Since that is the case, John concludes that no-one in the universe has the capability to open the book. In that book are the names of the church members in Ephesus, Smyrna and the other places. What is going to happen to them? And it caused John the pastor great sorrow. 

The answer to the problem (5:5-7) 

But John is told that there is one person who can take hold of the scroll and bring about its details. That person is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David. Calling him the Lion is the same as saying that he is the Messiah promised through the tribe of Judah, that he would be the descendant of royal David (Gen. 49:9). But he is also divine, for he is the Root of David, that is, he is the origins of David.  

John’s eyes are directed towards the throne and there he does not see a Lion standing, but a wounded Lamb. He sees Jesus, the one who suffered on the Cross when he paid the penalty for sin. The reference to marks is probably not to the literal wounds that Jesus received in his hands and side. Instead, he is described as being like a lamb slaughtered in the temple. The point that is being made is that he died as a sacrifice for sin.

Whether or not Jesus still retains his wounds cannot be based on this passage because it is a vision. I think that there are arguments that indicate he may still have the marks of the cross: he still had them a week after his resurrection when he appeared to Thomas could indicate he retains them. On the other hand, scholars including John Calvin have dismissed the idea that Jesus still has his wounds – according to Calvin, they remained visible only until the apostles were convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead. J. C. Ryle, while noting Calvin’s opinion, disagreed with him, arguing that the wounds of the ascended Jesus ‘are a perpetual witness to angels that he actually suffered for man’s sins’. As someone has said, the best way to find out is to go to heaven and see for yourself.

In the vision he is more than a wounded Lamb, and of course some will wonder why we should take the wounds literally and the seven horns and seven eyes. The number seven indicates perfection. A horn symbolised power; seven horns depicts all power. An eye depicted awareness and knowledge; seven eyes depict perfect knowledge. The power and knowledge that Jesus possesses are linked to the fact that he has sent the Holy Spirit into all the earth. 

Here we have a wonderful picture of Jesus. He is the answer to the problem because he is the divine Messiah, the suffering Saviour, and the One who sends the Spirit to bring blessings to the world. Yes, he is worthy to open the scroll with the seals. So he proceeds to the throne and takes hold of the scroll. That was a great moment for the human race. The Son of God, now with a human nature, has universal power to bring about what is written in the Book of Life. 

Jesus is worshipped (Rev. 5:8-14) 

The remaining verses of the chapter describe the response of the onlookers to the reception of the scroll by Jesus. Now the same honour that was given to the Father in chapter 4 is given to Jesus in chapter 5. He becomes the object of praise of the heavenly host. 

The new song of the elders and the cherubim focuses on the worldwide ingathering of the people of God and of the great blessing they are going to receive as rulers of the future world. We should note that it is angelic beings that are singing this song and not believers. One reason for that is because this is a vision of the ascension of Jesus and not of the second coming when believers will gather in his presence. But it is good for us to note that the heavenly inhabitants are optimistic about the future of the church.

These beings are connected to the church in one way and that is that they are described as holding the prayers of believers. This is not literal, but what are we to make of this description. I would suggest that we are being shown that the prayers of God’s people are constantly in his presence and that he often uses angels to bring about his answers.

The song of the angelic masses rank concerns the slain Saviour being accorded divine honour. Of course, they had known him as the eternal Son in heaven before he came. They had seen him in his lowly condition on earth. Now they see him rewarded for his work on the cross, and although they are sinless and had no need of an atonement they rejoice that his atonement has led to his ascension to glory.

The song of creation focuses on both the Father and the Lamb, and the fact that they will reign for ever. We can say that the creation knows who is in charge of all things. Everything in creation, apart from humans and demons, obeys without question the roles the Father and the Son require.

This vision is a reminder that the One in charge of the universe is Jesus. He has been given the place of highest honour. To know that Jesus the man who once walked through this world, is on the throne is a comfort and a challenge.It is a comfort because he knows what it is like to live in difficult situations and can sympathise and provide help and assurance. It is a challenge to us to submit to the One who went to the cross on behalf of sinners, and has now been exalted to gather in sinners into his kingdom.  

This knowledge is a source of great confidence. The early church in all its weakness would survive because Jesus was on the throne. (The troubles that we face at present will be overcome because Jesus is on the throne.) Jesus will conquer the nations is the message of this vision. 

Sunday, 19 March 2017

When to Judge, or how Not to Judge (Matthew 7:1-6)

One of the outlooks of contemporary life is that everyone should be free to do what they want. A consequence has been that most people are aware of verse 1, whether or not they know that it comes from the Bible. It has become very difficult to say that certain activities are wrong, especially if they are not harming anyone else. We should not be judgemental, we are told. Does Jesus support such an attitude in his teaching here about judging?

What happened this past week according to the newspapers? Plenty to criticise, apparently. Politicians were criticised strongly. So too were footballers, although it all depended on whose side the supporters were. Were the criticisms valid? Does Jesus teach his disciples here that they should not have an opinion on political suggestions or sporting failures?

In the religious world too, unusual things took place. At a Christian gathering in America, a prayer was offered to Allah. People criticised the gathering. Should they have done so? I hope we know how to answer that question. Inevitably, someone will say that should not judge.

The teaching of Jesus in chapter 6 was mainly about how his followers should relate to God as Father. He spoke about how they should engage in spiritual practices in the presence of the Father and how they should trust the Father to provide what they need in life. Now Jesus moves to explaining what it means for God to be a judge. Often people don’t like the concept of God as the judge. Yet it should help us to consider that the judge is the Father.

This particular instruction has been taken out of its context and used in a manner that forbids any critique of what others say and do. It is obvious from other biblical passages that the disciples of Jesus must assess what they hear and see, which means that they have to judge. If there is a biblical statement that forbids a particular practice, then the biblical statement must be obeyed, and it is appropriate for others to judge those who disobey it. The alternative is to allow everything and to accept that nothing is wrong.

In what kind of situations must we judge? Here are a few examples that the Bible mentions:

  • All believers are to assess the contents of the teachings they hear by the Bible. They are not to assume that what they hear is the truth (1 John 4:1).
  • A congregation must decide who among them have the qualifications for being elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3).
  • The elders of a church, on behalf of the church, are to judge if a member should be disciplined and to what extent he or she should be disciplined (Matt. 18:17). An example of this occurred in Corinth (1 Cor. 5:9-13).
  • Church members should assess when other believers are causing problems and should respond to them in a biblical way (1 Thess. 5:14).
  • An individual Christian, when he sees a brother do something that is wrong, should make every effort to restore him (Matt. 18:15). But he cannot do this unless he has judged the activity to be wrong.

On the other hand, there are some situations in which we should not judge another believer. Here are some of them:

  • We should respect the consciences of individual Christians regarding issues that in themselves are neither right or wrong. Paul describes how they should be treated when he discusses weak and strong believers in Romans and 1 Corinthians.
  • We should not judge people by appearances. James warns his readers not to assume that rich, well-dressed people who attended the Christian gatherings would help, and he also warned them not to despise the poor.
  • We should not judge the service that another Christian gives to the Lord as long as that believer is following biblical guidelines (1 Cor. 4:1-5).
  • We should not attempt to judge another person’s motives. After all, only God knows the heart.

Who is Jesus rebuking?

It is obvious that Jesus is describing a possible problem in the lives of his disciples. We can see this from his use of the term ‘brother’. Yet he is also probably describing a wrong way of dealing with people that was common at that time. He is still speaking about the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees that his disciples are to exceed.

The righteousness of the Pharisees was connected to all the additional rules that they added to God’s requirements. There were several hundred such additions to God’s law. Those additions were not required by God, but the Pharisees made them as important as God’s commandments, and they judged anyone who failed to meet their extra rules.

Jesus likens those extra requirements to a big log that is in the Pharisee’s eye. What does this illustration tell us about their extra rules? First, it means that they had no vision. In Psalm 19, David tells us what the effects of God’s commandments are – they give light, enabling a believer to make progress in the life of faith. In contrast, the rules that the Pharisees added were of no help at all in discovering the revealed will of God. Remember that Jesus later called them blind Pharisees.

Second, the rules they produced prevented close contact with other people. Whenever a person met a Pharisee, he would be hit by the log in the Pharisee’s eye. Jesus is saying that the requirements of the Pharisees damaged other people severely. They would not get a little tap from the log – after all, it was not a splinter that was sticking out of the Pharisee’s eye.  

Third, the Pharisees found fault with trivial things. Jesus likens the matters they criticised to specks. Of course, the specks were not good, but they were not dangerous. Yet the self-righteous Pharisees majored on the minors. Of course, in order to find a speck, one has to engage in focussed scrutiny. Most people would not notice specks, but Pharisees do.

Fourth, the requirement for a person dealing with the faults of others is to get rid of his own faults first. How was the individual in the illustration going to get rid of the plank in his eye? It would be impossible for him to pull it out because it was beyond his reach. So he would need to get help from someone else. He could ask a friend to help him, but would his friends have the skills to deal with it? They would not. Instead, the only person who could remove the plank safely is God. It looks as if Jesus was saying that such sins can only be removed by the special treatment of the heavenly Physician.

It is interesting to observe biblical accounts where people with planks in their eyes were judgemental quickly of others. An example often referred to is David. When Nathan the prophet came to rebuke David over his sins of adultery and murder, he told the king a story about a rich man who used a poor man’s lamb to feed a guest. David was outraged and wanted to put that man to death. Although the man’s actions were cruel they did not deserve the death penalty in Israel whereas the two sins of which David was guilty – adultery and murder – were. The plank in David’s eye blinded himself to the seriousness of his plank. But when Nathan identified the problem, David did not turn to Nathan for help. Instead he turned to the only one who could help him – the Lord, and we read about that contact in Psalm 51.

An encouraging aspect in David’s experience is that once the plank was removed he was able to teach others about God and his grace. Many of the psalms were written by him after his recovery and each of them still helps believers today. Contrary to all expectations, he would even be used by God to bring sinners to know him. When the plank was removed, he could deal with specks.

Danger of false judging

The obvious danger is that censoriousness has its comeback on the individual who engages in it. Jesus points out that the same treatment will be given to the one who so judges. This probably does not mean the decisions on the Day of Judgement that God will make because he will not judge according to our standards. Rather we have here a reference to what he allows in providence, perhaps even arranges. After all, we are familiar with the phrase, ‘time will tell.’ That is only another way of saying that God will reveal the truth in his providence.

Perhaps a biblical example of this is Diotrophes who is mentioned in 3 John. He was engaged in assessing who should be allowed into his church and had refused admittance to some travelling Christians who had a connection to John. What was going to happen to him? The one he opposed, John, would yet deal with him when in God’s providence they met.

A definite biblical example of this is Peter. He made an assessment about the spiritual devotion of himself to Jesus in contrast with that of his fellow-disciples. Having looked at himself and at them, he acknowledged that they might deny Jesus, but he affirmed that he would remain loyal. We know the outcome in providence. Peter sadly fell because he made a wrong judgement.

An example of judging

The Saviour instructs his disciples not to give what is holy to dogs or their pearls to swine. Obviously, a dog would not understand what to do with something that is dedicated to God and nor would a pig know what to do with pearls. At one level, this is common sense. Jesus is teaching his disciples that they have some things that others will not appreciate.

Jesus also teaches that it is not wise to try and give what is holy and what is valuable to people who are going to be enraged by it. This means that his disciples must work out if a situation is appropriate for them to mention what is holy or talk about their pearls. Although his people will be opposed at times, they have to judge when to speak.

We need to work out what is meant by holy and pearls and who are meant by dogs and pigs. Things that are holy belong to God and things that are pearls are valuable and attractive. It is not hard to see here a reference to the gospel and its benefits. Dogs and pigs describe animals that move aggressively in packs and herds. All they are interested in is their next meal. Did Jesus have the Pharisees and Sadducees in mind by those animal pictures? They would be the initial opponents of the disciples.

The disciples of Jesus will discover that many people will hate and despise and oppose the gospel, and sometimes do so violently, as is happening in many places today. Therefore, they need to be wise when they share their spiritual treasures with hostile unbelievers. In the Book of Acts, the apostles stopped preaching in the synagogues whenever the listeners became abusive and threatening. Spiritual treasures include the gospel, the teachings of the Bible, and the personal experiences of Christians.


The first comment is that we must always take a biblical statement in its context. Otherwise, we will say Jesus taught something that he did not. This set of verses about judging is frequently taken out of context. The second application is that Jesus here is speaking about personal relationships and how we interact with one another. So he is warning his disciples about relationship problems. The third is that we should ask God to remove the sinful planks that distort our judgement before we cause damage to others. And the fourth is that we have to judge when we should speak about biblical matters and when we should not.

Are Your Jesus-centred? (Gal. 3:20)

Paul and Barnabas had taken the gospel to the region of Galatia during what we call Paul’s First Missionary Journey. They had planted churches in different places and had seen God do amazing things as they preached about Jesus. There had been opposition in some places, nevertheless conversions had taken place. So when they returned to Antioch they had wonderful things to describe to the church there that had sent them on the mission journey.

Yet things in Galatia had not remained healthy in a spiritual way. Other teachers came to Galatia from Jerusalem and affected those new churches. The message they brought seemed innocuous because they liked to refer to Old Testament passages where God had given details about how his people should live. So they said to the new Christians, ‘God wants you to keep these laws. In fact, you cannot be right with God unless you do.’ Many of the new Christians were influenced by what these teachers said and moved away from what Paul had taught them.

As we think about this alternative message, what ideas come to mind? One must be that this message turned Christianity into a performance religion rather than a religion of grace. A second is that it turned Christianity into a religion that was concerned about peer pressure rather than about what God had said. And a third was that inevitably it led to pride in how the individual was doing in keeping the law.

The basic problem with the alternative message was that it was a Jesus plus something message. It was not sufficient to have Jesus alone as the centre of the Christian life. We should realise that such an idea is not limited to the false teachers who disturbed the churches in Galatia. The problem with Jesus plus messages is that inevitably they remove Jesus from the centre and the plus, whatever it is, becomes the centre, the test of authenticity.

What does it mean to be Jesus-centred?

The question that we should then ask is, ‘What does it mean to be Jesus-centred?’ To say that we believe in Jesus alone does not mean that we ignore other persons of the Trinity. There is no salvation possible, for example, without the work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating sinners and giving new life to them. Nor can one be a Christian without being adopted into his family by the heavenly Father. A Jesus-centred person will delight in the activities of the Father and the Spirit as well as in the particular activities of Jesus.

Moreover, if we are Christians we will follow the teachings of the Bible. Jesus himself made that clear when he instructed the apostles to teach disciples what he had said. He had also told some disciples to take his yoke on them and learn from him. The problem with the false teachers in Galatia was that they did not understand what the Old Testament and the apostles said about Jesus. But if we are Jesus-centred, we will obey his commandments.

I suppose the matter of concern is basically how we live the Christian life. Paul mentions in this passage how we start this new life when he refers to being justified by God without obedience to the works of the law. We know this was a central concern of the Reformation, of how a sinner becomes right with God. The church by that time had lost almost all sight of the gospel and had as many rules connected to their practices as the false teachers in Galatia had done.

The gospel tells us that we don’t have to do anything in order to be forgiven. We discover that Jesus has suffered in the place of sinners when he paid the demands of God’s justice on the cross. Of course, we respond to the gospel with repentance, with sorrow for our sins, but we are not forgiven because of the degree of our sorrow. We also respond to the gospel with faith in Jesus, but we are not forgiven because of the strength of our faith. Instead we are forgiven for the sake of Christ.

At the same time as we are forgiven by the Father, we are also given the standing of justification in his presence. In justification, we are given the righteousness of Jesus as our righteousness. The righteousness of Jesus is his obedience to the law. Each of us is required to obey the law, and none of us can. But each of us can have the righteousness of Jesus as our righteousness. It is a present from God of the best performance and given to those who each have failed performances.

The Galatians imagined that they had found something better. It is not surprising that Paul calls them foolish Galatians. They thought that somehow they could help God in the development of their Christian lives when they adopted those new insights. In reality, they were departing from him instead of remaining close to him. And we can see how serious Paul regarded this when he called down a curse from God on those who were promoting the new insight.

How do we live as Jesus-centred people?

No doubt, we could answer this question in different ways. But we can think about what Paul says in this verse. The first detail he mentions is that we have to recognise that the person we were before conversion is dead in a spiritual way. This is what Paul means when he says that he has been crucified with Jesus.

Paul was a very accomplished person before he met Jesus. He was also a very religious person before that encounter took place. If we had met Saul of Tarsus before his conversion, he could have answered most of our religious questions. We could even have asked him about what the Old Testament said about the Messiah and he could have given some answers. The obvious problem was that he did not think Jesus was the Messiah.

Yet, as he wrote this letter to the Galatians, he says that he was crucified with the Messiah, which is a reference to Jesus. But we know that Paul was not crucified literally with Jesus. So what does he mean? He means that he was regarded by God as being united to Jesus when he died. The death that Jesus died when he was crucified did something for Paul (and to all others who trust in the Saviour). He became a new kind of person because of the cross.

A Jesus-centred person defines himself by the cross. Yet we know that to speak of crucifixion was to refer to something that was shameful. But it is obvious that Paul was not ashamed of the cross. If we could move Paul literally to Calvary and ask him where we should put him, he would want to be placed with Jesus because there Jesus was providing the basis for Paul to become a new creature. At Calvary, the old Saul of Tarsus died.

Paul then goes on to say that he is now alive, but not in the sense that he was before he met Jesus. Now he is alive because Jesus, the source of life, lives in him. He is not referring to Jesus literally living inside him. Instead he is describing the amazing fact that Jesus lives inside him by the Holy Spirit. Jesus had promised this about the Holy Spirit when he said in the Upper Room that he would send another Comforter, another here meaning ‘of the same kind’. The Holy Spirit would be the same in Paul’s inner life just as if Jesus was there. Why does a Jesus-centred person not need all those extra rules that the false teachers were requiring? In addition to defining himself by the cross, such a person experiences in his inner life the incredible power of the risen Christ changing him by the ongoing work of the indwelling Spirit.

A third detail that Paul then mentions for a Jesus-centred person is a living faith in the living Saviour. Paul did not promote a passive involvement in this wonderful relationship he now had with Jesus. Instead, it was active constantly – we can see this detail in the little word ‘now’. Paul is describing is new life and what marks it every day of the week is that he lives by faith in the one he recognises as fully divine – the Son of God. What does the Holy Spirit, who lives in believers, produce in them? He produces ongoing faith. That is why Christians are termed believers.

What kind of faith does the Holy Spirit produce? Obviously it is a relationship. I can have faith in a politician to do certain things, but that faith cannot be described as a relationship. It is only a response that may be disappointed or may be pleased with the politician. But it does not bring me close to him. In contrast, the Holy Spirit brings living contact between the Christian and Jesus. Sometimes, the believer may think that he is clinging by a thread, yet he should remember that the one who created the thread and maintains it is the Holy Spirit. At times, the contact may be confession of sin, at other times there may be other aspects of communion as the believer interacts by faith with Jesus.

In addition to producing ongoing contact between a Christian and Jesus, the Spirit also gives from Jesus to the Christian. That is how the faith continues. Jesus had informed his disciples in the Upper Room that one activity of the Comforter would be to take of the things of Christ and reveal them to the disciples. In this life, and maybe also in the next, the work of the Spirit is to show to believers the riches contained in the promises of God. All these promises belong to each believer because he or she is in Christ.

How does this work out day by day? A believer is drawn by the Spirit to muse on one or more of the promises. And as he does so, his faith is enlarged, his faith is stimulated, and his faith is excited by what there is in Christ. His faith, by the enablement of the Spirit, moves from one promise to the other. And this process enables the believer to sense the nearness of Jesus, even although he is in heaven.

The last detail of a Christ-centred person that Paul mentions here is that such an individual is marked by gratitude to Jesus. We see Paul’s gratitude in his description of Jesus as the one ‘who loved me, and gave himself for me.’ Surely we can see in Paul’s description both an expression of wonder and an expression of gratitude. Both, of course, are very personal. They reveal why Paul did not adopt the false ideas of the teachers of error who had disturbed the churches. The love of Jesus for Paul was eternal and the giving of Jesus for Paul was entire. Because that was true, Paul was a Jesus-centred Christian.

What now?

As we close, we can make some brief observations. Firstly, a Jesus-centred believer receives assurance because he is not grieving the Spirit who is working in his heart to teach him about Jesus and make him like Jesus. Such a believer knows that he has passed from death to life.

Secondly, a Jesus-centred believer is marked by adoration of God, of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, for the incredible plan of salvation that is in existence, and which is being worked out in the lives of sinners as they become increasingly focussed on Jesus.

Thirdly, a Jesus-centred believer has one great aim, which was expressed by Paul in Philippians 3:10 as knowing Jesus more and more. This does not negate other aims, but it does govern them. The priority in his life is this incredible relationship with his Saviour, one that has begun in this life and which will continue in the next world.

Fourthly, connected to this assurance, adoration and aim is the desire to affirm to others that Jesus is precious. This is the case with regard to fellow-believers and with those who are not yet believers. Such affirming is part of who they are and is done in a gracious way. But Jesus-centred people will speak about him to others.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The Church in Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22)

Laodicea was located six miles from the city of Hierapolis, ten miles from the small town of Colosse, and about one hundred miles east of Ephesus. Christian churches existed in Hierapolis, Colosse and Laodicea by the date of Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome (Col. 4:13). He mentions in Colossians 4:15-16 that he had written a letter to the Laodicean church. 

Laodicea was noted for its activities, three  of which Jesus alludes to in his letter to the church. The three were a thriving wool industry, a famous school of medicine particularly for eye problems, and a financial system. The city was so wealthy that when it suffered great damage because of an earthquake in AD 60, it did not need outside help from the Empire for rebuilding. It was self-sufficient, which was a good thing for the city, but it illustrates the problem with the church – it was also self-sufficient.

Jesus describes himself
Jesus introduces himself as the ‘Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God’ (v. 14). We are used to saying amen in church services, mainly at the close of a prayer. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:20 that one reason why believers should use amen is because of God’s promises centred in Jesus. The word is connected to truth and was used of God in the Old Testament (in Isaiah 65:16, where it is translated as God of truth). So Jesus reminds the church that he will speak the true words of God because he is God.

Jesus repeats this when he says that he is the faithful and true witness. A witness is someone who reports what he has seen. Because he is faithful and true, it  means that what Jesus will say about them will be accurate. There will be nothing in his criticism of their church life that will be untrue. At the same time, he will tell them what they have to do in order to receive his approval.

Perhaps some might have responded to his criticisms by saying that they were powerless to change. If that did happen, they could be reminded that Jesus possesses divine power, and they could see that power in the creation that he brought into existence.

Depending on one’s personal state, this description would have been either a threat or a comfort. It was a threat because it indicated that Jesus could remove their lampstand and they would cease to be a church. Yet it was a comfort to know that he had the power to resolve the situation, should they repent. The same options always apply.

The criticism by Jesus (vv. 15-17)
Jesus’ assessment of the church is that it is neither cold nor hot. In order to appreciate this point we need to know that a major lack in the city of Laodicea was a suitable water supply for is inhabitants. Nearby Hierapolis had hot springs famous for healing qualities and Colosse was known for its cool drinking water, but Laodicea did not have either. Instead water was carried from another location, via a six-mile long aqueduct that could not keep the water either hot or cold. This is the allusion in Christ’s statement that he would have them either cold or hot. 

These words do not refer to one’s spiritual temperature, in the sense of ‘hot’ being an ardent spiritual state and ‘cold’ indicating a backsliding state. Instead they describe the inability of the church to provide spiritual healing or spiritual refreshment for the city. Their contribution to the city was equivalent to the tepid water that flowed along the aqueduct. They should have been conveying the gospel of Christ to their community, but because of their lukewarm spiritual state they were incapable of being used by Christ and faced the real possibility of losing their candlestick, graphically illustrated in the Saviour’s threat to spew them out of his mouth. 

A second criticism that Jesus makes is that the church seems to have read their providences as a sign of God’s blessing rather than symptoms of  spiritual problems. They were doing very well in material things. Of course, possessions in themselves are neutral; the possession of them can be a sign of blessing or they can be a means of backsliding. But it is easy to assume that getting on well is a sign of God’s approval. 

There is no hint in the church in Laodicea of the problems encountered by the other six churches, such as persecution or false teaching. Rather the church was marked by self-sufficiency and complacency. So those to whom Christ was speaking were in a sad and potentially dangerous state – their spiritual ignorance had resulted in spiritual wretchedness, poverty, blindness and nakedness, with the looming prospect of their cessation as a church. But in his mercy the Lord Jesus draws near to the church.

The counsel of Christ (Rev. 3:17-20)
The Saviour uses various aspects of the city’s activities to illustrate the sad state of the church. First, Jesus alludes to the banking system when he urges the church members to buy gold from him in order to be truly rich. This is in contrast to the opinion of the Laodiceans of themselves, for they thought they were rich already. We are not told what Jesus’ promised wealth involved; perhaps it is a reference to spiritual blessings in general. Of course, when Jesus urges them to ‘buy gold’ from him, he is not suggesting that his blessings can be purchased by money; rather he is using the picture of trade that was common in the city.

Second, the wool industry is alluded to in Christ’s advice that they should buy from him fine raiment with which to clothe themselves. While this could be a reference to nakedness that requires the robe of righteousness given in justification, with the accompanying assumption that they needed to be converted, it more likely means righteousness in the sense of holiness of life. 

Third, the medical school is alluded to when Jesus tells them to buy from him eye salve in order for them to see clearly. They were spiritually blind to their poverty of Christian experience. In a sense, they were like the believers described in 2 Peter 1:9, who because of a lack of spiritual growth had become short-sighted, unable to see into the future. What the Saviour is promising to them is true spiritual vision, vision to see how to serve him and vision to look beyond the visible to heaven.

What about the posture of Jesus knocking at the door? Often this image of the Saviour knocking at the door is depicted as the Lord Jesus knocking in a gospel sense on the heart of a sinner. I do not think that fits with the context. Rather what we have here is the Master coming to deal with a church whose behaviour had brought it to the place where it was about to lose its place as a lampstand. 

The knocking indicates that Jesus is outside and not involved in the activities of the church. He has come demanding access to what they are doing. His demand is strong because he desires fellowship with his people. He was in no doubt that chastisement was needed, and therefore he calls on them to repent, a demand that Jesus also made of the churches in Ephesus (2:5), Pergumum (2:16), Thyatira (2:21-23), and Sardis (3:3).

Jesus takes the initiative in arranging their spiritual recovery. The reality is that unless God took the initiative and drew us back to himself we would not return. How thankful the penitent Laodiceans would have been later for the grace of the sovereign Saviour, for the restoring ministry of the Holy Spirit, and for the tender mercy of the Father.

The comfort of Jesus (Rev. 3:21)
In his promises to the overcomer in Laodicea, Jesus refers to both present and future blessings. To penitent believers who would welcome him into their midst Jesus gives a wonderful promise. Their spiritual restoration means that once again he is the provider of their spiritual food. Jesus uses the imagery of a meal to illustrate the spiritual warmth and intimacy that exists between him and his restored disciples. What ideas come to mind through this imagery of a shared meal?

It is possible that he is referring to the shared congregational meal (love feast) of which the Lord’s Supper was part. In those days, most Christian gatherings on the Lord’s Day would have included the Lord’s Supper, and that spiritual meal was designed as enabling communion between Jesus and his people in a special way. It was a visible reminder that he had given his life for them in order that they would have spiritual life.

Even if Jesus was not referring to the love feast, it is not difficult to work out what is depicted by the imagery of a meal. Usually, a host would invite his friends out of love, and his love would ensure he would provide the best for them. That is what Jesus does – he shares with his people what his activity on the cross has procured for them. He has numerous spiritual blessings to give.

This means that it was possible for those rebuked members to be restored to a life of spiritual fruitfulness. The outcome would be dedication to Jesus and ongoing growth in grace. Instead of being unreliable and worldly, they would become faithful. They could still live the kind of spiritual life that would get an eternal reward from Jesus. Truly amazing grace! Those who had been indifferent to his claims, but who repented of their sins, would share the throne of Jesus when the new world comes. 

Although the letter was sent to a specific church, it was also sent to other congregations. So it is legitimate to use this passage of scripture to assess our individual spiritual state and the condition of our local congregation.

First, there is reality of the Saviour’s searching of the churches. This means that he searches every congregation. We should join with the Psalmist and ask the Lord to search us to see if there are wicked ways in us (Psalm 139:23-24). Our prayer should be for spiritual reality.

Second, the letter to Laodicea reminds us of the danger of a congregation being blinded spiritually by materialism. These things can take first place in believers’ lives, and when that happens it will be evidenced by their lukewarmness in devotion to Jesus.

Third, the letter to Laodicea tells us that comprehensive restoration is given to believers when they repent of their sins. Forgiveness from God is a precious reality that opens the way to rich experiences of divine grace.

Fourth, Jesus assures the overcomers that they will be kings in the next world. This is an incredible future to look ahead to.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Should we worry that we’re worried? (Matthew 6:25-34)

Sometimes, we speak about steep learning curves, by which we mean that we discover there is more to a situation than we imagined beforehand. The disciples of Jesus were on such a curve as they gathered around Jesus. They had entered into the kingdom of God and were discovering that it was very different from what they had imagined. Perhaps the matter that surprised them most was Jesus’ emphasis on the inner life rather than on outward effects. We can see his focus on the inner life on each area he has mentioned so far in the Sermon on the Mount, and he continues that focus as he teaches about the matter of worry.

What is Jesus not speaking about?

Jesus here is not speaking about legitimate concerns that parents may have or employers may have or governments may have. It is important for people to worry about the demise of Christianity, about the future of our families, about finding areas of work, about the concerns of the government. A person who does not worry about such things is an escapist. Nor is Jesus speaking about individuals who may be praying about an issue in which there is potential danger. And he is not describing those who may worry from time to time about their assurance of salvation. Rather Jesus is warning about excessive worry that causes people to take certain steps in life. He does not seem to be describing someone who sits at home worrying about things, but doing nothing about it. Rather he is referring to those who worry about something and then take excessive steps to provide security for themselves.

What is most important?

Jesus asks his disciples to think about what is most important in life. Is life primarily about food and clothes? We can see that the disciples are being asked to prioritise between the physical and the spiritual. They might respond by saying they needed food to eat and clothes to wear, and could not be careless about them. If they said that, we would conclude that they had not listened to what Jesus had taught them in the Lord’s Prayer about mentioning their daily needs to God. It was the case that the Saviour had instructed his disciples to pray about such matters, yet it was only one of the petitions that he mentioned. Even the ratio in the Lord’s Prayer should have told them what was more important – the spiritual rather than the physical.

What does God do?

We cannot say if Jesus had the story of Job in mind when he referred here to two divine activities in the created order. Yet we know that God took puzzled Job on a tour of creation in order to deal with the issues that he had. If the passage about creation was not in the Book of Job, we probably would have regarded the suggestion of such a tour as rather trite, given the terrible experiences that Job had gone through. But that is what God did back then, and it is what Jesus does also when teaching his disciples about how not to worry excessively.

As we can see, Jesus refers to birds who are fed by God. It is important that Jesus is not suggesting inactivity because birds have to search for food every day, and sometimes it seems scarce. Yet the birds don’t begin the day worrying about their food – they expect to find it. They don’t know it, but the responsibility belongs to someone else, to God. Last Monday, we were driving out the road to Nairn. We passed a field in which a farmer was sowing. Behind his plough were hundreds of seagulls getting a meal. I don’t know what the farmer thought of that, but God in his providence gave some food to his feathered creatures. Oddly enough, we were on our way to a restaurant at the time, but it was a day later before I realised that God had provided food for three humans and about one hundred birds as well as countless other humans and lower creatures.

Can we learn lessons from animals? Jesus tells his disciples here to consider closely the birds, which indicates thoughtful attention. The Book of Proverbs tells us to learn from coneys and ants. Animals such as sheep are used to depict believers and lions and snakes are used to illustrate the actions of the devil. We are meant to learn from them because, in a sense, they are part of God’s school for his people.

I was watching a nature programme in which a buffalo had been grabbed at the rear by a lioness. Both the buffalo and the lioness were exerting a lot of energy, the buffalo trying to toss the lioness away and the lioness holding on until the buffalo became weak. Eventually the buffalo stopped trying to throw away the lioness, but the lioness held on. It looked all over, except the buffalo had stood still to recover some strength. A couple of minutes later it tossed the lioness away. Are there lessons from that incident? I imagined that here was a picture of a believer being attacked by the devil. Despite all the believer’s attempts nothing seems to happen. But then he takes stops and goes to God for more strength, and Peter tells us that if we resist the roaring lion he will flee away (as the lioness did).

Jesus points out that people often worry about things they cannot change. He mentions trying to add years to our lives. Who knows how long a person will live? God does, and the psalmist reminds us in Psalm 139 that all our days have been planned by God. The Father will provide, says Jesus, for the needs of his people every day. Why does he do so? Because his people mean something to him that the birds do not – after all, his people are his children.

It looks as if clothing was a big concern at that time. Unlike us, who tend to throw clothes away, good clothing then was a means of wealth and sometimes such clothing was handed on as family heirlooms. The problem in their attitude seems to have been worrying about what clothes they would have in a few years’ time. Does God care about clothes in this sense? Jesus refers to what God does with the lilies. It is possible that Jesus referred to the features of lilies such as their colour (white) and shape (bowed head) to remind disciples of what should be seen in them. The colour white points to righteousness and the bowed head to humility.

The point is that God spends a lot of care on something whose existence is short-lived. Probably, the disciples should have deduced that God would show greater care for them every day. It is inconceivable that he would express greater concern for short-lived flowers. Worry reveals what we think God’s priorities are not – it is an expression of distrust towards his commitment to meet the needs of his people.

Jesus highlights the root of the problem when he describes his disciples as ‘little faith’. It is important to realise that this name expresses his love and not his anger. After all, it was true faith that they had showed when they became disciples. But no-one has great faith when they are first converted. Inevitably they all have a lot to learn, and the most important focus in their learning should be on God and his promises.

Who normally worries about such things?

Jesus then pointed out that usually it was pagans who lived in such a way. What marked the Gentiles at that time was their ignorance of God. Unlike Jews, who had a knowledge of God through his Word and their history, the Gentiles knew nothing about him. So it is not surprising that they reacted with worry. After all, the world is full of dangers.

In contrast, the disciples of Jesus had ample reasons for thinking differently. As Jews, they would have known what God had done for Israel as detailed in the Old Testament. Jesus, however, wants them to think about life through the relationship that they have with God – he is not only the Creator, he is not only the powerful liberator of a nation, but he is their heavenly Father who knows what his people need and who knows how to provide them.

What is the conclusion?

Worry becomes a problem when it prevents us from engaging in what should be our priority. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God must have priority. He does not say that those he has in mind should seek for the kingdom of God, which is how one would describe a person who was not a disciple. So he reminds his disciples that this should be their priority.

Why does he use the imagery of seeking? In answering this question, we can ask how a subject of monarch would seek what his ruler desired. The answer is that the subject should obey the rules of the kingdom out of love for the king. He will recognise that those rules have been devised for the benefit of the kingdom. We can easily see how that would apply to subjects of King Jesus. So here are four requirements that our King spells out for his followers.

The first requirement is that his disciples should speak to him and to his Father. Jesus has already mentioned the importance of prayer in what we call the Lord’s Prayer and he will mention other details about prayer in the next chapter. As we can see from what he taught, speaking to him should be simple and spiritual.

A second way of seeking first the kingdom is that his disciples show love for and to the other members of his kingdom. After all, the kingdom that he came to set up is one that is marked by love. This mutual love will be displayed in numerous ways, but each expression is a sign that those involved are seeking first the kingdom of God.

A third way of doing this is that the followers of Jesus should oppose those who resist the advance of the kingdom of Jesus. Behind those who try this are the powers of darkness. The disciples of Jesus are conscious that they are involved in a spiritual battle that requires them to be alert always to the possibility of spiritual attack. And when it happens, usually through false teaching, they will refuse to accept what is being said.

And a fourth way of seeking first the kingdom of God is by working to extend its influence. They know that this takes place through the spread of the gospel. In a sense, spreading the gospel can be summarised as speaking about the King of the kingdom. No doubt, many people from Britain like to speak about the queen when they are describing life in Britain. Some may not, but they cannot be described as those who are furthering her interests. In the kingdom of Jesus, all his subjects delight to speak about him in ways suitable to the circumstance they find themselves in.

Jesus provides special assurance here when he promises his disciples that living for the kingdom does mean that they will find themselves without future needs being met. He assures them that their food and clothing – depicting whatever they need for life in this world – will be provided for them. This promise liberates them to serve Jesus wherever they are without worrying about the future.
Preached on 5/3/2017