Today’s reading begins the last book of the Bible, Revelation. It is written by the apostle John toward the end of his life on the island of Patmos, where he was being detained as punishment for being a Christian leader. The Bible tells us that Jesus on the cross asked John to look after His mother, Mary; and church tradition tells us that in time John moved to and lived in Ephesus for a long period of time as he took care of Mary. Indeed there is a ruin of a very early church building (built by Constantine’s mother) in Ephesus named after Mary. All this is said merely to point out that John would be very familiar with and in relatively close communication with the churches in Asia even in his captivity. According to Revelation’s opening lines, John received this revelation from Christ Himself and it starts with letters to the various churches in the Roman province called Asia, which really composes modern western Turkey.
Revelation is written in apocalyptic language. This was a sort of literature with origins going back to Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. It is rich with symbolic language and gives just enough information to provide a general outline of prophecy without giving the sort of details that would make things easy to see. Or to put it another way, apocalyptic language lets us see the outline of someone behind a curtain, but obscures things enough that you can’t tell who it really is — until after the fact. I mention this because Revelation is the constant reading of some folks who believe that with enough study of the numbers and symbols and codes they’ll be able to crack the revelation and be able to tell us all exactly when the end of time will come. To be blunt, it’ll never happen.
The main point of Revelation is NOT to reveal the time of the end, which Jesus told us will never happen. The main point is to say that before the end occurs things will get really, really tough for Christians, but Christians must hang on. Hang on by you fingernails, if you must, but hang on! It will indeed be true that it will darkest before the dawn, but hang on — God wins. No matter how bad it looks, that’s only how it looks, that’s not the way it really is, hang on.
With this out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the major thoughts in the first three chapters of Revelation.
Revelation 2:1ff — Leaving your first love
There was a lot that Ephesus had done right. What Jesus had against them was that they just weren’t as zealous as they had once been. Unless they repented of this, their lampstand would be removed — no longer be part of Christ’s church! A little scary, don’t you think? Because it’s easy over the years to let our faith become less passionate. We don’t always intend to, of course, but the world’s weeds just sort of dampen our zeal. Worship become a little routine. Prayer becomes a little rote. Our minds and times are filled with work, kids, chores, friends, hobbies, etc. and Jesus just gets marginalized. Why does this matter? Because when persecution comes, or when hard choices must be made, or when we must turn our backs on things of this world that we love a less than full-on zeal will sometimes make the wrong decision and deny the Lord. Don’t leave your first love; in fact, do what you must to grow your love, intensify your love — stoke it, sharpen it, and make Jesus the first priority.
Revelation 2:8ff — Be faithful until death and I will give you a crown of life
Here’s a great promise. But it is one that has stipulations, that I hope you noticed. It’s not just “I will give you a crown of life”. It is 1) be faithful and 2) until death. Faithfulness is about obedience and consistency. “Until death” probably originally carried the nuance of being faithful even to the point that they slit your throat, feed you to the lions, or use you for human torches — all things done to ancient Christians. But in today’s world, where (at least for now) persecution of Christians is relatively rare, it carries the nuance of “without retirement”. There’s a book written by Steve Farrrar, Finishing Strong that pointed out and brought this reality home to me years ago as it pointed out the many examples in the Bible and contemporary life of those who started strong, but finished weak or not at all. How important it really is to realize that a good beginning doesn’t necessarily translate to a good finish — we must be diligent and remain wary of the “lion” that lies in wait seeking to devour us all our Christian life long. The crown of life is for those who have remained faithful all the way to the end of this world’s pilgrimage.
Revelation 2:12ff — The new Balaam and the Nicolaitans
The Nicolaitans are called out by name twice in these letters to the churches from Jesus, here and in the letter written to the Ephesians. It is not know precisely what they might have taught apart from references among early church writers who mentioned a certain lawlessness that led to complete immorality. The comparison of the Nicolaitans to Balaam therefore is a reference to Balaam’s willingness to be a preacher for hire, saying anything for pay; in this case, Balaam’s counsel to King Balak to entice Israel to sin against God through sexual immorality, and therefore curse themselves in God’s sight. There are important lessons not to be missed here. Those who desire to preach, must preach God’s work alone; and although they may be paid, they must not be hirelings.
Revelation 2:18ff — Beware of Jezebel and her immorality
There’s a good chance in this case that the “Jezebel” of this section may have also been a female Nicolaitan who had taught this lawlessness and even lured brethren to her bed of immorality — a double temptation. For such highhanded rebellion (refusing to repent, even after confronted), the Lord planned a very visible and severe punishment to her and her followers. The churches needed to know that this teaching was completely unacceptable. We live in a time in which the loosened moral restraints and vagueness of truth in society are tempting even Christians to compromise their principles. But despite the disdain that the world will offer to those who hold the godliness of Scripture, we really must resist. Holiness, including sexual morality, doesn’t change with the times.
Revelation 3:1ff — Wake up!
Sardis is a city which sat atop a supremely defensible mountain (pictured here), and, had therefore, twice suffered a defeat through being so overconfident that their guards fell asleep on watch and never even resisted the invaders. Consequently, Jesus’ command to them was to wake up and strengthen the things that remained — implying that some good things had already bitten the dust and that there was danger that the rest would be falling soon. Wake up! Satan is quite pleased when we become inattentive, confident in our strength and ability to resist — and “asleep at the switch”. In my several years working with teens, the one’s that scare me the most are the ones who will, with supreme confidence, declare that they will never, ever do drugs or alcohol. I worry, with good reason, that they may fall hard — and some do. But it doesn’t just apply to teens; any of us can become so overconfident that we let our guard down and set ourselves up for a big fall. We must stay awake and vigilant in our Christian walk, always.
Revelation 3:7ff — Kept Christ’s word of perseverance
What does it mean to keep Christ’s word of perseverance? It means to endure heroically regardless of the persecution or hardship that comes our way. Philadelphia had done just that to their great credit and the pleasure of the Lord. Are you?
Revelation 3:14ff — Don’t be lukewarm
Laodicea was in a valley below a warm springs just to the north at Heiropolis. By the time it got to Laodicea it was lukewarm and not pleasantly drinkable. Which is the prime point of Jesus’ letter to this church, who thought that in their wealth they were also spiritually healthy. “Not so much,” Jesus seems to be saying. The point for us seems clear enough, especially in a materialistic society such as ours: wealth doesn’t equal spiritual health. Lukewarmness is always a danger.
See you tomorrow, Lord willing.