The Letter to Sardis

The ancient city of Sardis was built at the top of a very steep hill. Its defensive position was thought to be impregnable, for there was only one small access point which was easily defended, and as a result, its inhabitants were proud and over confident. It was the capital of Lydia because of its invulnerability to attack; oh yes, the people there were over confident. We have quite a few ancient records of the persecution of the church in Asia Minor, but the funny thing is that Sardis is never mentioned, for it would seem that the church there never bothered anybody enough to be persecuted.

Here’s another funny thing about Sardis, the impregnable fortress of a city: It was conquered in 549 BC in a night time surprise attack… and again in 218 BC. Apparently all had been forgotten by the time John wrote these words down, because Jesus hints at another kind of surprise in store for them.

To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

Preamble (3:1b)

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.

The seven spirits (or sevenfold spirit) represents the wholeness or fullness of the Spirit: the Holy Spirit, The stars represent the messengers (angels) of God.

Historical Prologue (3:1c, 2b, 4a)

I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead… or I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God… Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes.

You will have noticed that the covenant elements of this letter aren’t as neatly distinguished from one another as they are in most of the others, but they are present nonetheless. The Sardis church has a good reputation, they seem to be in good shape by all outward appearances, but they aren’t in reality, for they are dead. This shouldn’t be overly challenging for us to understand, because it well describes the modern church in an awful lot of places. They have wonderful services, they maintain grand old traditions and say all of the right things, but the love, the light and the life are simply not there. Yet even in the midst of such a congregation, there are a few who have not become stagnant, who have not become overconfident and who are spiritually alive.

Stipulation (6:2a, 3a)

Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die… Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent.

Curse (3:3b)

But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

This is a common theme in the New Testament; take a look at Matt. 24:43; Luke 12:39; 1 Thess. 5:2, 4; 2 Pet. 3:10 and Revelation 16:15. All of these liken Christ’s return to the surprise of a thief in the night, who pops in when you least expect it. He could come at any time without warning which puts to bed any thought that there will be a bunch of signs to announce the imminence of His return as so many modern commentators would suggest. The message therefore is “Wake up and get ready.”

Blessing (3:4b-5)

They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.

White is the color of purity or holiness, so those clothed in white will be pure in God’s sight at the time of His coming, as opposed to those in dirty clothes that bear the stains of sin. These are the ones who were ready, who remained awake in their faith and in their spirit; they were not over confident, and they reap the reward of eternal life.

Witnesses (3:6)

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

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More Love

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

1 John 4:11-12

John is continuing his thoughts that we looked at in vv. 7-10, and as I mentioned last time, this is the central core of Christian theology, the part that everything else is built upon.  Simply stated, this love core flows like this:

1. God loved us while we were still sinners.

2. God sent His Son to die for our sins.

3. We loved God and responded to the Gospel.

4. God loved our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Therefore, so do we.

We see this pattern at work once again in verse 11.  God loved us, so we should love each other. Then John, as was his custom, takes one more step.  Since no one has ever seen God, and since God loves all of us and we love Him, if we also love each other, God’s love will be complete in us and visibly expressed within His Body, the Church.  This is as far as John has gone so far…

At this point, we can infer that there is another step.  The other step is implied in John’s mentioning that “no one has seen God.”  OK, why did he choose to write that?  Think…

No one has seen God, but if we love one another as God loved us, then His love will live amongst us, and though us all will see it.

I have seen a number of debates about Evolution and Creation.  These kinds of discussions usually have at their core, an assumption that if we cannot observe some “evidence” that God exists, then we can determine that He does not exist.  I’m no scientist, but this seems to be a natural inclination on the part of people who are educated with regard to the Scientific Method.  Remember that one from your school days?  It was the one about observations, and testing theories with observable evidence.

Back to John.  Have you ever thought that it would be nice if you could find the positive “proof” of God’s existence? Yes, something that can be observed and studied?

Are you sitting down?

John just gave it to you− The proof is God’s love at work in our lives and within the Body of Christ; at least it should be.  Maybe if we started taking these verses to heart and putting them into our everyday manner of living, like we are commanded by God to do, more people would notice that the greatest “proof” of God, the observable evidence is right there in front of us all: Love for one another as Jesus has loved us, and gave His life for us.

Let’s wrap up for today with a question to think about: Do you ever wonder if it is a coincidence that the whole concept of Godly love has been corrupted and demeaned in our culture? After all, doesn’t society use the word “love” to mean just about anything other than Godly love?

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Bonus Post: The Imagery of Revelation 2:17

To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.

In our post concerning the letter to Pergamum, I gave you the “short version” of the three images found in this blessing. Now, let’s examine these a little more carefully to see what is going on…

Hidden Manna

In the original post I said that this should be understood as servants of the Lord who will have a seat at His banquet table in the Kingdom, and that is certainly the bottom line. However, this image has very deep roots in Jewish tradition and I know that some of you will be interested in the side trip, so here, at no extra charge, is our side trip:

Manna first appears in Scripture in Exodus 16 when the people in the desert cry out for food and God sends them “bread from heaven”. This bread from heaven falls like dew, looks like frost and tastes like honey, and when the people first saw it they said “manna” which means “what is it?” The name stuck. Then, in Ex. 16:32-35 the people are told to collect some of the manna as a remembrance of God’s miraculous provision:

Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Take an omer of manna and keep it for the generations to come, so they can see the bread I gave you to eat in the wilderness when I brought you out of Egypt.’”

So Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar and put an omer of manna in it. Then place it before the Lord to be kept for the generations to come.”

As the Lord commanded Moses, Aaron put the manna with the tablets of the covenant law, so that it might be preserved. The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a land that was settled; they ate manna until they reached the border of Canaan.

The jar of manna remained with the Ark of the Covenant for quite a long time. Being with the Ark, it was “before the Lord” because that was where His presence was said to be on the earth in the Most Holy Place. According to Jewish tradition, the prophet Jeremiah removed the jar of manna and the Ark so they would not be captured by the invading Babylonians, and hid them in a cave near Mount Nebo; the account comes from 2 Maccabees 2:4-8:

These same records also tell us that Jeremiah, acting under divine guidance, commanded the Tent of the Lord’s Presence and the Covenant Box to follow him to the mountain where Moses had looked down on the land which God had promised our people. When Jeremiah got to the mountain, he found a huge cave and there he hid the Tent of the Lord’s Presence, the Covenant Box, and the altar of incense. Then he sealed up the entrance.

Some of Jeremiah’s friends tried to follow him and mark the way, but they could not find the cave. When Jeremiah learned what they had done, he reprimanded them, saying,

No one must know about this place until God gathers his people together again and shows them mercy. At that time he will reveal where these things are hidden, and the dazzling light of his presence will be seen in the cloud, as it was in the time of Moses and on the occasion when Solomon prayed that the Temple might be dedicated in holy splendor.

This is how the manna came to be the “hidden manna”. Notice when the manna and the rest of the contents, will be found again; it will be “when God gathers his people together again” at a future date. The manna is also discussed in various apocalyptic Jewish texts in reference to the Messianic Banquet, which is said to take place at the consummation of the Kingdom of God. As a symbol, the Messianic Banquet communicates the joy, abundance and fellowship of the kingdom at a great feast presided over by the Messiah. In Scripture, the main text on this subject is Isaiah 25:6-8:

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.

It is well worth noting that this symbolic feast takes place when the Kingdom of God comes into fullness, and when there is no more death, sadness and disgrace. Later, the author of 2 Baruch, who wrote at about the same time as John wrote Revelation, tells of the great feast where the menu will include such delicacies as wine in abundance, Leviathon, ( a huge sea beast) and land behemoths (symbolizing the enemies of God) and…. You guessed it: Manna. (See 2 Baruch 29:3-8)

In the New Testament, similar images can be found in Matt. 22:1-14; 25:1-13; and Revelation 19:6-9. In addition, the Lord’s Supper is a foreshadowing of such a Banquet when understood in light of Jesus’ comment in Luke 22:16:

For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God

Thus, I have concluded that the “hidden manna” in Revelation 2:17 is a reference to the recipient’s having a seat at the table at the consummation of the Kingdom of God at the second coming of Christ.

The White Stone with the Secret Name

I gave you my reasons for my conclusion about the white stone in the original post; the white stone represents complete and total acquittal for any and all guilt deriving from sin. That is simple enough and requires no further explanation. As for the secret names, that is a little more involved.

The Greek word John used in 2:17 is kainos. If we search, we will find that John uses it several times in Revelation: There is a “new song” in 5:9 and 14:3, there are “new names” in 2:17 and 3:12, there is the “new Jerusalem” in 3:12 and 21:2, a “new heaven and new earth” in 21:1 and the consummation of the Kingdom of God in which Jesus makes “everything new” in 21:5. Therefore when Jesus says that “overcomers” will receive “new names”; they are being offered places in the coming redemption and transformation of all creation. Yet, we still have the issue of the new names being known only to “him who receives it”.

In the ancient world, giving a name is a sign of power and authority. This is true in Greek myth as well as in Scripture; for instance, recall the story in Genesis 2:19-20 when God gave Adam the right to name all of the animals as an act of dominion over them (cf. Gen. 1:26). Now consider the events described in Luke 8:26-39: Jesus comes upon a man who is possessed by a “Legion” of demons. They cry out to Jesus, “What do you want with me Jesus, son of the Most High God?” As you can see, they knew Jesus’ real name: “Son of God” and to the ancient mind, this might indicate that they had power over Him. Now, recall Jesus’ reply: “What is your name?” Jesus was not about to let them have the upper hand, and when they answered, He drove them out of the region.

The Christians in Pergamum were suffering under the power of their oppressors, but in promising them new names known to no one else, He is promising them freedom from those who have persecuted them. Thus, the white stone of acquittal combined with freedom from oppression is a very nice aspect of the wedding feast of the Lamb in a transformed world.

Well dear reader, there you have it; I hope this has been helpful to you so that you can see another example of how to figure these symbols out.

In our next post, let’s take a look at the letter to Sardis; see you then!

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The Letter to Thyatira

Thyatira provides an interesting case, well worthy of our study. It was located in a valley that connected two other valleys, and because of its situation, it became a center of commerce and industry. There were weavers and tanners here processing raw materials that came into the city, making finished goods which were then shipped out, providing employment and prosperity for its citizens; so far so good. Yet for the Christian it also provided a special economic challenge: To work in these industries, a man would need to be a member of a guild, and each of the guilds had its very own god. They would have banquets and parties where worship of their god would take place, and sacrifices would be made to the god of the guild, and the meat from the sacrifice would be eaten in a banquet followed with a grand revelry which, to be quite delicate, tended to devolve in drunken orgies. If a Christians didn’t care to participate in all of this, he couldn’t belong to a guild, and if he didn’t belong to a guild, he couldn’t work, and if didn’t work he and his family would starve in a prosperous city.

What would you do?

To the angel of the church in Thyatira write:

Preamble (2:18b)

These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.

Notice how Jesus is described: with eyes “like blazing fire” that see into every hidden place, and feet ready to trample enemies under foot.

Historical Prologue (2:19-21)

I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.

Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.

These were mostly good folks, who sacrificed for their faith, and apparently most were growing in faith and service, but there was a certain element in the congregation led by this Jezebel character. Apparently, Jezebel was a Gnostic of sorts, who taught a form of “special enlightenment” that could only be gained through participation. To achieve enlightenment to overcome sin, one must indulge oneself in sin− so they can be saved from sin. You do realize I hope, that this kind of thinking is still with us in various forms. Consider the implications of this for the believers in Thyatira whose livelihoods depended on belonging to one of those guilds…

Curse (2:22-23)

So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.

At its very core, the word adultery means to violate covenant. Of course, this particular word is usually associated with a particular type of covenant being violated in a particular manner. If Jesus is the Bridegroom, and we are His Bride, and we go out and worship other “gods” in any way, then what would you call it? One word that comes to my mind is “stupid” and another is “adultery”. Jesus has given all concerned more than ample opportunity to see their error and repent, for He wants none to perish; He loves them. Yet after a certain amount of time and many opportunities for change, it becomes obvious that judgment is the only way the story will end.

Stipulation (2:24-25)

Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come’.

If you look at the entire situation, it is quite easy to see the love in this stipulation.

Blessing (2:26-28)

To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations—  that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’—just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give that one the morning star.

The victorious will reign with Christ; the victorious will have a role in the final judgment, only the role of the victorious in the final judgment will be on the bench with Christ, not in the defendant’s box. (Note here the quotation from Psalm 2:9). The “morning star” is also found in Rev. 22:16, and it is Christ Himself. As you consider this, keep in mind that we are co-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17). For more on the morning star see Num. 24:17 cf. Matt. 2:2.

Witnesses (2:29)

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Note: I’ve decided to go ahead and write a Bonus Post, on the “hidden manna”, the white stone and the secret name; please look for it this afternoon!

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This is Love

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

1 John 4:7-10

We are now beginning the central core of this letter, and this core runs from verse 7 to the end of this chapter.  It is not only the central core of the letter, but it is also the central core of Christian theology.  All of those comparisons at the beginning of the letter, and all of the discussion of evil, antichrists and the testing of spirits comes back to this theme, for without it, the rest of the theology of our faith is rendered meaningless.  In short, what is written in this section is the one thing that gives Christianity its power and authority, and against which the gates of Hell itself cannot, and will not stand.

The last sentence in this text is the key: God loved us. In fact, he loved us while we were lost, and not loving Him at all.  Yet God loved us anyway− He loved us so much that He sent Jesus to die for us.  Yes, you’re right, this has already been pointed out in this letter, but here it is again, as the core of everything else: that is how important it is that we grasp this simple concept.

How could God love us so much and in spite of everything?  Because God is love.

That being the case, we are to love one another, just as God loved us.  Nobody can do this unless God is in that person, which is to say that person is in Christ.  Loving one another as God loved us runs counter to every teaching of this world, as it also runs against our natural human inclinations.  Therefore, if a person does not love, it is because God is not in him or her.

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Photo of the Week: August 15, 2018

Mount Vernon, Virginia; the estate of George Washington.

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The Letter to Pergamum

Pergamum was the Roman capital of Asia, the seat of Roman authority and of Emperor Worship. It was also the center for the worship of the Roman god of healing that was symbolized by a serpent, an image you might recognize today as being connected with healing. Pergamum was also the home of the great altar to Zeus.

To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:

Preamble (2:12b)

These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.

Notice the way Jesus is described as the one wielding the sharp two-edged sword (the Word of God).

Historical Prologue (2:13-15)

I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

 

We begin here with quite a commendation; even though this congregation is located in the city where none other than Satan has his throne, they have remained faithful to the name of Christ. Commentators differ on what is meant by the reference to the throne of Satan being present in the city, but one thing is clear; these brothers and sisters were holding valiantly to the truth in the face of heavy opposition. Even so, there were compromises being made, and this was a serious problem. They allowed worshippers of Balaam and Nicolaitans in their midst, with the associated behaviors, and that must be put to an end. My only comment to that is that it should give us food for thought as we look at what is going on today in our midst.

Stipulation (2:16a)

Repent therefore!

Curse (2:16b)

Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

If they do not either cause the offenders to repent or put them out of the congregation, the Lord would take action “with the sword of my mouth”. Yes, it’s a curious thing to say, but let’s not rush by too quickly. The sword represents the Word of God that proceeds from His mouth; that is the mouth of the Word who became flesh. This doesn’t mean Jesus will throw a Bible at anyone, nor does it mean that He is going to start yelling. What it does mean is that the Word of God is pure power; it is what caused the universe to come into existence, and it is what holds all of creation together. The people He is referring to are like wolves in the sheep pen, and Jesus our Good Shepherd will do what is necessary to protect those of the flock who have remained faithful to Him in such difficult circumstance. By telling them this, however, He is giving everyone involved the chance to correct the problems on their own before He steps in.

I’m thinking that should serve as food for thought as well!

Witnesses (2:17a)

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Blessing (2:17b)

To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.

This one isn’t so easy to understand. In the interests of brevity, those who receive “hidden manna” are servants of the Lord who will have a seat at His banquet table in the Kingdom. White and black stones were used in the Greco-Roman world when a jury cast its vote for the guilt or innocence of a defendant: White was for innocent, black for guilty. A white stone here would be indicative of being innocent on the Day of Judgment, i.e. having our sins taken away. When combined with the “new name known only to the one who receives it” we have symbolized the Christians of Pergamum being set free entirely from those who oppress and persecute them.

Next time, the letter to Thyatira.

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