Revelation 2

If you are reading a “red letter” edition of the book of Revelation (with the words of Christ printed in red ink), you will notice that chapters 2 and 3 are solid red. Jesus is speaking, giving a special message to each of the seven local churches of Asia Minor for which John had oversight in the First Century. And through the miracle of Scripture Jesus is speaking to every church and every Christian of every century.

You will notice that Jesus followed a three-point outline in each message (Yes! Three-point sermons are Biblical!):
1. Jesus said to each church, “I know your works”. The Lord of the “lampstands” (v.13) has perfect knowledge of everything that goes on in every one of His churches. He knows what we are working on, how diligently we are working, what works and what doesn’t, and what we are working against.
2. Jesus said to each church, “To him who overcomes”. He wants us to do victorious work, work that overcomes obstacles to succeed, work that overcomes and overthrows evil.
3. Jesus said to each church, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”. He wants us to lean in and listen to the Spirit.

The constraints of this blog will not allow a thorough treatment of each of the four messages in today’s chapter, so I’ll do my best to summarize the essential truths.

The church in Ephesus (v.1-7) had a record of faithful service, sound doctrine, and endurance in hardship, but the church and her pastor had left their “first love” (v.4). They had outgrown their need to be close to Jesus. They had moved past their dependence on the presence of Jesus. They didn’t love Him like they once had. The only solution was repentance, a return to their original relationship with their Savior (v.5). There are many things we can do and say and learn as believers, but the greatest thing, the summum bonum of the Christian life, is simply loving Jesus above all else. May we never forget that.

The church in Smyrna (v.8-11) was thriving under extreme persecution and poverty. They were being attacked by Satan directly (v.10), and they were being slandered by an entire synagogue of Satanically-empowered Jews (v.9). In the midst of their persecution, Jesus spoke words of comfort to them. He promised “the crown of life”, an award Jesus presents those who serve Him faithfully. He also promised that they would be saved from “the second death” (v.11). There are two possible deaths that you can die. The first is when your physical body dies, and everyone will face that death. But the second death is for those who have not been born again, those who have not repented of their sins and believed the gospel. The second death is eternity in hell. I don’t know what you are going through in your life, but if you are saved I know this: the worst thing that could happen to you today is that you go through the first death and go to be with Jesus. You can face the first death without fear because the second death has no power over you!

The church in Pergamum (v.12-17) existed in a most difficult setting. Their community was known for idol worship and the occult. Satan had a stronghold there (v.13). They also knew persecution firsthand — their former pastor, Antipas (v.13), was burned alive on a pagan altar because he would not deny Jesus. Jesus commended the church for bearing up under that extreme pressure. But He also gave them a harsh rebuke for the worldliness they allowed in the church. The “teaching of Balaam” (v.14) referred to the way some of the members were compromising their Christian convictions to accommodate sin. The “teaching of the Nicolaitans” (v.15) was plain-old hypocrisy, the separation of beliefs and behavior. The simple solution Jesus gave was to repent and to fight the pull toward sin. That is always the answer to temptation and compromise, and Jesus will give His people the strength to do it.

The church in Thyatira (v.18-29) loved the Lord, endured the trials they faced, and made some spiritual progress in the name of Jesus (v.19). But the church was actively tolerating some things He hated. Apparently there was a woman who was a very dominant leader in the church. Jesus chose to call her the name of the most evil woman in the Bible, Jezebel, the Israelite queen who murdered priests and prophets and corrupted the nation. The “Jezebel” of Thyatira was a false teacher who called herself a “prophetess” (v.20). She was sexually immoral, seductive, and Satanic — and she was teaching the people to be just like her. The astounding thing about the situation is that the good, faithful people of the church were allowing her to do it! But the fiery eyes of Jesus were searching the church (v.18, 23) and pronouncing judgment (v.21-23). That ought to motivate us to guard the purity of our doctrine and to be careful about what — and who — we allow into the church.

Revelation 1

“The revelation of Jesus Christ.” This phrase introduces the concluding book of the Bible and gives us the most important key to interpreting it: this book is from Jesus, and it is about Jesus. It is easy to get lost in the fantastic images, the symbolic language, and the meaning of the numbers of this book. When you come to something in Revelation that you don’t understand (and you will), remind yourself that this book is about Jesus. It is a “revelation” (v.1, literally an “unveiling”) of His true identity, His Second Coming, His plan for His Bride, His victory over sin and evil, and His future kingdom. There is much we can understand in this book, but for the things we can’t, we must keep our eyes on Jesus — His power and His plan.

The Apostle John recorded this revelation and sent it to the churches of Asia (v.4, not the continent of Asia, but the Roman province of Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey). John was the last surviving disciple of Jesus, having outlived his brother James, the other disciples, and the Apostle Paul, all of whom were martyred for their faith. John was exiled on the tiny prison island of Patmos (v.4), about 50 miles from Ephesus in the Aegean Sea. Tradition holds that he was alone and living in a cave when Jesus appeared to him.

It is important to note what John was doing when Jesus suddenly spoke to him from behind: he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (v.10). Since John was separated from his brothers and sisters in Christ and unable to participate in corporate worship with them, he was apparently having a one-man worship service on a Sunday — and he was worshiping “in the Spirit”, just the way Jesus had taught him (see John 4:23-24). Imagine John’s surprise when the very One he was worshiping interrupted his worship with a personal appearance! His voice was loud and penetrating (v.10), commanding attention like the crashing of waves or the roaring of rapids (v.15). John heard Jesus’s instruction to write what he was about to see and send it to the seven churches (v.11).

Turning in the direction of the voice, John saw Jesus as he had never seen Him before, all bright and white and shining with the brilliance of Divine glory. He wore the golden sash of royalty. His eyes were piercing. His feet, once pierced and bloody, were shining with pure holiness (v.14-15). When John realized that it was Jesus, the one he called “the ruler of kings” and the one who “freed us from our sins by His blood” (v.5), he fainted dead-away, falling down at the glowing feet of his Friend (v.17).

The “sharp two-edged sword” coming from the mouth of Jesus (v.16) is an image that indicates the force and precision of His spoken words. As Jesus laid a reassuring, nail-scarred hand on His disciple, the words John heard were words of hope and victory (v.17-20): Jesus is “alive forevermore”, He has conquered death and hell, and He commands the future!

It was Jesus Himself who interpreted the symbols of the seven lampstands around Him and the seven stars in His right hand. Both symbols referred to the recipients of the revelation John would write. The lampstands symbolized the churches of Asia Minor. (Note: in my opinion these were actual local churches, congregations in the cities listed in v.11. But I also think they are symbolic churches, representing seven kinds of churches that exist through all of church history.) Lampstands have a singular purpose: to lift up the light so that it can penetrate the darkness and be seen by as many people as possible. Is that not the mission of a church, to push back the darkness of lostness with the light of the gospel of Christ?!

The seven stars symbolized the “angels” of the churches (v.20). “Angels” translates the Greek word “angelloi”, meaning “messengers”. There was a messenger at every church who was responsible for proclaiming the message Jesus sent through John (and presumably that messenger was responsible for leading the response to what Jesus said). I believe that messenger is the pastor of the church.

For the next two days we will read those messages and consider how we will respond to them. Don’t miss it!

Jude

The little letter of Jude has been called “the neglected epistle”, but it is so relevant to our day that it should be neglected no longer. Jude is a book of contrasts. It presents God’s wrath and God’s love. It presents the future of the wicked as well as the future of the child of God. And in the middle of it all, it reminds us of who we are and it encourages us to be all that God wants us to be.

Who was Jude? The name is actually “Judas” in the original language, a very common Jewish name. Of the six “Judases” mentioned in the New Testament, only one makes sense as the author of this epistle: the brother of James (v.1, the author of the book of James), which would make him the half-brother of Jesus (see Mark 6:3). After the resurrection of Jesus, James and Jude, along with their mother and other brothers, believed in Jesus and joined His larger band of disciples. They were present in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost when the church was born, and were among the first believers to preach the gospel (see Acts 1:14, 2:4). In spite of his impressive spiritual resumé, Jude humbly chose to call himself simply “a servant of Jesus”.

In this open letter to all believers everywhere, Jude intended to write about “our common salvation” (v.3), but he was compelled by the Lord instead to write an appeal to his brothers and sisters in Christ to defend the gospel against the attacks of false teachers. These illegitimate teachers were “creeping” into churches and confusing people by twisting the gospel, turning it into a perversion of grace and denying the true identity of the Lord Jesus. Jude viewed these people as rebels who were doomed to be judged severely (like the nation of Israel in the wilderness, the fallen angels, and the immoral men of Sodom and Gomorrah; v.5-7). The series of metaphors in verses 12-13 paints a picture of teachers who are full of hot air — they have nothing to teach but error and nothing to offer but their own shame.

Quoting an ancient prophecy of Enoch, the pre-Flood man of God (see Genesis 5:21-24), Jude announced the impending doom of the false teachers (v.14-16). When Christ returns to “execute judgment on the ungodly” (v.15), they will not be spared. Until then, we will be able to spot them in our churches by their grumbling, complaining, loud-mouthed boasting, divisiveness, and worldliness (v.16, 19). Knowing that Jesus will return soon, believers must defend the truth of the gospel from their lies. We must continue to grow in our faith, pray in the Holy Spirit (v.21), stay close to the Lord, and share our faith with those who are lost (v.22-23).

In the closing doxology (expression of praise) in verses 24-25, Jude assures us that as we live in this world of dangerous people and destructive doctrines, the Lord is “able to keep us from stumbling” into error (v.24). We just need to keep trusting Him and obeying His Word. Praise to our glorious, majestic Lord, the only true God and our only Savior (v.25)! Only He has the authority and the power to save the repentant and to damn the wicked. Amen!

Malachi 4

The Lord began His message through Malachi by telling His people, “I love you” (see 1:2). They were His chosen people, His “treasured possession” (see 3:17). In that loving context, the Lord approached some difficult subjects, asking (1:6), “Where is My honor?” The people were dishonoring Him with their insincere worship, their stolen tithes, and their broken marriages. The Lord was justified in His anger. He could have cut them off entirely, judged them into oblivion, and destroyed them altogether. But instead we hear His shockingly gracious appeal: “Return to Me and I will return to you” (see 3:7). That is our God, offering grace and a chance at renewal. And when we turn from our sin and return to Him, we find His arms wide open and His love undiminished.

At the end of this book of prophecy (chapter 4), on the last page of the Old Testament, the Lord gives His people two reasons to return to Him. First, because a day of judgment is coming (“Behold, the day is coming”, v.1; “the great and awesome day of the Lord comes”, v.5). The Day of the Lord is an event that the Prophets warned of repeatedly. Jesus predicted it, too, calling it “that day” and “the day of the Son of Man”. What is it?

The Bible teaches that all of human history is leading up to a singular event — a day — when Jesus Christ returns to the earth in His Second Coming. Jesus said (Luke 21:27), “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” The Apostle Peter indicated the same thing: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10). That is the event described by Malachi, the day when the curtain will drop on world history and the Lord, who came the first time as Savior and Friend, will come again as King and Judge.

That day will “burn like an oven” (v.1), a reference to the judgment fires of hell, the place where the unsaved will spend eternity, those who have not turned to the Lord for salvation. It is a serious warning. The lost will be judged, but the righteous will be victorious: “you shall tread down the wicked” (v.3). This is the language of victory! Those who turn to the Lord will be on the winning side!

The second reason the Lord gives His people to return to Him is that a day of salvation is dawning. This chapter mentions two figures whose appearance will signal an age of grace and salvation: the “Sun of Righteousness” and “Elijah the prophet”.

The “Sun of Righteousness rising with healing in His wings” (v.2) is a beautiful reference to Jesus, who would arise to bring healing to every sin-sick soul who would come under the “wings” of His protecting grace. (Note: I remember when Jesus spread His wings of grace over me…how about you?) For every life broken by sin, Jesus is the healer. For every broken heart, Jesus is the healer. For every broken home, Jesus is the healer. If something in your life is broken, take it to Jesus today. He is the Sun of Righteousness who rises with healing in His wings!

But who is Elijah the prophet? According to the angel Gabriel and Jesus Himself, this is talking about John the Baptist, who came just ahead of Jesus to announce His coming and to urge people to repent of their sin and prepare to receive their Savior. Gabriel said (Luke 1:17), “He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ [a direct quote from Malachi 4:6] and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Jesus said (Matthew 11:13-14), “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.”

So Malachi said that this prophet, whom we know to be John, would come to announce the dawning of a new day of salvation, an escape from judgment. Malachi said that John’s ministry (v.6) would be to turn people’s hearts away from sin and toward righteousness. (Note: the word “turn” in v.6 is the same word translated “return” in the Lord’s appeal in 3:7; it is a word of revival and restoration.)

Depending in the translation you are using, the last word of the book of Malachi — and the Old Testament is “destruction” or “curse”. But if you turn the page of your Bible you will find the New Testament and the story of Jesus, who came to reverse the curse and to undo the destruction! Hallelujah!!

Malachi 3

So far this year we have read parts of 38 books in the Old Testament, and now we come to the 39th and final one. It bears the name of Malachi, the last prophet God sent to His people before four centuries of prophetic silence. Malachi, whose name fittingly means “messenger”, had a message of rebuke for Judah at a crucial time. It was a century after their return from exile in Babylon, but the people had slipped back into the same sins and attitudes of their grandparents and great-grandparents that had incurred God’s wrath in their day. The people were not worshiping God sincerely. The priests were corrupt. The men were divorcing their wives and marrying pagan women. It was a nation in jeopardy, and Malachi was God’s messenger to confront their sins and to restore their righteousness.

This chapter begins with one of the great Messianic passages of the Bible (v.1-5). The Old Testament contains hundreds of prophecies about the Messiah who would arrive in their future. Verse 1 indicates that just before Messiah comes, a messenger will precede Him, preparing the people for His coming. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all quote this verse in reference to John the Baptist, the messenger who prepared the way for Jesus. As a spiritual emissary, John told people to repent of their sins and prepare their hearts to receive the Messiah.

Malachi presents the Messiah as a purifier of religion (v.2-3) and a judge of sinners (v.5). The Lord certainly brought judgment in Malachi’s day, but this prophecy points forward in time to the day when Jesus will sit in judgment over the nations. On that day, only those who have come to Him for salvation will survive the judgment (see READ Revelation 20:11-15).

In verses 6-11, Malachi confronts a specific sin that was particularly dreadful. The people were robbing God of tithes and offerings (v.8). Instead of the immediate judgment they deserved, the people heard a series of gracious offers from God: “Return to Me, and I will return to you” (v.7); “Bring the tithes and I will pour down blessings” (v.10); “Obey Me and I will protect you from financial failure” (v.11). I believe this promise is still in effect for God’s people today. If we are willing to invest at least a tithe (10%) of our income in the work of the church, God will bless our finances and provide for our needs. To withhold your tithes and offerings is to dismiss God from your finances — and when God is not present in your finances, neither are His blessings.

The last section of this chapter records the reaction of some of the people to Malachi’s message (v.16-18). There was a righteous remnant of faithful believers in Judah who “feared the Lord”, meaning that they held Him in awe and worshiped Him as the Lord Almighty. These people met together to encourage and edify each other about their commitment to the Lord (v.16). This group of people who feared the Lord probably wasn’t a large one, and they may not have thought they were making a difference, but God was paying attention to them and keeping a record of what they said. He identified them as His “treasured possession” who would be spared from the impending judgment that Malachi was announcing (v.17).

Here at the end of the Old Testament I can look back and see God’s righteous remnant, that minority of faithful ones, God’s “treasured possession”: Noah, the preacher of righteousness in a sea of wickedness; Joshua and Caleb, the spies who believed God could conquer Canaan; little David, who faced an army alone; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who stood for the Lord while everyone else fell before the idol. I look forward into the New Testament and I can see the band of disciples in the Upper Room — only 120 people, but God used them to turn the world upside-down. I want to stand with all of them, and with the group of God-fearing Jews in Malachi’s day. I choose to believe God, no matter what! Are you with me?

3 John

The Apostle John, the last surviving disciple of Jesus, is the “elder” who wrote this little epistle (it is the shortest book of the Bible by word-count). It is a personal letter, addressed to an individual, but preserved in Scripture for all Christians everywhere. John mentions three men by name in his letter, and they were evidently all affiliated with one of the churches under John’s supervision. John’s purpose for writing was to commend two of the men and to rebuke one of them. When I read this letter I can’t help but wonder if there are people like these three in every church.

Gaius, the man to whom the letter is addressed, must have been a close friend of the Apostle. John greeted him warmly, saying that he loved him. Gaius had a consistent testimony for Christ (v.3-4). John was impressed that he not only knew the truth, he lived it. Some people are all talk and no walk; they have everything in the showroom and nothing in the warehouse. As one country preacher quipped, “Some people preach cream but live skim milk”! Not Gaius — He “walked” in the truth (v.3). As evidence of that, he had a generous heart (v.5-6), giving support to the various teachers and evangelists who were dispatched by John and traveled to (or through) Gaius’s city. One of the signs that Jesus is on the throne of a person’s heart is that they love to invest in gospel causes, financially or otherwise.

At the end of the letter, John mentioned another good brother, Demetrius (v.11-12). He was the kind of Christian who had a good testimony — and everybody knew it. He was a truthful, trustworthy man, an example of a real Christianity and positive churchmanship. God, give us more church members like Demetrius, who had a good testimony, and like Gaius, who lived out his faith in tangible ways!

In stark contrast to these men was Diotrephes (v.9). This man may have been an elder, a deacon, or even the pastor of the church, but he was a real stinker. He was a bully with a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. It was not a case of a well-meaning person with poor relational skills — Diotrephes was a self-promoting blowhard who loved to boss people around. When John said, “He likes to put himself first” (v.9), he used a unique word (in the original language) that literally means “holding first place”. That word is only found in one other place in the Bible, Colossians 1:18, where it is translated “preeminent” and refers to the position only Christ should hold in the church. If Diotrephes was a believer at all, he was a living contradiction, for he had an anti-Christ attitude. A church leader who really loves Jesus says with John the Baptist, “Jesus must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). (Note: even as I am writing this I realize that in the flesh I would probably develop the attitude of Diotrephes. I’d better humble myself, stay close to Jesus, and surrender to the control of the Holy Spirit. Amen?)

The arrogance of Diotrephes is mind-blowing: he actually refused the authority of John (v.9). Can you imagine the audacity of a church leader refusing to fellowship and receive counsel from the only surviving disciple of Jesus? Think of what Diotrephes could have learned from John (as a pastor myself, I know a few questions I would ask him!). Not content to ignore John, Diotrephes slandered the name of the Apostle, “talking wicked nonsense” about him behind his back (v.10).

I love John’s statement in verse 11, “Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good.” In other words, “Be like Demetrius and Gaius, NOT like Diotrephes.” God, give us the grace to be truth-walkers like Gaius and to have solid testimonies like Demetrius. Save us from ourselves. Deliver us from arrogance. Cleanse our mouths from wicked nonsense. And may Christ alone have preeminence in the church. Amen.

Zechariah 14

The prophet Zechariah was a partner of the prophet Haggai. Ezra 5:1-2 pictures the two standing shoulder to shoulder, encouraging the people to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and to rebuild their faith in the Lord. The pair of prophets served together, but the record of their prophecies (the books of the Bible that bear their name) are quite different. In fact, Zechariah stands out in the section of Scripture called the Minor Prophets as the most apocalyptic (dealing with end times, the Second Coming, etc.) and the most Messianic (prophesying about the first and second advents of the Messiah, Jesus Christ).

To Zechariah’s original listeners, the Jews who were struggling to reestablish their spiritual and national identity, his message was motivational. The prophet encouraged them to rebuild God’s house and to cleanse their own houses and their own lives from sin. The first eight chapters of the book focus God’s promise to judge Judah’s enemies and the holiness God required of Judah’s citizens. The remainder of the book inspired hope for the future. Zechariah presented images of the Messiah who would come to save His people and set up His kingdom on earth, centered in the very city they were rebuilding: Jerusalem. Through the prophet, God was giving the recently-conquered Jews a far-reaching image of future glory. Zechariah predicted details about the Messiah that would not be fulfilled for 500 years. These prophetic details are confirmed in the four Gospels, including Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt (see 9:9, Matthew 21:1-11) and the fact that Jesus was “pierced”, a reference to His crucifixion (see 12:10).

While Zechariah looked forward to the first advent of the Messiah, we look back on it. We can read the record of Scripture and know that Jesus came the first time as a suffering servant, a gentle shepherd, and the sacrifice for our sins. But we see the second advent of the Messiah (the Second Coming of Christ) from the same perspective as Zechariah — we look forward to that day. This book helps us to think through the implications of the imminent return of Christ and the hope we have as His church.

Here in chapter 14, Zechariah takes us to the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem, and to a future day when Jesus will return to that very place. It was on the Mount of Olives that Jesus had taught His disciples about the end times, and it was from that spot that Jesus ascended into heaven with a promise that He would someday descend there (see Acts 1:9-12). This chapter describes that return.

I am no expert on prophecy, but I have tried to search the Scriptures to understand a rough timeline of the events that comprise the Day of the Lord. As I understand it, Zechariah chapter 14 fits in at the very end of what Jesus called the “Great Tribulation” (see Matthew 24:21). Verses 2-3 seem to refer to the time when the Antichrist and his armies gather to attack Israel and the Battle of Armageddon ensues (see Revelation 16:16). Revelation chapter 19 predicts Jesus will return with the saints (that’s you and me!) and easily win the battle.

Then Jesus will appear on the Mount of Olives, which will give an amazing geological welcome to its Creator, splitting in half to simultaneously create a new valley, a new port, and a new climate for Jerusalem (v.4, 8). Jesus will enter Jerusalem and set up His Kingdom on earth, concluding the Day of the Lord and ushering in the Millennial Reign of Christ (v.9). Zechariah indicates that Jerusalem will be a center for worship for all God’s people, a place of utter holiness in the presence of our conquering King (v.16-21). I plan to be there! How about you?