6 – Maintaining Contact

Some people define “church” as a series of ceremonial rituals that are performed on a regular basis, hopefully on a weekly basis on Sunday morning. Others define church as a catechism of doctrines that can be conveniently outlined, or possibly presented in a well-written book that explains all the correct proof text of scripture that validates each point of identity.   There are those who define their particular denomination by a manual of traditions or doctrines. And then there is the definition of church to be a relational interaction of people with one another that is based on the members’ common obedience to the gospel and mutual love of one another. We would agree with the latter.

In one passage of Scripture Jesus defined “church”:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.   By this will all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (Jn 13:34,35).

This is the definition of the ekklesia (church) that Jesus called out of the world through the gospel. And if this is the definition of church—and it is—then doctrinal outlines fall far short of defining the organic body of Christ.   Manuals of common tradition are worthless.

Love is an action word. Outlines and rituals are inert and impersonal. We may content ourselves to feel good about our correct outline of doctrine or common traditions. But we cannot content ourselves if our behavior is not identified by Jesus’ definition of His disciples. What is scary is that the majority of religious people today who are connected in some way to a particular religious group, maintain their connection (fellowship) with their particular church either on the basis of tradition or theology.   Love takes second place to these customary systems of church identity.

The identity of the disciples of Jesus is known by their relational love they have for one another that is based on their common obedience to the gospel. They simply gravitate to one another and enjoy one another’s presence because they have obeyed the gospel. They realize that their interaction with one another on earth is in preparation to be with one another for eternity. If they cannot work out their differences on earth, then it is questionable that they will enjoy being with one another for eternity. It is imperative, therefore, that there be no “once a month” or “periodic disciples” who refrain from being with other disciples. Nevertheless, there are those members who stay away from the body of believers. By doing such, they manifest their self-deception that they will enjoy the company of the disciples in eternity. If one cannot voluntarily fellowship with other Christians on earth, then certainly God will not force this person to be together with Christians in heaven.

The following are some erroneous beliefs of those who have deceived themselves into thinking that they will have an eternal reward for their unloving relationship with their fellow body of believers:

 I.  Legal justification:

Legal justification is illustrated by contributing a few coins to the function of the body, when at the same time, the contributor has many notes in his pocket. If God would meet him on his exit from the legalized assembly, he could at least say he legally made a contribution. No judgment could supposedly be made against him because he dropped in a few coins.

As with legal contributions, one who practices legal fellowship is seeking to be with his fellow Christians as least as possible, and yet, feel justified before God. A preacher friend of ours several years ago mentioned the name of the presumptuous member who was supposedly a part of his fellowship. He said he saw the name of the member in the local newspaper.   The problem was that the man gave the name of the church for which he preached. He told the newspaper that he was a member of this church. But my friend said the man never showed up at the assembly of the church.

Some people deceive themselves into thinking that they are in fellowship with God, when at the same time they maintain no fellowship with His people. John wrote of these people. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 Jn 1:6; see 2:9,10). So the person who claims to be associated with the disciples, but never shows up to be in fellowship with the disciples, has simply deceived himself. The fact would be what Peter and John said to Simon the sorcerer, “You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God (At 8:21).

 II.  Presumptuous relationships:

If one stayed away from his wife for an extended period of time without any reason, then we would question the man’s love for his wife. If one stayed away from his job for an extended period of time without any excuse, then he would be fired. If one seeks to starve his relationship with his brothers in Christ, then he simply has no love for his brothers in Christ. If one would presume to have a relationship with Christ, but fails to be with the body of Christ, then he has deceived himself. He has presumed to have that which does not exist, that is, a relationship with fellow disciples of Christ.

Christianity is about relationships, and relationships depend on being with one another. Some have often used the text of Hebrews 10:24,25 as a legal code to instill guilt in those who forsake the assembly of the saints. But there is something far more important behind the meaning of Hebrews 10:24,25 than the breaking of a legal code of attendance.   In fact, what is stated in the text is the reason why some stayed away.

We must understand the passage in the context of the time in which it was written.

Let us hold firm to the confession of our faith without wavering, for He is faithful who promised. And let us consider one another to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching. For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins (Hb 10:23-26).

At the time the letter was written to the Jewish Christians, there was great intimidation of the Jewish Christians to go back into Judaism. The intensity of the Jewish insurrection was rising in the Roman Empire. What eventually happened was that Rome decided to put down the “Jewish problem” by the destruction of the Jewish state in Palestine, which eventually led to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and finally the destruction of the stronghold of Masada soon after.

Some Jews who were converted out of Judaism were on the verge of returning to their fellow Jews, and thus, were slipping away from their faith in Jesus as the Messiah. The Hebrew letter was written in order to argue against their theological case of returning to a legal system of law under the Sinai law. After the Hebrew writer made his theological case, he concluded in chapter 10, But we are not of those who draw back to destruction, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (Hb 10:39).   Hebrews 10:24,25 must be understood in this historical context.

In order not to draw back into Judaism, the Jewish disciples must associate with one another. They must encourage one another to remain faithful to their former commitment that Jesus was the Messiah. The “day” about which the writer spoke, was not the final coming of Jesus at the end of time. The Holy Spirit would not lie to the readers, deceiving them into thinking that Jesus was coming in His final coming in their lifetime. All the early Christians had been told the prophecy of Jesus that is recorded in Matthew 24. National Israel, with the final destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, was coming to a close. Jesus was coming, but He was coming in time in judgment in order to conclude the age of Israel. The Hebrew writer, therefore, wrote to save Christian lives by discouraging them from repatriating with national Israel in Jerusalem. If they drew back into Judaism, indeed they would “draw back to destruction” (Hb 10:39).

As a culture of people, the Hebrew writer thus encouraged the Jewish brethren to assemble with one another in order to encourage one another to remain faithful to Jesus as the Messiah (Hb 10:25). And in order to remain faithful, they had to encourage one another to do two things: (1) stir up loving fellowship with one another, and (2) encourage getting to work for Jesus. Hebrew 10:24,25 is not talking about some “hour of worship” wherein one’s faithfulness is determined by his legal presence.   This may be a convenient passage for preachers to beat people on the heart for not attending, but such an interpretation is certainly shallow in reference to the historical context of what was happening in the lives of the Jewish Christians when the passage was written.

The “sin” to which the Hebrew writer was referring was their apostasy to Judaism. In the book, the writer had earlier stated, “But exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Hb 3:13). Turning back into “sin” meant turning away from the high priesthood of Jesus. Notice what the writer stated would happen if they turned from the atonement of Jesus: “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins(Hb 10:26). If they turned away from Jesus, then they would be turning away from the atoning blood of Jesus.

We would understand “the Truth” in the context according to what Jesus said to the Jews during His earthly ministry: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32).   Jesus was the revealed Word (Jn 1:1,2,14). He was the Truth. And it was He, through the cross, who set obedient people free from their sins. The Hebrews had obeyed the truth of the gospel because of their “knowledge of the Truth,” which Jesus was. But if they willfully turned away from the Truth (Jesus), then Jesus could do nothing for their problem of sin. This is something far more serious than missing the “attendance of the saints” on Sunday morning. The Hebrew writer was discussing apostasy, not legal attendance to assemblies, though the lack of attendance at the assembly of the saints is the first signal of a backsliding disciple.

It could be understood, however, that if one does not assemble around those who believe that Jesus is the Truth, then certainly he is falling from the faith. Our sweet fellowship that we have in Christ is that all of us have a “knowledge of the Truth.” We have obeyed the truth of the gospel, and thus are in fellowship with one another.   Whoever would not want to be around like-minded people certainly has little knowledge of the Truth (Jesus).   Christianity is not about attendance at legal assemblies, but about being drawn together in assembly as we draw closer to Jesus. It is as Jesus said: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Me (Jn 12:32).

 III.  Estranged relationships:

 Someone once said, “The difference between opinion and conviction is that you hold one and the other holds you.” It is not a matter of opinion that Christians are in fellowship with one another for the purpose of growing one another spiritually.   It is that we are held together because of our commitment to one another. When in the absence of one another, our feelings should be as those expressed by Paul when he was away from the disciples in Thessalonica.

 So affectionately longing for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own souls, because you had become very dear to us (1 Th 2:8).

And to the Roman Christians, he wrote, “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor preferring one another (Rm 12:10). To the Ephesians, he continued, “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another …” (Ep 4:32). These are powerful statements in reference to the nature and intensity by which Christians are to desire one another’s presence. Has our digital age of distance communication deprived us of this longing for one another’s personal presence? Have we cheapened fellowship through texting on smart phones?

As we seek Jesus, we seek one another. A missionary friend of ours told of a religious woman in his community who was leprous. He mentioned that in her religious faith and longing for the saints that she crawled for two miles on her crippled hands and knees in order to be with the saints. And then she asked for forgiveness for her unfaithfulness and commitment to them.

We are often in the presence of lukewarm Christians who now define the culture of a lukewarm faith. Such happened to the disciples in the city of Laodicea. But Jesus pronounced judgment on them. “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth (Rv 3:16). The Christians in Laodicea may have been comfortable with one another’s lukewarmness, but Jesus was not. There were possibly some in the church of Laodicea as the husband and father identified in the following poetic statement of a lukewarm Christian:

 Take my wife and let her be,

Consecrated, Lord to thee.

Take my children as thine own,

As for me, I’ll stay at home.

 This husband and father had forgotten Ezekiel 18:4: “Behold, all souls are Mine. As the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is Mine. The soul that sins, it will die.”

In the bulletin of a church over a half century ago were the words of an unknown poet.

 His four-year old climbed on his knee,

Intent to have her daddy see,

What she in Sunday school had drawn;

While he stayed home and mowed the lawn.

“See there is Mom and me and Sue,

But Daddy, I could not draw you;

Because you never go with us,

Did you and Jesus have a fuss?”

He bowed his head and felt ashamed,

And found it so hard to explain;

He vowed a vow, and kept it too,

That miss again, he’d never do.

 There is the old Chinese tale of a man traveling through a country. He saw a beggar at the side of the road, and subsequently, gave him six of his seven coins.   While the traveler slept, however, the beggar stole the seventh. We would be harsh with the beggar, but we would do the same with God. He has allowed us to have and use all that we have, but we want to steal the rest.

[Next lecture:  April 20th]

 

5 – Partners in Christ

The New Testament is saturated with “one another” passages in reference to the relationship that Christians are to experience with one another. In our digital communication era, however, the word “relationship” seems to mean something different in this culture than what God intended should be among the members of the body of Christ. In fact, the concept of relationship that is commonly expressed today in the digital cultures of the world is quite different from the relationships that people have in the village life in the middle of India or Africa. Village relationships are closer to first century relationships than that which we witness in large cities today. The concept of a “wireless relationship” through digital smart phone texting (SMS) is not what is meant by the “one another” (relationship) passages of the New Testament. Relationship is defined in the New Testament as personal contact in order to determine if one another’s needs are fulfilled, both physically and spiritually. This can be enhanced by digital communication, but we must always be careful not to allow such communication to be substituted for face-to-face contact. Digital communication should actually bring us closer together, if such is used in reference to the disciples’ connection with one another.

Spiritual growth is directly connected to the relational function of the members of the body of Christ. The following statement defines true relationships that Christians are to have with one another. We do not see smart phones taking the place of Paul’s definition of how Christians are to relate with one another, as he explains in the following statement:

… from whom [Christ] the whole body being fitted and held together by what every join supplies, according to the effective working of each part, causes growth of the body to the edifying of itself in love (Ep 4:16).

This is the relational function of the organic body. We are as the body of Christ, fitted and held together by what we supply to one another. Each part of the body must be working and supplying. And when we are fitted and held together by supplying one another’s needs, then each member is held in fellowship with the whole body. It is then that spiritual growth occurs.

Other than the phrase “one another,” the word “fellowship” is the most common word used in the New Testament to explain the organic function of the body in order that each member spiritually grows.   “Fellowship” is usually the English word that is used to translate the Greek word koinonia. This word has a diversity of meanings, depending on the context in which it is used. However, the word basically means “joint partnership” or “having things in common.”   The context in which the word is used must be the final dictionary to define the word. What is significant about all the contexts in which the word is used, is that the concept of partnership and sharing is always understood.

 A.  Partners in truth:

John explained,

That which we have seen and heard we declare to you so that you also may have fellowship with us, and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ (1 Jn 1:3).

Our fellowship (partnership) with the Father and Son is based on the condition of continuing in the truth. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth (1 Jn 1:6).   John further explained, But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another …” (1 Jn 1:7). We do not understand this to mean that we walk in agreement with some catechism of interpretations with which everyone must agree. The problem with such an interpretation of John’s statement is that too many interpreters want to slip in their favorite interpretations, if not opinions. Since God knew that we would do this—the Pharisees were good at this—then we must conclude that “the truth” must be something that is fundamental and clearly stated in Scripture.   In the context in which John made the statement, the truth of Jesus being the resurrected Son of God was under attack. Therefore, we would conclude that if one did not walk in the truth of the resurrected Son of God, then he had no fellowship with the apostles, or God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Paul may shed some light on this. He wrote concerning our “… fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now …” (Ph 1:5). Those who have obeyed the death, burial and resurrection of the Son of God through immersion in water definitely walk in fellowship with one another. This would be the “truth of the gospel” about which Paul wrote, and was in danger of being compromised in the early years of the existence of the church.   To the Galatians he wrote, “To whom [the ‘circumcision brethren’ of Jerusalem] we did not yield in subjection even for an hour, so that the truth of the gospel might continue with you (Gl 2:5). This truth of the gospel can be compromised. Paul continued to explain to the Galatians concerning the behavior of some Jews in Antioch, “But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel …” (Gl 2:14). It is the word of God that communicates to us the truth of the gospel (Cl 1:5). If we do not behave according to this record of the truth of the gospel, then we have no fellowship with one another. Obedience to the gospel, therefore, is the foundation upon which we have fellowship with one another. This truth of the gospel is revealed in the New Testament. If one is not following the road map of the New Testament, then he cannot obey the truth of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, for such is revealed only in the New Testament (1 Co 15:1-4). He simply will not know what the truth of the gospel is if he does not read his Bible.

Does obedience to the gospel establish an unending fellowship? Certainly not! One may start out his Christian walk in fellowship with God through his obedience to the gospel, but if Jesus’ teaching in John teaches us anything, there are fundamental truths in which one must walk in order to maintain the fellowship we have in our common obedience to the gospel. Jesus said, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My words” (Jn 14:23). It is not difficult to understand this. John explained, “And he who keeps His commandments abides in Him” (1 Jn 3:24). Walking in the light is walking in the truth of Jesus and His commandments.   Jesus simply stated, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly My disciples” (Jn 8:31).

We have been called into fellowship with God through the gospel of the cross and resurrection (2 Th 2:14). Through Jesus on the cross, God calls us into fellowship with His Son (1 Co 1:9). But in order to remain in fellowship with Him, we must walk in the truth. The blessing to our walk in the truth is that we are in partnership with Father (1 Jn 3:24), the Son (1 Co 1:9), the Holy Spirit (1 Co 3:16; 2 Co 13:14), the apostles (1 Jn 1:3), and all other Christians (1 Jn 1:7).

 B.  Partnership in Christ’s suffering:

The Holy Spirit reminded Timothy of one very important principle of living the spiritual life in Christ: “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tm 3:12). If we seek to partner with Christ, then we must partner with Him in His suffering. Notice Paul’s description of this fellowship in his letter to the Philippians:

I want to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being like Him in His death (Ph 3:10).

Most people want “sweet Jesus meek and mild.”   But they forget that “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow His steps (1 Pt 2:21). There is no partnership with Jesus unless we are willing to follow Him in His sufferings, even if these sufferings lead us unto death (Rv 2:10).

Discipleship means suffering. It may not be physical suffering, but indeed, there is at least the suffering that comes from being a nonconformist to the ways of the world.   If we truly know Jesus, then we know that He warned everyone who would dare to claim to be His disciple that they would be hated by the world.

If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. But because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (Jn 15:18,19).

Those who partner with Jesus as His disciples, must partner with His sufferings. We simply need to remember what Jesus said: “If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (Jn 15:20). Someone concluded:

 For every hill I’ve had to climb,

For every stone that bruised my feet,

For all the blood and sweat and grime,

For blinding storms and burning heat,

My heart sang but a grateful song,

These were the things that made me strong.

 If there is no persecution from the world, then we should be cautioned. It may be that we are living according to the world, and the world sees no difference between us and them. It may be that we are silent concerning our beliefs, and thus, the world does not know what we believe. It may be that we have assumed that everyone in the world is saved regardless of whether they believe in Jesus. Or, it may be that all the world is Christian. We think that the latter is not the case, but all the former are true in one’s life if he is not living the life of a disciple.

If we live the life of a disciple, and are headed to eternal glory, then discipleship means sharing what we believe with others. It means rejecting those immoral practices by which the world entertains itself.   Jesus lived in a more religious environment than we do today, and yet, it was the religious world of His day that crucified Him. We thus pause and think about this for a moment. Maybe we have fallen further away from what discipleship means than we think. If there is no persecution from the misguided religious world, then we are probably not engaging the religious world concerning those teachings that are necessary to believe and obey in order to be saved.

 C.  Partnership in burden bearing:

 If we are disciples of Jesus, then there is no such thing as suffering alone. If one is suffering alone, then something is wrong. Either one has separated himself from the fellowship of his fellow disciples, or he is on a long journey among unbelievers. But Christianity is about helping one another through this world.   The definition of “church” is fellowship among those who have partnered in Christ to make sure their journey through this world ends in the eternal presence of the Father. Paul explained, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness …” (Gl 6:1). He continued, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gl 6:2). Paul even wrote a commentary on what we are to do in our fellowship with one another in Christ:

We then who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of the weak and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. For even Christ did not please Himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me” (Rm 15:1-3; see Is 35:3,4).

Christianity is defined by a fellowship of care that people have for one another. Paul concluded his first letter to the newly baptized Thessalonians, “Therefore, comfort one another and edify one another, just as you also are doing” (1 Th 5:11). Even in their newness in the faith, the Thessalonians were “contributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality” (Rm 12:13; see 2 Co 9:12). At the very beginning, Luke defined the organic function of the body in reference to the members’ relational activity with one another: “Now all who believed were together and had all things in common” (At 2:44).   This is the nature of the body of Christ.

 D.  Partnership around the table:

Both Jude and Peter wrote their epistles in the middle or late 60s. In both letters mention is made of the “love feast” (2 Pt 2:13; Jd 12). The love feast was a vital function of the early body of Christ. There is something about eating together that brings people together. So for the first thirty or more years after the beginning in A.D. 30, the early disciples celebrated their common partnership in Christ over a full meal. Their breaking of bread together began in the early days of their fellowship and continued for years (At 2:42,46; 20:7). In fact, the love feast continued among the disciples well into the fourth century.

Because of the nature of the fellowship of the body (Rm 12:13), it was only natural that the early members seek every opportunity to share with one another through food. Though some puffed up Corinthians arrogantly manifested their lack of consideration in how they behaved at the love feast (1 Co 11:17-22), Paul still wanted them to continue eating together. So he gave some basic instructions on how to avoid their confusion.   He instructed them concerning the basic ethics in how to show respect for one another when they came together to eat the love feast. “When you come together to eat,” Paul instruction, “wait for one another” (1 Co 11:33). And if anyone cannot wait to eat at the common love feast, then he should eat something before he comes to the table (1 Co 11:34). If these two simple instructions are honored, then coming together for the love feast accomplishes a great deal in bringing the members of the body together as a family. The love feast becomes the opportunity for spiritual growth. It places spiritually strong Christians in conversational company with weaker brothers. It is a special environment in which the members are bonded together in a social environment of mutual sharing.

The goal of the local members of the body of Christ is to come closer to one another as they come closer to Christ. It is as the spokes of a wheel. Jesus is the hub. As the spokes draw closer to the hub, the closer the spokes come together. Sometimes it is as the fish farmer who had his separate pools of different fish at the bottom of a mountain. Unfortunately, there came a great rain, and subsequent, flash flood. The waters of the flood covered all the individual fish ponds. The different fish in each pond had the opportunity to swim over and enjoy the fellowship of one another’s ponds. Sometimes it takes hardships to bring members out of their independent boxes (ponds) in order that they come together into one family. Every Christian must realize that he or she is not alone in the heat of the battle for Jesus. It is as the Hebrew writer encouraged, “Let brotherly love continue” (Hb 13:1).   We must “love the brotherhood” (1 Pt 2:17). Peter concluded, “Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion one for another. Love as brethren, be kindhearted, humble” (1 Pt 3:8).

4 – ARMOR UP FOR BATTLE

It is in verse 13 of the Ephesian 6 context that Paul begins with a flow of metaphors that explains things one must do to protect oneself spiritually from the religious environment in which he lives. Since we must engage the hostility of “the world forces of darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in high places,” we must take up the whole armor of God (Ep 6:12). If any part of the armor is left off as we suit up for battle, then there is a point of vulnerability in our soul for the attack of the enemy. So the exhortation is “take up the whole armor of God so that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Ep 6:13). The point is that if we do not put on the whole armor, we will fall.

The Holy Spirit certainly knew that evil days were coming in the lives of the Ephesians. The days would be so evil that the Ephesian disciples would be intimidated into leaving their first love. Their loss would be so great that Jesus would later send a personal message to them to remember from where they were fallen, “and repent and do the first works” (Rv 2:5). Therefore, the essentials that are necessary in order not to fall to the enemy of all righteousness is to armor up with the following:

 A.  Gird oneself with the truth.

There is no article before the word “truth” in the Greek text in Ephesians 6:14. Emphasis, therefore, would be on a behavior of life as opposed to a knowledge of an outline of facts on “church doctrine.” John explains that “… if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another ….” (1 Jn 1:7). John expands on this meaning in 2 John 4. “I rejoiced greatly that I found your children walking in truth.” Walking in truth certainly means knowing the word of God, but also, “walking” means behaving. There is no true knowledge of the truth unless one is walking it. And one’s walk is not in the right direction unless he has a knowledge of the word of God.

 B.  Put on the breastplate of righteousness.

The breastplate of the armor served to protect the vital organs of the soldier. Righteousness would mean living right before God. The best way to protect one’s self from falling is to live the life of a disciple. Sitting in endless assemblies listening to preaching and teaching is just not good enough. The fact that assemblies often become less in the number of those who attend lies in the fact that churches have developed an assembliology theology. When preachers who know little Bible see the assembly diminishing, then they need to heed the meaning of the statement that was once said to us by a frustrated member, “We need more Bible teachers and less preachers.”

Assembliology is the teaching that faithfulness is determined by how regular one attends the assemblies of the saints. But Christianity is not simply about assemblies.   It is about living the life of Christ in a relationship with one another on a daily basis. When one is living the life of righteousness, he protects himself from the wiles of the devil. If he gives the presentation of being a saint in an assembly, but lives like the devil after the “closing prayer,” then he is an assembliologist waiting for an opportunity to fall. But if one shows up at the assembly of the saints because he is walking in the light, then he is manifesting his desire to be with those who are also walking in the light. Those who do not show up at the assembly of the soldiers have revealed their lack of commitment to the army of God.

Righteousness means ministry. We must not lead ourselves to believe that assembly will take the place of ministry. If there is no ministry in our lives, then showing up at an assembly of those who also have no ministry in their lives, is like meeting with the dead in a casket, ready for burial. We are too often like the lukewarm Laodiceans who were Christian in name only.   And sadly, they did not know that they were dead. Jesus said of the Laodiceans: But you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked (Rv 3:17). The problem with the religious who are spiritually dead is that they usually do not recognize that they are dead. Sometimes we can be as the Christians in Sardis, “that you have a name that you live, but you are dead (Rv 3:1). What makes us alive is right living. And right living means we are busy in ministry for others.

 C.  Shod one’s feet with the gospel.

When engaging the enemy, the feet must be protected. The feet must stand on firm ground in order that the enemy be engaged with strength. And in the spiritual realm, it is the historical fact of the death of Jesus on the cross and His resurrection for our hope that provides the firm ground upon which our feet can stand. Paul reminded the Corinthians, “I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand (1 Co 15:1). Those who have obeyed the gospel can have confidence in the fact that their feet stand firm on the truth of the gospel. Those who have declared their own salvation before God, without obedience to the gospel, cannot have this confidence. The obedient have a good conscience before God because of their obedience through baptism of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (See Rm 6:3-6).

When one follows the example of Jesus by going to the water to be baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness, then he can have a good conscience before God (See Mt 3:13-17). This is exactly what Peter meant when many years after the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, he wrote the following:

The like figure whereunto even baptism does also now save usnot the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the appeal of a good conscience to Godthrough the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Pt 3:21).

If one follows the good news of Jesus to the cross and to the tomb of immersion for remission of sins (At 2:38), then he can be assured of his salvation in resurrection from the grave of water, after having all his sins washed away (At 22:16). This is shodding one’s feet with the gospel. If one does not obey the gospel (2 Th 1:6-9), then certainly he can have no clear conscience before God in preaching the gospel since he himself has not done all that God has said one must do in order to be saved.

 D.  Take up the shield of faith.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hb 11:1). And for this reason, “this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith (1 Jn 5:4). Through faith the Christian shields himself against doubt and despair. Faith is the fountain from which we drink the sweet savor of our victory over all who would oppose us. In this way, faith is truly a shield. It is a shield of the mind. It is as someone said, “Faith is to accept the impossible, do without the indispensable, and bear the intolerable.” And when the intolerable comes, faith takes us through to victory.   It is like a muscle. It grows only when used. It is also as Spurgeon said, “A little faith will bring your soul to heaven; a great faith will bring heaven to your soul.”

When faith is exercised, it grows. It is for this reason that we must walk by faith, and not by sight (2 Co 5:7). Thomas sought to walk by sight, for he would not believe until he saw and handled the resurrected Christ. Because he did not believe the testimony of others who saw the resurrected Jesus, Thomas said, Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails and thrust my hand into His side, I will not believe” (Jn 20:25). Thomas believed only after Jesus stood before Him.   And when Jesus stood before him and asked him to put forth his hand, finally Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28). What is very encouraging about this incident is not the reaction of Thomas who personally experienced the resurrected Jesus, but what Jesus said of those who do not have the opportunity to walk by sight.

Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (Jn 20:29).

Those who cry out for a miracle are those who are struggling with their faith. Those who seek the appearance of an angel, are also crying out for faith. Thomas walked by sight. Peter walked by sight. All the apostles personally experienced and handled Jesus after His resurrection (See 1 Jn 1:2,3). But we have not. We walk by faith. And it is through our walk by faith that our faith becomes the shield that protects our destiny. We are thus more blessed than the apostles who walked by their sight of Jesus every day. It is for this reason that we do not want the appearance of an angel, nor the dead to rise in our presence. If such were to happen, our blessed faith would be stolen away by sight. We would no longer be blessed because we believe, and yet, have not seen.

E.  Take the helmet of salvation.

Any blow to the soldiers head would render him unconscious or dead. The assurance of our salvation, therefore, keeps us alive. We know that we are saved by grace through faith (Ep 2:8).   Our salvation is not the product of ourselves. It is the gift of God. We are created in Christ for good works, not by good work. And so, we work out our own salvation “with fear and trembling,” not for our salvation (Ph 2:12). In Christ, wherein there is salvation through grace, “we are His workmanship” (Ep 2:10). It is His grace that keeps us alive in Christ. When we take up the helmet of our salvation, we are depending on God, not ourselves in our battle against the spiritual hosts of darkness.

 F.  Take up the sword of the Spirit.

There is no question about the metaphorical meaning of the word “sword” in this statement. The sword is both an offensive and defensive weapon of war.   As the word of God, the sword is defensive in that we are “no longer children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of teaching, by the trickery of men in cleverness to the deceitfulness of error” (Ep 4:14). On the contrary, the word of God is an offensive instrument against all sorts of error.

For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hb 4:12).

Our warfare is real and spiritual.   Christians do not become involved in the carnal warfare of guns and bombs in order to propagate their cause.   Christianity is not a religious/political system as Islam. Paul reminded the Corinthians of this very vital point:

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but powerful through God for the pulling down of strongholds, casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (2 Co 10:3-5).

This is a very powerful statement. It defines our conflict with false religions, oppressive dictators who would lie to the people, and religious/political systems that would impose on us the imaginations of men. When there is no confrontation with evil and error, there is usually no desire to study the word of God. People do not study their Bibles when they are not engaged in spiritual warfare. Too many are not doing as Paul exhorted the Corinthians, that is, being “steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord …” (1 Co 15:58).

When we engage evil and error, we will find ourselves against an entire world of darkness. It is sometimes like a son boasted to his father, “Look dad, I pulled up a great big stalk of maize (corn) by myself.” In order to encourage his son, the father replied, “My, you’re so strong, Tommy.” Then Tommy boastfully replied, “I guess I am, for the whole world had hold of the other end of the stalk.” The whole world is against the disciple of Jesus, and thus, any who would engage the world without a knowledge of the word of God has lost the battle with the first volley of error thrown by the enemy.

Paul exhorted the young Timothy, Fight the good fight of the faith. Lay hold on eternal life to which you were also called …” (1 Tm 6:12). These were not wistful words of someone who had not fought the good fight of the faith himself. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I thus run, not with uncertainty. I thus box, not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection …” (1 Co 9:26,27). And thus after the conflict of engaging the wiles of the devil, the faithful can also say with Paul, I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course (2 Tm 4:7).

John Walker was a young official keeper of the lighthouse on Robin Reef at Staten Island in America. One day he became very ill. A medical boat was immediately dispatched to take him to the hospital. As they were loading him on the boat, he cried out to his wife, Catherine, “Mind the light.”   Unfortunately, Mr. Walker died of his illness. But his wife Catherine minded the light of the lighthouse, keeping ships safe from the treacherous rocks of the reef. She faithfully minded the light for the next thirty years. We are reminded of Jesus’ message to the faithful disciples of Smyrna:

Do not fear those things that you will suffer. Behold, the devil will cast some of you into prison so that you may be tested. And you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life (Rv 2:10).

[Next lecture:  April 16th]

 

3 – MANDATED STRENGTH

Speaking of taking ownership of one’s spiritual strength and growth, here is a command of the Holy Spirit: “… be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might (Ep 6:10). That is not a suggestion. And again He commanded, “… stand firm and hold the traditions that you were taught …” (2 Th 2:15). These statements do not seem like the Holy Spirit is doing the standing, but is holding the individual disciple responsible for being faithful to Jesus. When one wants to shift his ownership of faithfulness to the Holy Spirit, or someone else, then we would suggest that that person read again what the Spirit mandates. Spiritual growth can only be an individual process. It is not something the Holy Spirit will do for us. Others may encourage and exhort us, but it is the individual who must look deep inside and make a decision to grow. If we do not grow, we cannot blame others or the Holy Spirit if we fail.

In reference to the Ephesian disciples, it was not that they were in a religiously soft environment. On the contrary, they lived among some of the most hostile people of the world who were set against Christianity. The temple of Diana (Artemis) was one of the most glorious pagan temples of the ancient world. The worshipers were so fanatical about their religion and temple that they shouted out “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” for two hours when just one Christian was seeking to address the people (At 19:28). Selling idols was a religious business that was associated with the temple (At 19:24,25). And when this business was endangered by the preaching of the gospel, the businessmen of Ephesus rose up against Christianity.

Opposition against Christianity in Ephesus did not cease with the great conversion that took place when Paul initially visited the city (At 19:1-20). On the contrary, the letter of Ephesians was written several years after the mass conversion in order to encourage the Ephesians to be strong in the midst of a religious environment that was truly hostile to Christianity (Ep 6:10). On his last mission journey through the area, Paul encouraged the presbyters of Ephesus and the surrounding cities to “take heed” (At 20:28). They were headed into the stormy clouds of the state persecution of the Roman Empire.   By the time of Jesus’ special messages to the Christians in Ephesus in Revelation 2, it seems that the disciples had been intimidated into leaving their first love of reaching out to the lost (Rv 2:2). They had succumbed to the hostile religious culture in which they lived, and thus, retreated into themselves. They continued with works among themselves (Rv 2:2). They made sure that they were doctrinally correct (Rv 2:2). They tested those who came to them, claiming that they were apostles sent out by the church. They persevered and were patient (Rv 2:3). But still, they had lost their first love by retreating into themselves. So Jesus admonished this intimidated family of disciples, “Therefore, remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the first works” (Rv 2:5).

Now we understand why the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 6:10-13 admonished the Christians in Ephesus to “be strong in the Lord” (Ep 6:10). The Spirit knew what was coming. He knew they were headed for the spiritual state of apostasy by the time of Jesus’ message of Revelation 2:1-7. When we study the context of Ephesians 6:10-13, therefore, we know what one must do in order to guard himself from losing his first love. The mandate of the Spirit is to (1) be spiritually strong, and (2) put on the armor of God in order to stand against the forces of wickedness.

In his book, The Amateur Emigrant, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote,

You cannot run away from a weakness; you must sometimes fight it or perish; and if that be so, then why not now and where you stand?

When the Holy Spirit, through the hand of Paul, wrote the Ephesian letter, He knew where the Ephesian disciples were headed.   They lived in a metropolitan area of over a quarter million people. The society of such a large city was filled with an intimidating religious culture of idol worshipers. It takes little deductive thought to realize that these disciples were headed for trouble.   So the context of Ephesians 6 was to spiritually “muscle them up” for what was coming.

A weak sheep always follows the flock.   And thus, in Acts 20 Paul gave a special message to the leadership of the sheep of God in order that they take heed to their own spirituality. The sheep would stand or fall on the basis of their spiritual leadership. When we read Revelation 2:1-7, we know that the Ephesian leadership did not listen well to Paul’s exhortation in Acts 20, or what he later wrote in Ephesians 6. So we would admonish all those who would presume to lead the sheep. We must listen up, for we will either lead the sheep to slaughter or to glory. We will lead them to retain their first love, or lead them in their fall. It all depends on our spiritual leadership.

A weak Christian is on the verge of falling.   It only takes a little opposition or persecution to offer the weak the opportunity to fall. In order to prevent the fall of the weak, the strong have a special responsibility. They must “receive him who is weak in the faith” (Rm 14:1).

Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted (Gl 6:1).

The strong have the responsibility of watching out for themselves, lest they present a stumbling block over which the weak brethren might fall. Paul admonished the strong, “But take heed lest somehow this freedom of ours becomes a stumbling block to those who are weak” (1 Co 8:9). To the strong, therefore, the Spirit admonishes that they “comfort the fainthearted. Support the weak” (1 Th 5:14).

We can only imagine what it was like for Joshua to stand before a nation of over three million people and deliver the following message of God to Joshua:

Only be strong and very courageous so that you may observe to do according to all the law that Moses My servant commanded you (Ja 1:7).

Without all the written word of God that we have today in the Bible, especially our knowledge of the crucified Son of God, Abraham remained faithful to the call of God. Paul said of him, He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God (Rm 4:20).   What great faith Abraham had in the absence of the evidence we have today. His faithfulness renders all our complaints foolishness. His steadfastness to maintain his calling nullifies all our excuses. His stand makes senseless our fall.

A mother’s little daughter cried out in the middle of the night. The mother came running to the bedside of the daughter and found the daughter lying on the floor. The mother responded to the tears of her daughter, “Susie, what is wrong.” Through her tears, Susie sobbed, “I fell out of bed.   I guess I stayed too close to where I got in.” Sometimes when one is a “weak” Christian, he has actually stayed too close to where he came into Christ.   When there is no spiritual growth, we remain weak, and thus we are without excuse before God if we fall out.   We must remember that there is no final level to spiritual growth that we must reach in this life. We must simply continue to grow spiritually.

Because of the faith of Abraham, and others like him (See Hb 11), Paul felt no inhibitions about demanding of others, “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Tm 2:1). And to some wavering disciples in Corinth, Paul concluded, Stand fast in the faith. Behave like men. Be strong (1 Co 16:13). If any of the disciples in Corinth stumbled over unbelief, then they would have no excuse in judgment, for they would be standing beside such faithfuls as Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and a host of others who had no knowledge of Jesus Christ, but remained faithful.

David Livingstone (1813 – 1873) was a doctor and missionary who journeyed in Africa for sixteen years. He married a wife who did not fall in love with Africa, so she took their children and returned to England. After sixteen years in Africa, Livingstone also returned to England to write a book. David Livingstone, the man about whom no African has ever spoken a harsh word, became famous for his dedication to Africa and his struggle against the slave trade. He stayed his course, and as a result, monuments were made and books were written about his dedication to the continent that he so loved. After his death, the following inscription was written of him:

 He needs no epitaph to guard a name,

Which men shall prize,

while his worthy work is known.

He lived and died for good – be that his fame.

Let marble crumble: this is Living – Stone.

[Next lecture:  April 14th]

2 – ESSENTIALS FOR SPIRITUAL GROWTH

The more we appreciate being a disciple of Jesus, the more we seek to grow closer to Him. And the more we grow closer to Jesus, the more we grow spiritually. In fact, we are often frustrated with ourselves because we sometimes do not see ourselves growing as we think we should. This frustration is good because from our frustration we spur ourselves on to grow. We alert ourselves to dig deep into our hearts in order to find those obstacles we harbor that hinder our spiritual growth.   While we are digging, we must follow certain guidelines. Following these guidelines will help us to dig ourselves out of the hole of spiritual stagnation and lukewarmness.

 A.  Spiritual growth through commitment:

It is a well-known truth that “our strength is shown in what we stand for and our weakness in what we fall for.”   It is as someone said, “Giving God less than our whole lives is robbery.” There is a cost to discipleship. The cost is the totality of our lives. There is no such thing as “holding back” when we define what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus. If there is “holding back,” then there will always be a plateau to our spiritual growth.

 “Seek-first-the-kingdom-of-God-and-His-righteousness” is not a statement that is to be relegated to a Sunday morning “hour of worship” (Mt 6:33). It is a statement that is based on the definition of what Jesus explained was the foundation for all spiritual growth: “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37). It is as someone said, “A Christian should be a walking sermon, a breathing prayer, a living poem, a visible spirit, and a human candle.” Less is not good enough when discussing the life of a disciple of Jesus.

The commitment to spiritual growth that Jesus demands is defined in one statement: “If anyone will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Lk 9:23). The word “cross” in this statement was more than a metaphor. There was a literal cross involved in being a disciple of Jesus in the first century.   The cross was a means by which Rome executed criminals and insurrectionists. The cross meant bearing the burden of a literal cross to one’s own crucifixion.   And when Jesus was bearing His own cross to His own crucifixion, we are sure that this statement of Jesus was burned into the minds of the disciples who looked on in fear. It could be that they too would be burdened with their own crosses as they were crucified as insurrectionists of the Roman Empire.   They surely remembered also the statement of Jesus, “And whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me, cannot be My disciple (Lk 14:27).

The commitment that these statements of Jesus taught and lived should be the foundation upon which all of us must build our faithfulness to Him. When contemplating the magnitude of all that God has done and will do for us, Paul wrote in bold print,

Therefore, I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service (Rm 12:1).

It is “reasonable service” because when we realize the grace of the cross by which we are saved, we should be driven to our knees in appreciation. It is only reasonable that we sacrifice the totality of our lives for Him who sacrificed all for us. Therefore, it is only reasonable to refrain from being “conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind …” (Rm 12:2). As Jesus led by an example of the crucified life before His disciples, so Paul did the same in his life. It is for this reason that Paul could never have been speaking wistful words in the following statement:

I have been crucified with Christ. And it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gl 2:20).

This explains the totality of the committed life.   Anything less, as previously stated, is simply spiritual robbery. Discipleship calls for the maximum that we can give, not minimums by which we believe we can “get by.” There is no joy of just admiring others swim in the deep water of faith, while we are wading around in shallow water. One cannot experience the joy of being a totally committed disciple of Jesus unless he launches out into the deep. No true disciple of Jesus will be known for being such by circumstantial evidence.

(When I was six or seven years old, I desired to learn how to swim. Fortunately, I had an older brother who could lift me above his head. So into the deep water he kept throwing me, while all the time saying, “Swim or drown.” The fact that I am writing these words bears testimony to the fact that I learned how to swim very quickly. The lesson is that we must not complain to God for throwing us into deep water situations where we must learn to grow in faith, or drown for lack of commitment.)

Now some fear and run when they hear phrases such as presenting our lives as “living sacrifices” or “crucified with Christ.” These are statements of total commitment to Jesus. Here is the problem. Those who have an institutional concept of religion confine their faith to a Sunday morning churchianity between an “opening” and “closing” prayer. They are thus fearful about taking their faith outside the “hour of worship,” lest they must assume greater responsibilities for living the committed life. Those who have hired their religiosity to be done for them by the support of a preacher have supposed that they have relieved themselves of any responsibilities outside the “hour of worship.” They are fearful of living the totally committed life of a disciple lest they must behave on the job as they behave in the “church house” on Sunday morning.   Some feel that their business outside the church house is their own, while the “work of the church” belongs to the clergy whom we have supported to tend to our religious affairs.

Now we must be honest with ourselves. Do we really believe that Jesus sacrificed heaven and died on a cross just to purchase us with His blood for “an hour of worship” once a week? Total commitment means that Sunday morning to Sunday morning seven days later belong to Jesus. He bought our lives, not an “hour of worship” on Sunday morning. Our Monday morning on the job is just as important as Sunday morning.   The life of the totally commitment member is not taken off the altar of sacrifice with a “closing prayer.” We cannot be crucified with Christ during a Sunday morning ritual, and then, “uncrucify” ourselves until the next “hour of worship.” Such is only senseless religiosity that we have created after our own desires. We then create a god in our minds whom we believe is satisfied with such “church house Christianity.”

Total commitment means using our business for God.   It means using our jobs for God.   It means we are never “off duty” when it comes to being a disciple. Total commitment means contributing seven days a week. Yes, it can mean that one must give his last two copper coins before the collection plate is passed on Sunday morning. If we pass up the crippled man on the steps of the church house on our way to worship, and hold back our last two copper coins so we can perform a legal act of worship during the “hour of worship,” what spiritual humbugs we are.

 B.  Spiritual growth through work:

Are we saved by good words? Certainly not! But are we saved without good works? Certainly not!

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we should walk in them (Ep 2:10).

Spiritual growth in discipleship means hands-on ministry. There will be no hands without callouses in heaven. All spectators will be in the other place. Someone once said, “Some people are bent with work, others are crooked trying to avoid it.” There is no spiritual growth without personal involvement in work for the Lord.   Therefore, the disciple who wants to find work for Jesus, will find it. But those who do not want to work for the Lord, will find it easier to find an excuse.

It is simply a principle of character development that one must work for that in which he believes. There are no sideline cheering crowds in the church.   Everyone is in the ministry.   Almost a century ago some unknown poet wrote:

 Are you an active member,

The kind that would be missed,

Or are you just contented,

that your name is on the list?

Do you take an active part,

To help the church along,

Or are you satisfied to be,

The kind that “just belongs?”

Think this over, sister, brother,

Are you right or are you wrong?

Are you an active member?

Or do you just belong?

 We need to remember that at the judgment Jesus will not be looking for Bible diplomas, trophies, or medals of honor.   He will be looking for scars, callouses and bruises. He will be rewarding those who experienced the joy of “faith working through love” (Gl 5:6). He will be rewarding those who obeyed the exhortation of James: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (Js 1:22).   When we do His will, then we can be assured that our work is not in vain (1 Co 15:10). Therefore, if we would reap His reward, and we would seek to grow spiritually, then we need to get to work. Idleness produces no spiritual growth. Reward is given only to those who come from the harvest fields.

Work produces spiritual growth. But we sometimes do not mean what we sing, as someone once wrote. We sing “I am thine, Oh Lord,” when really what we mean is “I resign, Oh Lord.” We will sing, “Have thine own way, Lord,” when really we mean, “Have thine own way, Lord, just not today.” And we will sing, “Nearer my God to thee,” when really we are thinking, “Nearer the ball game I would be.” And then we sing, “Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee,” but we are really thinking, “Take my Sundays and let that be, all my service Lord to thee.” And finally, we sing, “Jesus Savior pilot me,” but what we really mean is, “Jesus Savior stop this preacher preaching to me.” Yes, we sing “standing on the promises,” when all we are doing is sittin’ on the premises.

(We once hired a maid to work once a week in the house when my wife was very busy with the ministry of the work. After a short time, the maid observed the physical work that I was doing in the development of the grounds of the AIM campus.   She commented to my wife, “Did your husband grow up on a farm?” She saw in my physical work the spirit of work that only farmers know. I had grown up on a farm, and my father did not have a time to check in and out of work. We worked from early in the morning to the time when the sun had long set over the western horizon, fourteen to sixteen hours a day.   Farmers learn how to work. And in order to grow spiritually, we must learn how to work. And the only way to learn how to work is to get to work. Work is not learned in a classroom seminar on work.

C.  Spiritual growth through fasting:

One characteristic by which Jesus said His disciples would be known runs almost counter to Western culture. Matthew recorded this counterculture identity of the disciples of Jesus:

Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the attendants of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?   But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and then they will fast (Mt 9:14,15).

Those days have come, but there is still little fasting among the disciples of Jesus. Those who live the affluent life find it difficult to fast since their lives are often surrounded with food and eating. Numerous television programs have refined eating to the point that food has almost become the god of the affluent. The marketing of food is so prevalent in our culture that it is almost inconceivable that one would seek times when he would deprive himself of food for spiritual reasons. It may be that the low level of spirituality is signalled by the high volume of food we consume. A society that suffers from obesity is a society that suffers from a lack of spirituality.

The spiritual hunger of those who originally followed Jesus is inspiring. On one occasion, the disciples were so hungry for Jesus that they forgot about eating.

Then Jesus called His disciples to Him, and said, “I have compassion on the multitude because they have continued with Me now three days and have nothing to eat(Mt 15:32).

It seems that our Christian behavior today is somewhat different. When we have a special camp or seminar for Bible study, we even judge the success of the event by the quality and abundance of food we have consumed.   Emphasis seems to be more on the food, than on the spiritual food of the word of God. In fact, if a three-day Bible teaching session were announced, and it was stated that there would be no food served, we doubt if anyone would show up for the seminar. But in the case of the multitudes who followed Jesus, they simply forgot about food because they were so obsessed with His teaching. And if one were following John the Baptist during his ministry, then one would fast. Fasting was a part of the religious culture of the first century.

We are always asked how one should fast.   To ask the question is to betray our lack of fasting. Has fasting disappeared so far from our behavior as disciples that we have simply forgotten how to fast? There is no legal system for fasting. If there were, then fasting would not accomplish its purpose for spiritual growth.   The Pharisees legally fasted twice a week. And so, the disciples came to Jesus and asked Him about the legalities of fasting. In response to their questions, Jesus said, “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting …” (Mt 6:17,18). If one wants to know how to fast, then that is about all he needs to know about fasting. Fasting is about fasting, not about establishing some legal system by which one would fast.

One can abstain from anything of this world that has dominance over our lusts. Some may need to fast from certain foods that they crave. Generally, fasting is from all foods for a period of time, which time is nowhere designated in the Bible. Throughout the Bible, fasting is simply the natural thing to do when one seeks to focus totally on spiritual things. And the fact that we do not fast betrays the fact that we are not focusing on spiritual things as we should. In fact, it could be said that one will always be frustrated with his spiritual growth until he starts fasting. It is only in the midst of an extended fast that one begins to understand the reason for fasting. When we start obsessing over spiritual food, instead of carnal food, then we are on our way to great spiritual growth.

 D.  Spiritual growth through prayer:

When one stops praying, he has really stopped believing. We must always keep in mind that nothing lies outside the power of prayer except that which lies outside the will of God for our lives. Jesus promised, “… whatever things you desire, when you pray, believe that you receive them and you will have them (Mk 11:24). “Ask, and it will be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened to you” (Mt 7:7). It is for this reason that we “pray without ceasing” (1 Th 5:17). And it was for this reason that Paul wanted “men to pray in every place” (1 Tm 2:8).

Someone once said, “Desire is the engine of destiny, but the engineer is prayer.” We must never forget that “the prayer of a righteous man accomplishes much” (Js 5:16). We are convinced that Epaphras was a disciple who truly believed in the power of prayer. When he was with Paul in a Roman prison, Paul wrote back to his home town, and reminded the Colossian disciples that Epaphras was “always laboring fervently for you in prayers” (Cl 4:12).

The fervent manner of our prayer is indicated by our fasting. When Paul and Barnabas designated elders in every city of Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, they, with all the brethren “prayed with fasting” (At 14:23). Paul instructed husbands and wives concerning times when they could given themselves to fasting and prayer (1 Co 7:5). When fasting is connected with prayer, great things will begin to happen in reference to our spiritual growth.

The intensity of our prayers is manifested through fasting. Prayer without fasting often becomes habitual, and soon empty. Jesus explained to the disciples that some things just do not happen without “prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:21). Anna was known for serving God “with fastings and prayers night and day” (Lk 2:37). Fasting and prayer is a ministry that is often neglected, but one that brings awesome results in the life of a disciple.

Christians who are struggling to grow spiritually are never satisfied with their prayer life. One way to deal with this frustration is to add fasting to our prayers.   Spiritually minded people always know that they need to spend more time in talking with the Father. But our minds are often distracted from our concentration on that for which we need to pray. We are distracted by a heavy schedule of activity. We are distracted by a host of things that Satan would use to keep us from talking to our Father. This is when the example of Jesus should come into action in our lives.

Now it came to pass in those days that He went out into a mountain to pray. And He continued all night in prayer to God (Lk 6:12).

It was certainly the circumstances surrounding Jesus at this time in His ministry that hindered His prayers. His only escape was a mountain, a place where there were no people. And in order to clear our minds from pressing job circumstances, the demands of a business, or simply people, we must look for a mountain. If we cannot find a mountain, then we must find a desert or forest or beach, some place where we are alone with God. When our prayer life begins to grow, then we know that we are spiritually growing. We must keep in mind that fasting focuses our prayers. Our spiritual growth is measured by our fasting and prayer life.   Those who realize this are always conscious about their time that they spend in fasting and prayer.

 E.  Spiritual growth through evangelism:

Remember the Ephesian Christians who were active in their business with themselves (See Rv 2:2)? They were busy with themselves, and thus had become introverted in their focus. Jesus pronounced the judgment that they had left their “first love” (Rv 2:4).   That first love was manifested in the evangelistic activity at the beginning of their Christian journey (See At 19). So Jesus called on them to “remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the first works …” (Rv 2:5).

Someone wisely wrote, “When a church is chiefly concerned with its own preservation, it has ordered its tombstone.” When the leaders submit to the whims of those who state, “I get nothing out of the worship,” then we know that we are in trouble.   Introverted disciples complain about not getting something. Spiritual disciples are concerned about not putting enough in. Christianity is not about what we get, but what we give.   This mental attitude must be manifested in everything that defines who we are as disciples of Jesus.

We know the mandates: “… disciple all the nations” (Mt 28:19). “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15).   But in knowing we must not forget doing. We must learn how to forget ourselves in reaching out to others. James’ words would be appropriate here. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (Js 1:22). If one claims to be a disciple of Jesus, and believes the great commission of Jesus, but is not doing the commission, then he has deceived himself into thinking that he is a disciple of the One who gave the commission.

God “has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Co 5:19). If a soul is lost to whom we could have preached the word of reconciliation, then on whose shoulders will that lost soul rest? (See Ez 3:18,19). “We are ambassadors for Christ,” and thus, if we are not taking the word of the One who sent us into all the world, then we are masquerading ourselves as His ambassadors. What good is an ambassador who holds up in his mission station without telling the nation in which he lives that he represents the God of heaven?

Spiritual growth is the serendipity of living for others. The more we serve the needs of others, the more we service our spiritual growth. There is simply no other way to grow spiritually as a disciple of Jesus than to give oneself to others.

 F.  Spiritual growth through sacrifice:

Remember the words of the old song,

All to Jesus I surrender,

All to Him I freely give.

I will ever love and trust Him,

In His presence daily live.

All to Jesus I surrender,

Humbly at His feet I bow.

Worldly pleasures all forsaken,

Take me Jesus, take me now.

All to Jesus I surrender,

Lord, I give myself to thee.

Fill me with Thy love and power,

Let Thy blessing fall on me.

 We remember the song, but when was the last time the song came from our lips and lives? Spiritual growth as a disciple of Jesus means to be willing to work and give, spend and be spent for Jesus. We must remember that the first and great commandment of the law is to “love the Lord your God with all” our heart, soul and mind (Mt 22:36-38).

There is no discipleship without sacrifice (Lk 9:23). This is true since the nature of sacrifice produces spiritual connectivity with Jesus. He was all about sacrifice. And the closer we move to truly making sacrifices for Him, the closer we move to His character. This was illustrated in the old preacher’s story about the hen and the hog. The hen bragged about giving eggs every day to feed the master. Not a day went by when she did not brag to the hog about her sacrifice of eggs for the master. But the hog replied to the hen, “What may be a trivial sacrifice for you is a lifetime commitment for me.”

Therefore, “let each one give according as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver (2 Co 9:7). It is not that we give until it hurts. Disciples give until it feels good. If we seek God’s love, then sacrificial giving gets His attention. The word “sacrifice” in our giving reveals that the giving truly originated from our hearts. There need be no heart in legal giving. But when our giving becomes sacrificial, then our spirituality is revealed. It is then that we truly love because He truly loved us by giving His Son (Jn 3;16; 1 Jn 4:19).

[Next lecture:  April 12th]

 

1 – NONESSENTIALS FOR SPIRITUAL GROWTH

We must not think that Satan is not aware of our desire to grow closer to God. So in order to divert Christians from that which they seek to do, that is, spiritually growing, we must assume that he is throwing out as many spiritual detours as possible that appear to produce spiritual growth, but actually lead one further away from God. If Satan can convince us that we are spiritually growing according to his devices, then he has us in his grasp. The one caught in the trap of spiritual nonessentials will be detoured from true spiritual growth simply because he believes he is growing according to the will of God.

In order to grow the organic body of Christ worldwide by developing spiritual giants among the members, the following are not needed:

 A.  Wealthy people:

It is often the curse of wealth to divert one’s mind from that which encourages spiritual growth. Jesus warned that in one’s pursuit of wealth “no man can serve two masters” (Mt 6:24). There is the master of wealth, and there is the Master of creation. It is simply an axiomatic truth that “you cannot serve God and wealth” (Mt 6:24). In other words, the same level of commitment that God demands to grow spiritually cannot be placed with equal focus on the things of the world.

If one would be a spiritual giant, then his focus for growth must be on spiritual things. Spiritual giants are totally focused on God. They are totally committed to His will. They are successful in business because they focus their business on bringing glory to God. What Jesus was saying in the preceding statements was that the intensity of focus that is needed to grow spiritually as God would have us grow, cannot be split between two objectives. The intensity of our focus cannot be both on God and on wealth.   Therefore, one has to make a decision, “for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Mt 6:24). In order to “despise” wealth, Paul explained, Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth (Cl 3:2).

How many times throughout our ministry have we heard someone who said, “I want to make money so I can support the preaching of the gospel.” And in the pursuit of money, the one who had a noble goal lost his direction when he was consumed by wealth. The money consumed his life by consuming his thinking. In order to make the wealth, he had to totally focus on the things of this world. And in focusing on the things of this world, he lost his spiritual dedication to accomplish spiritual things.

A good Nigerian friend once explained to us that there are some cultures in Nigeria whose total goal in life is to make money. Everything that is done is based on the world view that wealth is to be accumulated. And in the pursuit of such, dishonesty and extortion are justified. One does not have to be totally honest with others in order that wealth be acquired. This desire for wealth is manifested in the lives of many of the present religious leaders of the nation. Their religion is often “miracles for money.” They preach a gospel of prosperity in order to exploit the poor into giving their livelihood into their bank coffers. They have deceived the innocent into thinking that they too will be blessed with large houses and vehicles if they would only give more.

The fact is that wealth is simply not a means by which one can spiritually grow. Jesus stood beside a poor widow who contributed her last two copper coins to pay the temple tax (Lk 21:2). At the same moment, the rich gave out of their abundance (Lk 12:4). They gave out of their leftovers. But Jesus said of the poor widow that “she out of her poverty has put in all the livelihood that she had (Lk 12:4).   If by chance the rich who contributed would lose all their wealth, except for their last two copper coins, we wonder if they too would have contributed these last two coins as the poor widow? If they could not, then in Jesus’ testimony of the two contributors, who was the more spiritually minded? Sometimes, opportunities as this manifest the true heart of the rich.

Could some “prosperity preachers” make the statement Peter made to the poor cripple who sat at the gate of the temple called, Beautiful, “Silver and gold I do not have …” (At 3:6)? We would conclude that wealth has absolutely nothing to do with spiritual growth. If we were to take Jesus’ statement in Matthew 6:24 seriously, then we would be very cautious about the desire to be wealthy. We must never forget the burning statement of Jesus in Matthew 16:26:

For what will it profit a man if he will gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

 We have our opinion about the religious Pharisees of Jesus’ time. We would say that they were generally not very spiritual people. In Luke 16:14 the Holy Spirit explained why: “And the Pharisees were lovers of money ….”

There are few among us who can be spiritual giants, while at the same time, be wealthy. But there are those who can. Gaius was such a person in the first century. In fact, John prayed of Gaius, “Beloved, I pray that in all things you may prosper and be in health, just as your soul prospers” (3 Jn 2). John could pray that Gaius prosper because Gaius had already cast in his two copper coins for kingdom business. He was supporting evangelists as they went forth to preach the gospel (3 Jn 6-8). We would conclude, therefore, that if one has not dedicated his business to the preaching of the gospel to the world, then he should not expect God to bless his business.

Regardless of where one is in his relationship to the wealth of the world, he must always remember that the One he proclaims as his Savior did not have a fox hole in which to sleep at night (Mt 8:20). From the rich to the poor among us, we must read again of the first converts of the city of Philippi. Paul later wrote of them, “that in great trial of affliction, the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty, abounded in the riches of their liberality” (2 Co 8:2). The physical poverty of the Philippians did not hinder their spiritual wealth, and thus, they gave of their wealth. It was out of their deep physical poverty that they were freely willing to give to the needs of others.

B.  Famous people:

Remember Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:5: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”? We remember sitting as a young preacher many years ago before an aged preacher of the gospel. The aged preacher, Gus Nichols, told a story that many years before the parents of a very talented son, came with their son for his advice. The parents were members of the Lord’s church, and thus asked brother Nichols, “Should we encourage our son to go into the entertainment business because he has such a great voice?” Bother Nichols said, “You are a good Christian family, and it seems that your teenage son is a strong Christian. I suppose he might be able to survive the music/film industry.”

The son did not. Brother Nichols said to everyone in the seminar, “I have come to the conclusion that no young Christian can spiritually survive the music/film industry.” And he was right.   Remember Whitney Houston? She, as many other young people, started singing in church choirs, and then went into the professional music/film industry and lost their way. And in the case of Houston, ended up dead.

If a young person thinks that he or she can grow spiritually by being famous, then they have allowed the Devil to deceive them into believing a great lie. Their youthful ambitions to be somebody famous will often lead to their spiritual doom. One cannot become a spiritual giant by narcissistically focusing on himself or herself every day. It is best to be an opera singer in the shower than a spiritually dead and fallen saint singing before millions. So if a young person would come to us and ask if they should pursue fame in the music/film industry, we would suggest that they bury their ego in Christ and His word and follow the advice of the Holy Spirit:

Flee also youthful lusts. But pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart (2 Tm 2:22).

We know of few in the music/film industry who pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace. One does not become a spiritual giant by looking at oneself in the mirror every day to see if he or she is pretty enough to go on stage.   Therefore, follow in the company of those “who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”

 C.  Multitudes of people:

 When God starts something big, He starts small.   Adam and Eve were sufficient to populate the earth. Noah and his family were sufficient to repopulate the world. Abraham and Sarah alone would do the job of creating a nation (Gn 12:1-4). And in order to take the gospel into all the world, twelve men were sufficient to begin the process. God’s work is manifested in small numbers lest men take credit for His work.

In Judges 7 God wanted to deliver His people from the oppression of the Midianites. Gideon was called to accomplish the deliverance. And as most men who have little confidence in God working through them, Gideon proceeded to assemble a massive army. So 32,000 men were called to battle. But God said to Gideon, “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give the Midianites into their hands” (Jg 7:2).   They were too many lest Israel exalt themselves against Me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me’” (Jg 7:2). When God wants the glory, men should back off from taking ownership of something He has done or is doing through them. God is working through the church of His Son’s people. The church, therefore, should be very careful about doing anything by which we as the church seek to glorify ourselves. God does not receive the glory when the people He uses to glorify Himself steal the glory for themselves. We are to do things in the name of Christ, not the name of the church (Cl 3:17).

So God commanded Gideon to say to the men, “Whoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart early from Mount Gilead” (Jg 7:3). And a wave of 22,000 men headed home. Only 10,000 remained. But “the Lord said to Gideon, ‘The people are still too many’” (Jg 7:4). Then the Lord told Gideon to take the men to a river to test whether some would lap the water as dogs or bow down and cuff their hand to drink from their hand. At the end of the test, Gideon ended up with only 300 men. Then God told Gideon, “Arise, get down to the army [of the Midianites], for I have delivered it into your hand” (Jg 7:9). And you know the rest of the story. With only 300 men, God delivered a whole army into the hands of Israel. When God goes to work for you, do not expect failure.

 “What will we then say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rm 8:31). We do not need a great number of people to accomplish in our lives that which God expects us to do as a group of disciples. It is as what Paul stated, “But in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Rm 8:37). A handful of spiritual giants can accomplish greater things than a church house full of lukewarm “pew packers.”

When faith-driven people come together to accomplish the will of God, nothing will be withheld from them (See Gn 11:6).   Christians must have a positive mental attitude about what they can do both individually and as a group. They must be as positive as the spiritual giant who wrote from a prison cell, I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Ph 4:13). When Christ-strengthened people determine to serve the Lord, nothing less than great things will be the end result of their labors. We must not, therefore, deceive ourselves into thinking that we need a great host of people to accomplish any task that is set before us. A few Spirit-filled people will do. In fact, one spiritual giant trusts in the God who can do “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us (Ep 3:20). We must just read our Bibles about the life of Paul, and then proceed to Hebrews 11, in order to survey the spiritual giants of the Old Testament who did unimaginable things because of their faith. We can read about the spiritual giants in Hebrews 11, but the fact is that we can be the same.

 D.  Educated people:

Some societies move into glorifying an elite of educated people who must lead the way in all things. This is especially a problem in the realm of our faith. For example, some church organizations do not consider something “intellectual” or truly valid unless a proclamation comes forth from their fellowship of Bible college professors. We know we are in trouble when we allow the educated professionals among us to be the authoritative interpreters of the word of God.

Secular education is great, and God can use those who are educated in the disciplines of the world. But we must not lead ourselves to believe that education grows the church. In fact, the church grew the fastest in history when it had the least number of educated members. Even among the leaders of the disciples, the world perceived the following of them:

 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they marveled (At 4:13).

The religious leadership of Jerusalem marveled at the wisdom and teaching of Peter and John. They did not marvel because the two apostles had diplomas and degrees on which their names were written. They marveled in the fact that these two men knew Jesus and the word of God they were speaking to the people. Their education was not in the disciplines of scholarship and universities of this world. It was in Jesus and the message of the gospel.

In reference to educated men, we must remember a truth about which Paul wrote. He reminded the puffed up Corinthians “that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called” (1 Co 1:26).   Because men often puff themselves up with their education, he continued,

But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.   And God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things that are mighty (1 Co 1:27).

“For since in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of preaching” the gospel to save the lost (1 Co 1:21). For this reason, Paul “determined not to know anything among you [Corinthians] except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Co 2:2).

We often puff ourselves up with our clergy who hang degrees on their office walls in order to set themselves apart from those who know only their Bibles. In fact, this practice has become so acute among some disciples that one cannot preach for some groups of disciples unless he has a Master’s Degree or Doctorate.   We feel that we have digressed from the simplicity of the gospel when we seek to validate our status among those of the world by our “degreed” preachers. The work of preaching the gospel is not in the number of diplomas and degrees one can hang on his office wall. It depends on the degree one knows the word of God. After all, it was God Himself who called some people “more noble minded” because they simply studied their Bibles (At 17:11). We will take a noble-minded Bible student in the bush any day over a clergyman who knows only theology, but no Bible.

If one feels that he must have a diploma or degree in Bible in order to preach the gospel, then he has fallen for the deception of trying to be validated by diplomas and degrees, and not by how well he knows the Scriptures. If one feels that he has no respect from the people because he has no Bible diploma or degree, then it is not he who has the problem. It is the people who have fallen from a respect for one who knows his Bible. Every noble-minded Bible preacher must never forget what Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 4:3.

For the time will come when they will not endure sound teaching. But to suit their itching ears, they will surround themselves with teachers who will agree with their own desires.

It is the people who seek the feel-good preachers who preach feel-good lessons. When the people fall from their love of the word of God, they will not seek Bible preachers. They will seek speakers who make them feel good in their apostate state of lukewarmness.

We simply must never forget that the church grew the fastest when there were only uneducated and common people leading it who knew only Jesus and His word.

 E.  Misdirected spiritual growth:

This is a sensitive subject. And the fact that it is sensitive magnifies the problem itself. We have convinced ourselves that church ownership of a building is somehow conducive to the spiritual growth of the church. Throughout the years we have been sent numerous pictures of incomplete church buildings. The ones who send the pictures feel that they are growing because they are laying bricks upon one another.   And if we would only help them financially to complete the brick stacking, then they would be validated as a strong “church” in the community. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the more we feel that a physical building produces the spiritual growth of the church, the less it does when the building is completed.

The day when we turned from focussing on one another in order to take pride in brick and bamboo was the day we started taking our minds off that which produces true spiritual growth. We do not forget the psychological influence a church building has over the people. If we ignore this influence in leading the family of God to greater spiritual levels, we will always be leading with a crippled vision to restore fully the people’s focus on Jesus and one another. When men started referring to the “church” as the building, then we knew that our focus on brick and bamboo was redirected from the people as the church to bricks and bamboo.

As we journey through some thoughts on this subject, those who are convinced that a purpose-built facility for the purpose of worship is absolutely necessary to produce spiritual growth, will most certainly accuse us of being against the church owning its own buildings. But again, the accusation is evidence of the fallacy we have led ourselves to believe. The greater the accusations, combined with the obsession to have a “church building,” the greater the magnitude of the problem.

We must remember that Jesus established the context for this discussion by saying,

But the hour is coming and now is when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such to worship Him (Jn 4:23).

This truth was made on the foundation of what Jesus previously said to the Samaritan woman who stated, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and You say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (Jn 4:20). But she was thinking in her past and present context. She was thinking carnally by trying to place the worship of the Samaritans on “this mountain” and “the place” of the worship of the Jews in Jerusalem.   But now focus on Jesus’ answer.

Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem worship the Father (Jn 4:21).

What Jesus was saying is that there would never again be a place of worship for the true worshipers of God.   True worshipers of God worship wherever they are and whenever they can. There is no such thing as “a place of worship” for Christians. When we are in discussions concerning the worship of the disciples of Jesus, “sanctuaries” and “temples” have no relevance. Though Christians have the right to build facilities for printing, Bible classes, schools and benevolence, building facilities does not build the church spiritually. If we attach spiritual growth to brick and mortar, then we are in trouble.

We must keep in mind that the body of Christ was born out of an era when there was no such thing as a “church building.”   In fact, church buildings did not exist in the history of the church until Emperor Constantine of Rome sought to bring Christianity into conformity with the pagan religions of the Roman Empire.   Since the pagan religions had their temples, then he thought the Christians should also have their “temples.”   So in A.D. 323 he requisitioned the building of the first church building for the church. And from that time, the craze to have our own church building was started and perpetuated throughout history. The craze is so intense today that people do not consider a group of disciples to be a true established church unless they have their own church building. We have found that in some places this obsession has so misguided the people, that the people are left without copies of the Bible, while at the same time they are buying bricks and mortar to build a church building. We would build our buildings, but we would first make sure everyone has a copy of the Bible before we lay the first brick.

In the first three hundred years of the existence of the body of Christ, the function of the body was not confined to either a place or building. And yet, these were the times in which the church grew the fastest in history because it was growing spiritually. Therefore, we must dispense with this notion that church buildings cause spiritual growth.   Such thinking is totally contrary to what the Holy Spirit said in the following statement:

… from whom the whole body being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working of each part, causes growth of the body to the edifying of itself in love (Ep 4:16).

When we consider the worship of the children of God, we must not forget that worship is “neither here nor there.” The problem with establishing a “place of worship,” is that when we are in another place we feel that we are not in the right place of worship. Jesus explained to the Samaritan woman that there was a paradigm shift coming. And it came that “in every place” a child of God can worship. It seems that in these days religious leaders are trying to return to the old paradigm from which Jesus delivered the true worshipers of God.

The Christian’s worship is not confined to a location or restricted to specific times. We must keep in mind that the more we seek to have a church building in order to cause the growth of the church, the less the growth is when we get one. The church of the West has surrounded itself with some of the most beautiful buildings in the world.   And yet, the church of the West is declining in members on an annual basis. If having a church building produces spiritual growth, then the Western church has certainly failed spiritually. We have seen too many church buildings being sold to be warehouses or for demolition because those who were seated in them had confined their religiosity to a tomb of four walls. We must not be detoured by Satan into believing that his detours are necessary for spiritual growth.

[Next lecture:  April 10th]

 

Introduction

 When Paul sat and leaned over a table to pen his final words to some disciples with whom he had spent three years of his life in ministry of the word, he remembered the last words he had spoken personally to them many years before: “For I know this, that after my departure grievous wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock” (At 20:29). Years later after this personal encounter with the Asian presbyters, he penned a letter to the same men, “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (Ep 6:10).

After Paul’s personal meeting with the leaders from Ephesus in Acts 20, he knew that there was danger looming in the near future of the disciples of Asia. It was less than ten years after Paul wrote the Ephesian exhortation that Jesus sent a personal message of judgment to the same disciples in Ephesus. “I have this against you, that you have left your first love (Rv 2:4). From the time of his personal exhortation in their presence in Acts 20, to the time Jesus judged them to have fallen from their first love in Revelation 2, it was less than twenty years. From the time of their mass conversion and excitement for Jesus that was recorded by Luke in Acts 19, to their fall that is recorded in Revelation 2:4, it was about thirty years. This is about the lifetime of a disciple. It could have been that those who were very young in Acts 19 lived to hear Jesus’ judgment of them in Revelation 2. There is one very clear and important lesson we learn from the Ephesian Christians: No matter how excited one might be at the time of his conversion to Jesus, he can lose that excitement, and subsequently lose his salvation within the period of a lifetime. The history of the Christians in Ephesus is a lesson in the rise and fall of a working faith.

No one is saved without the possibility of losing his first love. The belief that once one is saved and is unable to fall from his first love, is Satan’s effort to produce within us a false sense of salvational security.   And once the false sense of security is produced, then we have set ourselves up to fall. If one convinces himself that he cannot fall, then he can convince himself that he can harbor all sorts of sinful beliefs and behavior, while at the same time, remain within the grace of God. Jude warned of this when he warned of some Christians “who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness …” (Jd 4).

Knowing that we can fall from the grace of our Lord Jesus, we give the more earnest heed to those things that were spoken by Him.   Knowing that dark days of rebellion could come in our lives, we do as Peter exhorted, “… to take heed, as to a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises …” (2 Pt 1:19). We earnestly contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jd 3). We do such on the promise of the Holy Spirit that He made through Peter:

Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, for an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pt 1:10,11).

Paul would thus exhort us, as he did the Ephesians, to be strong (Ep 6:10). He said the same to the Corinthians:

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord (1 Co 15:58).

We would guard ourselves from falling from the Lord. And in guarding ourselves, we give the more earnest heed to spiritually grow in doing the will of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is what produces the type of character that is conducive to developing spiritual giants. God knew this when He admonished the Israelites at the time they were about to enter into the land of promise.   In reference to the law that He had given to them through the hand of Moses, He exhorted,

Only be strong and very courageous so that you may observe to do according to all the law that Moses My servant commanded you. So do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may prosper wherever you go (Ja 1:7).

Individual members make up the universal body of Christ.   As the Holy Spirit took the hand of Luke to give us in the book of Acts a heavenly view of the function of this body on earth, He focused on individuals who remained faithful and functional to the Lord. As these individual disciples implemented in their lives those essential characteristics that produce spiritual giants, Luke takes us on a literary journey of what causes the body to grow as a whole. By emphasizing those essentials that make the body grow organically, we conclude that there are things that are not necessary for personal spiritual growth.   Avoiding the nonessentials for spiritual growth will keep us on the right road. On our way to spiritual growth, we must always assume that Satan will seek to detour us by offering alternative routes. By understanding what is necessary to produce spiritual giants, we determine those things that are Satan’s detours. They are his efforts to keep us as far as possible away from God.

The mandate from Jesus is to grow spiritually as individual members of the body. And when we spiritually grow as members of His body, the universal body grows. In order to reach the mountain peaks of spiritual growth, we must not be deceived into taking those paths that Satan offers that actually hinder our growth.

[Next lecture:  April 8th]

Laodicea

MESSAGE TO LAODICEA

 Laodicea was founded by the Seleucid King Antiochus II in the third century B.C. It was named after his wife, Laodice (261-256 B.C.). The riches of the city came from its location, for it was situated on one of the great Asian trade routes. It was a very prosperous city, and thus, a banking center for many traders who passed through the city. After the great earthquake of A.D. 60, the banking firms were so wealthy that they financed the rebuilding of the city. In the rebuilding of the city, the banks even refused to receive funding from Nero. As a result of its wealth, it developed a culture of aristocracy and a social class that was based on wealth. There was a spirit of self-sufficiency among the residents since they trusted in their great wealth. Probably no other church of the seven that Jesus addressed, better represents the business and social environment of the modern urban church.

The Lycus Valley was pasture land for a black sheep that produced a glossy black wool, from which stylish coats and carpets were made. The city became known for this wool and the garments of the black wool industry. There was also a medical school in the city, as well as an industry for the manufacture of collyrium, a well-known eye salve of the times.

The unfortunate thing about Laodicea’s location was that there was no sufficient local water supply within the city.   Water was thus channeled to the city from hot springs some distance south of the city. But because of the heat of the water at its source, it arrived in the city lukewarm, and thus, it still had to be cooled in order to be consumed.

Since the society was one of business and banking, there was a spirit of compromise within the culture that was necessary for business. As in today’s urban centers, a great deal of time had to be spent in being successful in one’s business.   In some cases, cities are so large together that surviving within them as a Christian is challenging. In the case of Laodicea, the competitive business culture of the city led the Christians into a spiritual indifference that labelled them to be the “lukewarm church.” As a result of their little focus on spiritual things, the disciples of the area manifested indifference in reference to their faith. The result was the eventual disappearance of the church from the area. The disappearance of the church was as the history of the city. The ancient city of Laodicea was eventually abandoned.

 A.  Description of the Christ:

Jesus’ introduction of Himself to the lukewarm Laodicean disciples is meant to remind them of who He is. If they would recall the One after whom they were originally called, then they should be shocked into remembering that this is not “sweet Jesus, meek and mild.” This was their Creator, the One before whom all men will eventually give account for the works done in the body, whether good or bad (2 Co 5:10). This is the One who will eventually make the final pronouncement to the apathetic, “Depart from Me you cursed into everlasting fire that is prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41). These spiritually indifferent disciples needed to be shocked out of their lukewarmness and into the reality that King Jesus is not playing religious games.

1.  Jesus is the revealed “truth.”   Isaiah identified God as “the God of truth” (Is 65:16). It was indeed appropriate, therefore, for Jesus to make the statement during His ministry, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). “Jesus said to those Jews who believed in Him … you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31,32). What He was saying was that they would know Him, and it would be Him who would set them free.

Contrary to the thinking of many, Jesus was not talking about a body of doctrine that they would know. Knowing “the Truth” must be interpreted in the context of what John wrote at the very beginning of his dissertation to explain who Jesus was:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:1,14).

Throughout His ministry, it was the work of Jesus to explain that He was “the Truth,” “the Word” that was revealed to man. Jesus was the revelation of “the God of truth.”   To know “the Truth” was to know “the Word.” And to know the Word, was to know a personality, not an outline of doctrine on a piece of paper.

When Jesus said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9), He was saying that in person He was the revelation of the true God of heaven. It is for this reason, therefore, that any religionist who does not recognize Jesus as the Word (the Truth) who reveals the true God, has simply created a god after his own imagination. When Jesus addressed the Laodicean disciples, He claimed to be the true revelation of the God of heaven (Rv 3:14). In order to deliver the Laodicean Christians out of the stupor of their lukewarmness, they had to again realize that the One they claimed to follow was the revelation of the God of all things. Their lukewarmness resulted from their “lukewarm” understanding of who Jesus really was.

The Hebrew word for the Greek word that is translated “Amen” means “truth.” It is a Hebrew word that was not literally translated into the Greek Septuagint, and then into English. When the Jews heard the cry, “Amen,” they understood that what an individual was saying was, “Truth.” In the same sense, the English word “Amen” should convey the same meaning when one says “Amen” to a statement with which one agrees to be “truth.” Jesus is the Truth who will set us free and keep us free.   If we lose sight of who He is, then our flame will flicker out.

 2.  Jesus was the origin of creation. Jesus is “the ruler of the creation of God” (Rv 3:14).   In other words, when creation began, it was the Son of the Godhead who began and completed all creation.

For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him (Cl 1:16).

Because He was the Creator, Jesus was the one who had all the rights of a firstborn son. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation (Cl 1:15). He was not a creation of God, but was one with God. He was the origin of all that now exists. And since He created us, He took ownership of our existence through incarnation. He emptied Himself of being on a equality with the Godhead in order to come for us (Ph 2:5-11).

We must leave a note here for those interpreters who have somehow twisted the Revelation 3:14 statement into some fantasy that Jesus was a created being of God. This interpretation was based on a weak translation of Revelation 3:14.   Some versions translated the verse in a manner that somewhat indicated that Jesus was “the beginning” of the creation of God. This translation gave the impression that Jesus was first created, and then the rest of the material world was created.

If Jesus were a created being, then Paul’s statement of 1 Timothy 2:5 means nothing: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” If Jesus were a creation as any man, then there would be no mediatorship between created man of the material world and God who is spirit (Jn 4:24). He would be no greater than any other man who was created, and thus, He could not function as a mediator between that which is spirit and that which is material.   That which is material cannot mediate on its own behalf. If man, who is material and mortal, could mediate on his own behalf, then why would we need Jesus, if He too were only mortal and material? If a material and mortal mediator would do, then any other good mortal and material created man would do, maybe Abraham, or Isaiah, or Paul.   But to create from dust a mediator between Deity and dust is simply the manifestation of biblically challenged interpreters.

B.  Pronouncement of judgment:

 The condemnation of the disciples in Laodicea is harsh. The severity of the judgment portrays a fellowship of Christians who seem to be past repentance, though a plea is made by Jesus to “be zealous and repent” (Rv 3:19).   Whether the stark rebuke of this message generated repentance, we do not know. What is important to understand is that Jesus picked out these disciples as an opportunity to manifest His condemnation of lukewarmness that so often affects so many members of the body. As we study through His message to these disciples, we must be on our knees in prayer to perceive, if perhaps, we too are of those to whom the message in directed.

It is as if Jesus were speaking to the normal metropolitan church today that is composed of those who have been lured into a world of materialism. Laodicea would be the example of the urban church that has laid itself in the tomb of mediocrity, but at the same time, claims to be the representation of the body of Christ in the community. This is a message that is seldom heard from the pulpits of pastoral prophets of urban churches. Even those churches that take pride in being doctrinal soundness will seldom turn to this message to the Laodicean Christians as a point of reference to define true discipleship.   After all, if we can take pride in our doctrine, then what need is there to check our behavior with a faith that should be working through love. If our contribution is up, then why would we say anything to discourage the rich contributors. A great deal of pride in one’s doctrine will often lead one to overlook a great deal of lukewarmness.

 1.  “You are lukewarm”: It is true that the more wealthy one becomes, the more he is likely to fall into the sin of apathy in reference to spiritual matters. Since one’s focus and energy must be placed on the world in order to generate the wealth of the world, then one’s focus and energy are directed to the things of the world. They are thus directed away from Christ. For this reason Jesus stated,

No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Mt 6:24).

The lethargic Laodicea church is proof of this truth. Split loyalty will not work if one seeks to be a dedicated disciple. It is as Jesus said, He who is not with Me is against Me.   And he who does not gather with Me, scatters” (Lk 11:23). If one is not totally committed to Jesus, then he reserves some commitment for something of this world. “Half hearted” is never a term that can be used in reference to a disciple of Jesus.   Jesus deserves more than half a heart.   Our Bibles still say, “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37).

The water that came from the mineral springs south of Laodicea served as the appropriate metaphor for disciples who had been stricken with the sin of lukewarmness. As one would spew forth the lukewarm mineral waters that were channelled into the city, so Jesus will do the same with the lukewarm Christian who is “channelled” to the final judgment. It is as someone said, “Lukewarm water will not take a steam locomotive to its destination, and neither will a lukewarm Christian reach his desired destination.”

The curse of lukewarmness is that one fails to perform for Jesus. One can create a religiosity that conforms to a life-style of mediocrity. God warned Israel that if the Israelites did not keep His word, the land would spew them out (See Lv 18:27,28; 20:22). The same could be said of those who are lukewarm in the body of Christ. They will be spewed out if they were not obedient. How this would happen in the lives of the disciples of Laodicea would be an illustration of what Paul said of some Christians who were wood, hay and straw.

Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will be manifested, for the day will declare it because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test each man’s work to determine what quality it is (1 Co 3:12,13).

The fire of persecution was about to burn away those disciples of Laodicea who were wood, hay and straw. It would refine those of gold, silver and precious stones.   The persecution that was coming would snuff out the lukewarm disciples of Laodicea. The lukewarm would not endure the storm of tribulation that was bearing down on Christianity.

It often takes the fire of persecution to determine if one is a lukewarm disciple. If in the heat of persecution a disciple would fall from Jesus, then he knows that he was a “wood” disciple. If in the heat of trials, a disciple says, “Hey, I’m gone,” then he was a “hay” disciple. And if in the heat of the battle for faith a disciple withdraws, then he was a “straw” disciple.

When a culture of lukewarmness is established among a group of disciples, “Christianity” is redefined by the apathy of the members. And once this happens, it is very difficult to reverse this spiritual death. If a new convert would come into such a group, those who are sick with the sin of lukewarmness will intimidate such a one to identify with the culture of apathy of the majority. The curse of apathetic churchianity is in the fact that those who are caught in the culture do not believe that they are in danger of being spewed out. Lukewarmness has a tendency to make one comfortable and not conducive to repentance. If one believes that lukewarm disciples will be brought into eternal glory by grace, then he should study again what Jesus was about to do with the lukewarm disciples of Laodicea.

 2.  “I am rich”: Since wealth has a tendency to stymie spiritual growth, Jesus wants us to know that this is what has happened among the Christians of Laodicea. Though riches do not always detour the spiritual growth of the wealthy, wealth is a particular danger for which the rich must be cautious. They must always remember the good advice of the wealthy Christian who said, “It is easy for a good man to make money, but hard for money to make a good man.” The reason this is true is because of what the Holy Spirit said. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and many foolish and harmful lusts that drown men in ruin and destruction (1 Tm 6:9). The Laodicean disciples were drowning in ruin and destruction.

The problem with wealth is that it ofen leads one to obsess that which will not exist beyond wealth. “For the love of money is the root of all evils, by which some coveting after have strayed from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows” (1 Tm 6:10). And such seems to be the spiritual situation of the disciples in Laodicea. They took so much pride in their riches that their proud attitudes reaped this strong condemnation from the One they presumed to follow. They had forgotten what a wise person once said, “We grow rich, not by depositing money in a savings account, but by depositing the word of God in our hearts.” We must never forget, therefore, what someone wisely said, “A man is rich according to what he is, not according to what he has.”

It seems that the Laodicean disciples had forgotten the words of Jesus that He spoke during His earthly ministry: Take heed and beware of all covetousness, for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things that he possesses” (Lk 12:15).   Henry Ward Beecher wrote, “In this world, it is not what we take up, but what we give up, that makes us rich.”   Beecher must have read Jesus. Or maybe he read the Holy Spirit through Solomon: “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold” (Pv 22:1).

In the case of the Laodicean Christians, it seems that they had forgotten the concept of Proverbs 22:2: “The rich and poor meet together. The Lord is the maker of them all.” In the eyes of God, there is no difference between the rich and poor. Though among men we would seek to exalt the rich above the poor, in looking down from God’s perspective, we are all still little men.   The rich need to remember, “The poorest of all men is he who has nothing but money.” It was as if James were writing specifically to the rich Christians of Laodicea in the following words:

Come now you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches are corrupted and your garments are moth eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded. And their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped treasure together for the last days (Js 5:1-3). You have lived in pleasure on the earth and lived in a self-indulgent life. You have nourished your hearts as in a day of slaughter (Js 5:5).

No better commentary statement could have been written against the rich of Laodicea. We must keep in mind that these were Christians about whom both Jesus and James spoke. These were not those of the world. Riches had so corrupted the spirit of the Laodicean Christians that they were deserving of the harsh condemnation that came from both Jesus and James. They were deserving of such because Jesus loved them, and thus, wanted them to repent in order that they reign with Him in heavenly places. But at the time of writing, they were simply happy with reigning on earth through the pomp and prestige of their riches.

The judgment of Jesus is harsh in the statement: But you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked (Rv 3:17). This is the character that riches will produce. This is the outcome of greed. This is the description of Christians who have made money their god. Paul simply said to the rich, “Put to death your members that are on the earth … covetousness, which is idolatry (Cl 3:5).

The road to repentance for a church of Laodiceans is difficult. They must put to death their idol god of riches. It is not that they must give themselves into poverty, but that they use their riches to the glory of God. This is behind the instructions of Paul in 1 Timothy 6:17-19. If one would find himself sitting among the “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked,” then here is what the Holy Spirit would instruct:

Charge those who are rich in this world that they not be high-minded or trust in the uncertainty of riches, but in the living God who richly gives us all things to enjoy. Teach that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to share, laying up in store for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.

 Every rich person must consider his riches according to the meaning of what Jesus said in answer to the one who stated, “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones”:

“You fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be that you have provided?” So is he who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God (Lk 12:18-21).

The rich must always be cautious about this truth: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Lk 12:34). The Christians in Laodicea had become somewhat proud of their riches. They seem to be of the same attitude as the Ephraimites of Israel who puffed themselves up because of their riches.   Hosea stated that they proclaimed the arrogant statement, “Surely I have become rich. I have found for myself wealth. In all my labors they will find no iniquity in me that would be sin (Hs 12:8). This would be the proclamation of the rich disciples in Laodicea. But Jesus defined their sin to be their depraved character. Their character was “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rv 3:17). They should have been crying out as Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rm 7:24). But their pride would not allow them to make such a confession because they trusted in wealth.

We must notice that neither in Jesus’ call for repentance on the part of the rich Laodiceans, nor in any message of the Holy Spirit through the writers of the New Testament, that rich Christians must give themselves into poverty. The only call is that the rich Christians be willing to share (1 Tm 6:17,18). Some have been blessed with the gift to make money.   Others have not. Christianity is not as communism, that is, we all must be financially equal. The problem with political communism is that everyone becomes poor, except for the rich ruling class.

The advantage of a rich brother who loves Jesus is that the church has the great opportunity of sending the gospel into all the world. The rich also have the opportunity to help others. Therefore, when we see the house of a rich man, we should be thinking that he should have built a bigger house. If he had built a bigger house, then the fathers of children who built the house would have received more money in wages to feed their children. They too could have built bigger houses for their children.   We must dispel with this jealousy of rich brethren who are willing and generous to share by providing opportunities for employment. Their sharing is not in giving handouts. Their sharing is in providing the opportunity for fathers to have a job in order that they feed their children and pay their schools fees. We must never forget that handouts often destroy self-esteem, but handing out opportunities to working hands builds nations.

 3.  “I counsel you ….”: When one is selfishly blinded by his wealth, then he should listen carefully to this counsel of Jesus (Rv 3:18). The city took pride in its great banking that served many who traveled through the area. But Jesus said that instead of trusting in their banking system, they should “buy from Me gold refined in the fire” so that they would be spiritually rich (Rv 3:18). They should buy from Jesus white garments, instead of taking pride in the garments that they purchased from the local trade stores that were made of the fine black wool of the area. The garments from the trade stores would give the outer appearance of someone of status, but their being clothed in Jesus would give the presentation of a godly nature. They needed to remember that when they came out of the grave of baptism, that they “put on the new man which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ep 4:24). They had dressed themselves with Christ (Gl 3:27).

Unfortunately, the Laodiceans allowed their spiritual clothing to be replaced with material clothing of the world, and thus, they revealed their naked spirituality. And in reference to the eye salve of the city, such would momentarily solve the problem of itching eyes. But the spiritual eye salve that Jesus provided would quench their itching spirit from following after the things of this world. The eye salve of Jesus would give them relief to stop lusting after wealth. It would give them the opportunity to see the world as it is. They would also be able to see God (Mt 5:8). It would give them the opportunity to see their true self, that they were “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rv 3:17).

 C.  Exhortation to repent:

As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten” (Rv 3:19). We find a commentary of this exhortation in Hebrews 12:

My son, do not despise the disciplining of the Lord, nor faint when you are rebuked by Him. For whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and scourges every son whom He receives (Hb 12:5,6; see Pv 3:11,12).

There is only one way to avoid the chastisement of the Lord. Jesus explains, “Therefore, be zealous and repent” (Rv 3:19). When one realizes that the Lord chastises those He loves, he must understand that the chastisement comes as a result of our falling from our faithfulness to Him. Therefore, in order not to be chastised, one should give all diligence to remain faithful. We should be a people who are “zealous of good works” (Ti 2:14) in order that we not be led into the apathy that is produced by riches. The Laodiceans allowed the easiness of their life-style to infect the culture of their faith. They became complacent in their coins and lax in their love for Christ.   It was not that money is evil.   When one loves money more than good works in response to the love of God through the cross, then he is spiritually in trouble. It is for this reason that personal good works are a measuring gage as to how much one loves the Lord.

 D.  Plea for spiritual restoration:

We know that one can repent from the life-style of lukewarmness because of the call of Jesus for repentance. The fact of the plea is evidence that they could restore zeal for Jesus and focus on those things that are above. They needed to read again the letter that the Holy Spirit sent to the Christians in Colosse in A.D. 61,62, which by this time, had been circulated among the seven churches, for the city of Colosse was not far from any of the seven cities.

If you then were raised with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth (Cl 3:1,2).

When He wrote the letter to the Colossians, the Holy Spirit knew the direction of lukewarmness to which the Christians in Laodicea and other churches were going. The Colossian letter was the forewarning of admonition from God. The direct address of judgment of Jesus to the Laodiceans in Revelation was the call for their repentance, for they had eagerly run after the lure of riches. Jesus’ address was a direct warning because they did not read well the exhortation of the Holy Spirit in the Colossian letter. Instead of having Bible class studies of Colossians, they were waiting for the “closing prayer” in order to leave God and run after money.

1.  “I stand at the door and knock”: The plea of verse 20 is not to unbelievers. The plea is to Christians who were “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” in their prosperity. This is not an evangelistic plea. It is a plea to Christians who have died in their lukewarmness, and were about to be spewed out by Jesus. This is a plea to the lukewarm sinners in the church, not to sinners of the world.

Jesus is at the door of opportunity for the lukewarm Christian. The word “knock” is a present participle, and thus, Jesus is continuously knocking.   The metaphor is pointed because Jesus continually pleads with His disciples to repent when they fall into the sin of lukewarmness. The lukewarm disciple knows that he is not zealous with good works toward God, and thus he continually feels the knock of Jesus on his heart. His conscience tells him that his life-style of lukewarmness is not pleasing to the One who gave up being on an equality with God in order to redeem him (Ph 2:5-9).

The present participle action teaches that repentance from apathy is difficult. The knock is continuous action because apathetic disciples must work themselves out of a religious culture of lukewarmness in which they became very comfortable. All the time Jesus is knocking on one’s conscience, one must be struggling to repent of lukewarm churchianity.

 2.  “If anyone hears”: Now we know why Jesus concluded each address to the seven churches with the statement, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rv 3:22). The word “hear” means repent and obey. If one would hear the commandments of Jesus, then he would repent and obey. Discipleship is more than knowledge. One can know the outline of commandments, but do nothing. It is legalist hypocrisy if one claims to be a disciple of Jesus, and yet, remains lukewarm.

The Laodicean disciples had fallen into the religiosity of knowing all the outlines of doctrine, but their behavior was stagnant.   They were comfortable sitting in assemblies on Sunday and taking in all the knowledge of the teacher. But their performance after the “closing prayer” was far from adequate. Such is the curse of riches. It is easy to pay someone to get the job done instead of getting one’s own hands dirty in the filth of humanity. Lest they stain their white garments with the dirt of duty, the rich Laodiceans would be comfortable to just hire some clergyman to do the job for them.

The rich cannot fool the Holy Spirit on this matter. Through Paul, the Spirit instructed Timothy to tell the rich that they be rich in good works (1 Tm 6:18).   This means hands-on activity for Jesus.   No disciple can work at a distance from the needs of others. Money can never become a buffer between servant and need. If we think it can, then we need to take another look at the dirty towel in the hands of our Creator after He finished washing the dirty feet of His disciples (See Jn 13:1-17).

 3. “To him who overcomes”: Those who would overcome the stifling curse of prosperity would gain the privilege of sitting down beside the Lord of the world (Rv 3:21). What a powerful promise. When Jesus sat down at the right hand of the Father, all the universe became the domain of His kingdom reign (See Dn 7:13,14; Ep 1:20-22; Ph 2:5-11). At the time John was recording these words, Jesus was right there at the right hand of God, reigning over all things. Now the sweet promise of Jesus to the Laodicean disciples is if they can overcome the curse of riches that often produces the sin of lukewarm activity for Jesus, they too could sit right there with Jesus.

This was not a promise that would be fulfilled centuries later. The power of the appeal of the promise was that it could happen in their lifetime.   We can, as Paul taught, “reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ” (Rm 5:17). “If we suffer, we will also reign with Him” (2 Tm 2:12).   And suffer, the Laodiceans would in the coming years. This last personal message to the members of His one organic body was a plea of Jesus that they open the door of their hearts to Him. He knew their future. He knew that they were going into a century and a half of torturous turmoil before they would emerge on the other side of truly “dark ages.” If any disciple was to survive the ages to come, then he had to allow Jesus to come in and sit down with him in his heart. And by sitting in their hearts, they would sit with Him in a heavenly reign over all those who would bring harm against them.   Any Christian would be able to overcome because he or she would be right there beside Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords.

These will make war with the Lamb and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords an King of kings. And those who are with Him are called and chosen and faithful (Rv 17:14).

Those who open their Bibles and listen to Jesus will remain shining lamps of light in their communities. Their good works will generate glory of God (Mt 5:16).   Instead of being a flickering flame on the verge of being snuffed out by Jesus, they will draw all men to them.   Their drawing power is the nature of who they are in their community. One of the most powerful ways to win others to Jesus is to shine one’s brilliant light before the world. It is then that the exhortation of Peter will come true in one’s life:

But sanctify Christ as Lord God in your hearts and be ready always to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear (1 Pt 3:15).

Flickering flames need to repent in order to become flaming lights for Jesus.

[End of lecture series 104]

Philadelphia

MESSAGE TO PHILADELPHIA

 The name of this city is certainly unique. Many cities throughout the world can find the origin of their name in this text of scripture. The reason the name has been used to name so many other cities throughout the world is in the fact of what the name means.   The name is composed of two Greek words, meaning “bother lover,” or “brotherly love.”

Philadelphia was probably founded by King Eumenes of Pergamum sometime in the second century B.C. His brother, Attalus II (159 – 138 B.C.), was very loyal to him, and thus, the city was given the name, Philadelphus.

The area where the city rested was subject to a great deal of earthquakes. In A.D. 17 a severe earthquake completely destroyed the city. Because of reoccurring earthquakes that prevailed throughout the area after the A.D. 17, the residents of the city set up dwellings outside the collapsed city ruins. With a grant from Tiberius in Rome, the city was later given the new name, Neocaesarea in appreciation for the relief grant from Rome to rebuild the city.   Under Caesar Vespasian, the city was given another name, Flavia. But when Jesus addressed the city in Revelation, He addressed the city as Philadelphia, the original name that the local residents certainly continued because of the history from which this name was derived. They wanted to be known historically as a people of brotherly love.

The culture that the name Philadelphia developed after the relationship of Attalus II with his brother, seems to have been perpetuated throughout the history of the residents. The citizens sought to live up to the name of the city, and for this reason, there is no condemnation of the disciples of Philadelphia. As the culture of the Philadelphia residents influenced the character of the church as a whole, so through the church was reflected the exhortation of Peter to his audience: “Love the brotherhood” (1 Pt 2:17). The church also sought to live according to the name that had been with the city for over 200 years.

 A.  Description of the Christ:

What better way to express the loyalty of Christ to His people than to use the loyalty of Attalus II to his brother.   So this address comes from the One “who is holy and true” (Rv 3:7). Jesus set Himself apart (“holy”) from the eternal God in order to provide redemption for His creation (Ph 2:5-11). And thus, He is true to those who join with Him on the cross, in the grave and resurrection (Rm 6:3-6). The word we would use to explain the behavior of Christians is reciprocity.   Jesus first gave Himself for us, and now, we have reciprocated by giving ourselves to Him (Gl 2:20). We love because He first loved us (1 Jn 4:19).   And since we have reciprocated His love and sacrifice, He will stay true to His promises that He has given to us.

In order for us to find assurance in His promises, we are informed that He “has the key of David” (Rv 3:7). “Key” is metaphorical of “authority.” And for those of His Jewish audience, Jesus here reminds them that He received this key in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah:

Then the key of the house of David I will lay upon his shoulder so that he will open and none will shut. And he will shut and none will open (Is 22:22).

It is significant to understand that the tense of the verb “has” in 3:7 is past tense. At the time the message was given, Jesus already had David’s key of authority. It was not something yet to come in the future, but was in the possession of Jesus as John wrote these words.   There would be no encouragement for the local recipients of the letter if the key of authority were something that was yet in the future. As disciples of Jesus, we have great confidence because we know that Jesus has been given all authority over all things (Mt 28:18). The Father has placed Him in authority above all authorities on earth for the sake of His people (Ep 1:20-23).

And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that in all things He might have the preeminence (Cl 1:18).

If one would assert that Jesus will in the future assume some reign on this earth, then he must also believe that Jesus must give up the authority He now has in order to reign on a small particle of dust in one galaxy of the many throughout the universe.   There is something discouraging about such a theology.   Those who teach such have a hard time understanding the encouragement that Jesus here gives to the Philadelphia disciples. The encouragement was that at the time the message was stated by Jesus in the context of their history, He had already received the authority of David that was prophesied in Isaiah 22:22.

The authority of David has now gone galactic in Jesus, the Son of God. It was never prophesied that Jesus would reign over some parcel of land here on earth as King David did over Israel in Palestine. Those who think Jesus’ reign would be exactly as that of David, have certainly missed the extent to which the metaphor “key of David” was to signify the reign of the Messiah. We must remember that in the use of metaphor, something spiritual and greater is being signified. Jesus’ reign was to be far greater than the reign of David. It was prophesied that the Messiah would reign over the world from a heavenly throne (See Dn 2:44; 7:13,14). However, this reign of Jesus as the Messiah now extends far beyond this world, and certainly far beyond the extent of David’s reign. It is as the Holy Spirit stated, that He “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him (1 Pt 3:22). And now, He is “upholding all things by the word of His power” (Hb 1:3).

 B.  Commendation from the Christ:

If we were among any of the disciples of the seven churches, we would want to be among the disciples in Philadelphia.   There is no condemnation of any teaching or behavior of these disciples. The culture of their fellowship certainly reflected the name of the city.

 1.  An open door: One historical note on the founding of this city is revealed in the opportunity that Jesus set before them: “I have set before you an open door and no one can shut it (Rv 3:8). The original purpose for the founding of the city in 140 B.C. was to make the city a center for the spread of the Greek language and culture throughout the region. The city was located in a wide vale that opened into the Hermus Valley. The city subsequently became an outpost opportunity for the preaching of the gospel beyond the region of Philadelphia. This was the open door that no one could shut.

When Christians who are strategically located realize the opportunity that is given to them because of their location, they should seize the opportunity of the open door for the preaching of the gospel beyond their region. Those who are in strategic locations, but fail to see the opportunity for mission outreach beyond themselves, are short sited, if not introverted. They are not taking advantage of the open door that Jesus sets before them.

Paul was very perceptive to find open-door opportunities that were made possible by God. When he and Barnabas returned from the first mission journey, they “gathered the church together” and “reported all that God had done with them and how He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles (At 14:27). God opens the doors. Christians must pray to perceive those doors. When in Ephesus, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “But I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost. For a great and effective door has opened to me …” (1 Co 16:8,9). Could this very open door have been the opportunity for Paul from Ephesus to reach cities as Philadelphia?   It could have been an open door that led to the salvation of the saints in Philadelphia, and thus, Jesus was using their past experience of their receiving of the gospel in order to motivate them to do likewise for others. While in Ephesus on a mission journey Paul taught in the school of Tyrannus for two years, so that all those who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (At 19:10). Could there have been a similar open door for the Philadelphia saints to do the same from where they were located?

It is the responsibility of leaders to be perceptive to doors of opportunity for evangelism. God opens these doors. And the fact that He does assumes that His people should take the opportunity to enter in order to preach the gospel. If we do not, then we are negligent in our duties as His children. This may have been the problem with the loss of the “first love” by the Ephesians and the deadness of the Sardis disciples.   Ephesus was the gateway to all Asia Minor. God opened a door there once for Paul, but it seems that the Ephesians refused to continue the legacy of using their key location as an opportunity to continue to preach the gospel to the world. When Paul was in Troas on his last mission journey, and on his way to Corinth, he wrote ahead, “Now when I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, and a door was opened to me by the Lord …” (2 Co 2:12). Must we assume that this open door was only for the city of Troas? If we use Ephesus as an example, the open door was not simply for the city of Troas, but for those who lived beyond Troas. Every city of disciples must see how God is using them as an open door to reach beyond their city limits.

It is the responsibility of the disciples to find doors that are opened by God. And if a door is not opened, then it is the responsibility of the saints to pray that God open it. Open doors assume that they were first closed. And if closed, then we must trust that the One who opens doors will do so on behalf of the gospel. While in prison, Paul asked some Christians, “… continue praying for us so that God may open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ …” (Cl 4:3).

So we must ask ourselves, “When was the last time we prayed that God open some doors for us in order to preach the word?”   If that prayer has not been on our lips for some time, then we can judge for ourselves that we have lost our first love. Some Christians are sometimes as those who were explained by a preacher, “When opportunity does knock, by some uncanny quirk, it often goes unrecognized, it so resembles work.” It seems that the opportunity to preach the gospel has to be advertised to some before they can perceive God working through open doors. We must pray for perception because the open door for preaching the word is often off its hinges in some places of the world and waiting for someone to enter. Unfortunately, and unlike those in Philadelphia, some people do not want to make the prayer for an open door because they feel that God will tap them on the shoulder to enter.

It would be good to listen to the public prayers of an assembly of disciples. If one never hears a public prayer for God to open doors for preaching the gospel, then we know that we are sitting among many dead disciples. If so, then we must heed the exhortation of Jesus to the Ephesians. We must restore our first love (Rv 3:1).

B.  The promise of the Christ:

 Jesus makes four promises to the Christians in Philadelphia, promises that would encourage them to continue their outreach through the open door that He would not allow anyone to shut.

“I will make those of the synagogue of Satan … come and fall down before your feet.” This is a significant statement in reference to the date of writing of the book.   On the day of Pentecost in A.D. 30, prophecy was fulfilled through the apostles’ speaking in languages (At 2:1-4).   The fulfillment of this prophecy was God’s initial stamp of approval on the apostles through the languages that He was now working through the spiritual Israel, the ekklesia (church) of Christians.

Paul explained this “stamp of approval” by the use of languages when he wrote to the Corinthians. In quoting Isaiah 28:11,12, Paul argued that “languages are for a sign, not to those who believe, but for unbelievers (1 Co 14:21,22). The languages that were miraculously spoken by Christians signalled to the unbelieving Jews that God was now working through those who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God.

In the parable of the Tares, Jesus spoke of a time after His ministry when the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Mt 13:43). That time came on the cross in A.D. 30 with the termination of the Old Testament law of national Israel (Cl 2:14). Termination of the state of national Israel came in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Jesus explained to the Philadelphia saints that when national Israel was fully consummated in the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy of Matthew 24, it would be then that many of the formerly unbelieving Jews would “fall down before your feet” (Rv 3:9). Jewish persecution would cease (Rv 2:9). This would be the time about which Paul wrote,

 For I do not want, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own minds, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (Rm 11:25).

God initially signalled to the Jewish nation in A.D. 30 by the apostles’ speaking in languages that He accepted as His people those who believed in Jesus (At 2:1-4). He then signalled to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem with the speaking in languages that He accepted the Gentiles (At 10,11). After this, the Jewish Christians went with force into the Gentile world through Paul and other evangelists. This happened for about thirty years after the cross, that is, “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” After this “fullness of the Gentiles had come,” then “all Israel will be saved” (Rm 11:26). All Israel does not mean every single Jew, but only those who would accept Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. These would be those Jews, as the Gentiles, who “were disposed unto eternal life” (At 13:48). This number would be all of Israel who would obey the gospel.

Now to the Philadelphia disciples, this time was close. Therefore, some of those Jews who were persistent to claim to be God’s people (the synagogue of Satan), would eventually see the true people of God shine forth under the kingdom reign of Jesus. A.D. 70 would be the time when over one million unbelieving sojourning Jews to Jerusalem would be massacred in the destruction of the city in A.D. 70. The Roman Caesar Vespasian waited until the Passover/Pentecost feast, and then the Roman army made war with Israel, which war eventually led to the destruction of Jerusalem. The 80,000 or more Jews who survived the war in Jerusalem were sold into captivity throughout the Roman Empire. It was a time when formerly unbelieving Jews figuratively bowed down before Christians as the Gentile Cornelius literally bowed down before the Jewish Peter (At 10:25,26). But this time, it would be the formerly unbelieving Jews who would finally confess that Jesus was the Messiah and figuratively bow down before Gentile Christians.

We would assume that the Christians in Philadelphia believed the prophecy of Matthew 24. But we would also assume that they had not yet experienced the fall of Jerusalem, for there was still opposition from the “synagogue of Satan.”   But this opposition would soon be terminated, since many of the zealot Jews of the synagogue may have been killed in the A.D. 70 destruction when they traveled to Jerusalem for the annual Passover/Pentecost feast.

Through the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, Jesus said that He would make the unbelieving Jews “know that I have loved you” (Rv 3:9). What would be significant to assume is that some surviving Jews who escaped the A.D. 70 war and possibly returned to Philadelphia, were warmly received by the Philadelphia Christians upon their repentance and obedience to the gospel. Such would not be uncommon behavior among true Christians, for Philip the evangelist later received Saul, now Paul, who had aided in the stoning of one of his best friends in Jerusalem many years before (See At 7:58; 8:1; 21:8). There is certainly power in the words that Jesus uttered from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).

 2.  “I also will keep you from the hour of trial that will come on the whole world” (Rv 3:10). There was a reward coming for the Philadelphia saints “because you have kept the word of My perseverance …” (Rv 3:10). The reward was that they would be kept “from the hour of trial that will come on the whole world ….”

Keeping the word of Jesus has its rewards in the time of trial. This promise reminds us of 1 Peter 4:16: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this name.” The Philadelphia disciples knew that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tm 3:12; see Mt 5:10-12). The following words would be precious to the saints in Philadelphia as they passed through the coming trials:

Blessed is the man who endures temptation, for when he is tried, he will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him (Js 1:12).

The early Christians knew that before they could reach the promised land, they had to pass through the wilderness of tribulation.   They knew that if one would seek to live the godly life, then there would be the trials of this life that godliness inherently engenders. But it is as someone said, “Trial is the structural steel that goes into the building of character.” So Peter would remind the Philadelphia disciples,

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been distressed by many trials, so that the proof of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is refined with fire, might be found to praise and honor and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pt 1:6,7; see Js 1:2,3).

The phrase “whole world” in Revelation 3:10 must be interpreted with the dictionary of Luke 2:1. Caesar Augustus of the Roman Empire decreed that “a census be taken of all the world.” This certainly did not pertain to every person on earth. The terminology was taken from the Roman dictionary, in that the Roman’s thought that they reigned over the “whole world.” But we would ignore their arrogance by realizing that the census of Augustus was only of the citizens of the Roman Empire. And so we bring this definition into the context of Revelation 3:10 as Jesus’ meaning in the context. The “hour of trial” was coming when Rome would unleash its persecution against Christians throughout the Empire. This would be Jesus’ message of introduction to the encouragement of the visions that would begin in chapter 4 and continue throughout the book.

It seems that Jesus has in the context of His message to the Philadelphia saints turned from the destruction of Jerusalem that would take care of the limited Jewish persecution of the church, and moved on to the state persecution that would take place throughout the Roman Empire.   The Empire would set itself against Christianity. A limited persecution of Christians had already begun with the personal vendetta of Nero against Christians during the 60s. But under Caesar Domitian (81-96), there would begin a state persecution for the next 150 years until Galerius eventually issued the Edict of Toleration in A.D. 311. But for some reason, this persecution did not come upon the disciples in Philadelphia, at least this seems to be the promise of Jesus in His message to these Christians. The city of Philadelphia may have been a small sanctuary for Christians throughout the Empire while Rome launched its fury against Christianity in other areas.

 “I am coming quickly” cannot be a promise of coming at the end of time. This was a coming “in time.” Jesus would not have deceived the Philadelphia Christians into believing that He was coming in His final coming in their lifetime. Such a promise would have robbed them of the immediate comfort they needed. As James encouraged his readers around A.D. 66,67 to be patient for the “coming of the Lord” in His destruction of Jerusalem (Js 5:7,8), so here the promise may be to the Philadelphia Christians that there would be an end of Roman persecution, which end eventually came in A.D. 311. We are not told specifically in this address what the relief would be from the trials from which they would be delivered. The immediate disciples were simply promised that there would be relief from their hard times.

 3.  “I will make [him] a pillar in the temple of My God ” (Rv 3:12). The city of Philadelphia was devastated with an initial earthquake that levelled the pillars of the main buildings in A.D. 17. Subsequent earthquakes that took place in the years that followed finished the total destruction of all the buildings in the city. But in the promise of Jesus, the faithful would be made pillars that would never fall.

When someone in Roman society accomplished a good deed for the society, a pillar in a public building was often made and named after the person, as we today would name a street after someone. Jesus is saying that because the Christians in Philadelphia were remaining faithful, they would be “named pillars” in the house of God. They could be assured, however, that these named pillars would never lie in ruins as they witnessed every day the pillars of the old city laying on the ground in ruins.

 4.  “I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God.” The Greek word for “overcome” in 3:12 is a present participle. The action of the verb is continuous action in the present. Therefore, they were overcoming in their daily discipleship.   Living the life of a disciple for the saints in Philadelphia was a daily struggle.

When the A.D. 17 earthquake came, people in mass fled the city for their lives. But when one is a pillar in the temple of God, he need not flee. On the contrary, he is the occasion for people to flee to him for protection and comfort (1 Pt 3:15). “The new Jerusalem” comes down from God in heaven. This is the church of the Lord. As people come into Christ, the church is pictured as coming down from its origin, that is God. So when one is obedient to the gospel, then he would be accepting the name about which Peter wrote, the name “Christian” (1 Pt 4:16). It would be to this name, and the refuge of the city of God, that people would seek refuge in times of trial.

After the destruction of the city of Philadelphia in A.D. 17, Caesar Tiberius appropriated funds for the rebuilding of the city. The name of the city was subsequently changed to honor him, but the name never stuck. When God names His people, the name can never be changed.   Some in Corinth tried to change the name of their allegiance by calling themselves after the name of some man. Paul wrote that some say, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas” (1 Co 1:12). Paul admonished the disciples in Corinth for this divisive and disrespectful practice.   He admonished, “Is Christ divided?   Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Co 1:13).

The fact is that we wear the name of Christ because He was crucified for us, and we were baptized into His name. If Christ had not been crucified, then religious people could wear any name they choose. If one has not been baptized in the name of Christ, then again, it does not matter what name one would wear. But since all Christians have been baptized into the One who was crucified for them, then they are called “Christian” after Christ, of whom they are because they have been baptized into Him under the authority of His name (At 2:38; Rm 6:3).

 C.  Warning:

Jesus warned, “Hold fast what you have so that no one take your crown” (Rv 3:11). The Greek word (krotein) for “hold fast” means to “hold on to tightly.”   If they hold on to that which they have, then they will not lose their crown. The exhortation to “hold fast” assumes that one can let go, and thus, lose his crown. It is not that one is saved by the grace of God, and then cannot lose his crown.   The very fact that Jesus here exhorts the disciples to hold on to that which they have (their salvation), assumes that they will lose it if they let go.

The exhortation to the Philadelphia disciples is similar to that given by Jude, but with an added responsibility on the part of Jesus. Now to Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy …” (Jd 24). Combined with the Revelation 3:11 exhortation, the individual disciple has the responsibility to keep himself saved, but he is helped by Him before whom he will be saved in eternity. The link that connects the two exhortations is Paul’s statement in Ephesians 3:20: “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us ….”   Outside us, Jesus is working all things together for good (Rm 8:28). Inside us, we are struggling against the lust of the flesh in order that we not lose our salvation. There are things for which we are responsible in order to guarantee our salvation. “Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never stumble” (2 Pt 1:10; see 2 Pt 2:20-22). Since one can stumble, then we seek to watch and be faithful, for we remember Jesus’ promise to the Ephesians, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life” (Rv 2:10). Flickering lamps need to give all diligence to add oil.

 [Schedule for next lecture:  March 24]

Sardis

MESSAGE TO SARDIS

 Sardis was the former capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia. The city became known for its great riches, particular wealth from the gold of the Pactolus River that flowed through the city. It was one of those cities that had a glorious past, but at the time of the visions of Revelation, it had lost most of its former wealth and prestige.

The original ancient city was strongly fortified.   It was a fortress citadel that towered above the Hermus Valley. It was surrounded by treacherous cliffs of loose rock. But the city lost its prowess under Croesus when Cyrus, king of Persia, besieged and took the city in 546 B.C. Historians believe that under the cover of darkness, the Persians took the city by scaling the cliffs that the residents of Sardis thought to be their defense against any invaders. Ironically, the same tactic was used again by Antiochus the Great when he took the city in 215 B.C.

By the time Jesus addressed this city in the context of the visions of Revelation, Sardis was under the control of the Roman Empire. Though the city was located on an important trade route of the Hermus Valley, it never regained its glory and riches of former years. It is interesting that in A.D. 26, the city sought to construct an imperial temple dedicated to Roman religion. But the request was denied by Rome, who favored Smyrna as the location of the temple.

It is significant that this once glorious city of ancient times, today lies in ruins. There is only a small Turkish village named Sart near the ruins of ancient Sardis. The once glorious city was fading into history as John penned the message of Jesus to the Christians of the area. Though the residents once dressed themselves in the luxury of white robes, all the former glamor was gone in a city that was now economically waning away into history as the ink of John’s letter was drying on papyrus.

 A.  Description of the Christ:

 Jesus is now the One “who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (Rv 3:1). The meaning is control. He “has” the spirits and stars, and no one can take them from Him. Since He upholds all things by the word of His power (Hb 1:3), then we could correctly assume that Jesus had control of the future of the churches. And since He has all authority over all things (Mt 28:18), then every member of His universal organic body can relax. The fact that Jesus is in control means that nothing is out of control. We live in a divinely controlled world. Therefore, we must never conclude that the evil that is in the world is a signal that Jesus is not in control. All those disciples of the seven churches needed to remember this as they transition through the great tribulations that were coming.

In order to protect our free moral ability to choose, Jesus must allow both social and physical law to exist. If He did not, then the world would not be the best of all possible environments in which to prepare free-moral disciples for eternal dwelling. And if the world was free of all misfortune and evil, then we would have no desire to go to a better place.   Therefore, because Jesus is in control, the disciples of Asia Minor, and all those throughout the Roman Empire, must remain faithful, even though it will seem that the whole world was against them.

 B.  Commendation for good works:

As everyone in the small town of Sardis knew everyone in town, so Jesus knows everything about the members of His body throughout the world. And in this case, the body members in Sardis were working, but something was indeed wrong with the performance of their works.

1.  The working dead: The disciples in Sardis seem to have trusted in their works to the point that they believed their works to be meritorious in reference to their salvation. This is in the statement of judgment, “you have a name that you live, but you are dead (Rv 3:1). Could it be that they took pride in the works that they were doing in the community, of which works the community glorified the good they were doing? But spiritually, and in reference to their relationship with Jesus, they were dead because they meritoriously trusted in their works?

Someone correctly said, “There are few things that are better organized than graveyards, but there is little life there.”   The members of the body were organized in Sardis for good works, but it seems that the motive for their works produced deadness, not life. So we would throw up a yellow flag of caution before ourselves, lest we too be walking in the pride of our own activity, but dead in our spirituality.   There will be no zombie disciples in heaven.

The disciples in Sardis may have become spiritually indifferent because they had little persecution in the city. In fact, their works gave them a name in the community as a group of people who ministered to the people. They had a name among the unbelievers in the community.   They were certainly following the instructions of Jesus: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Mt 5:16).

Jesus’ statement of judgment to the church of Sardis, however, seems to conflict with His statement in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. The problem was that the good works of the church of Sardis brought glory to themselves, the church, and not to God. Christians need to be very careful about doing good deeds in order to bring glory to the church, that is, to themselves as the church. If the church of Sardis teaches any eternal lesson, it is the lesson that churches should never seek glory for themselves. If they do, then their good works are a sign of their narcissistic deadness.

In the following exhortations of Jesus to the Christians in Sardis, we must keep in mind that the majority was the problem. The minority “few names” were still faithful. But the majority were dead. They had a name that they lived, but they were dead (Rv 3:1).

Deadness comes in many forms. Before we leave the “living dead” problem of the Sardis disciples, we must insert probable causes of deadness that will help us identify ourselves as being dead. When Christians meet and stare at one another Sunday after Sunday, but rarely have in their midst anyone who is dripping wet from the waters of baptism, then we are dead. When during the public prayers that are voiced in the assembly, no plea is made to the Lord of harvest to send “reapers into the harvest” throughout the world, then we are dead (See Mt 9:38). When excitement is generated among the men to attend the men’s breakfast, but no encouragement is made to invite a friend, then we are dead. When we continually have lectureships to reaffirm our “old truths,” then we are dead. When mission seminars are conducted and only former missionaries show up, then we are dead.   When the church bulletin is filled with news about ourselves, but no mention is made of the gospel being preached to the lost, then we are dead. When no visiting evangelists are allowed to address the church in order to remind us of our mission, then we are dead. When all the programs of the disciples are for the purpose of “getting the members to know one another,” then we are dead. Narcissistic religioisty is simply deadness playing itself out in church games.   According to Jesus’ definition of the deadness of the Sardis church, the flame had already flickered, but only a “few names” realized that darkness was looming over their existence.

As residents of Africa we would alert the rest of the world concerning the church of America that has a name that it lives.   But according to the church growth statistics over the last forty years, there is a decline in “church attendance” every year. It is the “Sardis syndrome” being continentally played out in a movement that is running out of oil.   There are, however, a “few names” still there. But our exhortation to the rest of the world is to get on with the work of Jesus to take the gospel into all the world. If we are looking for mission leadership from America, that lampstand is almost gone.   As the flame flickers in America, we must burn bright in Africa, and India and China. The “Sardis syndrome” plays itself out over a century or two.   In the American culture, it began in the early 1800s. It is now coming to an end as churches claim “to have a name that they live, but are truly dead” in reference to preaching the gospel to the world (Rv 3:1).   We all remember the great mission force that came out of Europe. We also know how it died. America is on that same road. And if we might wonder why, then Jesus left a message for us with His evaluation of the Laodicea church that follows in Revelation 3:14-22.

 2.  Watch: “Watch” here may mean “wake up.” Those who are caught in the sleep of spiritual death do not realize that they are spiritually dead. Since they have created a “Christianity” after their own desires, they believe everything is fine. But according to the standards of the One after whom they call themselves, they are dead.

In the admonition to watch, Jesus may have been reflecting on the past history of Sardis. On two different occasions the city was conquered by armies that scaled the cliffs around the city. And in A.D. 12 the city was destroyed by an inexpedient earthquake. The citizens had trusted in their location, but the irony was that their location on cliffs was what lured them into a sense of false security. The exhortation to “be watchful,” therefore, was certainly a reflection on their history, but also a reminder not to trust in the deception that one can hand over the security of his eternal destiny to a good name.

Christians must be alert. They must be aware of who they are and where they are going.   They must not forget their purpose as the disciples of the first Missionary. Therefore, “Awake you who sleep and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Ep 5:14). Later in the letter, John would say to all the churches, “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame” (Rv 16:15). The consequences of not being watchful would be as Jesus exhorted His disciples during His ministry:

Now know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would not have allowed his house to be broken into (Lk 12:39).

In reference to the coming of Jesus, either “in time,” or at the “end of time,” Christians must always be prepared.   Jesus will come as a thief, which means that there is no possible way to determine when He is coming. The word “watch” simply means to be prepared at all times. The word “thief” means that we simply do not know when He will come. The point is that we should not become so involved in the affairs of this world that we are lured into complacency concerning the coming judgment of Jesus.

Jesus’ exhortation in this context is similar to that which He gave to His disciples in reference to the imminent destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, which took place about forty years after the following statement:

But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven nor the Son, but My Father only (Mt 24:36).

It does not take a great deal of interpretation to understand correctly what Jesus meant when He used the word “watch.” In the context of the statement above, Bible interpreters need to keep reading Matthew’s record in chapter 24 of Jesus’s statement. In verse 43 Jesus explained that if the head of the house knew when the thief was coming, “he would have watched and would not have allowed his house to be broken into (Mt 24:43).

The exhortation to “watch” assumes that we do not know the time of the “coming of the Lord” in time, or at the end of time.   “Watch” means that it is useless to speculate concerning times and seasons in reference to the coming of the Lord. All the senseless predictions concerning the imminent final coming of the Lord are simply the nonsense of prognosticators who seek a following through their challenged understanding of the Bible. What their predictions of a specific date of Jesus’ coming does, is encourage people to live in sin until the day before the supposed coming.

 The New Testament does not teach the imminent final coming of Christ. The word “imminent” means immediate. In other words, no New Testament writer wrote that Jesus was coming in His final coming within the lifetime of the first century Christians. If the Holy Spirit inspired the New Testament writers to write such, then He wrote to deceive the people into believing something that was false. We know it would have been false because here we are today, over two thousand years later. Now if the Holy Spirit did not inspire the early writers to lead the immediate recipients of the New Testament letters to believe that Jesus was coming in their lifetime, then the New Testament does not teach such today. Therefore, if anyone would use the New Testament to calculate some supposed final coming of Jesus, then we know that that person is truly a false prophet.   The next time we hear of someone using the book of Revelation to prognosticate some imminent final coming of Jesus, then we know that person is speaking nonsense. If we are eager to belief such self-proclaimed prophets, then we are immature children. At least this is what Paul said in the following statement concerning the reason why we study our Bibles:

Then we will no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of teaching, by the trickery of men in cleverness to the deceitfulness of error (Ep 4:14).

 3.  Known for works: Too often, the good worker will trust in his works, thinking that he is accumulating points in heaven that will tip the scales toward his salvation. Deep inside, many people think that they can do good works in order to offset sin.   But this cannot happen. No amount of good deeds can atone for one sin.   The theology of works for sin cannot be true, for we would never know how many works we must do in order to atone for our sins. Therefore, since works cannot atone for sin, then we must rely on that about which Paul wrote, “… knowing that a man is not justified by works of law, but by the faith of Christ Jesus …” (Gl 2:16). We must look to Jesus and the grace that He offers from the cross (Ti 2:11).   Even if one has a good name he must be on his knees in thanksgiving for the cross.

Because no man can keep law perfectly, then by “works of law no flesh will be justified” (Gl 2:16). So if we cannot keep law perfectly because we all sin (Rm 3:23), and no good work can atone for sin, then on what basis will any Christian be saved? There is only one simple answer: For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God (Ep 2:8). Could those in Sardis have forgotten this point?

 4.  Imperfect works: Were the good works of the disciples in Sardis driven by an appreciation for grace, or were they continued in order to maintain the good name for the church in the community? If they trusted in their good name because of the good works, then they were in trouble. The problem with a good name among those who are of the world is that it is the world patting one on the back. When one feels pats, therefore, it is often good to turn around and see who is doing the patting.

Jesus judged, “I have not found your works completed before My God” (Rv 3:2). The Greek word for “completed” means “brought to a full.” It may have been that they did not complete what they started. Their good intentions never realized finality. It may have been that they were caught up in the activity, but forgot the purpose for which they were striving as disciples. Whatever the case, their works were not found to have completed that for which our good works are to accomplish in our spiritual mental attitude.   If our good works digress into promoting a good name before the world, then we could be in fellowship with the church of Sardis.

 C.  Exhortations:

There is more than one exhortation to the disciples in Sardis. Each one explains an area of spirituality on which they must concentrate if they are going to prevent the flickering flame of their lamp from being snuffed out.

1.  “Things … ready to die”: We are not told the things that were ready to die. But the implication is that they as a body of Christ were dying.   The flame was flickering. Dead churches that trust in their works, are the walking dead in reference to their influence for Jesus in their areas. Spiritual strengthening is in order for legalistic workers to be restored to Jesus.

The legalist realizes that there is an emptiness to his efforts, for he is working for merit and not in appreciation of grace.   Sooner or later, the meritorious disciple works himself into frustration, and then dies if he is not willing to step outside his box of legal theology. He burns out on his own zeal to accumulated what he believed were points upon which he could base his salvation. He is thus dead while he works, and will come to the second death if he does not return to the grace of God that was revealed on the cross (Ti 2:11). Simply defined, legalism is one depending on his own performance for his salvation, whereas, grace means that one must depend entirely on God, and in doing so, work in appreciation of God’s grace.

 2.  “Remember”: Remember how it was when you first came forth from the tomb of water with Jesus?   If one’s zeal at that time was more than his zeal in the present, then it is time to do what Jesus said, “Remember how you had received and heard. Hold fast and repent” (Rv 3:3). They had fallen from their spiritual zeal for the Lord. The exhortation is that they hold fast to what they had, and return to the zeal they had when they were new Christians.

This is especially a problem as disciples grow older. They lose their zeal.   They start to lay back and trust in past deeds. They seek to die on couches. They need to remember that the Greek word “remember” in this text is present imperative in tense. In other words, Jesus was giving a mandate that they “keep on remembering” in order to keep on doing. There is no time now for rest. We must save our rest for heaven. We are certain that this exhortation from Jesus was not directed only to the youth among the Sardis disciples. The old must always remember the ministry of the eighty-some-year old Anna at the time of the birth of Jesus. She was not at home in a rocking chair, but at the temple where she was into the ministry of prayer and fasting (Lk 2:36,37).

There is no greater written commentary on the problem that faced the disciples in Sardis than that which was written to those of the Hebrew audience who also had been Christians for some time. They, too, had allowed complacency to creep into their lives. Every disciple who has been in the faith for some time, must carefully read through the following exhortation from the Holy Spirit:

But remember the former days in which, after you were enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions with those who were so treated. For you had compassion on me in my chains, and took joyfully the seizure of your goods, knowing that you have for yourselves in heaven a better and enduring possession. Therefore, do not cast away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise (Hb 10:32-36)

4.  “Repent”: Repent means that they were wrong where they were. Repent means that they were once right, but now had gone wrong.   They had fallen. Those who have lost their zeal for Jesus need to repent.   Disciples who have laid down their desires to manifest their appreciation for the grace of God need to repent. Those who are trusting in their past works as a meritorious treasure by which they will buy their way into eternal glory, need to repent. One must ask himself if he is a “stony ground disciple.”

Now these are the ones who are sown on stony ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness. But they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a while. Afterward, when affliction or persecution arise because of the word, they immediately fall away (Mk 4:16,17).

Jesus’ warning is that if they did not repent, “I will come on you as a thief and you will not know what hour I will come on you” (Rv 3:3). Jesus can come in time as a thief on those who are not prepared for Him. Such was the case in His coming in time on the unbelieving Jews who did not accept Him as the Son of God. Listen to Paul’s warning that he personally taught the disciples in Thessalonica:

For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety,” then sudden destruction comes upon them as birth pains upon a woman with child. And they will not escape (1 Th 5:2,3; see 2 Pt 3:10).

 D.  Commendation of the few:

 Now here is something that should make all of us straighten up and pay attention. It is the phrase, “a few names” (Rv 3:4). So we are all personally thinking, “Am I in that ‘few names’?” Jesus identifies the “few names” who are His. These can be assured that they are in good standing with Him.

 1.  “Few names … who have not defiled their garments”: This statement is made on the background of a city that formerly prided itself in social aristocracy.   Fine clothing was a signal of high social standing, and thus, those who wanted to be of high social standing dressed themselves accordingly. But a garment that was stained would never be accepted. It would manifest to all that one was not what he or she pretended to be. In Sardis, the majority of the disciples, in contrast to “the few names,” had stained their souls with spiritual death. They were not in “high social standing” with Jesus.

The church in Sardis had now digressed to the point that the norm was spiritual lethargy. “The few names” remained faithful, but they remained faithful among the majority who had given up their total allegiance to Jesus. When the majority of the disciples in any region have identified the “Christianity” of their area to be lukewarm, then it is difficult for the group as a whole to repent. And, it is extremely difficult for those Christians who are on fire for the Lord to survive among those who have fallen into the sin of apathy. The walking dead soon devour the living.

Nevertheless, “the few names” must remember that Jesus knows who they are. The “few names” need to remember the Holy Spirit’s exhortation:

Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal. “The Lord knows those who are His.” And, “let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity (2 Tm 2:19).

This was both the promise and call for repentance that Jesus makes personally in Revelation to those who have soiled their garments. The faithful few needed to remember that Jesus knew who they were. But the unfaithful many also needed to know that Jesus also knew who they were, and that they were in danger of being puffed out.

 2.  “They are worthy”: If “the few names” are worthy, then the unfaithful majority is not worthy.   Grace covers a lot of sin, but in this case, those who do not repent of their deadness, do not stand worthy before God. Grace will not cover spiritual lethargy. Grace will not clean a stained garment that is willingly worn.

By the time John wrote what he saw in the vision of chapter 7, it seems that a sifting was about to take place among the seven churches of Asia. The tribulations to come were going to clean up the church. Only those who purified themselves through the blood of the Lamb would make it through the tribulation.

And one of the elders answered, saying to me, “Who are these who are dressed in white robes, and from where did they come?” Then I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are those coming out of the great tribulation.   And they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rv 7:13,14).

These were those of a “pure and undefiled religion before God” (Js 1:27). In order to remain white in the blood of the Lamb, there was a condition. John explained,

But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 Jn 1:7).

If there is no “walking,” then there is no cleansing by the blood. The call of Jesus to the majority of the church of Sardis was that they start walking in the light. They needed to return to obedience. Only the blood of Jesus will make one worthy. And one can access that blood only by an obedient walk in the light of Jesus’ word. For the righteous who walk in the light, they must never forget where they are in the fold of God’s people.   They are safe, not on the basis of meritorious works, but on the basis of grace.

 E.  An endearing promise:

The “few names” must never forget the promise of God. They must remember, I will not blot his name from the book of life (Rv 3:5). It is within the assurance of this promise that the faithful few can find solitude, as Isaiah did concerning the promises of God:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord.   My soul will be joyful in my God, for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation. He has covered me with the robe of righteousness as a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels (Is 61:10).

In the finality of all things, we yearn to hear the words of Jesus: “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34). And then, Jesus promises, “I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels” (Rv 3:5). This is what we want to hear. And for the “few names” in Sardis who had not defiled their garments with apathy, it seems almost superfluous for Jesus to say, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rv 3:6).   The “few names” want to hear Jesus.   It is those caught in the religious quagmire of indifference who need to be exhorted to hear. We know now that the statement to listen was made directly to those who had defiled their garments. It was a call for their repentance. But for the “few names” who had not defiled their garments, the fact that their garments were not stained indicated that they were listening very, very closely to everything that Jesus, through the apostles, had said (See Jn 14:26:16:13). Jesus promised, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly My disciples” (Jn 8:31). The “few names” were continuing in the word of Jesus.

Those who remained faithful in Sardis were promised “I will not blot his name from the book of life” (Rv 3:5). The two sisters in Christ, Euodia and Syntyche, were written in the book of life (Ph 4:3). The “book of life” was a Roman register of the citizens of a particular city.   It was a register of the living citizens, and thus, when one died, his name was taken off the register. The book of life was used metaphorically by Jesus to reassure the faithful disciples that they were safe. The promise to the faithful Christian is that his name is written in the book of life. When he dies, his name in the book of life is the guarantee that he will transition into eternal glory. At the final judgment, if one’s name is not found in the book of life, then Revelation 20:15 will transpire: “And whoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.”

The metaphor of the book of life is significant in reference to understand that if one is saved through his obedience to the gospel, then his name can still be blotted out of the book of life at any time he might become unfaithful. The fact that one’s name can be blotted out of the book of life is totally contrary to the teaching of some who say that once one is saved, then he is always saved regardless of his behavior. We must keep in mind that the Revelation 20:15 passage states that one’s name must be there at the time of the final judgment. But the Revelation 3:5 teaches that one’s name can be blotted out of the book of life before he gets to the final judgment. It is crucial, therefore, that once one is saved at the washing of the waters of baptism (At 22:16), then he must remain faithful in ministry in order to remain among “the few names.”

 “The Lord knows how to deliver the godly,” but He also knows how “to reserve the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment” (2 Pt 2:9). There were some in Sardis who had “escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” but they were “again entangled” in the affairs of the world (2 Pt 2:20). Their garments became stained with sin. Peter wrote of such Christians, “It has happened to them according to the true proverb, ‘A dog returns to his own vomit,’ and ‘a sow that was washed, to her wallowing in the mire’” (2 Pt 2:22).

If one would deceive himself into thinking that once he is saved through the grace of God, that this grace gives him a license to stain his garment, then he should seriously consider the fact that there will be no stained garments in heaven. We must always be cautious. “For certain men have crept in [the fellowship of the church] unnoticed … ungodly men who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness …” (Jd 4). Lest we fall from this grace, we must commit ourselves “to Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy …” (Jd 24). Those in Sardis whose garments were stained were in danger of being erased from the book of life, and thus, snuffed out.

 [Schedule for next lecture:  March 22]