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Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Psalm 136 To Give Thanks: a Thanksgiving Day reflection

 

Today we’re spending some extra time in church to stop and tell God, “Thank you!” Today is Thanksgiving, a day when all Canadians are called to stop and give thanks for what we have. For followers of Jesus, we turn to God to give thanks, knowing that everything we have comes from God. It’s easy to think that we’ve earned what we have, that our hard work has gotten us to where we are at in life, but the reality is that there are always others who have worked harder than we have, are smarter than we are, have more skills and talents than we do, and yet we still have more. God, for his reasons, has blessed us with what we have, no matter how much or how little, and we’re called to be thankful.

But there’s so much more to be thankful for than simply stuff. Psalm 136 is a psalm that simply rings out in thankfulness, repeating over and over again, “His love endures forever,” reminding us of the reason of our gratitude, a refrain of praise that, by the end of the psalm, is firmly planted deeply inside our hearts and minds. We give thanks to God for he is good and his love endures forever. This first verse sets the tone for the rest of the psalm. The word for good in Hebrew is ‘tov’ and means morally good, desirable, pleasant, kind, and merry. Think of a person you know who is kind, happy, morally good, and friendly and you have a tiny glimpse of what God is like. This is someone that most people are attracted to, someone that you want to know and have in your life. This is why sharing your faith doesn’t need to be scary, because Jesus is someone that most people want to know, want to have in their life.

Our God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, there’s no one greater than God, no one who can do more, or love more than God. God’s great love is especially shown in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sin. Imagine what Jesus took on himself, all the sin and brokenness of the world, just because he loves you so much that he wants to be with you for eternity. His love endures forever! The God who made the heavens and the earth, the artist who created all the flowers, the night skies, the seascapes and landscapes, all the beauty and wonder in the world, loves you enough to die for you because he wants you to be with him forever.

God saves his people out of slavery and oppression. The psalmist is referring to the time Israel spent as slaves in Egypt and the oppression they faced there under their Egyptian slave masters. God hears his people’s cries and he responds. God still hears the cries of those who are slaves and oppressed, whether it’s young girls and women enslaved for their bodies in our country, or slaves in other countries around the world, and he still responds and calls us to be his presence in working for freedom for the slaves in the world. God can save you from the things you have found yourselves a slave to, he can save you from the brokenness in your hearts and lives, he can restore you again. Through Jesus’ death on the cross and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we’re saved from our slavery to sin, to addiction, or to the lies of Satan that keep telling us that we’re not worthy to be saved or loved. Psalm 136 reminds us that God’s love endures forever, his love for you never comes to an end and his love can free us, renew us and restore us.

God protects his people. The psalmist here talks about how God protected his people during the time right after God led them out of slavery from the nations around them who wanted to destroy the Israelites. As God led them out of slavery, God guided them, showing his people where to go and when to go, even dividing the Red Sea so they could get through the sea on dry ground, and then protecting his people by swallowing up Pharoah and his army in the water when he closed the path through the sea back up over them.

God has given us his Holy Spirit to protect us from our sin, addictions, anxiety, and all the other things that can break us and hurt us by reminding us of everything that Jesus taught, by praying for us when we’re unable to pray and talk with God. When we feel that we are being attacked by fear, worry, anxiety, and more, God doesn’t leave us to fend for ourselves, but, as Jesus promised his disciples, he will never abandon us or leave us alone. The Holy Spirit is not only God with us, but is God in us because his love endures forever, and he will protect us. And when we fall, when life gets hard and feels like we’re alone and forgotten, when we’re at our weakest, Jesus is there.

We’re reminded that God provides. He remembers us in our low estate and frees us from our enemies. He gives food to every creature because his love endures forever. Today is Thanksgiving, a day where many of us will eat an extra special or large meal with our family and loved ones. We often measure our thankfulness by how much food is on our tables and in our freezers, and sometimes we believe that the more we have, the more God loves us, but we need to hear this verse a little more clearly, “he gives food to every creature.” God’s love endures forever, but is also too big to keep only for only his people, but his love extends to every creature. Often God provides through us and the wealth and abundance he has given to us to share.

As followers of Jesus, as children of God, we’re called to live lives of thankfulness and gratitude. Ann Voskamp writes, “Practicing gratitude means being thankful, counting your blessings, noticing simple pleasures, and acknowledging everything that you receive. It is learning to live as if everything were a miracle and being aware on a continuous basis of how much we’ve been given. Living a life of gratitude does not mean that life is perfect. It also does not mean that we live in denial of the burdens that we carry or somehow rise above the challenges that we face by choosing blissful ignorance. Rather, it is simply affirming that there is good to be found in our lives even in the midst of chaos and difficulty. It shifts our focus from what life lacks to the abundance that God has given us.”

Ann Voskamp also shares some of the benefits that come from living with a sense of gratitude and keeping a gratitude list, writing down 3 things every day you are thankful for. These are based on different studies, “It’s habits that can imprison you and it’s habits that can free you. But when thanks to God becomes a habit — so joy in God becomes your life. And with this habit of keeping a gratitude list?  You:

1. Have a relative absence of stress and depression. (Woods et al., 2008)

2. Make progress towards important personal goals (Emmons and McCullough, 2003)

3. Report higher levels of determination and energy (Emmons and McCullough, 2003)

4. Feel closer in their relationships and desire to build stronger relationships (Algoe and Haidt, 2009)

5. Increase your happiness by 25% — (Who wouldn’t want a quarter more happiness!) (McCullough et al., 2002)

Faith and thankfulness go hand in hand and impact our daily lives, which is why we show up here on Thanksgiving, not just because the government gives us a day off, but because God’s love endures forever, it flows into us, out of us, and into the world, and back to God himself. Go from here with hearts filled with thankfulness and gratitude and may it flow into the lives of those around you.

Colossians 3:1-4 To Reorient Ourselves on Jesus

 

It’s amazing how much information is thrown at us each day, not all of it good, healthy, or true. Because many of us are online each day, we’re susceptible to all the stuff coming at us. To make things worse, Google and other online platforms have developed algorithms to send us only stuff that we’re already sympathetic to seeing or hearing; we call this living in an “echo chamber.” As I read and see the online comments, it seems as if many people have lost the ability to think well with a Christian worldview. While working onboard ship in the naval reserve, we were taught how to navigate by the stars, just in case our ship lost power and our electronic compass went down. We oriented ourselves in the northern hemisphere on the North Star, and in the southern hemisphere on the Southern Cross. This helped us figure out where we were and how to get where we needed to go. As Christians, we orient our lives on Jesus.

Part of what Paul is doing here in this letter is speaking into a heresy that’s creeping into the church at that time that says Jesus is less than fully divine, less than fully God. In Colossians 1:19, Paul reminds us, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,” and in Colossians 2:9, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” Paul emphasizes that Jesus is not simply a man raised to be with God in heaven, but Jesus is fully God as he is fully human. This is why we can place our complete faith in Jesus and orient our entire life on him.

This heresy that Jesus is not fully God is still found in a number of faith groups loosely connected to Christianity today. These faiths believe in Jesus, but make him less than fully God. They make us more and Jesus less. Whenever you hear someone putting more faith in themselves and less in Jesus, you know that they’re drifting away from Jesus and Scripture. This is why Sundays when we get together to worship and praise God, pray together, and dig into the Bible is so valuable because we’re reminded of who Jesus really is instead of who we make Jesus out to be to suit what we want to believe.

This is why we’re asking ourselves the question “Why Church?” We need the church community to help us each week to reorient ourselves on Jesus. Paul calls us, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Set our hearts on things above; make sure that the things you love most, make sure that the things your hearts desire more than anything else are heaven focused, are Jesus focused. Set your minds on things above; make sure that your thoughts and beliefs are rooted in Scripture and Jesus rather than the things of this world. This is why our worship services are grounded in Scripture, this is why we take a good part of each worship service to reflect on what God has revealed about himself and the world in the Bible.

Our passage flows out of Colossians 2:20–23, Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Paul’s talking about how some leaders are basing our salvation on doing or not doing certain things. Doing certain things and not doing other things may seem to make us wise, but Paul points us straight to Jesus instead; to how we have died to those ways of thinking and believing and find our identity and value in Jesus and through Jesus. We don’t change in order to earn our salvation; we’re changed because of our relationship with Jesus.

This whole idea of reorienting ourselves, on turning our minds and hearts back to Jesus is found in many places in the Bible. Paul, in Romans 12:1–2, calls us to renew our minds, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” This is about giving our complete selves to God, body, mind, heart and souls to be shaped by him.

Peter comes at this same thought a little differently, 1 Peter 1:13, “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.” Peter calls us to set our hope on the grace that’s coming at Jesus’ return. Our hope is strong and confident because we’re God’s chosen people being built into a spiritual house with Jesus as our cornerstone. The very foundation of who we are as a church and as individuals is Jesus Christ. Paul and Peter both keep focusing us on how we should live and love; talking about how our daily lives are supposed to be oriented on God and Jesus, shaped by Jesus’ teaching and life, by Jesus’ great sacrifice on the cross for our sin.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae, you can hear that Jesus’ return is on his mind as he encourages the people to keep focused on Jesus and to keep focused on how they live with God and each other so that they look like Jesus. Just before our passage this morning, Paul has a number of warnings for them, reminding them that their identity is not in what we do, but about who we are connected to, Jesus Christ, our head. In chapter 2:19, Paul talks about those who get focused on the wrong things instead of staying focused on Jesus, “They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” Professor Sandra Polaski writes, “the text reminds us that life in Christ is a unity with Christ that involves the focus of our whole beings on what is “above,” that is, the things of God.” This is what Paul is getting at when he uses this body image of Jesus and us, the church; he uses a crazy picture of a body that has lost connection with the head, making it paralyzed.

Sundays, we come together to worship and reorient and reconnect our minds and hearts back to our head, who is Jesus, and away from the things that have consumed so much of our thoughts and effort during the week. We get reconnected to the power that gives us strength and clarity about who we are. It’s not always easy because we bring our whole selves into church on Sunday, and often find it hard to separate from our fears and worries that have lived with us through the week and may even have disconnected us from Jesus. This can paralyze us because of all the messages being thrown at us, the anger, the divisiveness, the craziness that is presented as truth which so many people are often ready to believe. In this chaos, it’s no wonder that people are asking what’s really true and who we really are.

Over the past 18 months especially, I have embraced Jesus’ invitation to come to him. Matthew 11:28–30 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus offers us rest in a safe environment, but he also offers us a way to walk through life by taking his yoke on ourselves. A rabbi’s teachings were often called his yoke, and his students would be encouraged to wear his teachings. Jesus is telling us to allow his teaching to shape our souls, our life and even how we see and understand the world around us. This is another way of encouraging us to reorient our hearts and lives on Jesus, and the promise is that it will help us walk through life with knowledge on how to live, know what to believe by comparing it to Jesus’ teaching and life, and know who we are supposed to be as followers of Jesus and children of God.

 

Monday, 27 September 2021

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Encourage and Build Each Other Up

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up,” is one of my favourite verses. Yet I will admit that there are many times when I fail to live up to it. The world is filled with too many harsh words, too many angry criticisms, too many careless words, too much putting people down that creates a lot of hurt people, a lot of people walking through life doubting themselves and their worth. We need to be reminded of Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” There’s a huge need for more people like Barnabas, whose name means “Son of encouragement.” Barnabas helped Paul become the apostle he was. He encouraged Paul, stood by Paul when others were afraid of Paul, accompanied Paul on his first missionary journeys to provide support, and Barnabas built Paul up as a brother in Jesus.

Paul’s writing to the church in Thessalonica. Paul visited Thessalonica on his second missionary journey. Paul preached in the city’s synagogue for at least three weeks, and because of his ministry, a church was born. When Paul faced persecution at the hands of a mob, he fled to Berea, but the Thessalonians forced him to leave there also. You can find the story in Acts 17. This church experienced persecution regularly, and one of Paul’s reasons for writing is to encourage them, to give them strength. One of the ways he does this is by reminding them that Jesus is coming back again to claim this world as his own.

The chapter before our passage is all about the return of Jesus. Amy Peeler writes, “this letter is written in anticipation of Jesus’ return,This eager anticipation translates into another reason that calls forth Paul’s praise: the Thessalonians correctly discern the times and seasons. They know that the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night.” Amy Peeler goes on, “Dionysus, the god of wine, was worshipped in Thessalonica, and his nighttime celebrations had the reputation of being frenzied, ecstatic, orgiastic events. The Thessalonians, being called from the worship of dead idols to serve the living God, no longer should participate in such events. Instead of being unclothed they are to put on the specific clothing readying them for battle.

Paul reminds them that they’re people of the day, people of the light who shine the light of Jesus into the world. Paul calls them to be sober instead of drunk like the followers of Dionysus, the god of wine. Paul encourages them to put on armour to protect their hearts and minds from the influences and persecution around them; the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation.

We’re called to protect our minds and hearts, and Paul points us to the three great protectors: faith, hope, and love. Karoline Lewis writes, “As Paul nears the end of the letter he returns to the triad with which he started — faith, love, and hope. The triad recast in the imagery of armor suggests that possessing faith, love, and hope is not without its challenges. Indeed, this is how they are introduced at the beginning of the letter — work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope. Faith, love, and hope need to be lifted up and built up as marks of the community.” When faith, hope and love settle deep in our hearts, encouragement and building others up becomes more natural and automatic, part of our character.

With our hearts and minds protected, we’re able to live with confidence and hope in Jesus. “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.” Some of the Thessalonians were worried that if they die before Jesus returns, they’ll miss out on the kingdom of heaven. Paul reassures them that Jesus is Lord of life and death and died so that we can experience new life through his resurrection; we will not miss out on this new life even if we experience death here, so go through life with confidence and hope. Encouragement is much more than saying “great job,” or “hang in there, things will get better;” the best encouragement is reminding us who Jesus is and how we’re so closely connected to him that not even death can separate us from him.

What does encouragement and building each other up look like? It starts by paying attention to what’s going on in each other’s lives, what others are facing, what sort of challenges and stresses are happening in their lives. This means being genuinely interested in each other and that takes time; time together, time talking with each other, time walking alongside each other, and time spent sharing life together. This is what church looks like, or at least I pray it does.

The word encourage in Greek is parakaleo and means to urge, to implore, or exhort. When I hear these words, I hear passion and concern, a desire for the other person to experience hope and strength, a new way of seeing Jesus at work in their life. The verb to build up in Greek is oikodomeo and it can be translated as strengthen, edify, benefit, or restore. This is about helping people see how Jesus is working in their lives, showing them that they’re part of a church family and not walking through life alone. Encouraging and building up each other is as much about building up and strengthening the faith of others as it is about our emotions. When you encourage and build someone up in their faith, you’re building them up emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

We all need encouragement, we all need someone to build us up in those times when we’ve been knocked down, when we feel we’ve failed and our sense of self-worth is gone. In my last church, the financial situation became so tight that they could no longer afford a full-time pastor and I was encouraged to find a new church position. I felt like a failure, like I had failed the church and my family. I had doubts about my calling and doubts about my abilities as a pastor. The chair of council sensed that hurt and dropped by the church and sat down and talked about the people’s lives I had been able to touch in the 3 ½ years there, the people who had been given hope, comfort, and peace in Jesus through my presence there. She was a Barnabas to me, a voice of encouragement.

Encouragement doesn’t always sound like words; it can look like a side hug when you notice someone who seems to be feeling down. It looks like sitting down with someone after they messed up something and helping them learn from what had happened and to try again. It’s a reminder that Jesus doesn’t condemn us for failing, that he gives us what we need to keep going. It looks like being excited to see someone you haven’t seen for a while. Being an encourager comes out of our character. Philippians 2 reminds us, "In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!" It’s about caring about others so much you’re willing to be a humble servant, wanting to bless them and help them be who God's created them to be.

Imagine a church filled with people always looking for ways to encourage and build each other up to be who God has created them to be? Can you imagine the sense of community and fellowship, the strength between the people, the witness they would be to the community of the power of Jesus to change our lives, the glimpse of the kingdom of heaven they would be? Real encouragement comes out of knowing Jesus and what he’s done for us, knowing that in our brokenness, Jesus accepts us and loves us. But Jesus loves us too much to allow us to stay like we are and he gives us the Holy Spirit so that we might be transformed more into who God has created us to be through unconditional forgiveness, grace, healing and acceptance into the family of God. Encouragement feels like acceptance and hope. This is why inviting someone to join you in your walk with Jesus is so important, because you're showing that person acceptance.

In the end it's all about God. By encouraging and building others up, the people God brings into our lives get a glimpse of the kingdom of God; they experience a little of who God is and his love and commitment for them. Our encouragement rests in knowing that Jesus is coming back, that whatever we’re going through, it won’t last forever. Here you will find the encouragement you need and will be encouraged to build each other. It all leads to praising God.

 

 

Friday, 24 September 2021

Acts 2:36-47 Fellowship Connects Us

 

This morning we’re beginning a new series based on the question, “Why Church” or even “Why bother with Church?” Now I will admit that I’m a little biased because I strongly believe that the local church is the hope of the world, as Bill Hybels said, because our message is one of good news and hope for everyone in Jesus, as Peter talks about in our passage this morning, especially for those who have questions about the meaning and purpose of life, for those who wrestle with inner struggles, and for those who see injustice and wonder if there is any hope for justice and righteousness in our time. I admit that I have wrestled myself with the question “Why Church” at times, often when I’ve experienced hurt or rejection, or when I hear the stories of hurt, abuse, or rejection in the church. Yet I always come back to believing that the greatest answers to life are best explored and found in strong local churches that focus on being one together in Jesus as they work at imitating Jesus.

The first thing I think about when I ask “Why Church” is connection; a place to find fellowship. Fellowship is a churchy word. When you turn a dictionary to find out what fellowship is, you find answers like, “a community of interest, activity, feeling, or experience,” or “companionship” from the Merrian-Webster dictionary, while Dictionary.com defines fellowship as “a friendly relationship; companionship,” and “a community of interest, feeling, etc,” or as “communion, as between members of the same church.” At its heart, fellowship is about relationships, often around common interests or beliefs. This is why the word is so often used in churches and encouraged as a way to create closeness and unity. God is a God of fellowship, three persons who live in fellowship with each other in eternity, in unity and sharing the same goals for creation.

In the past 20 years, I can’t think of a time when an emphasis on fellowship within the church, never mind the broader community, is more needed. Church isn’t always easy; just think about how God created the church. God poured out the Holy Spirit on the Jews who have gathered from all over the Roman Empire and Africa to celebrate the feast of Pentecost. These Jews believe in Yahweh and the temple feasts and rituals, but were very different in the languages they spoke, in the cultures they embraced and lived in, and even in how they interpreted Jewish Scripture. They definitely didn’t always get along, or even understand each other; there were major differences between them. The only way they were able to get along was because there were only 7 festivals a year and most Jews only made it to one or two a year, so their time together was often short and limited. Later on, God really messes with them when he calls Gentiles into the mix, something so unorthodox, it blew some peoples’ minds. How can people so different from each other experience fellowship?

It’s that powerful connection with each other through fellowship that made the early church so strong, a fellowship that focused on who they are through Jesus and what he has accomplished for them on the cross, and in what they have together in Jesus rather than their differences. Peter keeps pointing to Jesus as the foundation of this new community being created by God. “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” Peter calls them “to repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Peter is telling them that their hope, their salvation is rooted in Jesus and their response to Jesus’ willing death on the cross to bring reconciliation between God and humanity is to repent and be baptized, to be baptized as the sign and seal from God of their new identity as followers of Jesus and restored children of God. The guarantee of this change in their identity is the gift of the Holy Spirit who is given to those who accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.

Fellowship is rooted in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We see this is the people’s response, three thousand people are baptized that day! Can you imagine what that looked like! The apostles heading down to the river and the people lining up to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and coming up experiencing the joy of belonging to God, and embracing those around them who are experiencing the same thing. There’s a joining together, a fellowship that begins here that goes deep. Can you hear the conversations going on, “Let’s get together to learn more about Jesus,” or “Let’s get together to praise God for his goodness and grace to us, let’s pray together that others in our families and among our friends can experience Jesus’ forgiveness and grace!” It’s the presence of the Holy Spirit in their hearts that brings them together in spite of their many differences, because in the most important part of their lives is a commitment to Jesus. Fellowship in spite of differences, fellowship because the focus is on what Jesus has done and is doing in their lives, drawing them together. This is the context we need to understand verses 42-47 in; Jesus is at work through his Spirit!

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common.” When you experience deep fellowship centered on Jesus, when you spend worship time, learning time, vulnerable praying time together, you start to get to really know each other and start to deeply care more about each other. It’s much easier to be generous and live sacrificially when you are living life deeply with each other. Fellowship is about being with each other regularly; learning together, worshipping together, eating and living life together. This creates relationships and friendships that can become lifelong blessings. This is what starts happening with this new community that’s growing and founded on Jesus.

All the things that separated them before become less important as their unity in Jesus becomes the glue that binds them together. What a message for us today in a time where which political party or philosophy we follow, our beliefs on whether vaccines and masks, and more separate us, creating all kinds of bitterness, anxiety, leadership crises, and loss of fellowship. We can always find excuses to separate ourselves from each other, but the Bible keeps pointing us to Jesus where we find unity, a common purpose found in sharing the gospel news, support and encouragement, and even healing, within the fellowship of believers. More and more I’m realizing the power of Paul’s words to the Galatian church, Galatians 3:26–28, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As followers of Jesus, we can put to the side all the things that divide us if we make our relationship with Jesus front and center together.

From there comes the fellowship part; learning about God together, the sharing of meals together, the time spent in each other’s homes and discovering who they really are, serving each other, caring for each other, and sharing the good news together. The Christian faith and fellowship are always other focused, leading us to place others above ourselves, learning to live sacrificially. Philippians 2:3–4 have really guided how I think about leadership and being more like Jesus, these are verses that a good friend and mentor told to write on my heart as a pastor, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” When we embrace these verses, fellowship grows deep and wide as we place our fellowship and unity in Jesus first.

These are some of the things that first drew people to the church; they saw a fellowship that was beyond anything they had ever seen, a fellowship that crossed all the barriers that too often keep us apart. Pamela Lewis describes the life in the Acts 2 church, “From these who were first baptized, flows all that we must know about the Christian life, which is meant to be lived in fellowship. In fellowship there is sharing in the same Lord, sharing life’s joys and sorrows, sharing the same guide for living, and sharing what God has given us in Jesus Christ. May we do these things gladly.” David Fitch connects this fellowship to God’s mission strategy, that when we “nurture a community in the redeemed life of Christ and Mission (including conversions) will follow.”

May our fellowship make us a strong witness to our community to the power of Jesus to overcome the things that divide and brings peace and hope out of chaos.

 

 

Monday, 13 September 2021

Revelation 3:14-22 To the Church in Laodicea

 

Jesus’ letter to the church in Laodicea is one of the more well-known letters in Revelation. We loved this one growing up because it talks about vomiting people up, images that most young boys, and some girls, find fascinating. The church in Laodicea is told to smarten up otherwise Jesus is going to vomit them out because they’re lukewarm. Uggh!

How does a church get so lukewarm that Jesus talks about vomiting them out because they taste horrible? It’s easy when you’ve been in a relationship for a long time to take the other person for granted. It’s not that you love them less, but you stop showing it, you allow other things to take your attention away from them, and you slowly drift apart, allowing your love to grow less hot. This creates lukewarm relationships, even with God. Laodicea was wealthy, but was destroyed in 62 AD by a powerful earthquake. The people of Laodicea completely rebuilt the city without a single drachma from the government. Their wealth came from the excellent wool that their black sheep produced; wool deeply coveted by the wealthiest Romans. This led to a sense of self-satisfaction and pride that resulted in a lukewarm spirituality.

Jesus tells the angel, I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” This is about their deeds, the things they do, that has gotten Jesus’ attention in a bad way. Their deeds are neither hot nor cold, they don’t help anyone or make any difference. As the letter is being read in the church, the people could see the city of Hierapolis in the distance where there were famous hot springs used to soothe sore bodies and ease the aches and pains of growing older. Down the road the other way is the city of Colossae, known for its clear cold fresh water. This water was refreshing and energizing. Laodicea received its water from Hierapolis through an aqueduct and by the time the water reached the city, it was lukewarm and minerals clouded the water, giving it a foul taste. It had to be run through purifiers before it was fit to drink. Jesus is saying they taste like foul water.

When you can take care of yourself and don’t need help from anyone else, it becomes easy to think that we don’t need God. Hosea faced that attitude hundreds of years earlier, Ephraim boasts, “I am very rich; I have become wealthy. With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin.” It’s easy to believe that because you’re a good person, you don’t really have any need to be forgiven; what have you really done wrong? You mostly keep the law, so you’re fine. Life’s good, so let’s enjoy what we have since it’s been given to us by God. If I do something wrong, I’ll just give a little more at church and it’ll be fine again. You do just enough to figure you’re still good with Jesus.

Jesus has a sarcastic streak in him that he uses to grab their attention. “You say, I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” Jesus calls us to “buy gold refined in the fire, so we can be rich; and white clothes to wear, so we can cover our shameful nakedness; and salve to put on our eyes so we can see.” Jesus is poking at them. The call to wear white robes that symbolize righteousness in contrast to their black wool, the eye salve that the medical school in Laodicea was famous for refers to their spiritual blindness, the gold is spiritual wealth that has passed through the refiner’s fire. This spiritual wealth is the life knowledge that comes from living through hard times when you find yourself searching for what’s really true, for who you can really count on. For us, that’s Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life. Jesus uses suffering to strengthen our faith, to draw us closer to him, and help us see the world through his eyes. The Old Testament calls us to be refined like the gold, to have the dross, the mess in our hearts and lives burned off, often this comes through suffering that refocuses us back to God, stripping away all the things we relied on, the things we had made into idols. Jesus died on the cross to purify us from our sin, just as the Laodiceans purified their water to make it clear again.

So many people live with disappointment, with lost dreams and hopes, living with relationships that could hold so much more. For many different reasons, we’ve learned to live with less hope and no longer strive to live for more meaning. Life hasn’t turned out the way we had hoped or planned and we live with regrets and disappointments. When someone asks us how we’re doing, we say we’re doing fine. We do lukewarm because all we see is our own needs and wants.

We’ve learned to hide our struggles and hurts really well from each other. A good friend who’s an actor once told me, “The church is filled with hypocrites.” I leapt to the church’s defense, but he stopped me and said, “All I meant was that most people come to church wearing masks, in Greek theatre, an actor wearing a mask is called a hypocrite because he’s not who he appears to be.” We wear masks is because we’re afraid people won’t accept us for who we really are; that they might look at us differently and judge us because we’re not doing as well as we could be. We wear masks to avoid examining our true beliefs, our true feelings, so we bury them deep inside us where we hope they will disappear if we ignore them long enough. We accept lukewarm and convince ourselves that this is good enough.

This is the church in Laodicea. On the outside they look good. They meet their budget, they help out when asked, they show up for worship on Sundays, but it’s not coming from a place of following Jesus, but from a place of self-sufficiency. They believe they don’t really need Jesus. They don’t recognize their need for Jesus, their need for healing from their sin. They believe they can handle everything themselves just fine. They do the faith things, but with a lukewarm heart, going through the motions, doing what’s expected, but not engaging deeply into God’s plan for their lives and the life of the church. They don’t want to do the hard work of examining their hearts and souls, of going for more: for deeper together, for inner peace, for freedom from fear, instead settling for wealth and getting by.

How do you change lukewarm? Jesus tells us, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” These letters to the churches are a call to respond to Jesus and repent of our self-centeredness. When Jesus calls us to be earnest, he’s calling us to be enthusiastic, to regain our excitement in Jesus, to open the door to your life that Jesus is knocking at. This means getting up from your comfortable chair, putting aside that bowl of chips, and responding to Jesus’ voice to open the door of your heart and life so Jesus can come in and eat with you.

Ephesians 2:10 says,For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Paul sees all of life as lived through and for God. Romans 12:1 says, "I urge you ... to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God." This offering takes place in our everyday ordinary life. In the same way, Colossians 3:17 says, "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus." Be hot and offer the soothing healing that Jesus came to bring to those God has placed in your life. Many people are looking for healing in their lives, in their hearts and souls that only Jesus can give them, but they’re unable to experience the soothing healing of Jesus until someone, you, invites them to meet Jesus.

Be cold and bring refreshment to your own life and the lives of your friends, co-workers, fellow students by inviting them to meet Jesus who can rejuvenate their lives again. Show them a fresh perspective on the craziness we’re living in and through right now by helping them see God’s in control and working his plans out for the salvation of the world. Help them see, instead of a wilderness of COVID 19, masks, vaccine passports, and infighting, show them a God who brings overflowing cups of refreshing life-giving water we can offer to others. Don’t settle for less than the full life Jesus came to give you; don’t settle for lukewarm. Grab the life of meaning and purpose God offers, a life focused on drawing others to God, inviting them to join us in walking the Jesus path of service and grace.

Everything we have is a gift to use to grow the influence of Jesus into our community, to care for those needing a hand up, and to use our gifts and talents to help our community flourish. These are the good works prepared in advance for us to do. A community of Jesus followers investing in others and inviting them to join us in following Jesus changes hearts, changes lukewarm into hot and cold, bringing healing, hope, refreshment and energy; giving us a glimpse of the coming kingdom of heaven that renews our passion for Jesus again. “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Revelation 3:7-13 To the Church in Philadelphia

 

Jesus is writing to the church in the city of Philadelphia, which means ‘brotherly love.’ The city was named Philadelphia to honor Attalus II who was honored for his loyalty with the nickname Philadelphos, literally one who loves his brother, by his elder brother, Eumenes II, king of Lydia. Philadelphia was founded in 189 BC along one of the major trade roads that led to the east.

In 133 BC, the Romans conquered the city. During the centuries before Jesus, Jewish families settled in the cities of western Asia Minor. Later on, Philadelphia is one of the cities St. Ignatius visits on his trip to his martyrdom in Rome and which he sent a letter. Philadelphia was built near the Anatolian fault lines, and suffered from earthquakes. An earthquake in the year 17 AD was so devastating that the Roman emperor Tiberius relieved the city of paying taxes. That’s how bad the destruction was! Philadelphia remained a prosperous city into Byzantine times. Now Jesus sends the church a letter praising them for keeping his word and not denying his name.

Jesus introduces himself as the one who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. Holy and true is easy to understand as Jesus is God and holiness is just who and what he is, and if you’re seeking to find out the truth about life, about who God is and who we are called to be, turn to Jesus and his life and teaching. It’s that reference to the key of David that sends us looking to the rest of Scripture to see what its importance is. Earlier in chapter 1 we read, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:7–8, Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” After Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus tells him in Matthew 16, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Jesus’s words echo back the angel’s words in Luke, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end,” As we read this letter, we can see this key of David is connected to the kingdom of heaven. Now this is a church made up of Jews and Gentiles. This wasn’t always an easy relationship, but it’s working here. We also hear that they’re not a strong church and still they remain true to Jesus instead of being overwhelmed by the culture around them.

Jesus knows them, knows their hearts and commitment to him. This is why he’s placed an open door before them that no one can shut. Jesus, through his death on the cross for our sin and resurrection from the dead, shows his power over Hades and death, and has opened the door to the kingdom of heaven for both Jew and Gentile. This echoes God’s blessing to Abraham in Genesis 12, that he’s going to make Abraham’s descendants a blessing to all nations. The blessing God is talking about is the welcoming of the nations into the kingdom of heaven!

How are the nations invited to come through the open door into the kingdom of heaven? Charles Spurgeon writes about the believers in Philadelphia, “What had these Philadelphian believers done that they should be praised? What they did was this— they kept the word of God: “Thou hast kept my word, and thou hast not denied my name.” They’re not ashamed of following Jesus, they’ve not fallen sleep, lost their first love for Jesus, or followed different teachings. They’re keeping Jesus’ word, working at living out his teaching and imitating his life to become more like Jesus. They’re not ashamed of Jesus’ name. The believers heard Jesus’ warning in Luke 9 and take it seriously, Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”

This open door cannot be closed again because Jesus has opened it. Those who are of the synagogue of Satan are likely Jews who are against the Gentiles being welcomed into the blessing of Abraham. This goes against everything they’ve believed about themselves for thousands of years; that they’re God’s chosen special people. They find it hard to understand that God chose them to open up the kingdom of heaven through being the blessing God has called them to be; that God so loves the world that he gave his son Jesus so that whoever believes in him shall not perish. God’s focus has always been on inviting the entire world to come through the open door into the kingdom of heaven.

This comes at a cost to the church, they’ve endured patiently, so Jesus promises to keep them from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world. It’s not always easy to be a follower of Jesus, they have little strength, Jesus says. Perhaps Jesus is saying this because they’re a small congregation, or perhaps because there are many new believers who haven’t experienced persecution and so find themselves sometimes wavering in their faith, perhaps it’s because the persecution is so strong that even if you’re strong, your own strength won’t be enough to stand against it. We hear an echo to Jesus say to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

Throughout the history of the church, people have marvelled at how regular people could stand extreme pain, torture, and persecution and still not turn their back on Jesus. In many cases they became stronger the greater the suffering. Often faith grows deeper as people suffer the pains and sorrows of life when they lose loved ones, experience great losses, they still turn to God and place their lives in his hands. They hear the Word of God and love it. They listen to the teachings of Jesus and they believe it and live it out. They confess Jesus’ name, guiding people to the open door of the kingdom even when it costs them. There are stories of believers who suffer greatly in Palestine, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa tells stories of great forgiveness by Jesus followers, similar stories come out of the Rwandan massacre and its process of healing.

How we live is part of our witness; how we respond to hard times, to painful times. Do we respond by relying on our own strength and trust in our own wisdom and abilities? This can lead us to become proud, which leads to less compassion and empathy for those around us who are struggling. Or do we grumble or complain about the unfairness of life, are we self centered in our suffering and hard times? This leads us to think that we’re owed a better life, that others have an obligation to take care of us and make us happy and do things our way.

Or do we show our faith in Jesus, trusting that he’s with us in whatever we’re going through when life is hard, looking to recognize Jesus’ presence, and confessing our need for him in our weakness? This leads us to stand with the psalmist who often praises God even though he or she is suffering, seeking God’s help while living in a spirit of gratitude and trust in God and Jesus. This is not always easy, but we keep our eyes and hearts God focused, keeping our lives focused on Jesus, seeking out companions on the road through life who will support us in the hard times by pointing us to Jesus, but who also count on us to do the same in return. The church Jesus is writing to is called Philadelphia, brotherly love. This is the kind of love that drives us to share Jesus with others, offering them the invitation Jesus offers all of us to come to him when we are weak and heavy laden, when we are weak and tired and he will give us rest. This love invites us to enter the door Jesus keeps open to the kingdom of heaven.

Hold onto Jesus; he has written on us the name of God and his own name, claiming us as his own. Keep Jesus’ word, follow his way and confess his name wherever God places you this week and may you experience his strength and hope.

 

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Revelation 3:1-6 To the Church in Sardis

 

The video calling us to wake up from our sleepiness reminds me of Sardis. Sardis had an interesting history in Jesus’ lifetime. Sarah Porter writes, “Recent archaeological research has unearthed a healthy city that collaborated effectively with the Roman imperial regime during the time of the apostles. Sardis recovered well from a devastating earthquake in 17 AD through tax breaks and imperial investments, demonstrated by new monumental architecture like a massive bath-gymnasium complex, the largest known Roman arch, an imperial cult temple in the town center, and second-century AD renovations to the Temple of Artemis.”

By the time of Jesus, there’s a strong Jewish community in Sardis well connected in the city and with government leaders while still keeping their Jewish identity and culture. The historian Josephus talks about how Emperor Antiochus III forcibly resettled some Jews in Asia Minor during the third century BC. There’re a number of religions found in Sardis: a temple dedicated to Caesar, another temple to the goddess Artemis, a thriving synagogue, and at least one church. The worship of the mother goddess Cybele was also influential. These different faith groups worked alongside each other, even invested in each other when it was good for them, competed for influence, while keeping their religious independence and identity separate from each other. It reminds me of the interfaith group I was a part of in Montreal. It’s a group of faith leaders from all the major faiths in MontrĂ©al working together to address moral issues and social needs in the neighbourhoods and cultural communities in the city.

Life’s good in Sardis. It’s a wealthy city filled with people who work hard and enjoy many of the luxuries in life. They’ve come through the earthquake and rebuilt better than before. They’ve a lot to be proud of. Yet the wealth, the influence of pagan temples, especially that of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, the moon and fertility, and the luxurious lifestyles adopted by many in Sardis, lead many of the wealthy and powerful people in the city becoming soft, apathetic, and immoral. Barclay writes, “that even on pagan lips, Sardis was a name of contempt. Its people were notoriously loose living, notoriously pleasure-and luxury loving. Sardis was a city of the decadence. In the old days it had been a frontier town on the borders of Phyrgia, but now it was a byword for slack and effeminate living.” This is the setting for Jesus’ letter.

Jesus writes to the church in Sardi. Jesus identifies himself as the one who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. Earlier Jesus let us know that the seven stars are the angels who are assigned to seven churches that he’s writing to. The seven spirits Jesus mentions here are mentioned later in Revelation 4:5, “From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God.” Earlier on in Revelation, the seven churches were described as seven lampstands, so Jesus is telling the church that he holds the churches and angels in his hands, an image of strength and power, and of closeness and protection and belonging. But it also tells them that he knows who they really are. One of my favourite images in the Bible is that of God holding us in his hands and that our names are written on his hands. We find these images in Isaiah 49:16, “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands,” and John 10:28–29, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” We see Jesus’ commitment to them.

Yet Jesus is also frustrated with the church here in Sardis. John is receiving this letter as part of the vision Jesus is giving him. I wonder how John heard this call to “Wake up!” Was there a loud clap of thunder to shake John up? The church in Sardis looked good on the outside, working with the other faiths and organizations in the city, gathering together for worship, likely taking care of their own members well; doing church stuff. But Jesus gets real with them, commanding them, “Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.” Jesus goes on and commands them to, “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent.” There’s a dry rot happening inside the church that’s not seen from the outside, not until you dig into the church a little bit.

Calvin Seminary has many students who had come from Korea and Africa. They marvel at the resources and programs that the average church in Grand Rapids has, yet it was always amazing and sad to see their disappointment after they’d been in North America for a year. Many of them felt too many followers of Jesus in our churches were sleep walking through life and their relationship with Jesus. One young man studying to go back to Uganda asked me why we allow our church members to remain so shallow in a self-focused faith. At that time, I didn’t know what to say, and even now, it would be a difficult conversation.

The church in Sardis did good things, but there was no passion for Jesus; they didn’t feel the push of the Holy Spirit to follow through on the Great Commission and share the good news of Jesus, no deep love of their neighbour where they wanted them to know Jesus. They’d forgotten God’s words to Abraham that he was calling a people to follow him and be a blessing to the nations; a witness to who God is. Jesus has trusted the gospel news with us to spread throughout the nations, not keep it for ourselves. Christianity is a giving faith, offering the world the greatest gift ever: the gift of Jesus, the gift of new life and salvation, the gift of belonging to God.

Pastor James McCord writes about the church in Sardis, which I believe often applies to the North American church, “It has been corrupted by ease. It has simply fallen asleep. It’s a church that has always been tempted to play it safe. Don't take your religion too seriously. The form and the ritual go on through with it. It is aesthetic, beautiful, everyone likes candles, soft organ music. It gives you time to idle your mind, to rest your spirit. You can even mouth the prayers that are said in common without any fear of their rising any higher than the ceiling, and you can be sure they will stop there. You will take no side on any particular issue, least of all will you become enthusiastic.” It’s an easy faith, being content with what you’ve done, sitting back and letting others carry the gospel to others. Life’s easy and good, so why do uncomfortable things like talk about Jesus. Why talk about Jesus with others if it’s going to make you look foolish for what you believe?

Jesus calls the church to remember: to remember who God is, who he is, what he’s done for us on the cross and the forgiveness and grace he shows us, to remember our need for new life and how God, through Jesus, gives us exactly these things and more. Jesus calls us to wake up and experience a full life, a life rooted in him. We’re wealthy and we’ve been blessed with so much, yet stuff doesn’t make a good life. For a good life that’s full of meaning and purpose, a life that makes a difference in our community, and the lives of those around us, it comes from being awake to what Jesus is already doing here and then joining him in doing it. We’ve been entrusted with the responsibility and privilege of introducing Jesus to those in our lives, to invite them to join us in walking the path of Jesus together, to grow more like Jesus, to build the kingdom of heaven here on earth; a kingdom shaped by repentance and Jesus’ love and grace.

Thankfully, Jesus lets us know that there are those who haven’t soiled their clothes, who are walking closely with Jesus and engaged in his mission to bring the gospel to the world, beginning in our neighbourhoods. For those who are looking to walk deeper with Jesus in order to share the gospel and your faith well with others, I will be leading another small group discipleship group beginning this fall, info’s in the bulletin. You can also be trained to share your faith through the 222 Discipleship program; both Henry Eisses or myself are able to train you in leading others to know Jesus and our faith deeper.

This letter must have impacted the church in Sardis. Bishop Melito of Sardis, who comes about 50 years after the Apostle John, is known for his piety and learning. Tertullian refers to Melito as an esteemed prophet who also wrote an Apology for Christianity to Marcus Aurelius. The church in Sardis woke up and became a strong defender of the faith and proclaimed Jesus as Lord to the world and its leaders. How about us?

 

Friday, 20 August 2021

Revelation 2:18-29 To the Church in Thyatira

 

This summer we’re taking a look at Jesus’ letters to seven of the churches in the area around the Mediterranean. These are all churches that were planted and started by Paul and others who travelled through the area bringing the good news of Jesus Christ. Religious, cultural, and government leaders felt threatened by this new faith in Jesus; a man crucified, buried, and then raised from the dead according to his followers, a man who claims to be God and is coming back again to claim this world and the entire universe for his kingdom. This often led to persecution and the rise of false teachers who mixed the teachings of Jesus with the practices and teachings of other faiths.

Jesus, through a vision to John who’s exiled to the island of Patmos because he refuses to stop worshipping Jesus, writes a number of letters to encourage and challenge these seven churches. This is a vision of hope. We come now to Jesus’ letter to the church in Thyatira. This is a city based on manufacturing and trade which lies close to the city of Philippi. Paul meets Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from Thyatira, in Philippi. It’s also likely that Lydia had an influence in bringing the Gospel news of Jesus to Thyatira.

Thyatira also has a temple to the god Apollo. Apollo is Zeus’, which explains why Jesus identifies himself as the Son of God, the only time we hear Jesus identified as the Son of God in Revelation. Zeus is the father god, controlling the weather and hurling lightening bolts at his enemies. Jesus’ words are a challenge to these Greek gods using images of power and strength to show who he is, “These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” Jesus is the only true Son of God; Apollo and Zeus are imposter gods. 

Jesus begins by praising the church, I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.” There’s good stuff happening here! Love and faith and service hearts all coming together during times of persecution and stress reveals that Jesus’ teaching and way has really shaped them. There’s some really healthy faith life growing going on here and Jesus acknowledges it. Their first love is strong and they’ve embraced James’ teaching that faith without deeds is dead by living out their faith in deeds and service. Reminds me of Bethel in so many ways.

Yet, there are some big issues that Jesus has with this church, “You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” Jezebel is leading people in the church down a different path than the one Jesus has called us to walk, a path based on his teaching, his life, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus warns them about tolerating the prophet Jezebel whose teaching is leading them to participate in pagan practices, including sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols. Hearts are being pulled away from Jesus. There’s a desire to embrace the cultural stuff that goes against the way of Jesus and hurts our faith. Members of the church are trying to fit into the culture around them while also trying to follow Jesus at the same time. If we’re honest with ourselves, many of us wrestle with these same impulses at times, wanting to fit in with our culture while also following Jesus, even if it means that we sometimes try to change Jesus’ teaching to fit our culture.

W.J Harrington writes in his commentary on Revelation, “The livelihood of Christians in Thyatira depended on membership of the trade-guilds, and therefore pagan association. Already, in Corinth, Paul had had to deal with the problem of guild-feasts and the purchase of meat that had been offered in pagan temples. John took a radical stance: there can be no compromise…. At stake was the question of assimilation: to what extent might Christians conform to the prevailing culture for the sake of economic survival or social acceptance? For John the only answer was: Not at all.… John was profoundly concerned that the communities be steadfastly united in face of the all-out persecution he felt sure was at hand. This was no time for internal conflict.” Jezebel is teaching that they can participate in the feasts and temple prostitution even while following Jesus. Jesus tells them that it doesn’t work that way. When we commit to Jesus, he claims every part of our life and loyalty.

The name Jezebel echoes back to a time in Israel’s history where a foreign queen led the nation of Israel far from God. We find her story in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings 16. Jezebel marries King Ahab of Israel and she brings her gods Baal and Asherah with her to Israel and they prove so popular with the Israelites as they mix worshipping Baal with worshipping their own God Yahweh, that at one point, the prophet Elijah cries out to God, wondering if he’s the only one left in Israel who is still worshipping God alone. Baal was a god of the fields, a fertility god so as part of worshipping Baal, Israel was drawn into sexual immorality and celebrating Baal with feasts, including food sacrificed to Baal. The echo in this letter to this Jezebel is strong and why Jesus comes out so strongly against her.

You can’t serve two gods at the same time. Jesus warns us in Matthew that we have to choose who we will follow: we can’t follow both God and Mammon at the same time. Jesus demands 100% loyalty. I’ve been told that Jesus is asking too much from us, but “How much non-Jesus stuff can you let into your mind and heart before it becomes so normal that you don’t even recognize that your loyalties have changed?” Isn’t Jesus’ death on the cross for our lives reason enough to give him our complete loyalty? Jezebel wouldn’t die for you. The Bible warns us to watch out for false teachers, for people who will come and teach a different way than Jesus. In the early church there were the Gnostics who taught about secret knowledge that they had about God that only they knew, here Jesus mentions Satan’s so-called deep secrets. Not sure what these deep secrets are, but they’re not healthy.

I mentioned Tertullian a few weeks back; even this great Church Father was led astray from orthodox Biblical teaching by the Montanists who had some strange ideas about the Holy Spirit. One way to test any teaching is asking, “Does this teaching make Jesus less and something, or someone else more; does this teaching help us walk in the way Jesus taught?” Knowledge and education are important and a beautiful gift from God; good and wise teachers are precious and valuable, but knowledge and education always come through someone else, and their beliefs and ethics will shape how they teach and interpret what they teach. This is why it’s important that our ethics and morals are shaped by Scriptures and Jesus and that what we hear and learn is taken in with a good knowledge of Jesus and Scripture. Any teaching that makes Jesus less important and the teacher or group more important is leading you down a wrong path.

Jesus gives Jezebel opportunities to repent, but she refuses. Jesus warns that he’s going to allow Jezebel to suffer the consequences of her actions because leading people away from Jesus has eternal consequences, “So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead.” One of the most intimate images of our relationship with Jesus is that of marriage and there are echoes of this image in Jesus’ punishment of Jezebel and those who accept her teaching. Jezebel will find herself on a bed of suffering rather than a bed of love and faithfulness. Those who accept Jezebel’s teaching have rejected Jesus, and they will also be punished. There are consequences for those who tolerate false teaching and practices that lead people away from Jesus.

Jesus ends his letter with encouragement to keep focused on him and he will reward them, “To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations… I will also give that one the morning star.” I love the promise of the morning star, a promise that Jesus will give us himself. Jesus’ last words to the church in Thyatira is to listen and hear what the Spirit says to the churches, a reminder that the Spirit has been given to us to point us to Jesus and to remind us to all that Jesus taught. This helps us to figure out true teaching from false, to grow in Jesus and become who Jesus has called us to be. Learn, grow in knowledge, study hard because Jesus calls us to work in all areas of life, but be aware of who your teachers are and what they believe and test it always with Jesus and his teaching and life.