Posts tagged ‘Revelation’

Review: Erasing Hell, Chapter Five

Up until this point in Erasing Hell, Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle have leaned heavily towards examination of what 1st-century Jewish beliefs regarding Hell were, what the New Testament records that Jesus actually said about Hell, and what the writers of the New Testament themselves wrote about Hell. All of this has had a rather deep theological weight to it. In Chapter Five, Chan addresses what all of it has to do with the average Christian. While this ranks as the shortest chapter thus far, it is by no means less important than the first four chapters. No theology matters much without the means to apply it to the Christian life, and the issues that Chan raises in this chapter are–like it or not–ones that the Church fails to grapple with today.

YOU FOOL

Chan begins by pointing out that Jesus threatens hell to those who curse their brother (in Matthew 5:22). The subject of Hell has been one that brings the worst in Christians, and as Chan accurately notes,

It’s ironic–frightening actually–that some people have written books, preached sermons, or written blog posts about hell and have missed this point completely. In fact, some people have slammed their Christian brothers and sisters in the process, simply because they have a different view of hell, missing the purpose of Matthew 5: Whoever calls his brother a fool may find himself guilty of hell.

Have you called your brother a fool lately? On a blog? On Facebook? Have you tweeted anything of the sort?

Here Chan seems to be engaging in some oblique reproof. Although he has not been shy about naming Rob Bell in previous chapters (see my reviews of the Introduction and Chapter One), this seems to be a reference to the controversy that erupted in the Christian blogosphere at the time Bell’s Love Wins was released — particularly as concerns a tweet sent out by John Piper prior to the book’s publication. The warning that Chan is giving here is that disagreement should not lead to vitriol — exactly what happened with Love Wins, and something that I was surely not the only one disturbed by (you can read some of my thoughts here and in the comments sections here). The standard, says Chan, is “that we would live holy lives.” Whatever our thoughts on hell, we must not demean our Christian brothers and sisters over the issue.

BUT JESUS, DIDN’T WE …

Chan next turns to Matthew 7, which he dubs “probably the scariest passage on hell in the entire Bible.” He offers the opinion that of all the hair-raising words used to describe hell — fire, furnace, everlasting, gloom, darkness, worms, torment — none of them are used in the passage. Rather, he finds the most terrible word to be many,  as in “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” (Matthew 5:23) Chan finds this terrifying because of the indication that “many” will go to Hell when they thought they were intended for Heaven, and it’s clear that he believes this will happen because of poor teaching on what the Bible says on the subject of Hell.

This is judgment day. This is the end. There are no second chances. This is the last peaceful breath that “many” will breathe before they spend the rest of their lives in hell. Put yourself there for a second. Fast-forward your life to that day. Will you sound like the many who will call out in desperation, “Lord, Lord, did I not  __________  and __________  and  __________ in Your name?”

How will Jesus respond to your laundry list of Christian activities–your Easter services, tithe, Bible studies, church potlucks, and summer-camp conversions? Are you sure you’re on the right side? What evidence do you have that you know Jesus? Please understand my heart. I believe I am asking these questions for the same reason that Jesus gives the warning. It’s the most loving thing I can do! “Many” will go to hell even though they thought they’d waltz into paradise. Jesus will say, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt. 7:23).

FROM EVERY TRIBE AND TONGUE

Chan next takes on the elephant in the sanctuary of many churches in America: racism. What does racism have to do with hell? According to Jesus, says Chan, everything. He cites Matthew 8 as an example of Jesus standing the cultural and social mores of 1st-century Jewish life on their end, noting Jesus’ astonishment over a Roman Gentile military leader whose trust and faith in the authority of Jesus far exceeds that of anyone in Israel.

Jesus spins out a short message about many people of all nations and colors and ethnicities that will flood into the kingdom. And it is here that Jesus says that the “sons of the kingdom” who think that God values one ethnicity over another (in this case, the Jewish people) are damned to hell: “The sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12 NASB). The teeth that once gnashed at the person of another race or color will gnash in the agony of eternal torment.

Chan throws out a figure that is both disturbing and sad: only 5.5 of evangelical churches in America could be considered multiethnic (where no single ethnicity makes up more than 80 percent of its congregants). It’s hardly necessary to point out what a glaring contradiction this represents to the unity of every tribe and tongue to which Jesus calls the Church. Chan points out another glaring contradiction, however:

We need to see the glaring contradiction of saying we believe in hell while making no effort to tear down the walls of racism and ethnic superiority. If we’re going to take Jesus’ words seriously, we have to make a more concerted effort to forge avenues of racial reconciliation and unity under the banner of the gospel of Christ … If this sounds irritating, then go back and read Matthew 8. It’s written for you.

BLESSED ARE THE POOR

The poor are mentioned over 400 times throughout the Bible, and Chan notes that while Jesus might have been ambiguous at times about the nature or duration of hell, he is positively clear about the necessity of reaching the poor. His longest sermon about judgment, as Chan remarks, makes helping the poor one of God’s criteria for determining who goes where in the afterlife. Chan quickly follows this with an admission that Christians want to qualify this.

We want to add all sorts of footnotes to Jesus’ shaky theology in Matthew 25–justification is by faith, not by works; you don’t really have to help literal poor people, etc … it’s ironic that some people will fight tooth and nail for the literalness of Jesus’ words about hell in this passage, yet soften Jesus’ very clear words about helping the poor … Why do we assume it must be one or the other? Let’s keep the teeth of both truths. There’s a literal hell, and helping the poor is essential. Not only did Jesus teach both of these truths, He saw them as necessary and interrelated.

THE TONGUE OF FIRE

The short epistle of James has not been without controversy throughout the history of the Church. Martin Luther hated the book, denying it was the work of an apostle, due to its famous statement that “faith without works is dead.” It is not works that Chan focuses on in a brief discussion of James, but rather its single mention of hell, which Chan feels is directed right at him as a teacher of the Bible.

In the context of warning teachers that they will incur a stricter judgment (James 3:1), James says that the tongue is capable of burning up an entire forest (v. 5). “The tongue is a fire,” James says, and it is ignited by the fire of hell (v. 6). Again, think teachers, those who stand up and communicate God’s Word to God’s people … No doubt James agrees that sinners of all sorts will go to hell, but for some sobering reason he saves his only explicit–and quite scathing–warning about hell for teacher’s of God’s Word.

This seems an apt warning from Chan for a Church that more and more is full of not just poor teaching, but outright false teaching (i.e., the prosperity movement). In this context, Chan sees this warning about hell in James as placed squarely in context with 2 Peter and Jude (discussed in Chapter Four), with their emphasis being a place for false teachers who claim to speak for God when they are really only speaking for themselves.

LUKEWARM AND LOVING

As in the previous chapter, Chan turns to the book of Revelation for some of the most terrifying images of hell. He notes that the epistle was not written to unbelievers, but to Christians, as a warning to keep faith in the midst of adversity. The descriptions of hell in Revelation 14 and 20-21, he asserts, were specifically written with the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2-3 in mind.

In these churches, there were those who had left their first love (Rev 2:), followed the heresy of false teachers (v. 20), and become complacent and “lukewarm” because of the earthly wealth they hoarded (3:15-17). It is to these types of people–people who confess Jesus with their lips but deny Him by their actions–that God reserves the most scathing descriptions of hellfire and brimstone.

Chan states that he has seen enough of the Church in other countries to know that not all Christian live as American Christians do. He sincerely believes that the Church in American has become “dangerously comfortable.” He depicts American Christians as “believers who ooze with wealth and let their addictions to comfort and security numb the radical urgency of the gospel.” Yet he also draws encouragement from growing numbers of Christians in America who recognize how at odds this is with what Jesus calls us to, and are making changes in their lifestyles. Chan closes by reminding the reader that in Revelation, Jesus addressed a few who had refused to succumb:

“You have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.” (Rev. 3:4)

Review: Erasing Hell, Chapter Four

Having delved into exactly what Jesus himself had to say on the subject, Chan and Sprinkle turn their attention to what Jesus’ followers said about Hell. Chapter Four of Erasing Hell is a short but pithy exploration of what the writers of the New Testament wrote about Hell.

HELL IN THE LETTERS OF PAUL, PETER, AND JUDE

Chan throws out the rather startling fact that in all thirteen letters of the Apostle Paul, the word hell is not used once, nor does Paul give any descriptive details of the place. Paul did, observes Chan,

… speak of “death” as the result of sin, whereby the wicked would “perish” or “be destroyed” by the “wrath” of God. The sinner, according to Paul, stands “condemned” and will be “judged” by God on account of his sin. And unless the sinner repents and turns to Christ, he will be “punished” by God when Christ returns. Paul described the fate of the wicked with words such as “perish, destroy, wrath, punish,” and others more than eighty times in his thirteen letters. To put this in perspective, Paul made reference to the fate of the wicked more times in his letters than he mentioned God’s forgiveness, mercy or heaven combined … he assuredly believed that the wicked will face a horrific fate if they remain in their sin.”

Chan reflects on how much creative effort would have to go into dismissing the idea of God’s wrath and the punishment of the wicked from Paul’s letters, and asks if what drove Paul’s efforts to reach the lost might have been that the apostle from Tarsus spent much time pondering the fate of those who had not heard or responded to the Gospel? He also clarifies that although Paul might never have gone into details regarding hell, he certainly,

comes pretty close–a passage blistering with passion and urgency about Christ’s second coming and the wrath that follows:

“since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”  (2 Thess. 1:6-9)

Notice that this passage reflects wrath that is retributive, not corrective — an issue that Chan addressed earlier, in Chapter Three. It is not an expression of correction or salvation, but one of vengeance. One of the finer points of Chan as an author is that he continues to come back to the points of the argument, not to endlessly and pointlessly hammer them into the reader, but so that the reader might see that there are many passages that support the Biblical case he is building.

Chan closes this section of Chapter Four with a rather cogent observation regarding Christians and the Church today: we don’t like the terminology that Paul uses when he uses words such as “wrath” and “vengeance”. In fact, we think it is–as Chan labels it–”toxic and unloving.” Yet Paul might well have insisted that such terms, when used to warn people of what was to come, was as loving as it gets. Chan makes the confession that as a pastor he has deliberately distanced himself from such language so as not to be associated with Christians who might revel in the idea of wrath and punishment. And yet, he also is bold enough to state this:

“I believe it’s time for some of us to stop apologizing for God and start apologizing to Him for being embarrassed by the ways He has chosen to reveal Himself.”

HELL IN 2 PETER AND JUDE

Chan skims the surface of two other epistles that speak of wrath and judgment on an extensive level. Chan compares 2 Peter 2 to a chapter from Dante’s Inferno, while he says the book of Jude reads “like a medieval tract written to scare peasants into unwavering church attendance and a steady tithe.” Chan notes the following uses of language or descriptions regarding Hell in these two letters:

  • “destruction” (2 Peter 2:1, 3, 12; 3:7, 9; Jude 5, 10, 11)
  • “punishment” (2 Peter 2:9; Jude 7)
  • “judgment” (2 Peter 2:4, 9; Jude 9)
  • “condemnation” (2 Peter 2:3; Jude 4)
  • “hell” (2 Peter 2:)
  • retributive suffering (2 Peter 2:13)
  • “the gloom of utter darkness” (2 Peter 2:17; Jude 13)
  • “punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7, 23)

Chan affirms these two books as capturing “an important part of the Christian message: God will severely punish those who don’t bow the knee to King Jesus.”

HELL IN REVELATION

Chan concludes this chapter by examining what the final chapter of the Bible has to say about Hell. Immediately, he notes that even 2 Peter 2 and Jude can’t come close to the description of Hell in the book of Revelation. He quotes Revelation 14:9-11 to illustrate an important theme in Revelation: God’s wrath is terrifying.

“And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” (Revelation 14:9-11)

Chan points out the physical description of fire and sulfur here, but more importantly notes the nature of that punishment as ongoing, with no end in sight. He observes that the author John describes the people being “tormented with fire” rather than being destroyed, and that the smoke of their torment goes up “forever and ever,” with “no rest, day or night.” Chan goes on to cite another passage from Revelation, demonstrating the fate of all those who do not follow Jesus–and showing that they share that fate with the Devil and his servants.

… and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:10-15)

As he notes that the lake of fire is the final destiny for the Devil and unbelievers, Chan very pointedly reminds the reader that the phrase “forever and ever” used to describe never-ending punishment for the wicked is the same “forever and ever” in Revelation 22:5, describing the reign of God’s people which will never end. Chan asserts,

“given that this terminology points to something that has no end in sight … it seems best to understand the word death not in terms of total annihilation but as a description of those who will be separated from God forever in an ongoing state of punishment.”

Lifting Up the Hood: A Sermon on Revelation 12

The following is the manuscript of a sermon I preached on Sunday, August 7 at Faith Community Church of the Nazarene in Ashland City, TN. The actual sermon as preached had some slight deviation from this text.

“I am haunted by waters,” Norman MacLean wrote, as he spun the tale of his family’s life and tragedy in Missoula, Montana in the early 20th century. His was a family who shared a passion for fly fishing, especially on the waters of the Big Blackfoot River, and their tragedy was the brutal murder of MacLean’s brother. As he grappled with loss and pain, MacLean reflected on how the river played a central role in his family story, remarking: “The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”

In any era, stories do more than just entertain. They can teach us right behavior, correct values, and proper morals. Our stories can show rather than tell the difference between good and evil, paint a picture of what makes a hero, give an avenue for catharsis, and inspire hope in the midst of helplessness. There are stories we remember our entire lives because they reach deep down inside of us and touch something in our innermost being. Such stories stay with us because they speak to us of truths greater than ourselves.

  • The orphan farm girl is stranded in a land so very far from where she belongs, traveling with three odd companions. She’s just trying to get to the wizard who can send her home while her partners want respectively, a brain, a heart, and some courage. In the end all four will find that within each of them is enough wisdom, love, and bravery to conquer any challenge.
  • With the destruction of the ship imminent, the science officer exposes himself to a lethal dose of radiation so that by his sacrifice, the rest of the crew can make it to safety. Blinded and dying, he tells his best friend, the captain of the ship, not to grieve for him, that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.
  • The young woman stole her crippled father’s armor and weapons and left in the middle of the night, pretending to be a son so her father wouldn’t have to answer the Emperor’s call to fight the invaders. Learning to be a soldier almost killed her, but she somehow survived. With luck, ingenuity, and the help of the other soldiers who came to respect her, she defeated the invading army and saved her whole country.

Today let’s explore a story that you and I are already a part of. It’s a story that began an eternity before any of us were born, and is cosmic in scale. Its ending has been written, but no one knows when it will happen.

A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days. And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world–he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.  (Revelation 12:1-17)

I wonder, have any of you have ever had car trouble while taking a long trip? I recall such a trip, during one of my summers off in college. I was on my way to a conference for the music fraternity I was involved with as a music education major. It was about a five-hour drive, and after the first couple of hours I began to notice that my car seemed to be a bit underpowered when I was taking some of the larger hills. Shortly after that, a strange noise began to emanate from the engine: fuh flup. Fuh flup flup flap flap fuh flap flap CLONK. With the engine dead, I had to pull over to the side of the road. I knew before I even got out of the driver’s seat that whatever this was, it wasn’t good, but as with any car trouble, I couldn’t know for certain how bad the situation was until I lifted up the hood and saw what was underneath.

In Revelation 12, we find the author John lifting up the hood of the car so that his audience – brother and sister Christians in the churches of Asia Minor – could find out just how bad the situation they were in really was. Mind you, they already knew it wasn’t good. They knew they were in trouble. John’s audience lived in the midst of the Roman Empire at a time when being a Christian wasn’t just frowned upon – it was illegal. The seven churches of Asia Minor, whom John had named earlier in Revelation, were experiencing suffering and persecution due to their faith in Jesus Christ, because they refused to worship the Emperor of Rome as divine.

Listen. Can you hear the signs of trouble? Fuh flup. Fuh flup flup flup.

These churches in Revelation daily faced a flood of images and propaganda that were intrinsic to the Roman worldview, to Roman imperial power, and to pagan religions. They were suffering for their faith, and they were suffering economically as well. The cult of emperor worship acted like a trade union, and you couldn’t get membership in the union unless you worshipped the emperor. If you didn’t belong to the union, you couldn’t even do business. It was economic exclusion. The Christians to whom John wrote were grappling with the grim reality that the famed pax Romana – the peace of Rome – came at great cost to the mass of people in the Empire. Rome was controlling and oppressing every aspect of their lives, from the economic to the spiritual.

And the problems they faced were going to get a lot worse: fuh flup. Flup flup flap flap.

The Revelation was meant to give hope to faithful believers in the midst of persecution and suffering. John needed his readers to get a look under the hood of the car, and to see what the situation really was. He needed them to achiever a greater perspective, and see that their suffering on earth was part of a bigger picture, which spanned the heavens and the earth alike.

John did this by weaving together images and stories that were familiar to his audience in Asia Minor, in order to demonstrate superior Christian truths. He began with a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, crying out in the agony of birth. Her child is described as one who will rule the nations with a rod of iron, which was a very well known Messianic reference from Psalm 2:9. It would be easy to conclude from this that the woman must be the Messiah’s mother, and it’s true that the passage contains elements of the birth narrative of Jesus, which we find elsewhere in the New Testament. Jesus’ mother Mary had to flee from those who sought her infant son’s death. John has something more than just Mary, the mother of Jesus in mind, in order to help his readers understand their own place in the order of things.

His description of the woman dressed in the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, and twelve stars in her crown hearkens to Genesis 37:9, where Joseph describes a dream in which sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to him. Although the image of the twelve stars in the woman’s crown would have been familiar to John’s original readers as pagan images corresponding to the 12 zodiac signs, the symbolic connection he makes is to Joseph and his eleven brothers, the twelve children of Israel. The twelve sons – later the Twelve Tribes — represent all of Israel, God’s chosen people. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets described Israel as a bride, and the Lord as her husband, as when the Lord told Hosea, “I will betroth you to me forever.” (Hosea 2:19) It was out of this Chosen People that Jesus the Messiah came, through whose work in the past God birthed the Church itself. John wanted the Christians of Asia Minor to remember that they too were part of the universal community of God’s people.

The tribulations that the brethren faced were part of a battle that was being waged not just on earth but also in the heavens themselves. John identifies the chief opponent in this battle as a great red dragon, which menaces the woman – the people of God – and threatens to devour her child, the Messiah. This image of the red dragon is taken from Babylonian mythology and was familiar to the churches of Asia Minor, coming as they did from backgrounds steeped in pagan religions and legends. With this image of the dragon tied to Satan, the serpent in the Garden, the message is that the power that threatens the people of God is not the earthly authority of Rome. Although Rome is a tireless promoter of its own glory and supremacy, the Empire is ultimately merely an agent and tool of that power. That power is Satan; the Word of God tells us that he waged a war in heaven and that he was cast down to the earth.

The engine, people, is screaming now: FLUP FLUP FLUP FLAP CLONK!

The dragon was thrown down to earth, and he pursued the woman. In his anger, the dragon came after the people of God, after the Body of Christ. Everything that the Christians of Asia Minor had patiently endured – the persecution, the economic and social marginalization – was a measure of something more vast. The apostle Paul was very explicit about the nature of this battle, writing to the church in Ephesus: “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12)

John was drawing the attention of the brethren to awareness of a more immense and supernatural reality outside of their everyday lives. Their pain and distress was a consequence of a cosmic battle, a battle that Satan lost in the heavens but continued here on earth. Revelation is very clear that the devil has come down to earth with great wrath, and that all those who keep the commands of God and who give testimony of the salvation of Jesus Christ are the targets of his anger. Now that is awful news. I can imagine that faced with such tidings the temptation for those churches must have been strong to simply pack it in, join the union, and assimilate into the wickedness of the culture around them.

But John didn’t just lift up the hood and tell them the obvious, “guess what, the engine is seized on the car, people!” The engine was seized, just like the engine of my car seized during my trip to the conference. Yet John had fantastic news for his brothers and sisters. Beginning in verse 10, a loud voice in heaven announces that the salvation and the power and the kingdom of God have come, that the authority of His Messiah is proclaimed! Yes, there was suffering and pain, but that suffering and pain was the last desperate lashing out of an enemy who was already conquered.

Do you understand what it means when the text tells us that Satan was conquered by the blood of the Lamb? It means that when Christ died on the cross, the wily old dragon thought he had scored a victory, but it was the furthest thing from it. The very act that had all the powers of evil chuckling and gloating was the means by which evil was vanquished, for when Christ died on the cross and ascended to Heaven, He prevailed over anything that sin and evil could ever do.

It is not just Christ victorious over Satan that Revelation depicts, but Christ’s people victorious as well. That victory comes first and foremost through His death and Resurrection, but in sharing in His resurrection, John says that their testimony of His salvation has helped to conquer Satan. John points his readers to the victory achieved by the shed blood of Christians who would not renounce their faith in the Lord Jesus even when the price for that was their own life. These are Christian martyrs whom John describes, men and woman who placed fidelity to Christ above worldly peace, financial security, or personal safety. They have conquered Satan’s sway over them through their loyalty to a principle laid out in John 12:25, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Do you understand the significance of the good news that John was sending to Asia Minor? Yes, the engine of the car has seized, and it feels like you’re stranded all alone by the side of the road. But you have the best roadside assistance you can get – you have the Lord Jesus Christ, who will not only never leave you or forsake you, but he is going to replace your engine with a new engine, one that will never stop running!

I wonder, sometimes, if we don’t have difficulty placing ourselves into stories. I wonder if when it comes to a passage like this, we get so focused on understanding what it says that we miss that the story hasn’t ended yet, and that we’re part of it. You and I ride in the same car of which John lifted up the hood. It’s true, John was writing to specific Christians in specific churches, but we too are his brothers and sisters. We too are part of the Body of Christ, united together across all the centuries by the saving grace of God expressed through the death of Jesus on the cross.

It’s perhaps hard for Christians today, particularly Western Christians, to relate to the idea of being persecuted for their religious faith. In this nation, Christians have been blessed in that as a body we have never been prevented from following Jesus. It might be even harder for us to relate to economic exclusion or social marginalization due to Jesus. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that there is not real suffering and pain among Christians today, as many grapple with a poor economy and high unemployment.

As holiness people, I do think that we can relate to being excluded or marginalized due to our beliefs. As a church in the Wesleyan tradition, we Nazarenes strive to be holy people in a world that does not value holiness. This often prohibits us from full participation in popular culture. We have historically taken a stance of abstinence due to the harmful consequences on human life that alcohol can have, setting us apart from a dominant culture in which social drinking is an accepted norm. As Nazarenes, we desire to choose what our Manual calls, “the high road of holy living” when it comes to entertainment. This excludes us from watching many movies or television shows, due to their glorification of violence, sensuality, and the profane. The cost of giving in to what our culture says is OK is the same cost the churches of Revelation faced: to turn away from God and His standards.

What’s your story today, my friends? Are you suffering, haunted by the memory of tragedies in your lives? Or are you facing obstacles right now that seem insurmountable and hopeless? Take heart. You are part of the same battle, and facing the same enemy today that the Christians of Asia Minor faced in the first century. Satan continues to focus his wrath on all who follow the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. Revelation 12 tells us that Satan knows that his time is short, and his wrath is directed against us until Jesus returns, hoping to turn as many away from Christ as he can. Be encouraged by the same words that John used to encourage his afflicted fellows: we have conquered by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of the testimony of those who will not be turned from Jesus Christ even though it cost them their lives. For now have come the salvation and the power and kingdom of our God and the authority of His Messiah, who died to give you eternal life.

Are You a Lukewarm Laodicean?

“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation: I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”  Revelation 3:14-22

Christ’s indictment of the church had to due with the church’s complacency. Christ used the physical nature of their life situation to make a metaphor regarding the spiritual condition of the Laodiceans. Laodicea’s water supply traveled 6 miles through an underground aqueduct before it arrived at the city foul, dirty, and tepid. It was neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm — just as Christ describes the church there. This was in contrast to other nearby cities. The city of Hierapolis was noted for the soothing, healing properties of its hot springs, while Colossae was esteemed for the fresh, cold waters of the springs that supplied it with water. The metaphor is that cold or hot water is good for something, but lukewarm water is not. The point of Christ’s rebuke was the utter worthlessness of what the congregation had done and was doing. The Laodiceans  lacked any true passion for Christ.

The church in Laodicea proclaimed themselves to be wealthy and in need of nothing, when in reality they suffered from spiritual destitution. Laodicea was a wealthy city; it was known as a banking center, it was famous for its textile industry, which produced soft, black wool, and it was the location of an ancient medical school which produced an eye salve. The Laodiceans had placed more trust in the creature comforts which came from material prosperity than they had in the Lord. They were so contented and smug that they couldn’t see that they actually lacked everything important, and thus Jesus had to remind them that only He had what they needed: gold refined by fire (spiritual currency), white robes (to cover their spiritual nakedness), and salve for their eyes (so their spiritual sight might be restored).

Now all this is fairly condemning stuff, yes? Yet there is a promise of redemption in this for the Laodiceans. Jesus’ reproof and discipline are for those whom He loves. Despite the church being neither hot nor cold – of no use to the Lord – and despite the church’s misplaced trust, Jesus still loved the Laodiceans. He still loved even the most “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” of his people. And thus He calls them to “be earnest, therefore, and repent.”

The last sin that any Christian or any church wants to admit to is that they are Laodiceans, that they are — as New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III has put it — “complacent, lacking in zeal, self-centered in behavior, and accommodate too much to the secular culture outside the Church.” And yet that is the state of many of our churches today, and many of the Christians that sit in the pews inside them. The fact is that too many churches are comfortable with mediocrity, and sadly that is why many churches – in many denominations – are in decline.

Are we in the Church of the Nazarene ourselves Laodiceans? To the extent that we are complacement about certain things, I believe that we are. When we fail to confront injustice, when we tolerate and condone gossip, when we do not challenge spirituality that is at best mediocre, when we stand idly by during the slow, painful death of some of our churches, when we do nothing to minister to our local communities, when we do and say nothing when other peoples’ dignity is stripped from them … then we are neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. We don’t stand on or for anything in the midst of such complacency, certainly not for Christ.

It’s certainly appropriate to ask if we as individual Christians and as the Church as a whole are being obedient to God. If not, then may our repentance be earnest and sincere, and may He show His love through mercy extended to us.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 734 other followers

%d bloggers like this: