Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Response of Jesus to Pergamum (Rev. 2:12)

As with most of the seven churches, we don’t have information about the origin of the church in Pergamum. Perhaps it commenced through evangelism connected to Paul’s time in Ephesus when the inhabitants of Asia heard about the word of God (Acts 19:10).
We can see from this brief letter that the church in Pergamum had known persecution in the recent past and had remained loyal to Jesus despite losing at least one of their members during that persecution. Perhaps if Jesus had been describing their situation some time before, they could have been like the church in Smyrna and not received a rebuke from Jesus. But Jesus does not only focus on the past – he wants them to deal with what they are now, with how they are responding to the ongoing threat of opposition from within their city.
Their current situation explains why Jesus describes himself as the One who has the sharp two-edged sword. As we can see from the vision in Revelation 1:16, this sword is not in the hand of Jesus; rather, it is described as coming from his mouth, which means that the sword is describing the possibility of verbal judgement against those who were engaged in wrong practices and teaching.
We know that the imagery of the sword is used in the Bible to symbolise the authority of the state to impose capital punishment (Rom. 13:4). Apparently, Rome had given to the city of Pergamum the power to impose capital punishment – Pergamum was where the Romans located the administrative centre of the province for a time. It is not difficult for us to see the connection. The Christians in Pergamum lived under the reality that the city authorities could deal with them harshly if they chose to do so. Yet the believers had to realise that they were also under another authority, that of Jesus, and he has the authority and ability to deal with what was wrong in the church.
This is a reminder that Jesus is the One who possesses total power. Earthly powers, including those who oppose his church, will come and go, but the reign of Jesus remains total through it all. Here the question however is, will he use his power for or against the church in Pergamum? Or at least, for or against some of them? We will find out in later readings.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Learning from the Church in Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11)

There is no rebuke made by Jesus about the church in Smyrna, yet she seems to have been the church of the seven who suffered the most. Here we are reminded that we cannot judge spirituality by providence. Their losses were not evidence of divine judgement but of their determined devotion to Jesus. It was obvious that they put Jesus first. And we can learn several important lessons from them.
How do we hold out against strong opposition? The church in Smyrna was under attack from the pagan government and from the religious Jews. They did not have powerful friends in the city. The way that they would hold out against their opponents was by having big views of Jesus and his work and by keeping in mind the great future that belongs to the people of God.
We do not need a lot of earthly resources to survive. The Christians in Smyrna had little of this world’s assets. Yet they had a future because Jesus informed them that only some of them would be arrested and killed. It is well-known that usually churches that suffer for the Lord survive against all the odds. Smyrna had a future because at the time Jesus spoke there was no threat to its lampstand from him.
The devil hates the people of God. We need to remind ourselves that the devil is consistent in this regard. He hates God and his people. While he cannot touch God, he does aim to destroy the church and sometimes the method he favours is persecution. There are many churches today going through the experience that Smyrna endured towards the end of the first century.
We can bring pleasure to the Saviour as he walks around the church. As we have seen, the letters to the seven churches are the response by Jesus to what he discovered when he walked among the churches. We are told what he felt when he walked near the church in Laodicea. He would have had a very different reaction to the devoted saints in Smyrna. The day is coming when they will hear him say to them, ‘Well done!’

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Jesus Speaks to Us (Rev. 2:11)

The other churches would hear what Jesus had predicted concerning the ongoing persecution in Smyrna. Inevitably, such information would cause brotherly concern and personal fear that the same persecution might come to them as well. What application should they take from what had been said about Smyrna? The application was to realise that true believers would not be hurt by the second death. 
What is the second death? Revelation 21:8 says that it is a description of eternal punishment. The first death is physical, and for some it comes through martyrdom. Others will experience it in other ways. Yet there is something common to all true believers and that is they shall never undergo the despair of a lost eternity. What is important ultimately is not how we succumb to the first death but whether or not we will experience the second death. Those who trust in Jesus and serve him with devotion will never be affected by the second death. 
Jesus points out that the second death is painful. This is a reminder that a lost eternity is a conscious experience and we can say that it will be painful physically, intellectually and emotionally. Intellectually, those who suffer it will know that it will never end, so they will experience hopelessness. And who can estimate the effect of such despair on the feelings of those who endure it? 
Why would Jesus remind the churches of this reality? One reason would be to remind the believers of the importance of personal gratitude to the God of salvation. Another reason would be to stress the urgency of evangelism, that those heading towards the second death would be warned about it. And a third would be to respond intelligently when they heard that the believers in Smyrna had suffered martyrdom, because although their deaths would bring sorrow they would not bring the despair linked to those who die the second death. 

Friday, 27 January 2017

The counsel and comfort of Jesus (Rev. 2:10)

Jesus informs the believers in Smyrna that further suffering is coming. Some of them are going to be arrested and put to death – prison in those days was usually only a place where people were held before they were executed or used in the arena to fight wild animals. How were they to deal with this information?

First, there had to be a resolve, which was that they were not to be afraid of the sufferings. If this comment had come from someone else, then the believers may have imagined that this was a call to a form of stoicism because the informant would not be able to help them. But since it came from Jesus, his instructions always carry with them the promise of strength to obey them. They would know that he would be with them in the trials.

Second, there had to be realisation of the purpose of trials. Jesus informs them that the trials are designed to test them. Of course, the devil arranges the arrests in order to destroy them, but behind the scenes Jesus uses the adversities to give them authenticity, and from that would flow assurance. The trials would bring good. Moreover they had to realise that the period of trial had been fixed by Jesus and in comparison with other possibilities the period of trouble would be short (ten days).

Sometimes, the will of Jesus for his suffering people is to allow further suffering. Such prolonged suffering does not mean that Jesus ceases to be sovereign. Instead, he is focussed on their sanctification, on their becoming increasingly like him. When the devil is raging and seems about to crush a church, remember that the crushing adds to the fragrance that is recognised in heaven. The beauty of becoming like Jesus reveals the hidden upholding of Jesus that sanctifies his followers.

The Saviour gives a great promise to them. Since the promise is linked to what happened at the athletic games it is possible that he is indicating that their deaths will take place in the arena where races were held. Victors in races received a laurel crown which soon lost its lustre. In contrast, those who will pay the price of martyrdom are assured that they will have endless life.

The gift of life will be given to each of them personally by Jesus when he returns. So the suffering church in Smyrna was told to gather comfort from the certain blessings of the future. Thinking about the life to come would give each of them strength as they passed through a fiery ordeal. Identification with Jesus often means following the path that he walked, which was suffering unto death and raised to glory. 

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The commendation of Jesus (Rev. 2:9)

The Saviour had visited the church in Smyrna and observed their situation. He mentions three aspects of their circumstances. First, they are experiencing persecution for their faith. Their experience is different from the church in Ephesus, even although it was close by. Second, he knows that persecution has been costly for them because it has made them poor (the word translated poverty was used of beggars). Probably they have lost their possessions. Third, the persecution seems to have been initiated by the Jews, who have slandered the Christians before the civil authorities. This was a common experience for the first-century church.

Yet things are not what they seem to be and Jesus points out two such details. First, the Christians in Smyrna, although they have lost everything, are not poor. Instead they are the richest people in Smyrna because their treasures are in heaven. The heavenly Banker assures them that he is protecting their investments, and these cannot be lost no matter what happens to them. In this regard, they were the opposite of the church of Laodicea.

Second, Jesus assures the Christians in Smyrna that they, and not the Jews, are the people of God. In contrast, the Jewish synagogue in Smyrna is actually the possession of Satan. This is very strong condemnation by the One who knows the hearts of men. Both the Christian community and the Jewish synagogue would have used the Old Testament: one of them had the light of God and saw Jesus in the scriptures, the other were blinded by the devil and opposed Jesus and his people. Jesus here says what Paul says elsewhere that a true Jew is one that is a Jew inwardly. The true circumcision are those who glory in Christ Jesus as they worship God (Phil. 3:3).

So Jesus assures his suffering people of their permanent identity and of their priceless investments.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Who is Jesus? (Rev. 2:8)

The Lord Jesus in this description of himself states the wonder of his person, in that he is both God and man. We see his deity in the claim that he is the first and the last - it is a divine title used in the Old Testament of God (Isa. 44:6; 48:12). And we see his humanity in his claim that he died and came back to life.

As far as his deity is concerned, Jesus says that he is the originator of all things – the Creator, and he is the one who will wind up the current creation. So he is saying that he is the Controller of all things. In his human nature, he defeated death, the most powerful enemy of the human race. Even death cannot remove him from the place of supreme authority. Although he died, he reigns. 

So the Smyrnians are reminded that Jesus is a great person who possesses two incredible abilities. He is the source of natural life and he is the source of resurrection life. The inhabitants of Smyrna were recognised for their devotion to the Roman emperor and he had given them rewards within his authority and power. In a far higher way, the Christians in Smyrna are urged to show their devotion to a far superior Ruler who could give them far greater benefits, even eternal ones.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

The Church in Smyrna (Rev. 2:8)

The city of Smyrna was located about thirty-five miles from Ephesus (today, it is known as Ismir). It was a famous city in ancient times, highly regarded by the Roman authorities for its devotion to the Emperor. In later times, it retained its prominence. The author of the comments on Revelation in the Matthew Henry commentary says that in his day it was well-known to merchants.

The origins of the church in Smyrna are unknown. It is not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul says that when he was in Ephesus all of Asia heard the word of God (Acts 19:10), so it is likely that the gospel was taken from Ephesus to the surrounding locations. What we have here may be a letter to a daughter church, a church that, unlike its mother church, receives no condemnation from Jesus.

The city of Smyrna itself had undergone a kind of resurrection. Old Smyrna had been destroyed in 580BC, but the city had been rebuilt about 290BC. The name of the city means myrrh and it is often pointed out that myrrh has to be crushed in order for its fragrance to be spread. It is not hard to see the relevance of those two features to the message that John is told to send to the church there. The letter mentions future resurrection and current crushing.

The church in Smyrna is famous for a persecution that took place about sixty years after this letter was sent. In AD155, the well-known Christian Polycarp was put to death in Smyrna. He was the leader of the church at that time. In words that he said at that time, he revealed that he had been a Christian for eighty-six years. That would take us back to around AD70, which suggests that he had already been a believer for twenty years when this letter arrived from Jesus. Polycarp survived the suffering at that time, but later as an old man he gained the martyr’s crown.

The church in Smyrna does not get a rebuke from Jesus in his letter. We know that they were a congregation of imperfect people, because every church is composed of such. Like every church, Smyrna has something to teach us. Ephesus tells us that we can lose our first love as we engage in church life. Smyrna tells us that we can have a warm, glowing, burning love for Jesus in the most difficult of circumstances.

Monday, 23 January 2017

  What could the Church in Ephesus say to us? (Rev. 2:1-7)

As we think about what Jesus said to that church, the big question we should ask is not, ‘How right is our theology?’ Correct theology is essential, but if that is all that we have, Jesus does not want us to be a church. The big question is not, ‘What activities and programmes do we have?’ Such things are essential, but if that is all that we have, Jesus does not want us to be a church. There must be first love along with correct theology and helpful activities. If we have not got first love, we are on the way out.

How can we know that we have left our first love? If we spend time with Jesus in his Word, speak to him in prayer, and speak about him enthusiastically to others, we have our first love. If we don’t do these things, we have lost it.

How can we recover the lost love? Repent, says Jesus. I wonder how Jesus said the word ‘left’ when he described the failure of the Ephesians. Was he angry, sad, disappointed, loving? Sure, we can repent by looking at our failures, confessing them to Jesus, and experiencing restoration, and that is good. But we need encouragements to return, and one of the encouragements is that Jesus misses our company. He walked in the church in Ephesus and found them too busy to notice. Does that happen in our church?

Still, he made sweet promises to the members of the church and assured them that they could have a wonderful time yet in heaven. They were exhorted to become overcomers, even as we are exhorted. We overcome by depending on him and delighting in him. When we do, we can look forward to experiencing the fullness of life endlessly in the world to come.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The consolation of Jesus (Rev. 2:7)

Jesus provides the church in Ephesus with comfort. The comfort is not connected to anything on earth. Instead he tells them about life in heaven and that it is possible for them to participate in it. This is the power of future grace, how what we are going to get causes us to focus on it. We all know that the prospect of a future event, such as a holiday, can make the discomforts of the present bearable.

The participants in the heavenly experience are said to be conquerors or overcomers on earth. The description points to the reality of spiritual conflict, and it is not difficult for us to see here a reference to the spiritual foes of believers – the world, the flesh and the devil. It also points to the possibility of victory, even as Paul says in Romans 8 that believers can be more than conquerors through him who loved them.

On that great future day, the King of kings will grant something. What ideas come to mind through the word ‘grant’? Obviously, it refers to something that is freely given – one does not purchase a grant. In addition, when something is granted, it is usually permanent unless there is a reason for specifying a shorter period. So here Jesus is stating that he will freely give something for ever.

The benefit that will be granted to the overcomer is to eat of the tree of life. This is a reference to what used to happen in the Garden of Eden. There the tree of life was the way to live forever. So Jesus is promising eternal life to every overcomer.

But what is eternal life, which is illustrated here by the illustration of eating? Eternal life is to know God the Father and Jesus (John 17:3). In heaven, we will go to the source of infinite supplies and experience what he provides. We can imagine how the believers in Ephesus, who left their first love, but who recalled, repented and repeated their lives of love, have been feeding there for almost two thousand years.

Jesus also mentions the position of the tree of life – it is in the middle of Paradise. If something is in the middle, there is equal access to it. In addition, it points to the fact that the source of life will be central in the eternal world. And we can also see who the garden belongs to – God. 

Saturday, 21 January 2017

The Saviour’s counsel (Rev. 2:5-7)

Jesus, as the Good Physician, not only diagnoses the problem. He also advises the path of restoration. His instruction can be summarised as 3Rs. They are to remember, repent and repeat. The first involves the mind as they recalled what they once were like. The second involves the heart because repentance flows from a broken heart. The third reveals a renewed will that delights to practice what is pleasing to God.

The one that is stressed is the middle one of repentance. Perhaps it is stressed because it would be easy to engage in remembering and repeating without repenting. They, and we, could do them without going into the presence of God and expressing our deep sorrow for failure. Yet there is no recovery without repentance. Instead, there will be removal and Jesus will be the One who will bring an unrepentant church to an end.

Jesus then reveals that this letter is not just for the church in Ephesus. He points out that through this letter the Spirit is speaking to all the churches. They may be heading in the direction that Ephesus had gone. Or they may have lost their first love through other reasons. Whatever the circumstances, they were to recover the 3Rs, or else they would be removed out of existence.

So we should ask ourselves if we need the 3Rs.

Friday, 20 January 2017

The Saviour’s concern (Rev. 2:4)

What was wrong with the church in Ephesus? I have heard some people refer to it as the loveless church, although that is not what Jesus says about them. There was a problem with their love, and it was a shared problem. The whole church was guilty of this defect, but they had not ceased to love.

I suppose we need to ask if Jesus is referring to the object of their love or to the manner of their love. Had their love been diverted from someone or had it been dampened? If he is referring to the object of their love, then he could be referring to the affection they once had for him and for one another. If he is referring to the strength of their love, then it was not as warm as it used to be. Of course, there is a sense in which the object and the manner are affected by one another. A dampening of love will lead to diverted love because Jesus would no longer receive their constant, full affection.

It is interesting to read the letter by Paul to the Ephesians and the first letter by John and observe what they said about the necessity of love, both in attitude and in action. The contents of this letter indicate that they still had a love for Jesus because that was why they engaged in all their activities.

The question also arises regarding who had the first love. Some commentators think that the ones who had the first love were the first generation of believers. The ones to whom Jesus sent this letter would be the second or third generation in the main because most of the first generation would have passed away. Yet Jesus in his counsel to the church members in verse 5 says that part of the remedy is for them to remember where they once were. So it looks to me that the actual ones to whom he is writing once had a stronger love.

Something had caused them to lose their first love. It could have been the existence of persecution, because in such times we are told that the love of many becomes cold. Or it could have been the battles they had fought to preserve the church from error because often in such times conflict brings about decline in love. Or maybe they engaged in all their activities out of routine and everything became formal. It is striking that Jesus does not say anything about prayer in his commendation and one would think that a church like Ephesus, with all their activities, would have valued prayer. But we know most things in a Christian church can continue without prayer, and what causes that is a loss of first love. Spurgeon sums it up when he says that it is possible to do many things for Christ without spending much time with him. Those with first love delight to be with Jesus

Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Saviour's commendation (Rev. 2:2-3)

The Saviour mentions that the church in Ephesus was an active church that engaged in arduous endeavours persistently. They had stickability. We are not told what their activities were, but they had plenty of them. They had no intention of reducing their commitment to Jesus. Although there was opposition, they did everything for Jesus.

Moreover, they had an accurate grasp of doctrine and they knew how to assess those who preached to them, including the Nicolaitans. Paul had warned the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20 that false teachers would try and damage the church. Clearly, they had taken this warning seriously, and they had kept themselves from doctrinal error and confusion. They had the right attitude towards false doctrine and wrong living based on false doctrine – they hated it.

The reality is that most people would have assumed that the church in Ephesus was a spiritually-healthy church. Perhaps other congregations craved the initiatives and the programmes and the way the Ephesians performed their church life. We could say that the church in Ephesus was interested in edification within and in evangelism to those who were without. Yet all was not well, and Jesus had observed the problem as he walked around the church.

We will think about the problem tomorrow.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The King comes to Ephesus (Rev. 2:1)

Ephesus was a very important city in the Roman Empire. In it was located one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the temple of Diana, which was about 600 years old when Paul and his colleagues took the gospel there. A far greater wonder, of course, was the existence of a Christian church in the city, a church composed of people who worshipped the living God.
The church became important as a centre of Christianity. Three councils in the early church met there before the city gradually dwindled due its harbour becoming silted up. Today, the city is only a collection of ruins, but it is an interesting place to visit.
The church in Ephesus was probably the largest of the seven congregations. This was not the first time that the church in Ephesus received a letter that is now contained in the New Testament. Previously, Paul sent a letter to the church there, and he also sent 1 Timothy to his friend when he was in Ephesus. John sent his first letter there too, according to early church tradition. So it was certainly a privileged church. Indeed John is said to be buried in Ephesus, as is Mary the mother of Jesus.
Jesus addresses the letter to the angel of the church, as he does in the other six as well. The angel is a symbol of someone. He could be the messenger who delivers the letter, he could be the angel who protects the church, he could be an angel present with the church in its services (Paul refers to such in writing to the Corinthians).
The angel is not facing a rebuke, so it is unlikely that he is the pastor. Instead of facing a rebuke, he is safe in the hand of Jesus. In any case, given that John lived in Ephesus, and given that he was the last apostle, it is likely that he would have been the pastor of the congregation, and he would not have sent this letter to himself.
Jesus begins this brief letter by reminding the church in Ephesus that he walks among the churches (the seven lampstands). Since he does so simultaneously in each, this is a claim to deity, to omnipresence. Perhaps he described himself in this way to assure the Ephesians that he scrutinised all churches and not just one. There is not only a claim to omnipresence here; in addition, there is a claim to omniscience because none of the churches can hide anything from him.
So what did he discover in Ephesus? We can think about that tomorrow.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The comfort of Jesus (Revelation 1:17-20)

The Saviour responded quickly to his stricken disciple. First, with his right hand, he touched John. This was the hand in which John had seen the seven angels of the churches. It was the hand that symbolised the royal power of Jesus. In touching John, Jesus assured him that divine power was there to help him. And if God be for us, who or what can be against us?

John points out that the divine action of touching him was accompanied by words from Jesus about himself. The Saviour was aware of John’s fear and the remedy for the fear was to focus on truth about Jesus. What did Jesus say about himself? First, he says who he is and then he points out what he has done. He is the eternal God (the first and the last) and the source of life (the living one). And he defeated death and is the sovereign over it.

What does Jesus mean when he says that he is the first and the last? First, it is a claim to deity because this is a title used of God in Isaiah. Second, it is a claim to certain activities that only God can do. As the first, he brought the universe into existence – he originated it; as the last, he will bring the current cosmos to an end.

Jesus also says that he as the Living One has the keys of death and Hades. He is describing the state of those who die. Death is the door into Hades and no one goes there except by the permission and activity of Jesus. No one gets out of it either without his permission and activity. John knows that his exile in Patmos might end in his death. After all, Jesus did not tell John to deliver the letters himself. If it does end in death, the same hand holds the keys as touched him shortly before. Jesus is calling John to have confidence in him.

Having given John comfort and confidence, Jesus reaffirms his commission to John to write what he will include in his book. And he tells John the three types of things that he will include: things that he has already seen (the vision of Jesus), the things that are (the state of the churches, the throne room in heaven, the judgements on the earth), and the things yet to come (the resurrection, the return of Jesus, the renewal of the cosmos). The order of comfort from Jesus followed by a commission from Jesus makes the assigned task easier to accept because we know that he will help us fulfil it.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The response of John (Rev. 1:17-20)

I suppose John initially may have imagined that Jesus was coming towards him to destroy him. We can see that he crumpled, so astounded and afraid was he. He must have been afraid because Jesus told him not to fear. There is an obvious sense in which this incident is like how Isaiah reacted when he had a vision of the greatness of Jesus in Isaiah 6.

From some points of view, the response of John is surprising. When Jesus was here on earth with his disciples, John had a very close relationship with Jesus, expressed in how he used to lean Jesus’ breast. Moreover, it is possible that Jesus and John were cousins because a case can be made for saying that John’s mother Salome and Mary were sisters. Why did John now respond in this way? He had new insights into his own nothingness and into the greatness of Jesus.

John’s response tells us how wrong it is to be flippant about Jesus. He is not only great in prestige, he is full of power, and when in his presence one is very much aware of who he is. John’s response was that he knew he should bow, but not bow as a merely symbolic gesture. The apostle does not only have a mental grasp of the greatness of Jesus, he feels it and is compelled to fall at his feet.

It is important to confess the greatness of Jesus. And doing so for John led to words of assurance from Jesus, which we can think about tomorrow.