Reason for hope

Have you thought of your life fully ending with your death? If that was the case I must say that is a miserable state. Thankfully, that is not the case. We all desire to live and never to die. Yet, each day passes by with death getting even closer. That’s when the resurrection of Jesus becomes the only reason for hope and life.

The message of Easter is concisely and powerfully declared by the words of an angel speaking to the women who went to the tomb of Christ. “He is not here, but is risen.” Can you imagine how amazed those women would have been? What happened there was not an illusion nor a fable. It was not even a carefully concocted story. Instead, as the words of Apostle Peter says “it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” Death could not keep its hold on Jesus because he was the author of life. He is the only one in the history of the world who declared “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.”

We will all die one day. Science and medicine can help us to prolong our life for a few more years but not forever. Family, friends, technology, money, ideologies or rulers cannot provide lasting hope to us. However, there is a reason for hope and life. The sole basis for the hope and meaning for our life rests on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What is the reason for your hope?

Dijo John

 

The Church of Sardis: The Dead Church

Our study in the Seven Churches of Asia has revealed to us both the positive and negative ways in which Jesus perceived the spiritual state of the assemblies of Christians of ancient times.   This was often in dramatic contrast with the way the church was considered in its own eyes.  In this regard, no greater distinction may be found among the churches we’ve so far examined than the one that presently interests us.  So let us now turn to a consideration of the church in Sardis, not just to satisfy our intellectual curiosity but to understand how we can learn from their example in order to better conform our lives to the One who has redeemed us and given us eternal life, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The text is as follows:

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.  Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Revelation 3: 1-6

The Background

As has been the case with the other churches of Asia, the very city in which the church in Sardis was located gives important clues as to the church’s nature, both its weaknesses and its virtues.   Along those lines, the significance of the name Sardis is disputed but the most likely meaning is “remnant.”   And as Jesus writes to the church located there, He addresses Himself mostly to the remnant of true believers.

Sardis was an ancient city, founded around 1200 BC.  It was the capital city of the district of Lydia and lay about 70 km southwest of Smyrna.

Interestingly, the minting of coins of standardized weight was reputed to have first begun in Sardis in about the 6th century BC.  The city was well known for its textile industry including the production of carpets and dyed cloth.  Sardis reached its zenith under King Croesus who was renowned for his immense wealth.   Yet as a poem penned by Isaac Watts in the 18th century shows, appearances are not always reality and material wealth is fleeting.   Watts wrote:

“Thus mingled still with wealth and state,

Croesus himself can never know;

His true dimensions and his weight

Are far inferior to their show.”

Sadly, the story of Croesus was replicated centuries later in the church of Sardis, a church that seemed alive but which was “far inferior to its show.”   Yet there are still other important ways that the history and background of the city relate to the assembly located there.

Sardis was the location of the temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Cybele, usually associated with Aphrodite.  The temple itself was impressive with seventy-eight columns reaching 20 meters tall and 2 meters in diameter.  Ironically a white robe was required to be worn in order to enter the temple and to approach this goddess although her worship involved the basest immorality and impurity.  In a further ironic twist, Cybele was believed to possess the special power of restoring the dead to life.  As we shall see in Christ’s counsel to the dead church of Sardis, it is He who has true life-giving powers and it is He who clothes the redeemed in white.

The city of Sardis was located on a plateau high above the valley of Hermus and was accessed only by a single narrow road.  The lofty plateau and steep surrounding cliffs gave the appearance of an easily defensible position and that is how the city’s inhabitants regarded it.  Yet in line with the theme of Jesus’ message, appearances may be deceiving.

In 546 BC, the region was attacked by Cyrus the Persian.  King Croesus and his people retreated into the city believing their defensive position was impregnable.  But one evening one of Cyrus’ men saw a Sardinian soldier lose his helmet over the cliff.  He then watched the Sardinian follow a secret path down the steep slope to retrieve the helmet.  The following evening Cyrus’ army followed that same path, which had been left unguarded, into the city and quickly conquered it.

Centuries later (in 214 BC), the city of Sardis had again grown complacent and self-confident.  But once again it fell to an attack while the guards slept, this time to the army of Antiochus the Great.  By the time of the Roman Empire, Sardis was still relatively prosperous but suffering from inexorable decline.  At the time of John’s writing, it was only a shadow of its former self.  Today Sardis consists of only ruins, with the insignificant Arab village of Sart located nearby.

The sad history of the city was reflected in the church as well.  Complacency, a false sense of wellbeing, and the tendency to look back to former glory are the backdrop for Jesus’ message to the church of Sardis.

Jesus’ Description of Himself

Jesus begins his address to the church by proclaiming His deity.  He declares that He possesses the Seven Spirits of God.  There are two noteworthy aspects to this statement.

Firstly, we should take note of the use of the word seven.   In Scriptures, seven generally symbolizes perfection or completion.   Why would this description be particularly appropriate in the context of the Sardinian church?  Because their own works were found lacking (verse 1).  It is only through the Holy Spirit that service to God is complete.

Secondly, it is important to remember that the Holy Spirit’s work is to give life.  For example, when Jesus spoke with Nicodemus He said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5).  This aspect of the Holy Spirit’s ministry of bringing life is of obvious importance to a church that was dying.

Jesus’ Words of Warning

Undoubtedly, the church at Sardis was, for all appearance, alive and thriving.  But as we have seen, appearances can be deceiving.  Even our everyday experiences demonstrate this truth.   For example, we may see an artificial plant that so closely resembles an actual living plant that we mistake it for such until we get closer and carefully examine it.  Sadly, Jesus’ examination of the Sardinian church showed that like an artificial plant there was very little life.

How can a church tell if it is dying in the spiritual sense? Or otherwise what are the signs of a growing church? The first step is to take notice of Jesus’ warning:

“I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”

The word used for “live” in the above sentence is derived from the Greek word zoe (from which we get the English word zoology).  This word is contrasted with bios (from which we get the English word biology).  Generally speaking, zoe is used to indicate the inner life while bios refer to a mere physical life.  However, there are numerous points of comparison which can be made between the concepts.

Scientists define life by various criteria.  Among these are the response to a stimulus, development, and the ability to reproduce.   These criteria parallel the three functions of a church.

  1. Exaltation of Christ. Perhaps the most fundamental mission of the church is to glorify God through the Son. Considering the aforementioned parallel with the biological realm, an indicator of life is that a living organism will respond to a stimulus.  A dog will wag his tail when petted.  The leaves of a plant placed in a window will, with time, tilt toward the sun.  Contrariwise a cadaver shows no response to being shouted at because the body is dead.

Spiritual life is likewise characterized by a heart that responds.  The greatest possible stimulus for the Christian heart is meditating on the love of Christ.   If, at the Lord’s Supper (for example) the heart isn’t moved, then there is justifiable concern that the soul has grown cold and death-like.

  1. Edification of the saints. Another indicator of life, in the biological sense, is development. One may think of the natural growth of a person from a tiny embryo in the womb to a full-grown adult.  Growth doesn’t cease when full stature is attained but continues, albeit in a different way.  The person continues to develop in experience, wisdom, and maturity.  Death, however, ends development, at least in the biological sense.

In the church, growth and development are absolutely essential.  This does not necessarily mean growth in numbers any more than a human will continue growing in stature.  But it does mean that the Christians will be growing in their understanding of the things of the Lord and in their walk with Him.  This growth comes from solid teaching of the Scriptures as well as through discipleship and pastoral care.

  1. Evangelism of the world. Another essential of biological life is the ability to reproduce. Without that ability, the species would become extinct after a single generation.   The church’s goal is to reproduce.  It is to see people saved and brought into the kingdom of God.

Not only should the church that is alive be serving in these three ways but it must also do so in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Only then can those works be perfect.

The Exhortation:

The first thing that Jesus counsels in his exhortation to the moribund church of Sardis is “to watch.”   Remember that the city of Sardis had fallen during the days of Croesus because a vital point in the defenses had been left unguarded or unwatched.  So every church and every Christian should critically examine themselves to see if there is a deficiency in any of these three areas.  If there is, heartfelt repentance is in order.

The Reward:

The Lord promises three significant rewards for the overcomer.   Perhaps the most difficult to understand is Jesus’ affirmation that, “(He) will not blot out (the overcomer’s) name from the Book of Life.”  For some, this seems to imply the possibility that a person could have his name blotted out (i.e. lose his salvation).  But Jesus is emphasizing just the opposite.  The phrase uses a double negative in Greek (ou me) giving the strongest negation possible.  Furthermore, Jesus uses a rhetorical technique in which a negated opposite is used to emphasize the truth.  Jesus is, in effect, saying, “Your name is absolutely secure in the book of life!”

Jesus further informs the overcomer that he will be dressed in white (surely referring to Revelation 19:8). Additionally, Jesus declares the marvelous truth that He Himself will confess the believer to the Father and to the angels.

In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, there is a scene in which Lawrence returns to the British Army headquarters in Cairo after having, with the aid of Saudi Arabs, conquered the Ottoman port city of Aqaba.  When Lawrence first arrives at headquarters he is rebuffed and mocked by his fellow officers for wearing dirty Bedouin garb.  Yet General Allenby, hearing the news of the capture of Aqaba, calls Lawrence to his office and then later asks Lawrence to accompany him to a garden patio to chat with him.  As Lawrence and Allenby walk together toward the patio the other officers gaze in amazement.   The powerful general and the shabbily garbed Lawrence are walking and talking with one another!

In heaven, the all-powerful Lord of lords and King of kings will walk with the redeemed.  Jesus will confess His children before the billions of celestial angels and most importantly before the Father Himself.  In contrast with Lawrence, the child of God will be dressed in brilliant and dazzling white, the result of his faithful service to his King during the years of his earthly sojourn.  May we do as the Lord has called us, to be watchful, to hold fast, and to be faithful to the One who has loved us.

Jim Haesemeyer

 

Consider Your Ways: Part 1

“Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways.” (Haggai 1:5,7) This is what the Lord Almighty says—not less than 25 times—in the two short chapters of the book of Haggai. “Lord of hosts,” this designation for God is frequently used in the prophetic books but is most commonly found in Haggai (14 times), Zechariah and Malachi. While there is a great comfort for Israel in this name, there is a reminder in it as well that God is the Lord of the Israelites’ hosts. He is their Commander-in-Chief and they are responsible to Him. Haggai affirmed the divine authority of his message. He had spiritual common sense and self-awareness that he was God’s messenger. His messages have several truths that are practical, brief and to-the-point—but most importantly they are from the Lord, thus emphasizing their urgency and authoritative nature. The prophets ask people to consider carefully the consequences of their indifference. This same admonition is given five times in this book (1:5,7; 2:15,18 twice) and is designed to shake the people out of their complacency.

Two mistakes were committed by the people—firstly, they drifted from their priorities and secondly, their self-centeredness. They were not just disobedient, but God reminded them that they had also become dissatisfied. They were called to realize that despite all their selfishness, they didn’t have enough drink or clothing or wages (vs. 6). They were reminded that only when they put God first would He provide personal satisfaction and material necessities (Matthew 6:33). God is urging you to reorder your priorities in accordance with God’s will. The expression “these people” (Haggai 1:2) instead of “my people” is used to draw attention to God’s displeasure with Israel’s spiritual apathy. Their attitude is reflected in the statement they made, “the time has not…come.” Haggai asks the people to give careful thought to the consequences of their misplaced priorities. The people had wrongly concluded that it was not yet time for them to rebuild the temple. But God reminded them that it was not the right time for them to live in paneled houses while the temple lay in ruins. David felt that it was not right for him to be dwelling in his fine home while the Ark of God was kept inside tent curtains (2 Samuel 7:2). God’s people must put God and His work first in their lives. Only in this way is God honored. “Those who honor me; I will honor” (1 Samuel 2:30).

Haggai’s first message: A call to action—build the temple.

The prophet’s rebuke: Their priorities are wrong—they put self before God.

Haggai’s admonition: Get priorities right—put God before self. Only when you choose to put God first can you experience his blessings. It is important to observe here of people’s response and corrective action. It is appropriate, but unusual for people to respond so quickly to God’s word.

The response of the leaders and people to the prophetic message:

  1. They obeyed the voice of the Lord, their God, and the message of the prophet Haggai.
  2. They feared the Lord (they had new awe and reverence for God).

The response of the Lord to the people was a word of encouragement as they anticipated rebuilding the temple: “I am with you”.

What is your top-most priority right now? Where does God rank in your life? Are you neglecting the assembly and forsaking the worship meetings because of other duties/priorities? It is easy to make other commitments more important than doing God’s work.

The people returned to Jerusalem to begin rebuilding the temple, but they never completed it. But Haggai’s message encouraged the people to complete rebuilding God’s temple. He warned them against putting their possessions and job ahead of God. We must put God first in our lives.

C. M. John- Renew In Knowledge Core Team                                                (to be continued)

When marriage becomes hard

How do you respond when marriage becomes hard? It is easy to make a vow on stage but difficult to stay true to it in complex and unexpected life situations. It is tiring and, importantly, damaging to the relationship if you don’t know what is going on and how to respond.

Marriage is not a menial task. Rather, it needs to be taken with respect and diligence. Years back, as a young single person, I used to be surprised when I would hear of marital issues or divorces. By the way, this kind of news spreads like a wildfire! I couldn’t understand what in the world was preventing just two people from getting along. My faint understanding vanished when I got married. In many matters of life experience is the best teacher! Now I see what it means to be married and have great admiration for married couples.

Whether you find your soul mate by dating or courting or fixing, sooner or later you will get to a point where you and your spouse realize marriage is not easy.  What is the status of your marriage? Are you hanging on without any sign of love?

It is impossible for marriage to be easy. After all, when two imperfect people come together to live you can’t expect marriage to compensate for all your weaknesses. In fact, I have experienced marriage as a mirror that made me clearly realize my weaknesses. You see, you can get away with many things when you live with your parents or friends, or even alone. But marriage is not a place to get away. It is going to clearly expose the weakness in you and the most important of them is one’s selfishness. Many are afraid of this and some because of this do not even want to marry. Many others, when faced with their own true reflections in the mirror of marriage, want to fight or break away without having the strength and support to deal with it. Nevertheless, difficult moments are meant to develop patience and humility when you need to smoothen rough edges and purify weak spots. Of course, the process is not a comfortable one.

Marriage is precious (Hebrews 13:4a). Here, I am intentionally using the word precious instead of the word ‘honorable’ used in most English translations. The word precious fits the meaning of the original word and verse context very well. As much as the value continues in the original state of institution, marriage continues to be attacked in every possible way to take away its purpose and glory. The biggest threat to marriage that we all need to watch out for is sexual immorality. This is being explicitly commanded in the above verse.

Finally, marriage is a God-given opportunity to choose and practice love when everything in your body says the opposite. Anyone in the world can love a lovable person. This does not require any practice nor a commendation. Marriage is, in fact, a testing ground for love. How are you expressing true love in your marriage? Isn’t it time for you to forgive what you have kept in your mind against your spouse? Or is it time to ask forgiveness for those terrible words that slipped off of your tongue? The hardest of them may be those moments when what you forgave resurfaces again and a beautiful opportunity to stretch your love arises. This, however, is possible only when you submit to the Lord to grow and exceed in love for one another (1 Thessalonians 3:12).

Let me wrap this up with some bullet points which help in my own marriage.

  • Marriage helps to make you better when you choose to deal rightly when your weakness is exposed
  • Don’t expect your spouse to be perfect when you are also imperfect
  • Marriage is the best opportunity in the world for you to learn and practice love
  • Ultimately it is the Lord who helps you to increase and abound in love to your spouse

My intention of writing this is to encourage you in your marriage. There are two voices speaking in all of us—one to break and another to create. This is going to be with man throughout his life on earth since the presence of sin is part of it. You win and create harmony when you love your spouse even in difficult situations in the same way you feel victorious when you say no to sin. Remember, your marriage is precious. Don’t let anything corrupt or dissolve it.

Dijo John-Renew In Knowledge

 

The Church of Thyatira: The Church Where Sin Was Justified

Of the messages that Jesus sent to the seven churches, the message to the church in Thyatira was the longest.  Perhaps this is because the church was flourishing in an extraordinary manner and yet there was a serious but unrecognized danger residing within which threatened the church’s very existence and testimony.   The warning that Jesus gave to the church was certainly not restricted to those living in that era.  If anything, that same warning is more applicable to us than ever before.

The Background

Let us begin this short study with a consideration of the city of Thyatira and the church located there.  As is usual with Jesus’ addresses to the churches, the names mentioned and the locations referred to have significance beyond just the obvious.

The name Thyatira means “unceasing sacrifice.”  Located some 75 kilometers (42 miles) southwest of Pergamos on the commercial route between Pergamos and Laodicea, Thyatira had the unfortunate role of being a city which was sometimes “sacrificed” for the sake of Pergamos.  Invading armies would first have to attack and capture Thyatira in order to advance to Pergamos (the provincial capital), giving the latter time to prepare a defense.

According to the prophetic theory of the seven churches of Asia in which each church corresponds to a distinctive time period, Thyatira represents the centuries from approximately 600 to 1500.  These were the years when the church was under the domination of the developing Roman Catholic Church.   A key doctrine of Catholicism is, of course, the Mass.  This is a supposed bloodless re-sacrifice of Christ.   Thus the meaning of Thyatira’s name also has clear significance to the period which it represents.

In order to understand Jesus’ message to the Christians of Thyatira it is helpful to know that the city’s economy was based on a thriving trade in dyed wool as well as various other industries.  The Bible makes mention of Lydia, whom Paul and Timothy met during the journeys in Europe.  Lydia is described as “a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, (who) worshipped God (and who) heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul” (Acts 16:14).  Thyatira was particularly known for its production of purple cloth.  The dye was obtained from plant roots and the blood of a small marine snail.

Besides the trade in dyed goods, Thyatira was home to several other industries, each having a related workers’ guild.  Association with a guild may have been a virtual necessity in order to find satisfactory employment in Thyatira.   Unfortunately, association in the guild required participation in religious practices dedicated to false gods.  This naturally posed a dilemma for the Christians and is the basis for Jesus’ message.

Little is known about the Thyratiran church itself.  Some feel that it had its beginnings with Lydia. Others believe it was the result of evangelistic efforts from Ephesus or one of the other nearby cities.  Perhaps the apostle Paul himself had founded the church (although unmentioned in the book of Acts). Regardless of the means of establishing the church, the group of Christians in Thyatira was flourishing and active.   For this, Christ heartily commends them.

The Commendation

In commending the Thyatiran Christians, Jesus first tells them who it is who is addressing them.  He is the “Son of God” (a clear reference to His divinity), the One who has eyes like a flame of fire (an allusion to His ability to see both the works of their hands as well as the motives of their hearts) and the One with feet like brass (referring, probably, to His role as judge).   The Lord’s description of Himself may be summarized in that He is the omniscient God who both knows their situation as well as being their Judge.  And so He is to us as well.

Jesus commends the Christians in Thyatira for several notable things.  They were busy in good deeds.  They served others.  They were motivated by love.  They were faithful.  In addition to all the above, they were growing in their work and service.

The latter point perhaps deserves more emphasis.  It is possible for a Christian to have a good grasp of the Bible’s teachings, to have been active for years in serving and helping in the church, to have performed all tasks to which he was assigned—and still, that is not enough.  The Christian can never rest on his laurels.  He must be constantly growing and depending more and more on the grace of Christ.  This the Thyatiran Christians were doing.  Yet in the midst of all these positives, there was one area of utmost concern in the eyes of the Lord.  There was a cancer within the church.

The Warning

The Lord solemnly warns the Thyatiran believers about a woman named Jezebel who was in their midst.   Most certainly Jezebel was not the woman’s actual name but rather a symbolic reference to one of the most infamous individuals in Bible history.  There are several similarities between the “prophetess” in Thyatira who was corrupting the church and the wicked woman who corrupted Israel.

The Jezebel of Old Testament times was a Gentile princess who married King Ahab of Israel.   Her name means “chaste” but her true character was far from that.  Jezebel had a domineering personality and tacitly ruled the kingdom.   She introduced Baal worship into the nation and eventually forced the true servants of God into hiding.   Baal worship included sexual acts and fornication.  As a result of Jezebel’s many iniquities, a repugnant death was prophesied concerning her (dogs licking up her blood).

The woman in Thyatira was leading at least some of the Christians into a similarly sinful lifestyle.  Although her precise methods are unknown a reasonable deduction may be made based upon the comparison to Jezebel as well as known facts concerning the background of Thyatira.

As mentioned, there were many trade guilds in the city.  These trade guilds had regular meetings in the temples of the various pagan deities.   To commence the assembly, an offering of animal sacrifice was made to the god.  This offering, however, usually consisted of only a portion of the animal; the rest would be consumed during the course of the meeting.  Additionally, wine would flow freely and, in accord with pagan practices, sexual immorality would soon ensue.

But what about the Christians who had been saved while serving in the guilds?  Apparently, the woman had “prophesized” (for she was called a prophetess) that the Lord permitted participation in those pagan events.  Yet, that was hardly the case.  In verse 20, Jesus specifically condemns sexual immorality and partaking of sacrifices made to idols.   The Christians, at least some of them, were living up to the name of the city and offering continual sacrifices, worshipping both the pagan gods as well as the true God.   And that is something God will not tolerate.

God gave the woman time to repent of her prophecies and teachings, but she did not.  As a result, she was to be cast into a sickbed.  Just as it had been prophesized of Jezebel that she would suffer an ignominious death, so it is with the woman of Thyatira.

At this point, we must turn to the central teaching of Jesus’ message to the Thyratirans.  The Christians (being encouraged by the woman) could easily have justified their involvement in the pagan ceremonies.  Participation was mandatory if they wanted to keep their jobs.  After all, they had to earn a living for themselves and their families.  And if they refused and were cast out on the streets, they would become dependents of the church instead of contributors to it.  Yes, it was easy to justify a sinful practice.

About a century later, Tertullian the famous Christian apologist wrote a treaty called “On Idolatry” in which he addressed this very issue.   He spoke of those Christians whose job was making idols and who defended themselves by saying that they had to earn a living.  Tertullian’s response was “do you have to live? (Vivere ergo habeas)”

In our own days, there is a Jezebel spirit which has infiltrated many churches.  Sinful practices such as abortion and homosexuality are no longer condemned.   Promiscuity before marriage is regarded by many as normal.  Holiness and righteousness are denounced as puritanical and old-fashioned.  Sadly, the 21st-century Christian church is much like Thyatira.

Notice that Jesus’ warning to those who follow the counsel of Jezebel is that they will be killed with death.   We may ask, what other kinds of killing is there?  But I believe the death mentioned by Jesus means the Second Death, i.e. eternal separation from God.   This, of course, applies to those who have never known Christ.   Yet separation in the sense of broken fellowship with Him is possible even for Christians.  There is no sadder state for the child of God than to be out of fellowship with the One who is the very source of life.

The Reward

To those who didn’t compromise but would “hold fast till (He) comes,” Jesus promised the right to rule with Him.  Perhaps for the moment the Thyatiran Christians felt oppressed and at the mercy of those over them, but Jesus promised them that they would rule with the very Lord of lords.  He promised them that He would give them the bright and morning star.  This is none other than Jesus Himself (Revelation 22:16).   What a wonderful promise is given to the believer who remains steadfast in his walk with the Lord in spite of corruptions both outside and inside the church.  Jesus says to him in effect, “You are mine.”

Jim Heasemeyer