Destruction From Within.

1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.

“‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet 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. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. 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 ESV

revelation_Turkey_mapIn opening His address to the church in Sardis, Jesus once again uses imagery provided in chapter one to describe Himself. This time, He mentions the seven spirits of God and the seven stars as being His possessions. If you recall, in Revelation 1:4, John described seeing the seven spirits before the throne of God. And in verse 16 of that same chapter, John described seeing Jesus holding seven stars in his right hand. The seven spirits of God is thought to be a reference to the Spirit of God. Throughout the Scriptures, the number seven is symbolic of perfection or completeness. By referring to the Spirit as being seven in number, it is a way of describing His perfection. He is lacking in nothing. And Jesus addresses the church in Sardis, assuring them that He comes to them with the Spirit of God. And this is important, because the indictment that Jesus levels against the congregation there has to do with their spiritual apathy. They are dead. But it is the Spirit who brings life. The Spirit regenerates non-believers, providing them with new life. Paul told his young protegé, Titus: “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7 EASV). The Holy Spirit brings new life. And yet, as Jesus will accuse the church in Sardis, “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1 ESV). It would seem that Jesus is saying that some within the fellowship there had never really been renewed or regenerated. They remained in their former dead spiritual state. During His earthly ministry, Jesus had clearly equated new life with belief, telling those who followed Him:

“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” – John 6:63-64 ESV

By bringing the Holy Spirit with Him, it is as if Jesus is offering the unbelieving, spiritually dead members of the church in Sardis with an opportunity to experience new life through the power of the Spirit. It is important to note that Jesus describes the congregation as a whole as being dead. They were ineffective and incapable of doing what they were supposed to be doing. Their works were incomplete. They had a reputation for being alive, but were really lifeless. Nothing can rob the life out of a local congregation than the presence of unbelievers masquerading as believers. That is why Jesus demands that the church wake up and strengthen what remains. They were to recall the message they had received in the beginning, the gospel message of new life made possible through faith in Christ. They had walked away from the basic truths of the gospel message and allowed spiritual compromise and moral complacency to infiltrate their fellowship. And by describing Himself as having the seven stars in His hands, Jesus is reminding the spiritual leaders of the church at Sardis that they belong to Him. They answer to Him. He is their authority and they are responsible to the flock He has placed under their care. Peter has a similar warning to elders in his first letter:

shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. – 1 Peter 5:2-4 ESV

Poor leadership in a local church can result in spiritual apathy and provide an atmosphere in which falsehood can thrive. Unbelievers can easily find access into the fellowship, bringing their false understandings of what it means to be saved. They can practice the outward signs of religion, creating a church that appears spiritual, all the while missing the very thing they need to be truly alive and empowered by the Spirit of God. The apostle Paul warned the elders from the church at Ephesus:

28 “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders. 29 I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. 30 Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. 31 Watch out! Remember the three years I was with you—my constant watch and care over you night and day, and my many tears for you. – Acts 20:28-31 NLT

Paul told them to remember. He wanted them to recall the time, energy and effort he had poured into making them a healthy and vibrant fellowship. And Jesus tells the leadership at Sardis to remember as well, and He warns them to repent. They need to wake up and recognize the problem in their fellowship. If they don’t, Jesus warns, He will come like a thief in the night. When they least expected it, He would bring judgment against them. Jesus takes seriously the spiritual well-being of His bride, the church. He will hold the leadership of His church responsible for how they care for and protect those for whom He died. Sadly, Jesus indicates that there are only a few in Sardis who had not “soiled their garments” (Revelation 3:4 ESV). That means that the majority of those who claimed to be members of the local fellowship in Sardis had soiled their garments – they were stained by immorality and sin. In comparison, a faithful few had remained pure, and Jesus promises that they will one day walk with Him in His Kingdom wearing the white robes of sinless perfection. John will later describe seeing these very people standing before the throne of God in heaven.

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. – Revelation 7:9 ESV

And Jesus promises those who overcome, who maintain their spiritual integrity and faithful commitment to their calling, that He will reward them.

The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. – Revelation 3:5 ESV

Jesus is not demanding sinless perfection in this life. He is not saying that only those who remain sin-free on earth will enjoy the reward of eternal life. The one who conquers is a reference to the those who truly belong to Christ. They are conquerors because He has already conquered. Jesus defeated sin and death on the cross. And those who place their faith in Him are already victorious. Their salvation is secure and their eternal state, already prepared for them. As followers of Christ, they pursue holiness in this life, in the power of the Holy Spirit. They seek to live righteously, refusing to pursue the old sinful habits of the past. The apostle Paul put it this way, “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT).

The church in Sardis had a reputation for being alive, but Jesus knew the truth. He could see the spiritual apathy and the debilitating influence of those who claimed to be followers of Christ, but who were really non-believers. Their presence was destroying the church from within. The church’s leadership had been asleep at the wheel and had allowed the enemy to infiltrate their ranks and begin to destroy the church from within. It is interesting to note that the city of Sardis, which sat on a high hill, had been thought to be impregnable to attack. But there was a hidden pathway that led to a secret entrance into the walls of the city. And about 548 B.C., Cyrus the Persian captured Sardis by using this hidden pathway to breech the city’s walls. The same thing happened again in 218 B.C., when the city was taken by Antiochus. One of the greatest dangers to any church is a spirit of complacency and over-confidence. When the leadership of a church no longer recognizes the reality of spiritual warfare and the need to protect the flock of God at all costs, the enemy takes advantage of their apathy and brings destruction from within.

So, as He has done before, Jesus warns every one who has ears to hear what He is saying to the churches. His wake-up call to Sardis applies to each and every church in every age. As Paul said, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37 ESV), but if we fail to remain faithful and committed to His cause, we can find ourselves becoming the conquered. While Jesus promised that all the powers of hell would not prevail against His church (Matthew 16:18), Satan is still going to do everything in his power to destroy the church. The victory has been won, but the battle is real. And we must remain awake and alert.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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Hold Tightly To What You Have.

18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.

19 “‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. 20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. 22 Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come. 26 The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. 28 And I will give him the morning star. 29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”  Revelation 2:18-29 ESV

revelation_Turkey_mapJohn is told to address the next church by referring to Jesus as the Son of God, and describing Him as having “eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” This is the exact imagery John used when describing his vision of Jesus in chapter 1. The eyes of the Son of God are like burning fire, indicating the penetrating nature of His divine judgment. As the Son of God, Jesus is all-knowing and able to see into the hearts of men. In the book of Daniel, we find a similar description of Jesus in one of the visions Daniel was given by God. Upon seeing Jesus, Daniel states that “his eyes flamed like torches.” Here in the book of Revelation, Jesus is described as having feet like burnished bronze. This image is a bit more difficult to comprehend, but it may refer to his purity and holiness. The feet are the means by which we navigate and make our way from one place to another. Jesus does so in perfect purity and righteousness. His way is always marked by holiness. The very designation, “Son of God”, speaks of the deity of Christ. The title, “son of man”, which was used in chapter one, emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, and ties Him to His role as the Messiah. 

As the all-knowing, holy Son of God, Jesus lets the church in Thyatira know that He knows. He tells them, “I know your works.” He is fully aware of all that is going on in this congregation. He sees their “love and faith and service and patient endurance” (Revelation 2:19 ESV). Nothing escapes His divine notice. If you recall, Jesus had warned the church at Ephesus to “do the works you did at first” (Revelation 2:5 ESV). Now, He commends the believers in Thyatira because their “latter works exceed the first” (Revelation 2:19 ESV). In other words, they were progressing, not regressing in their faith. They were loving better, believing more, serving faithfully, and enduring patiently.

But Jesus, with the aid of His penetrating vision, saw something going on in the fellowship in Thyatira that He could not commend. He tells them, “you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (Revelation 2:20 ESV). This is likely a reference to an actual woman in the local congregation. It is doubtful that her name was actually Jezebel, but that it is used here by Jesus to accentuate the wickedness of this woman’s actions. The original Jezebel had been the wife of Ahab, one of the most wicked kings of Israel. And Jezebel had played an important and influential role in her husband’s sin-plagued reign. The book of 1 Kings tells us that Ahab “took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria” (1 Kings 16:31-32 ESV). Jezebel had a polarizing and demoralizing influence on the nation of Israel, even attempting to rid the nation of the prophets of God. And evidently, according to Jesus, there was a woman in the church in Thyatira, who was deserving of the designation “Jezebel” because of her wicked influence on that local congregation. She was leading them astray by encouraging them to commit acts of immorality and backing up her words by claiming to be a prophetess for God. Like Balaam, mentioned earlier in the condemnation of the church at Pergamum, Jezebel had been guilty of causing the people of God to sin against God, by violating His commands for sexual purity and against sexual immorality of all kinds. One of the greatest threats against any church will be the attack that comes from within, perpetrated by someone claiming to be a Christ-follower, but who propagates and promotes ungodly behavior.

This woman had been given time to repent of her sins, but had stubbornly refused. So, Jesus warns that judgment was coming. Her sinful behavior would have dire and devastating consequences, for her and for all those who followed her lead. Jesus describes all those who willingly participate in her immoral activities as her “children” or offspring. And He warns that they too will face divine judgment, possibly even death, for their actions. Jesus is deadly serious. And He warns every church in every age to take heed to what He is saying.

And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.” – Revelation 2:23 ESV

This “Jezebel” and her followers would become lessons for what happens to those who commit spiritual adultery, violating their covenant commitment to God. That is the heart of the issue here. The sexual sins that these people were committing were in violation of God’s commands, but the more devastating aspect of their sin was that they were doing so in connection to the worship of false gods. They were practicing immorality as part of their worship of idols. So, in essence, they were committing adultery against God Almighty. What we see here is a reenactment of the sins of the people of Israel and Judah that ultimately led God to send them into captivity as punishment for their sin and unfaithfulness.

But Jesus realized that there were many in the congregation in Thyatira who had remained faithful and unstained by this woman’s influence, and He commends them. And He tells them, “I do not lay on you any other burden” (Revelation 2:24 ESV). He is assuring them that He is not going to ask anything more of them than that they hold fast until He comes. He simply asks that they remain faithful. He wants them to keep their eyes focused on their future reward, not immediate gratification through sinful behavior. Jesus is calling them to endure to the end and He offers them a reminder of what they can expect for doing so.

To them I will give authority over all the nations. They will rule the nations with an iron rod and smash them like clay pots. They will have the same authority I received from my Father, and I will also give them the morning star! – Revelation 2:26-28 NLT

It is the one who conquers who will receive these rewards. But as we saw earlier, the term conqueror is more a designation referring to our future condition. When we stand with Christ in heaven, we will be conquerors, those who have conquered. We will be called conquerors at that point in time, not here and now. To be called a conqueror, one must have already conquered. He must have won the final victory. And that is what Jesus describes in these closing verses. We will receive authority. We will rule alongside the King of kings and Lord of lords. Jesus had told His disciples, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 ESV). It is Jesus who is the conqueror, the overcomer. And He is reminding the believers in Thyatira that the only burden they have is the one requiring them to remain faithful to the end. Their faithfulness will have the reward of standing alongside the conquering Christ in His Kingdom. Paul and Barnabas encouraged the churches to whom they ministered by reminding them that faithfulness in this life has its reward in the next life.

…they strengthened the believers. They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God. – Acts 14:22 NLT

The final promise Jesus offers the believers in Thyatira is the gift of the morning star. We know from the closing verses of this book that Jesus is that morning star.

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this message for the churches. I am both the source of David and the heir to his throne. I am the bright morning star.” – Revelation 22:16 NLT

So, Jesus is offering them the gift of Himself. But in a real and physical sense. They will, as the apostle John wrote, “see him as he really is” (1 John 3:2 NLT). All those who endure to the end, refusing to give in to the temptations to compromise, will receive the reward of uninterrupted intimacy and fellowship with Jesus Christ and God the Father. And Jesus closes out His address with a message to all believers throughout all time, to hear what He has said to the church at Thyatira. It applies to us and should encourage us to hold tightly to what we have until He come. And come, He will.

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The High Cost of Compromise.

12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.

13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’” Revelation 2:12-17 ESV

revelation_Turkey_mapTo the church in Smyrna Jesus referred to Himself as “the first and last, who died and came to life.” Now, He introduces Himself to the church in Pergamum as “him who has the sharp two-edged sword.” Not exactly a welcoming image. If you recall, this description was also included in what John wrote in the opening chapter after having been transported to the throne room of heaven. There he saw and heard “one like a son of man” (Revelation 1:13 ESV). And John wrote that “In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword” (Revelation 1:16 ESV). That imagery of the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth is intended to represent divine judgment. We see this same imagery used in conjunction with Jesus near the end of the book of Revelation.

11 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. – Revelation 19:11-15 ESV

Jesus is not only the Prophet, Priest and King, He is the righteous Judge of all mankind. But what is important is that this sword proceeds from the mouth of the Savior. It is symbolic of the Word of God. That Word is powerful and able to convict and comfort, condemn and commend. The author of the book of Hebrews writes:

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. – Hebrews 4:12 NLT

Paul told Timothy that the Word of God was of great value.

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. – 2 Timothy 3:16 NLT

And Jesus introduces Himself to the church in Pergamum as one who has the sharp, two-edged sword. He wields God’s Word, offering life in the form of forgiveness for sin and freedom from the condemnation of death – to all those who will receive it. But to those who refuse its offer of salvation, the Word condemns and rejects, relegating all those who turn down God’s gracious gift of eternal life to the very real outcome of an eternity lived apart from God.

Jesus is going to warn some within the church in Pergamum that, unless they repent, He is going to deal with them in no-uncertain terms.

I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.” – Revelation 2:16 ESV

Jesus is well aware of what the church there in Pergamum is up against. He refers to the city as the place where Satan’s throne is located and where Satan dwells. Not exactly a description the local tourist board would welcome. Pergamum was an idolatrous city with temples, altars and sacred groves dedicated to such gods as Athena, Asklepios, Dionysus, and Zeus. The temple of Asklepios was a magnificent structure featuring an idol to its god in the form of a serpent. This city was antithetical to all that the church of Jesus Christ stood for. And yet, Jesus commends them for staying faithful in the midst of all the pressure from the surrounding false religions. In fact, Jesus points out that one of their own, Antipas, whom Jesus refers to as his faithful witness, was martyred, and yet his brothers and sisters in Christ did not deny their faith. They held fast.

But Jesus was not happy with everyone in the church. He accused some within the fellowship of following the teaching of Balaam. This is a reference to an Old Testament character of the same name, who tried to destroy the people of God by tempting them to compromise. Balaam was a prophet who was offered money by the king of Moab, if he would curse the people of Israel. But God would not allow Balaam to do what King Balak had asked. Instead, Balaam ended up blessing Israel. But he provided King Balak with a workaround, suggesting that if the women of Moab could tempt the men of Israel to sleep with them, they would end up worshiping their false god. And that’s exactly what happened.

1 While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.  – Numbers 25:1-3 ESV

Jesus is accusing some within the church in Pergamum of counseling spiritual compromise. They were encouraging their fellow church members to eat meat sacrificed to idols and to participate in the immoral religious activities associated with the false gods of Pergamum. Whether the Christians were intermarrying with pagans in unclear, but there was definitely moral and spiritual compromise taking place that had weakened the testimony of the church. On top of that, there were others in the church who held to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Unlike the Ephesians, who hated the teaching of the Nicolaitans, the Pergamum church was embracing their false doctrines. And Jesus warns that these people must repent or face the consequences of His divine wrath and judgment. Whether Jesus’ warning of vengeance involved literal death or their physical removal from the fellowship is not clear. It is possible that these individuals were never really believers in the first place and that Jesus is predicting their actual deaths as a result of their damaging influence on the body of Christ. The apostle Paul had some very strong words to say about those who mislead the flock of Jesus Christ with false teaching.

Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. – Galatians 1:8 NLT

The Greek word Paul used that is translated as “curse” is anathema, and it can literally mean “to put to death.” Interestingly enough, the people of Israel, under the leadership of Moses, eventually paid back Balaam for his part in the moral and spiritual compromise of the nation. Numbers 31:8 tells us that they killed Balaam with the sword.

As He did with the first two churches, Jesus calls out, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:17 ESV). He wants anyone and everyone, in every church in every age, to listen to what He has to say. This message is not just for the 1st-Century church in Pergamum. It contains a timeless warning about spiritual compromise and the danger of embracing the culture of the day in an attempt to fit in and avoid persecution. That danger is alive and well in our own day. Tolerance is the word of the day, demanding that we lay aside our God-given mandate to be salt and light in the midst of a decaying and sin-darkened world. 

Jesus calls us to conquer, not compromise. He demands that we stand up for our faith, not back down to the pressures of the fallen culture around us. And He offers the one who conquers three things: Hidden manna, a white stone, and a new name. What is He talking about? What is the significance of these three rather obscure items? The hidden manna is divine spiritual nourishment that the world cannot see or experience. Jesus had long ago claimed, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again” (John 6:35 NLT). He offered Himself as the source of eternal life. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh” (John 6:51 NLT).

The white stone is a bit more difficult to understand. There has been a tremendous amount of speculation over the centuries as to what this white stone actually symbolizes. There are many options, but the one that seems to make the most sense involves what was called a tessoron.

A tesseron was, “. . . given to those who were invited to partake, within the precincts of the temple [at Pergamum], of the sacred feast, which naturally consisted only of meats offered to the idol. That stone bore the secret name of the deity represented by the idol and the name was known only to the recipient.” –  Frederick A. Tatford, The Patmos Letters

In keeping with the idea of manna, this explanation seems to suggest access to something unavailable to the larger audience. It was unique and provided access to something special. In this case, the white stone allows the believer access into the marriage feast described later in the book of Revelation.

Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb… – Revelation 19:9 NLT

Whatever the stone means, it conveys the idea of favor and acceptance. And the new name to which Jesus refers would seem to indicate His own. It should remind us of Paul’s wonderful description of Jesus’ glorification after He had successfully completed all that God had commissioned Him to do on this earth.

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  – Philippians 2:8-11 NLT

It would seem that the “new” name received by Jesus was His well-deserved designation as Lord. And every believer, Jesus infers, will have that name written on the stone they receive, inviting them to feast with Him in His Kingdom, on the authority vested in Him as King of kings and Lord of lords. As Paul pointed out in his letter to the Romans, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9 NLT). The only ones who will receive the stone with Jesus named as Lord are the ones who confessed Him as their Lord.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Remain Faithful.

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

“‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’ Revelation 2:8-11 ESV

revelation_Turkey_mapThe city of Smyrna was only about 35-miles north of Ephesus. Like Ephesus, it was a wealthy and prosperous city, but also had a reputation for its wickedness and strong resistance to the gospel at the time John would have written this letter. The name Smyrna actually means “bitter.” It is translated from the Hebrew mor or myrrh, which was a fragrant perfume used in the embalming of dead bodies. The fragrance of myrrh is released when it is crushed, and this will prove to be an accurate metaphor for the little congregation of believers trying to exist within the confines of this immoral city. Jesus introduces Himself as “the first and the last, who died and came to life” (Revelation 2:8 ESV). This designation is intended to provide the members of the church in Smyrna with encouragement, relating to them the eternal nature of the one whom they worshiped. Jesus had died, but He was alive. He had risen from the dead and was seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven. He had returned to His rightful place, where He has existed for all eternity. These people were experiencing tribulation and poverty as a result of their faith, and Jesus lets them know that He is fully aware. He reminds them that they are actually rich, having received the gift of God’s grace in the form of His Son’s sacrificial death. The apostle Paul had a lot to say about the richness that comes from our restored relationship with God the Father made possible through the death of Jesus, His Son. He described he and his fellow ministers as, “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10 ESV). He also told the Corinthians that Jesus had graciously taken on human flesh and offered Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of men, “so that by his poverty he could make you rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV). And James, the half-brother of Jesus, reminded his readers that God had chosen “those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5 ESV).

The believers in Smyrna were poor according to every measurable standard of their day. But Jesus wanted to remind them of the value of their relationship with Him. They had something money could not buy: a right relationship with God the Father, purchased by the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

Along with their poverty, these Christians were having to endure slander from Jews living in the city. But Jesus describes these people as not being Jews at all, but instead, labels them as “a synagogue of Satan.” The apostle Paul provides us with additional insight into what Jesus is saying about these people.

28 For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. 29 No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. – Romans 2:28-29 NLT

The local Jewish population was attacking the fledgling church, slandering its members in the community. In his commentary on Revelation, Charles C. Ryrie notes that Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was martyred in A.D. 155, and “these Jews eagerly assisted by gathering on the Sabbath wood and fagots for the fire in which he was burned” (Charles C. Ryrie, Revelation). The animosity against Christians was intense in the sophisticated society of Smyrna. Even other religious minorities like the Jews treated the believers there with contempt.

But Jesus warns them that it is going to get worse before it gets better.

Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. – Revelation 2:10 ESV

And yet, He tells them not to fear. He encourages them to remain faithful even to the point of death. In essence, Jesus is giving the church in Smyrna more bad news. They were already suffering persecution, poverty and slander. Now, He was letting them know that Satan himself was about to unleash his full fury on them, resulting in some of them ending up in prison. And Jesus lets them know that it will all be a test. This is an indication that the entire ordeal will pass through the sovereign hands of God Almighty. Satan has no power to persecute them without God’s divine permission. Satan’s intentions would be to test their faithfulness to God, using ever-more intense persecution in an  attempt to get them to abandon their hope and trust in God. But Jesus wants them to remain faithful. God will use this same test to prove their allegiance to Him. Again, the apostle Paul, who was well-acquainted with suffering and persecution, wrote:

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. – Romans 5:3-5 ESV

Jesus lets them know that their tribulation will be short in duration. It will last only ten days. There is no way to know if this is to be taken literally or figuratively. But it would seem that Jesus is attempting to juxtapose the short-term nature of their suffering with the long-term benefits of the eternal glory awaiting them.

Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. – Revelation 2:10 ESV

Even if their persecution should result in death, Jesus reminds them that death is followed by eternal life. The crown of life is not an additional reward reserved for those who go through martyrdom for their faith. It is a reference to eternal life itself. That’s why Jesus encourages them to be faithful even to the point of death. For the believer, death is not something we are to fear. As Paul put it:

Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow–not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.
 – Romans 8:38 NLT

Our suffering in this life is temporary in nature. Even if that suffering should result in death, it is not the end. And our death will only result in our immediate transfer into God’s presence. Which is what led Paul to state, “we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 NLT).

And Jesus closes His message to the church in Smyrna with a reminder to every church in every age:

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. – Revelation 2:11 ESV

The “second death” is a reference to the great white throne judgment described in Revelation 20:11-15.

11 And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. 12 I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. 14 Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. 15 And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Jesus assures the believers in Smyrna and every other believer who has ever lived, that we will not have to worry about this judgment. We won’t be there. It is reserved for those who have refused to accept the free gift of salvation offered through faith in Jesus Christ. Those who suffer and die as a result of their faith in this life, don’t have to worry about suffering eternal death in the next life. Our eternity is secure. Jesus wanted these believers to remain strong, even in the face of persecution. He wanted them stay faithful, even if it resulted in their deaths. Jesus was not making light of their troubles, but was attempting to remind them of the magnitude of their eternal reward.

16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Remember and Repent.

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.

“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’” Revelation 2:1-7 ESV

revelation_Turkey_mapIf you recall, in verse 19 of chapter 1, John was told, “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” These next two chapters of his book contain the things “that are.” In other words, he is going to write about the seven churches that existed in real time during his own day. These were seven literal congregations located in seven different cities in Asia Minor. In these two chapters, John is seen acting in the role of a secretary, writing down everything he hears from the lips of the Lord. The first church Jesus addresses is the one located in the city of Ephesus. In each case, Jesus will state the identity of the church to which He is speaking. Then He will point out their strengths and weaknesses. This will be followed by a call to repentance and an exhortation to listen carefully to His words. And Jesus makes it perfectly clear that his intended audience is far bigger than the existing congregations of these seven 1st-Century churches. He says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelations 2:7 ESV). This is obviously a reference to the seven churches, but also includes a call to the churches of all ages to hear and heed what He has to say. Anyone and everyone who has the capacity to hear each of the messages to these churches should listen carefully and consider the implications, regardless of the century in which he or she lives.

As Jesus begins His address the church in the city of Ephesus, He singles out its “angel” or messenger. John provides us with no clarification as to whom Jesus is referring. There are those who believe His use of the Greek word angelos is a reference to angels or heavenly beings who are assigned to the various churches as guardians or keepers. There are others who believe the seven angels of the seven churches is a reference to the pastors of these churches. The Greek word, angelos can also be translated as “messenger” and could be used to speak of those who will deliver the message of Jesus to the particular churches. From Revelation 1:20, we do know that the seven lampstands are intended to represent the seven churches.

So, Jesus addresses the angel of the church at Ephesus and He points out two things that He knows regarding this local fellowship:

I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” – Revelations 2:2 ESV

“I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.” – Revelation 2:3 ESV

Jesus offers two statements of commendation to the church in Ephesus. In spite of the presence of false teachers, they remained true to the Word of God, faithful to their calling to live out their faith in love and good works, and for patiently enduring persecution for the sake of the gospel. At first glance, it looks as if this church has their spiritual act together and that Jesus is well-pleased with them. And they were doing a lot of things right. But then, Jesus drops the other shoe.

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” – Revelation 2:4 ESV

This church had started out with a deep love for God’s Word and a desire to defend it at all costs. They would not tolerate false gospels or allow faulty interpretations of the Scriptures to mislead or confuse them. But something had happened along the way. They had lost their fervor for God. Jesus describes it as having abandoned the love they had at first. The love to which Jesus refers is agape love, the sacrificial, lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of love with which He loved us. Jesus gave His life for the church. His was a selfless kind of love, preferring to put the needs of others ahead of His own. And evidently, this local fellowship had allowed their love for one another to wain. They were orthodox in their theology and dedicated to the gospel, but somehow they had allowed the flame of love to dwindle and practically die out. So, Jesus calls them to repentance.

“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. – Revelation 2:5 ESV

This church had a heart problem. They loved God. They loved the Word of God. But it seems that they didn’t necessarily love one another. At least not in the way they once did. Perhaps they were lacking in unity and harmony. Sometimes a church’s determination to maintain orthodoxy can result in an uncompromising dedication to the truth that lacks compassion for others. We end up disliking those with whom we disagree.

It is interesting to note that in his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul had commended them for their love for others.

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints…” – Ephesians 1:15 ESV

And Paul had ended his letter to them with the following words:

Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. – Ephesians 6:23-24 ESV

Notice his emphasis on brothers and love with faith, as well as love for Christ – a love that is incorruptible. This church had allowed that love to be corrupted in some form or fashion, and Jesus called them to do two things: First of all, they were to remember from where they had fallen. In other words, they were to reflect on the difference between their current state of affairs and how they had started. Then, they were to repent. They needed to change their minds and, as a result, their behavior. They were to return to their former way of loving Christ and others. Orthodoxy (right thinking) without orthopraxy (right behavior) can be deadly. It can become divisive. What we say we believe has to show up in how we behave. John, the very one to whom Jesus was dictating these words, had written something about this very matter in one of his letters.

Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. – 1 John 2:9-11 ESV

Jesus warns the church at Ephesus that if they don’t repent, He will remove their lampstand. It is important that we remember this message was to the church as a body, not to an individual believer. So, Jesus is not threatening the loss of salvation. He is simply warning the believers in Ephesus that their refusal to repent will result in their failure to exist as a local fellowship. They will forfeit their preferred position as Christ’s ambassadors. A church that lacks love lacks the ability to truly reflect the message of the gospel to a lost and dying world. Loveless, bickering Christians are the worst form of advertising for the life-transforming power of the gospel.

But Jesus has one last word of commendation: “Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6 ESV). We don’t know much about the Nicolaitans. Whoever they were and whatever they taught, it is important to note that Jesus expresses His hatred for their works. Notice that Jesus says He hates their works, not them. It is speculated that these were individuals who had infiltrated the church at Ephesus and who were teaching false doctrines, most likely some form of false gospel. The apostle Paul had some harsh words to say about these kinds of people and their dangerous doctrines of salvation.

“Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. – Galatians 1:8 NLT

Jesus commends the Ephesian church for its hatred of falsehood. But He longed for them to return to their first and former love – a love for God expressed in their selfless love for one another.

Finally, Jesus leaves the church at Ephesus with a word of promise.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. – Revelation 2:7 ESV

He challenges them, and us, to listen. To heed what He has to say. This is a call that is common to all seven letters and is intended to be true for the church throughout all the ages. The Spirit of God is out to convict the people of God, in all times and places, with the truth of God. Jesus is offering us the promise of eternal life, guaranteed to all who conquer. But what does that mean? Is Jesus inferring that we have to win the victory? Is he saying our future glorification is somehow up to our ability to fight the good fight on our own? The answer is a simple, yet resounding, “No.”

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul reminds us that our ability to conquer comes from without, not from within. He asks the compelling question:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? – Romans 8:35 ESV

Then he provides us with the confidence-boosting answer:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:37-39 ESV

The key to conquering is Christ and our faith in Him. Paul reminds us that it is the love of Christ for us that makes us conquerors. Not the other way around. And the apostle John reminds us, “We love each other because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19 NLT). Our ability to conquer comes from God. It is He who redeemed us through the blood of His Son. And, the apostle John tells us that our basis for love is the love showed to us by God. “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16 NLT). When we realize how much God loved us, we should desire to share that love with others. And what should encourage us is that God’s love for us is perfect and unwavering. Nothing can separate us from His love. So, why would we allow anything to keep us from loving our brothers and sisters in Christ. The church at Ephesus needed to return to their first love. They needed to be reminded that their salvation had been based on God’s unmerited love and favor. And their love for one another was to be a reflection of that reality. If they did what Jesus was telling them to do, they would not only continue to exist as a church, they would conquer and enjoy eternal life.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

I Am Alive Forevermore.

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. 19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. Revelation 1:9-20 ESV

revelation_Turkey_mapAfter having completed the salutation portion of his letter, John reveals why he even bothered to write the letter in the first place. He was commanded to do so, and that command came from Jesus Christ himself. John has already made it known that his letter was addressed to the seven churches that are in the province of Asia, but we will soon see that his eventual audience would be far greater in size and scope. It is in these verses that John reveals the names of the cities in which the seven churches reside: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. But why these churches? Ephesus is somewhat familiar to us, because of its distinction as one of the churches to whom the apostle Paul wrote. But the rest of the churches mentioned by John were relatively small and unknown congregations located in less significant cities than those of Rome, Jerusalem, and Antioch, where much larger congregations existed at the time of the writing of this letter. John provides us with no reason for his choice of these particular cities, but we have to believe that their selection had been up to God. There was a divine purpose behind their choice and as we study chapters two and three of this letter, we will see that these seven churches provide a symbolic representation of the global church of all ages. All located within close proximity of one another in Asia Minor, these seven churches were not separated by geographical distance or sociological barriers. And yet, we will see that each of them is addressed by God for their various virtues and shortcomings. They will receive commendations and condemnations from God based on the degree of their faithfulness. As stated earlier, the number seven stands for perfection or completeness, so this list of churches is intended to represent all churches of all times. They provide us with a comprehensive overview of the church’s health over the ages, from faithful and alive to lukewarm and even dead. The descriptions of the spiritual state of these churches will even mirror the conditions of churches within a given age. As we will see, there are attributes of each and every one of these churches that can be found in their modern counterparts today.

John reveals that he wrote this letter while on the island of Patmos, a small, inhospitable island in the Aegean Sea southwest of Ephesus. The early church fathers wrote confidently that John was exiled to Patmos by the Roman emperor, Domitian. This was as a result of his preaching of the gospel, which is why John describes himself as their “brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (Revelation 1:9 ESV). And John makes it clear that his presence on the island was “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:9 ESV).

At some point during his exile, John received a message from God. It came in the form of a vision. John reports that he “was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Revelation 1:10 ESV). This most likely means that John was somehow empowered by the Spirit of God, enabled to escape the physical confines of Patmos, and provided with an out-of-body tour of heaven and an up-close-and-personal view of future events on earth. John indicates that this happened on the Lord’s day. While it would be easy to assume that he is referring to Sunday, the day on which the early church traditionally met for worship, this is most likely a reference to the day of the Lord. The word “Lord’s” is used as an adjective and is meant to indicate a future day, the day of the Lord. John was transported by the Spirit to a day yet to come, a day designated by God as unlike any other day. In fact, as we will see, John will be given a glimpse into a day or time period that spans vast periods of time, but it all lies in the future. But before John is allowed to see what will be, he is introduced to “one like a son of man” (Revelation 1:13 ESV). From the description John gives of this individual, it can be deduced that he was seeing Jesus, the Son of God. He is “clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest” (Revelation 1:13 ESV). These are the garments of a priest and judge. They represent Christ’s deity. The designation “son of man” is found repeatedly in the gospels and is commonly used to emphasize Jesus’ humanity and status as the Messiah. John describes Jesus as having bright white hair, eyes like flames of fire, feet like burnished bronze and a voice like thunder. He is pure, righteous, holy and stands ready to judge the world for its many transgressions. This is a distinctively different image than that of helpless baby in a manger or a crucified Jesus hanging lifeless on a cross. And this image of Jesus sets the stage for what is to come in the rest of John’s letter. The shock of seeing his friend, Lord and Savior in such a manner left John in a state of awe and reverence. He fell down at Jesus feet “as though dead.” But Jesus raised John to his feet and said to him:

“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” – Revelation 1:17-19 ESV

Jesus comforts John by reminding him that He is the first and the last. In other words, He is eternal. He is alive. He died, but was raised back to life by God the Father and his resurrection gave him victory over death and Hades, which is a reference to life after death. Jesus wants John to know that he has nothing to fear. While John had not seen Jesus since the day He ascended back into heaven, he was now given an opportunity to view His Savior in a whole new light, as the sovereign, all-powerful King of kings and Lord of lords.

When John first laid his eyes on Jesus, he saw Him standing amidst seven golden lampstands and holding seven stars in His right hand. These items meant nothing to John until Jesus explained them.

As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” – Revelation 1:20 ESV

And we will discover the significance of the lampstands and stars in the following two chapters.

Verse 19 contains a critical element that will prove essential in understanding the rest of the book of Revelation. Jesus told John, “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” Notice that He describes three different aspects to the content of what John is to write.

  1. The things you have seen
  2. The things that are
  3. The things that are to take place after this

This three-fold outline sets up a key for unlocking the entire book of Revelation. The things that John had seen refers to all that is contained in chapter one. He was to describe all that he saw as a result of his vision. Secondly, he was to write about the things that are. This is believed to be a reference to the content found in chapters two and three, where John addresses the seven churches, which were alive and well in his day. These were existing churches containing real live believers, and what John would write would be applicable to their current state of affairs. Finally, John was to write about all that was to take place “after this.” In other words, he was to put pen to paper and describe all the things that would happen after “the things that are.” The seven churches, while real churches existing in real time, also represent the church age. The fact that there are seven of them, informs us that they are intended to be representative in nature, providing a complete profile and description of the church, ever since its inception at Pentecost until the day Jesus returns to remove the church from the earth. The time period in which John wrote s is commonly referred to as the church age and ends with the rapture of the church. The “things” John was to write entail all that will happen after the removal of the church. And that will constitute the greatest portion of John’s letter, from chapter 4 all the way to chapter 22.

As we make our way through the rest of Revelation, we will be confronted with fantastic imagery and difficult-to-understand passages that seem incomprehensible. But we must always remember that this book was written to be read and understood. In fact, John indicates that reading it comes with a blessing. But that does not mean it will reveal its secrets easily. It will take work and a determination to understand what God is trying to tell us. In the following two chapters, we will repeatedly see the words, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” We are about to encounter truth and it will require that we listen closely and carefully to what God has to say. It will also require that we look at the rest of the Bible in order to seek out other passages that will help enlighten us as to what God intends for us to know. There will remain unsolved mysteries when we’re done. Much of what we read will only be understood when the events themselves take place. But we can rest in the fact that our God has a plan and He is working that plan to perfection. The future is not arbitrary and the outcome of God’s redemptive plan is not up for grabs. The sovereign God of the universe has it all planned out down to the last detail, and His Son will play a significant role in bringing it all about. Of that, we can be sure.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Behold, He Is Coming.

John to the seven churches that are in Asia:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Revelation 1:4-8 ESV

The book of Revelation is filled with mysteries and wonders. It contains fantastic images of never-before-seen creatures and indescribable scenes. John is going to share his personal visions of heaven and reveal the sometimes disturbing nature of events far into the future. There will be times when his words confuse and confound us. And there will be other times when what he has to say comforts and encourages us. We will find ourselves tempted to decipher his somewhat cryptic messages and place meanings on every word he says. Reading Revelation can be like working a puzzle, where you feel the constant need to be in puzzle-solving mode. But it is a book that must be read with patience and discernment. It is not a riddle to be solved or a complicated equation which requires us to find the one and only answer. As its name implies, Revelation is a revealing of something. And John gives us a clue as to what the core message of that revelation is all about: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds” (Revelation 1:7 ESV).

John told us right from the start that this was “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1 ESV). God gave this message to Jesus, who then made it know to John by passing it to him through an angel. And because John wrote down all that he saw, it has now been passed on to us. John “bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (Revelation 1:2 ESV). The book we are reading contains the revelation of Jesus – not His incarnation, like the gospels contain – but concerning His second coming. Throughout the Old Testament, there were prophecies concerning the coming of Jesus to earth. They spoke of him being born to a woman (Genesis 3:15), who would be a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), and His birth would take place in the town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). They predicted His rejection by His own people (Isaiah 53:3), His betrayal (Psalm 41:9), His trials (Isaiah 50:6, 53:5), His sacrificial death (Isaiah 53:10-12), and His resurrection (Psalm 16:10-11; 49:15).

But Revelation is about something altogether different. It deals with a different coming of the Lord – His second coming. This book contains a message to the church of Jesus Christ regarding His future return. And while Revelation is filled with disturbing images and predictions of judgment and coming tribulation, it is meant to be an encouragement. We are told, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Revelation 1:3 ESV). The majority of what is contained in this book is future-oriented. It tells us of things yet to come. But it should impact how we live in the present. It is a reminder that our God is in control and that His plan is not yet complete. His Son came and, by His death, made salvation possible. But His Son is coming again, and when He does, He will make the restoration of all things possible, including that of the people of God, the nation of Israel.

But to whom was this message of revelation intended? What audience did God have in mind when He provided the content in this book to John? Verse 4 tells us. John addressed his letter to “the seven churches that are in Asia” (Revelation 1:4 ESV), and in the following chapters, he will disclose exactly which churches he had in mind: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. But why these churches? And why only these seven? Was his message only applicable to them and no one else? The consensus of opinion is that these churches were chosen because they provide a comprehensive representation of the church over the ages. These seven churches varied in size and spirituality. They existed in different cultural contexts and, as we will see, their spiritual health and vitality was all over the map. It is believed that these seven churches are intended to represent the church of Jesus Christ over all the ages, since the church’s birth on the day of Pentecost, recorded in the Book of Acts. In Scripture, the number seven is always used to convey the idea of completeness. These particular churches were chosen because their stories provide us with a comprehensive outline of how the church has handled its role in the world over the centuries. To a certain degree, we will find that each of these churches, as they are described, have existed in every age, including our own. There is the faithful church, the lukewarm church, the compromising church, the suffering church and the dead church. But these seven churches may also provide us with a historical representation of the church over the ages, with each representing a different phase or dispensation in the life of the church of Jesus Christ. We will explore that idea in greater detail later.

John addresses these seven church with the following salutation:

4 Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. – Revelation 1:4-5 ESV

In these two short verses, we have the inclusion of all three members of the Trinity. John refers to “him was is and who was and who is to come.” This is most likely a reference to the eternal nature of God the Father. The seven spirits are believed to be a reference to the Holy Spirit. Once again, the number seven is most often used in Scripture to refer to completeness or perfection. By saying “the seven spirits”, John is speaking of the Spirit’s diverse, and all-encompassing ministry. Just as the seven churches represent all churches over all time, the “seven spirits” represent the Holy Spirit in all His glory and majesty – in other words, His completeness and perfection. Finally, John mentions Jesus Christ the faithful witness. He was faithful in the sense that He did what God had commissioned Him to do. He came and witnessed to His own role as Savior and Messiah. He preached of the Kingdom of Heaven and the availability of a restored relationship with God through faith in Him. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT). And John refers to Jesus as the firstborn of the dead. He was the first to be resurrected, but He will not be the last. The apostle Paul wrote about this very thing.

18 Christ is also the head of the church,
    which is his body.
He is the beginning,
    supreme over all who rise from the dead.
    So he is first in everything. – Colossians 1:18 ESV

And when Paul had stood before King Agrippa, facing false accusations and the possibility of death, he told the king that Old Testament prophets had clearly predicted that “the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:23 ESV). It is because of Jesus’ resurrection that we have hope. His resurrection is what guarantees our future resurrection. Paul reminds us:

20 But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.

21 So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. 22 Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. 23 But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. – 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 NLT

Which brings us back to John’s primary message in this book. “Behold, He is coming!” John reminds us that Jesus loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom of priests to his God and Father. But that’s not all. He’s coming again and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him” (Revelation 1:7 ESV). This is the point of the book. This is why it is written to the church, the body of Christ. It is a reminder to us that God is not done. His plan is not yet complete. There is still more to come. And John wraps up his salutation with following words from God: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8 ESV). God is the everlasting one, who has always been. But so is His Son. Listen to the following words, spoken by Jesus, and recorded later in the book of Revelation.

12 “Look, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” – Revelation 22:12-13 NLT

It is Jesus who is going to bring about the culmination, the end, of God’s grand redemptive plan. His first coming made the redemption of mankind possible. His second coming will make the restoration of all creation and the final glorification of His people possible. The words, “Behold, he is coming” should bring us great joy and provide us with confidence because our God is not yet done. The best is yet to come.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Time Is Near.

1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. Revelation 1:1-3 ESV

Over the centuries, the Book of Revelation has been both revered and feared, a book some obsess over while others simply pass it by, overwhelmed by its difficult-to-understand content. It is a controversial book, surrounded by mystery and responsible for debates over everything from the actual identity of its author to the exact interpretation of its message and meaning. While most conservative scholars attribute the authorship of Revelation to the apostle John, one of the disciples of Jesus, there have been others who disagree, going all the way back to Dionysius of Alexandria in the third century. John’s name appears four different times in the text of Revelation and while there is never a claim of apostleship associated with those four references, it still seems highly probable that the author was John the apostle. Many of the early church fathers believed that the John referred to in the book was the same John who wrote the gospel of John. The apparent dissimilarities between the writing styles of the gospel of John and the Revelation have been used as a basis for rejecting John the apostle as the author of Revelation. They based their conclusions on differences in Greek grammar found in the two books, claiming that there is an inconsistency in style between the gospel of John and Revelation. But it must be remembered that these are two different books written many years apart from one another and represent two completely different styles of literature. John’s gospel is an historical document chronicling the life of Jesus. Yet, Revelation is apocalyptic in nature, a book of prophecy that is primarily based on visions given to John while he was on the island of Patmos. In his gospel, John was simply describing things as he saw and experienced them. But in Revelation, the author is attempting to put into words the incredible sights and sounds he saw while “in the Spirit” (Revelation 1:10). Trying to describe the incredible scenes revealed to him by God would have stretched John’s imagination and his use of the Greek language. It would be like someone describing what they had for breakfast and then trying to put into words their first-hand, eye-witness account of the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11. There would be a marked difference in style, grammar, and word usage between those two accounts.

A few verses later, John will reveal that he was on the island of Patmos when he received the vision(s) that became the basis for this book. Clement of Alexandria, a second-century Greek-born leader of the Christian community in Alexandria, Egypt, affirms that the apostle John returned from exile on the island of Patmos following the death of the Roman emperor, Domitian, which took place in A.D. 96. Eusebius, the fourth-century Bishop of Caesarea concurred with Clement on this point, as did Irenaeus, another second-century Christian theologian. So, it seems quite probable that John, the brother of James and the disciple of Jesus, was the author of this book. And the fact that, nowhere in the book, does the author claim apostleship, simply confirms the belief that those in the early church would have recognized John’s name and known that it was none other than the apostle himself.

Over the centuries, this book has often been referred to as the Revelation of John, but the opening lines provide us with the non-debatable fact that what John saw and wrote was “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” The Greek word translated “revelation” is apokalypsis and it refers to “things before unknown.” It is a revelation or revealing of things that, up until this point, had been hidden from view. This revelation, John says, was given to Jesus by God the Father. This is most likely a reference to a later scene described in chapter five, where John saw God seated on His throne in heaven.

Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. – Revelation 5:1 ESV

As John observed that scene, he saw “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6 ESV). And he watched as the Lamb “went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne” (Revelation 5:6 ESV). This scroll was sealed with seven seals and could only be opened by one who was worthy. And when God handed the scroll over to the Lamb, His own Son, Jesus Christ, the 24 elders gathered around the throne of God broke out in praise, saying:

9 “Worthy are you to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
    from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
    and they shall reign on the earth.” – Revelation 5:9-10 ESV

As we will see, that scroll will become key to understanding all that John will write in this book. With each seal that is broken, the scroll will reveal another aspect of God’s future plans for the world, His people, and the fate of mankind. But more about that later.

John was given the privilege of witnessing all these things, and assigned the responsibility to write them all down for posterity. And the fascinating thing is that the book he penned is the only one that comes with a promise of blessing to the one who reads it out loud so others can hear it, as well as a blessing to those who hear and obey what it says.

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. – Revelation 1:3 ESV

That one point should be encouragement enough to read this book and hear what John has to say. The book of Revelation is going to provide us with a front-row seat to one of the most remarkable spectacles ever witnessed by the eyes of men. We are going to step into the very throne room of God and witness never-before-seen events and hear news of things yet to come. Much of what we are going to read will be difficult to understand. It will sound fantastic and unbelievable. But we must remember that these are the words of a mere man who was attempting to describe heavenly things. He was struggling to use words to describe the indescribable and make plain the unfathomable. This book was intended to be read, not ignored. But it must be read with care and extreme caution. It must also be read in conjunction with the rest of God’s revealed Word. Revelation is not intended to be a stand-alone book. There is much in the book that is difficult to understand, but the key to its comprehension lies in its inclusion among the 66 books of the Bible. One scholar claimed that 278 of the 404 verses in Revelation contain references to the Old Testament. The United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament lists over 500 Old Testament passages. The books of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremy are among the many Old Testament books that will provide invaluable insight into what we discover on the pages of Revelation. Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, found in Matthew 24-25, will also provide critical information that will help us understand what this seemingly obscure and mysterious book has to tell us.

One of the benefits of reading and studying Revelation will be the way in which it will enforce the claim of the Bible’s inerrancy and reliability. We are going to see all the seemingly disparate and disconnected passages of Scripture come together in a cohesive and comprehensive manner, revealing the Bible’s divine inspiration and God’s irrefutable plan for mankind.

The final phrase in these opening verses carries the warning, “the time is near.” Yes, centuries have passed since John wrote this book. Generations have come and gone. But there is still an imminence and immediacy to this book. We don’t know when these things will take place, but God does. And John’s warning is intended to prepare those of us who trust in Jesus Christ to live in a constant state of anticipation and preparation. In reading the book of Revelation, we must resist the urge to turn it into some kind of a parlor game where we try to figure out the exact meaning of each and every image. We must not waste time speculating about the timing of when these things will take place. Jesus told His disciples just before His ascension, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7 ESV). In His Olivet Discourse, Jesus said, “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36 ESV). There will be many things in the book of Revelation that remain a mystery to us. But rather than speculate, we must rest in the sovereign will of God. He is not going to tell us everything we want to know. He is not going to explain everything that we find confusing. But while the book of Revelation may not reveal all its mysteries, it will show us the unmatched, indisputable power of our God and the unstoppable nature of His divine plan for His creation.

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The End of the Matter.

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. 10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 ESV

As Solomon wraps up his book, he seems to do so by providing his credentials as proof of the veracity of his words. Referring to himself in the third person, he restates the well-known fact of his wisdom, given to him by God. But he claims to have put a great deal of effort and energy into enhancing that wisdom with further insight and knowledge through the use of diligent study and research. Solomon had collected the wise sayings of the sages, putting many of them in the book of Proverbs. But he had not been content to simply collect and edit these sayings, producing them in written form for others to read. No, he says that his effort included “weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care” (Ecclesiastes 12:9 ESV). Solomon had tested these truths, taking the time and energy to determine their reliability and truthfulness. Like a metallurgist testing the quality of gold, to assess its true value, Solomon had proven the accuracy and soundness of each proverb before passing them on to the people. His goal had been to find teachings that would prove beneficial to life.

Solomon compares proverbs or wise sayings to a goad, a sharp stick used to prod animals along. Like a goad, proverbs are simple in nature, but highly memorable and powerful in terms of their impact. Like a sharp stick to the rump of a wayward cow, a proverb can cause a person who is straying from the truth to quickly course correct and realign their steps. He also compares proverbs to firmly fixed nails that keep things the way they were meant to be. They hold things in place, providing a sense of security and stability to life. Someone who lacks these time-proven truths or maxims, is left to learn the lessons of life the hard way: Through painful trial and error. And one of the reasons Solomon seems to have written this particular book was to pass on to those under his care the life lessons he had learned. As we’ve stated before, Solomon wrote this book near the end of his life, and he had a great deal of wisdom, gleaned from personal experience, that he sought to impart. In one of his proverbs, Solomon expressed this same desire to teach others what he had learned from life.

1 My children, listen when your father corrects you.
    Pay attention and learn good judgment,
for I am giving you good guidance.
    Don’t turn away from my instructions.
For I, too, was once my father’s son,
    tenderly loved as my mother’s only child. – Proverbs 4:1-3 NLT

10 My child, listen to me and do as I say,
    and you will have a long, good life.
11 I will teach you wisdom’s ways
    and lead you in straight paths. – Proverbs 4:10-11 NLT

And Solomon firmly believed that the proverbs he had collected had been given to him by God, making them divine instructions, not simply the words of men. That’s why he refers to them as having come from one shepherd. While their human authors were many in number, the truths these proverbs contained came from God alone. He is the author of all truth. And that’s why Solomon warned, “My son, beware of anything beyond these” (Ecclesiastes 12:12 ESV). There are countless books available and you could spend your lifetime searching and studying the written wisdom of men, but you would be wasting your time. And no one knew that better than Solomon himself, because he had done it. He knew it was all vanity, a chasing after the wind. The apostle Paul would fully agree with Solomon. In fact, he described the wisdom of men in less-than-flattering terms: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God” (1 Corinthians 3:19 NLT).  Earlier in that same letter, Paul asked and answered his own question regarding man’s so-called wisdom. “So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish” (1 Corinthians 1:20 NLT).

As Solomon prepares to wrap up his book and his life, he can’t help but come back to the one truth that held all his thoughts together. It is the one point of clarity in a long life filled with perplexities and incongruities. He refers to it as “the end of the matter.” It’s the summary or synopsis of life.

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. – Ecclesiastes 12:13 ESV

Now, the thing missing in Solomon’s summary is an understanding and awareness of God’s future plans for his life. Like many in his day, Solomon had no clear concept of or theology concerning the afterlife. It was all a mystery to him. As far as he could tell, what existed beyond the grave was nothing more than a black hole.

Life after death was as enigmatic to him as the unequal distribution of justice. His emphasis was on this life (‘under the sun’) and its opportunities for service and enjoyment; he thought life after death offered no such opportunities. – Donald R. Glenn, “Ecclesiastes.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament

So, while Solomon’s admonition to fear God and keep His commandments sounds like solid, biblical counsel to us, we have to keep in mind that he is placing all his emphasis on the here-and-now. He knows that God is sovereign over all. He realizes that God controls all things and is the distributor of all good gifts. He can give and He can take away. So, from Solomon’s limited, earth-bound perspective, it made sense to keep God happy by fearing and obeying Him. That way, you could hope to enjoy in this life some of the blessings that only He can bestow. And when Solomon speaks of God’s judgment, he seems to have in mind a judgment that takes place in this life. His rewards or punishments are based on thoughts and behaviors committed in this life. He is fixated is on present, not future rewards. He is expecting all of God’s blessings to show up in this life, not the one to come. Because as far as Solomon could tell, there was no guarantee of a life after death.

But as believers in Jesus Christ, we have been given additional insight into God’s redemptive plan. We have the entirety of God’s Word to guide and instruct us. We know that there is a life after death. Jesus promised it. Paul wrote about it. The New Testament goes out of its way to describe it. Yes, there is a judgment, but it’s rewards are not temporal in nature. They are eternal. In his first letter, the apostle John told those who read its contents: “I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13 NLT). Jesus Himself promised: “I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life” (John 5:24 NLT).

There is much we can learn from Solomon. But we have to take all that he wrote and combine it with what we have come to know since the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. We have been provided with the end of the story, something Solomon did not have. So, when he said, this is “the end of the matter; all has been heard”, he was not quite right. There was more to come. As a matter of fact, the Savior of the world was to come, and He has. And it was His arrival on this earth in the form of a man, His sinless life, His sacrificial death and bodily resurrection that remove all the vanity, meaningless, futility and frustration from life. This world, while a wonderful gift from God to be enjoyed, is not all there is. There is far more to come.

Qoheleth’s intent in his writing is to pass judgment on man’s misguided endeavors at mastering life by pointing out its limits and mysteries. He would prefer that man replace such false and illusory hopes with a confidence based on the joy of creation as God’s gift. – Robert K. Johnston, “Confessions of a Workaholic’: A Reappraisal of Qoheleth.”

But even more important than enjoying God’s gift of creation, is placing our faith and hope in God’s offer of new creation. New hope. New life. New joy and the promise of a never-ending, frustration-free, sinless future with God.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Grave Discussion.

1 Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity. Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 ESV

Solomon ended chapter 11 with an appeal to young people:

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. – Ecclesiastes 11:9 ESV

And he begins chapter 12 in a similar fashion, addressing the same group of individuals: The young. And it would appear that, because of Solomon’s advanced age, he views everyone as younger than he is. But he warns them, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1 ESV). It is as if he wants them to recognize that spiritual wisdom and a God-focused perspective are not attributes that simply come with age. In other words, don’t make the mistake that old age will bring with it a new excitement about and interest in the things of God. That kind of focus begins when you’re young. That’s exactly why Paul told his young protegé Timothy, “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity” (1 Timothy 4:12 NLT). He gave similar advice to Titus, telling him, “…encourage the young men to live wisely. And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good works of every kind. Let everything you do reflect the integrity and seriousness of your teaching” (Titus 2:6-7 NLT).

So, in a similar way, Solomon shared his words of wisdom with the young, encouraging them to make the most of their youth because, like everything else in the world, this season of life would come and go. And Solomon uses some very poetic words to describe the not-so-subtle signs of aging. As an old man himself, he describes that phase of his life as “evil days” that have little to no pleasure associated with them. For Solomon, old aged was marked by increasing physical weakness due to the diminishing capacity of the human body as it slowly decays. He describes a scenario in which “the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain” (Ecclesiastes 12:2 ESV). His words portray life as seen through the eyes of someone who suffers from the effects of cataracts and failing vision. The sun, moon and stars appear darker than they really are. The contrasts and clarity of normal vision are replaced with the flat grayness of a cloudy day.

Solomon writes from the perspective of someone who knows what he is talking about. He describes what it is like when “the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 NLT). The “keepers” are a reference to his legs, the means by which his body stands erect and makes it way in the world. As old age creeps in, the legs tremble, making mobility an issue. And when the legs shake, the whole body follows suit. The “strong men” are his shoulders, bent over and devoid of the youthful strength and vigor they once held. We see these images lived out right in front of our eyes on a daily basis as we watch the elderly among us shuffling their way along, bent over and shakily attempting to manage life in their diminished capacity. 

And for someone who put a high priority on fine food, good wine and a lifestyle built around culinary delights, the next description most likely left Solomon more than a bit frustrated. He states that “the grinders cease because they are few” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 ESV). An obvious reference to his own teeth, which had begun to fall out, leaving him with just a handful left in his mouth, making some foods off limits and his diet more than a bit bland and unappealing. Notice what Solomon is doing here. He is describing the loss of those things that were necessary for him to enjoy all the things around which he had built his life. He’s already mentioned the eyes, but he adds, “those who look through the windows are dimmed” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 ESV). The eyes become glazed over, incapable of seeing the beauty of all the things with which he has surrounded himself. He can no longer see and enjoy the beauty of the palace he built. He can’t take in the natural beauty of the gardens he designed and planted. Even the 700 wives and 300 concubines he had chosen because of their physical beauty were indistinguishable from one another.

“The doors on the street are shut” seems to be a reference to his loss of hearing. He could no longer hear what was going on outside his own room. Life was taking place all around him, but he couldn’t hear it or enjoy it. Even “the sound of the grinding is low” (Ecclesiastes 12:4 ESV). In other words, you can’t even hear yourself chew your own food. How frustrating to a man who was used to hearing fine music echoing through the halls of his palace. And the real irony is that this same person, unable to sleep, finds himself waking up with the birds singing outside his window, but him being unable to hear them. The “daughters of song” is a reference to musical notes, no longer audible or distinguishable to the one whose hearing has faded with old age. The beauty available in this life becomes increasingly off-limits and unattainable to the elderly. It is inevitable and unavoidable.

On top of that, the aging process comes with increased fears of all kinds. The fear of falling. Fear of harm. Fear of being alone. And fear of death. Along with all the physical changes Solomon has already described comes the reality that the hair on his head had grown both thin and grey, like the white blossoms of an almond tree. And to make matters worse, there were days when Solomon felt like he was dragging himself along like a dying grasshopper on its last legs.

The next comparison Solomon uses is incredibly insightful and probably represents one of the most dreaded aspects of old age for him. In the original Hebrew, he refers to ‘abiyownah, which is a word for the Capparis spinosa fruit which was eaten as an aphrodisiac in the ancient Near East. Solomon is bemoaning the fact that the aging process had robbed him of all sexual desire. And for a man used to availing himself of the hundreds of wives and concubines in his harem, this loss had to have hit him hard. There is little doubt that Solomon tried any and all of the known cure-alls available in his day. He was known for experimentation and innovation, so it is likely that he would have checked out every available aphrodisiac and sexual enhancement drug on the market, all in a vain attempt to prolong this aspect of his life.

Notice that Solomon’s focus in all of this is death and the grave, not eternal life. Dying is a slow, inexorable process that ultimately and inevitably results in death, with man “going to his eternal home” (Ecclesiastes 12:5 ESV). The literal translation is “house of his eternity.” This is an idiom for the grave, not heaven. It was also a Hebrew euphemism for a burial ground or cemetery. Solomon has his dim eyes set on the grave because he has no idea what happens next. It was all a mystery to him. In verse six, he uses a series of visual illustrations to help convey the abrupt end of life. He refers to the silver cord that is snapped, the golden bowl this is suddenly broken, the pitcher that ends up shattered at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern. All of these images conjure up the sudden cessation of life. It just stops. And like a snapped cord, a broken bowl, a shattered pitcher and a broken wheel, death is an irreconcilable condition.

And Solomon soberly summarizes his view, stating, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7 ESV). The body returns to the earth, where it will decay and turn to dust. The soul returns to God. But notice that Solomon doesn’t state this last fact as if it is good news. There is a finality to his words and a sense of loss. Because for Solomon, the body was the means by which he had enjoyed what life had to offer. With the body gone, he had no way of knowing what would be left for the soul to experience in the afterlife. Which is why he sums up this section the same way he has throughout the rest of his book. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 12:8 ESV). So, what Solomon could assess, from his vantage point as an old man, was that young people should enjoy life while they had it. But they should also recognize that it is God who has given them life and the capacity to enjoy all that it has to offer. The sad reality, for Solomon, was that life passed so quickly. It was as if he was looking back, wondering where all the time had gone. He could remember being young. He could recall the pleasures he had enjoyed. But he was also well aware of all the moments he had missed. He had been so busy building, buying, accumulating, experimenting, working, learning, and trying to discover the meaning and purpose behind life, that he had failed to truly enjoy the life given to him by God. And now, his life was about to end. You can sense the regret in his words. You can feel the remorse in his self-revealing description of old age. He would have done things differently. He would have approached life more gratefully and taken his walk with God more seriously. We have a lot to learn from the wisdom of Solomon.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson