November 25, 2012

Scripture and Commentary, Week of Sunday next before Advent

Greetings and Blessings,

Current events in Israel and surrounding areas have caused some to want my comments on the book of Revelation re-posted.  You should know in advance that my view of the book is somewhat different, but I hope you will read the comments, even if you disagree with them. You can find a fuller discussion of this view in my book, He Shall Reign: The Message and Meaning of the Book of Revelation.  

Monday after the Sunday next before Advent

Morning - Ps. 124, 128, Joel 1:13, 2 Peter 1:1-11
Evening - Ps. 131, 132, 134, Rev.1:1-8

Revelation 1:1-8

Our commentary turns to the book of Revelation, where we will remain until the evening of December 23rd.  This is a most fortunate time to look at Revelation, due to the wide spread interest in the book caused by predictions about the "rapture."  Most current views are based on the interpretation devised in the British Isles in the early 1800s known as Dispensationalism.  According to this view, the New Testament Church was inaugurated by God as a stop gap measure made necessary because the Jews rejected the Messiah.  The Church is an interruption of God's plan for Israel, and will be removed in the "rapture." The rapture will be followed by seven years of tribulation, during which Israel will return to God.  At the end of the seven years, Christ will return and rule in Jerusalem for a thousand years, after which He will take all of His people to Heaven.  This view leads people to make predictions about the time of the "rapture," and to see in current events "signs" that it is near.  Rather than making more predictions, allow me to suggest another, and much older view of the book of Revelation.

It is important to understand that the Dispensational view is a new view.  Historically, the promises of God in the Old Testament have been understood as being fulfilled in the Church.  The Church is the New Israel and the Kingdom of God on earth.  It is not an interruption of God's plan for Israel; it is the fulfillment of God's plan for Israel.

Rather than giving a map of events separated by millennia from those to whom the book was first written, the book of Revelation was first of all a message to first century Christians enduring deadly persecution by the Roman Empire.  The message refers to the coming fall of Jerusalem and Rome, and encourages Christians to remain faithful even unto death.  Their persecutors will fall, but God's Church will remain, and those who suffer and die in the persecution can look forward to a home in Heaven, with all the blessings of the Heavenly realm.

In this respect, Revelation is similar to Romans and First Timothy, each of which is written to a specific congregation or person with a message for them.  In the message for them we find a message for all Christians of all time.  So, when the Apostle Paul charges Timothy to preach the word, we understand that the same charge applies to all ministers and all churches.  Like wise, when John tells the people of Asia Minor that the smoke of the torment of those who worship the beast which persecuted the Church in the first century will ascend up forever (Rev. 14:11) we can rest assured that those who worship whatever beasts arise in our own time will also perish with the unbelievers.  The message here is not given to amuse us with guessing games about the identity of the Anti-Christ, but to teach us that the price of opposing Christ is the fires of hell.

Tonight's reading shows that the book of Revelation is a revelation/message from Jesus Christ regarding "things which must shortly come to pass" (1:1).  It is written to the "seven churches which are in Asia" (1:4).  These are actual churches with real people, not symbols of the ages of the church.  The revelation comes through John the Apostle, who is imprisoned on Patmos.  He has held Apostolic oversight of the churches of the area for many years, and he writes to prepare the Christians for the persecution that has begun and will increase in scope and ferocity in the near future.  Thus he calls Christ the faithful witness.  The Greek word used here is the word from which we get our English word, "martyr." It is used intentionally to show that Christ gave up His life for the people in these churches.  He counted them more valuable to Him than His glory in Heaven and His life on earth.  So, if they are called upon to choose between Him and their own lives, they must choose Him as He chose them.

Tuesday after the Sunday next before Advent

Morning - Ps. 129, 130, Joel 2:1-11, 2 Pet. 1:12
Evening - Ps.132, Rev. 1:9-20

Revelation 1:9-20

The historical setting of the book of Revelation is made clear in two verses from chapter 1.  In 1:4, the first recipients of the Revelation are identified as the "seven churches which are in Asia."  Note that the churches are not merely identified; they are greeted in the standard form used in letter writing by the Apostles; "Grace be unto you, and peace...."  These churches are facing a growing persecution by the Roman government, and, in 1:9 John identifies himself as their companion and brother in that tribulation.  Tribulation, here, means the tribulation of the Church under the Roman persecution.  So John is saying to the seven churches that he is suffering with them.  John was not sitting in a comfortable home as he wrote Revelation.  He was in a squalid prison, a place of horrible suffering and torture.  Peter had already been tortured to death in Rome, Antipas had been executed in Pergamos (2:13), and John knew the same fate could be his at any moment.  So cast away the idea that these churches are mere symbols.  They are people of flesh and blood facing the issues of life and death because of their faith in Christ (1:9).

The power of Christ is described in verses 10-17.  His voice is strong and powerful, like a trumpet blast.  He is dressed in garments of spun gold.  His appearance is fearful, with eyes like fire and feet like brass. His voice is like the sound of many waters (we might say, like the roar of a thousand stormy seas).  A sharp, two-edged sword comes out of His mouth and His face is as bright as the sun.  This is not gentle Jesus meek and mild.  This is the God of all creation, terrifying in His power and fearful in His holiness.  No wonder John, close as He was to the Lord, fell to the ground in a dead faint (1:17).

The Great and Majestic Lord revives John, and describes Himself as the One who died and lives again, has the keys of Heaven and hell and death, and holds the seven stars and candlesticks in His hand (1:18-20).  This is One to be feared above all fears.  And yet, if He is for you, who can stand against you?  Certainly Rome is no menace to the power of this Jesus.  Rome had already killed Him once, done its very worst against Him, yet He lives and holds power that can destroy all of Rome in an instant, or throw it into the fires of hell forever.  Surely the Church can trust this One, in life and in death.

He tells us the meaning of the stars and candlesticks.  The book of Revelation often interprets its own symbols, and it is important that its readers pay attention to its interpretation.  The stars are the angels of the seven churches.  Heavenly bodies usually represent human beings in Revelation, and here they represent the clergy, probably the bishops of the churches in the seven cities and their surrounding areas.  The candles are the churches.  The point made is that they are held in the right hand of Christ.  He holds them in his strong hand, and He is far stronger than any persecutor on the face of this planet.

The picture given by this passage is very similar to that in the Twenty-third Psalm.  "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil."  Why? "Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."  As the Psalm presents, Christ's ability to keep His sheep safe, even as they pass through the shadow of death, Revelation 1 shows He is able to see His Church through the persecution of Rome

Wednesday after the Sunday next before Advent


Morning - Ps. 136, Joel 2:12-19, 2 Pet. 2:1-10
Evening - Ps. 139, Rev. 2:1-11

Revelation 2:1-11

Tonight's reading brings us to paragraphs addressed specifically to the churches of Ephesus and SmyrnaEphesus was the major city in the area, and it was the Apostle John's home base from which he made episcopal tours to the surrounding cities.  It was known for its large number of Christians, for its love of the Apostle Paul, and for the ministry of Timothy.  Due to the large number of Christians and churches in this area of Asia, it was natural for John to move into it after Paul went west to take the Gospel into new territory. As archbishop of the area, Timothy had served well under Paul, and now served equally well under the Apostolic oversight of John. 

How blessed the church in Ephesus is to have been under the teaching of Paul, John, and Timothy.  And it seems to be thriving, even in this time of persecution, for even our Lord says it has rejected false apostles, and has not fainted in the face of persecution (2:2 and 3).  Yet, our Lord says to them, "I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love" (2:4).

This may seem trivial to our self-centered generation, yet our Lord speaks of it as though it means the Ephesians have almost left the faith entirely, and will be completely cast away if they do not repent (2:5).  Note again that this church has had the greatest of human ministers, is fiercely orthodox, and has endured persecution for its faith in Christ, yet it is in danger of falling away from Christ entirely.  There is a terrifying warning to all churches in all ages in the failure at Ephesus.

What is the failure at Ephesus?  It is something very similar to what the Old Testament Church experienced at various times, a faith reduced to doctrines and stubborn tenacity, but with very little concern for God or His people.  It was a faith that went through the motions of orthodox faith and worship, without engaging the heart or mind of the people.  Consequently, they were indifferent towards Christ and one another.  The sense of oneness in Christ was gone.  The sense of identity as one body was gone.  They no longer thought of themselves as walking together in the way of truth together, holding "the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace."  Rather than being characterised by that active sense of identity and belonging, each one went his own way, wrapped up in his own thoughts and activities, and this attitude continued even when they came together in worship.  They had lost the sense of worshiping God as one, and had become simply individuals worshiping God individually.  Their worship was private worship performed in public, and this extended to their entire life of faith, including their attitude toward unbelievers. Yet the promise of grace remains, "to him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise of God."

To the angel, and thus to the Church, of Smyrna, our Lord has no words of reproach.  He commends it for its faithfulness (2:9) and perseverance in the face of persecution.  Yet He wants the people to know the worst is ahead of them (2:10), and they are to be prepared to suffer and die for Christ.  In our time Christ is often presented as a way to self-fulfillment and happiness, and even to health and prosperity.  Many have become Christians in the hope that they will be "raptured" out of the world so they won't have to face old age, illness, death, or the "tribulation." But in John's day, joining the Church marked a person for persecution and death.  It is highly doubtful that many of the people thronging to church today would have even considered becoming a Christian if they had lived in John's time.  Yet the Church grew by leaps and bounds during this time.
The real promises of Christ are not that His Church will escape tribulation, but that those who overcome the world by remaining faithful unto death will not be hurt by the second death, the fires of hell.  Instead, they will receive the crown of life (2:10).

Thursday after the Sunday next before Advent


Morning - Ps. 137, 138, Joel 2:21, 2 Pet. 2:10
Evening - Ps. 140, 141, Revelation 2:12-17

Revelation 2:12-29

Pergamos, often referred to by its Latin name, Pergamum, is praised by the Lord for holding fast to faith in Christ, even though some, like Antipas, have been executed for their Christian faith (2:13).  But, where persecution and death could not shake their faith, a compromising spirit had.  They are accused of holding the doctrine of Balaam.  Often remembered for refusing to curse Israel (Num. 24:12-13), Balaam also taught the Hebrews to compromise with the faith and sins of the Moabites (Num.31:16).  Like him, there are some in the church of Pergamos who advocate compromise with the pagan religions.  These people are willing to adopt pagan practices and beliefs, and to incorporate them into Christianity.  Such people cast stumbling blocks in the path of Christians, causing them to depart from the faith.  This is especially enticing to those who want to save their lives in the face of persecution.  By joining with the pagans in their feasts and orgies, they may hope to escape suffering.  But Christ destroys their hope.  If they do not repent He will fight against them (2:16).  He will be unto them not a Saviour and refuge, but an enemy, for they have become His enemy.  His weapon will be the sword of His mouth (2:16, see also 1:16, 19:15, and Heb. 4:12) which is the word of God, or, the Scriptures.  By the Scriptures their sins will be shown and their condemnation pronounced.  But, to those who repent He will give hidden manna.  Instead of the feasts of idolatry that lead to eternal condemnation, He will give them the true Manna from Heaven, which leads to eternal life. A white stone and a new name signify adoption into the family of God.

Thyatira is a church that is growing in holiness, for their last works are greater than their first (2:19).  They also have a problem; a woman, claiming to be a prophet from God, is teaching them to compromise the faith.  She is called, "Jezebel" because, like the famous wife of Ahab (1 Kings 16:31), she is not of the people of God, and introduces idolatry and sin into the fellowship of Christ (Rev. 2:20).  God has given her time to repent of her fornication (idolatry), but she has not.  She and her followers will be cast into great tribulation and death (2:21-23).  In other words, they will die in their sins and suffer the eternal tribulation of hell, the second death unless they repent.

To those who have remained faithful to Christ, no burden is placed upon them but to "hold fast till I come" (2:25).  They are to continue in the faith, growing in holiness, even in the face of persecution and death until the Lord returns (the end of the world).  And they shall judge the nations.

Friday after the Sunday next before Advent


Morning - Ps. 142, 143, Joel 3:1-8, 2 Pet. 3:1-10
Evening - Ps. 144, Rev. 3:1-6

Revelation 3:1-6

Sardis is the next church addressed, and the message to it is terrifying.  This church has the reputation of being a vital and healthy church.  It probably has a large congregation, the respect of the people in the city, and people probably "enjoy" its services and activities. Yet, in reality, it is dead.  The people are just going through the motions of church, while their hearts are for the world and its acclaim.  This church has been tamed by the world.  It has become a pet.  Our Lord counsels it to strengthen what little is left of the true faith.  Otherwise He will come to it unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, and the people will die in their sins.  They need to repent (3:3).  Those who do will receive white raiment, symbol of the purity of those whose sins have been forgiven, and their names will not be removed from the book of life (3:5).  To have Christ confess them before the Father and His angels is to be claimed as one belonging to Christ by faith, and to be admitted into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Saturday after the Sunday next before Advent


Morning - Ps. 146, 149, Joel 3:9-17, 2 Pet. 3:11
Evening - Ps. 148, 150, Rev. 3:7-13

Revelation 3:7-13
The "city of brotherly love," is not living up to its name.  Like the rest of Asia Minor, the people have adopted a general attitude of open opposition to Christ and His people.  The Church of Philadelphia is apparently very small and composed of people with little or no power or influence in the city.  Yet they have kept the word of God faithfully in the face of persecution, and Our Lord commends them, as He does Smyrna, without any word of condemnation.

As with each of the other Churches, the Lord opens with a description of Himself intended to strengthen and comfort His people.  He holds the key of David, and He alone opens and shuts the door to the Kingdom of Heaven.  The key of Davis is especially significant because the "synagogue of Satan" (3:9) is especially troubling to the Church.  Such people may be a mixture of Gentiles and Jews who insist that faith in Christ must be combined with a conversion to Judaism and the complete ceremonial law and sacrificial system.  Or they may simply be Jews who persecute the Christians as some persecuted Paul in other places.  Either way, the Lord shows that He holds the key of David.  This means the Old Testament was about Him, and He is the fulfillment of all that the law and prophets taught.  He is the key to the Old Testament.  It also means His intentions and promises given in the Old Testament, are fulfilled in the Church of the New Testament.  Those who believed Gentile Christians needed to become Jews were absolutely correct if the Church is not the fulfillment of the Old Testament, for the point of the Gospel and the work of Christ would have been to continue the Old Testament Israel and bring the Gentiles into it.  But the point of the work of Christ was to bring to fulfillment all that was symbolised by the old Israel, and to create a new people living in the faith of the New Covenant in Christ. For this reason, it is not necessary that Gentiles become Jews or adopt Jewish ceremonies or customs.  Instead, both Jews and Gentiles are to join together into one new people, in which there are neither Jews nor Gentiles, only Christians saved by grace through faith.  Christ, not Judaism, opens and closes the door to this new people of God.

The truth of the Gospel to which the Philadelphians hold will become evident to all when their persecutors are forced to publicly acknowledge them.  In that day they will know God loves the Church (2:9).

Verse 10 is a favourite verse of those who believe in a "rapture" of the Church prior to 7 years of tribulation, but this idea is nullified by verses 11 and 12.  The protection promised is spiritual rather than physical, and the spiritual protection will be with them as the trials of persecution increase.  It is because they have trusted in Christ and not given up the faith, that He will be faithful to them and keep them in His faith, no matter what trials the future may bring to them.  He will not let the persecution tempt, or, "test," them to the point where they give up their faith in Christ.  This is good news to all who truly believe in Christ as Lord and Saviour.  He holds us in His hand and will not allow anything to pluck us out.  We have trusted His promise to deliver us safely to Heaven and He will keep His promise (Jn. 10:28 & 29).
Verse 11 has been thought to refer to current popular views of the "rapture." But it clearly refers to the coming of Christ to judge the persecutors of the Church.  This will become increasingly evident in later chapters of Revelation.  He will come to judge them soon.  Therefore the Christians are to persevere in the faith, no matter what it costs them, for it is those who overcome by faith who will receive the blessings of verse 12.

Sermon, Sunday next before Advent

God Our Righteous Branch
Psalm 39, Jeremiah 21:5-8, John 6:1-14
Sunday next before Advent
November 25, 2012
Last Thursday we observed a day of prayer and thanksgiving for the fruits of the earth.  Today we have gathered to ask God to help us bear fruit for Him.  The fruit we want to bear is the fruit of good works, which includes both our outward actions and the inward attitude of our heart, which the Bible calls love.  Our recent readings in Deuteronomy have encouraged this, reminding us to keep God's Law because we love Him with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our might (Dt. 6:5).
We learn about the fruit of good works in the Bible, which, as the wise men who wrote the Westminster Confession rightly said, teaches what we are to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of us.  The wise men who wrote our Book of Common Prayer Book devised a plan of Bible reading and worship that centers on that belief and duty.   The first half of the plan teaches what we are to believe concerning God; the second half teaches what duty God requires of us.  Following this plan takes us through the Bible in an orderly and systematic manner which builds within us a store house of Biblical faith and practice.  It is essential to keep what we are to believe and do constantly before us.  Neglect of them will cause worship to decline into entertainment, preaching to decline into motivational talks, sermons to decline  into sentimental stories or self-help sessions, and the Christian life to decline into mere moralisms and feelings.
Starting next Sunday we return to what we are to believe concerning God.  We will read again of  the promise of the Saviour, of His birth, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. We will be reminded again of His miracles, message, and Nature.  That means this Sunday, today, we have come to the end of this year's emphasis on our duty to God.  It is very proper that we do so with a serious exhortation to love and obey God.  Our table of Psalms and Lessons for the Christian Year, often called the Lectionary, has intentionally had us reading Deuteronomy at this time, and it was no coincidence that the reading for last Monday evening began at Deuteronomy 10:12, "what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve Him with all thy heart and with all thy soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord, and His statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good?"  What an excellent summary of our duty to God.

Yet, already we are turning our eyes toward the emphasis of what are to believe concerning God.  Jeremiah 23:5 speaks of the Righteous Branch and King of the line of David, who shall reign and prosper and execute judgment and justice upon the earth.  His name shall be "The Lord Our Righteousness."  We know Him as Jesus.  He will gather His people, and they will dwell together in their own land.  We are His people.  Our own land is the Church; the Body and Kingdom of God.  Ultimately, our own land is our dwelling in God in Heaven forever.

Feeding the five-thousand is a direct revelation of the deity and mercy of Christ.  It reveals that He is the prophet, the Messiah, the One Moses said would come from God into the world  as we read in Friday's reading in Deuteronomy 18:18, and again this morning in John  6:5-14.

Psalm 39 is particularly appropriate for today.  We don't know when this Psalm was written.  It may have been after David's sins regarding Bathsheba.  It may have been after his decision to number the people of Israel.  But whenever it was written it expresses David's desire to change his life, turn away from sin, and start doing a better job of keeping the commandments of God.   He says, "I will take heed to my ways, that I offend not in my tongue.  I will keep my mouth as it were with a bridle."  A bridle is based on the idea that if you control a horse's head, you control the horse. That's why James 3:1-3 says to bridle the tongue is to bridle the whole body.   So David is saying he is going to put his head into a spiritual bridle in order to control himself,  that he "offend not."  His intention is to do right.  His intention is to keep the commandments of God.  His intention is to love God with his entire being, and to love his neighbor as himself.  Especially he will control himself in the presence of the unGodly, so he will not give them an opportunity to blaspheme because of his sin.

But as David determined to do better he also became conscious of something that is very applicable to us as we emphasise our own duty towards God: David became unbearably conscious of  what verse 9 calls "all mine offenses."

Since June 3rd we have been looking at what God requires of us, and every time we have done so, these words should have pierced our hearts like a sword; "all mine offenses."  We have heard the word of God; we have known what we ought to be doing; and, like David we have said, "I will take heed to my ways, that I offend not."  We have  confessed our sins, repented of our sins, and attempted to throw them away like filthy garments.  And, like David's, our good intentions melted away in the heat of temptation or difficulty.  God have mercy.  It seems the more we try to do right, the more we become aware of "all mine offenses." Truly if we had to earn our own way to Heaven by the fruit of our good works, we would never make it.  Thanks be to God, we don't have to.  Thanks be to God our sins are forgiven because Christ died for them.  Thanks be to God we do not have to stand before Him in the filthy rags of our own good works, for Christ Himself has dressed us in His own unblemished righteousness.  Thanks be to God He Himself works in our lives to take heed to our ways, to transform our hearts and strengthen our souls to become more and more willing and able to love and obey Him.  He alone, can "Deliver me from all mine offenses" (Ps. 39:9), and He alone can stir up our wills to bring forth the fruit of good works.  There is mercy with the Lord.  He will deliver us from all our offences.  And He will continue to strengthen us to do more of righteousness and less of sin, until we reach that land where all sin is banished from us, and we will live in perfect righteousness and peace with God., forever.

"Stir up, we beseech the O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.