Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Opportunity Knocks, pt. 7

Revelation 3:7-13
The Philadelphian church was only the second church of the seven that was not condemned by Jesus but applauded for its work. It was a church that took strategic advantage of opportunities to follow God and reach its city with the gospel. Recognition is given to this church because of its faithfulness. By examining this passage you can better understand how Jesus rewards faithfulness.

Jesus rewards faithfulness with himself.
The opening of the letter to the church in Philadelphia starts with a description about Jesus’ character – he is holy and true. These qualities point to Jesus’ perfect faithfulness which can always be counted on. Further in the passage Jesus promises that he is coming soon (one of the grand themes of the book) to reward the faithful with the identity of God, naming them with his own name. The intimacy between Jesus and his followers cannot be stronger than at his next coming.

This point is important because it shows the greatest reward of eternal life is God himself; not streets of gold, beautiful heavenly scenery, angels, or even reuniting with loved ones – all good things, just not the most satisfying. If this disappoints you then perhaps you may want to evaluate your desire to truly know God. Seeing God face to face and being with him is the ultimate reward of an unseen faith.

Jesus rewards faithfulness with advancement.
The church in Philadelphia was a church that took advantage of opportunities given by Jesus. They kept the commands of Jesus and made the name of Jesus known in its surrounding area. Jesus continues to open doors for this church which no one else can shut. Being confident of Jesus’ presence with them they stepped through each open door advancing the kingdom of God.

Some people think that faithfulness and obedience to God requires him to bless them with personal gain. If I read my bible this week then I’ll get that job I applied for. Since I listened to my parents coming in before curfew then God should make my parents get me my own car. If I put money in the offering plate then God will make that certain girl talk to me or get that raise at my job. We play these sorts of mind games thinking we have developed a formula to receive God’s blessing. Certainly, God answers prayer and cares for his people. However, believers do not obey God for personal gain, they obey because they desire to reflect the character of God and see the kingdom of God advanced. God’s kingdom is advanced when sin is repented and obedience to Jesus is a passion in his followers, when people deny their self and follow Jesus, when broken family relationships are restored, when addicts are healed, when the poor and sick are cared for by those who have received the mercy of Jesus in their own life.

It is also worthy to note that the Philadelphian church was not a large church. They had “little strength” meaning they were small in size but they did not allow their numbers to be an excuse for its success and impact in God’s kingdom. Smaller churches, as well as individual Christians should realize the impact they can have by being faithful in small things.
“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” Luke 16:10

Jesus rewards faithfulness with endurance.
One of the specific promises given to the Philadelphian church is ability to persevere in the midst of trials. Jesus promises protection but this does not necessarily mean removal from trials (cf. John 17:15, 2 Peter 2:9). The promise of protection is not the key focus as there is a previous promise coming first, which is revealing to unbelievers the reality of Jesus’ love for those who do believe. The rest of the context points to the believers enduring, holding fast and overcoming which hint at the protection being in the midst of suffering rather than removal from suffering. They key is Jesus’ strength to endure because of their hope in his final coming. His coming will bring eternal endurance outlasting those who did not believe or hold fast.

This promise has great relevance for all who face trials, even if the trials mentioned here are specifically related to end times. Jesus wants you to realize that your faithfulness is not dependent on circumstances. Obedience to God is sometimes carried out even when it is difficult and perhaps seemingly illogical. This calls for men and women to have a courageous faith in a Jesus who is always faithful.

· What does it mean that Jesus is holy and true? Make relevant application to your life.
· What doors has Jesus opened for you to advance his kingdom? Closed?
· Do you think a smaller church or less known Christian can have a greater impact/influence than a larger church or well known Christian?
· How does having eternal life in heaven shape your perspective on life on earth, with its trials and challenges?
· Memorize Luke 16:10. How can you apply this verse to your life?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Reputation: Does it matter? pt. 6

Revelation 3:1-6
In the sixth century Sardis had a legendary reputation for being a prominent city. Sardis was a city of power as it was situated on Mt. Tmolus with three sides of the mount having a 1500 foot steep slope, nearly impenetrable. Sardis was also a city of wealth as it was the first city to mint gold and silver coins. However, its esteemed reputation became cause for its downfall. The city became careless and inattentive to the details for how it became known for its power and wealth, leaving the city vulnerable towards its enemies. Sardis was conquered twice in the same way of its enemies scaling the steep slopes where they failed to post guards. During the time of this letter Sardis was a desolated town of insignificance. Overconfidence led to negligence and then defeat.
Likewise, many churches and Christians live off past success. The growth and achievement of the past allows them to do just enough in the present to get by. Excellence is abandoned for the sake of ease and effortlessness. Its not that spiritual activity is lacking, it’s simply that all activity is incomplete lacking the quality depth to have any effectiveness. For these, death is subtle but sure without immediate and drastic transformation.

One side question from this study is, does your reputation really matter? People fight to establish and maintain just the right reputation; and especially with just the right people. Behaviors are monitored not according to natural instinct but by carefully guarded actions in effort to please others. So, to answer the question, our reputations do not matter if our aim is securing acceptance from others. If our reputations do not truly match reality in our character and heart then it is all a fa├žade. Abraham Lincoln said, “Character is like a tree and reputation is like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
[1] Be known for what matters most, integrity of character; all else is a hot air balloon filled with empty pride.

Reputation only matters if you are awakened to authenticity.
Jesus reminds Sardis of his knowledge regarding their deeds; Jesus’ knowledge is complete while their deeds are incomplete and insufficient before God. Their reputation was built on the glory of the past and Jesus was calling them to wake up to the present reality – they’re dead! If life was to return to the church in Sardis the following actions must take place:

1) Strengthen what remains. Jesus commanded Sardis to give its ministry an evaluation. Some of its deeds were lacking, while some are surviving, the latter were to be strengthened. Evaluation does not have to be negative criticism but is a healthy result of being fruitful for God. Identifying strengths is helpful in order to better understand what should be repeated and what should not.

2) Remember and obey. Jesus commanded Sardis to keep the teachings they had previously heard from Jesus and the apostolic teachers. [Note: This is also a subtle affirmation of the accuracy of God’s Word in that the teachings were transferred to each generation. Cross reference 1 Corinthians 15:3] Remembering goes further than simply bringing it to mind; it is a call to put what you know into practice. They were to pursue obedience to God with great passion and in entirety, rather than incompleteness.

3) Repent from sin. Jesus commanded Sardis to repent of sin. Repentance is not just for unbelievers, it is for Christians too. Sardis was suffocating the life of the Church under its sin of complacency. It needed to repent and be refilled with the Spirit of God. If it failed to repent it would receive harsh judgment from Jesus when he came.

Those in Sardis who were not soiled by the sin of spiritual apathy were recognized as walking worthy of the purposes of which Jesus designed for them. They had confidence they were in the book of life.

·Why is a person’s reputation important? How is reputation like money in the bank?
·How long does it take to gain a good reputation? How difficult do you think it is to maintain a good reputation? How easy is it to ruin a good reputation?
·If you had to evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses, what would they be? What about for our church?
·Why does Jesus tell the Sardis church to “wake up”?
·What areas of your life need waking up? What about for our church?
·What commands do you think Jesus wanted the Sardis church to remember?
·What does it mean that Jesus will come like a thief?
·What would you like Jesus to find you doing when he returns?

[1] Quote found at http://thinkexist.com/quotations/reputation/
[2] For a helpful article on evaluating your ministry see “Evaluation Part 1: Giving the Gift of Evaluation to Your Ministry” by Mark Maines, found at www.cyfm.net

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Seduced Church, pt. 5

Thyatira was an active city. It was very industrious in producing wool, linen, dyes, leather, tanning and bronze work. There were worshipers of God in the city (Acts 16:14) and the church was highly commended by Jesus. However, they were also misled by false teachings and tolerated immoral lifestyles. They were seduced by the ways of the world. Believers can examine this church to understand how to engage the culture with truth rather than succumbing truth to culture.

The church becomes seduced when it fails to worship rightly.
Thyatira, like every other church in Revelation, had problems with idolatry. Worship and idolatry seem like foreign words to the modern hearers; however they are the dominant action of every human heart. Idolatry includes anything that is desired or followed in creation more than the Creator. Jesus opens the letter to Thyatira with a vision of who he is – the Son of God with fire blazing eyes and shining bronze feet. This characterizes Jesus as the Supreme Being worthy of worship.

To worship rightly means viewing God accurately. Many people view God less than he is; as he were in competition with modern gods – money, fame, power, sex, possessions. As the book of Revelation shows, this cannot be farther from the truth. Each letter shows Jesus as greater than all things, as Champion and rightly as the all-powerful Creator. Since Jesus created all things, he alone is worthy to be worshiped.

The church becomes seduced when it fails to teach rightly.
The Thyatiran church allowed the poison of false teaching to occur among its members. Jesus relates the teaching to the OT prophetess “Jezebel”, who led the Israelites to worship Baal and killed the prophets of God. Likewise, the false teaching in the Thyatiran church led people into association with idols and sexual immorality.

The church [student ministries] must take seriously the purpose of teaching and building young believers in the faith. The last command of Jesus is to make disciples by teaching other to obey his commands. Unfortunately, much of the teaching in today’s student ministries have little to do with right doctrine and more to do with entertainment. Students are seduced by smoke shows, glamorous stage lights, comedic presentations and let’s not forget pizza… sad but true. Jesus took this sin so seriously that he promised intense suffering if they did not repent. Wow, Jesus was probably even raising his voice in saying such things! The point is, biblical doctrine is not just for a select class of intelligent Christians but it’s for all believers.

The church becomes seduced when it fails to live rightly.
Behaviors follow beliefs. In other words, because the Thyatiran church tolerated erroneous teaching it resulted in faulty behavior. Believers became influenced by their surrounding culture rather than the reverse.

One popular preacher used to say, “The world is too churchy and the church too worldly that you cannot tell the difference.” When engaging culture with the gospel Christians must realize there are areas that they can never go. For example, Christians can and perhaps should go where sinners are as Jesus did – ghetto neighborhoods, streets, bars and nightclubs, white-collar neighborhoods, athletic events or wherever there are lost people. However, Christians should live differently than the lost world they are trying to reach.

• What areas of Christianity do you see it becoming seduced?
• What idols do you see among your friends?
• How do you know when you have worshiped rightly?
• If you had a short time to teach someone essential Christian doctrine, what would you teach and what would you leave out?
• Do you think people you know want to go deeper in the Christian faith but their churches are not taking them? Why do you think this happens?
• Explain why you agree or disagree with this statement: “Behaviors follow beliefs.”
• How can a Christian witness to a lost friend without becoming influenced by their beliefs and lifestyle?

Monday, February 4, 2008

Satan's Influence, pt. 4

The next church that Jesus addresses is a church with Satan's influence. It was the church of Pergamum. The Pergamum church was another city filled with emperor and cultic worship. It was an influential city, having a library consisting of over 200K volumes and being known as an intellectual hub for politics, religion and philosophy. The city popularized writing on paper from sheets made with animal skins (parchment comes from root word Pergamum). It was mostly known for its temple worship as the city featured an altar to Zeus measuring a whopping 120’ x 112’. Mostly, this city was like every other city of the 7 Churches – idolatrous and immoral, yet a remnant of God’s people were influencers on its society. From this letter you can two realities of culture.

Beware, Satan’s influence is subtly seated in culture.

Jesus reminded the Pergamum church about his intimate knowledge of their situation. Once again, Jesus wants the church to know he walks among the churches and is not removed or distant from their situation. One of the facts Jesus knows about the city is that it is where Satan has his throne. This could refer to the featured city altar to Zeus, measuring a whopping 120’ x 112’. More specifically, it could refer to some incorrect teaching held at this church (Balaam, Nicolatians). Or it could simply refer to the entire city being a place far from the ways of God. Jesus is making the point that Satan’s influence is always present in the world (Jn 12:31) and it must be resisted.

2 Cor 4:4 “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Today we can be reminded of this same reality. Satan influences culture through both public and private measures. His hold on people is evidenced through addiction, abuse, and apathy. Two results of Satan’s throne in this city and church were unbiblical teaching and sexual immorality. Unfortunately, these continue to be prevalent in the church today as well. Jesus says the church’s response is simple: repent and fight for him. Repentance is needed in order to show the church’s desperate need for a Savior and Lord. If the church chooses not to repent Jesus will fight against them. So, in some sense Jesus is calling the church to fight for the cause of the gospel or be fought against. We must realize our fighting is not through violence but with the compassion and mercy Jesus showed to a world in need (cf. Eph 6:12; Matt 4:23, 10:6-8).

Behold, Jesus is just judge of culture.
Jesus challenged the Pergamum church to repent and stand against Satan’s influence in the culture. If they did not he would come and fight against it, including those within the church. Jesus’ coming represents justice to the honor of his name. Any church that holds to incorrect teachings or does not characterize the lifestyle of a true Christian will be brought to judgment in Jesus’ coming. Faithful Christians will receive hidden manna and a white stone with a new name written on it. During the time of this book, it was common for people to receive stones inscribed with the emperor’s name as tickets of admission to feasts or games.[1] Jesus invites those who believe in him to come to him with the glory of holding his name as your own.

“For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” Acts 17:31

When sharing this message with a group of students and wanting them to apply it to their lives I asked them, "How would you go about fighting Satan's influence?" The answers I received were somewhat frightening. They ranged from drop kicking Satan in the head to throwing water on him to shooting him with various weapons. None of these ways seemed to take Satan very serious; yet as someone who has worked with youth for over ten years I have seen his influence in very real ways in the lives of young people and their families. Has the church failed to teach students the reality of Satan and evil and much more, given them practical effective strategies to battle against temptation? I'm afraid we must cover our faces in admission of this failure.

SO, to answer my own question about fighting Satan's influence and battling temptation I offer these suggestions.
Prayer. Samuel Chadwick said, “The one concern of our enemy is to keep Christians from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work and prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, he mocks at our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray.” The only way to learn how to pray is simply by doing it. The more conversation with God the closer you grow toward him and in being able to sense his power in your life to obey him and reject sin.
Scripture. The psalmist said, "How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word... I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you" (119:9,11). Even Jesus used Scripture during his temptation from Satan (Matthew 4). I cannot fathom any of us improving on Jesus' method, there is simply no replacing the internalization of God's word in a person's life to be equipped for life and waging battle against temptation.
Repentance. This one goes hand in glove to the previous two. As mentioned in a previous post, person's do not grow out of love as much as they grow out of repentance. This means that when facing temptation you must be honest with God, yourself and perhaps confessing to others. True repentance is a process of changing the inner desires of your heart from what is against God to what is pleasing God. Do not allow fear or guilt to reign over your life. Jesus' death on the cross paid for your sin in full. Confess and repent of your sin and humbly move forward in grace.
Accountability. I am not as sold on this last one as the previous three. The reason being is because accountability only works as so far the persons allow it. People have become experts at putting up walls and saying the right things that outsiders can never really "know" a person. However, when persons are willing to be vulnerable to another or small group, the impact of personal accountability can be quite an encouragement; even when failure occurs.

This list is not exhaustive, nor is it meant to be a full explanation of each strategy. I have been making it a goal to share these strategies with my small group. What are your personal strategies for battling temptation and Satan's influence? What would you add?

[1] Grant Osbourne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary series, p.149.