Christianity 201

October 13, 2018

He Knows Your Works, Love, Faith, Service and Patient Endurance

Six months ago we introduced you to Martha Anderson who has been writing devotions at Strengthened by Grace since January, 2014 and is the author of four books available on Lulu.com.

El Roi–The God Who Sees

I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.  Revelation 2:19

In Revelation chapters 2-3 there are letters to seven churches that are scattered throughout what was then called Asia.  God told John to write down both their strengths and their weaknesses. What strikes me as I read the letters again is this:  the words, “I know your works,” are repeated again and again. They are phrased a bit differently in some of the letters, like to Smyrna in 2:9, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)” and to Pergamum in Rev. 2:13, “I know where you live.”

Not only does God know the seven churches’ works, but He knows our works.  He told them things like, You have lost your first love, in Rev. 2:4 and, You have 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.  Rev. 3:2-3

God didn’t just tell them words of rebuke, but also words of encouragement.  For instance, He told the church at Ephesus that they worked hard and had patient endurance.  Plus, they didn’t tolerate false teachers. To the church in Philadelphia, God told them that He knew that although they had little power, they had kept His word and didn’t deny His name.  God spoke of rewards to those who conquer and who keeps His works until the end.

† My question: What if God were to write you a letter?  What would He say? What strengths would He mention and what words of encouragement would He give?  Does it help you to know that He sees your heart, that He knows the things that you have done that no one else knows about, and that He knows the path you have taken?

If God were to say to you, “I know your works,” would that be a comforting and encouraging statement?  When Hagar fled from Sarai in Genesis 16 because Sarai was dealing with her bitterly, the angel of the Lord came and spoke blessings to Hagar in the wilderness.  So Hagar called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, You are a God of seeing, for she said, Truly here I have see Him who looks after me. vs. 13.  That is where the name of God, “El Roi” is first used.

‡ El Roi, the God who sees, is a good thing.  God sees our works and He looks after us. He sees our love and faith and service and    patient endurance, and He will reward us for those things.  On the flip side, He also sees the things that we need to repent of. As Hebrews 4:13 tells us, No creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.  It is much easier to shed off the yuck knowing that God  has my best interest in mind.

Forgive me for when my love grows cold and I tolerate false idols and teachers.  Wake me up so that you will not find my works incomplete. And thank you that You can trace my path and see my heart for You when no one else can.  You are the God who sees and who rewards.

 

January 26, 2017

Keep Calm and Carry On: The Letter to Smyrna

by Clarke Dixon

Convert to another religion, pay a heavy tax, or die? Which would you choose? This is a choice which many Christians have had to make as ISIS spread its evil. We do not face that kind of pressure in North America, but we do face subtle pressures that can gnaw away at our passion for Jesus. There is the pressure to choose materialism as a worldview. This is not materialism meaning a love of things, but a way of looking at the world that will not admit the supernatural. And if we will not be materialists, well then there is a pressure to affirm every religion as equally valid. Such pressures are subtle, but they are there.

Pressure on Christians is nothing new. In fact in our second letter of Revelation chapter two we read of a Christian community under pressure.

8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:
9 “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part 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. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death. Revelation 2:8-11

What pressures are the Christians in Smyrna under? In the Roman way of doing things, emperor worship was expected, as was fitting into a society which had many beliefs and practices that went against the Christian way of life. Stick to your, or rather Christ’s, principles, and you could find yourself estranged from the majority, shunned as odd and stupid, and your business boycotted. This may be behind the reference to the Christians in Smyrna being in poverty in verse 9. As an aside, whenever we Christians are the majority, we do well to remember the “Golden Rule” of Jesus in the area of economic opportunities.

Due to some wise decisions from Rome, some religions could get a pass and be lawfully different, as happened at times for the Jews. But here is another side from which there is pressure against the Christians. The Roman officials often thought of Christians as being a sect of Judaism, and hence Christians could also enjoy some peace. However, if the Jews turned on the Christians, they could be out in the cold and would need to fend for themselves. That will not be easy when they consistently claim that “Jesus is Lord,” which means of course that Caesar is not. You can think of it this way; it is as if the Jews are travelling through Roman territory on a bus. They are allowed to do this safely so long as they remain on the bus and don’t disturb the locals. Some of the Jews on the bus realize that the driver of this bus is, and has been all along, Jesus, and so become Christ followers. Some don’t like that and throw the Christ followers off the bus. Actually they throw the Christ followers under the bus. This explains why at least some of the Jews in Smyrna are referred to in a not-so-nice way in verse 9: “I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” These particular Jews are actively working against the God they profess to love and serve. So with pressure from Jews and Romans alike, what are the Christians to do? What are we to do with the pressures we might face today?

First, do not fear: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer” (verse 10). Fear has its tightest grip on us when we do not know what to expect. But we know what to expect.

“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you. . .” John 15:20

“Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Tim3:12

It should never surprise a Jesus follower when pressures come. It does not surprise God. He knows about it: “I know your affliction and your poverty” (verse 9)

Second, remain faithful: “Be faithful until death” (verse 10). Jesus gives us the example:

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.  Philippians 2:5-8

Third, look to Jesus. He is described as “the first and the last” (verse 8). What a contrast between He who has all eternity in His hands and those who have their hands on the Christians for only “ten days” (verse 10). Whether we are to take those as being ten literal days or as symbolic of a set time, it is a limited, and very short time in comparison to eternity.

Looking to Jesus, we are also to know that He “was dead and came to life” (verse 8). If the Christians in Smyrna face death, they can know that Jesus faced it first. And remember how that turned out in the end!

Fourth, look to what lasts into eternity. “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (verse 10). This is not the crown of a king or queen here, but the crown given in ancient times to victors in athletic games. Being killed for following Jesus is not the end of life, but the completion of a race. Celebrations come next.

Further: “Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death” (verse 11). The second death refers to complete removal from the presence of God and the removal of all the blessings that come from His presence. While the Christians in Smyrna ought to be full of hope, their persecutors ought to be full of fear. We are reminded of the words of Jesus:

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28 

Fifth, be ready to die, not kill. While this is not stated explicitly, we should note that there is not a hint in this letter to Smyrna of “you will face incredible pressure, so get ready to fight.” In fact there is not a hint of this attitude anywhere in the New Testament. Being faithful to Jesus means dying, not killing. You might justify killing in the name of a nation; for example, killing for the common defence of people who could happen to be from all kinds of religious backgrounds. But violence in the name of Jesus, or for the sake of Christianity is not an option for the follower of Jesus. Where it has happened, there have been complexities around the forces of history and confusion around the separation of Church and State, or lack thereof. Jesus carried a cross and not a sword. He encourages the Christians in Smyrna to do likewise.

Is there an increasing pressure on Christians in Canada to be less passionate about Jesus? It is not the first time Christians have faced pressure. May we not fear, but instead remain faithful, looking to Jesus, looking to what lasts into eternity, and resisting every urge toward violence.

(Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)


Weekly C201 contributor Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. Read today’s and other sermon summaries at his blog, or go directly to this article via this link.

January 19, 2017

Lost Love: The Letter of Revelation to Ephesus

gnbnby Clarke Dixon

“I have some good news and I have some bad news.” Such is how we could summarize the words of Jesus to the Christians of Ephesus in the Book of Revelation. So let us begin with the good news:

I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. . . . this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Revelation 2:2,3,6

Works, toil, endurance, standing up to false teaching and also to bad practices. Sounds like a good report. However,there is a ‘but,’ coming. And it is a really big ‘but.’ It is something very serious, so serious that here are the consequences:

Remember then from what 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. Revelation 2:5

What does it mean to lose the lampstand? We are told in John’s vision that “the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20). In other words, the Christian community will cease to be relevant in Ephesus, there will be no church there. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount:

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

If the Christians in Ephesus do not change course there will be no lampstand in Ephesus which means no Christian witness which means no glory to God.

So what is the ‘but,’ the bad news that needs fixing?

But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Revelation 2:4 (NASB)

What does this mean exactly? At first reading, it certainly seems as if the Christians in Ephesus are good at expressing their love for God. Remember they are commended for their works, toil, endurance, and standing up to false prophets and bad practices alike. On the surface of it, it looks as if they are expressing a great love for God. In fact it seems they are very religious about expressing their devotion to God. And maybe that is the clue. 

The Christian journey can sometimes look like this: We fall in love with God. In fact we become religious about expressing our LOVE for God. Then we become RELIGIOUS about expressing our LOVE for God. Then we can become VERY RELIGIOUS about expressing our love for God. Then we just become VERY RELIGIOUS. And we have left our first love. We have replaced it with religion.

We can leave our first love in two ways:

The first way we can leave our first love: by replacing love with religion as the basis of our relationship with God.

There is an easy way to tell when this is happening. We enter a church, or enter into prayer, and say, “look at me, Lord. Look at how good I am. Look at my works, toil, endurance, and how I stand up to false prophets and bad practices.” We know religion has replaced love when we find ourselves at the center of it all. We have no capacity to impress God. Nor do we need to. When God’s love is at the center rather than our religiosity, we are free to enter into church, or into prayer, and say, “Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be Your Name.” We enter into church, or into prayer, not because we have a chance of impressing Him, but because He loves us. After all, does it not say in John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son that whosever is really religious shall not perish but shall have eternal life?” You know that is not how it goes! It is “whoseover believeth in Him, or better, whosoever trusts in Him.

The basis of our relationship with God rests first of all on His love and the fact that He gave Himself for us. We leave our first love and trade it in for mere religion when we trust, not in the love of Jesus, but in our own efforts. If the Christians in Ephesus don’t get this right, they cannot be a lampstand, and their Christian witness will be lost to the misfortune of the people of Ephesus. It will be to the misfortune of our towns and cities today if we replace love with religion as the basis of our relationship with God.

The second way we can leave our first love: by replacing love with religion as the basis of our relationship with others.

You can see the challenge the Christians in Ephesus faced. They were in a very Roman world with very Roman practices, which were very far from Christian practices. There were huge pressures to cave. It is commendable that they have not. They are to be commended for enduring, and standing up to false teaching and bad practices. However, the easiest way to endure when all the world around you is putting pressure on you to cave is to crawl into one.  Crawl into a cave and disconnect yourself from all that pressure. Hunker in a bunker. There is such at thing today as “hunker in a bunker” Christians. There we are free from pressure and temptation. We are free in a bunker, sheltered from the world around us to excel in being religious. Religion becomes the main point of connection with our friends, and the main point of disconnection from everyone else. We can excel at being religious in, but we cannot love the world around us from, a bunker. We are called to love!

Study the life of Paul and you will see that despite all the pressures on him, he never hunkered down in a bunker. He rubbed shoulders with anyone and everyone, letting his light shine. Jesus rubbed shoulders with anyone and everyone, letting His light shine. It is good to do those commendable things the Christians in Ephesus were doing; not countenancing evil, weeding out the false prophets, enduring. But it is not good to become isolated and a closed community. If the Christians in Ephesus do not get this right, they cannot be a lampstand, and their Christian witness will be lost to the misfortune of the people of Ephesus. It will be to the misfortune of our towns and cities today if we don’t keep love as the basis of our relationship with others.

Jesus shows the way:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands: Revelation 2:1

Jesus is the example of love, walking among the the seven gold lampstands, a living presence of love. In everything he has done and everything he does, he gives us an example, not of what religion looks like, but love. May we be more like Jesus, and not so much like the Ephesians.

 All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV unless otherwise noted


Read today’s and other writing by Clarke Dixon at Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon