Saturday 8 October 2011

Counsel for a rich church (Revelation 3:14-22)

Rich church, poor church

What is the biggest difference between a rich church and poor church?

Is it money? Does it mean they can afford bigger buildings; a nicer website; advanced equipment - iPads instead of bibles?

Or is it outreach? Programmes for both young and old; projects to help build up the local community; bible translation and church planting in distant countries? Rich churches have more money to do more mission and more ministry than poorer churches.

Today we come to the last of seven churches addressed by the Lord Jesus Christ in the book of Revelation, and it is a church that is rich, in city that is wealthy. This is the church of Laodicea. But notice that Jesus does not tell them to make sure to use their money to fund more programs. Nowhere does Jesus say, “Make sure you give me your ten per cent - before tax!” He doesn’t even warn them, “Don’t be greedy. Don’t discriminate against the poor. Be generous with the wealth that God has given you.” He doesn’t say any of that.

Instead Jesus looks straight at this church full of wealthy, influential individuals, and says, “You are wretched, pitiful, poor. I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

Try saying that to a CEO of a multinational company driving his Bugati Veyron Sport down to his villa in South France. “You’re poor. I pity you.” He will probably laugh at you and think you are mad. Or worse, he might get angry and say, “Who do you think you are talking to me that way?”

Well, who does Jesus think he is? We begin with verse 14.

The words of the Amen

To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.
Revelation 3:14

Where the NIV has “ruler” of God’s creation, some translations have the word “beginning” (Eg. the ESV reflecting the Greek: arche; which I take to be a more accurate reflection of the text); meaning Jesus introduces himself with three titles: (1) the Amen, (2) the faithful and true witness, (3) the beginning of God’s creation. But I hope to show you how these three titles flow from one identity of Jesus, and also how these three titles flow from Jesus’ relationship with the church. How they relate to Jesus; how they relate to us - the church.

The identity of Jesus Christ: There is a close connection between these three titles - a flow, if your like. The first two are easy: “Amen” in Hebrew, simply translates “faithful and true” in the Greek. It’s what we say at the end of our prayers, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.” That is, we are committing ourselves to what we’ve just prayed - This is true. When the whole church togther says, “Amen”, we are saying that we all agree. (That is why is it important that when we lead in prayer before the church, we say what is consistent with the truth of the bible. So that everyone can respond, ‘Amen’: It is true.)

Here Jesus is saying you can trust what he is going to say, because these words are true but also Jesus is the Amen. He is the truth.

Additionally, Jesus calls himself the beginning of God’s creation. Here, we are meant to recall John’s gospel Chapter 1, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” And the next thing John writes, “Though him all things were made.”

This is the Word that is true; this is the Word that is God. Through him all things were made.

The three titles come together to reveal Jesus’ identity as the agent of God’s creation and therefore rightly, as the NIV implies at the end of verse 14, the ruler of God’s creation.

But what does this have to do with the church? Well, verse 14 isn’t just talking about the first creation; it actually points forward to the new creation. Colossians 1:18 calls Jesus “the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead”, speaking of the church.

You may also remember that over the past few weeks I have said that “witness” has this double meaning of someone who gives a reliable testimony a court-room, but also someone who witnesses through his sacrifice. It is where we get the word “martyr”. Through his witness or sacrifice on the cross, Jesus brought in the new creation. He redeemed the new creation, that is, out of the original creation stained by sin and standing under God’s judgement, Jesus paid for the church by taking our punishment of death upon himself. He redeems this new creation out of the old with his own death.

Who does Jesus think he is? He is the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s (new) creation - the church. He paid for this church is Laodicea with his own blood.


And now he says to the Christians in this church:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
Revelation 4:15-16

Jesus finds them disgusting! He is about to spit them out of his mouth. The word actually means to throw up. It’s a reaction when you’ve just swallowed something that has made you sick!

The reason is lukewarmness. Not hot; not cold; just somewhere in the middle. Lukewarm.

But what’s wrong with that? You know how some people like to leave the Coke bottle open until it all fizzles out? Tastes like cough mixture afterwards. Or the guy in your office who buys the expired sandwiches for lunch the next day (everything for one pound at Boots after church!). So what’s wrong with that? I happen to enjoy day-old flat Diet Coke with my stale BLT sandwiches, thank you very much.

Laodicea was situated in a region near two other cities; one was famous for hot water, the other, cold. The city of Hierapolis had hot water springs, and people would drink this like medicine. While the city of Colossae had a supply of fresh cold water (Interesting enough, if you look to Colossians Chapter 4, you will see Laodicea mentioned at the end of the letter. They were close neighbours).

The problem with Laodicea was it didn’t have its own water source, so they tried to pipe their water in. Unfortunately this resulted in horrible tasting water. It wasn’t hot or cold. It was yucky and lukewarm. It is like having take-away food delivered to your house only to have it arrive two hours late. The pizza is cold, the crispy noodles are soggy, the ice-cream has melted and the delivery guy standing there waiting for his tip.

Now you guys all know that Jesus is a using an illustration. Even the kids know that “lukewarm” is not talking about food or water, but that it is symbolic of something going on in the spiritual lives of these Christians. The question is what? What does it mean to be lukewarm?

Does it mean being indecisive? You are decide whether you like hot or cold? You can’t decide whether to go out with the hot guy or the cool dude?

Does it mean you’re uncommitted? You’re not really doing anything here in church; you’ve not pulled out either. You’re just hanging around.

What does Jesus mean by “lukewarm”? He tells us in verse 17.

Don’t need nobody

You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
Revelation 3:17-18

Laodicea was well-known for three things: banking, textiles and medicine. Meaning it wasn’t just rich; Laodicea was industrious: They invested they money; they built up their business from scratch. They took care of their bodies - ate well, lots of sessions at the gym, there was excellent healthcare. And they looked good: Laodicea was famous for it’s woolen industry; their clothes were exported to other countries.

We see these three things - banking, textiles and medicine - picked up by Jesus in verse 18, “Buy from me gold refined in the fire; white clothes - as in white wool - to wear; and medicine for your eyes.”

The Laodiceans were healthy, wealthy and well-dressed. But they were not wise.

Verse 17: You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ Again, there is nothing here to suggest that these Christians were greedy or oppressive towards the poor. There is nothing in today’s text that says these Christians committed any immoral sin or worshipped false gods.

The problem was: these Christians turned up in church every Sunday and thought they were doing everyone else a big favour by coming. “I don’t really need anything from this church. I’m OK.” And in their minds, they may even be thinking, “God has blessed me with my wealth, so I must be OK.”

That is the danger of the properity gospel. I want it all. I want it now. It is impatience. It is self-delusion. Jesus says, “But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” Don’t get me wrong. Wealth is a blessing. You should thank God for your money; for your health; for that iPod or iWhatever. The problem is, that’s all we want from God. “Dear God, please get me into Cambridge.” And the moment you receive that degree, you stop asking for anything else.

That is lukewarmness.

Friends, you don’t tell that you are lukewarm by looking at your bank account; you tell by looking at your prayer life. Prayer is asking God. I know that people like to say that prayer is talking to God; it’s like having a conversation. I don’t think so. Jesus teaching his disciples to pray like this, “Your will be done, your kingdom come, Give us our daily bread, Lead us not into temptation, Forgive us our sins.” We presenting our requests to God. We are asking God to give us something we need; something only he can provide. That includes bread - our income, our food, our daily living. That includes forgiveness and salvation.

The main reason why we do not pray is because we think we have no need of prayer. “I do not need a thing,” that’s what the Christians were saying in Laodicea. That’s not humility talking, friends. It’s not even laziness, though it is a big factor. It is the fact that we think we’re OK, and we don’t realise that we are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, naked.

We need to pray. So much so, that I would define complaints as misdirected prayers. Complaints are prayers that go in the wrong direction.

We complain when something goes wrong - our computer breaks down, the traffic piles up, our boss is being unfair - and as a Christian, these are opportunities to bring our needs before God. Yet when I meet someone who is constantly complaining, always griping about something in their life - I pray for them; but I also tell them, “You talking to the wrong person. If you are Christian, you know that God is in charge of all things. Why haven’t you brought this before him?”

This is counselling, I wonder if you noticed that. Jesus says in verse 18, “I counsel you.” Counselling is not lying on a couch and talking about your feelings. Jesus counsels by exposing their need - their lukewarmness; their sin. I promise you that if you say this during a counselling session, “You are not OK. What you really need is Jesus,” people will walk out of your church. They will turn on you. They will not thank you for this kind of counselling.

And yet, exposing this church’s sin and lukewarmness is an act of love.

Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.
Revelation 3:19

What is the biggest difference between a rich church and a poor church? I suggest to you, it’s this. A rich church needs to be very careful of lukewarmness. A rich church needs leaders who are loving enough to expose lukewarmness.

That’s very hard to do in a Chinese Church. Very hard. In the Chinese Church - hard work is good. Respect is very good. God is always good.

But this passage is saying, we’re not good. We are bad. This passage is talking to respectful, hard-working, good people and saying to them, “You need to repent. You need Jesus.” That’s hard to do in a Chinese Church.

But I hope we do this here in the Chinese Church, because Jesus says it is loving. “Those whom I love,” Jesus says, “I rebuke and discipline”. He is talking to Christians. That is very important as we consider the next verse.

I stand at the door and knock

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.
Revelation 3:20

This is so often used as an evangelistic text. So at this point in the passage, the pastor will turn to the non-Christian and say, “Jesus is knocking at the door of your heart. Won’t you let him in?” In fact, this verse is so popular that you if you Googled “Revelation 3:20” you will find all manner of paintings depicting Jesus standing in the cold dark night, outside a door of a brightly-lit house, waiting for someone to answer his call. In some of these paintings, the door doesn’t even have a handle, implying that unless you open the door, Jesus will stuck outside waiting in the cold - a bit like Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory who is always knocking frantically on his neighbour’s locked apartment going, (Knock!Knock!Knock!) “Penny!”,  (Knock!Knock!Knock!) “Penny!”, (Knock!Knock!Knock!) “Penny!”

I had a friend once who got so annoyed with these paintings and said, “Jesus would more likely blast his way through the door!” Kapowww!

No, this is not an evangelistic text for non-believers. Remember: Jesus is talking to Christians, “to those whom (he) loves” (verse 19). The only difference is: Jesus now speaks to the individual Christian. “I will come eat with him, and he with me.”

But it is still a strange picture, isn’t it. If Jesus isn’t talking to a non-Christian, but rather a believer who already knows Jesus and has a relationship with Jesus - why is there this new invitation for him to come in?

I would say: for the same reason we have communion again and again. For the same reason we confess our sin again and again. Repentance is an ongoing process in the life of the Christian. It is for the same reason we pray - daily, repeatedly, unceasingly.

What did Jesus say about prayer? Go for a prayer meeting? Not a bad idea; but no: Jesus said go to your room, close the door and pray to your Father in heaven (Matthew 6). Prayer is an intimate, personal and ongoing between you and God. To him who opens this door - meaning: you close the door to your room, so that you can open this door to God - Jesus promises to come into his or her life.

Try this. Don’t wait for Rock on Wednesday. Don’t wait for next Sunday. Go home, close the door and pray. Say to Jesus, “You promised. You said in Revelation 3:20, that if I listened to your voice; if I opened the door; you would come.” Why not try this today?

If you are a non-Christian, then know that this promise is for the individual who responds to Jesus personally. You don’t become a Christian by turning up in church. You respond to Jesus’ voice speaking to you. You respond by trusting that his is faithful and true: He is the Amen. That’s all. And Jesus promises that as small as your trust might be in the beginning, as serious as all those times you might have messed up in your life, his word is true and his forgiveness is real. You will be changed and Jesus will be there.

Jesus overcame

To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Revelation 3:21-22

These closing words remind us how serious the problem of “lukewarmness” is. Jesus says lukewarmness is disgusting. And here he says it needs to be overcome. That word “overcome” means to conquer; to be victorious - it is a word that describes a battle in a war.

I worry that we hear these words about money and self-sufficiency, prayerlessness and lukewarmness and think it’s not a very big deal. It frankly scares me because Jesus says to the Laodicean church, “You do not realise” that you are poor. These Christians didn’t think it was a big deal.

Jesus says that dealing with lukewarmness is nothing less than an act of war. You have fight against this false sense of self-sufficiency. If you see pride, deal with it pronto!

In the previous six churches, Jesus says we need to overcome various struggles: false teaching, idolatry, forsaking the gospel, sin - pretty serious stuff. But here in verse 21 is the only time that Jesus describes how he overcame. And he seems to be saying to us as Christians, dealing with lukewarmness, “This is as serious as how I overcame and went to the cross.”

Jesus says, “I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.” That’s huge! Jesus had to overcome something on the cross, and I think, he is drawing a connection to the temptation he faced to turn away from the cross. Do you remember how Satan offered him all kingdoms the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:8)? Satan was offering Jesus glory. It was a way out of the cross. And Satan used an earthly reward, saying, “You don’t need to sacrifice yourself. Just worship me.” Jesus was tempted and he overcame.

And Jesus seems to be saying to these lukewarm Christians, “Don’t settle for cheap glory. It is a false glory.” It means dealing with the temptation to settle for this world is tough, friends. We often pray for our friends who leave us at the end of the year - Alan, Kinki, Kit, Molly, Richard, Shirley, Judy, Sarah, Along, Lang, Vince - we pray that God will help them to settle in a good church, to settle into their new homes, to settle into their jobs. But we do not pray for them to settle into lukewarmness. We ask God to guard their hearts and give them strength to fight against conforming to this world. And we remind them that it takes nothing less than the kind of strength Jesus had when he overcame the world and went to the cross. We pray that when they are tempted, they - like Jesus - will overcome.

The reward for those who overcome is nothing less than eternal life. Paul writes in Ephesians about being “seated with Christ”, saying:

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 2:6-7

The amazing thing about this verse is, it says that God means for the church to display his wealth. In fact, Paul calls it God’s “incomparable riches”. But it is riches measured not in money nor status. God raised us up and seated us with Christ so that he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

The bible says: Come to Jesus and buy from him gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

Come to Jesus and live.

Weak and wounded sinner
Lost and left to die
O, raise your head, for love is passing by
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus and live!
(“Come to Jesus” by Chris Rice)

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