Friday 30 September 2011

Judges! The good, the bad and the bible

The mid-week fellowship group in my church recently decided on the book of Judges as our study for the coming months. If you are in Cambridge and free on Wednesday evenings please join us!

Tuesday 27 September 2011

You should not be surprised

You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
John 3:7

Why does Jesus tell Nicodemus that he should not be surprised? (1) Because he was surprised. (2) Because he shouldn’t be surprised. (3) And because Jesus wasn’t impressed.

1. Because he was surprised

“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!
John 3:4

Maybe Nicodemus simply misheard Jesus. Or some say that Nicodemus took him too literally when Jesus declared, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (verse 3).

But in actual fact, Nicodemus understood perfectly what Jesus was talking on about: Entry into the kingdom of God. This was a theological discussion between Nicodemus, a member of the elite council of elders, and Jesus, whom Nicodemus himself acknowledged as a “teacher... from God”. “For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him,” Nicodemus said to Jesus with the utmost respect and admiration (verse 2).

Nicodemus thought he saw the signs of God’s kingdom. Through Jesus’ miracles. Through his remarkable insight. Perhaps there was something about Jesus’ presence. External, authenticating, evidence. Jesus immediately replied: You cannot see anything of the Kingdom of God. Not unless you are born again. What is needed is a complete and total transformation of the individual from the inside out.

That surprised Nicodemus. This old man knew how impossible it was for people to change. From his own experience. From his own reading of Scripture. From the history of the people of God. Nicodemus knew that no one would make the cut.

Yet for Jesus, the Kingdom of God was not simply a new change in government. It consisted of men and women remade in the image of God.

2. Because he shouldn’t have been

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?”
John 3:10

Nicodemus was surprised but he shouldn’t have been. Scripture foretold the new birth. As “Israel’s Teacher” - a title equivalent to “Professor of Divinity” - Nicodemus should have understood that what Jesus was talking about was nothing new. These promises were written in God’s word.

This means that the Old Testament holds the clue in understanding the previous verses spoken by Jesus:

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
John 3:5-6

What does it mean to be born of water and Spirit? Some suggest a division between the natural and spiritual births: the “water” representing the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus, describing the physical nature of the first birth; the spirit representing the inner regeneration brought about by faith. More likely however, Jesus is clarifying his first statement in verse 3. In both statements, Jesus begins with “I tell you the truth, no one can...”

In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
John 3:3

To be born again is to be born of water and spirit..

The prophet Ezekiel foretold the day when God would redeem his people Israel by cleansing them of their sin and giving them a new heart - through the sprinkling of “clean water” and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
Ezekiel 35:25-27

This must happen. And Nicodemus should not be surprised because God has said clearly in his word that this would happen.

3. Because Jesus wasn’t impressed

“I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.”
John 3:11

Nicodemus thought he was paying Jesus a great honour by recognising his theological credentials. He called him, “Rabbi”. He risked his reputation visiting this small-time preacher from Galilee (a small city of no great importance), hence the secretive appointment after hours. He even called him a man from God.

Jesus was not impressed.

Many today respect Jesus for his good teaching. Many today call Jesus a prophet from God. But like Nicodemus, many today reject Jesus by their show of respect. He is just a teacher. Just another good man.

I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
John 3:12-15

Again Jesus refers to the Old Testament. The book of Numbers records the time when the Israelites were travelling through the desert, being led by God to the Promised Land, but grumbled against God and rebelled against him.

They spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
Numbers 21:5-7

God then told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. If anyone was bitten, all they had to do was look; Look at the bronze snake - and they would live.

It was a strange solution to a serious problem. People were dying. Yet those who had been bitten were commanded to look at a replica of the very thing that had afflicted them - a snake on a pole - and they would be saved. It was a reminder of their sin. But Jesus says, it was also a picture of the cross.

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, the Son of Man must be lifted up”, Jesus says, “that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life”. When we look to the cross, we see Jesus taking the penalty of our sin, death; The only sinless one bearing my sin - and giving me life.

Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
Isaiah 53:4-5

We are not meant to look at the cross and be surprised - to see there, our sin and judgement. We are not even meant to be impressed when we see our Saviour - our God - on the cross.

We are meant to be born again. By his wounds we are healed.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Hold on to what you have (Revelation 2:18-29)

A small church

To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.
Revelation 2:18-19

Thyatira was the smallest city out of the seven churches addressed in the book of Revelation. Compared to Pergamum (which we looked at last week), Thyatira was a tiny place. In fact, Thyatira was a military outpost used to defend Pergamum which was much bigger numerically and more important economically.

And yet, the longest letter in the book of Revelation is written to the city of Thyatira. Out of all the other churches, Jesus has more to say to the Christians in this tiny city. He says, “I know your deeds”. “I know everything that’s been happening in your church. Not the big one down the street. Yours.”

This was a small but growing church. “You are now doing more than you did at first,” Jesus says (verse 19). It wasn’t growing in numbers, but in love, faith, service and perseverance. I wonder if Jesus would say that of us? “Chinese Church: you are smaller than all the other churches. Most people in Cambridge don’t even know you exist. But I do.” We have not grown bigger in fourteen years. But the question is: Are we more loving? Are we more faithful to Jesus after fourteen years?

Thyatira was. It had grown in love and faithfulness. Jesus says to them, “Don’t think I haven’t noticed”. But then he goes on to say to this small church, “You guys have a big problem.”

A big problem

Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.
Revelation 2:20

The problem is “that woman.” Sounds harsh. Everything else is OK - very good, in fact - except for that one person, that woman, called Jezebel. Who is she?

Queen Jezebel is famously recorded in the Old Testament as the wife of Ahab, king of Israel. In 1 Kings 16 says this:

Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him. He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him.
1 Kings 16:30-31

Ahab was the King but Jezebel was the real power behind the throne. She influenced her husband to institute nation-wide worship of the foreign god Baal. She ordered people to hunt down and kill every one of God’s prophets that they could find. When someone refused to sell the king a piece of land, she killed him and just took the property from him. Jezebel was a blood-thirsty, deceptive, mass-murderer and she ruled Israel.

But that’s not why she is condemned here by Jesus.

You see, last week we looked at the prophet Balaam who also caused that people of God to sin. But Jesus does not point to Balaam and say, “That man”. And yet look at verse 20. “You tolerate that woman, Jezebel.” Why does Jesus say, “That woman”? Two reasons:

Firstly, unlike the situation last week with Balaam and the teaching of the Nicolaitans, Jesus is singling out an individual, not just an influence. This was a real person. This woman was single-handedly responsible for the problems in this church and the judgement that was going to fall on this church.

Now it is unlikely that her name was Jezebel. That would be like having the name “Voldemort”. Parents don’t usually give their babies names like “Voldemort” or “Hitler”. What is happening here is Jesus comparing this woman to Jezebel in the Old Testament, and saying, “This is how serious the situation is.”

Why was it so serious? Balaam never tried to be one of the people of God. But the modern-day Jezebel was a member of the church in Thyatira. She was doing damage from the inside. She calls herself a prophetess - meaning, she has taken up a position teaching God’s word. She is seductive. She is deceptive. She is influential.

So, the first reason why Jesus says, “that woman, Jezebel” is because he is talking about a specific individual in this church, who is single-handedly responsible for corrupting the church from the inside.

But the second reason is this: You have empowered this woman to cause this destruction. “You tolerate that woman.” Now the Greek word “gunaika” can be translated “woman”, but it can also mean “wife”. Some manuscripts have the additional word, “sou” meaning “your”, which has caused translators to suggest that verse 20 read as “You tolerate your wife, Jezebel”.

Jesus is saying, “She is like Jezebel because you are acting like Ahab. You have given her the authority and control over the people of God.” How? Verse 20 says, “By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” Meaning: the way in which she is exercising her influence is by her teaching. Meaning: When you allow someone to teach in the church - whether it is here on a Sunday like this, or even in a smaller group like Rock Fellowship - you are giving him or her authority. What is the criteria for allowing someone to preach the bible?

Notice that this woman Jezebel was probably a very good teacher. She calls herself a prophetess - She would stand up and say, “This is what God’s word says.” Verse 24 tells us, she even taught the “deep things” about God; meaning the people who heard her teach went, “Wow, I never knew that before! That’s deep!”

The bible says in 2 Timothy 2:20 - this is the apostle Paul writing, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” Teaching is equated with authority in the church. Paul does not allow women to take up this position of authority. That is why he writes, just a few verses later about overseers, pastors and elders, who must be men and who must be men able to teach.

Authority in submission

Now I have had very godly women, who are submissive to scripture, who love Jesus, earnestly ask me - not to stir up trouble, but out of a sincere desire to know God’s will, they say - “Calvin, what if there is a woman in the church who is able to teach? What if God has given her insight and ability and this gift of teaching?”

I would say, “Praise God for that woman and her gift. But God’s word tells us clearly to appoint men to lead the church and to teach the bible - not because men are more able than women; not because they are smarter than women - but because the leadership or men and the submission of women displays the headship of Christ and the submission of the church.”

The key principle is this: The authority to lead the people of God comes from submission to the word of God.

Now this is not to say that the moment we let a woman preach on Sunday, she’s going to turn into a Jezebel! That’s not what I’m saying at all - please don’t get me wrong! Jezebel was teaching idolatry and leading people away from God through her teaching. Jesus does condemn her personally, but he also condemns those who her allowed her to continue in her “ministry”. And the reason why it was so hard for them to put a stop to this teacher - not just this teaching - but this individual; a teacher in the church, was precisely because they invested authority in this person’s authority and not the word of God.

My appeal to you girls here in the Chinese Church is this: Many of you are here because you are studying for you PhDs. Many of you are articulate and smart and gifted. And let’s face it, the guys can be a mess. You look at them and think, “When are these men going to get their act together?” The bible says clearly from the event of the fall, that a key sin of Adam’s was irresponsiblity. We, men, are prone to laziness, ungratefulness and anger - even when it comes to leadership in the church; even when it comes to leadership in the family. We men, need to recognise that sin.

But women - the bible says of you - the fall caused women to want to rule over men. To compete. To take over. You girls, need to realise, that urge and desire will be there. It is a sin that will want to justify the action of “cleaning up the mess left by the guys” or “getting the job done properly”. If God has gifted you with ability, use that ability to God’s glory in submission to Christ. In your homes, that will be mean submission to your husband. In the church, that will mean submission to the elders and leaders of the church.

For men, we need to lead in submission and in love. Beware of hypocrisy. Or rather I should say, we should repent of our hypocrisy. We are given the privilege and responsibility of leading others in areas where often we have failed in our own lives. I will just highlight one area: prayer. We are not a church that prays well because we are not men who pray often.

Don’t get me wrong: In the midst of our failures, our sin and hypocrisy, the bible’s solution is not, “Try harder”. Rather, what the bible calls for is repentance: Acknowledgement of our sinfulness and trusting in God’s forgiveness.

Time to repent

I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.
Revelation 2:21

I find this truly amazing. Jesus gives this woman time to repent but she is unwilling. She is stubborn. “No, I will not!”

Not only her, but also the rest of the church:

So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways.
Revelation 2:22

It is hard to miss the overtones of sexual misconduct in these verses. Verse 20: She misleads - literally, seduces - my servants into sexual immorality. The word is porneia - which is a broad term which covers any and every kind of sexual sin. It is the root word translated “immorality” in the next verse 21. And in verse 22, those who follow her are accused of “adultery” which means unfaithfulness to a spouse.

And yet, it is important to see that these mean much more than just sinning sexually with your bodies. It is unfaithfulness to Jesus. When Jesus sees us worshipping him on Sundays, but then going to the temple on Mondays, offering joss-sticks at the temple, or bowing down to deities and idols during Mooncake festivals - We think it is no big deal, but it is serious, friends. In God’s eyes, it is as serious as cheating on your own husband or wife.

I don’t use this illustration lightly. I have had people tell me of friends whose husbands slept with other women, and men whose wives have left them and their children. They tell me how hard it is to forgive someone who has sinner against them.

Jesus offers this forgiveness. He gives time to Jezebel. He says to the church, “Repent.” He is a husband who is willing to forgive an unfaithful spouse. That is the love of God, don’t miss that, friends. It is costly forgiveness.

But Jesus also warns those of us who will do repent. Who, like Jezebel, are unwilling to repent.

I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.
Revelation 2:22

Here Jesus turns from talking to Thyatira, to talking to us here at CCCC. “Then all the churches will know,” Jesus says. I don’t think this situation of a Jezebel teaching immorality to Christians has happened here. Not yet. Jesus is saying, “Make sure it doesn’t happen.” Don’t allow something as serious as this to ever happen here at CCCC. Because it can. Because if it does, Jesus will know - he searches our hearts and minds - and Jesus will repay each of us according to our actions.

But if it does - God forbid - yet if it does, Jesus says to those who are faithful to his word, “Hold on. I’m coming for you.”

Hold on

Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets (I will not impose any other burden on you); Only hold on to what you have until I come.
Revelation 2:24-25

The cross-reference for what Jesus means here is Acts 15:28. This is another letter written by the apostles in Jerusalem to encourage non-Jewish; Gentile believers who had come to put their trust in Jesus Christ. The reason for this letter was false teaching. The gospel had spread to non-Jews, but false teachers were placing extra requirements, or “burdens” on these new Christians, that they needed to be more Jewish in order to be true Christians. To assure the new believers that they were true Christians, the leaders in Jerusalem wrote and sent a letter through Paul and Silas saying:

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.
Acts 15:29

Here in Revelation says, “I will not impose any other burden on you”, referring to Jezebel’s teaching on “sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (verse 20). It is a message of assurance: What you have is the full gospel. You don’t need to extras - whether it is circumcision, or dressing up on Sundays, or even these “deep things”. Just hold on to the gospel - the essential truth of Jesus and his death on the cross as the only means of forgiveness and reconciliation to God.

Now the way in which Jesus encourages these faithful Christians is quite surprising. It’s like a friend who suddenly calls you up and says, “I’m in trouble. My car has broken down.” or “A tragedy has happened.” or “I’m lost and I don’t know where I am.” And you reply, “Hold on. I’m coming to get you.”

Jesus says to those who are still faithful to him. “Hold on. I’m on my way.”

Notice, this tragic situation is not caused by persecution from outside the church. It is false teaching inside the church. Moreover, it has become so difficult and perhaps even, irreversible, that the only solution is for Jesus himself to come and intervene. All because the church “tolerated” the woman, Jezebel. If you look over the page to the beginning of chapter 2, Jesus says to the Ephesian church, “I know you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.” (Revelation 2:2) That’s what should have happened in Thyatira. I hope that is what is happening right now - I hope that you are testing my words. Are they true. Is this what the bible is saying?

Holding on to the gospel means testing everything against the gospel and rejecting anything contrary to the gospel.

The author to the Hebrews writes:

We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.
Hebrews 3:14

Authority over the nations

To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations -  ‘He will rule them with an iron sceptre; he will dash them to pieces like pottery’ - just as I have received authority from my Father.
Revelation 2:26-27

Finally we come to Jesus’ promise to those who overcome. It is the promise of authority. This is significant again because the church had handed over its authority to the false teacher Jezebel. But here Jesus reminds us that his authority comes from God the Father and that our authority comes from the Son of God.

In other words this mediated authority. Mediated just means that this authority comes from somewhere else. It comes from God. It comes through Jesus. It is rooted in God’s word. Which is why Psalm 2 is quoted.

“He will rule them with an iron sceptre. He will dash them to pieces like pottery.” Psalm 2 is a messianic psalm or a coronation psalm, that is, it is talking about the king. When the bible calls Jesus, the Son of God, it is calling him God’s chosen king.

Now the strange thing is this: Here is Jesus applying this Psalm on Christians - “To him who overcomes and does my will to the end... he will rule”. It is essentially saying that Jesus will share his authority - his rule over the nations - with Christians. Many of us hear that and go, “I didn’t sign up for that. That’s a bit heavy.” And if you are feeling a bit uncomfortable with the idea that you will be ruling with Christ or even exercising judgement under the authority of Christ, let me just say to you - That’s a good thing. Often times our judgements are selfish, motivated by pride, untempered by grace and driven by anger.

And yet Jesus has been telling us all throughout this passage that there will be judgement; that he will bring judgement; and that his judgements are fair. He sees into our heart. He repays according to our deeds. So when Jesus says to the Christians in Thyatira, “Hold on. I’m coming,” he is saying to them that he is returning soon to bring salvation and judgement.

But now Jesus adds one more dimension to his judgement. He will judge through the church. The word for “rule” in verse 26 is the Greek word “poimanei”, meaning, “to shepherd”; it is the word “pastor”. Pastor simply means “shepherd”.

It means that at times, leading and pastoring a church involves exercising God’s judgement in accordance with the bible. The church in Thyatira should have known this. They they should not have tolerated someone like Jezebel. They should called for repentance. They should have warned her of the consequences and given her time to turn back to God.

The morning star

I will also give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Revelation 2:28-29

The morning star here refers to the sun, or to be exact the rising sun. Jesus who has been addressing this church in the small city of Thyatira, saying to them, “I know your works; I see your into your hearts,” now says there will come a day when everyone will see. Your faith, love and perseverance will be as evident to all, as obvious as the rising sun.

This is God’s word. Someone asked me yesterday, “How do I know if God is really speaking to me?” It was a sincere question about finding out God’s will; about hearing God’s voice. And yet, here is Jesus saying that the Spirit is speaking to all the churches. God has spoken his final and full revelation through Jesus Christ. If you are reading this: This is God’s word.

The real question is: Are you listening?

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds;
Help us grasp the heights of Your plans for us
Truths unchanged from the dawn of time
That will echo down through eternity.
And by grace we'll stand on Your promises,
And by faith we'll walk as You walk with us.
Speak, O Lord, till Your church is built
And the earth is filled with Your glory.
(“Speak, O Lord”, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend)

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Cheap ice-cream and false teachers

As a young Christian, I read the book of Revelation and got the word “Nicolaitans” mixed up with the word “Neapolitan” - as in Neapolitan ice-cream. It was my least favourite ice-cream. My friends and I would buy it cheaply from Sainsburys and we thought we were getting a real bargain because, of course, Neapolitan had three flavours of ice-cream in one tub - chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. The problem was everyone dug into the chocolate. Some didn’t mind the vanilla (as long as it was covered in chocolate sauce). And the strawberry was always left behind; usually as a melted, sticky mess.

I guess, back then, as I read in Revelation how much Jesus hated the practices of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6), I thought it must have been the same as my hatred of cheap ice-cream.

Hopefully, we learned a bit more about who the Nicolaitans actually were, in our passage from Revelation this week.

1. False teaching
Jesus rebukes the Christians in Pergamum for “holding to the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (Revelation 2:15). But the question is: What did the Nicolaitans teach?

We get a clue from the previous verse. Jesus compares this teaching to a well-known Old Testament account. “You have a people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin.” (Revelation 2:14)

Balak was the King of Moab who hired the prophet Balaam to curse the people of God (The account is recorded in the book of Numbers 22 to 24). Things didn’t go according to plan, as God caused Balaam to bless the Israelites instead of cursing them. King Balak became angry and frustrated with Balaam, but the prophet replied that it was God who was preventing him from doing his job. Yet Balaam did propose a solution for the king; a loophole, as it were. Instead of cursing the Israelites directly, all King Balak had to do was lead the people of God into sin. God would be angry with them, and God himself would pour out judgement on them for their sin.

Jesus equates the teaching of the Nicolaitans with that of Balaam: “Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Scholars have pointed out that both names carry the same meaning - “Nikan” in Greek and “Bilah” in Hebrew mean “to conquer or rule”; while “laos” and “‘am” both mean “people”. This was teaching on sin - how to conquer your enemies and exercise power over your enemies - by causing them to fall into gross sin.

2. False worship
The Israelites sinned by “eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14). It is important to understand that at the heart of this sin was false worship. The reason why God was angry with the Israelites was because “Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor” (Numbers 25:3). They had forsaken God and worshipped idols.

This is not to say that that sexual sins are not serious - they are. Yet what Balak did was to tempt the people of God using sex, to participate in the worship of a foreign god. This is also clear from the accompanying reference of “eating food sacrificed to idols”.

What makes such situations of gross sin so difficult to deal with, is deception. Paul deals with these two very issues - of sexual misconduct (1 Corinthians 6:15) and eating food offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8:10, 10:21) - in his first letter to the Corinthians. There it was evident that pride had kept the Christians from recognising these acts as foolish and sinful. The Corinthians thought they knew better - better even than the apostle Paul. Yet, in reality, they were being deceived (1 Corinthians 6:9).

Similarly here, the church of Pergamum was strong when it came to withstanding physical persecution from Satan (Revelation 2:13). Jesus even commends one of their own, Antipas, whom he calls “my faithful witness” - the Greek word “witness” being the English word for “martyr”. These Christians in Pergamum faced death and stood strong. Yet they faced temptation and fell into idolatry.

3. False teachers
Teachers like Balaam and the Nicolaitans were not condemned for committing sin, but for teaching others to sin. Balaam himself did not commit such acts. He did not lure the Israelites to worship Baal. All he did was tell Balak how to get the job done.

The teachers in a church are the leaders of that church. We need to be very careful who we allow to take the pulpit on Sundays; who we ask to lead bible study in our groups; who we entrust to teach our kids in Sunday School.

Most of all, we need to ensure that what is taught - from the pulpit, in our bible studies and in our Sunday schools - is nothing else but the full revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ - his death on the cross as the only payment for the forgiveness of our sins. Not ideas about church programmes. Not opinions about politics. Not ten ways to be successful. Remember: the teaching of Balaam was a “how-to” on influencing, on winning, on conquering your enemies, your friends and your people. That is not the gospel.

The corrective given by the Lord Jesus himself in this passage is his word - the sword of his mouth.

Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
Revelation 2:16

Speak, O Lord, as we come to You
To receive the food of Your Holy Word.
Take Your truth, plant it deep in us;
Shape and fashion us in Your likeness,
That the light of Christ might be seen today
In our acts of love and our deeds of faith.
Speak, O Lord, and fulfill in us
All Your purposes for Your glory.
            (“Speak O Lord” by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend)

Monday 19 September 2011

No entry (Exodus 40)

The final chapter

Then the LORD said to Moses: “Set up the tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the first month.”
Exodus 40:1

The last chapter of Exodus marks an end but also a new beginning.

The Tabernacle of God has been completed; a new year has begun. It has been a whole year since God rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Since then, they have been gathered to Mount Sinai, where God spoke to them from the mountain, giving them his Ten Commandments, together with instructions on how to live as his people and how to worship him as their God. At the heart of these instructions for true worship was the building of “the tabernacle; the Tent of Meeting” (verse 1).

“See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain,” God said to Moses (Exodus 25:40). These building instructions had exacting standards. Moses was to ensure that every detail was observed by the various artisans, builders and construction workers involved in the project. Here in Chapter 40, the individual components of the Tabernacle - the dwelling place of God - were finally completed. Still, there remained one important task. These different components of the Tabernacle - the tent curtains, the fittings and furnishings - had to be assembled. Like pieces of Lego (or perhaps even, like the cartoon robot, Voltron), Moses had to assemble the individual pieces, in the right order, bringing them together as the Tent of Meeting.

Moses is held solely responsible. He is charged by God to ensure that everything goes according to plan. While Chapters 36 to 39 repeatedly describe how the whole community was involved in the construction project, (“They made this”; “They made that”), here God addresses Moses directly in the first half of the chapter, after which we read, “Moses set up the tabernacle” (verse 18), “he spread the tent” (verse 19), “Moses placed the table”(verse 22), and so on.

God has given the Israelites access to himself through the Tabernacle; but it has come through Moses. God has spoken to his people his word; but that word has come through Moses. And now, one year after the event of their salvation and rescue from slavery; God will continue to lead them to the Promised Land. But he will continue to do so through this one man - this one middle-man or mediator, as the bible calls him - Moses.

Order of worship

Place the ark of the Testimony in it and shield the ark with the curtain. Bring in the table and set out what belongs on it. Then bring in the lampstand and set up its lamps. Place the gold altar of incense in front of the ark of the Testimony and put the curtain at the entrance to the tabernacle.
Exodus 40:3-5

At the center of worship at the Tabernacle was the ark of the Testimony. The ark was essentially a box overlayed with gold, containing the two tablets of Testimony (verse 20) - the Ten Commandments. The ark symbolised God’s throne, God’s presence and God’s word. But verse 3 tells us that access to God was restricted: a curtain was placed to “shield the ark”, effectively dividing up the Tent of Meeting into two sections - the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. The ark was behind the curtain, in the Most Holy Place. This section of the Tabernacle was accessibly only to one man, the High Priest; even so, only once a year when he would enter God’s presence to present sacrifices on behalf of all the people of God.

As for the rest of the priests, they ministered before the curtain. Here, God tells Moses to place the table, the lampstand and the gold altar of incense. For the priests, serving God meant ensuring the table was always set out (with the utensils and the bread of the presence - verse 23), the lampstand was continuously burning throughout the night and that incense was perpetually offered on the golden altar before God.

But verse 5 reminds us that access even to this ministry was also restricted. “Put the curtain at the entrance to the tabernacle”. Only priests chosen by God, descended from the line of Aaron, descended from Levi, would be suitable to serve God in his tabernacle; would have access to God in the Tent of Meeting.

Place the altar of burnt offering in front of the entrance to the tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting; place the basin between the Tent of Meeting and the altar and put water in it. Set up the courtyard around it and put the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard.
Exodus 40:6-8

The altar of burnt offering was a big barbeque pit that was placed in front of the tent. This was where sacrifices of bulls and goats were offered and burnt either in thanksgiving for God’s provision, or atonement for God’s forgiveness. The basin served as a wash area. Priests were to wash themselves before entering the Tent of Meeting, especially after serving at the altar of burnt offering, as their hands and feet would have been stained with the blood of the sacrifices.

All round the courtyard was to be a linen fence (Exodus 27:18), but God draws Moses’ attention just to the front entrance of the courtyard in verse 8, where another curtain was to be placed. Like the curtain before the ark, as was the curtain at the entrance to the tent, so here the curtain at the entrance of the court was a reminder to all who drew near: they were approaching a Holy God. Only members of the covenant community, would be allowed into this area. Only the Israelite people of God could worship the LORD in his tabernacle.

Set apart

“Take the anointing oil and anoint the tabernacle and everything in it; consecrate it and all its furnishings, and it will be holy. Then anoint the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils; consecrate the altar, and it will be most holy. Anoint the basin and its stand and consecrate them.

“Bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and wash them with water. Then dress Aaron in the sacred garments, anoint him and consecrate him so he may serve me as priest. Bring his sons and dress them in tunics. Anoint them just as you anointed their father, so they may serve me as priests. Their anointing will be to a priesthood that will continue for all generations to come.”

Moses did everything just as the LORD commanded him.
Exodus 40:9-15

Everything had to be anointed, or sprinkled, with oil. The tent, the furniture; even the people serving in the tent, had to have themselves sprinkled with the anointing oil. The reason was holiness  - “and it will be holy” (verses 9 and 10), which simply means to set aside, or to set apart, for a special purpose. That is also what the word “consecrate” means (verses 9, 10, 11 and 12). It means that the tent and its furniture, the appliances and the crockery, the cooks, servants and attendants have been brought together and set aside for one special purpose; and one special purpose alone: for God.

It is also what the word “Christ” means. Jesus Christ is Jesus, the anointed one. It is a way of saying that God has chosen him for a special purpose. Christ can mean God’s chosen King, as the kings in the Old Testament were anointed - sprinkled with oil, to symbolise blessing. But as we see here in Exodus 40, anointing is also carried out on God’s chosen servant or priest. For Aaron and his sons, “their anointing will be to a priesthood that will continue for all generations to come”. The bible calls Jesus our true High Priest. Unlike Aaron and his sons, Jesus was sinless. Greater than Aaron, Jesus offered the sacrifice of himself once for all, to bring us into God’s holy presence.

Moses did everything just as the LORD commanded him.
Exodus 40:16

But the focus here in Chapter 40 is not on Aaron, but on Moses. And the text draws our attention back to him and the task that was entrusted to Moses.

Getting the job done

So the tabernacle was set up on the first day of the first month in the second year. When Moses set up the tabernacle, he put the bases in place, erected the frames, inserted the crossbars and set up the posts. Then he spread the tent over the tabernacle and put the covering over the tent, as the LORD commanded him. He took the Testimony and placed it in the ark, attached the poles to the ark and put the atonement cover over it. Then he brought the ark into the tabernacle and hung the shielding curtain and shielded the ark of the Testimony, as the LORD commanded him.

Moses placed the table in the Tent of Meeting on the north side of the tabernacle outside the curtain and set out the bread on it before the LORD, as the LORD commanded him. He placed the lampstand in the Tent of Meeting opposite the table on the south side of the tabernacle and set up the lamps before the LORD, as the LORD commanded him. Moses placed the gold altar in the Tent of Meeting in front of the curtain and burned fragrant incense on it, as the LORD commanded him. Then he put up the curtain at the entrance to the tabernacle.

He set the altar of burnt offering near the entrance to the tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, and offered on it burnt offerings and grain offerings, as the LORD commanded him.

He placed the basin between the Tent of Meeting and the altar and put water in it for washing, and Moses and Aaron and his sons used it to wash their hands and feet. They washed whenever they entered the Tent of Meeting or approached the altar, as the LORD commanded Moses. Then Moses set up the courtyard around the tabernacle and altar and put up the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard. And so Moses finished the work.
Exodus 40:17-33

The text is repetitious, and I know, I know, we’ve seen it all before, not only in the first half of Chapter 40, but twice over between Chapters 25 and 39. Yet it is worth noticing that something very important is going on in this passage. It looks as if Moses did all the work single-handedly. Not only did he set up the complex network of cross-beams, spread over the multiple layers of curtains and material that formed the tent of meeting, arrange the furniture inside as well as the huge altar and basin outside, but Moses also set out the bread on the table, lit the lamps, burned incense and offered the sacrifices. In other words, he did everything! Single-handedly!

Or rather, I think the text is saying that Moses was responsible for everything. He made sure every detail got done, exactly as God instructed. Again and again, at the end of each task, we find the phrase, “as the LORD commanded him” (verses 16, 19, 21, 22, 24, 26, 29 and 31). Moses was not simply hard-working. He was obedient and faithful to God’s word.

“And so Moses finished the work” (verse 33). Ahh, job done! Time to crack open a can of coke - None of the yucky diet stuff for you Moses - you deserve the real thing!

Of course, this sense of achievement; this imagery of a masterpiece completed just as it was intended to be, ought to bring our minds back to God’s approval over his own work of creation at the beginning of time; when the heavens and the earth were completed, and God finished the work he had been doing and proclaimed, “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Thus God rested. He worked six days and blessed the seventh, making it holy, the bible tells us. Yet this is where the similarity ends. Moses finishes the work and yet he does not rest. Or rather, he is prevented from entering God’s rest.

The greater tabernacle

Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
Exodus 40:34-35

Many years ago I bought a big cushy arm chair from the local charity shop and had it sent over. The delivery guys arrived early in the morning and dropped it off at the front door. Then it dawned on me: The door wasn’t big enough.

Out came the cushions. The castors beneath the chair were pulled off. I even dismantled the front door. After two hours of squeezing and maneuvering up the stairs to my first floor flat, I encountered another problem I hadn’t anticipated. The arm chair wouldn’t fit in the living room either. I called the delivery guys but they said it would be another few days before they could come back. I eventually got it into the bedroom and there it stayed. That chair was not going anywhere!

Moses has built a tent for God. God moves in, but now Moses can’t. It’s not because there wasn’t enough space. The cloud was symbolic of God’s glory (notice how the two words “glory” and “cloud” are used interchangeably in these verses). It was God’s presence. It was display of his holiness. It was measure of God’s goodness.

And even Moses, the man of God, who had obeyed the word of God, the builder of a dwelling place for God - which now God visibly descends upon and inhabits, and fills with his glory and holiness - is prevented from entering the tabernacle. Moses isn’t holy enough. Moses isn’t good enough.

Even Moses cannot enter the presence of God.

Then, what was the point of building the Tabernacle? The book of Hebrews tells us.

When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.
Hebrews 9:11-12

The earthly tabernacle pointed forward to “the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made.” The true tabernacle, say the author to the Hebrews, is “not a part of this creation”. The bible is talking about heaven. It is talking about the actual living presence of Almighty God ruling from his eternal throne in heaven.

And the point is this: Christ entered this greater and more perfect tabernacle. Through his sacrifice on the cross - “by his own blood” (verse 12) - Jesus has opened the way to heaven - into the very presence of God.

Jesus did what Moses could never do. He entered the Most Holy Place where the fullness of God’s glory dwells. But even more than that, Jesus, unlike Moses, brings us with him to stand before his Father’s presence.

The presence of God

In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the LORD was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels.
Exodus 40:36-38

For the next forty years, the Israelites would wander the desert guided by the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. It was God’s divine Sat-Nav. The cloud was always within sight. When it moved, the moved. When it stayed, they set up camp. There was never any doubt - God was with them. All the had to do was look. Look to the tabernacle. There was God’s glory in the cloud. Even at night you could see the fire.

What about you? How would you recognise God’s guiding presence in your life?

Wouldn’t it be amazing to have such a clear visible reminder of God’s power and presence? Something we could just point to - like the tabernacle - and say “There”. There’s God’s presence. That’s where I’m headed. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Yet at the same time, wasn’t the cloud a reminder of God’s distance? He is over there - in the cloud. He is inside there - in the tabernacle. We have to stay behind the curtain. The priests can’t go beyond the inner curtain. And when God does come down in all his glory to fill the tabernacle, he is so holy that even Moses can’t physically get in.

For the Israelites, God was so near and yet so far away. But in Jesus, we get full access. We come straight into the presence of the Father. No curtains. No priests. Direct access to God’s full and unrestricted glory.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
Hebrews 10:19-22

I just want you to look at the verse 19. “Since we have confidence,” it says. Confidence to do what? To enter the Most Holy Place. That’s behind the curtain, when no-one’s supposed to go. That’s backstage where the rock stars hang out after the show; where they employ short-tempered bouncers to throw you out if they catch you sneaking in. The Most Holy Place was the Most Restricted Place in Israel!

But the bible says we just walk right in. Confident. Because of Jesus.

Do you have this? Do you know this? Every time you come to God in prayer in Jesus’ name- you are entering his presence; God hears every word. Each time we gather to hear the bible read, we come into the presence of the Father; God speaks to us. When we praise him, our worship is acceptable to him because of Jesus’ full and final sacrifice. We are covered with his righteousness, such that when God looks at us - he sees his beloved Son. Do you know this?

In Jesus, we have full access to God. In joy. In worship. With full confidence.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Under pressure (Revelation 2:8-17)

Spiritual crisis

“It is impossible to say how many Christians there are in China today, but no-one denies the numbers are exploding.

The government says 25 million. Independent estimates all agree this is a vast underestimate. A conservative figure is 60 million. There are already more Chinese at church on a Sunday than in the whole of Europe.”

The BBC News article, “Christians in China”, was published on Monday, with a subheading which asks the question, “Is the country in spiritual crisis?”

While Europe and the United States struggle to face an ever burgeoning economic crisis; while countries in the Middle East are grappling with war and political upheaval; isn’t it remarkable that one of the chief concerns in Communist China - from the man on the street to Premier Wen Jiao Bao, who has commented publicly on this issue - isn’t it remarkable that their concern is spiritual in nature?

Is China in spiritual crisis? Many think it is.

In the same report, Professor He Guanghu, one of China's most eminent philosophers of religion at Renmin University in Beijing says, "The worship of Mammon… has become many people's life purpose.” He therefore concludes, “I think it is very natural that many … will not be satisfied. (They) will seek some meaning for their lives so that when Christianity falls into their lives, they will seize it very tightly.”

With all due respect to Professor He, the bible agrees, but also disagrees with his assessment. Many look at China and express surprise that the Christianity was not extinguished in back 1949, when all foreign missionaries were expelled from the country. Or during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s, when Mao described religion as “poison” and attempted to wipe out the church altogether. Professor He says, rather, it is change in economic circumstances - wealth - that has driven many to trust in Jesus, in their search for meaning in their lives. He is even quoting Jesus when he speaks of the worship of Mammon.

The bible says both persecution and temptation place pressure on the church. Both pain and pleasure are used by Satan to threaten and undermine the growth of the church. But today’s passage teaches us that Satan gets more Christians through pleasure than through pain.

I know your pain; I know your poverty

To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty - yet you are rich!
Revelation 2:8-9

“I know your afflictions and your poverty,” Jesus says. Every time you have felt alone. When pain and circumstances isolate you from everyone else in the world. When you stand at the ATM and the bank balance says there isn’t enough to pay the gas bill.

All your anxiety; All your fear: Jesus sees; Jesus knows. But more than that, Jesus has been there.

“These are the words of him… who died and came to life again.” There is a reason why he identifies himself as the one who died. On the cross, Jesus, the Lord of history - the First and the Last - laid down his life. We worship a God who has faced death, depression and despair. And Jesus says to the church in Smyrna undergoing the same kind of rejection and persecution, “I know your situation; I am in control of your situation”. These words of Jesus are that of comfort and reassurance.

I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
Revelation 2:9-10

“You will be tested.” That is the reality behind these words. “Some of you will be thrown into prison,” Jesus says, “and you will suffer persecution for ten days.”

The ten days may be literal. That is, God is forewarning them of a specific period of persecution: Ten days. More likely, it is a reference to Daniel Chapter 1, where Daniel and his friends ask for ten days; ten days to be separate from the rest king’s court; ten days when they would not touch the king’s food or wine but eat only vegetables; ten days when Daniel and his friends would be tested.

Jesus is saying, “Be faithful during these ten days of testing, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life”.

And yet we should not miss the obvious: Satan is responsible for these attacks. The devil is behind this wave of persecution. Moreover he uses men zealous for God’s name, to carry out his work of destroying the church. Elsewhere, John records these words of Jesus:

"All this I have told you so that you will not go astray. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me."
John 16:1-4

It all sounds rather twisted: They will kill you and think they are “offering a service to God”. So here in Revelation, there are those who claim to be Jews - identifying themselves with the people of God. Yet what Jesus hears from their lips is slander - the word can also be translated “blaspheme” - meaning their very profession of faith in God, is insulting to God. It is twisted because here is Satan using religion and religious people to attack the church. In fact, that is precisely what happened to Jesus. He was murdered and betrayed by his own people; by religious leaders who thought they were doing a favour for God by nailing him to the cross. These are not the people of God, says Jesus. They are a synagogue of Satan.

Live once, die twice. Die once...

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.
Revelation 2:11

There is a second death. Meaning: The suffering and death of this world is but a pale shadow of a second death and a final judgement. Either we die once and receive the promise of resurrection everlasting life from Jesus. Or we reject Jesus and die twice, facing death in this life and a second time in the life to come.

One the disciples of John was a man named Polycarp who eventually became the bishop of Smyrna, during a period of intense persecution under the Roman government. At eighty-six years of age, Polycarp was imprisoned because of his faith. It is said that he took comfort reading these words from Revelation addressed to his church. When forced to deny Jesus or face death, he responded by saying:

For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?

Most of us here today are nowhere near eighty-six. Few here, if any, have ever been faced with the decision to choose Jesus or lose our lives. What would it take for us seriously consider the words of Jesus Christ, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and i will give you the crown of life”?

Yet the reality is: Many who name the name of Christ have died for that name. We should not be surprised. The blood of martyrs are the seed of the church. That’s why the church grew in Communist China in 1949, in 1960; and it continues to grow today - despite every attempt at oppressing the church and restricting the gospel. That’s why Revelation continues to be keenly read and taken seriously in the Chinese Church. Because Jesus says of them, “I know you affliction. I know your poverty. Yet, you are rich!”

No, the real question for us today, is not what Jesus would say to the church in China; rather: What would Jesus say to the church in Cambridge?

Where Satan lives

To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live - where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city - where Satan lives.
Revelation 2:12-13

Pergamum is introduced to us as a faithful church. Like Smyrna, Jesus says to them, “I know”. This is Satan’s throne. This is where Satan lives. And because of this, the church has been oppressed and pressured to deny to Jesus. But, Jesus says to them, “You remain true to my name.” He even singles out Antipas, “my faithful witness” - the Greek word for “witness” is “martyr” - who was put to death in the city. Antipas was faithful to the point of death. Wasn’t that what Jesus said to the church in Smyrna?

So, in many respects, the church in Pergamum ought to have surpassed expectations. They were faithful witnesses. They held on to Jesus. They had a track record of withstanding physical and spiritual persecution from Satan himself.

However, Jesus does have a few things to say against this faithful church in Pergamum.

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
Revelation 2:14-16

Not persecution, not pain, but pleasure. Satan has two weapons at his disposal; and only two. He uses pain but he gets more through pleasure. The Christians in Pergamum though faithful in the first test, had succumbed to the second.

And Jesus is saying, “This has happened before,” when he mentions “the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin”. The story is recorded in the book of Numbers Chapters 22 to 25, when the Israelites were wandering in the desert under the leadership of Moses. Balak was a king of Moab, who saw this huge mass of Israelites approaching his country and feared that they would attack them. So he hired a prophet, a man named Balaam, to pronounce a curse on the Israelites as they passed by.

However, God steps in and stops Balaam from saying anything against Israel. Balaam ends up blessing them instead. Three times, Balak tries to bribe Balaam with money, three times he gets important and impressive people to win him over, three times he sets up altars to sacrifice to God to try and win God over; but three times Balaam opens his mouth and blesses the people of God instead. He says, “Must I not speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?” (Numbers 23:12)

Now Balaam is not a good man. Though he is a prophet of God, and though God uses him to bless Israel, Balaam was a man greedy for money (2 Peter 2:15). So when he says to King Balak, “I can only say what God gives me,” he’s actually giving an excuse: God was preventing him from cursing the Israelites. God is to blame.

So what Balaam does instead, is to teach Balak how to get around God’s word. It is bad enough that Balaam uses his position for gain; to try to get rich. But what he does next is so immensely wicked and evil. He teaches Balak how to entice the Israelites to sin against God (Numbers 31:15).

In Numbers 25, we read:

When Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices of their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. So Israel joined in worshipping the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.
Numbers 25:1-3

Balaam knew, the only way to destroy these people of God, was to tempt them to sin against God and to incur his wrath and jealousy. That is what Balaam taught Balak, and it worked.

Jesus is saying, This is what happened then. This is what is happening today. Verse 15: “Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” “Nicolaitan” and “Balaam” mean the same thing; one is Greek, the other is Hebrew. They both can be translated to mean “conquer people”. In other words: This is how you destroy people. This is how you influence and trap them. You tempt them to sin against God.

Now notice: Jesus is not simply condemning their sinfulness, or their practice of sinning through sexual immorality and idolatry. Rather, for three times, Jesus draws attention to those who teach others how to sin against God; those who teach the people of God that it is OK to sin against God.

Verse 14: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam
Verse 14: Who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin
Verse 15: Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans

In Romans 1, Paul does not simply condemn those who practice sin - “such things deserve death” - but reserves the severest condemnation for those who “approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:32). In 1 Corinthians 5, he confronts sexual immorality in the church, but more seriously those who condone such practices, and are even proud of such high-handed sinfulness (“And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief?” - 1 Corinthians 5:2).

Meaning: Jesus is not simply addressing an attitude to sin that is seen in our homes (“what we watch on our television screens”), our workplaces (“an illicit relationship with the secretary”) and our personal lives (“how we conduct ourselves in our relationship with our boyfriends or girlfriends or spouses”). But the reason why the church in Pergamum is succumbing to temptation - of sexual sin and of idolatry - is because these very practices are being taught and approved of within the church itself. In other words, it is what is going on up front - here from the pulpit, here amongst the leadership - each week as hear the bible being read and taught.

Some might say: How can that be? How can it be that Christians are being taught to worship idols and commit sins of a sexual nature? And the answer is: by taking their eyes off this book.

The moment we take our eyes off this book; the moment we lose sight of the singular purpose of God’s word in every the gathering of God’s people - be it prayer meetings on Mondays, Rock on Wednesdays or Paul Group on Fridays; the moment we say to ourselves, “Ah, let’s take a break from hearing the bible, after all, it’s just an academic thing to read this ancient book. It has no relevance to my life today” - that is the moment we start to replace God’s voice with ours. We no longer listen to the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword!

Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
Revelation 2:16

Why is it that Christ identifies himself as the one who hold the double-edged sword? He is giving the remedy to the teaching of the Nicolaitans and the temptations of Balaam. The sword is the word of judgement. The Christians in Pergamum needed to hear that God will judge their sin of immorality and idolatry, according to his word of truth; according to the words of Jesus Christ.

You see, one of the reasons why the government in China is, in a sense intrigued by the growth of the church, is because they, too can see that the country has a growing social problem - of greed, crime, sexual misconduct, depression, suicide, broken marriages, rising divorce rates, teenage pregnancies, and the like - and they look at the church and see active, positive, effective efforts in dealing with these issues. There have been interest in Christian marriage preparation courses. Christian businessmen have a growing reputation for being honest in their dealings.

Yet when I asked a missionary what was the greatest need in the church in China today - the answer I got surprised me. They did not say, “More bibles” (they could print their own). It wasn’t better marriage counselling (even though divorce and incidences of marital unfaithfulness was rising even amongst Christians). It wasn’t even greater freedom in gathering as believers and evangelising non-Christians, even though the majority of house churches still meet underground in secret and in fear of being raided at any time.

No, the greatest need was clear biblical teaching. To counteract false teaching and heresy. But also to address these very problems with sexual misconduct, greed and oppression. Only the gospel can transform hearts and bring a nation out of darkness into light.

What we need is fresh, clear, bold preaching of Jesus Christ; his death on the cross as the payment for our sins and his free and gracious offer of forgiveness to sinners to enter the presence of Almighty God and his children, reborn through the Spirit of God.

What we need is the gospel - the transforming word of Jesus Christ.

He who has an ear, let him hear

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will gives some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.
Revelation 2:17

Jesus addresses seven churches in Revelation. He speaks to the heavenly realms (“To the angel of the church of Smyrna; to the angel of the church of Pergamum”); He addresses the earthly gathering of God’s people (“Hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”).

But Jesus always ends by addressing each of us, individually.

“He who has an ear.” Meaning, “Are you listening?”

You need to overcome. I need to overcome. Jesus calls each of us to account for our own personal faithfulness in the face of suffering; our own steadfastness in the face of temptation. In the same way, he offers each of us the promise of reward and eternal life.

There are various interpretations of the hidden manna and the white stone. I say because this is one bit I am not all 100% clear about as to it’s true meaning, aside from the fact that Jesus is obviously talking about eternal life.

The one I lean most towards picks up from the imagery of the High Priest. Hebrews 9:4 tells us how a gold jar of manna is placed in the ark of the covenant, situated in the Most Holy Place, accessible only by the High Priest once a year. Also, the stone with the name written on it, reminds us of the two stones on the shoulder of the ephod, worn by the High Priest. On these black stones were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. When the High Priest entered God’s presence once a year in the Most Holy Place, offering sacrifices on behalf of the whole nation, he was reminded by these stones that he was representing all of Israel. It was as if Israel was entering God’s presence. (Click here for a previous write-up on Exodus 28)

Together, the hidden manna and the stone with the hidden name paint a picture of entering God’s presence in an exclusive yet accessibly way. Jesus is promising us clear and open access to God.

It is a promise to him who overcomes. It is a promise to those who hear the words of Jesus Christ; what the Spirit says to the churches.

The spiritual crisis in China is one that is affecting a nation. The church is China has drawn the attention of the world. You can be sure, it has drawn the attention of the evil one. But in the midst of changing circumstances, the word of God stands eternal. Jesus Christ will build his church. And He speaks today through his word, to his church, by his Spirit. The question is: Are you listening?

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.