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.

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