Revelation 3: Self-reflection

Dear church,

The call in chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation is for the churches of the world to evaluate themselves. It is a call to self-reflection.

If the only application of this text was for a group of seven churches that existed just before the end of the first century AD, then there would be little use of these chapters today or throughout the bulk of church history.

These letters were written to the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. But they also were written to us.

We see here seven churches that had strengths and weaknesses. Two in particular – in Smyrna and Philadelphia – seemed to have good things going. They were serving the Lord well. Even in difficult circumstances, even in tribulation, poverty, and weakness, these two churches were keeping the word of God and proclaiming the name of Christ.

Meanwhile, two churches in particular – in Sardis and Laodicea – seemed almost beyond saving. They may have looked good and prosperous, but they were dead. They were not doing the works of Christ.

And three churches – in Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira – were a mixed bag of good and bad. Jesus had some positive things to say to these churches. They were patiently enduring difficult times, and they could tell the difference between evil and good. But they were letting some things slide in their congregations that weren’t pleasing to Christ. In one, the enthusiasm for the gospel had faded. In the others, they’d allowed false teachers to slip in among them.

And so two churches were doing well. Two churches were doing poorly. And two were so-so.

And this prompts us to self-reflection. This isn’t personal self-reflection primarily but communal. Who are we as a church? Where have we fallen short? In what ways, when we read these letters, do we see ourselves?

Self-reflection is hard enough to do in our personal lives. Many of us have had the opportunity to work in places that required us to fill out “self-evaluation” forms about our job performance. I don’t know about you, but that was a difficult task. It wouldn’t be appropriate to give yourself a perfectly glowing score. Your boss would see through that. Plus, a little humility is a positive characteristic.

But you don’t want to go too far and score yourself very low. Your boss might wonder what your problem is and whether there really is something missing about your performance – whether you even should be kept around!

So you probably gave yourself a mix of good and bad scores. And you would never forget that this is an ultimately useless exercise because it didn’t really matter what you thought about your job performance. All that mattered was what your boss thought about it!

Sadly, this might be the only self-reflection a lot of people do. If we think on our moral lives, and on our commitment to Christ, what might we say? And does what we think really matter after all? There is one who knows all, and His thoughts are what count.

Jesus said, repeatedly, “I know your works.”

And yet, the seven letters to the seven churches of Revelation implicitly invite – no, demand – that we think hard not just about our personal commitment to Christ but also the communal commitment of this church to Christ. We remember that these weren’t letters to individuals. No one was mentioned by name except a martyr named Antipas and a false teacher who was given the pseudonym “Jezebel.”

No, these letters were written to churches. It was a collective commendation and a collective condemnation that they received. And the call to repent was given to the entire church.

To the church at Sardis – that “dead” church – Jesus said, “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent.”

To the church at Laodicea – that “lukewarm” church – Jesus said, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.”

The question we must ask ourselves after reading these letters, if we are being honest and open with one another, is how we ought to go about evaluating ourselves as a church. Of what, as a church, should we repent? And how do we carry out this repentance – as a church?

You might have noticed that the one common factor that bound together the two churches that Jesus commended – the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia – was their poverty and littleness. “I know your tribulation and your poverty,” he told the believers in Smyrna. “I know that you have but little power,” he told those in Philadelphia.

And you might have noticed the blindness that bound together the two dismal churches in Sardis and Laodicea. “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up. … For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”

Perhaps we start there, with these two questions about poverty and blindness. How are we among the godly poor? And in what ways do we simply not see what we need to see about our spiritual state? Please think about these things today.

Chris

Revelation 2: Patient endurance

Dear church,

We can picture the Book of Revelation delivered to the seven church in Asia. Perhaps a letter-carrier visited each of the seven cities, gathered together the churches, and read the letter aloud to them. Maybe the letter-carrier went from one city to the next to the next.

These seven churches had their different strengths and weaknesses. And each of those seven churches would have heard the commendation and criticism of Christ to each of the other churches. Those seven churches – a number of completion – would have discovered they weren’t alone.

I don’t think the messages to these churches were only for a singular time and a singular place. I think the messages contained in these letters contain eternal value. Every local church, I suppose, faces some of the issues presented here.

A lot of churches are like the church in Ephesus, which was good at discerning bad teaching but also was a little lackluster in actually doing the things of the faith. A lot of churches are the church in Smyrna, facing persecution and slander from the world.

A lot of churches are like the church in Pergamum, which also faced persecution but did so with a weak will, falling prey to false teaching and idol worship. And a lot of churches are like the church in Thyatira, a split congregation – some listening to the “deep things of Satan” and some holding firm in the true faith.

And there are three other churches to consider, which we will do tomorrow.

Today, we might think about ways we might be emulating some of these churches – for better or worse. We might consider what kind of letter Jesus would write to us. He might have some positive things to say. And he might have a few things against us, as well.

One of the images that caught my attention was in the letter to the church in Thyatira, the church that was struggling with a “Jezebel” teacher but that had a remnant that was hanging on to the gospel, not falling into sexual immorality or idol worship. Jesus addressed that remnant.

“Only hold fast to what you have until I come.”

What were they to hold? The true gospel? The people who were part of their remnant? Or both?

I suppose it was probably both, and I suppose the believers there knew exactly what Jesus was telling them to do. They didn’t need to do anything new. They didn’t need to create any new programs. They didn’t need to change course. Just “hold fast to what you have.”

Protect it. Nurture it. Don’t let it drift away. Don’t let it die off.

I wonder whether there is something here for our church.

Chris

Revelation 1: Like a dead man

Dear church,

When John saw Jesus, he fell at his feet “as though dead.” This was the same John who leaned back against Jesus to ask him a question (John 13:25). This is the same John who stood at the foot of the cross, staring up at the crucified Jesus (John 19:26).

John knew Jesus very well. He’d seen Jesus do many things. And in this moment, he fell at Jesus’ feet “as though dead.”

What is it about the presence of God in his glory that affects people in this way? If you search through the Bible for moments when people entered into God’s presence or saw his glory, you will find people who simply fell apart.

For John, the appearance of Christ in his glory put him on the ground. Death comes when people meet God.

The people of Israel knew this. More than a thousand years earlier, they knew. “For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die. For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived?” (Deuteronomy 5:25).

Be warned: To come into God’s presence is to die. John dropped to the ground as though dead. We are a delicate, sinful kind of creation. We are breakable. God’s glory is too much for us. John demonstrated this.

What brings out your humility? Think back on a big mistake you have made in life. Now think back on another. And then another. And then another. I hope this is relatively easy for you, that you have been introspective enough over the years to recognize your own sinfulness.

With just a handful of those sins in your mind, how do you feel? Probably pretty small. Now imagine coming into the presence of the One who is unfathomably kind and loving to you and who has been literally broken because of those very sins you’ve committed. How small do you feel now?

Multiply that feeling you have mustered up by your imagination by about a billion – because if we really were to come into God’s presence, the feeling might be something like that. And that’s why John fell down as though he were a dead man.

Jesus, of course, reached down with his right hand and touched John. You might have noticed Jesus let go of the “seven stars” of the “angels of the seven churches” in order to reassure John. I don’t know whether there’s any theological significance to this, but it caught my attention!

In the midst of our death, Jesus speaks life. “Fear not …”

Jesus is “the first and the last.” He was present before creation came into existence, and he will be present after it is swept away. Jesus is our “first” and “last.” To grab hold of Jesus is to grab hold of one who has no beginning or end.

Jesus is the one we ought to seek. Jesus is the one we ought to live to please. Perhaps we ought to keep in mind what it might be like to come into his presence. Live in humility. Live for him.

Chris

Jude: Necessary

Dear church,

The Book of Jude is quite a book for Thanksgiving Day. I always have the picture of “gloom” in my mind when I think about this book. I think gloomy thoughts because this letter explains the nature and destiny of those who deny Christ and teach others to do the same.

Jude has a lot of material that needs fleshing out – fallen angels, the archangel Michael, the body of Moses, Balaam’s error, Korah’s rebellion, and Enoch’s prophesy. I hope you take some time to do that today.

Of course, don’t let yourself get too buried in research. There is interesting material here, but a simple reading of this text drives home a main point that any reader can understand.

There are deceivers in the global church.

When I read the text this time, I was struck by the fact Jude had wanted to write about something different. He had wanted to write about “our common salvation.”

I wonder what kind of letter would have been. Certainly, it would have been a joyful letter. It would have built unity among the churches and the Christians who read it. I’m sure it would have stirred up a lot of gratitude in their hearts – saved by grace!

But Jude didn’t write that letter. Instead, he found it more pressing to write a warning to the churches to be alert and to “contend” for the faith in the face of false teachers who had slipped in among them, hiding out during their love feasts, acting like shepherds.

This is a warning. And it is necessary. We can see the havoc false teachers, bound up in the same “ungodly passions,” are stirring up in the church today.

Good parents warn their children. It’s part of the job. And the warning isn’t for the sake of the wolves. It’s for the sake of the sheep.

My daughter Anna and I were bagging up leaves at my mother-in-law’s house. And I noticed as I was raking up a pile that there was more than just leaves in that pile. This was a backyard for a dog, and dog “debris” could be found there. I hope you understand what I mean.

And so I raked and raked, and when Anna came over with a bag to begin pushing those leaves into it, I warned her. I told her what I saw.

“I know,” she said, and she kept working.

She was aware of the mess. She knew it was there, and she simply kept working. We kept working together, actually. This was a family moment.

I kind of picture that with Jude. His letter marked a family moment. The family mission is to spread the gospel and to build up one another in the faith – to strengthen the church.

But there is danger present. There’s always going to be danger associated with the work of the church.

Jude wanted everyone to be clear-eyed about the danger. Not to be alarmed. But to be well-prepared. And then to keep doing the work.

“And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.”

Keep working. Keep living out the gospel message. Don’t over-think things. Don’t worry. Recognize not everything is going to be easy, and opponents to the gospel might even exist within the church. But keep working.

“I know,” we might say. And we keep working.

Chris

3 John: Hospitality

Dear church,

This letter made me think about the importance of true Christian hospitality – taking care of brothers and sisters in Christ who are doing the work of the gospel. (This is the opposite of what we discussed yesterday.) “For they have gone out for the sake of the name …”

If we don’t take care of people like this, who will? And if we don’t help them, are we missing an opportunity to participate in the work of the gospel?

As a church, we support missionaries who are taking the good news of Jesus to hard-to-reach places. This is a form of hospitality – in a distant kind of way. But it ought not to be discounted.

One of our missionaries is in an unnamed place where the gospel essentially is forbidden. We ought not to talk freely about it for the protection of our missionary and the people who are hearing the gospel there.

Some of our other missionaries are in Europe, where the gospel has been all but forgotten. And some of our missionaries are working on a college campus in America, where the good news has an uphill climb amid all the untruths that are shared in places like that.

“For they have gone out for the sake of the name … Therefore we ought to support people like these.”

In our culture, hospitality might not always mean taking these folks into our homes. It may simply mean sending them financial support so they can continue doing the work where they live. And it certainly means praying for them to have the energy and enthusiasm they need for the work.

Please consider this today.

Chris

2 John: Non-hospitality

Dear church,

As Christians, we are taught to be nice. We are taught to welcome strangers and to show goodness to people who are different from us. The Bible speaks about hospitality.

We know the Israelites were glad when the prostitute Rahab accepted the spies into her home and protected them. Elijah met similar hospitality from strangers. So did Jesus.

And Christians are to give hospitality to strangers. Romans 12:13 and Hebrews 13:2 instruct this directly.

And so what about John’s command about false teachers – not to accept them into our homes or even to greet them? Not even a “hello”? That seems kind of hard-hearted. Surely we could show them true Christian kindness and maybe soften their hearts.

Two things might be said here.

First, ancient hospitality meant bringing people into your home as guests and giving them a place to stay. In a sense, you endorsed them and their message with your hospitality. And John most likely had the idea of traveling teachers who were offering up a perverted form of the gospel. To take that person into your home, to feed him and shelter him, served to enable his ministry. If you declined him help, he might leave your town. His teaching would have to go elsewhere.

Second, false teaching is dangerous, and John is careful to make that fact clear here. It probably is a bit naïve the think we are immune to the dangers of false teachers – that we will change them, and they won’t change us.

With all of that said, we recognize our culture is very different today. I’ve never had a preacher knock on my door looking for a place to stay. We don’t get asked frequently to have someone come and teach at our church. False teaching doesn’t spread in that way today.

But I have been encouraged to buy books written by false teachers, or to listen to CDs or DVDs or YouTube videos produced by false teachers. This is a form of support for those ministries.

And so we ought to be careful with what we read and with what we watch and with what we buy. We need to be careful of those teachings we consume and endorse.

The biggest danger today in American Christianity is probably the prosperity gospel. Are the teachers you follow on the Internet preaching a gospel that promises health and wealth to Christians? Is it a self-centered kind of gospel?

Think about this. There might be some books on your bookshelf that might not be worthy of any more “hospitality” on your part.

Chris

1 John 5: The Spirit

Dear church,

I’ve been thinking about “the three” – the Spirit, the water, and the blood. These testify to the truth about Jesus Christ and the eternal life he gives to those who believe in him.

Two of these three are quite earthly and simple. Water and blood are common. We like to see one of them. Water is good. Most of us would prefer not to see the other – blood.

But both are necessary for life. We won’t get far without water and blood.

The water in 1 John refers to Jesus’ baptism. It was a moment in time when the Holy Spirit confirmed the identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Read the gospel accounts about Jesus’ baptism if you have time.

The blood, of course, refers to Jesus death on the cross. Here was another testimony to Jesus’ identity – human and divine, dead but raised again.

These two “testifiers” are quite earthly and simple. And then there is the Holy Spirit. Completely divine.

And so there is earthly testimony to the good news of Christ, and there is divine testimony.

We probably put a lot of weight on earthly testimony. We’re a scientific kind of people. And so we like the idea of eyewitnesses and physical evidence, which we have in people like John (1 John 1:1-4).

But, frankly, some people are not going to be convinced by arguments like these. No matter how much physical evidence they receive, they simply will not believe. Divine testimony is needed.

Fortunately, the Holy Spirit can break into a person’s life and make all things new. A woman named Lydia, outside the city of Philippi, had her heart opened by God to believe the good news (Acts 16:14).

Prayer seems important for us here. We pray for those we know who do not know Jesus Christ and who refuse to believe the earthly, or human, testimony about him. We pray that the Holy Spirit will work a miracle.

Who are you praying for today?

Chris

1 John 4: Test the spirits

Dear church,

You might find it disconcerting to realize there are multiple spirits to which we might listen. For the Christian – to whom John was writing – a careful decision must be made regarding which spirits to listen to and which spirits to discard.

We must be discerning. We are to test the spirits.

The apostle John warned the first Christians that many false prophets were among them, and those false prophets seemed to be preaching some kind of body-less Christ – a Christ who did not come in the flesh and may not have died physically on the cross or rose physically from the tomb. And it may be that these false prophets were not preaching Jesus as the Son of God.

These false prophets, I suppose, were men and women. But they had a spirit about them of falsehood. And that spirit was even darker than that. It was the spirit of the antichrist.

“Every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist.”

That is an eye-opening statement when you think about it. Any spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. It is the spirit of the antichrist.

The antichrist wants the exact opposite of everything Jesus wants for us. Instead of life, death. Instead of freedom, slavery. Instead of joy, mourning. Antichrist “spirits” want to take God’s people back into captivity to Egypt, or to keep us wandering in the wilderness of confusion, or to cause us to deny we ever knew this man called Jesus.

To confess Jesus means we confess his physical life, death, and resurrection. It means we confess hope always exists. It means we live lives of faith, trusting in the promises of God that have not yet come to full fruition. It means we live for a day that is not just today – but that is an eternal “today” that still is coming. We are a people who lean forward toward eternal life.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”

I saw a video last week of a press conference by the vice president. He spoke about the coronavirus pandemic and the new vaccines being developed. And then he finished and walked out of the room. He took no questions from reporters.

And as he was leaving, the room exploded in noise. Reporters shouted questions and accusations. One could be heard yelling, “You’re all undermining the democratic election!” The vice president did not stop walking. He just left the room.

Then I saw a video of a press conference by the president’s press secretary. She took several questions. And then she walked out of the room. The same thing happened – an eruption of noise and eager attempts to get the press secretary’s attention. The press secretary did stop, however, to say to one reporter: “I don’t call on activists.” And then she walked out of the room.

A word came to me after watching those videos: “Cacophony.” The definition of cacophony is “a harsh discordant mixture of sounds” (Oxford Languages online).

In our lives, we will encounter at times a “cacophony” of things to which we could listen. It’s a discordant mixture of sounds. Some voices will say one thing, and some things will say another.

And we should be careful to know that not all of these things are from God. There is, as John says, “the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” And John urges us to know the difference. And when we encounter the spirit of error, we need to walk away – regardless of how persistent it may become.

We also must be mindful when we are likely to be confronted with the spirit of error. It could be when we are around other people. It could be while we are watching television or listening to the radio or scrolling our social media feeds.

But the spirit of error might appear in our moments alone – in our minds, in the silence. We ought not to forget that, by ourselves and without Christ, we were full of error ourselves. If there is any truth in us now, it did not come from us. It came from God.

And so it is possible we can speak untruths to ourselves at times. We can speak lies and doubts and angry ideas. The “spirit of error,” in some ways, can be ourselves.

Take time to test this. Sit in silence sometime and think about the thoughts and ideas that come to your mind. Take each one aside. Test it.

Does it push you toward life, toward freedom, toward joy? Or does it stir up bitterness or worry? Does it stir up anger? Does it tempt you to sin? Does it leave you entirely confused?

Does it add hope you your life or does it take it away? Does it expand your sense of peace and consolation in life? Does it leave you feeling disconcerted and empty – or certain and full of joy?

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”

Sometimes, when faced with this cacophony of spirits, it is right simply to walk away. We don’t need to “call” on every spirit. To some, we might just want to turn around and walk.

My prayer for you this week is that you would “take every thought captive to obey Christ” – especially those thoughts that come from within yourself (2 Corinthians 10:5). What spirits, in truth or error, are speaking to you – and are you listening?

Chris

1 John 3: God’s seed

Dear church,

John uses that word again here – abide. “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.”

To “make a practice of sinning” means a person habitually sins without any hint of repentance or a desire to change one’s ways. Christians do sin. But John would say Christians are gradually moving away from sin – to the point it is unthinkable sin would continue unabated in a believer’s life.

A Christian can’t keep sinning because he or she is born of God. This fits well alongside the notion Jesus and Peter gave us of being “born again.” Something new happens in a person’s life at conversion. A whole new birth occurs.

And God’s “seed” abides in us.

In human terms, the idea of a person’s “seed” has biological connotations. That is, we have a biological connection to our children. They are our “seed.” Or our seed remains in them. There’s something very important of us that will always be in them.

You may have noticed how we can tend to look, or speak, or do things like our parents. Mary says I’m becoming more and more like my dad every day when it comes to some of my habits. His seed is in me, after all. I’m going to trend in a certain direction in my habits because of that. My dad and I are genetically connected.

The same is the case with God’s seed that abides in us. We will trend in a certain direction if God’s seed remains in us. We will trend away from habitual sin and toward habitual righteousness – toward love, joy, peace, and patience.

In some ways, this will be our natural “lean.” Without much effort, we will find ourselves with certain convictions. We will feel pangs in our consciences when we sin. We don’t have to dig around for those pangs. They will just happen naturally.

This is God’s seed in us. God’s seed relentlessly drives us away from sin. We cannot keep on sinning habitually, or make a lifestyle of sin, if God’s seed remains in us. It’s impossible.

Please on this today. When have you felt yourself pushing back from sin, or at least having some sort of reaction to sinful tendencies in your life? Willfully move in the direction God’s seed is pointing you.

Chris

1 John 2: Abide

Dear church,

The idea of “abiding” comes out clearly in this chapter.

“Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. … But the anointing that you received from him abides in you … just as it has taught you, abide in him.”

To let the Word of God and the Holy Spirit abide in us is to allow the Word and the Spirit to nurture us along. In our freedom, we seem to have the ability to push out the Word and the Spirit. We have freedom to reject their movement in our lives.

In a marriage, a husband and wife move in harmony. Both pour themselves into the relationship. They give freely – and they receive freely. If the husband or wife refuses to receive the love offered by the other, the marriage will break down over time. Plain and simple.

And in a marriage relationship, two become one flesh. This isn’t so far off from this idea of mutual “abiding” that we see in 1 John 2. God abides in us, and we abide in God. Husbands and wives do the same. They become one.

The idea for us today may be the idea of allowing God’s Word and the Holy Spirit fully to “abide” in us. John urges us to “let” that happen.

Is there any way we are pushing back against the work of God in our lives? Sometimes, I suppose, we do reject the call of God – the call to forgive, the call to open our hearts to other people, the call to be generous. You know what it may be for you.

Please think about this today.

Chris