He who Overcomes, Part 4: Background Information

The seven churches mentioned in turn through Revelation Chapters 2 & 3 are all situated in a small geographic area in south west Turkey.

Geography of Revelation Churches

The letters that John wrote to them were given to him using Jesus’ own words which makes them quite special among all the New Testament writings.  Apart from some sentences in Acts to Paul, there are no other places in the NT where Jesus speaks after his ascension like this that I can recall.

A messenger could go to each church delivering the message for that church in the order in which they were written.  However there is no doubt that though each church had a specific message (or at least the angel of that church did), the message of each letter was of value to all the churches.

Each letter follows the same format.  Each starts with an address to the angel of the church.  What exactly that means is hard to know.  I like to think that it means that it is the culture /collective spirit of the church that is being addressed and not just individuals in it or the main pastor or anyone else who may or may not have responsibility in it.  It always amazes me how different churches led by the same Spirit can have different spiritual cultures – different angels if you like.  We spent 18 years in our first church together and coming up to 15 years in our present one (www.openarms.ie) so we have got to know both pretty well.  There is no doubt that the same Holy Spirit that led one also led the other but you would be hard pressed to come across two more different cultures.  It seems from the short descriptions that we have that each of the seven churches of Revelation were equally diverse.  Is this what is meant by the seven spirits of God (Rev. 3:1, 5:6)?

The overall format is:

1) A command to write to the angel of the church

2) A description of Jesus in his glorified state

3) A commendation or praise of the church (only Laodicea doesn’t get this)

4) A complaint or rebuke (but not to Smyrna or Philadelphia)

5) An exhortation or warning

6) A promise to the overcomer (or he who is victorious as the NIV puts it)

It is the last of these sections of the letters that I want to look at in this series of blogs.

It is interesting that the promises to overcomers are set in the context of letters to some local churches.  They didn’t have to be.  In some ways they don’t have anything to do with the messages to each church and could have stood on their own.  I believe that the reason they were put in this context is because the Holy Spirit is indicating that you probably won’t be an overcomer in any other context than full participation in the life of Christ’s body in a local church.  A local church is full of those that need a doctor – those who are well rarely come in (Matt. 9:12).  The spiritually poor, hungry and often lost people that are welcomed into a healthy church give lots of opportunities for those who have been made well by the grace of God to be overcomers.  If you can stick it in a local church it is because you have had to come over and over again to the throne of grace to find help in time of need.

I know, church can be wonderful, just saying…. stick around, overcome…..

Always remember, I could be wrong about anything I write here (1 Cor. 8:2).  Let the Holy Spirit instruct you and not me (Hebrews 8:11).  And ask your pastor or whoever you trust in this kind of thing if you need to.

[Acknowledgements to SpritandTruth.org for the picture but I have to confess I haven’t read their Revelation commentary – or anything else their writers have written (at least not yet)].

Different View Points

The role of the Holy Spirit

Grasping God’s Word Assignment 12-1

John 3:16

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 (NIV)

A learned intellectual interprets John 3:16

A man with 2 Ph.Ds specialising in NT studies who has not believed and encountered God in the Spirit would have a cognitive understanding of the passage.  He might discuss it in this way:

“The passage says that “God” loved the world so much that he gave his “son” for it.  According to this passage by John the mechanism for living for eternity is to believe in “the son”, i.e. the man Jesus.  I would say that it is true that anyone who has the Christian faith can be deluded into thinking they will live forever and that that is not a bad thing.  For most people, having the hope that they will live forever should keep them happy through difficult times.  It is noticeable that the Christian gospel has a great effect in poor countries where the consolations of this life are far less and the hope for an eternal life of happiness most required.

Jesus was a man, an extraordinary man, but simply believing in him could not make someone live forever and, obviously, doesn’t since all people die.  Though I can see how people who do believe in him must be consoled in difficulty, I cannot see how doing so could possibly make people live forever.

Anyway the idea that God, if he exists in the form described in the NT, would have a son is foolishness and the whole idea expressed in this passage is also foolishness if interpreted in a literal sense.  But the message in this passage is one of the best means there is for pacifying and comforting people in trouble with no other hope, as so many are in this world,.”

A mature believer interprets John 3:16

This is how a mature believer (like me) might interpret it:

“When I met God on the back of a bus travelling from Mullingar to Galway on May 7th 1980, one of the first things He did was convict me of the truth of all the Scriptures including this one.  I believe that God is and that He is good.  I believe He has a Son, Jesus Christ my Lord and Saviour, whom He sent to earth, who came of His own volition and who died a horrible death so that my sins might be taken out of the way and so I can have eternal life.

The life to come is not an extension of the time frame of this present body I am in but a new life in a new eternal body which is maintained by the Spirit of God Himself.

I continue to believe and act accordingly since I have the Spirit of God in me leading me into all truth.

I continually remember Jesus’ death and resurrection and continue to believe and receive eternal life, the deposit of which starts in this life with the Holy Spirit within me.  I don’t just have a cognitive understanding of this passage but a fully engaged, continuing life experience with the author of it.”

A 9 year old child interprets John 3:16 having just given her life to Jesus

“Daddy, Jesus died for me!”

Cursing while praying

The Imprecatory Psalms

Psalm 12

What is wrong? 2010-10-12-True-for-Now

Liars on every side, no faithful men to be found, people using powerful and clever words to achieve their own ends.  Sounds like a normal day in the business world.

What is the curse?

May the LORD cut off all flattering lips and every boastful tongue. V.3

Application

The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honoured among men.  There needs to be honesty and truth in all our dealings with each other.  If a man says he will do something, he should do it.  Bluffers and wafflers need to be shown up, not honoured.  The “cute whore” nod-nod, wink –wink, mentality that pervaded Irish life and politics and was honoured in certain political parties led to the wicked freely having their way in corruption and theft.  It doesn’t appear so much now because we all see the consequences.  It would have been better if some specific prayer similar to verse 3 was sent up to God about some of these men.  We might have been saved a lot of trouble.

Psalm 35

What is wrong?

The author is under attack.  Some are seeking to kill him or ruin him, others to repay him evil for the good he has done them.  And others are gloating over his distress.

5-Wednesday-Day-Three-Pic-1-Saul-and-David-300x204

 

What is the curse?


LORD, do unto them as they would do unto me.  Put them to shame and confusion.

Application

I don’t think many of us have human enemies of the sort David did at the time he wrote this psalm.  However we all have spiritual enemies who would seek to do same things as described in this psalm.  They should be cursed in the same way, i.e. by calling upon God to judge them (cf. Jude 8-10).

Psalm 58

What is wrong?

Wicked rulers.00733518.jpg

What is the curse?

LORD, destroy their power and get rid of them.

Application

We all know dictators that it would be good to curse in this way even now never mind Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Phot and the list of other despots that there have been through the ages.  The amount of misery such men can inflict makes these curses wholly appropriate.

Psalm 59

What is wrong?

The author is under attack from a group of men who besiege him and are out to slander and kill him (probably Saul’s men according to the heading).

What is the curse?

LORD, punish them, show no mercy, but don’t just kill them make them wander about and let them be caught first and then consume them in wrath and destroy them utterly.  I don’t know why he said not to just kill them, he could have saved himself many years of running around the mountains.

Application

I don’t think many of us have human enemies of the sort David did at the time he wrote this psalm but it can happen.  David had a long on-going battle with Saul and his forces perhaps we need to be careful how we curse!!!

Psalm 69

What is wrong?

The author is in despair because as he seeks the Lord people begin to hate him without reason, scorn him and alienate him – including his own family members.  When people insult God he feels it personally (v. 9).  Scorn has broken his heart and left him helpless and there is no one to comfort him, in fact they do the opposite.

What is the curse?

May the table set before them become a snare;
may it become retribution anda trap.
23 May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see,
and their backs be bent forever.
24 Pour out your wrath on them;
let your fierce anger overtake them.
25 May their place be deserted;
let there be no one to dwell in their tents.
26 For they persecute those you wound
and talk about the pain of those you hurt.
27 Charge them with crime upon crime;
do not let them share in your salvation.
28 May they be blotted out of the book of life
and not be listed with the righteous.

Application

This psalm is full of prophetic statements that the NT writers use in relation to the life and death of Jesus. In John 15:25, the Lord quoted Psalm 69:4 in reference to His mistreatment by the Jews, “They hated Me without cause.”  The Apostle Paul quotes verses 22 and 23 in Romans 11:9-10.  The first part of verse 9 is fulfilled when the Lord cast the money changers out of the Temple (John 2:17).  The last part is quoted in Romans 15:3.

When I read the curses I cannot help think that they apply to those who reject Christ and oppose the church unreasonably  and for no cause.   In particular the curse that they should be blotted out of the book of life points to this.

Why Egypt welcomed Islam – a bit of church history

Or this could be titled “One of the reasons I hate religion”.

Until the 4th Century AD it often cost your life to be a Christian.  There were 10 severe persecutions of Christians all over the Roman Empire starting with Nero in AD 60 and ending with Diocletian.  You thought twice before becoming a Christian since there was every chance you could lose your life, possessions and loved ones if you did.

However that all changed when Constantine embraced Christianity around AD 318.  The Edict of Milan of that year legalised Christian worship, later it became compulsory to be a Christian!  Now, not only was there no state organised persecution, it was actually of great benefit to your career in any government post to be a Christian.  Add to that the fact that there was no separation between church and state and you no longer had to think twice before declaring yourself a Christian and everyone was doing it.

Both Jesus and Paul had warned about “wolves in sheep’s clothing” rising up from among them and not sparing the flock (Matthew 7:15; Acts 20: 29,30).  And so it turned out.  The next several hundred years are characterised by huge amounts of religion and very little true Christian discipleship.  The head of the “Roman” empire moved himself to Constantinople and was effectively taken out of the way so that another head could arise –  the Pope in Rome.  However he wasn’t the only “head” at that time, there were four of them:  The Coptic Pope based in Alexandria, Egypt; the Syriac Patriarch based in Antioch in present day Turkey, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch based at Constantinople as well as the Roman Catholic Pope based in Rome.

Each of these four heads divided up the Christian world based on 4 views of the divinity and humanity of Christ.  I can’t tell you what the different views were, I suppose I should know, everyone at that time seemed to know which side they were on.

What has this to do with Egypt welcoming Islam?  Bear with me, we’ll get there.

At one of the Councils in the middle of the 5th century the then head of the Copts led an army of his followers into Constantinople in an attempt to force their particular view of the nature of Christ down the throats of the others who had gathered there and so gain power over the Roman Empire.  In response the emperor of the day backed the Patriarch of Constantinople with a fleet and an army and imposed their view on them.  All of Egypt – 20 million people – was ruled by Greek Orthodox governors with the Emperor’s fleet in the bay at Alexandria to help keep them in line.  (See the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbons Vol. 4, Chapter 47).

Do you think God was pleased with all this bickering?  Well it would seem not.  About the beginning of the 7th century, Mohammed and his followers began to gain power.  They became fanatical and inspired by a religious zeal backed by direct revelation from above their armies quickly gained the upper hand over the bickering and divided Christians.  It didn’t take them long to leave Arabia and conquer a vast swathe of land, all of present day Jordan, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon, Iraq and Iran and parts of present day Turkey.    In the process the Patriarch of Antioch and all his followers came under Muslim domination.  There is still a remnant left today of that church in the region but not much.

An army of 100,000 fanatical Muslims drew up near the border with Egypt and stopped.  There was no way they were going further with 20,000,000 Christians in front of them.  Or was there?  Cue, the welcome.  The Coptic Egyptians saw this impressive army and thought they could do a good job of overthrowing their unwelcome Greek Orthodox overlords.  So they invited them in (see Gibbon’s History referred to above chapter 51).

Constantinople finally fell to the Muslims in the mid 15th century.

And that, my friends, is how Egypt welcomed Islam.  A sorry reflection on organised religion and no sign of the love of Christ anywhere.  This was the beginning of the Dark Ages which were dark at least partly and probably mainly because of  a great apostasy from Christ’s teachings even though there was plenty of so called “Christian” religion.

Loving the Greek…..

The New Testament was originally written in Greek since that was the “English” or “lingua Franca” of the the first century.  So I thought it would be a good idea to learn the NT or Koine Greek some years ago.  I must admit though that the vast range of English translations we have seem to capture most of the nuances of the Greek word meanings as far as I can tell.  But I am no expert.

There are a few things that the NT Greek does bring out:

1.  The simplicity of the language John uses compared with Paul.  It is really very easy to read John’s gospel and letters in the Greek especially in comparison to Paul’s.  It is a real and compelling miracle to see the depth of meaning and the deep subjects that John is able to explore with so few words.   I really don’t know anything equivalent in English.  However Revelation is no easier to read in Greek than it is in English even though John wrote that too.

2.  The Greek uses the continuous form of the verb “to be” far more than the English translations I have read do.  I am guessing that is because it would be being far more awkward to be reading.  But what the Greek brings out is a very important theological point or continuity rather:  You must keep on being saved to be saved.  There is no emphasis in the New Testament on point decisions or actions like the English translations seem to imply.  The examples are everywhere in the N.T. (Colossians 3:1 keep on seeking, Romans 8:1, 4 are not walking, etc., etc.).

3.  Of all the English translations I have read I have yet to come across one which brings out the distinctions in the Greek words for love in John 21:15-17. Knowing the differences significantly adds to the understanding of Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter and the qualifications for being a minister in God’s church.  Only the amplified version really brings it out but you can lose the significance in all the words.  Here is my version:

15 When they had eaten, Jesus said to Simon Peter, Simon, son of John, do you agape Me more than these? He said to Him, Yes, Lord, You know that I phileo You. He said to him, Feed My lambs.

16 Again He said to him the second time, Simon, son of John, do you agape Me? He said to Him, Yes, Lord, You know that I phileo You. He said to him, Shepherd My sheep.

17 He said to him the third time, Simon, son of John, do you phileo Me? Peter was grieved that He should ask him the third time, Do you phileo Me? And he said to Him, Lord, You know everything; You know that I phileo You! Jesus said to him, Feed My sheep.

Agape means love like Jesus’ love when He died for us on the Cross.  A supernatural love that comes straight from the Father.  Peter knew he didn’t love Jesus like that not after his three denials on the night Jesus needed him most.  He wasn’t going to make the same mistake he had made before the crucifixion (John 13:37).

But he also knew that he had phileo –  a brotherly affection and natural love for Jesus.  So he had responded honestly.  He didn’t mind Jesus questioning his agape love but he was upset when he questioned even his phileo love.  He would have been devastated to discover that he didn’t even have that!

But actually Jesus was out to encourage him.  For each time He questioned Peter and each time Peter answered honestly and without pretence Jesus found in him someone He could trust.  Someone who could feed the young and tend to the needs of and even feed the more mature.

Some teachers would say that Pentecost (Acts 2: 1-4) added the agape to the phileo that Peter had.  And perhaps it did.  But for me I think I know what answer I would give to Jesus if I was asked the same questions, Pentecost or no Pentecost.

Only He knows really how qualified I am, or anyone is, to spiritually feed and tend His lambs or sheep.  But the qualifications are definitely not academic ones.  You don’t have to learn the Greek to love His people enough to feed them.

Changing God’s mind

From Acts 27 it is clear that you should always listen to someone who is in communion with God. But even if you don’t God can still be merciful if that godly man (or woman) intercedes on your behalf.

http://thebiblerevival.com/ This passage is one of the few in Scripture which shows an example of a man apparently changing God’s mind on something. In Acts 27:10 Paul predicts that their lives will be lost along with the cargo and ship whereas in v.22 he predicts that there will be no loss of life, which is how it turned out. In between v. 10 and v. 22 Paul had been praying and God had heard and answered his prayers and effectively had changed His mind.

The most famous example of this is when Moses interceded on behalf of the people of Israel in Exodus 32: 9-14. What both examples (and others) show is that we are not dealing with some immovable stone image or machine that churns out decisions from on high that cannot be changed. This is the opposite of determinism and causes no end of theological conundrums for anyone approaching God without knowing Him. We reach the limits of rational thought in this kind of thing.

Recently I was sharing with an engineer at work, a clever guy. He started the conversation by asking how I could logically think that the bible could be right about God. After some useful debate (which I must put in another blog) I ended up by saying that God reaches everyone not just the logical. And He does it by summing everything up in two promises: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength and your neighbour as yourself.

Thankfully we are not limited to being rational when dealing with God. Let’s be rational, but more than that, let’s be in love.