Its not often you feel like you know a book before you read it, but given the amount of writing this book had inspired i came to it feeling that way, and full of hope for it's content. I'd never read a Tim Keller book before (obviously, since this is his first one!) and so starting a journey with a new author was also pretty exciting.
So does this book live up to its expectation? Yes! it was the cover that first grabbed me, especially the black detail on the inside and the black and silver letters on the front. Understated sophistication. Then, the fact that the book was split up into two halves with an intermission half way though like an old tape album pleased me very much as well. I was already friends with this book before we started!
No one who listened to Dr Keller at the 2006 DG Conference could doubt whether he knew his patch. Planting a faithful, expositional church in the heart of New York City can't be an easy thing to do but he has shown that through knowing your people and trusting the Word, the Lord can do mighty work though you. Keller demonstrates his knowledge of the New York, and wider, scene in the introduction where he sets the scene of both his church, and how this book was born. I don't often bother with introductions, but i'm glad i did with this one.
The first half of the book is entitled 'The Leap of Doubt' and deals with the seven most popular objections the people have to Biblical faith. There were two things that i really enjoyed about this part of the book. Firstly that Keller writes with such and knowledge and love for those who are asking these questions. This is no dry academic apologetic study...this is a pastors heart on pages. The second was how differently to me Keller answers some of the questions that he raises. Straight from chapter one 'there can't be one true religion' he concludes, having deconstructed the major anti exclusive arguments by appealing to all the good done in the name of Christ by Christians, rather than further philosophising about the uniqueness of Christ. This approach really challenged me,
The second part, 'The Reasons for Faith' then deals with explanations of key areas of Biblical faith, such as 'The problem of Sin', The Clues for God' and 'The (true) story of the cross'. I think it's here that Keller really demonstrates his gift as an author, theologian and apologist. I don't know how anyone can write chapters so drenched in Edwards and Lewis and yet make them so popular level, so readable at the same time! 'hats off tim!' My heart was warmed by every chapter, especially fourteen 'the dance of God'. Brilliant.
This book is written for 'skeptics and those that love them'. Well i love them, now i'm going to pass this one with prayers and much confidence. I can not say enough positive things about this book. You really should but it.
1. And, brethren, there will be no uncertain sound from us as to the doctrine of atonement. We cannot leave the blood out of our ministry, or the life of it will be gone; for we may say of our ministry, "The blood is the life thereof." The proper substitution of Christ, the vicarious sacrifice of Christ, on the behalf of his people, that they might live through him. This we must publish till we die. (Spurgeon)
2. Dads birthday at an Italian in Marlow. Great to have the family all together.
3. Kids Church this morning. Telling 9-11 year olds about the Gospel and seeing them get excited makes me excited!
4. The Reason for God. Review coming soon.
5. The Sermon on the Mount. Four verses in and i'm already blown away by it. The Lord is in the detail.
6. This text: 'Just finished dwyl - read most of it since tuesday - couldn't put it down, such a good book!! So glad i read it. Everyone should read this book'
7. Facebook Bible talk. 'for the newsfeed'. Seriously though, just spending ages and ages labouring over a few verses is such a treat. Still not overly sure i'm really through it! Then speaking about Sodom and Gomorrah with Rachel. Conflicting over the details...she was right!
This evening at the RFC prayer meeting we were praying for Zimbabwe. Yesterday the country went to the polls seemingly to elect the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change. The problem is that although the MDC wins when the votes are counted in the constituencies they are then taken to a central place to be 'collated', and thats when Mugabe's Zanu-PF party seems to make ground. Pray for the church in Zimbabwe, and for a righteous outcome to the elections.
It's not often i have a Saturday morning without anything to do, but yesterday was one such occasion. Sadly i ended up watching a few minutes of a new channel four show called vanity lair. Before i turned it off for the sake of my mind i learnt the premise of the show was something like this:
Vanity Lair is home of ten beautiful Lairmates. Each is competing to be crowned the most beautiful and win a cool £10,000. Every week, three outsiders compete for a single place in the coveted Lair. The Lairmates must decide who stays,(the one they consider to be the most beautiful) but at a cost... The outsider they choose will have to pick a Lairmate who must leave the Lair forever (who they consider to the the least beautiful)
Having turned off the tv for the sake of my brain, i opened my Bible to the start of the beautitudes, and was hit in the face fully by how different the values of the world are from the values of the Kingdom.
'blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted'
Do we want to achieve happiness as Christians? Then the Lord says we must mourn, and it will be happiness that world neither understands nor envies. The verse more or less says 'happy are the sad' Mourning can cover many different things in today's society, or at least, cover many different sorts of occasions but it seems that Jesus has mourning over sin in view here. A righteous, holy grief over our rebellion against the King of Kings. Carrying on from His last sentence 'blessed are the humble' he now turns our attention what should make us humble, our sin, and what our reaction to it should be. Mourning.
And why is mourning the way to joy? Because in honesty and humility we can hold our hands up and say tho those around us 'i messed up, in fact, i don't just do bad things, i am bad' in total security knowing that those around us are in the same boat, that our individual weakness combined gives us great strength. And why else are the mournful happy? Because you can't be mournful over sin, not properly, unless you know Jesus, unless you've looked at Calvary, unless you've been with Him, tasted His goodness, and realise that it was your sin that sent Him to the cross. That should make us mourn, that should bring us to a contrite joy in the Lord, and it will make us secure in our communities of the redeemed with others who have done the same. In the Church here, and then ultimately where true blessing is, in unbroken relationship with Jesus forever in Heaven.
That feeling, that pleasing grief and mournful joy is a million miles away from the Vanity Lair house. There may have been outward beauty there, but it manifested itself outwardly in insecurity, pride, argument and backbiting. The cross deal with this. As we kneel together before the cross we realise that none of us, not one us is there because we deserve to be, we look up at the tree and see Jesus hanging where we should be. And we mourn. But in that same moment we rejoice, we rejoice because of the love of the Father for the Son and the love of the Son for the Father that effects our forgiveness, and initiates our relationship with Him. I want that deeply joyful mourning over the microcosm of 21st century culture which is the Vanity Lair any day.
I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this (gospel) text there are only two possible views. Either it is reportage...or else, some unknown ancient writer...without known predecessors or successors suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic realistic narrative
Quoted in 'The Reason for God' Timothy Keeler, P106
Health and illness, which so often struggle with one another The hollywood battle between good and bad Black and white merging together to make grey We can't chase darkness away When you turn on a light the darkness doesn't fight it The sun doesn't have to do battle with night at dawn
Before i started Relay i wasn't that systematic in my Bible reading. I'd read it every day more or less, almost always going through a book, sometimes new testament, sometimes old, but there was never any grand plan, any route i was following to help me see Christ through a sixty six book lens. When Relay started i began to follow the Mccheyne reading plan that takes you through the whole Bible in one of two years, or in my case, something like fourteen months! And that was really good, and very helpful in seeing the grand scheme of scripture unfold.
One thing i did miss was the chance to linger over a passage and soak it up though. That's what i'm doing now, in Matthew, with the help of the very excellent John MacArthur commentary series. Normally i read about four or five verses a day, which seems very slow (and is) but its helped me to see some of the detail. And the Lord is in the detail. Jesus oozes through every crack in Matthews gospel, His truth and light shine brightly from every part of the story. So here are some things i've learnt so far.
Chapter 1 Jesus is a royal King and a gracious King. The King of the Jews had to come straight through the line of David, and Jesus did. And look at some of the people in Jesus genealogy. Tamar and Rahab were prostitutes, Ruth was a Moabite, and yet Jesus had them in His line. Jesus was descended from them. In chapter one we see so clearly the work of God in our salvation. What does His name mean? The Lord saves. Who announced His coming? The Holy Spirit. Who's plan was it? The Fathers. God is all over the plan of salvation.
Chapter 2 We begin to see more clearly that Jesus was no ordinary child. The magi were eastern King makers. Who would rule next was up to them in their land. They called Jesus 'the King of the Jews'. Herod's upset reaction to this is more evidence that this baby was special, this baby was to be a King. The Gold signifies His regality, the frankincense His divinity, and the myrrh His humility. What a birth! What a Son, The true Son as his calling from Egypt and the fulfillment of Scripture demonstrates.
Chapter 3 The King has a herald, and opposition. The herald will soon decrease and the opposition be sifted like wheat. Jesus is supreme. And humble. Jesus approaches John to baptise Him that all righteousness might be fulfilled. Jesus will go about things in the right way, there's no doubt about that. I love how Trinitarian this part is. The Spirit descends, the Father speaks, the Son is King. The Father is well pleased. No other sacrifice pleased God. This one will. The King is truly here.
Chapter 4 The King is tested. He overcomes because of who the Father is. He is a trustworthy God. He is a God worth suffering for. All the Devils riches do not come close to relationship with the Father, all the bread in the world will not taste as sweet as doing the Father's will. Jesus succeeds in the desert where Israel failed. He is the perfect Son. Jesus starts His ministry, at the right time, in the right place with the right words. I'm struck by His sheer majesty. Always moving to the tick of the divine clock. And what is His message. Repent. Change your mind, turn your mind around. Turn your actions around. He calls men. Fishermen to be fishers of men. He calls them with absolute authority. Ordinary blue collar men, not leaders or teachers. Fishermen. And they follow Him.
The first four chapters of Matthew reveal so much glorious detail about Jesus, i can't wait for the next twenty four...
1. Ethopian food with Neil. Good food and good conversation on a cold and wet thursday afternoon.
2. Newfrontiers regional meeting at High Wycombe on thursday morning. Great to hear what God has been doing in my home town. And nice to wow the team with my wycombe knowledge
3. Painting the office. Particularly at one point when i was peeling taope of the wall, karen was standing on the desk sorting out the ceiling, rachel was holding the desk, while nicola was trying to some work at her misplaced desk.
4. Stefan Oakes goal on saturday. Thirty yards out, no danger, up steps Oakes to place a twirling, whirling, swirling ball past the Morcambe keeper.
5. Seeing two people get baptised and two people respond to the Gospel at sundays guest meeting. I love seeing people get dunked. And not just because it was outdoors and snowing,
6. The life of God in the soul of man. Seriously. You've got to buy that book!
One of the best things about working in an office full of Christians is the oppotunity to spend time kicking around questions. We were talking about Hebrews 6 and assurance yesterday afternoon. I was too busy peeling tape off a freshly painted wall to think about it properly, but this would have been my answer otherwise!
I'm sometimes slow to answer questions about scripture from scripture, which is a bit silly really since the best way to understand the Bible is under its own terms. I guess it also fails to understand that the Bible is a harmony, not 66 different songs.
I guess the key to the Hebrews 6:4-6 question is: 'what does it mean to crucify again the Son of God, what does it mean to hold Him up to contempt. The writer to the Hebrews is dealing with old Jewish laws which must now be done away with. These have a link to the problem of 6:8 (hence the 'for at the start of v4, but you can read, so you know that!). So perhaps in that context crucifying the son of God again means to go back to elementry Jewish practice. From there it is not possible to come again to repentance. Why? I guess because hearts become lazy, complacent and hardened, and sinful indulgence will always win over against a life of self denial. Our spiritual senses get so dimmed that even the thought of repentance is far from our minds.
What about 1 John 3:6? No one who abides in Him keeps on sinning. This might be the key. To keep on sinning could very well mean the same as crucifying the Son of God again, since it was for our sins He died. i take it that keep on sinning means habitual non repented of sin. So if we continue to sin our hope is gone, and Christs advocacy over us is lost. This is God giving us up to our sins.
He will not be mocked. He did not have His Son killed on the cross that people might sin their lives away, but that we might know Him. If we see Christs death on our behalf as just a reason to keep sinning we may well be 'crucifying the Son of God again'. If we heed the Hebrews 6 warnings and flee to Christ with repentance, He will receive us forever.
Pre Reformation, broadly speaking, churches were designed so that everyone's attention was drawn towards the altar, where the Catholic sacraments took place, because sacrament was central.
Post Reformation, broadly speaking, churches were designed so that everyone's attention was drawn towards the pulpit, where the preaching took place, because the Word was central.
In the two of three big, new church buildings i've been in recently, my attention was drawn first of all to a large stage area, where, presumably, the worship band plays. Does that tell us anything about church meeting life today?
As Sean helpfully pointed out, it probably tells us as much as anything, that most new church buildings are multi-use, and that the stage area helps with that, which is also interesting.
One of the most haunting and difficult questions that i'm asked by students is this 'how do i know i'm saved?' Does the doctrine of perseverance mean that we can pray a prayer when we're fifteen and then not worry about it? Everything in me wants to say a resounding no! The problem with that application is that it often gives younger Christians the impression that all they need to do is pray and then get on with it.
James says: faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by works is dead...i will show you my faith by my works'. Sure proof texting is an inexact science, but James's message is clear. The best evidence of inward change is outward action. The best evidence of past conversion is present convertedness.
But thats dangerous again isn't it? Works as evidence can easily become, in our fallen hearts, works as justification. So again we need to look at the inward change. What are the best evidences of inward change? A desire to go to Heaven? Surely anyone given a choice between eternal joy and eternal torment would choose the former regardless of the state of their heart. I'm not sure even deep feelings of regret at sin is really evidence on its own of saving faith. Before i was saved i still felt bad when i knew i'd done something wrong, still occasionally wished i wouldn't argue with my parents so much or be such a bad big brother. So how can we know? Is there no evidence that we can look to to know for sure, despite the storms and sin, whether or not we are saved.
Henry Scougal seemed to think so. His book 'the life of God in the soul of man' was instrumental in the conversions of George Whitefield and both the Wesleys. Indeed Whitefield said he didn't know what true religion was until he read it. Piper and Packer rave about it. It's clearly worth some attention. Scougal, who died at the age of 27, wrote with startling awareness for his age, both in terms of his youth and in terms of when he was actually writing (early 17th Century). So here, with really very little apology, i lean on him for an answer.
Scougal talks about our life of faith like a tree, with a root and branches. The root is of course faith. Faith particularly aimed at God's reconciliation though a mediator. Faith in Christ is the root of all our assurance, without faith it is impossible to please God.
Scougal's first branch is love to God, which is defined as a delightful and affectionate sense of the divine perfections. Not, loving God because of what he's done, not for the benefits of loving Him, but simply loving Him because of His perfections. 'Desiring in all things to please Him and delighting in nothing so much as fellowship and communion with Him'
The next evidence is charity to man. Loving your brother. If we don't love our fellow man, we might be able to assume that our love for God is fairly cold, if it's there at all. Scougal says this is because 'of the relation they have to God...having something of His image stamped upon them'. I love how God centred his reasons for assurance are!
Next up is purity, or a 'due abstractedness from the body and mastery over inferior appetites.' A wish to forsake everything that excludes our relish of God, no matter what the cost. I don't think he means anything gnostic by 'due abstractedness from the body', but simply having a mind of faith that controls what we think, and eyes of faith that control what we see.
The final branch of the salvation tree is humility. Which 'imparts a sense of our own meanness, with a hearty affection acknowledgement that we owe all we are to Divine bounty' It is accompanied with what i might call 'big God little me' theology, and the reverent fear of the Lord.
Scougal describes the preceding as 'the highest affections felt by either men or angels'. The word affections is interesting, if only mostly because it reminds us of the Religious Affections where Edwards puts forward love for Jesus and a desire for holiness as two key evidences of salvation. But our affections can't just be emotionalism...feeling nice when a 'good worship song' comes on. It is always accompanied by a change of heart and action.
Not sinless perfection, but a desire, a lustre, a hungering for more of Him and less of me. For more of Him and less of the world, more holiness, less smut, more serious Christ centred joy, less bubblegum worldly happiness.
To me, the question seems to be, regardless of whether he agrees with the theology of the church or not, should someone who is happy to associate with this sort of belief be elected as the de facto leader of the free world? How about if we substitute the word 'black' for the word 'white' and put McCain the place of Obama?
I guess the first and biggest one of God's surprises in my life was that He'd call me to Himself in the first place. I was saved when i was seventeen years old, through the work of a Christian girlfriend and her family. Though i'd been to Sunday school i'd never considered the claims Jesus had on my life. Then one night God bought me under a deep conviction that if the Gospel was true i was in a lot of trouble. There and then at the foot of my bed i asked God to forgive me and Christ to be my Lord. I've never once regretted it, which is probably surprise number two!
God surprised me a lot at Uni. In my first year by having me be asked, as a timid, lonely fresher to co lead a cell group, and then surprising me even more when i wasn't horrible at it. When i reflect on my love for scripture and my desire to read it, i can only come back to the training i received as a cell leader, which planted those seeds in my heart.
While i was in India that summer i first thought i'd really like to lead the CU. I pretty much shut those thoughts down as ridiculous, which, apart from God working in me they would have been. I can still remember the feeling, like my heart was exploding, when the outgoing Chairman asked me to succeed him. I'd never been more surprised, until i started to do it, and with the help of Bish, eight other committee members and a faithful and passionate CU, it went pretty well. Which still surprises me today!
I'd known God was calling me to Relay for a long time before i started in Guildford in September 2006. What surprised me there? Well, it was harder than i ever imagined it would be, and i was lonelier than i ever imagined i would be. But God taught me about His grace, and His power, and, though i should have worked it out by that point, it still surprised me that my time there was fruitful for the CU at Surrey. Massively for me as well.
Which brings me to the last surprise. I never thought that going on a summer team at the end of my Relay year would end up in me getting married. But it has. Meeting Rachel, dating Rachel, and getting engaged to Rachel is as big a surprise as there has been. She is more perfect for me that i can say, and if grace is God's unmerited favour in our lives (which it is) then she is a huge and clear evidence of God's grace in my life. With the exception of the first, she is turning into the greatest surprise of them all!
Pride is without doubt the chief occupational hazard of the preacher. It I has ruined many, and deprived their ministry of power.... In some it is blatantly obvious. They are exhibitionists by temperament and use the pulpit as a stage on which they show off.... Other preachers are not like Nebuchadnezzars, however, for their pride does not take the form of blatant boastfulness. It is more subtle, more insidious, and even more perverse. For it is possible to adopt an outward demeanor of great meekness, while inside our appetite for applause is insatiable. At the very moment when in the pulpit we are extolling the glories of Christ, we can in reality be seeking our own glory, and when we are exhorting the congregation to praise God, and are even ostensibly leading them in praise, we can be secretly hoping that they will spare a bit of praise for us. We need to cry out with Baxter, "O what a constant companion, what a tyrannical commander, what a sly, subtle and insinuating enemy is this sin of pride!” (John Stott, Between Two Worlds, 320-321) HT: DesiringGod blog.
1) Matthew with John Macarthur. I've never read the Bible slowly and with a commentary before. There are many many treasures in the first chapter of Matthew that i'd never really considered before.
2) Speaking of which, i was struck by the grace of Christ in Matthew 1. Look at the people included in his ancestry. Adulterers, liers, prostitutes and even a moabite! If such sinners precede Him, there's no reason to suspect sinners won't be (spiritually) descended from Him
3) Andrew Wilson at Acts14. Spending two hours in Isaiah 6:1-4 was certainly mind expanding fun.
4) Knowing that God is Holy and sovereign in all my decision making
5) Three generatiosn of Goode men on going to football on satruday afternoon. Driving through Monmouth in the heaving rain on tiny roads was quite something. Sure we lost the game, but family time is great
One commentator has said that you can sum up the situation in Smyrna by saying ‘things are much worse than they seem, things are much better than they seem. Things were much worse than they seemed in Smyrna because it looked like they were only being slandered by Jewish opponents, whereas in fact it was the devil himself who was attacking them. Things were much worse then they seemed because some of them were about to be killed for their faith.
But things were much, much better than they seemed. Verse eight tells us that Christ will have the last word. In the end only His truth will remain. Things are much better than they seem.
Verse eight also tells us that Christ has been though death. Death is not the worst thing that can happen. He overcame and so will His people.
Look at verse nine: Christ knows their affliction. He knew there’s then and He knows ours now. It’s easy to feel alone in suffering. It’s easy when we’re going though a hard time to feel like no one knows, no one understands. Well, Jesus knows, Jesus understands, Jesus is with us. Things are better than they seem.
We may be materially poor but we are spiritually, eternally rich according to verse 9. Things are better than they seem.
Verse 10 tells us we will receive the crown of life. There is something worth all our pain and suffering at the end of it. Our struggles are not in vain. Things are much better than they seem.
Verse 11 tells us that when we overcome, we will not be hurt by the second death. We will not be cast into the lake of fire. We will enter Heaven with Jesus and enjoy Him there forever. Things are much better than they seem.
There is of course a big so what factor from this letter. Few of us are being persecuted for our faith at the moment, the tide is turning very quickly against Christians in this country, but we’re not there yet. This should inspire us to pray for those who are. The majority of Christians in the world are living in places where persecution is a daily reality. So why not commit to praying for a different nation each day?
And for those of us who are going through difficulty at the moment, they will end. They are finite. They are limited. But what does this passage say isn’t limited? Jesus. He is the first and last. And not being hurt at all by the second by the second death means that eventually we will enjoy Him forever. Jesus is the first and last, he died and came to life again, and these great truths give us hope. Hope that what we suffer no will pass, but that what we will enjoy in the future will never end.
As I was thinking about this verse after I’d read through the passage a few times, it occurred to me that I don’t really know what it means to overcome like this. I don’t know what it means to be faithful to the point of death, in short, I don’t know what this verse means. But, I know there are hundreds of thousands of people who, since this letter was written, have been faithful to the point of death, who have overcome as Christ overcame. Men like Hugh Latimer and Nicolas Ridley who were burnt at the stake for their faith in Oxford under the reign of Queen Mary. Latimer and Ridley were burned together. Both of whom held high positions in the church that they lost when they refused to compromise their faith with the Catholicism that was being reinstated by Queen Mary.
Latimer was committed to Biblical reform in this country and before he was arrested would often preach before Henry VIII who swung from Christianity to Catholicism and back again. Once he said this as he started to preach in the kings court: ‘Latimer, Latimer, thou art going to speak before the high and mighty king, Henry VIII, who is able, if he think fit to take away thy life. Be careful what thou sayest. But Latimer, Latimer remember thou art also to speak before the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Take heed thou does not displease Him.’
Ridley was no less courageous. Placed under house arrest in 1553, he was in good spirits on the night before his execution. He said, like so many Protestants, that he regarded his execution the next day as his marriage, and said that he hoped everyone would attend the feast. Mrs Irish, the Catholic owner of where he was kept under arrest, having been won over by Ridley was sad that he had to die and in reply Ridley is recorded as having said these words: ‘though my breakfast will be somewhat sharp, my supper will be more pleasant and sweet.’
These men were burnt together. They overcame, and were not hurt by the second death.
The last person I want to talk about is not as local to us as two men who met their end in Oxford. Polycarp was Bishop of Smyrna itself, knew the Apostle John, and since he was martyred less than thirty years after this letter was written, almost certainly read it. When persecution broke out he was persuaded to flee and hid on a farm on the outskirts of the city. When he was eventually tracked down he persuaded his captors to let him pray before they took him away. We’re told ‘on granting his request he stood up and being so full of the grace of God they could not hold his peace for two hours. His hearers were astonished and sorry they had come after such a venerable old man.’
On being bought into the stadium the noise was deafening. Polycarp was asked by the judge to have respect for his old age, and avoid the flames. Polycarp replied that he had served the Lord for 86 years, and He had done him no wrong. How could he blaspheme the King who saved him? The judge replied ‘I have wild beasts’ ‘Bid them be bought’ said Polycarp. The judge then challenged him ‘if you despise the beasts, unless you change, your mind I shall have you burnt’. Polycarp then answered with this memorable sentence: ‘you threaten me with fire that burns for an hour, and after that is quenched. You are ignorant of the eternal fire to come.’ Polycarp was burnt, and then stabbed, at the stake moments later.
He overcame and was not hurt at all by the second death.
It’s the second death that Christ is most concerned about, not the first. He will not expend limitless amounts of energy on keeping us from death, because on the cross He has already done all that is needed to save us from the second death. Dying in our place, paying the price for our sins so that we can know God though Him. So that we can not be hurt at all by judgement, by the second death.
This is the second part of my script from Sunday morning's preach at Reading Family Church. You can listen to it online here.
Verse 10 starts with Christ exhorting His followers: ‘do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer’. How comforted we are by people’s encouragement more or less depends entirely on who they are. If someone with authority tells you something then you’re more likely to believe it and be supported by it. Why shouldn’t they fear? Because the Lord of the universe, the first and last who died and came to life again tells them not to. Jesus has already over come more than they are to face, He has already over come the Devil who is afflicting them. Do not be afraid Smyrnain Christians, says Christ. So don’t be afraid.
This will be hard because there is more persecution to come. Look at the middle of verse 10 with me: ‘I tell you, the devil will put some of you into prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days’ The first thing we need to understand here is that prison then was not like prison now. You would be locked up in a cold, stone room, probably underground. There’d be no feeding system; your friends would have to risk their own lives and liberty to feed you. And, more often than not, there was only one way out of prison. Execution. Imprisonment, then, was not the primary concern Jesus was warning the Smyrnain Christians about. Death at the hands of their persecutors was the major issue. We can see this in the end of the verse when Jesus talks about ‘even to the point of death’. Things are much worse then they seem for the Christians here. First it was slander, now it’s death they have to face.
What hope are they offered to encourage them in this? What can possibly be offered to these Christians to lift their eyes away from their impending trouble? First of all they’re told that this persecution will last for ten days. That may or may nor be a literal 10 day period, they’re probably not being told that the persecution will be over by the middle of next week. But rather that it will end after a time. And how knows the time? Who is in control of the time the suffering will last? Jesus. The first and the last is in control of the time the suffering will last. It will be a short period of time. Be comforted Smyrna Christians, your persecution won’t last long.
And more significantly, there is another encouragement. ‘be faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life’ The best exhortation to persevere and be faithful there is. Look at the reward that awaits them. Jesus calls it the crown of life. So what does that mean? Why is that the best reward, the best motivation there could be? The word for crown here means a wreath that is awarded to athletes at the end of a race, the reward for their efforts, something that signifies their achievement. This crown of life means eternal life. It means, ultimately, Heaven. And isn’t this an immense encouragement to Christians? To people then and to us now? That the very real pain and suffering that we go through at the moment is, in an eternal sense, brief? That those who are faithful to the end, who rely on the blood of Christ and treasure the Gospel above all else, will be greeted at the end of their lives with the crown of life?
I love how personal this verse is…how close to us Jesus is. He says ‘I will’ give you the crown of life. Heaven is not about sitting on a cloud and playing a harp, it’s about relationship with Jesus. Perfect unhindered relationship with Him. Later on in Revelation the Heavenly city is described as a cube. The only other place in the Bible where something is cube shaped is the most holy place in the Temple, where once a year the High Priest could meet with God. Heaven will be about being with Jesus. As He promises us in John 17:26 when He says ‘the love you have for me may me in them’. Now the love the Father has for the Son is perfect, infinite, unstained, joyful, white hot love that will never fade. Our love for Christ will grow for an eternity. That’s what awaits us in Heaven. Uninhibited, pure, holy joy. That’s why, Smyrnain Christians it’s worth sitting in a freezing, damp underground cell, counting the hours until you die. Because when the axe falls all that awaits you is infinite, ever growing joy in perfect relationship with Jesus. That’s why it’s worth us persevering in our faith when times are hard, because of the reward, the crown that awaits us. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:8, we are pressed on every side but not crushed, perplexed but not in despair.
This idea is expanded in verse 11: 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. This shows clearly that the crown of life in verse 10 refers to eternal life. Christ tells His followers that they will not be hurt at all by the second death, if they over come. That is if they refuse the temptation to compromise their beliefs with those around them. If they stand firm even to the point of death, they will not be hurt at all by the second death. The use of overcoming here refers to an ironic victory. Being burnt at the stake in front of the whole city having been locked up for the last few days of your life doesn’t look like overcoming does it? It doesn’t look like victory. But then neither did Christ, nailed to the cross at Calvary, winning the most significant victory there was to be won, look like He was overcoming. And he was. We see again how the introduction to this letter in verse 8 was such an important pattern for the original readers to follow. Christ’s death led to His resurrected life…and so will the deaths of all those who believe that He has died for their sins.
It appears that millions of evangelicals, especially younger ones, are experiencing fetus fatigue. They are tired of the abortion issue taking center stage; it is time to move on to newer, hipper things--the sort of issues that excite Bono: aid to Africa, the environment, and cool tattoos. Abortion has been legal since they were born; it is the old guard that gets exercised about millions of abortions over the years. So, let's not worry that Barak Obama and Hillary are pro-choice. That is a secondary issue. After all, neither could do that much damage regarding this issue.
Evangelicals (if that word has any meaning), for God's sake, please wake up and remember the acres of tiny corpses you cannot see. Yes, the Christian social vision is holistic. We should endeavor to restore shalom to this beleaguered planet. That includes helping Africa, preserving the environment, and much more. However, the leading domestic moral issue remains the value of helpless human life. Since Roe v. Wade, approximately 50 million unborn humans have been killed through abortion. Stalin said, "One death is a tragedy. A million dead is a statistic." Too many are now Stalinists on abortion. The numbers mean nothing, apparently. The vast majority of these abortions were not done to save the life of the mother, a provision I take to be justified. Things have reached the point where bumper stickers say, "Don't like abortion, don't have one." It is simply a matter of private, subjective taste. But how about this: "Don't like slavery, don't own slaves"? Two human beings are involved in this matter, inescapably. . . .
Evangelicals, for God's sake, please wake up. Remember the least, the last, and the lost: the millions of unborn human beings who hang in the balance (Matthew 25:31-46). No, this is not the only issue, but it is a titanic issue that cannot be ignored. Rouse yourself to recover from fetus fatigue. God is watching.
Smyrna was to be found about 35 miles north of Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor. It’s in today’s northern Turkey, more or less where the city of Izmir is today. It was an important city in the region as it had supported the Roman Empire for over 200 years and in 26BC had won the honour to build the only temple in Asia of worship to the Emperor Tiberius. In those days Roman Emperors considered themselves and to demanded to be worshipped as Gods. So we can see that this was a city of vital strategic importance for the Roman Empire, and also therefore, to the church in Smyrna. This letter is one of only two in the series we’re currently in where there is no rebuke from Jesus at all, only warning and encouragement. And what encouragement was to come to this church, as we’ll see.
So let’s look at verse 8 together: these are the words of Him of is the first and last, who died and came to life again. This opening to the letter will become very significant to the Christians who read it as we’ll see later, but let’s unpack what it means first. Who is Jesus? How does He introduce Himself to suffering Christians? As the first and last. As a great big eternal God. As a God who was there at the beginning. It can be to said that what happened before the Bible started and the world was created is a bit of a mystery. But this we do know. That the Trinity was there, that Jesus was there. He was at the beginning, before the beginning with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. He was there, he is the first. What great comfort for these persecuted Christians to know that the God they worship isn’t someone who came late to the party, He’s not a God that is part of creation, He’s not a God that is transient, that once wasn’t and might not be again. Jesus is the First. He has always been.
This was said to comfort the original readers, and it should comfort us. The all knowing God is the first. We can trust Him in our time of need, when we need comfort or protection we don’t have to turn to something created by man, to a statue or a book of rules...we can turn to Jesus, who is from the beginning.
And what else is Jesus? He is the last. Not only there at the beginning, but there at the end. Jesus not only existed in perfect unity, love and joy with the Father and Holy Spirit before time began, He also will after time ends. In fact Jesus Himself will wrap time up. We see slightly later on in Revelation 20 that when Jesus returns He will end time with judgment even earth and sky will flee from His presence. We see right at the end of the Bible in Revelation 22 Jesus is there inviting us to come and drink with Him, inviting us to enjoy the wedding super with Him. Jesus really is the first and the last. He was there at the start, He’ll be there at the end. Be comforted Smyrnain Christians, Christ was there at the start, He’ll be there at the end. He is forever. Your faith is not in vain. Your faith is in what is true and real and deep. Jesus stands astride of time, all of it under His control, all if it, serving His eternal purposes.
Jesus also introduces Himself as He who died and came to life again. The resurrection is key to our understanding of who Jesus is. Of what He has done. The reason why there is so much controversy around what Jesus did or didn’t say, the reason why so many people dismiss the claims of Christianity out of hand, is because they refuse to look at the resurrection. In my opinion anyway. The resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith, it is the key to our assurance that Jesus is who He says he is. How do we know, how did the original readers know, that Jesus is the first and last? Because He died and came to life again. Jesus is different. Jesus is unique. As we’ve already seen Smyrna was a seat of Emperor worship in the Roman Empire. We might well ask them how many Roman Emperors have died and risen again? Then how are they any different to anyone else? On what grounds do you worship Him? Ironically these were probably the questions that the Christian in this city were asking that got them into so much trouble. Trouble they were suffering, and trouble that was to come... as we’ll see. But just let it sink in...who Jesus is. Jesus is not who most people say He is. Not just a good teacher, a prophet, a man of some significance to some people or of no significance to anyone. Jesus is the first and last, he died and came to life again. If the Smyrnain Christians were to persevere, if we are to persevere, we must keep this big view of a big Jesus in our minds. We must live our lives before Him and worship Him as He is.
Lets look at verse 9. ‘I know your affliction and your poverty, but you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews but are not, but are a Synagogue of Satan’. From what we know of this period at this time, we can speculate about what sort of suffering the Christians here were undergoing, about why they needed to be so wonderfully reminded about the realities of who Christ is. The Jewish religion was tolerated by the Roman Empire, and up until the period that this letter was written that gave Christians some protection under a Jewish umbrella, as it were. Christians were viewed by Rome as a Jewish sect and therefore tolerable. That all changed after the persecutions by Emperor Nero, and some Jewish people, who were happy to worship Roman so called ‘gods’ alongside God as they thought He’d revealed Himself in the Old Testament were only too ready to gain favour with the Roman authorities by pointing out that Christians were in fact nothing to do with them
Driven by the fear that the synagogue was losing too many to the church they were ready to do what they could do to make life almost impossible for Christians in Smyrna. This is what Jesus is talking about when He says ‘the slander of those who say they are Jews but are not’ They would have been saying that Christians were rebels with another King other than Caesar (which is true) and that this means they were dangerous and harmful (which was false)
So that was the affliction, bought on by the slander of those who said they were Jews but were not, but what about the second half of the first sentence in verse 9? What does Jesus mean when He says I know…your poverty- yet you are rich’? These Christians would have had very little in the way of material possessions. Not only because of the large financial and employment sanctions that would have been placed on them for being Christians, especially in a centre of Roman cult worship like Smyrna. But also because what they did have would have been taken away in the ‘affliction’ mentioned already in verse 9. And yet Christ calls them rich. Now this would have been mightily comforting to the Christians reading this. As they looked around at others in their city who had more than them. Better food, better cattle, more job opportunities. And it should work the same way for us as well. Christ does not call us to be materially rich.
I remember a few months ago I was riding the tube during rush hour. And the carriage I was on was packed with people my age that had more money than me. Nicer clothes, more toys, niftier haircuts. And for the first time since graduating I was really jealous. I wanted nicer clothes, a job with a bigger salary… But though I am poor, I am rich. This verse should challenge us as well, because I’m not poor. Globally, because I slept under a roof last night and ate breakfast this morning, I’m probably one of the richest people in the world. And if you did so are you.. This verse is challenging because if I lived in Zimbabwe right now, would Christ on His own be enough for me? If I lived in 1st Century Smyrna, would Christ have been enough for me? When I go on mission and me and Rachel are the only two English speaking people in our city, will Christ be enough for me. Will we count ourselves rich, even when we are poor?
I love the first two words of this verse ‘I know’. The magnificent Christ who is the first and last knows the affliction and poverty of these Christians. We’ll come back to this.
Not much time for blog reading or writing in the last week. Me and Rachel got engaged by the Thames in Marlow, visited the London Eye, The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and the Globe. We got horribly lost on the way to Leicester somewhere in the countryside southwest of Daventry, and then again in Leicester. We watched Jumper (better than i hoped), The Break Up (i have an unaccountable affection for Vince Vaughn) and Little Miss Sunshine (classic as ever). We also slept through the Aviator so i can't really comment on that.
Anyway, here's some things that have caught my eye recently: