The End? The Reason to Endure

In this 19th study of revelation we look at need for salvation and the reality judgment and Hell in chapter 14.  A recording of this will be uploaded at the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

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“What’s the point of all this hardship? Why push through the pain?  Others have given up, and they seem to be having an easier life! What can be worth this much effort?”  Whether it’s a marathon, long-term studies, a grueling project or start-up initiative – somewhere along the road you will ask that question in agonizing pain.  So too in your journey of faith.

The answer to this question is what Revelation 14 offers to struggling church.  The scenes instills courage in the hearts of believers tempted to give in or give up, but it does not shy away from the sober reality of what is at stake.  The chapter is divided in three logical sections, revealing the role models, the reason and the reward for endurance.

The role models for endurance (14:1-5).  Chapter 14 opens in stark contrast to chapter 13’s end.  Moving from the Beasts and those who receive the mark, John’s attention falls on the Lamb and his army of 144’000 who bears the mark of His Father on their foreheads.  In our post on the 144’000 from chapter 7 we concluded that this group represents the fullness of people saved by Christ’s blood, who remain loyal to him.

From the contrasting groups John hears contrasting sounds (14:2-3): God’s voice roars from heaven “like many waters” accompanied by “load thunders” (repeated in 8:5; 11:19; 16:18; refer 4:5) alluding to God’s justice and judgment from his Law (Exodus 19:16). This originates from his judgment on the and his worshiper (14:8ff).  John also hears the sound of joyful, tranquil music by harpists.  These comes from the believers singing before the throne the song of the redeemed (compare 4:3 with 5:8-10) – a song that only those who have been saved by the blood of the Lamb can faithfully sing.

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Here comes the brides!

The redeemed are described as those “who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins… who follow the Lamb wherever he goes”. (14:4).  This phrase is not a reference to physical celibacy, but spiritual fidelity, as it contrasts God’s faithful people to those seduced into “fornication” with “Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth” (14:8; 17:6).  Here, drawing from the Old Testament prophets (notably Hosea), John describes idolatry as the Church’s spiritual unfaithfulness to God symbolically with a married person’s immorality and sexual unfaithfulness towards his or her spouse.  Paul uses this imagery when he laments the Corinthians’ backsliding: I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that… your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:11).  But the ones before the throne are a bride “without blemish” (4:5; compare Ephesians 5:27).

The reason for endurance (14:6-12). The next section in this chapter outlines the basic theology on judgment, revealed by three angelic messengers.  Angel one proclaims the “eternal gospel: Fear God and give him glory.”  God is the creator of all the earth, that he is sovereign over all the nations, and that he will judge all people, everywhere – and that hour is soon (14:6-7).  Angel two announces the destruction of “Babylon” because she lead people everywhere into idolatry and immorality (14:8; compare Isaiah 21, Jeremiah 51).  In chapter 18-19 the author returns to this theme, wherein Babylon is described as the the city infested by demons and inhabited by the defiled (18:2).  Angel three decrees God’s wrath on the beast and all who bears his mark: eternal judgment in “fire and sulfur” (14:9-11) – an allusion to Hell.

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Vision of Hell by John Culatto.

Our generation is not comfortable with the idea of judgment in general, and hell in particular.  I don’t like speaking about hell either – but Jesus, our Saviour, spoke more about Hell than he did about Heaven.  His urgency to save people from the reality of eternal judgment drove him from heaven to earth, from comfort to the cross.  Because, in his words, Hell is an eternal torment (Luke 16:23) of anguish and regret (Matt. 13:42) in unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43), where the worm does not die (Mark 9:48).  From this “outer darkness” (Matt. 25:30) there is no escape (Luke 16:19–31).  Hell is not a place where he banishes people to, but rather the default destination that he came to save us from.  This same urgent cry to count the cost and remain faithful is what we hear throughout Revelation, and in particular in this chapter. 

This section concludes with the exhortation “for the endurance of the saints, [to] keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” (14:12; compare 13:10 and Matthew 24:13).  In other words, this is the reason to patiently bear the shame and suffering on earth, because the alternative is to serve the beast and bear his mark, which mean you will share in judgment.  Suffering tempts believers to deny Christ to escape the wrath of the Beast, to enjoy peace on earth.   But the angels warn that it is better to suffer the wrath of the Beast for brief time on earth than the wrath of the unbearable Lamb for eternity.  Remain faithful to to Christ, because – “those who endure to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).

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The reward for endurance (14:13-20).  John describes then hears the voice declaring that “those who are dead in the Lord… may rest from their labors” (14:13) but sees a terrible judgment by “the Son of Man” likened to the harvest and trampling  of grapes in the wine press (14:14-20; compare Isaiah 63:1-6).  This terrible judgment of the nations happens when the “grapes are ripe” so that their crushing leave the land flowing with blood (14:15, 20; compare Isaiah 34:1-3).

In this image of judgment, with blood flowing on the land, there is a powerful allusion to the crucifixion of Christ – an act of God’s mercy and justice.  In this grape-pressing image of judgment John alludes to Christ being taken “outside the city” (14:20; compare John 19:16-17 and Hebrews 13:12), “crushed by God” (Isaiah 53:5), and his “blood flowed” for the remission of sins of all the world (compare Matthew 21:37-39).  The invitation for the reader is that in the crucifixion of Christ, and his blood which flowed on our behalf, we may escape the wrath of God (1:5; compare Ephesians 2:13).

Herein Jesus reveals that the reward for endurance is to enter the rest (or peace) of God by faith is atonement (14:13; compare Hebrews 4:1-13), to be freed from the presence of sin, suffering and Satan forever – rather than suffer from the wrath of God along with Satan and his hosts of evil.

Bringing it Home

This call to endure was written to church in Asia oppressed daily by the Beast which was Rome and temped by the seductive culture called Babylon, nearly 2000 ago.  However we can identify with their inclination to give up on our faith and fidelity as we are bombarded daily by suffering and seduction.

Walk on. This chapter calls me to look at my suffering in light of the eternal Fires. I’m urged to consider the cost of denying Christ and default into a life of compromise for comfort’s sake. And this spurs me on to “run the race with endurance, looking to Jesus” and that “great cloud of witnesses” who surrounds his throne (Hebrews 12:1-2).  I’m encouraged to “to be found in Him… hold onto what is true…press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:9-16).  My salvation from Hell makes the endurance worth it!  

Cross_massesWitness. This sober look at the Final Judgment calls me to consider how I look at my family, my neighbours, my world.  If Christ was moved from comfort to the cross to save the lost – like me – how much am I moved to share this “eternal Gospel” (14:6) so that others may be saved from the wrath of God?

Worship.  This look at the Final Judgment also moves me to sing the song of the redeemed – to remember the his blood and relish in his mercy towards me.  Amazing grace indeed!

The End? Faithful until death.

This post is the fourth in a series through the book of Revelation.  The link below takes you to a video recording outlining the post.

How does one endure hardship? And why? Why does God allow his people to undergo seasons of suffering? And where is God when it hurts? These are some to the questions that Jesus answers in the Revelation, a circular letter written by the apostle John to seven congregations in Asia Minor during the tyrannical reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 90-92).

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Polycarp, Pastor at Smyrna (69 – 155 AD)

“Eighty six years I have served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour? …You threaten me with fire that burns only for an hour… but you are ignorant of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. What are you waiting for? Bring on what you will!” 

These were the last words St Polycarp, a famous martyr during another wave of heightened Roman persecution, revealing the grit and the attitude of the church in Smyrna.  Polycarp was a pupil of the Apostle John, and probably the “angel of the church” (messenger / pastor) in Smyrna whom Jesus was addressing in Revelation 2:8-11.

Smyrna, present day Izmir in Turkey, printed coins which claimed it was “the biggest and most beautiful and city in Asia.”  This coastal city was prosperous because of the trade routes and its natural beauty.  The city was filled with magnificent temples and statues – a number of these are well preserved today.  The statue of Bacchus (Roman) or Dionysus (Greek), god of wine and immoral reveling, tells us much about the culture of the day.  So also the statue Cybele, mother of the gods, reveal that in this city women were honoured or even venerated  within certain people groups.  The citizens of this Greek city were loyal to Rome, dedicating a temple to the goddess Roma around 195 BC.  It also had a temple preserved for the Imperial Cult, dedicated to the worship of the emperor.

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Persecuted by the Jews. At the end of the first century (AD) Smyrna boasted a large community of Jews, bolstered by the migration of Judeans after the destruction of Jerusalem during The Jewish War (a major rebellion against the Roman Empire, 66 AD – 73 AD). These Jews were especially hostile to Christians – in part because during the siege of Jerusalem (70 AD) Christian Jews fled the city (prompted by a prophetic Word from the Lord), just before the total destruction of the city and its temple. Also, the Jews viewed the worship of Jesus as an abomination.  These Jews were often the first to hand known Christians over to the Roman authorities for punishment.

Poor Christians. In this city, as in the wider community, Christians were often excluded from the formal employment sector because of the refusal to partake in the worship of the gods of the guilds (first century trade unions).  In this pagan society each guild had its god(s) who demanded tribute in exchange for prosperity.  Since Christians refused to worship any other gods, conversion implied the end of the careers.  The only jobs they could take were for the “cursed” in society: garbage removal, sewerage cleaning, burial of the dead, etc.  In the early Church therefore, being Christian was synonymous to being poor.

The letter to Smyrna follows the same structure as the other letters: opening with a unique and personal Revelation of Christ to them, it follows with a commendation, a charge, then a warning and finally a promise of reward.  However, note that this church receives no condemnation or correction from the Lord as the others.  What an inspiration!

Revelation of Christ (2:8).  Christ reveals himself to this suffering community of believers as “The First and the Last” the Sovereign Lord over all creation, the Lord of Heavens’s Armies (Isaiah 44:5-6).  He is indeed Sovereign over Emperor Domitian who claimed to be “king of kings and Lord of lords” – yes, He is even greater than the mighty Roman army!

But Christ further reveals himself as “He who died and yet lives”, as the One who conquered death itself – he did not avoid it, but endured and overcame it.  By revealing himself in this way to these persecuted believers, Christ sets the tone for the rest of the letter.  He comforts them that even if he does not save them from execution, death is not the end of their lives – as it was not the end of his.  He lives forever, and they in him.

Commendation (2:2-3).  As to the Ephesians, Christ commends the church in Smyrna for their faithful works – how they represent him well, even through the tribulation, in spite of their poverty, and under the incessant slander of the vengeful Jews.  We can almost hear Jesus applauding them for their steadfast devotion to him in this harsh environment.

The hostility from the Jews in Smyrna is evident by Christ’s phrasing “the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Contextually, he states that even though these Jews read the Torah, they are no different from those who worship at the Imperial temple or even Satan himself! Paul clarified that a true Jew is not one by birth or circumcision, but one “inwardly, brought about by the circumcision of the heart by the Spirit” (Rom 2:29). The church are God’s true Jews, God’s chosen people.

As mentioned above, Christ has no correction, no condemnation for this congregation.  He praises and encourages them to keep on doing the good works they are doing.  Their suffering is not a result of their flaws of faithlessness.  Why then do they suffer?

Exhortation and warning (2:10). Before he reveals something of the reason for their suffering, Christ warns them that they “are about to suffer (more).”  Things will not get easier – it will get worse.  This is never good news! But being forewarned is being forearmed – they can strengthen their hearts for what lies ahead.

Christ continues: “The devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation.” They are looking towards a season of heightened persecution that involves imprisonment.  (In the Roman world, life in prison life was harsh, involving torture, withholding basic needs like food and bedding; friends and family on the outside had to care for the inmates).

But Christ’s good news is that this season will be relatively short. “Ten more days” of hardship is not to be read literal in this apocalyptic genre; rather, it speaks of a full measure.  Measuring what?  Their devotion to Christ, the authenticity of their faith. Like Peter, Jesus tells them that this season of “testing”, this fiery trial they are about to enter, is to proof “the genuineness of (their) faith.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)

Christ says the devil will throw them in prison – but we know that Roman soldiers will execute that command.  But the suffering does the testing of the faith – will they remain true to Christ during this season?  This points back to the drama in the life of Job (chapter 1) – the faithful worshiper whom God boasted about, and whom Satan accused was not true in heart.  The Father smiled and said “test him”, and the devil had power to take all he had, even laid sickness on him.  But poor, worn out Job refused to turn his back on God – although he could not understand why God could allow this.  In the end, Job’s faith was honoured by God and his faithfulness rewarded (chapter 42).

Christ is saying to the church in Smyrna, “As Job’s suffering by the hand of the devil proved his devotion to God, so the devil was granted permission to test some of you for a short season to prove the veracity of your faith”.

Christ promises a reward to those who remain faith until the end: “the crown of life.”  The Olympian golden wreath, “The Crown of Life”, was given to the victors in these Greek Games as an prestigious honour.  This was the ultimate award to victors, and Christ the True Emperor promises to bestow this reward on those who remain faithful until the end.

Later in the book of Revelation we will see how martyrs who remained faithful until death share in the honour of Christ, the Lamb who was slain as to witness to the Kingdom of God.

Promise (2:11).  The letter ends with a promise – not just to Smyrna but “to all who hear” where this letter was circulated: The one who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.”  Even though you might die and be hurt during this season of severe persecution, you will not suffer a second death – you will be spared from the Great Judgment.

But this promise is “to those who overcome” – overcome what? Overcome the fear of death, the fear of suffering, the love for this life.  They are charged to endure and overcome the Devil and his Beast Rome, his Prostitute Babylon, and his False Prophet (the many pagan religions).  Overcome the intimidation of the greatest threat the Beast of Rome could bring: death.  Overcome the lure of an easy, painless life of pleasure like all those who bow to the Devil in Babylon living.  Overcome the deception of the False Prophet and his false religions that says there are other ways to true goodness and peace.

And we read how some have overcome “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.”  And by the way in which their pastor Polycarp died, we can see that this church took the warning and exhortation by heart.

Bringing it home. suffering

Like the pagan world into which John wrote Revelation, our Western Christendom believes that prosperity is a sign of God’s approval of us.  Likewise we think that when suffering is a sign of God’s displeasure and that his blessing is removed from us.  The letter to Smyrna brings Job’s life lesson to us: that hardship is a test of our faithfulness to Christ (do I only worship Him when all goes well?), and that he rewards faithfulness to the end with the Crown of Life.

Secondly, we read that suffering will come, and we need to ready our hearts by knowing it is but for a brief moment, and our faithfulness is seen and will be rewarded by Christ.

I pray this message helps your perspective on your own seasons of hardship, and gives strength to your heart – as it was meant to do for the church in Smyrna.

 

The End? Living from the heart.

This post is the third stop in our reflective journey through the book of Revelation, bringing us to the letter to the Ephesian church (2:1-7).  For a brief video recording of this post, click here or on the image below.

Remember that song “You’ve lost that Lovin’ Feeling” from the Righteous Brothers, popularized by the original Top Gun movie (1986)?  It gets to the heart of Jesus’ first letter to the churches, the church in Ephesus.

Ephesus was a prominent port city in the in the Aegean Sea, on the Western shore of modern-day Turkey, about 80 km south of Izmir, rich in archaeological discoveries.

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Ephesus became the provincial seat of Roman government into Asia. It was renown for its scholarship, housing Heraclitus’ first university and the Great Library of Celsus (top left). The city was a cultural hub as witnessed in the well-preserved great Amphitheater (bottom right).  The city was a religious center, most notably because of the temple (top right) of Artemis (Greek, central image) or Diana (Roman), and later because of Christian influence.  In contrast, Ephesus was also known for its “sin industry” through the sailors frequenting its busy sea port.  Its unique setting and well-developed harbor (bottom left) made it a trade hub into Asia and Greece – notably the Silk Trade Route.   

These political, religious, educational, cultural and trade hubs made Ephesus very influential in the region.  No wonder Paul stopped and spent more than 2 years there (Acts 19).  It is fair to say that, after Antioch, Ephesus was the most prominent church in the New Testament.  Other big apostolic leaders made Ephesus their headquarters, including Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila, Timothy and John. In some way the church in Ephesus still has the greatest influence in the church today because many of the New Testament letters were written either from or to the church in Ephesus.  

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Apostolic leaders that settled in Ephesus for significant time in the first century.

 

It is therefore not strange that the first church Christ addresses in his letters is the church in Ephesus.  By the time John penned these words of Jesus the Ephesian church was more than 50 years old – a second generation church that had grown significantly and endured a few waves of severe persecution from various emperors.   

Keep in mind that this short, personal letter to the Ephesian believers is part of a circular letter to these seven congregations (1:11) with the aim to comfort the persecuted believers and to correct their perspective in their struggle against evil.  As with each of these seven letters, this letter starts with a unique revelation of Christ, followed by a commendation, a condemnation, a charge, then a warning and finally a promise of reward.

Revelation of Christ (2:1).  The letter, addressed to the “angel of the church” or “messenger/ pastor/ elder / leader of the church”, starts with the comforting reminder that Christ is among them, and securely holds and steers his church.  Their suffering is not because He has abandoned them or that he has lost control; Christ is present and at work in this turmoil. 

Commendation (2:2-3).  Then Jesus affirms their persistent good works and their efforts in the witness of His kingdom. He honours their devotion to him amidst the seductive, immoral city.   He praises them for enduring the suffering and yet remaining faithful to him.

Moreover, Jesus commends their keen discernment and scrutiny of people who claim to be sent of him, but are not.  This is significant, because when the apostle Paul greeted the elders of this church 40 years earlier, he warned that “after my departure savage wolves will come in among you… even from among you men will rise up, speaking misleading things, trying to draw away disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:29-30)  The testing of what is true and who is genuine has evidently become a value for this church – and Jesus applauds this.

Jesus commends the Ephesian church for their character of steadfastness, endurance and pursuit of the truth.

Condemnation (2:4). However, we see in this letter that although they keep on doing the right things, they have lost their first love.  In the beginning all their good works, all their witnessing, all their congregating sprung from hearts set ablaze with newfound love.  But now it was duty, merely (good) habits.  They did the right things like before, said all the right things like before, but their hearts had grown cold.

Notice that Jesus does not say “You lost your love for me” – he points out that they lost that lovin’ feeling as a whole.  Their good works in the city, their care for one another, their worship in their gatherings – all these good rhythms had lost its passion.  It became a duty, not a delight as before. And the greatest command, which ought to be the mark of the church, is a life motivated by a love for God, overflowing in love for your neighbor (Matthew 22:38-40; John 13:34-35).

You only have one heart from which you live.  When you’re in love everyone notices; your joyful heart gives you a joyful attitude which breeds joyful actions, bringing joy to others.  But when love wanes because of disillusionment or disappointment, one’s attitude becomes apathetic or bitter, producing actions bound by duty or dread, resulting in dead works which does not give life.  Just as joy over one thing overflows to all of life, so also disillusionment dulls all of life.  That’s why the teacher warns us to “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23)

How could this vibrant community’s passion fade?  Many years of hardship could make their hearts callous.  Consistently showing kindness to a city which in unkind to you can make a heart callous.  Incessant business and the cares of this world can make a heart cold.  Unanswered prayer and unmet expectations cause disappointments and disillusionment, which breed carelessness and apathy.   “Loving can hurt sometimes” Ed Sheeran reminds us.

Exhortation (2:4b).  How can a cold, callous hard be revived?  The answer is in Christ’s charge to them.  Firstly, “remember” the times when your heart burned with passion, when love overflowed in joy.  Reflect on how you lived and felt from when you loved well.  Then “repent” – decide to love and live like that again.  Do those “first works” which flowed from your “first love“.

But note the key: “first” – the moment you met Christ and felt his love.  That first kiss, that first taste of true love revived your heart and erupted in ardent adoration, generous giving and shameless witness. That first discovery of true love brought freedom, joy and delight to every aspect of your life.  The call is to remember that moment, to relive that love by returning to those works.

Note that the Ephesian church was not accused of being passive; rather Christ commends their good, faithful works.  Christ is not seeking more work – there is something in their duty that Jesus calls attention to – it is loveless, lifeless, lightless.  The works have become disconnected from Christ himself – void of the display of love that would light up the city.

Warning (2:5).  The church is a witness to God’s kingdom, a city on a hill, the light to the world. They ought be known by the love they have.  Therefore Christ warns them that unless they return to their first love, “he will remove their lampstand form its place.”   

The church is a lamp to the dark world and love it its light.  A lamp with no light has no point.  A church with no love has no witnessing power.   Even preaching of the truth or demonstration of power without love are mere “clashing symbols” (1 Cor 13:1-7).  Love is the essence of the Kingdom of God – it is the life of the church and the hope of the world.  We have to fight for truth.

Promise (2:6). Before closing, Jesus commends the church for hating what he hates – the Nicolatians.  (No, they were not a family who left the church!)  “Nico” means conqueror, domineering the “laity” – the common people.  Apparently this church resisted a church culture which allowed for forceful, harsh leadership that elevate some above others.  Apparently the Ephesians had a healthy culture which honoured the “angel of the church” (2:1) – a leader recognized by God to serve the people – but hated domineering leadership that is the nature of this world (Matthew 20:24-28).  And for this Jesus commends them, implying “you hate what I hate, now love as I love.”

He closes with a promise, “eat from the tree of life” – enjoying the fullness of his life and goodness – even in this harsh city filled with immorality and violence.  Living from his love is sharing in his Kingdom.

Bringing it home

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It is easy to identify with Jesus’ letter to the Ephesians.  We admire their faithfulness to Christ and consistent good deeds in a hostile, immoral city.  And can understand, even associate with their devotion degrading into duty.

That’s why Jesus’s accusation to them strikes us in our own soul: “you have lost your first love.”  Have you?  Does your heart still burn for Jesus as before?  Are you know by your love for the community of believers?  Does your love for the city overflow in generous goodness?  The question is not so much about what you do as is it is do you live and act from a heart of love?

The invitation is clear: remember and return to your first love by doing the works that sprung from your first taste of Jesus’ love.  Let the Lord revive your heart and restore your joy.