The End? The dragon, the woman and the boy

The age-old war between the dragon, the woman and her offspring is our focus in this 17th study through Revelation, stopping at chapter 12 today. A recording will be uploaded to Shofar’s Youtube channel

If Jesus is victorious, and Satan is defeated, why are things so bad?  This was the question that whirled in the minds of the oppressed believers in John’s day – the question that gets answered clearly in chapter 12.  The first half of the Revelation focused on the reality of the church (ch 1-3), God’s throne room and Christ’s unfolding reign played out on earth (ch 6-11).  Chapter 12 reveals the cosmic battle in heaven which results in the chaos on earth and persecution of the saints.

Revelation 12 paints the picture of an epic war between a woman with a male child and a great read dragon.  This scene in the middle of the book is the first of seven “signs” or symbols which explore the depth of the message of the scroll.  These seven “signs” depict greater mysteries that govern the realities of our world and is rich in theological substance, helping the church make sense its struggles on earth. (See 12:1-7; 13:1-10; 13:11-18; 14:1-5; 14:6-13; 14:14-20; and 15:2-4).

You will note again in this chapter that Revelation is not a chronological roll-out of God’s redemptive plan, but in various ways depicts the church’s struggle with evil throughout history.  Although chapter 11 concludes with a picture of the 7th trumpet as God’s Final judgment and victory the end, chapter 12 revisits the origin of this battle starting in Eden, in Bethlehem and Jesus’s ministry.  But this time the struggle is shown from heaven’s perspective.

Three characters are introduced in this sign: the woman, the great red dragon, and the male child.  Who are they?

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By Ted Larson (2004)

The woman is said to be clothed in the sun, the moon at her feet, having twelve stars around her head – an allusion to Israel in Joseph’s dream (12:1; Genesis 37:9).  But there is more: this woman “gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (12:5; compare Psalm 2:9) – representing Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Furthermore, the dragon wages war with the woman and her offspring – an allusion to the curse on the serpent in the garden of Eden and Eve (12:17; compare Genesis 3:15).  And lastly, we read that this woman’s offspring are “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (12:17)– meaning the woman also represents the church.

The woman here in Revelation 12’s first sign simultaneously represents Israel, Mary, Eve and the church – God’s redeemed Kingdom people throughout the ages.  This is another depiction of the Lamb’s army or 144’000 from every tribe, tongue, people an nation depicted in Revelation 7.

OXYGEN

The Red Dragon is “great”, with seven heads, seven horns, seven diadems and a large sweeping tail – a picture of full of strength and reign.  This dragon is “the ancient serpent” of Eden, named “the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9).  In the chapters to follow we will see that the Dragon is the source of power behind the beasts (all that is oppressive and intimidating), Babylon the great prostitute (and all that is sensual and seductive), and the False Prophet (all that is deceptive).  The Red Dragon symbolises all that is oppressing and seducing and deceiving God and his people.

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The Male Child is the man Jesus, the Son of God, “one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron… [and] was caught up to God and to his throne” (12:5, compare with Psalm 2:9 and Acts 1:9).  This is not meant to be read that the Jesus was taken away as child, but these things are said that we may know his identity and the identity of the Woman. The focus of this drama is on the battle between the Dragon and the Woman.

The drama describes how the Dragon wants to “devour” the male child at his birth, hinting to the great infanticide of boys by Herod the Great in Bethlehem after Jesus’s birth (Matthew 2:16).  Satan’s lethal pursuit of Jesus is seen during in his wilderness testing (Matthew 4:1-11), but most vividly when “Satan entered Judas” (Luke 22:3), to sell him out to his executioners.  Yet Christ conquered the worst the Dragon could do to him and ascended.  With the Child seated on the Throne, the Dragon’s vengeance is directed at the Woman who had “fled into the wilderness” (12:6).

The wilderness is said to be “a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1260 days” (12:6).  This is an allusion to Elijah, God’s prophet against the wicked king Ahab and his sorcerer wife Jezebel, who announced God’s judgment of drought on Israel’s rebellion against his rule (1 Kings 17:1).  Elijah was hidden and nourished by God in the wilderness for 3½ years, which equals 42 Jewish months or 1260 days (1 Kings 17:2-16; compare James 5:17).  As with all the numeric values in apocalyptic genre, this should not be read as a literal duration of time, but as symbolic.  Paul Spilsbury says

“They – 1260 days, 42 months and a time, and times, and half a time – don’t tell us anything of the literal duration of the time of the ‘tribulation’, but what the tribulation will be like.” (The Throne, the Lamb & the Dragon: A Reader’s Guide to the Book of Revelation, Intervasity Press : 2002)

I explained in the previous post why the period of 1260 days represent a season for the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purposes on earth.  As in the case of Elijah’s wilderness hide-out, the Woman’s 1260 days in the wilderness after the Child’s ascension represents the time required for God’s purpose on earth to be fulfilled.  Gordon Fee concludes on this number:

“In apocalyptic literature such numeric imagery refers to a time of national distress. John now is using it to point to a limited time of suffering on the part of God’s people which precedes the coming of the glorious kingdom of God.” (Revelation, New Covenant Commentary, Cascade Books : 2010)

In plain language, “1260 days in the wilderness” speaks of the Church’s preservation in suffering during the time of God’s redemptive judgment on the kingdoms of the world.  This period began at Christ’s ascension and will conclude at his return.

Times of trouble.  This drama shows that this period is marked by trouble for the church, and the sustaining grace of God, as their place is being prepared.  This image of God’s sustenance of his people in the Wilderness, awaiting their full salvation is also an allusion to God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel during their Exodus journey towards the Promised Land (compare “two great wings of an eagle” in 12:14 with Exodus 19:4).  This wilderness period for Israel was characterized by God’s protection and provision, but was not free from trials, tribulation and temptation.  Likewise the church’s time on earth is marked by Christ’s victory over sin and slavery, yet not free from the presence of intimidation, seduction and deception.

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The cosmic conflict.  In verse 7 the vision moves from what takes place on earth to what takes place in heaven (similar to transition between chapters 1-3 and chapters 4-5).  The drama shifts from Christ’s work on earth to the result from his victory played out in heaven.  This is depicted as a angelic battle, wherein Michael the arch angel dispels Satan.  Six times this scene describing the cosmic conflict John reaffirms that Satan has been “thrown down”, a result secured “by the blood of the Lamb” (12:11).

Why the hardship? At this point the early church should have interrupted the reader of John’s message and ask the logic question: “If the Dragon has been defeated, why is the church suffering so much?”  John’s vision answers this question next, describing the “wrath” and “fury” (12:12, 17) which the Devil lashes out in vengeance against the Woman who bore the child. He is angry “because he knows that his time is short” (12:12) – he will  be thrown into the lake of fire forever (20:10).  He is angry because the Dragon’s domain is shrinking as Christ’s Kingdom Gospel is spreading (Matthew 16:19; compare Luke 10:17-20).  And therefore he persecutes the Woman who finds shelter in the wilderness.

Satan’s Schemes. How does the Dragon wage war on the Woman? This chapter reveals his strategies as accusation, deception and violence/ murder.  The word for Satan means accuser.  Accusation drowns the believer in guilt, causing him to feel discredited, dishearten and defeated.  Without confidence before God the believer will not witness and might walk away from Christ. Secondly the Dragon deceives believers, luring away with lies – either through temptation or false religions.  Thirdly, the Dragon vengefully persecutes through violence, intimidating the church into caves into by the threat of pain and death.  These images of the Great Dragon’s schemes would have been very relevant to the early church, even as it is very relevant to the church today.

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Defeat the vengeful Dragon

Defeating the Dragon. John’s vision inspires and instructs the church by showing believers in God’s throne room who “have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” (12:11)   They overcame accusation by the blood that washes away all sins, giving a clear conscience before God (Hebrews 9:14).  They overcame deception by their testimony that Christ is risen, conquering death (Matthew 28:6; 1 Corinthians 15:8ff). They overcome the threat of violence and the love of pleasure by following Christ’s example of enduring all for the prize set before Him (Hebrews 12:1-3).

In chapter 13 this drama is depicted in greater detail, unveiling more of the church’s struggle on earth.

Bringing it Home.

We are right to ask the question the early believers struggled with: If Jesus is victorious, and Satan is defeated, why are things so bad?

MiguelCabrera-Virgin_of_ApocalypseThis apocalyptic vision describes our context by unveiling the reality of Satan’s vengeful pursuit of Christ’s church. Satan is angry because he is losing his domain and his time is short.  It helps us understand that we live in this period where God’s redemptive grace leans a measure of protection and provision for the church, while opening a door for the nations to turn to him in light of his redemptive judgments.

The comfort in this vision is that the Dragon’s time for vengeance is short, but the church’s victory is eternal.  The challenge in this vision is that Satan is is behind the voices of accusation, the seduction of pleasure and power, the fear of pain and death there is a Dragon lurking, “looking for someone to devour. [Therefore,] resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”   (1 Peter 5:8-9)

 

 

The End? Can’t keep silent

This, our 16th post in our journey through Revelation, explores chapter 11 devoted to the Two Witnesses. A video recording of this will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

In chapter 10 John was invited to take and eat the scroll containing God’s redemptive purpose, to embody God’s redemptive plan on earth.  The chapter concludes with John’s commission to prophesy – to participate in the Lamb’s redemption of creation by being a witness of God’s renewal of all things.  Chapter 11 continues with a vision of two witnesses, depicting the identity, purpose and destiny of the church in the Lamb’s renewal of all things.

This is a complex chapter, rich in symbolism from the Old Testament, but very helpful in understanding the role of the church in a wicked world.  To simplify the reading of the chapter, we will focus on three questions this chapter answers about the church:

  • who are we?  (identity)

  • why are we here?  (purpose)
  • where is this all leading? (destiny)

Measure_temple_EzekielA living temple. “After this”  John was sent to “measure the temple, the altar and those who worship there” (11:1). By the time of John’s writing, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed for more than 20 years – so the temple refers to the church (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 1 Peter 2:5 etc.). This “man measuring the temple with a rod” is a clear allusion to Zechariah’s vision (Zechariah 2:1 – 5).  Here in John’s vision there are no measurements given; what matters is that measures are taken. The temple, altar and worshipers are “measured” or counted because they matter to God.  The promise of peace and protection in Zechariah 2:5 is the intended message to John’s readers: “I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the Lord, and I will be the glory in her midst.”  God has measured his people, and not a single one will be lost (compare chapter 7 where God’s servants are “sealed” for protection).

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Vulnerable yet Invincible.  However, “the outer court” should not be measured, for it would be “trampled upon for 42 months” (11:2), “1,260 days” (11:3) or 3½ years (“time, times and half a time”). 42 is significant in apocalyptic genre, because it is an important number in Israel’s history.  For example, 42 is the number of stages in Israel’s journey through the wilderness toward the Promised Land (Numbers 33).  42 months is the period that Elijah had stopped the heavens from raining to bring the nations to repentance (1 Kings 17; James 5:17). Matthew’s genealogy is portrayed in three sets of 14, amounting to 42 generations, showing that the birth of Jesus marks the end of waiting for Israel’s Messiah (Matthew 1).  Therefore, 42 represents the fullness of time in any stage of redemptive history.  For the readers of Revelation, 42 represents the period we live in – the time allowed for the nations to come to repentance, between the cross and Christ’s return.  Darrel Johnson writes:

“42 months represents the period of time from the day Jesus Christ constituted the new temple by the shedding of his blood, until the day when the new city without a temple, the city which is a temple, comes down out of heaven” (Discipleship of the Edge: An expository journey through the Book of Revelation; Regent Publishing: 2004)

In putting verses 1-2 together we see that the church is measured and protected by God’s seal until the Day of Judgment, but will be resisted and persecuted by secular nations until that time. We are simultaneously invincible and very vulnerable in this age – “like lambs in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16).  Why then are we here?

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Two Witnesses. John sees two witnesses like olive trees and lamp stands.  Olive trees represent God’s covenant people, his new creation (Genesis 11:1) bringing peace and holiness as its oil is used in consecration (Exodus 29:1-2,7) and worship (Numbers 7:19, 25; 8:26; Leviticus 24:2).  The lamp stands are synonymous to the local church (Revelation 1:20), bringing God’s light to the world (Matthew 5:14-16). 

This vision of lamp stands and olive trees is an allusion to Zechariah 4:1-6.  In that vision, the olive trees provide unending oil to the lamp stands to show the enduring power of the witnesses during these hardships is “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)  The oil that provide light to the witnesses is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. (Compare with the parable of the five wise/foolish virgins in Matthew 25:1-13).

Why two witnesses and not just one?  In Jewish law a charge can only be verified by two or more witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15).  Many commentators feel that these two witnesses represent God’s elect in both old and new covenant; both faithful Israel and the faithful church display the just, peaceful and joyful reign of God to the nations.

Why witnesses? Who is on trial?  Not the church, nor the world is on trial here, but Jesus is.  Jesus who claims to be the Christ, the Son of God, sent to reclaim God’s reign as rightful ruler over all kingdoms and dominions.  For that claim Christ was killed, but rose again.  The church is God’s witness that Christ is risen and therefore his claims are vindicated – that “Jesus is Lord!” (Romans 10:9).  That’s why the world hates and quiets the witness of the church, because it rejects Christ’s claims of lordship.

These witnesses are said to prophesy with power like Elijah (1 Kings 17-18) and Moses (Exodus 4-11).  The miracles of these ancient prophets were signs to God’s claim as Sovereign Lord over Egypt, Israel and the nations, and these witnesses are said to bear similar signs to validate their witness of Christ’s Lordship.   They witness in and against Sodom, Egypt and Jerusalem “where [the] Lord was crucified” (11:8).  Here Sodom represents immorality, Egypt injustice and oppression, and Jerusalem false religion.

Note that these witnesses are dressed in sackcloth (11:3), representing a witness in repentance and humility, not superiority and power.  The witness of the church is a life of repentance and humility towards God.  Yet those who do them harm will be consumed by fire from their mouths (i.e. the wicked will be condemned before God’s Judgment by the very words of the witnesses they resist).  

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Death and resurrection. These witnesses are killed by the “beast that came from the bottomless pit.”  (Verses 7-14 foreshadow events that will be described in chapter 13).  Note that the beast kills the witnesses – that Satan is their real enemy, not people (Ephesians 6:12).  They are said to be dead for 3½ days (a relatively short period of time).   The nations rejoice at their death because the testimony of the witnesses trouble them, and dishonour the witnesses by refusing to bury their bodies.

Ironically, the people who bring this Gospel, the good news of freedom to the world are hated and killed for it. But like their Lord they are also resurrected for all to see (11:11-12), resulting in a cosmic shaking that kills many (11:13; compare with 6:9-17).

The glorious vindication.  After this, the seventh trumpet is blown (the final judgment), with the angel declaring the final victory of the Lamb over the nations in this world.  The praise “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” is the phrase of Handel’s Messiah’s famous  Hallelujah Chorus.

Summary.

In Revelation 10 we see John’s commission to prophesy/ witness his redemption of creation through embodied witness of God’s redemption.  In chapter 11 those who are called to witness are assured of the Lord’s protection but also warned of the world’s persecution.  The two witnesses are said to testify of Christ’s Lordship  from his coming, undergo hatred and suffering, until he returns to judge the world.

Even as this chapter begins with God’s temple on earth (his church), and God’s people being trampled underfoot, so the chapter ends with God’s eternal, heavenly temple opened and his enemies trampled underfoot.  The blood of the witnesses are avenged.

Bringing this home

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This rich and emotive chapter reveal three existential truths about the identity, purpose and destiny of God’s church on earth.

Identity: Who are we?  The church is God’s community of Spirit-empowered people.  We are empowered to witness the Lordship of Jesus both through powerful signs and miracles, as well as a life of continual repentance, resulting in progressive submission to God.  Both these shine the light of God’s kingdom in our world, calling our neighbors to submit to God.

Purpose: Why are we here?  The church is here to witness the reign of Christ.  We cannot be faithful witnesses until we make peace with the fact that we may be hated and hurt because of the message we herald.  Our lives cannot remain the most precious thing to us – our lives are given us to to be poured out (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6).  As such we are called to die, to “pick up our cross daily” and follow Him, to “present our bodies be living sacrifices” (Matthew 16:24-26; Romans 12:2).

But we are not only called to die, but also to be raised up with Christ (11:13-14).  We are called to live and reign with Christ eternally, assured that as Christ is raised from the dead, so we will raise with him in glory. We are called to witness this hope.

Destiny: Where is this all leading?  God’s redemption of creation will result in his victory over the nations, the judgment of sin and the renewal of all things.  His saints will be vindicated and rewarded, and God’s enemies destroyed.  He will unveil his new temple – his church – and we live with him in his benevolent reign forever.   

Come Lord Jesus!

 

The End? From spectator to participator

Our journey through Revelation in this is the 15th post brings us to chapter 10. A recording of this will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

Let’s first catch up where we are in our journey through this apocalypse.  In that glorious scene of God’s throne room (ch 4) the Lamb received the Scroll containing God’s redemptive plans to renew all of fallen creation (Ch 5).  As the Lamb started opening the seven seals of the scroll, terrible judgments was released on earth (ch 6).  These judgments were paused to mark God’s servants with a seal of protection from the final judgment (ch 7). With the opening of the 7th seal, heaven became quite as God focused his attention on the prayers of his saints, which was mixed with the fire from his altar and poured out as six more severe judgments on the earth (ch 8-9).

In chapter 10, the scene continues but the judgments are interrupted again (as in chapter 7), but this time the focus is on John, who is invited to move from spectator of the vision to participator in Christ’s Revelation.

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In John’s vision, a mighty angel comes down from heaven, standing with one foot on the earth and one on the seas (sovereign over land and sea, refer 8:7-8).  He was clothed in white, his face shone as the sun, and he had a rainbow around his head, his feet were like fire, and his voice like a lion.  John describes the Angel as Jesus himself (compare 10:1-3 with 1:15-18; 4:3).

The Angel had a little scroll in his right hand (compare 10:2 with 5:7), and when he spoke there were seven thunders. But when John wanted to record these seven thunders, like the previous seven seals and seven trumpets, the Angel prevented him and then raised his hand and vowed to God “that there should be delay no longer” (10:6).  This scene is a powerful allusion to Daniel 12 – a vision about the end, where the wicked will grow more wicked and the righteous will grow more righteous.

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John was commanded to take this scroll, and to eat it as the prophet Ezekiel was commanded, meaning “all My words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart, and hear with your ears.” (Ezekiel 2:10-3:2, 10).  As John ate, it tasted “sweet as honey” but his “stomach became bitter” (10:9-10; compare Jeremiah 15:16 and Ezekiel 3:3).  Then John is sent to “prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” in the likeness of the commission given to God’s prophets and apostles  (compare 10:11 with Isaiah 6; Jeremiah 1; Ezekiel 3; Acts 1:8; 9:15).

From spectator to participator.  This pause after the six trumpet judgments, which still left the nations unrepentant of their wickedness and rebellion (9:20-21), shows the mystery of God’s redemptive plan.  Here we see John was invited to not only discern and understand God’s work of redemptive acts, but to become a participant in his plan.  The scroll – whom no one was worthy to receive and open – was now handed tot John.  The scroll which unleashed God’s redemption of creation through terrible judgments,  was given for John to take and digest.  John, as with everyone who reads his words and “beholds” this Revelation, is invited to embody God’s plan – the renewal of all things.

This is a powerful allusion to the ministry of the prophets and Jesus.  Just like the prophets in the Old Testament pointed out God’s divine judgments on Israel and the surrounding nations, yet they repented not, so the seals and trumpets did not inspire true, lasting repentance (9:20-21).  Until Jesus, the Word of God who became flesh (John 1:1, 14) became a living witness of God’s restoring reign, because in his life God’s “grace and truth” was seen (John 1:17), and through his blood creation was redeemed (Ephesians 1:7).  This allusion is John’s invitation – and the invitation to the church – to become a living witness of the redemptive reign of God.

Christ’s invitation to John to “take and eat” (Matthew 26:26), is a reminder of the sacrament of communion – an invitation to share in Jesus’ broken body.  This is what John meant when he said the words of the Gospel of God’s reign is sweet, but the embodied witness thereof is bitter.  Words alone won’t work – we are invited to suffer with him, that we may “present the Word of God to the fullest” (Colossians 1:25; compare 2 Timothy 2:12, Philippians 1:28-29).

This vision of two suffering witnesses is what John sees next (Revelation 11).

Bringing it home

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What do we do with this interlude (ch 10)?  I believe the invitation to John is the invitation to everyone who reads these words.  We are invited to move from seeing and understanding God’s redemptive purposes on earth, to participate with it.  But in doing this, we must keep the image of Christ in this chapter before us.

Our witness of Christ and his reign is grounded in the security of Jesus’ sovereignty over all creation (“sea and land”, “all thrones and dominions”, Colossians 1:15-18).  While the nations reel under the judgments, we rest securely in the perspective of John in God’s throne room which brought him peace (ch 4).  Our witness and patient endurance is grounded in this peace that God is in control.

Secondly, we must know that some things will remain a mystery to us – like the seven thunders that are concealed in this chapter.  We will never understand everything that goes on, as “the secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29).  This keeps our witness humble, dependent on the Great Shepherd’s guidance in all things.

Thirdly, our invitation is to move God’s scroll from our head to our heart, to eat it and digest it, for “the Word to become flesh” (John 1:14).  For so many people in our day the Word of God, and Revelation in particular, is a means to read and understand and even predict the events in our world as they passively wait on his return.  John’s invitation to “take and eat” urges the church to move from being onlookers to coworkers in his unrolling of God’s redemptive plan in creation – even when it hurts.  Engage the bitter claims of God’s Word that we may “present the Word of God to the fullest” (Colossians 1:25) – even through the hardships.  After all – nothing will change until “the word becomes flesh” so that the world may behold the glory of the Son of God in our witness (John 1:14; Acts 6:15).

 

 

 

The End? No more Compromise.

This post is the fifth post in a series through the book of Revelation.  Follow this link to a video recording of this post.

 

The Revelation John received was sent as a circular letter along a logical postal route through Asia Minor which started at the bustling city of Ephesus, moving north to ancient Pergamum, inland through Thyatira, and southeast to the wealthy city of Laodicea.  This letter contained a prophesy from Christ to these seven churches to comfort them during the tyrannical reign of emperor Domitian (AD 90-92), to correct  heir perspective in their their fight against evil, and to charge them to remain faithful to Christ – there is a reward for those who remain faithful to the end!

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The Seven churches in Revelation 2-3 (Asia Minor, present day Turkey)

 

Pergamum was a magnificent ancient city which exited from the springs of civilization in Asia (around 500 BC).  This city set on a hilltop overlooking the Caicus plain below.  Pergamum (modern day Bergama) lay about 55 miles north of Smyrna, inland from the Aegean coast.  The archaeological findings in this great city are rich in religious artifacts, including statutes and temples of Zeus, Athena, Dionysos (Baccus in Roman mythology), and especially Askelepios, the god of medicine, whose cult was strong and accounted for the famous school of medicine in Pergamum.  Askelepios’ serpent was a prominent brand in the city, displayed on many of the coins pressed there.

Apart from the medical school, the city was famous for its great library, university, big parchment industry and the large amphitheater overlooking the valley.  It was also a strategic Roman stronghold and inland regional administration, boasting the first Asian temple of the Imperial Cult in honor of Augustus (AD 29).  

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In this ancient citadel which worshiped Domitian as king and lord, valued entertainment, education and science, was a vulnerable church who received this letter of comfort and correction, a charge to not compromise of their devotion to Christ in word or in deed (Revelation 2:12-18).

Revelation of Jesus Christ (2:12).  Christ is revealed as the one among them with the sword – sharp and double-edged.  This description of Christ’s double character in judgment of the world, and in particular the church, occurs seven times in Revelation (Rev. 1:16; 2:12, 16, 35; 6:8; 19:15, 21).  Roman officials had the right to carry this sword – and with it the right to life and death.  Christ here implies that his judgment can lead either to life (salvation through repentance) or death (judgment if the accused does not repent) – the reader or hearer must choose.  This brief revelation of Christ among them sets the stern tone of the rest of this short letter.

Commendation (2:13).  Again as in the previous two letters, the church is comforted that Christ is aware of all that takes place in the city and their works.  “I know your works, and where you dwell – where Satan’s throne is.  Yet you hold fast to my name…”  Christ honors their “works” of witness, their allegiance to him (“my name”), as well as holding on to “my faith” – true Christian faith undefiled by other religions – in this city dedicated to the worship of Domitian who claims to be sovereign king and lord of all (“where Satan’s throne is”), along with all the other gods.  Their confession and faith is pure in an defiled city.

Jesus mentions the martyrdom of Antipas. Being the regional seat for Roman administration, Pergamum held the court which tried rebellion against Rome.  Where the accused was found guilty, an opportunity was given the to repent, or face immediate execution by the Roman procounsel.  Antipas refused to worship Nero during his reign (AD 54-68) and was tried before the procounsel at Pergamum.  He refused to recant his oath that “Jesus is Lord” and was executed in the cruel and unusual way of being burned to death in a brazen bull-shaped altar designed to cast out demons.  The goal was to intimidate the church, but Christ commends the Pergamum believers for remaining faithful to him in spite of these horrific trials.

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Antipas was martyred in Pergamum during emperor Nero’s reign (AD 54-68).

Condemnation (2:14-15). Yet the the believers in Pergamamum started to compromise. “Some (held) to the teachings of the Balaam”, a non-Jewish prophet who had a tremendous impact on Israel during their Exodus (Numbers 22-25; 38:8,16), and his influence remained a snare even to the New Testament church (2 Peter 2:15; Jude 1:1, 11; Revelations 2:14).  I’ve written on “The Error of Balaam” before, but will summarise here: Balaam was an extremely gifted man of God who could hear and speak accurately the pure words of God, but he himself lead an independent, sensual lifestyle.  With his mouth Balaam worshiped the God of Israel, but he lived his life like the immoral Canaanites “who ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality” (2:14).  The “teachings of Balaam” was that God’s people are chosen, holy and saved in God’s eternal covenant and therefore nothing can change that reality – not even their sensual lifestyle.

Christ implies there were groups within the Pergamum church who worshipped and associated with the church, but chose to blend with the rest of the population by participating in their pagan, secular feasts to avoid social and economic isolation, and persecution.

Secondly, Christ condemns “those who hold the teachings of the Nicolatians” which the Ephesian church hated (2:6).  Not much is known about this sect, apart from what we can derive from the name: “Nico” means conqueror, “laity” refers to the common people.  It seems that in the Pergamum church there were some who asserted power in the world’s way, who claimed rights and privileges with power over others in an undue way.  As in the gospels, Christ condemns this style of leadership – “the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:24-28).

Warning (2:16).  Christ charges the church to “Repent”, or else he himself will “soon make war against (them) with the sword of his mouth”.  This is strong language, a stern warning hinting to the judgment against the 24’000 “men who were joined with Balaam” (Numbers 25:5).  The reason is that the church is Christ’s witness of his kingdom – a living community that displays what he and his coming Kingdom is like.  Therefore the compromise of Balaam (right professing but immoral living) and the compromise of the Nicolatians (abusive leadership misrepresenting Christ’s character of loving, servant leadership) is a wrong witness of who Christ is and what his kingdom is like.  This congregation, although professing right, have some who lived like the world they are in. Their witness is compromised, and Christ calls them to repent or be removed.

Promise (2:17).  To the one who conquers Christ will give of his “hidden manna” (refering to the manna preserved in the ark of the covenant Exodus 16:33-34) – a sign of God’s providential grace.  Also the promise of “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”  This white stone, tesseron, was customary given to special guests invited to partake of feasts in the pagan temple at Pergamum – consisting of the meats offered to the idols.  This tesseron would bear the secret name of the deity represented by the idol, revealed only to the recipient.  Christ’s promise of the “white stone”  implied an invitation of intimate communion with him – even now.  And this invitation is “to all who has a ear to hear.”

But what should this church overcome?  The spirit of compromise – the seduction to worldly sensuality (of Balaam) and worldly power (of the Nicolatians).  The tendency to think that mere cognitive faith (agreement to Biblical truths) results in right-standing with God.   Christ desires a renewed heart resulting in holy living as witness to his kingdom.  

Bringing it home.

Pergamum the sacred tunnel
A secret tunnel for worshipers to a temple in Pergamum.
Many writers have noted that “Pergamum” comes from the Greek word “gamos”, meaning marriage.  This church professed to faithful to Christ, but was married to the world in regard to power and pleasure, according to the culture in which they lived. 
Like the ancient Greeks in Pergamum, we too live in a world which values pleasure, power, scientific progress and independence.  The invitation to us today is clear: to recognize where we, the church, are “married to the world” in this regard, and repent.
Turn your heart, that you too may share in the intimate pleasures of Christ reserved for those who live devoted to him.

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).

St_Polycarp_of_Smyrna
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.

collage_Smyrna

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.

 

A call to courage

Our world is scared, and increasingly so. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US today according to the National Institute of Mental Health affecting one third of the North American population, with a staggering 37% and 50% increase in occurrence among children (ages 4-10 and 11—19) over the last decade. It is estimated that anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year, nearly one third of the country’s total mental health bill.

But the cost of anxiety is not limited to medical bills.  The fear of terrorism has caused an arming 114 percent increase in the US defense budget in the last 13 years, which would total about $586.5 billion in 2016 (by far the greatest in the world). In addition the global security technology and services market which is expected to total $86 billion this year.

Our world is a scary place.  Our society is characterized by a sense of anxiety and vulnerability, daily fueled by images of terror and rumors of impending disaster. But we are not the first generation passing through these shadows of uncertainty, uproars and unrests. Like the generations before us we need to overcome the urge to panic.

This is a call to courage. It’s not the time to be anxious, to be intimidated, to succumb to terror. As we see the climate is changing, the shadows drawing longer, we need to look back and find courage from the accounts of others that have navigated similar moments in history. During Nero’s reign Paul urged the anxious, persecuted believers to look into the the Scriptures for “learning… encouragement… comfort… [and] hope” (Romans 15:4). And what examples of courage does the Scripture not have!

A Call to Courage

Abraham left all he knew for promise from God in his spirit.  Later he pursued five kings with their armies to save his nephew Lot from slavery. Noah, a preacher of righteousness had courage to confront a perverse generation and build the ark amidst their mockery for 120 years. Young David stood up to Goliath the giant.  Joshua and Caleb were not intimidated by the giants in walled cities and trained armies that occupied their Promised Land, patiently waited forty years and in their old age lead the nation to possess this land.  Daniel walked into a den of lions, and his three friends into the fiery oven because they would refused to bow to another god.  He did falter to fear but told Darius straight-up “God found you too light!” Moses confronted the terrifying Pharaoh demanding release of all his slaves, and then led the entire nation into.  Queen Ester risked her life when she approached the Persian king to save her generation from annihilation.  Nehemiah did the same to rebuild the holy city.  Gideon and his small army walked unarmed into a Midianite camp with 15’000 soldiers. Samson single-handedly took on 1’000 Philistine warriors. Jehoshaphat led the whole nation into the dessert against three massive armies. Elisha was besieged by the entire Syrian army but walked right up to them and led them into siege.  Elijah challenged all the Baal prophets to a public showdown asking “Who is the real God?!”  Jonah walked into the most violent city of his day as a foreigner, demanding repentance and submission to his God.  Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi, Amos, Hosea, Nathan and John the Baptist willingly chose a life of mockery, poverty and pain as they confronted kings, rebuked hypocrisy, and exposed the injustice of the day.

Jesus, son of God, left the comfort of heaven, the honor of the throne, the worship of the angels and the power of divinity to enter a life of pain, poverty and persecution – ultimately to suffer brutally and die shamefully. All because “God so loved the world.”  And his courage set the pattern for his followers, as we see in the first beatings of Peter and John, the first martyr Stephen, the hardships of the Apostle Paul history of the church throughout the ages.

How do we grow in courage?

In Joshua 1:1-9 we see the Lord giving a pep-talk to the new leader called to lead the Hebrews to occupy their land inhabited by Giants in secure cities.  We learn much from this instruction about how to “take heart” when times are tough.[i]

Courage must rise in the face of fear.  There is no need for courage when everything is plain sailing, when all is as it should be.  But in the threat of pain of discomfort, loss or death, when the natural inclination is to hide or run away, that’s the que to take heart!  The Lord told Joshua to be courageous because the situation was terrifying.  A sense of fear must trigger the response to courage.

Courage has a cause.  When there is no need, no urgency, no mandate, there is no need for courage.  When one puts his hand into a lit furnace for no reason he is rightly labelled a fool.  But a woman who runs into a burning house to save her daughter is a hero.  Joshua had to be courageous to fulfill his mandate.  Bravery is called upon when the fight is worth it.  Courage is needed to uphold the righteous purposes of God.

Courage is gained in the knowledge of God.  Joshua was told to not forget “The Book of the Law” which Moses left Israel.  Today we have it as the first five books in our Bible. Why would that help Joshua to grow in courage?  Because it records – from Creation to Exodus – the accounts of God’s wisdom, power and loving faithfulness with his people. Joshua would be “encouraged” every time he reads how faithfully and powerfully God had preserved and delivered his people in desperate times past.  Thus courage is gained as we become convinced and get reminded of God’s power and might – that truly “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).  Courage grows as we learn from these accounts who God is: that God is good, righteous, faithful and merciful.  This revelation of God’s power and character is preserved in Scripture as records of his interaction and decrees, so we get to know God and are encouraged as we read these accounts of divine intervention (Romans 15:4).  Indeed, but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits.” (Daniel 11:32)

Courage is gained in the assurance of God’s presence.  The Lord encouraged Joshua with the promises of his personal presence.  More specifically “as I was with Moses” – thus Joshua was promised the same intimacy with the Lord, the same faithfulness in preservation and the same powerful interventions which Moses experienced as he lead these people.  What an encouraging promise!  The Lord made that same promise of companionship his ascension (Matthew 28:20), and that companionship we experience in the empowering presence of His indwelling Spirit (Romans 8:11). We grow in courage as we grow in revelation of the Lord’s personal presence, declaring with David The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6)

Courage is infectious. The Lord encouraged Joshua.  Before these words of encouragement Joshua was intimidated and anxious.  But the words of encouragement put the necessary strength into his heart to go on and fulfill his mission. That’s why we are repeatedly called to “encourage one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) – literally “put courage and strength into the heart of another”.  We get encouraged through deliberate effort to be built up, but also indirectly as we see others or hear their stories as they continue courageously amidst hardship, thinking “If another can do it, so can I.”  Courage is infectious, as we can see in this video

Read here how to Encourage One Another (https://walklikejesus.net/2015/09/10/encourage-one-another/)

Courage is a choice. The Lord’s repeated commands of courage implies a choice to succumb to fear and intimidation or to take heart and continue with his commission.  We either choose to allow fear to dictate our actions, or we choose to allow courage to reign in our hearts. So Jesus told his disciples – as he is saying to us today “Let not your heart be troubled…believe in me” because “In the world you will have trouble. But TAKE HEART; I have overcome the world.” (John 14:1; 16:33)  These exhortations from the Lord demand a response, a resolve to not allow fearful situations to “trouble your heart” and dictate your actions. So when there’s a choice to fight or flight, choose to fight and persevere.

Add courage to your faith

Life in the kingdom of God is not for the faint-hearted – it never was, it never will be. The kingdom suffers violence” said Jesus (Matthew 11:12). Our world is unfriendly and uncertain. But so it was in the days of Jesus and the Apostles. Their society was oppressed by the Roman army and heavily taxed by Caesar, plagued by perpetual civil unrest and terrorism, divided by extreme classism. For that reason Peter exhorted the church to add to your faith COURAGE (2 Peter 1:5). Mere saving faith does not make you fit or fruitful to fulfill your mandate. Our mandate is clear: peacemakers, Kingdom-bringers, heralds of the Good News.

So “don’t be anxious about tomorrow…” (Matt 6:34), don’t live a life pacified by fear or paralyzed by what can go wrong. Fear steals your joy and taps your strength.  Reflect on this truth: if God is for us, who can be against us!?  Then look up, shape up, sign up and step up. TAKE HEART, finish the job, then we can go Home.

[i] Note the incredible similarity in form of the appeals to courage to complete the divine mandate with assurance of the Lord’s power and presence in the following texts: Solomon’s charge to build the temple (1 Chronicles 28:20), Joshua’s command for conquest (Joshua 1:1-9), the disciple’s commission (Matthew 28:18-20), the angel’s warning about Paul’s shipwreck and appointment with Cesar (Acts 27:24-26) and the Corinthian’s church charge to not fear death but continue in their faith (1 Corinthians 15:57-8).

 

 

Enduring Nero’s fire

How to remain true to God amidst suffering.

Writing to a congregation of predominantly Jewish Christians in Rome during Nero’s reign, the author of Hebrews repeatedly exhorted believers to not renounce Christ in fear of the mounting persecution.  And that is necessary, because suffering moves one to re-evaluate what you believe.  At some point in life we all walk through the fire – but how do you remain faithful to God amidst suffering? How do you endure the fires of life.

Brief background to and outline of Hebrews

The letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish believers (1:1 “spoken to our fathers”) probably in Rome (13:24 “those from Italy greet you”).  After hearing the gospel confirmed with signs and miracles (2:4), they were converted (3:16), were baptized and had partaken of the Holy Spirit (6:1-5).  This was a long-established church (5:12) whose members have lived exemplary lives of faith and good works (6:10), and have experienced persecution, imprisonment (13:3) and the loss of property (10:32-33), but have not yet suffered martyrdom (12:4).  The congregation were capable of charity and hospitality (13:2,16), and previously had great teachers and leaders (13:7) who grounded them in foundational Christian teaching in the Jewish Scriptures (6:1-2).

But their faith had been outlawed and these ostracized believers became discontent and discouraged and longed for earthly property and a sense of belonging in their society (13:5, 14).  So they started questioning their beliefs, considering other avenues to God so they could be reintegrated into society; they were on the verge of walking away from their Christian convictions.  In response the author of Hebrews wrote this “word of exhortation” (13:22) to bolster the faith and perseverance of this wavering Christian community, reminding them how to correctly “draw near…” (10:23) to God.

The recipients seems to have been influenced by the first-century philosopher Philo of Alexandria who mixed Judaism with Greek philosophy and wrote that there were several ways for sinful man to approach God.  He mentioned the Logos (elsewhere “the word or reason of God”), Sophia (elsewhere “the wisdom of God”), the angels, Moses, Melchizedek the high priest and the Jewish sacramental system were all avenues (or mediators) to bridge the divide between man and God.  Reading Hebrews, it appears that the first recipients of this letter were considering these alternative avenues to avoid persecution, yet still worship God.[1]  In response to their searching the author writes how Jesus Christ is better than Philo’s Logos and Sophia (1:1-3), better than the angels (1:4-2:18) and Moses (3:1-6), and better than the Aaronic priesthood (7:1-24), presenting a better offering (9:14) in better place (8:2).  Jesus has also secured a better, eternal covenant by his sacrifice “once for all” (10:14) that he can guarantee fulfillment on behalf of both man and God (7:22).  Our author shows this superiority to deter readers from turning to these “alternative mediators” to escape the pressures of persecution and to exhort readers to hold fast to their confession if faith in him amidst difficult times.

rome3

Faithful in the fire

How does this 2000 year old letter to Jewish believers suffering under Nero’s persecution help us today to “hold fast to your confession” (Hebrews 4:14; 10:23) in the midst of our own hardship and suffering? How can we be prepared to remain faithful in the fire and joyfully endure the suffering as these early believers who remained true to Christ through Nero’s fires?

The answer lies in the pivotal point of this letter, Hebrews 10:19, where the author moves from orthodoxy (or correct thinking) to orthopraxy (or correct living)Here the epistle shifts from theory to practice, with the transition Therefore” meaning “based on our argument up to here” and then follows with three powerful exhortations that appeal to the required response of the hearers.  These three exhortations contain the keys that will help the readers through the mounting persecution they feared.  The author encourages readers to “draw near… in faith” (v22), “hold fast to … hope” (v23) and “to stir one another in love” (v24-25).  Then he unpacks real faith in chapter 11, hope for endurance in chapter 12 and love in practice in chapter 13.  Like so many times in the letter he again reminds them that they need to remain faithful to Jesus, because of the coming judgment of Christ (v25-31).

These three exhortations to continue in faith, hope and love apply as much to us during times of hardships today.

rome5

Draw near in faith

These wavering believers were graciously encouraged to “draw near in full assurance of faith” (v22).  Even although they considered renouncing Christ they were encouraged to “have confidence to draw near to the throne of grace through the blood” (4:16; cf 10:19).  God has not written them off!  Amidst their suffering and wavering they can be assured that their confidence before God was not based on their track record, but based on Jesus’ shed blood (v19).  This also implies that their suffering was also not due to their failures.  Rather they were encouraged that Jesus, their perfect High Priest has also “suffered when tempted, [and is therefore] able to help those who are being tempted” (2:18). He “is able to sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15-16) – so draw near to get help!

Hold on to hope

Poor and pushed aside, mocked and outlawed, their current circumstances were very uncomfortable.  And their immediate future looked even bleaker as the Roman persecution was escalating.  Therefore the author encouraged these fragile believers to hold onto their Lord who promises their share in his eternal inheritance! He is their “forerunner” (6:20) who went to announce their coming and the High Priest who secured their confidence before God (6:20). There is no room for doubt: Jesus secured their access and inheritance in Jesus’ eternal kingdom. And “this hope is the anchor of the soul” (6:19) – it settles the emotions and keeps the believer on course to, not swept away by the circumstance. So the believer is encouraged to endure suffering the way their Lord did – joyfully anticipating his reward (12:1-2).  This hope is the reason to remain faithful amidst the fire; their endurance will be rewarded!

Assemble to grow in love

Thirdly the author exhorts this congregation, fearful of being hurt or ostracized, to not neglect their assemblies (10:25). In effect he tells this fragile congregation “I know that you are afraid of being identified as a Christian, and I know that you will suffer and might even die when you are seen to gather with other believers – but do it!”  Why the urgency?  Why should they assemble?  Could they not practice their faith in private?

The author motivates that their primary purpose of assembly is to “stir one another to love and good works” – to grow in godly character and excel in good works (10:24).  More specifically, each congregant should make it their goal to think about how to help another excel in character and good works.  As he did earlier in the letter he encourages them to continue love and service for the saints (6:10-12).

Enduring the fire today

How do we endure suffering?  What was true for the Hebrew congregation in Rome suffering under Nero’s reign is true for me and you.  First, hold on to your faith: you are loved by God, approved by God, sanctified by God and preserved by God ford God.  Not the suffering nor your doubts or fears can separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:35-39).  So boldly approach of throne of grace to receive help in time of need! (Hebrews 4:16).

Second, let hope stir your joy and calm your fears, motivate you to continue in faith, work for your reward and find purpose in all you do.  God rewards faithfulness!

Thirdly, “never walk alone!” Join in the assembly to grow others “in love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24), and see how you are strengthen and encouraged yourself.  Indeed, “it is more blessed to give than to receive!” (Acts 10:35)

References for understanding the letter to the Hebrews

  1. Nash R.H., The Notion of Mediator in Alexandrian Judaism and the Epistle to the Hebrews, Westminster Theological Journal, Vol 40 (1977), p89-115.
  2. Barclay W., The Daily Study Bible, The Letter to the Hebrews (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrews Press, 1998).
  3. Gutrie D., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Hebrews (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993).
  4. Schenck K., Understanding The Book Of Hebrews (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press, 2003)

 

When you walk through the fire

It’s the beginning of a new year, and we are reminded often of the good plans God has for us – “plans to prosper and not to harm us, to give you a future and hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11).  But what do we do when God’s plans include walking through the fire?

i_believe_in_God“I believe in God, the Father Almighty.” This first line of the Apostolic Creed is fundamental to the Christian faith (Hebrews 11:6): the belief in a God for whom nothing is impossible, and God who is a loving Father who has our best interests in heart.  In this God we trust.

Yet this great truth is the problem for many devout believers who sincerely trust in God for something – healing, provision, breakthrough at work, peace in a relationship – but God does not come through.   Over and over we affirm that God is almighty and good, and that he hears our cries and answers our prayers – but then a loved one dies, your company folds and finances dwindle or marriage ends in divorce court.  Or your desires are unmet in spite of all the promises you received, and you start another year lonely, or childless, or frustrated at work.  What do we make of these situations?  How do we relate to a loving, Almighty Father that allows for the suffering of his children?


 The cause of suffering

As mentioned in a previous post Suffer Well, suffering has two basic behavioral consequences in a believer.

"Introspection" - bronze statue by Frank Somma (2004)
“Introspection” – bronze statue by Frank Somma (2004)

Firstly, he/she may gravitate towards doubt of self, leading to unhealthy introspection, believing that the suffering is either a result of God’s punishment for sin or some “open door” through which Satan has access to hurt us.  Job’s friends believed this and accused him of secret sin. (Yes, “sin leads to death” (James 1:15) and yes, our God “disciplines those he loves” (Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:5-6), but like a good father he warns beforehand and makes it clear what you are being corrected of – his aim is correction)).

Accusing God.
Accusing God.

Secondly, the one suffering may doubt God’s character or ability, leading to accusation, that either God is unjust (as Job did) or unable to save. This can escalate to agnosticism or even atheism.

However, the Bible contains a myriad of godly characters who has undergone suffering – neither because of their sin or God’s unfaithfulness.  These accounts were recorded during times of hardship “for our learning… encouragement… [and] hope (Romans 15:4) during similar circumstances.  One such helpful recording is of Daniel’s three friends who refused to bow down and worship a statue which emperor Nebuchadnezzar erected (see Daniel 3:14-30).  By their own declaration these godly men believed “our God is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand…” (v17).  Yet they ended up in the fire; God did not prevent them from suffering.  What can we learn from this account of the three Jews in Babylonian exile 530BC?  How does it encourage us or give us hope in our own suffering?

"The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace" -  3rd Century wall painting discovered in the Priscilla Catacomb, Rome
“The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace” – 3rd Century wall painting discovered in the Priscilla Catacomb, Rome

God is not the author of suffering and death

In Genesis and Revelation we see the nature of God in creation: no suffering, no death, no sikcness, no enmity.
In Genesis and Revelation we see the nature of God in creation: no suffering, no death, no sickness, no enmity.

As illustrated in this account, God is not the one who initiates suffering and death – the pagan king was.  God’s character and desire for his creation is clear in the Genesis creation account (Genesis 1 and 2) – there was no death, sickness or suffering until the fall.  We see this also in the promised re-creation of the New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 20 and 21) where again death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelations 21:4). God is the author of life; Satan is the author of death and destruction (John 10:10). Since the fall of creation sin in our hearts and our world will result in pain, suffering, sickness, and death.  This is exactly why Jesus came – “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8) so that mankind may again have life more abundantly” (John 10:10).  God is not the author of suffering, but he is drawn to our suffering to redeem mankind from it.

A good life does not save us from suffering.

As seen in our text, a good moral life does not prevent us from suffering.  In fact, even a devout godly life does not protect us from all harm as we see in this account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who refused to worship idols, and yet were thrown in the fire.  A casual glance at Biblical and church history will assure you that good people suffer – in spite of their godliness and often because of their devotion to God.

Consequently, suffering is not always the result of our sinfulness or imperfection.  Our suffering many times is the result of other people’s cooperation with evil (as in this case – the idolatry and oppression of Nebuchadnezzar), or simply the result of the fallen world infested with genetic imperfections, diseases and natural disasters.  Our righteousness does not always exclude us from these hardships.

God enters into our fire.

God enters our suffering. (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace by William Maughan, 1985)
God enters our suffering. (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace by William Maughan, 1985)

Suffering believers often feel abandoned by God.  The question asked many times “Where is God when it hurts?” is clearly answered in this account of Daniel’s friends: God enters the fire to be with his people in their suffering and strengthen them.  This is clearly demonstrated by Christ’s incarnation: Jesus became man to identify with us in our suffering (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; Hebrews 4:15) and to ultimately bring an end to the suffering brought about by sin and Satan (Revelations 21:2-5).

And still today Jesus is “Emmanuel – God with us” (Isaiah 7:14) who will “never leave us or forsake us” (Hebrews 13:5).  Especially during hardship the Psalmists sings “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted” (Psalm 34:18).   No amount of suffering, pain, death or loss – “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ” (Romans 8:38).  God enters our fire – we never suffer alone.

Our suffering has purpose

Why does a loving God then allow suffering? If he is with us in our suffering, why does he not simply save us from it?  The mocking Jewish elite asked this same question to Jesus hanging on the cross 2000 years ago (Matthew 27:41-44), but Jesus endured it because he knew there was purpose to his suffering (Hebrews 12:2) – the salvation of the world!

Our text shows us that the suffering of the three righteous men at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar also had purpose, and we find hope that our suffering has the same three benefits.

Firstly, we note that their suffering lead to their immediate promotion (Daniel 3:v30).  This is a pattern in the Bible – the one who suffers well is promoted directly after his/her suffering.  Think of Job who was double as wealthy after his loss (Job 42:10), Joseph who became ruler over Egypt after his imprisonment (Genesis 41:41-44), David who was crowned king after his persecution (2 Samuel 5:3), Peter who became leader of the early church after his “shaking” (Luke 22:31-32 and Acts 2:14), and Jesus who earned the title “King of kings, Lord of lords” through his obedient suffering (Philippians 2:8-11 and Revelations 19:6).

As mentioned in a previous post Suffering your good tutor we can rest in the truth that “Nothing irredeemable can happen to a Christian” – or as Paul said it “all things work together for the good…” (Romans 8:28).  For the Christian who hold onto God in Christ, regardless of what you are going through, you are better off afterwards – both in this life and the life to come.  Suffering well always lead to promotion.  Nothing we encounter can put you back – God can turn every situation around for your good and his good.

Secondly, the suffering of the three friends of Daniel functions as an amplifier of their witness of and faith in God, so that everyone knew them and was attracted to them after the suffering to hear and investigate their story (Daniel 3:27; refer Philippians 1:13).  Their faith in God and faithfulness to him drew the attention of the king and his governors.  Furthermore, because of God’s preservation and presence in the fire, the king issued a decree that no one may “speak anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” (Daniel 3:29) for fear of their life. Effectively, their faithful, hopeful suffering lead to the honoring of Israel’s God throughout the vast Babylonian Empire, by the King’s decree.  Because they suffered well, the name of God was known and held in honour throughout the fast Babylonian empire; in other words, their suffering was part of God’s plan of salvation of the world. Joseph discovered the same after his imprisonment and promotion – what his brothers intended for evil, God intended for the preservation of millions of souls from widespread famine (Genesis 45:5-8).

Throughout the ages, the blood of the saints has been the seed of the church.  In other words, the faithful, hopeful suffering of God’s people has lead to the salvation of millions of souls throughout the ages.  Likewise your suffering amplifies the witness of your faith in God and lends credence to your message of hope in God – if you suffer while trusting God and remaining faithful to him.

Thirdly, as in the case of the godly martyrs who endured Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, suffering helps one grow in the knowledge of both yourself and God.  Trying times helps one discover the end of yourself and you realize how much you need the Lord’s grace to survive the fiery ordeal, as Paul realized (2 Corinthians 12:9). This produces a beautiful humility.

But suffering also helps one grow in intimacy with God like never before, as we see in this rich example of the three Jewish martyrs who experienced Jesus “walking in the midst of their fire” with them (Daniel 3:25).  Suffering forces one to draw near to God with no pretense, and the result is an honest perception of who God is, as Job discovered (Job 42:5).    This intimacy with God leads to uncharacterized confidence to pursue the impossible, because you have come to know the power and faithfulness of God through your hardships.

Taking it home

In closing, there are three take-home messages from this story in Daniel 3.

We find comfort in the truth that God will never forsake us – especially not during hardship!  “I am with you when you go through the fire… you shall not be burned, the flame shall not consume you…” says the Lord (Isaiah 43:1-2). But don’t isolate yourself, don’t walk through the fire alone – “God is among His people” (Revelation 21:3).

We find hope that our suffering has meaning, it has purpose – God makes “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)  You will be better off after this suffering than you were before it!

Lastly, this story makes us consider and prepare our hearts: can we say with these three godly men “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace … but even if not… we will not serve your gods… (Daniel 3:17-18).  They knew God could save them, but God said no.  Jesus pleaded his Father to make a way around the cross, but God said no (Matthew 26:39, 42).  Paul pleaded the Lord to save him from his torment, but the Lord said no (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).  David trusted his Shepherd to lead him “through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4) – will you?  Will you serve God when the he says no and you must walk through the fire?

flames
Will you trust God to follow him into the fire?

Never give in!

Sir Ernest Shackleton

Men wanted: for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. Sir Ernest Shackleton.” 5000 men responded to this blunt advertisement posted in London newspapers January 13 1914, applying for the Imperial Trans- Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton selected a crew of 28 who proved to be optimistic, patient and courageous – the minimum requirements he sought for in a man who boarded a ship with him.  They set sail from London in the ship aptly named “Endurance” on the first day of August 1914 and stopped over at the whaling station on South Georgia for fresh supplies.  After a month they departed for the Antarctic on December the 5th for one of the most grueling adventures undertaken by man, unaware that they would not touch land again for another 497 days.  On return to England three years later Shackleton published the account in his book South in 1919, documenting the journey, events and experiences of their expedition, including the following five legendary survival accounts.

Due to an unusually cold winter the ship entered pack ice much sooner than expected.  Just one day’s journey from the Antarctic the Endurance got stuck in pack-ice on 18 January 1915, drifting gradually away from the South Pole for ten months with the ice until the ship tipped and was crushed to pieces on October 27, 1915.

Endurance slowly breaking through pack ice
Endurance slowly breaking through pack ice
Endurance stuck in polar ice
Endurance stuck in polar ice
Endurance crushed by pack ice
Endurance crushed by pack ice

The men saved what they could and drifted for another five months on the ice until the ice started melting and the food became scarce.  On 31 March 2016 Shackleton woke up from a soft crackling sound to find that the ice beneath him split in two; he instinctively reached his hand to grab the sleeping bag of the man sharing his tent just as he was slipping into that icy, black water. During the ice-splitting they were also separated from their life rafts for some time but they managed to retrieve it again.  The next day he gave the command to board the three life boats.

The life-saving achievement was the harrowing journey through the Weddell sea to a rock called Elephant Island, 100 miles in the three small life boats, navigating one of the roughest seas with 60 foot waves blown by gale-force winds.  The three boats had to be dragged on top ice floes at night to rest.  They managed to reach Elephant Island, and eventually found a suitable camping terrain.

Boats on Elephant Island
Boats on Elephant Island

Their third legendary survival story started on 24 August when Shackleton and five others boarded the small 22ft life boat called the James Caird  and made way for South George, from where they departed about 500 days earlier 800 miles away. (That is the distance between Cape Town and Johannesburg!)  After a grueling 17 day journey in the stormiest sea, navigating by dead reckoning with a compass and sextant only with merely four sightings of the sun, the six men reached the island exhausted.  This is still considered one of the greatest boating achievements ever.

Crew boards James Caird for South Georgia
Crew boards James Caird for South Georgia
Landing on South Georgia
Landing on South Georgia

The next survival feat was equally impressive, born from necessity as the men landed on the wrong side of the island.  To get to the whaling station for help and rescue of their friends Shackleton, captain Frank Worsley and second officer Tom Crean began to cross the ice-bound mountain tops of South Georgia  – never before attempted, including the 9000ft Mount Paget.  During their 36 hour ordeal without any rest they travelled across two snowfields, four glaciers and three mountain ranges: all of these unmapped and life threatening.  The last bit of their journey, being severely fatigued, dehydrated and shivering, Shackleton lowered his two friends down a partially frozen waterfall before abseiling down himself and waking the harbor master at Stormness whaling station, asking for help.

Panoramic view of South Georgia
Panoramic view of South Georgia

Lastly, the survival and rescue of the 22 men marooned on Elephant Island for more than 137 days is commendably in itself.  They used the two life boats to construct a hut of sorts  to stay warm. Due to the roughness of the sea it took four attempts by Shackleton and his men to rescue them, only managing to reach them with the steam boat Yelcho on 30 August 1917, two years and one month after their departure from England.

The Chillean steamer Yelcho
The Chillean steamer Yelcho

 

This story of endurance and courage is inspirational – in spite of the failure to cross the Antarctic – because Sir Earnest Shackleton succeed to bring all 28 the men home safely; they endured and survived the impossible together.  Part of their survival had to do with what Shackleton took with them as their ship Endurance was crushed by the pack ice: in spite of the lack of space in the three life rafts he instructed that they take a rugby ball, the gramophone as well as the big Bible.  He insisted that they daily laughed together, told stories and read the Bible together as encouragement in hope, daily played sports together, and daily sang together. For him, humour, story, song, playing and prayer was keys to endurance – and it proved true.

Football on ice
Football on ice
Gramophone for the penguins
Gramophone for the penguins

Shackleton was a God-fearing man who lived and lead though this ordeal with Godly courage and persistence.  Looking at his example of endurance, and comparing it with examples and teachings from the Bible, what can we apply to navigate through our own hardships with “Endurance”?

(1) Comfort of Scripture

As mentioned above, Shackleton ordered his men to rescue the ships’ big Bible and take it with them on their journey to safety, knowing that the Scriptures are in part a compilation of God’s miraculous deliverance and preservation of people in desperate circumstances, as were they.  Their faith in God’s salvation from this seemingly hopeless situation would be stirred as they read they reflect on the accounts of God’s awesome deliverance of individuals and communities as recorded in the Bible.

New Testament Authors encouraged their suffering communities to look at Old Testament characters (as well as their leader’s examples of steadfastness) to find strength to press on in faithfulness to God.  Paul reminded the persecuted church in Rome that whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4).  James encouraged the poor, persecuted church in Jerusalem to “consider the blessed who remained steadfast” with special reference to Job and the Old Testament prophets (James 5:10-11).  The author of Hebrews encouraged his suffering readers to “consider [Jesus] who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (Hebrews 12:3).  Thus they all pointed to the exemplary lives recorded in Scriptures for encouragement during difficulty.

The history of God’s faithfulness in Scripture comforts us during hardships because we see that we are not alone in hardship – many have been there; and the Biblical accounts testify to us that God is present during suffering to strengthen and preserve,  and that he is willing and able to save.   Thus the Scriptures comfort us and stirs our hope and faith in God.

(2) Companionship in community

Shackleton knew that for the 28 men to survive this ordeal, they should not just live in community, but also practice community.   That’s why he commanded that every one participate in four group activities daily: they eat together, play sports together, pray and reflect on Scripture together, as well as sing, tell stories and laugh together.  These moments of togetherness brought great encouragement and camaraderie amidst the protracted stressful times.  He understood and articulated that for the group to survive, each individual needed to survive.  If no-one gives up, the group endures.

In relation to their survival and community, I find C.S. Lewis’ quote on friendship quite fitting: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival.”   For the crew stranded in Antarctic, their community was a reason to endure in itself; their companionship gave both motive for and meaning to their survival.

(3) Celebration of life

Shackleton wrote in his journal during their long winter drifting on the pack-ice “As we clustered round the blubber stove, with the acrid smoke blowing in our faces, we were quite a cheerful company…Life was not so bad. We ate our evening meal while the snow drifted down from the surface of the glacier and our chilled bodies grew warm.” They were thankful for what they had; their companionship, warm food and their survival was reason to laugh.

Going through life with the optimistic perception of “glass half full” makes endurance possible, and life so much more pleasant.  Jesus put it this way (referring to money in the context of a financially oppressed Judea) The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”  (Matthew 6:22-23).  Shackleton lead his men on in “light-filled eyes”, celebrating what they had amidst a cold, seemingly hopeless situation.

Paul encouraged the persecuted church in Philippi to do the same, to emulate his discipline of focusing on the good and praiseworthy, so that “the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds” (Philippians 4:6-8). Instead of becoming anxious about trying circumstances he instructed them to pray about their situation, but “with thanksgiving”, helping them recognize and celebrate the goodness of God amidst difficult circumstances.  This is a worthy lesson to learn for anyone, anywhere.

Thanksgiving and celebration makes hardship tolerable and gives one strength to carry on. These disciplines gives strength in trying times by focusing attention on that which causes joy and gladness – truly, “the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10).  By focusing attention of the good it trains one’s perception to see what God is doing, recognizing that God is near, and “He will never is leave you, nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

(4) Continuing in hope

Shackleton never allowed his crew to give up.  They were always moving forward, always planning and preparing for tomorrow.  In his mind, and from his mouth, it was clear that they were going to get home to England.  He never gave up on hope, and never allowed the crew to slide into hopelessness, because he knew that hope is necessary for endurance.  If a person believes that nothing is going to change for the good, that person sinks in the mud of depression and hopelessness, and finds no reason to fight and or live on.  But if one believes that pushing forward today will be rewarded in the end, it is worth it.

The author of Hebrews frequently motivate endurance with the promise of reward (hope), for example you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise” (Hebrews 10:36) and later encouraging the readers to “run the race with endurance, looking to Jesus… who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, compare with 1 Thessalonians 1:3).  Jesus found strength to continue through tremendous suffering, his eyes fixed on the joyfilled reward at the end.

Paul imitated Jesus’ example, as he was a man who experienced great difficulty, including afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, …slander, …being poor” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10).  In another place he records “imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).  How did he endure these hardships?  He kept his eye on the reward, a “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8) saying “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18; see also 1 Corinthians 3:14, Colossians 3:23-24).   Paul joyfully pushed one through suffering in hope of eternal rewards in the Lord.  He reckoned that suffering briefly for eternal rewards was worth it, making these moments of pain bearable.

(5) Courage from God

Finally, God gives strength to press on in difficult times – to those who “wait on the Lord” (Isaiah 40:30-31).  I have over the years learnt from David, who knew the Lord as “my strength” (Psalm 18:1, 118:14, 140:7), to “seek the Lord and his strength” (Psalm 105:4) when my I feel weak or ready to give up.  I have learnt to “wait on the Lord [to] strengthen [my] heart” (Psalm 27:14), and also to “strengthen [myself] in the Lord [my] God” (1 Samuel 30:6) as David did in hopeless situations.  With the Shepherd-king I can witness that “the Lord gives strength to his people” (Psalm 29:11) when I set time aside to pray to God for courage, strength and hope to continue doing what he calls met to do, although everything in me wants to walk an easier road.

Paul also testified that Christ Jesus has given him strength in trying times (1 Timothy 1:12), and could therefore pray for the Ephesian church that God would strengthen their hearts (Ephesians 3:14-16) amidst the persecution, encouraging them to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10).   Thus we learn from Paul that one should find strength in God, but also that through encouragement and prayer from others one is strengthened by God.  From his example we learn that we should encourage one another joyfully and hopefully press on, to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees” (Isaiah 35:3) of those facing hardship around us.  Strength is found in God’s community.

Making it personal

If you are reading this as someone going through hardships now, I want to re-tweet the thrust of John’s message to the persecuted churches in Ephesus: “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” (Revelations 13:10, 14:12).  Although your suffering might not be religious oppression, you must know that your endurance is noticed and commended by Christ himself (Revelations 2:2, 19).  He will put and end to your suffering One Day (Revelations 21:3-5) and if you endure in faith to the end, he will give you your reward from him (Revelations 22:12).

And in the words of Paul: Run the race in such a way that you may revive the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24).Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12), and may “the God of endurance and encouragement” (Romans 15:5) strengthen you with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11).  “Press on, that [you] may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of [you]” (Philippians 3:2).

It is appropriate to close this lesson on endurance from the exemplary life of Sir Ernest Shackleton with the words from Winston Churchill, since he was the man who sent the last telegram to the Endurance crew as they left the London harbor for their trans-Atlantic expedition on August the 1st, 1914.  Later that day the war with Germany broke out, leaving the whole of Europe in turmoil for the next forty years.  On October 29, 1941, Churchill then Prime Minister visited Harrow School to hear some of the traditional songs he grew up with and address the learners.  Standing in the podium he stared at the youngsters long and hard, and then uttered the following short and urgent admonition: “Never give in – never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” [audio recording] During tough times let this phrase ring in your ears, as you remembering the enduring examples of Jesus, Shackleton, Paul, the prophets and the saints through the ages. Never give in!

Suffering, our good tutor

Writing this article, I am sitting in front of a casket of a faithful Christian minister who passed away un-expectantly, almost pre-maturely.  I am early for the funeral, and my heart is heavy for his children whom I know well.  Death brings grief, and the added shock of unexpected passing of a loved one leaves a sense of abandonment, and greater loss since there was no opportunity to say farewell.  Even more so if there was no time to reconcile hearts.  Furthermore, my mind and prayers keep going back to friends of ours who’s four-month old baby is in ICU again after heart surgery.  Things like these wear you down.

We suffer in many ways.  My wife and I have a list of people we pray for daily: beautiful single friends who long for a suitable mate to share life with, who suffer through loneliness and also some couples who long for a baby of their own to fill their arms.  I think of people in church who have been frustrated in the area of work, purpose and finances for quite some time – they wait, work and pray for some break-through.  There is the lady who has been battling leukemia for three years.  The friend who has been involved in a custody case for his son (who is in a very bad situation) for three years, but the case keeps on dragging out.  And yesterday I received a text message from a friend who let me know that her nanny and “second mother” to her three children has passed away after a serious heart attack; there will be tears in their house today.  No one escapes suffering. No amount of faith, no degree of devotion to God exempts us from suffering.

Over the past two decades much has been written on the detrimental effects of suffering, pain and trauma on the physical, psychological and spiritual well-being of a person.  Recently however, studies have been done on what is called “post-traumatic growth” or the positive growth effects of suffering, including gaining inner strength (resilience), become more appreciative of everyday things, growth in compassion and capacity for intimacy.  These findings do not surprise us since many of us can refer to some trying time in our lives as the turning point for positive personal or relational development.  Suffering is indeed a good school master.

The Bible has much to say on suffering and our approach to it.  Although God is not the author or origin of suffering the Bible teaches that God turns any situation for the good for his children (Romans 8:28-29) and that therefore one should approach suffering as an opportunity for God to complete a redemptive work in you or through it (see James 1:3-4; compare Hebrews 2:9-10).  In this article we will look at what the Bible says we benefit or learn from suffering.

(1) Allow suffering to tests your foundation

Charles H. Spurgeon wrote that “trials teach is what we are; they dig up the soil, and let us see what we are made of.”  We have all found this to be true: in trying times our character and relationships show itself for what it is; suffering is a good test of our true selves.  This is what the author of Hebrews also write to a church undergoing mounting persecution: “Yet once more I will not only shake the earth, but also the heavens.” [This] signifies the removing of those things that are shaken… so that the things which cannot be shaken may remain.” (Hebrews 12:27-28) Trying times tend to differentiate between that which is firm and stable in us (beliefs and character traits), and that which is not, and also to show that which has lasting value and that which is of temporal nature.

Jesus taught two parables that relate to this:  In the one he used the metaphor of two men who built houses – one on solid bedrock and another on unstable sand; when the same storm hit the two homes, one collapsed and the other stood through it.  The storm simply revealed the strength of the foundations (see Matthew 7:24-25); without the storm this could not be known.  A second parable is on the Sower and his seed which fell on various terrains and some germinated and sprung up.  However, when the sun comes up the seedlings in the shallow soil perish because “they have no root… in a time of testing they fall away” (Luke 8:13). The sun, representing a time of testing, simply reveals that these seedlings have no roots to sustain them; without the testing of the sun this could not be known.  It is a redemptive time of testing.

In a similar manner Moses also wrote of the suffering as a test, summarizing the purpose of the forty year wilderness wandering of the Hebrews firstly as a test, “to know what is in [their] heart” whether they will obey God or not (Deuteronomy 8:2-5).  Whatever the cause of suffering, it brings with it a test of our faith, our character, and our relationships (1 Peter 4:12).  Suffering, like any good tutor, helps us see ourselves for who we are, and shows us what areas we need to work on next.

(2) Suffering reminds us we need God

Apart from suffering bringing a test, Moses also stated the purpose of the forty year wilderness wandering was “to humble you.”  God kept the Hebrews in the wilderness for forty years, feeding them manna daily, to teach them that although they enter a fertile, rich land, they will always be dependent on His provision.  They ought to remember the LORD… for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18).  Their suffering was a way to teach them that they need God daily.

The apostle Paul personally experienced suffering as a tutor in humility, testifying that “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan harassing [him], to keep [him] from becoming conceited [or proud]” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8).  Although Paul begged God to deliver him from this suffering, the Lord simply said to endure it with the strength he provides.  In our suffering we learn that we are always dependent on God.

Another powerful example of this lesson from suffering is the account of the mighty emperor Nebuchadnezzar, who admired his great empire and ascribed the vast advancement of his empire to his own hand.  At that moment, a voice from heaven rebuked him and his mental capacity was removed from him and he lived among the wild animals for a time, until he acknowledged the hand and provision from God in all his success; only then he was re-instated as emperor.  His suffering taught him his dependence on God.

(3) Suffering helps us grow in intimacy with God (and others)

Suffering creates opportunity to know God in a depth and sincerity that we have not known before.  In my twelve years of pastoral ministry I have heard countless times that people say during (and after) their most difficult times in their lives “I have grown closer to God.”  Suffering allows one to re-evaluate what you believe, and also creates a desperation to get answers from God as Job did. That desperation in turn helps us cast away all pretense and diplomacy so that we can approach God in all earnestness and “rawness”.  Job received a reply from God he never anticipated, and said “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5).  Suffering allows us to get to know God as never before, and to grown in intimacy with him.

In addition to growing in intimacy with God, suffering allows us to grow in sincerity and vulnerability with those around us as our brokenness, weakness and needs cannot be hidden behind facades.  This creates the capacity and the reality for deeper, more honest and intimate relationships of those around us.  Even when the tough times pass, these relationships remain deep and strong because of the shared experience of suffering.

(4) Suffering helps us grow in Godly character

Like a baby who must learn to sleep alone or to soothe himself, casting aside the pacifier, growth is often associated with discomfort and suffering.  Suffering is not pleasant, but we learn from it and we are changed through it.  Suffering not only shows our weaknesses and strength (as mentioned in the first point), but it creates a good opportunity to realign our values, adjust our thinking and rethink our responses to situations – allowing for behavioral changes and ultimately character growth.  Suffering thus helps us to grow up, and therefore we should rejoice in it (Romans 5:3-4).  Do not shy away from difficulty but allow it complete its perfect work in us (James 1:2-4) by letting us grow up in the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29).

(5) Suffering teaches us resistance to temptation

Suffering teaches us resistance to temptations – that’s why we have public penal systems such as traffic fines and imprisonment, and why we have similar systems in schools and in our homes.  Suffering in its very nature helps to builds a resistance against the seduction of sin: Peter wrote to a church undergoing severe persecution that he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin” and no longer lives with fleshly cravings, but submitted to the will of God (1 Peter 4:1).  That is the reason why we chastise our children, with the aim that the undesirable behavior will seem no longer desirable.

This metaphor of suffering as chastisement is common in Scripture.  About 750 BC Isaiah the prophet wrote of the oppressive Assyrian Empire as “the rod of [God’s] anger” (Isaiah 10:5) – thus Israel’s suffering was God’s discipline to deliver the nation from the destructive, sinful habits, notably injustice to the poor and idolatry.  In the same manner, about 800 years later, the author of the letter to the Hebrews referred to the Roman persecution of those congregations as God’s loving chastisement (Hebrews 12:5-7) – to deliver them from the seduction of turning from Christ as the only Mediator and Savior in the light of severe suffering.

Many of us learned our own lessons through tough times brought about by our own bad decisions.

(6) Suffering gives us eternal perspective

Paul Alexander was my instructor during my theological studies.  In their book A Certain Life Paul and his wife Carol write of their darkest night when their son Jason collided with a truck and was battling death for more than a month in ICU (chapters 16-17).  They write that one of the outcomes of this ordeal for them as a family is that they have a renewed perspective – they are no longer thrown by petty things nor drawn in by temporal comforts or worldly pursuits. Their brush with death have taught them that life is short and relationships are precious, and now they make each moment count for eternity. With the apostle Paul, imprisoned and faced with death after years of suffering, they can say “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).  Elsewhere, Paul reflected om his suffering, comparing it with eternal rewards: “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.”  (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

The English poet Samuel Johnson said “nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.”  A morbid thought, but it is indeed true that suffering like the threat of death, has the ability to focus the mind on what is important, on that which has value in eternity.  Because of his suffering, Paul did not fear death nor waste time; he had an eternal perspective which translated in making the most out of every opportunity (Acts 20:24).  Suffering does the same for us.

(7) Suffering creates capacity for empathy and compassion

I had an exceptional mathematics lecturer during my first two years at university. Mrs Roux classes were always full due to students preferring her lectures above other more qualified professors teaching the same modules.  What made her an exceptional teacher – in her own confession – was that she struggled to understand mathematics in her student days and had to wrestle with the abstract models and concepts.  She admitted she was not as smart as the other lecturers who seemed to intuitively grasp these abstract concepts, but she had to work hard to really understand the work.  This gave her the edge over the other teachers since she herself understood what it was to struggle in mastering the coursework, and therefore patience to help those who wrestled with the work.

Furthermore Mrs Roux had sincere compassion for her students: I recall one day receiving a phone call as I prepared for a rewrite, wondering how I was doing – she called from a hospital bed recovering from an operation.  Her own struggle with mathematics made her an exceptionally supportive lecturer.

Suffering does that for us – it creates in us a capacity for empathy and even compassion, as Paul writes to the suffering church in Corinth “we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).  Even Christ himself was perfected through suffering (Hebrews 2:10-11) and therefore can sympathize with us in our weaknesses during trials (Hebrews 4:15-16).  Therefore we can approach him confidently, knowing Jesus has compassion for our circumstance.

In conclusion, looking at the mourners around me who gather around their deceased spouse, father, grandfather, minister and friend, I am reminded yet again that none of us escape suffering.  But suffering has the potential to be our tutor towards godliness.  So allow suffering to have its perfect way in us, don’t let these opportunities go wasted on self-pity or escapism.  Rather, let it reveal our true selves, remind us of our need for God, grow us into intimacy and Christ-like character, even as Jesus himself was perfected by it.  Let it deliver us from our sinful natures and create in us a capacity to show compassion and have empathy with those suffering like us.  Let us in our direst moments pray as our Lord did “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.”  (Matthew 26:42)