Jesus is the truth and speaks the truth. He is “the faithful and true Witness.” The Lord was about to tell this church the truth about its spiritual condition; unfortunately, they would not believe His diagnosis.
“Why is it that new Christians create problems in the church?” a member once asked me.
“They don’t create problems,” I replied. “They reveal them. The problems have always been there, but we’ve gotten used to them. New Christians are like children in the home: they tell the truth about things!”
The Laodicean church was blind to its own needs and unwilling to face the truth. Yet honesty is the beginning of true blessing as we admit what we are, confess our sins, and receive from God all we need. If we want God’s best for our lives and churches, we must be honest with God and let God be honest with us.
The church at Laodicea had become lukewarm. The believers did not stand for anything; indifference led to idleness. By neglecting to do anything for Christ the church had become hardened and self-satisfied, and it was destroying itself. Christ would discipline this lukewarm church unless it turned from its indifference toward Him. The Lord demonstrated four areas of need in the church at Laodicea:
1. They had lost their vigor (vv. 16–17)
Some believers falsely assume that numerous material possessions are a sign of God’s spiritual blessing. Laodicea was a wealthy city and the church was also wealthy. But what the Laodiceans could see and buy had become more valuable to them than what is unseen and eternal. Wealth, luxury, and comfort can make people feel confident, satisfied, and complacent. But no matter how much money you and I possess or how much money we make, we have nothing if we do not have a vital relationship with Christ.
In the Christian life, there are three “spiritual temperatures”: a burning heart, on fire for God (Luke 24:32); a cold heart (Matt. 24:12); and a lukewarm heart (Rev. 3:16). The lukewarm Christian is comfortable, complacent, and does not realize his need. The church at Laodicea was lukewarm, like many people today.
We enjoy a beverage that is either hot or cold, but one that is lukewarm is flat and stale. That’s why the waitress keeps adding hot coffee or fresh iced water to our cups and glasses. Unless something is added from the outside the system decays and dies. Without adding fuel the hot water in the boiler becomes cool; without electricity the cold air in the freezer becomes warm. According to the second law of thermodynamics, a “closed system” will moderate itself, so no more energy is being produced.
The church cannot be a “closed system.” Jesus said, “Without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The Laodicean church was independent, self-satisfied, and secure. “We have need of nothing!” But all the while, their spiritual power had been decaying; their material wealth and glowing statistics were nothing more than grave-clothes hiding a rotting corpse. Their Lord was outside the church, trying to get in (Rev. 3:20).
2. They had lost their values (vv. 17–18a)
In contrast to the church at Smyrna, who thought itself poor when it was really rich (Rev. 2:9), the Laodiceans boasted they were rich, when in fact they were poor. Perhaps we have here a hint of why this church declined spiritually: they had become proud of their ministry and had begun to measure things by human standards instead of by spiritual values. They were, in the eyes of the Lord, “wretched, miserable, and poor.”
Laodicea was a wealthy city and a banking center. Perhaps some of the spirit of the marketplace crept into the church, so their values became twisted. Why is it that so many church bulletins and letterheads show pictures of buildings? Are these the things that are most important to us? The board at the Laodicean church could proudly show you the latest annual report with its impressive statistics, yet Jesus said He was about to vomit them out of His mouth!
The solution? Pay the price to get true “gold refined in the fire.” This suggests the church needed some persecution; they were too comfortable (1 Peter 1:7). Nothing makes God’s people examine their priorities faster than suffering!
3. They had lost their vision (v. 18b)
The Laodiceans were “blind.” They could not see reality. They were living in a fool’s paradise, proud of a church that was about to be rejected. The Apostle Peter teaches when a believer is not growing in the Lord, his spiritual vision is affected (2 Peter 1:5–9). “Diet” has bearing on the condition of one’s eyes, in a spiritual sense as well as a physical one.
These people could not see themselves as they really were. Nor could they see their Lord as He stood outside the door of the church. Nor could they see the open doors of opportunity. They were so wrapped up in building their own kingdom that they had become lukewarm in their concern for a lost world.
What was the solution? Apply the “heavenly eye salve.” The city of Laodicea was noted for its eye salve, but the kind of medication the saints needed was not available in the pharmacy. The eye is one of the body’s most sensitive areas and only the Great Physician can “operate” on it, making it what it ought to be. As He did with the man whose account is told in John 9, He might even irritate before He illuminates! But we must submit to His treatment and then maintain good spiritual “health habits,” so our vision grows keener.
4. They had lost their garments (vv. 17–22)
These Christians thought they were clothed in splendor when they were really naked! To be naked means to be defeated and humiliated (2 Sam. 10:4; Isa. 20:1–4). The Laodiceans could go to the marketplace and purchase fine woolen garments, but that would not meet their real need. They needed the white garments of God’s righteousness and grace. According to Revelation 19:8, we should be clothed in “fine linen, clean and white,” and this symbolizes “the righteous acts of the saints.” Salvation means Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, put to our account; but sanctification means His righteousness is imparted to us, made a part of our character and conduct.
There is no divine commendation given to this church. Of course, the Laodiceans were busy commending themselves! They thought they were glorifying God, when in reality they were disgracing His name just as though they had been walking around naked. The Lord closed this letter with three special statements:
a) Explanation: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten” (Rev. 3:19a). He still loved these lukewarm saints, even though their love for Him had grown cold. He planned to chasten them as proof of His love (Prov. 3:11–12; Heb. 12:5–6). God permits churches to go through times of trial so they might become what He wants them to become.
b) Exhortation: “Be zealous therefore, and repent” (Rev. 3:19b). The church at Laodicea had to repent of their pride and humble themselves before the Lord. They had to “stir up that inner fire” (2 Tim. 1:6) and cultivate a burning heart.
c) Invitation: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with Me. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with Me on My throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with My Father on His throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 3:20–22). We often use these verses to lead lost people to Christ, but the basic application is to the believer. The Lord was outside the Laodicean church! He spoke to the individual—“if any man”—and not to the whole congregation. He appealed to a small remnant in Sardis (Rev. 3:4–5) and now He appeals to the individual. God can do great things in a church, even through one dedicated individual.
Christ was not impatient. He “knocks” through circumstances and He calls through His Word. What is He appealing? For fellowship and communion. He is appealing for the people’s desire to abide in Him. The Laodiceans were an independent church that had need of nothing, but they were not abiding in Christ and drawing their power from Him. They had a “successful program,” but it was not fruit that comes from abiding in Christ (John 15:1–8). It is only through communion with Christ that we find true victory and become overcomers.
As we have seen in this 5-part message the letters to the seven churches are God’s X rays, given to us so we might examine our own lives and ministries. Judgment is going to come to this world, but it first begins at God’s house (1 Peter 4:17). In these letters, we find encouragement as well as rebuke.
May the Lord help us to hear what the Spirit is saying today to the church and to the individuals in the churches!
As most people know, Philadelphia means “love of the brethren.” Certainly, brotherly love is an important mark of the Christian. We are “taught of God to love one another” (1 Thes. 4:9), but it is not enough to love God and our fellow believers; we must also love a lost world and seek to reach unbelievers with the Good News of the Cross. This church had a vision to reach a lost world and God set before them an open door.
Jesus Christ presented Himself to the church as “He that is holy.” Jesus Christ is holy in His character, His words, His actions, and His purposes. As the Holy One, He is uniquely set apart from everything else and nothing can be compared to Him. He is also the One who is “true”—that is, genuine. He is the original, not a copy; the authentic God and not a manufactured one. There were hundreds of false gods and goddesses in those days (1 Cor. 8:5–6), but only Jesus Christ could rightfully claim to be the true God. It is worth noting that when the martyrs in heaven addressed the Lord, they called Him “holy and true” (Rev. 6:10). Their argument was because He was holy, He had to judge sin and because He was true, He had to vindicate His people who had been wickedly slain.
Not only is He holy and true, but He has the authority to open and close doors. The background of this imagery is Isaiah 22:15–25. Assyria had invaded Judah (as Isaiah had warned), but the Jewish leaders were trusting Egypt, not God, to deliver the nation. One of the treacherous leaders was a man named Shebna who had used his office, not for the good of the people, but for his own private gain. God saw to it that Shebna was removed from office and that a faithful man, Eliakim, was put in his place and given the keys of authority. Eliakim was a picture of Jesus Christ, a dependable administrator of the affairs of God’s people.
In the New Testament, an “open door” speaks of opportunity for ministry (Acts 14:27; 1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 2:12; Col. 4:3). Christ is the Lord of the harvest and the Head of the church, and it is He who determines where and when His people will serve (Acts 16:6–10). He gave the church at Philadelphia a great opportunity for ministry. But could they take advantage of it? There were at least two obstacles to overcome.
The first was their own lack of strength (Rev. 3:8). Apparently, this was not a large or a strong church; however, it was a faithful one. They were true to God’s Word and unafraid to bear His name. Revelation 3:10 suggests they had endured some special testing and had proved faithful. It is not the size or strength of a church that determines its ministry, but faith in the call and command of the Lord. God’s commandments are God’s enablements. If Jesus Christ gave them an open door, then He would see to it that they were able to walk through it!
The second obstacle they had to overcome was the opposition of the Jews in the city (Rev. 3:9). Of course, this was really the opposition of Satan, for we do not battle against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12). These people may have been Jews in the flesh, but they were not “true Israel” in the New Testament sense (Rom. 2:17–29). Jewish people certainly have a great heritage, but it is no guarantee of salvation (Matt. 3:7–12; John 8:33).
How were these Jews opposing the church at Philadelphia? For one thing, by excluding Jewish believers from the synagogue. Another weapon was probably false accusation, for this is the way the unbelieving Jews often attacked Paul. Satan is the accuser and he uses even religious people to assist him (Rev. 12:10). It is not easy to witness for Christ when the leading people in the community are spreading lies about you. The church at Smyrna faced the same kind of opposition (Rev. 2:9).
The believers in Philadelphia were in a similar situation to that of Paul when he wrote 1 Corinthians 16:9—there were both opportunities and obstacles! Unbelief sees the obstacles; faith sees the opportunities! Since the Lord holds the keys, He is in control of the outcome! Nobody can close the doors as long as He keeps them open. Fear, unbelief, and delay have caused the church to miss many God-given opportunities.
The Savior gave three wonderful and encouraging promises to this church. First, He would take care of their enemies (Rev. 3:9). One day, these people would have to acknowledge the Christians were right! (Isa. 60:14; Phil. 2:10–11) If we take care of God’s work, He will take care of our battles.
Second, He would keep them from Tribulation (Rev. 3:10). This is surely a reference to the time of Tribulation John described in Revelation 6–19, “the time of Jacob’s trouble.” This is not speaking about some local trial because it involves “them that dwell on the earth” (Rev. 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 12:12; 13:8, 12, 14; 14:6; 17:2, 8). The immediate reference would be to the official Roman persecutions that would come, but the ultimate reference is to the Tribulation that will encompass the earth before Jesus Christ returns to establish His kingdom. In many Bible scholars’ understanding, Revelation 3:10 is a promise that the church will not go through the Tribulation, but will be taken to heaven before it begins (1 Thes. 4:13–5:11).
The third promise to the Philadelphians is God would honor them (Rev. 3:12). The symbolism in this verse would be especially meaningful to people who lived in constant danger of earthquakes: the stability of the pillar, no need to go out or to flee, a heavenly city that nothing could destroy. Ancient cities often honored great leaders by erecting pillars with their names inscribed on them. God’s pillars are not made of stone because there is no temple in the heavenly city (Rev. 21:22). His pillars are faithful people who bear His name for His glory (Gal. 2:9).
In a very real sense the church today is like the Philadelphian church. God has set before us many open doors of opportunity. If He opens the doors, we must work; if He shuts the doors, we must wait. Above all, we must be faithful to Him and see the opportunities, not the obstacles. If we miss our opportunities, we lose our rewards (crowns) and this means being ashamed before Him when He comes (1 John 2:28).
In Part 5, we will look at Christ’s message to the church at Laodicea, the lukewarm church.
I’ve been thinking about this subject, because we have a model. Our model is the first century church, which witnessed the biggest explosion not just in numbers of believers, but in power.
One thing we learn from that experience is that the church grows in numbers and effectiveness – not to mention to the glory of God – in times of persecution. Like these.
But let’s start at the beginning. What did Jesus teach His church to do?
I think it’s worth noting that His first instruction to His disciples, who numbered no more than a few hundred or thousand, was not to do anything except keep it together, be a comfort to each other and teach others.
They were ready to go restore the Kingdom to Israel. In Acts 1, He told them to forget that for a while. That would have to wait for Him to come back.
What was the first instruction from Jesus?
He commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father in the form of the Holy Spirit.
It wouldn’t take long. Jesus evidently knew that – because once the power fell upon them, this was their next and only assignment: “And ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
They would have to figure the rest out for themselves, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and all Jesus taught them.
It wasn’t the only time Jesus had given them this instruction. He also did so in Matthew 24:14: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”
It would seem to me we already learned two important lessons about the role of the church:
Make sure you are working under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Then, as Frank Sinatra would say, start spreading the news – the Good News, that is.
There are all kinds of debates going on in the American church today about “church planting,” “church growth strategies” and “how we must seek a new approach today with Christianity in decline.”
But I wonder if we’re going about this in an entirely wrong way.
For starters, if the goal is to reach the uttermost parts of the earth – not to mention our own neighborhoods – are we really waiting on the Holy Spirit? And are we really focused on evangelism?
I’ve heard that American-style “evangelism” largely consists of attracting people away from other churches. Here the American church is like one big revolving door. Some churches grow, others do not. Some wither away, others grow stronger and bigger. Yet neither of those ends has much bearing on what Jesus commanded us to do.
So, what did the first century church do?
Exactly what Jesus said to do.
They waited, got empowered and they turned the world upside down. Was that just for then?
I wonder. What I do know is that their church didn’t look like ours.
They met together. They prayed together. They ate together. They worshiped together. They comforted each other. They discipled. They edified. They fellowshipped. They glorified God. And they recited or read the Scriptures.
In the American church, we’re watching the clock. People can’t wait to get out of there.
I recently read that one large mega-church built a multi-lane overpass to ensure that they could get everyone out of the 35,000-attendee parking lot within 30 minutes of the close of service.
In how many churches have you experienced evangelism training or expeditions?
Isn’t that the urgent mission of the church? Why don’t we do it? Do you know I was 21 years old before anyone ever evangelized me – in America? Am I that unusual? What are we waiting for? Who are we going to recruit to do it, if not us?
That’s why the light is going out in America – because the Christian culture, which was healthy and vibrant in America when it was founded, has been ceded over to the world.
Meanwhile, what about elsewhere? Where is the church exploding? Where it is persecuted. You know that. That’s where the Holy Spirit is. That’s where miracles are taking place today – in China, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.
There have been some notable revivals in the U.S. over the years – but not one for some time.
Another thing we learn from the first century church is that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (Romans 10:17).
Does that still work?
I know it does for me. That doesn’t mean it works for everyone. Unless you believe everyone is going to be saved, nothing is going to work for everyone.
But I find it deeply disturbing that some pastors believe we should stop emphasizing the Word. Some say we should drop the Old Testament pretty much altogether. They say we should tell stories and attribute them to people rather than the Word of God.
Do we no longer believe in the Word of God? Are we ashamed of it? Are we ashamed of doing exactly what Jesus told us to do?
I don’t have all the answers, but I do have one.
Do you think there is a more important book than the Bible anywhere on earth?
Do you think getting people to crack it open would generally bring them closer to the Lord – maybe even get them saved?
Do you think God has changed His mind about the way He spoke the world into existence and revealed His plan to His children?
Is there really anything new under the sun?
Or, is it time for the church to start following instructions? Has the salt lost its savor? Or are we ready to be the salt and the light in the world again?
By the way, that’s one of the things the church is supposed to be.
Matthew 5:13-16: “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
That’s right. The church is supposed to glorify our Father in heaven.
We’re supposed to be Jesus’ heavenly bride. We’re His children if we are doing His will – yes, even in this age of grace. We all fall short of the mark, but the mark goes beyond salvation, does it not? Does He not take pleasure in us when we are obedient to His call, holy and surrender all to Him?
I don’t consider myself an expert on the church. But I do know how I came to know and love Jesus – and love Him more every day.
I would like everyone to understand that – not wishing that anyone would perish.
And that’s why I took several years to research and write “The Gospel in Every Book of the Old Testament.” I wanted people to see what I see when I look at the Bible – the most miraculous book in the whole world, one that has stayed the test of time, one that is fully integrated, singular in purpose, abounding in wisdom, cohesive and without contradictions, one supernatural message of repentance, revival, redemption and restoration from Genesis to Revelation.
It’s all about the Word. It will always be about the Word – whether its written on our hearts, etched in our minds or seared in our souls.
Jesus told us all to be evangelists. And that’s what I am doing right now.
I want to share “The Gospel in Every Book of the Old Testament” with you because I think it might open up the Scriptures to you, with the anointing of the Holy Spirit, bringing you not only the keys of everlasting life, but a place of honor in His Kingdom.
Note: “The Gospel in Every Book of the Old Testament” by Joseph Farah is available in both hardcover and e-book versions.
Sad to say the city at that time was but a shadow of its former splendor and the church, unfortunately, had become like the city—it was alive in name only. The message to Sardis is a warning to all “great churches” that are living on past glory. Dr. Vance Havner has frequently reminded us that spiritual ministries often go through four stages: a man, a movement, a machine, and then a monument. Sardis was at the “monument” stage.
But there was still hope! There was hope because Christ was the Head of the church and He was able to bring new life. He described Himself as the one possessing the seven Spirits and the seven stars. There is only one Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:4), but the number seven demonstrates fullness and completeness. The Holy Spirit gives life to the church and life is exactly what the people at Sardis needed. The sevenfold Spirit of God is pictured as seven burning lamps (Rev. 4:5) and as seven all-seeing eyes (Rev. 5:6).
All of the church’s man-made programs can never bring life, any more than a circus can resurrect a corpse. The church was born when the Spirit of God descended on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and its life comes from the Spirit. When the Spirit is grieved the church begins to lose life and power. When sin is confessed and church members get right with God and with each other, then the Spirit infuses new life—revival!
Christ also controls the seven stars, the messengers of the churches (Rev. 1:20), referring most likely to the pastors. Sometimes, it is a pastor’s fault that a church is dying and the Lord of the church must remove the star and put another in his place.
The problem in the Sardis church was not heresy, but spiritual death. The church was infested with sin. Its deeds were evil and its clothes soiled. The Lord has no words of commendation for this church, which looked so good on the outside, but was so corrupt on the inside. Nor is there any mention of opposition or persecution. The church would have been better off had there been some suffering because it had grown comfortable and content, and was living on its past reputation. There was reputation without reality, form without force. Like the city itself the church at Sardis gloried in past splendor, but ignored present decay.
In fact, even what they did have was about to die! Why? Because the believers had gone to sleep. It is when the church’s leaders and members get accustomed to their blessings and complacent about their ministry that the enemy finds his way in.
The assembly in Sardis was not aggressive in its witness to the city. There was no persecution because there was no invasion of the enemy’s territory. No friction usually means no motion! The unsaved in Sardis saw the church as a respectable group of people who were neither dangerous nor desirable. They were decent people with a dying witness and a decaying ministry.
Our Lord’s counsel to the church began with, “Be watchful! Wake up!” (Rom. 13:11) The people were asleep! The first step toward renewal in a dying church is honest awareness that something is wrong. When an organism is alive, there is growth, repair, reproduction, and power; if these elements are lacking in a church, then that church is either dying or already dead.
The Lord warned the Ephesian saints He would come and remove their lampstand if they did not repent (Rev. 2:5). He warned the church at Pergamos He would come and make war with the sword of the Spirit (Rev. 2:16). If the believers at Sardis did not follow His orders, He would come as a thief, when they least expected Him; and this would mean judgment.
However, a remnant of dedicated people often exists in even a dying church. The Christians at Sardis had life, even though it was feeble. They were working, even though their works were not all they could have been. The Lord admonished them to strengthen what remained and not to give up because the church was weak. Where there is life, there is hope!
What was different about this dedicated remnant? They had not defiled their garments (Rev. 3:4). The remnant in the church at Sardis had not compromised with the pagan society around them, nor had they grown comfortable and complacent. It was this devoted spiritual remnant that held the future of the church’s ministry.
“Wake up! Be watchful! Repent! Remember the Word you have received and obey it!” This is the formula for revival. It is good to guard our spiritual heritage, but we must not embalm it. It is not enough to be true to the faith and have a great history. That faith must produce life and works.
Is there a warning here that a true believer might lose his salvation? I don’t think so. Revelation 13:8 and 17:8 suggest the names of the saved are written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world—that is, before they had done anything good or bad. By God’s grace, they have been chosen in Christ before the beginning of time (Eph. 1:4; Matt. 25:34). They are enrolled in heaven because they have been born again (Heb. 12:23) and no matter how disobedient a child may be, he or she cannot be “unborn.”
The warning here is that we not grow comfortable in our churches, lest we find ourselves slowly dying. The encouragement is that no church is beyond hope as long as there is a remnant in it, willing to strengthen the things that remain.
In Part 4, we will look at Christ’s message to the church at Philadelphia, the faithful church.
Like their brothers and sisters in Smyrna the believers in Pergamos had suffered persecution, and one of their men had died for the faith. Pergamum was called the city “where Satan has his throne.” Surrounded by worship of Satan and the Roman emperor as god the church at Pergamos refused to renounce their faith, even when Satan worshippers martyred one of their members. In spite of intense suffering, this church had remained true to God. They refused to drop incense on the altar and say, “Caesar is Lord.”
The Lord’s description of Himself (“He who has the sharp, double-edged sword,” Rev. 2:12) would surely encourage the people. It was more important the church fear Christ’s sword than the Roman sword (Rev. 2:16). Just as the Romans used their swords for authority and judgment, Jesus’ “sharp, double-edge sword” represented God’s ultimate authority and judgment.
2. Accusation (vv. 14–15)
Despite their courageous stand against persecution the believers in Pergamos were not faultless before the Lord. Satan had not been able to destroy them by coming as the roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8), but he was making inroads as the deceiving serpent. A group of compromising people had infiltrated the church fellowship, and Jesus Christ hated their doctrines and their practices.
These infiltrators are called “Nicolaitans,” whom we met already at Ephesus (Rev. 2:6). The name means “to rule the people.” What they taught is called “the doctrine of Balaam” (Rev. 2:14). The Hebrew name Balaam means “lord of the people” and is synonymous with Nicolaitans. Sadly, this group of professed believers “lorded it over” the people and led them astray.
Understanding the story of Balaam helps us interpret this insidious group more accurately (Num. 22–25). Balaam was a true prophet who prostituted his gifts in order to earn money from King Balak, who hired him to curse the people of Israel. God prevented Balaam from actually cursing the nation—in fact, God turned the curses into blessings—but Balak still got his money’s worth. How? By following Balaam’s advice and making friends with Israel, and then inviting the Jews to worship and feast at the pagan altars.
“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” was their philosophy. The Jewish men fell right into the trap and many of them became “good neighbors.” They ate meat from idolatrous altars and committed fornication as part of heathen religious rites. Twenty-four thousand people died because of this disobedient act of compromise (Num. 25:1–9).
The Lord accused the Christians in Pergamos of sinning, of committing “spiritual fornication” by saying, “Caesar is Lord.” Of course, this compromise made them welcome in the Roman society and protected them from Roman persecution, but it cost them their testimony and their crown. A group in that church said, “There is nothing wrong with being friendly to Rome. What harm is there in putting a pinch of incense on the altar and affirming your loyalty to Caesar?” Antipas refused to compromise and was martyred; but others took the “easy way” and cooperated with Rome.
Believers today also face the temptation to achieve personal advancement by ungodly compromise. The name Pergamos means “married,” reminding us each local church is “engaged to Christ” and must be kept pure (2 Cor 11:1–4). We will see later in Revelation that this present world system is pictured as a defiled harlot, while the church is presented as a pure bride. The congregation or the individual Christian that compromises with the world just to avoid suffering or achieve success is committing “spiritual adultery” and being unfaithful to the Lord.
3. Admonition (vv. 16–17)
Antipas had felt the sword of Rome, but the church at Pergamos would feel the sword of Christ—the Word (Heb. 4:12)—if they did not repent. This is not a reference to our Lord’s return, but to a present judgment that comes to a church when it is disobedient to the Word of God. The Lord had presented Himself as a “sharp, doubled edged sword” (Rev. 2:12), so the church could not have been ignorant of its danger. As with the previous churches the closing appeal is to the individual: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says” (Rev. 2:17).
The longest message was sent to the church in the smallest city! Thyatira was a military town as well as a commercial center with many trade groups. Wherever societies were found, idolatry and immorality—the two great enemies of the early church—were almost always present too.
The city boasted a special temple to Apollo, the “sun god,” which explains why the Lord introduced Himself as “the Son of God” (the only time in Revelation this title is used). John had to deliver a message of severe warning and judgment to this congregation, which explains the description of the Lord’s eyes and feet.
1. Approval (v. 19)
The believers in Thyatira were commended for growing in good deeds. They were involved in sacrificial ministry for the sake of others. What’s more, their works were increasing and characterized by faith, love, and patience; so the church was not guilty of mere “religious activity.”
2. Accusation (vv. 20–23)
The Lord found much to expose and condemn in the assembly at Thyatira. No amount of loving and sacrificial works can compensate for tolerance of evil. The church was permitting a false prophetess to influence the people and lead them into compromise. It is not likely this woman was actually called “Jezebel,” since such an infamous name would not be given to a child. The name is symbolic: Jezebel was the idolatrous queen who enticed Israel to add Baal worship to their religious ceremonies (1 Kings 16–19). The seductive teaching of Jezebel was similar to the “doctrine of Balaam” which the Lord condemned in the church of Pergamos (Rev. 2:14). She taught believers how to compromise with the Roman religion and the practices of the society, so Christians would not lose their jobs or their lives.
It is interesting to contrast the churches at Ephesus and Thyatira. The Ephesian church was weakening in its love, yet faithful to judge false teachers; while the people in the assembly at Thyatira were growing in their love, but too tolerant of false doctrine. Both extremes must be avoided in the church. “Speaking the truth in love” is the biblical balance (Eph. 4:15). Unloving orthodoxy and loving compromise are both hateful to God.
Not only was the church at Thyatira tolerant of evil, but it was proud and unwilling to repent. The Lord gave the false prophetess time to repent, yet she refused. Now He was giving her followers opportunity to repent. His eyes of fire had searched out their thoughts and motives, and He would make no mistake.
In fact, the Lord threatened to use this assembly as a solemn example to “all the churches” not to tolerate evil. Jezebel and her children (followers) would be sentenced to tribulation and death! Idolatry and compromise are, in the Bible, pictured as fornication and unfaithfulness to the marriage vows (Jer. 3:6; Hosea 9:1). Jezebel’s bed of sin would become a bed of sickness! To kill with death means “to kill with pestilence.” God would judge the false prophetess and her followers once and for all.
3. Admonition (vv. 24–29)
Not everyone in the assembly was unfaithful to the Lord and He had a special word for them. They had separated themselves from the false doctrine and compromising practices of Jezebel and her followers, which Christ denounces as “the depths of Satan” (note the contrast in 1 Cor. 2:10). The Lord had no special demands to make; He simply wanted them to hold fast in their resistance to evil. “Until I come” refers to Christ’s return for His people, at which time He will reward them for their faithfulness (Rev. 3:3; 16:15; 22:7, 17, 20). This is the first mention in Revelation of the Lord’s coming for the church, the event we commonly call the Rapture (1 Thes. 4:13–18). In contrast, the reference in Revelation 1:7 is to Christ’s return to earth in judgment, to defeat His enemies and establish His kingdom (Rev. 19:11).
The believers in Thyatira are promised authority over the nations, which probably refers to the fact God’s people will live and reign with Christ (Rev. 20:4). When the Lord sets up His kingdom on earth, it will be a righteous kingdom with perfect justice. He will rule with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:8–9). Rebellious men will be like clay pots, easily broken to pieces!
As we review these first four messages to the churches, we can see the dangers that still exist for the people of God today. Like Ephesus, we can be zealous and orthodox, but at the same time lose our devotion to Christ. Like Thyatira, our love can be increasing, yet lacking in the kind of discernment that is necessary to keep the church pure (Phil. 1:9–11). Like Pergamos and Thyatira, we may be so tolerant of evil that we grieve the Lord and invite His judgment.
Would we have selected Smyrna as the most spiritual church of the four? Probably not, yet the Lord did! We need to remind ourselves not to judge God’s people by wrong standards because only the Lord can see the heart (1 Cor. 4:5).
God’s exhortation to these churches (except Smyrna) is, “Repent!” It is not only lost sinners who need to repent, but also disobedient Christians. If we do not repent and deal with sin in our lives and in our assemblies the Lord may judge us and remove our lamp stand (Rev. 2:5). How tragic it is when a local church gradually abandons the faith and loses its witness for Christ! “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches!”
In Part 3, we will look at Christ’s message to the next church.
If you have ever moved to a new community and had to select a new church home, you know how difficult it is to examine and evaluate a church and its ministry. Imposing buildings may house dying or dead congregations, while modest structures might belong to vibrant assemblies on the march for the Lord. The church we think is “rich” may turn out to be poor in God’s sight (Rev. 3:17), while the “poor” church is actually rich (Rev. 2:9).
Only the Head of the church, Jesus Christ, can accurately inspect each church and know its true condition because He sees the internals, not only the externals (Rev. 2:23b). In these special messages to the seven churches in Asia Minor the Lord gave each assembly an “X ray” of its condition. They are commended for their strengths and warned about their flaws. But He intended for all the churches to read these messages and benefit from them. (Note the plural “churches” in Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22.)
The Lord was also speaking to individuals, and this is where you and I come in. “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Churches are made up of individuals and it is individuals who determine the spiritual life of the assembly. Before Christ judges the world, He must judge His own people (Ezek. 9:6; 1 Peter 4:17). A purified church need never fear the attacks of Satan or men. As we go over these messages, we must apply them personally as we examine our own hearts.
The Ephesian assembly had enjoyed some “stellar” leadership—Paul, Timothy, and the Apostle John himself—but the Lord reminded them He was in control of the ministry, placing the “stars” where He pleased. How easy it is for a church to become proud and forget pastors and teachers are God’s gifts (Eph. 4:11) who may be taken away at any time. Some churches need to be cautioned to worship the Lord and not their pastor!
1. Approval (vv. 2–3, 6)
This was a serving church, busy doing the works of the Lord. No doubt their weekly schedule was filled with activities. It was also a sacrificing church, for the word labor means “toil to the point of exhaustion.” The Ephesian Christians paid a price to serve the Lord. They were a steadfast assembly, for the word perseverance carries the meaning of “endurance under trial.” They kept going when the going was tough.
The Ephesian church was a separated people, for they carefully examined the visiting ministers (2 John 7–11) to see if they were genuine. Paul had warned the Ephesian elders that false teachers would come in from the outside, and even arise from within the church (Acts 20:28–31) and John had instructed them to “try the spirits” (1 John 4:1–6). Indeed, Satan has his false ministers, and the church must be constantly alert to detect them and reject them (2 Cor. 11:1–4, 12–15).
The Christians at Ephesus separated themselves not only from false doctrine, but also from false deeds. Jesus commended the church for hating the wicked practices of the Nicolaitans. This was a sect who “lorded it over” the church and robbed the people of their liberty in Christ (3 John 9–11). They initiated what we know today as “clergy” and “laity,” a false division that is taught nowhere in the New Testament. All God’s people are “kings and priests” (1 Peter 2:9; Rev. 1:6), and have equal access to the Father through the blood of Christ (Heb. 10:19). We will meet this dangerous sect again when we study the message to the church at Pergamos.
The believers at Ephesus were a suffering people who patiently bore their burdens and toiled without fainting. And they did all of this for His name’s sake! As we examine this congregation up until this point, you may conclude they are just about perfect. However, the One among the lamp stands saw into their hearts and He had a different diagnosis.
2. Accusation (v. 4)
This busy, separated, sacrificing church really suffered from “heart trouble”—they had abandoned their first love! They displayed “works … labor … and patience”, but these qualities were not motivated by a love for Christ (compare with 1 Thes. 1:3). What we do for the Lord is important, but so is our motive for doing it!
What is this “first love” they had forsaken? It is the devotion to Christ that so often characterizes the new believer: fervent, personal, uninhibited, excited, and openly displayed. It is the “honeymoon love” of the husband and wife (Jer. 2:1–2). While it is true that mature married love deepens and grows richer, it is also true that it should never lose the excitement and wonder of those “honeymoon days.” When a husband and wife begin to take each other for granted and life becomes routine, then the marriage is in danger.
Just think of it: it is possible to serve, sacrifice, and suffer “for My name’s sake” and yet not really love Jesus Christ! The Ephesian believers were so busy maintaining their separation that they were neglecting adoration. Labor is no substitute for love; neither is purity a substitute for passion. The church must have both if it is to please Him. But the Ephesian church had fallen and was not living up to its heavenly position in Christ (Rev. 2:5). It is only as we love Christ fervently that we can serve Him faithfully.
3. Admonition (vv. 5–7)
Our “first love” can be restored only if we follow the three instructions Christ gave. First, we must remember (literally “keep on remembering”) what we have lost and cultivate a desire to regain that close communion once again. Then, we must repent—change our minds—and confess our sins to the Lord (1 John 1:9). Third, we must repeat the things we did at first, which suggests restoring the original fellowship that was broken by our sin and neglect. For the believer, this means prayer, Bible reading and meditation, obedient service, and worship.
In spite of the privileges the church of Ephesus had enjoyed, it was in danger of losing its light! The church that loses its love will soon lose its light, no matter how doctrinally sound it may be. “I will come” is not referring to the Lord’s return, but to His coming judgment then and there. The glorious city of Ephesus is today a heap of stones and no light is shining there.
Revelation 2:7 makes it clear that individual believers within the church may be true to the Lord, no matter what the majority is doing. In these seven messages the “overcomers” are not a “spiritual elite,” but rather the true believers whose faith has given them victory (1 John 5:4–5). Sinful man was banned from the tree of life (Gen. 3:22–24), but in Christ we have eternal abundant life (John 3:16; 10:10). We enjoy this blessing now and we will enjoy it in greater measure in eternity (Rev. 22:1–5).
The church of Ephesus was the “loveless church,” made up of careless believers who neglected their love for Christ. Are we guilty of the same neglect?
The name Smyrna means “bitter” and is related to the word myrrh. The Christians at Smyrna were experiencing the bitterness of suffering, but their faithful testimony was like myrrh or sweet perfume to God. The assembly at Smyrna was persecuted for the faith, which explains why the Lord emphasized His death and resurrection as He opened His message. No matter what experiences God’s people may have, their Lord identifies with them.
1. Approval (v. 9)
The church at Smyrna was not having an easy time of it! The church in this city struggled against two hostile forces: a Jewish population strongly opposed to Christianity, and a non-Jewish population that was loyal to Rome and supported emperor worship. The members were persecuted because they refused to compromise and worship the emperor. Smyrna was an important center of the Roman imperial cult, and anyone refusing to acknowledge Caesar as Lord would certainly be excluded from the society.
The believers in Smyrna suffered affliction and poverty. The word affliction means “pressure” or “crushing weight.” It resembles the persecution of God’s people in Egyptian slavery (Exod. 3:9; 4:31) and their exile in Babylon (Deut. 4:25–31; 28:47–68). As a result of affliction, these Christians were reduced to unemployment and poverty. The word used here for poverty means “abject poverty, possessing absolutely nothing.”
But they were rich! What a comfort it was for the Christians at Smyrna to know that Christ knew all about their sufferings: “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!” They lived for eternal values that would never change, riches that could never be taken away. “As poor, yet making rich” (2 Cor. 6:10; 8:9). Their suffering for Christ only increased their riches.
2. Admonition (vv. 10–11)
No words of accusation were given to the congregation in Smyrna! They may not have enjoyed the approval of men, but they certainly received the praise of God. Jesus commended the church for its faith in suffering and gave solemn words of admonition as they faced increased suffering: “Don’t be afraid!” More suffering was in store for the Smyrnians at the hands of the devil. The word devil means “slanderer,” “accuser,” or “adversary.” In the Old Testament the devil is like a public prosecutor (Job 1–2; Zech. 3). In the New Testament, he is the source of all falsehood and deception. God is allowing Satan to test the faith of Christians, providing the opportunity for them to show their commitment to suffer for Christ.
Jesus assured the church He knew the devil’s plans and He was in complete control of the situation. Some of the believers would be imprisoned and tried as traitors to Rome, yet their tribulation would not be long. Their affliction was to last only for “ten days.” In the Bible, ten days signifies “a brief time” (Gen. 24:55; Acts 25:6). The important thing was faithfulness, standing true to Christ no matter what the government might threaten to do.
The Lord reinforced the promise given by James (James 1:12) and assured His people there was nothing to fear. The “crown of life” was the winner’s crown awarded at the annual athletic games. Smyrna was a key participant in the games, so this promise would be especially meaningful to believers living there. Because they had trusted Him, they were overcomers—victors in the race of faith (Heb. 12:1–3)—and, as overcomers, they had nothing to fear. Even if they were martyred, they would be ushered into glory, wearing crowns! They would never face the awful judgment of the second death, which is the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14; 21:8).
It costs to be a dedicated Christian, in some places more than others. As end-time pressures increase, persecution will also increase; and God’s people need to be ready (1 Peter 4:12). The world may call us “poor Christians,” but in God’s sight we are rich!
In Part 2, we will look at Christ’s message to the next two churches.
Despite a global lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, some 117,000 people from around the world expressed an interest in committing their faith in Jesus after hearing the Gospel through virtual events hosted by evangelist Nick Hall and his young-adult ministry Pulse during the week of Easter.
Pulse led two major events during the week, namely, Leader Check-In and a Good Friday service that featured several high-profile Christian speakers, including Francis Chan, founder of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California, who now lives in Hong Kong.
“I’m guessing this is the strangest Good Friday you’ve ever had,” Chan told viewers during his quarantined Good Friday presentation broadcast in nearly 100 countries, including Japan, China, Nepal, Thailand, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Russia, and was translated into 40 different languages.
“You’re used to being in a church building with a crowd of people celebrating the cross of Jesus, but I actually think that there’s something fitting about you being alone because most of you are watching this by yourself or maybe with your family in just a small group,” he said, noting that being alone can be a golden opportunity to connect with God.
“That’s why there’s something good about you being alone right now. It’s one thing to yearn for Him and scream for Him when everyone else is there because the crowd may move you to that. But this Good Friday [it’s good] for you to have some quiet and some isolation so that the core of your being, not just your lips, the core of your being will connect with Him,” Chan said.
Other speakers featured during the Good Friday service were: renowned apologist Ravi Zacharias, bestselling author Max Lucado, NFL Super Bowl Champion and Hall of Fame Coach Tony Dungy, and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez. Worship was courtesy of Christian singers Lauren Daigle, Michael W. Smith, Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes.
“We were literally getting smartphone photos from all over the world — from Nigeria to India and China — of families gathering in their living rooms, around 18-inch cathode-ray TVs, laptops and HD screens watching our services,” Hall said in a release shared with The Christian Post about the collective reaction to the event. “The doors to our church buildings may have been closed, but the church has not closed. We are living through a Great Quarantine Revival, and I think God is just getting started.”
At the Leader Check-In event hosted on April 8, ministry leaders and pastors were encouraged ahead of the Easter weekend. Bible teachers and bestselling authors such as Ann Voskamp, Beth Moore, Chan, David Platt, Rodriguez, Priscilla Shirer and Lecrae offered practical advice anchored in the Word of God.
“This Easter may have been the most significant in a century,” Hall said. “The fields have never been more ripe for harvest as people search for hope and meaning during this global pandemic. It may very well be the greatest opportunity we’ve had to share the Gospel — but we will miss it if we don’t care for our pastors and ministers now.”
BY JEFFREY P. TOMKINS, PH.D. * | SEPTEMBER 10, 2019
Komodo dragons are the largest lizards in the world and a top predator on the remote Indonesian islands they inhabit. Their sensory system allows them to detect large prey, such as deer, over seven miles away. Although Komodo dragons are cold-blooded reptiles, they can rapidly increase their metabolism to near-mammalian levels for amazing bursts of speed and even long strenuous runs. Because of their highly venomous bites, all they need is one good chomp on their victim’s leg or foot and the poisoned prey will soon be the lizard’s lunch.
The Komodo dragon’s unusual traits have made scientists eager to sequence its DNA to see what sorts of genes it contains and how it compares to other creatures. This sequencing was discussed in a recent scientific publication.1
When the researchers compared the newly sequenced Komodo dragon genes that were common among reptiles, they found many startling traits specific to the Komodo dragon and many of these genetic novelties were associated with its remarkable mammal-like ability to exhibit high levels of sustained physical activity. Because the gene variations are unique to the Komodo dragon and very different from other reptiles, the genes were deemed to be the result of “positive selection”—a magic evolutionary phrase.2
A creature’s environment has no God-like ability to create new useful genetic information for complex multi-genic traits like those associated with complex metabolic functions. Evolutionists basically substitute the magic words “positive selection” or “natural selection” for something only an omnipotent God can do.
The researchers also used other magic words to explain their non-evolutionary findings as noted in this comment from a press interview in which they stated, “Our analysis showed that in Komodo dragons, many of the genes involved in how cells make and use energy had changed rapidly in ways that increase the lizard’s aerobic capacity.”2 In this case, the term “changed rapidly” means the genes were so different and unique that the idea of random mutational processes combined with the mystical paradigm of nature supposedly “selecting” for them could not account for the great differences observed.
It’s also highly noteworthy that the researchers reported actually throwing out data in their selection analysis where the variation was deemed “unreasonably high.”1 The data was actually manipulated to show less variability and, therefore, more in line with the evolutionary model. The stark reality is that these genes—specific to the Komodo dragon—were engineered to produce their unique God-given traits. No sign of evolution existed in the data even though the researchers cherry-picked it to favor evolution.
The bigger evolutionary (phylogenetic) analysis the researchers did comparing the Komodo dragon DNA to other reptiles, birds, and mammals also made no evolutionary sense—the patterns and groupings were totally different than predicted by standard evolutionary models. By all accounts, the data showed that Komodo dragons were created uniquely with their own specific God-given engineering.
1. Lind, A. L. et al. 2019. Genome of the Komodo dragon reveals adaptations in the cardiovascular and chemosensory systems of monitor lizards. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 3: 1241-1252. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-019-0945-8.
2. Guliuzza, R. 2010. Unmasking Evolution’s Magic Words.Acts & Facts. 39 (3): 10-11.
3. Gladstone Institutes. 2019. Komodo dragon genome reveals clues about its evolution. Phys.org Posted July 29, 2019. Accessed August 15, 2019.
By now, most know what the cancel culture is: something you did in your past will be used to silence, stop, and “cancel” you. Whether it’s Mike Lindell, whose pillow company lost many retailers after he publicly questioned the election, or Goya Foods, who upset people when they thanked President Trump, the cancel culture doesn’t tolerate opposing views. So much for being “tolerant.”
Do you see the irony? The cancel culture protects Cuties on Netflix and loves Cardi B lyrics, but they can’t stand Bible verses, worship songs, or views that oppose them. Dr. Seuss is bad, Dumbo is a racist, and Speedy Gonzales offends. Granted, things from the past may need to be changed from time to time, but if you focus on children’s books and cartoon characters and say nothing against child porn, human trafficking, little kids being intentionally confused about their gender, or the killing of innocent children in the womb, you’ve lost all credibility.
The Church—Friend or Foe?
I am not especially surprised by the actions of the world; it is simply being true to its fallen nature. Rather, it’s the actions of the so-called church that are disturbing. In 2020, the cancel culture in the church became a reality for me. I was scheduled to speak at a church in Palos Verdes, California, but when the assistant pastor found out that my political views differed from his, he complained to the elders, and just like that, I was canceled—never mind the fact that my message didn’t even touch on politics. Listen to it at #1 below, and let me know if a church should cancel this type of message or if it’s exactly what we need to hear.
I received another surprise in May of 2020. I had been corresponding with Pastor Jack Hibbs about opening our church on May 31. Once we decided to open, I was shocked by how many pastors came against us. I even shared with one prominent pastor in my area how happy I was when Pastor John MacArthur and the elders at Grace Community Church also opened. To my utter dismay, he wasn’t happy at all.
By this time, the shenanigans and the agendas of many political leaders were becoming apparent (more at #2 below). We not only had a legitimate virus to deal with but we had agendas and ulterior motives working against us as well. Would churches capitulate and use Romans 13 out of context, or would they meet to fast, pray, and contend for the truth? Would they be cowards or watchmen?
Around this time, our local newspaper also canceled my articles, which had been featured for over a decade. Many liberal Christians no doubt complained and swayed the editor. Facebook also shadow banned me, causing our audience to drop from a quarter-million people per month to around ten thousand. Apparently, my views didn’t fit their narratives. They, along with YouTube, also banned my video on vaccines and immunity and removed some of my sermons. (The banned video is #3 below.)
“My View is the Right View,” So They Say
One local pastor who still hadn’t opened his church a year into COVID told me that I was actually hurting the gospel because of my views. Apparently, you’re not allowed to share solid biblical teaching if you hold beliefs that oppose liberal “Christians.” “You’re hurting the gospel with your views unless your views align with my views,” so they say.
Then in July 2020 I was hit again. We held church services at JetHawk Stadium in Lancaster, California, and it wasn’t primarily unbelievers who were complaining. Other Christians and pastors were gossiping and backbiting. It is telling that none of them seemed to be excited that over 10,000 people attended the 4-month event and we had over 150 baptisms, the majority of which were spontaneous.
Sadly, within the church, the cancel culture is often fueled by jealousy and arrogance. “They don’t think like I think, so God cannot be using them,” goes the reasoning. There have been other groups throughout the ages who behaved in similar ways—the Pharisees come to mind, as well as the pastors and denominations who have stood against many of the past revivals simply because God had the audacity to use someone else and in a way that differed from them.
So while the cancel culture is not a new thing, it is new in America, and it’s on the rise. Our nation is increasingly polarized, with people unable to have civil conversations with those who have dissimilar views, and who actually take pleasure in destroying the lives and livelihoods of those who dare to have a different opinion.
Pleasing Man Rather Than God
As I wrote last week in my article on why churches should open, all pastors relate to COVID differently depending on their perspective and circumstances. They are under tremendous pressure and need more grace, not less. I’m sure that many do much good in their communities, and for that, I applaud them. However, I don’t think cowardliness should go unchecked, for “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17).
Let me state up front that without the Spirit of God, I’m a coward. Without deep seasons of prayer and fasting, I’m weak. Without extended times of heartfelt worship where I weep, repent, and realign my heart with Christ, I would drift from God. My heart breaks for the church, but the truth is that many Christians are being influenced by social media rather than by God’s Spirit and spend more time criticizing others rather than looking in the mirror and more time reading left-leaning liberals instead of reading and applying God’s Word. Like Samson, they do not know that the Spirit has departed (Judges 16:20).
Sadly, many pastors are joining the cancel culture, keeping their church doors locked and aligning with ungodly organizations because they have either lost the compass of truth or the boldness of the Spirit—or possibly both. They are distant from Christ, and therefore seek to be pleasers of men rather than lovers of God: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
They may cancel people, ideas, concepts, videos, articles, and sermons, but they can never cancel God!
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We have had an unusual week here in Southern California, as you know, and yet it’s not something unexpected. We have had our lives dominated this past week by the horrific fire storms that have torched Southern California. The combination with which we are very familiar, severe drought, dry brush, excessive heat, dry Santa Ana winds with gusts up to 100 miles an hour, fallen power lines, and a few crazy arsonists have engulfed our communities in an inferno that has for a while, at least, put a million people out of their homes, the largest mass evacuation of people in the history of the state of California.
We are all fully aware of the terrible danger of wind and fire in our community. We see it with our own eyes and have friends who even lost their homes in these fires last week. But fire is not new. We’ve seen it before here in Southern California. The world has seen it throughout all of its history, really. In fact, the world has a long history of fire. Though we can’t do without fire — even the ancient world was dependent on fire for warmth, dependent on fire for cooking — fire could also destroy and fire can also kill.
Just in the last few hundred years, there have been some severely devastating fires even in our own country. In 1846, a period of twenty years of fires in the state of Oregon burned about two million acres of forest there. 1871, a very famous fire took place in Wisconsin, it burned 1.2 million acres and it started the same day as the famous Chicago fire which burned down the city of Chicago to the ground and thousands were consumed in that fire.
This year in our own United States there have been massive fires in Georgia, Florida, Utah, Idaho, more in California burning at least two million acres of brush. And you can throw in fires from Australia and Poland and Greece and Italy and France and Spain and Portugal and Bolivia and Brazil and…and particularly in Indonesia. Over the last 25 years there have been some amazing fires in Indonesia. In 1982 and ’83, one fire in Indonesia burned nine million acres of forest. A lot of lives were lost in 1997 and ’98, another part of Indonesia, east Sumatra, 24 million acres consumed in a fire. In fact, some scientists calculated 2.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide unleashed into the atmosphere out of that fire.
And we all know about city fires through history. Amsterdam has burned; London; Stockholm; Copenhagen; Washington D.C.; Rome; Philadelphia; Canton, China; Santiago, Chile; Moscow; Montreal; Tokyo; New York; Detroit, Pittsburgh. We don’t think of the Pittsburgh fire. That was in 1845. One thousand buildings burned to the ground in Pittsburgh. Boston, Vancouver, Seattle, Shanghai. One of the most amazing fires that I’ve ever been made aware of on my several visits to Nova Scotia was the fire that ensued in the harbor of Halifax, capital of Nova Scotia, when the largest explosion pre-atomic bomb in the history of the world took place. A munitions ship sitting in the harbor exploded and literally set the entire city on fire. Volcanic fires, fires from incendiary devices and bombs, fires from atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; deadly fires have been long a part of human life.
And in a more primitive time in the world, fire was a very real danger for those people who lived in structures that were flammable and most of them did. But the fires that we have seen, the fires that we will see, are really just a preview of the fires that are going to come into this world in the future because just prior to the time when the Lord Jesus returns, this world is going to experience some fires the likes of which they will not be able to comprehend. Revelation chapter 8 takes us forward to the period of the tribulation just before Jesus returns to judge and to reign, to judge sinners and to establish His kingdom for His saints. Just prior to His coming judgment will be unleashed on this world. One of the forms of that divine judgment will be fire.
Revelation chapter 8 verse 6, “The seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound them.” These are angels and each blows a trumpet and the blowing of that trumpet unleashes a judgment. “The first,” in verse 7, “sounded. There came hail and fire mixed with blood. They were thrown to the earth. A third of the earth was burned up and a third of the trees were burned up and all the green grass was burned up. And the second angel sounded and something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea and a third of the sea became blood, a third of the creatures in the sea and had life died, a third of the ships were destroyed. Third angel sounded. A great star fell from heaven burning like a torch.” Fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. “The name of the star is wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood. Many men died from the waters because they were made bitter.”
And so, fire will come and consume the grass, a third of the green plants, and even pollute the sea and pollute the fresh water. In the 9th chapter of the book of Revelation and verse 17, the end of the verse mentions fire, smoke, and brimstone. A third, verse 18 says, of mankind was killed by these three plagues, by the fire, and the smoke, and the brimstone. A third of the plants, a third of the trees, and now a third of the population of the earth destroyed by fire.
In the 14th chapter of the book of Revelation, there is a judgment that comes from an angel and verse 18 introduces that angel to us with these words, “And another angel, the one who has power over fire.” Fire is so much a part of judgment that there is a super angel who is in charge of fire to be dispensed in divine judgment.
Chapter 16 and verse 8: Here are more angels, not trumpets this time but bowl judgments. And in chapter 16 verse 8, “The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun and it was given to it to scorch men with fire and men were scorched with fierce heat and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues and they did not repent so as to give Him glory.” God has power over the fire. God has assigned angels to dispense that fire to this earth. And that will even include the sun becoming a source of fierce heat that sets people, as it were, on fire.
In the 19th chapter of the book of Revelation and verse 19, at the time when the nations of the world gather to fight against the saints, gather to fight against Christ, it says in verse 19 of chapter 19, “I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, their armies assembled to make war against Him who sat on the horse,” meaning Christ, “against His army,” those are the saints. The beast was seized; with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image. These two were thrown alive into the Lake of Fire which burns with brimstone.” This is the fire of eternal hell.
The 20th chapter and the 10th verse, “The devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the Lake of Fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are and they’ll be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Verse 15, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the Book of Life, he was thrown into the Lake of Fire.” Fire has a very prominent place in the future. In the future of this earth, God literally will torch this planet so that one third of its plant life is destroyed and one third of its population is destroyed by fire. And even hell is described as a Lake of Fire. Fire has played a deadly role in the history of humanity. It continues to escalate and escalate and escalate and it will find its final form in those future days of tribulation that I just read you, when the Lord unleashes fire as a part of His divine judgment in a deadly way, way beyond anything imagined, just before the return of Jesus Christ.
Should we be surprised by this? No, because this is exactly what Jesus said life would be like. Let’s go back to Luke 21, Luke 21. And as we go back to Luke 21, we are sitting on the slope of the Mount of Olives with Jesus and His disciples. And He is telling them about the future, telling them about the future. He is telling them what to expect. They are asking Him, “When are You going to establish Your kingdom?” When is going to come the end of this age and the beginning of the glorious golden age? When are You going to take Your power? And what should we be looking for as a sign that this is going to happen?
Mark 13:3 and 4 actually tells us that four disciples posed these questions: Peter, James, John, and Andrew. They posed them on behalf of the rest. But they all wanted to know. Jesus had just walked out of the temple for the last time, never to return again until He comes in glory in the future. He turned around with them. They looked at the temple. Jesus said, this temple is coming down, “not one stone will remain on top of another stone.” Forty years later that’s exactly what happened. And they tore down every stone because the Romans came in 70 A.D., set the temple on fire, consequently the gold that was all over the walls melted and ran down into the cracks of the stone. And in order to dig out all the gold, they took every stone apart. Jesus said it would happen that way, that’s exactly what happened forty years after this, no one can know the future, not forty years into the future but God Himself. And if He knows the future in forty years, believe me He knows the future in thousands of years just as well. No man even knows what tomorrow will bring. He knew. He said in verse 6, “These things you’re looking at, the day will come when there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down.” He was right. Forty years later that’s exactly what happened. And, folks, Jesus said that because He wanted us to know that what He says about the future is exactly the way it will be. And that was the proof. He was dead right about that, forty years later. You can trust Him for the whole future. If He tells you it’s going to happen, believe me, it will happen and you have proof that He knows the future.
So starting then in verse 8, He begins to describe for them what the future will be like before He comes. The highpoint of this…this lesson that He gives through the whole 21st chapter is in verse 27. And in verse 27 He says, “The Son of Man is coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” Yes He is coming. Yes He is coming in power and great glory. But before He comes there are some things this world must experience. So you have the promise of His coming in verses 24 to 28. You have the preliminaries to His coming in verses 7 through 24: What is life going to be like before Jesus comes? And here is His description of it. First of all, we have learned there will be deceivers, verse 8. He said, “See to it that you be not misled for many will come in My name saying, ‘I am He and the time is at hand.’ Do not go after them.” Religious deception will abound. It will grow, as we already learned. It will flourish. It will escalate. It will enlarge. It will engulf the world so that while the true church grows, while true Christianity flourishes, while the Lord builds His church and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it, while the true seed is bearing fruit in the true church, there will grow a false form of Christianity out of all proportion that will be far larger than the real thing. The deception in the name of Christianity will flourish. False messiahs, false christs, false teachers, false prophets, false forms of Christianity as well as false forms of every other kind of religion, expect it and we have seen it.
Secondly, disasters will come. Disasters, verse 9, “When you hear of wars and disturbances, do not be terrified for these things must take place first. But the end does not follow immediately.” There’s the indication that there’s going to be some events that happen before the end when He comes to judge and to reign, namely wars and disturbances. What did He mean by that? Verse 10: “He continued by saying to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom.” That defines the wars.
Disturbances are defined this way. Verse 11, “There will be great earthquakes and in various places plagues and famines. There will be terrors and great signs from heaven.” into which category you can put wind and fire, wind and fire. We’re not surprised. We’re not surprised at all because we expect these kinds of things to happen because Jesus said they would happen. Things from the sky like the wind, terrors like fire torching cities and lands and people. Jesus said expect this. Don’t expect things to get better. Don’t expect the world to get better. Don’t expect to be delivered from all the difficulties of life. It’s going to get worse and worse and worse because evil men get worse and worse and worse. The consequences of sin get worse and worse. And this is a scarred, stained, cursed planet groaning for its redemption and suffering the consequences of the Fall. Expect then deception, expect disaster.
Human life will also in a very particular way be defined by a third component: distress, and in particular distress of Christian believers by persecution, distress of Christian believers by persecution. Look at verse 12. And I believe this would have been the hardest thing for them to comprehend. But before all these things, before nations start making war with other nations, before kingdoms start taking on kingdoms and you have wars stretching across the globe, before massive earthquakes, great plagues, great famines, terrors from the sky, all of these kinds of things, before that, in other words, most immediately this is what will happen. “They will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake.” Persecution of the disciples of Christ, that very group to whom He was speaking, which certainly included the twelve and perhaps some others who were true followers of Jesus, the first thing that’s going to happen is the opposite of what you would expect. This is so shocking to them. Wars are one thing. They’re sort of outside of us. Plagues and famines and earthquakes and fires and hurricanes and tornados and volcanoes and all those other cataclysms of earthly life are outside of us. They could understand that that could be a reality because that had already been a reality. But persecution? Their whole theology said when the Messiah comes, with the coming of Messiah comes the golden age. Even after hearing Jesus say this they couldn’t swallow it because they went right from here into discussions about which of them was going to be the greatest in the kingdom; which of them again — the same old deal — is going to sit on His right hand and on His left hand. This was all about their glory. This was all about the golden age when God was going to exalt Israel and when the Messiah would certainly exalt those who believed in Him, when they would be lifted into prominence and influence and power, when they would have the fulfillment of all their expectations and everything the Old Testament prophets had predicted.
Persecution? This was just absolutely opposite anything they would have imagined. Before any of this other begins to really do its damage, you’re going to be persecuted. In fact, specifically they will lay their hands on you. That’s arrest language. They will arrest you and they will, having arrested you, deliver you to the synagogues for trial and then put you in prison. That’s the form of persecution. Synagogues, by the way, contained the Jewish local courts. In every village, in every town there were synagogues. In those synagogues was the dispensing of local justice, both criminal and civil. Twenty-three judges usually were required to sit and adjudicate on the cases that were brought to the synagogue court.
To be brought, by the way, before that court, was considered a severe discrediting and indignity. The court would listen to the case, the court would make a decision, that is the judge would render his verdict, and punishment was executed immediately on the spot. Generally speaking, since the Romans had not allowed the Jews to have the right of capital punishment, the Jews would have to do something to punish people short of stoning them to death. And so they would scourge them with whips. The way Jesus was scourged, in fact, by the Romans was the typical way the Jews scourged the guilty. One judge would recite an appropriate psalm or Old Testament text that had something to do with the crime committed. The second would count the blows. And a third would command the blows and a servant of the synagogue, he was called, would deliver the blows and they would come immediately upon the adjudication and in full public view.
In the case of these believers, they would not only be scourged, but they would be put in prison. This is just more than they could possibly process. Now remember, they expected Jesus to conquer the Romans, not to be crucified by the Romans. They expected Jesus to be received by the Jews and exalted as Messiah, not to be hated by the Jewish leaders who plotted His death with the Romans. They expected the Messiah to capture the whole nation of people, not to be rejected by the whole nation of people. To process that Jesus is rejected by the people and by the leaders, to process that He has not developed an army, that He’s not going to conquer the Romans, that He’s not going to establish His power and His throne, but rather that He keeps talking about dying and leaving, this is more than they could handle. In fact, it was so hard for them to handle that even after He died and rose and spent days teaching them, before He ascended, they said in Acts 2, “Will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” They did not see a gap before a first and second coming. They saw everything the Messiah was going to do happening at the time He came and He came once. And now they hear, not only are we not going to sit on His right hand and left hand there isn’t going to be any kingdom now. Not only are we not going to be exalted and elevated and given positions of power and influence, we’re going to be persecuted. This is absolutely antithetical to anything they would have imagined, contrary to all their thoughts. Jesus said it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen at the hands of the Jews.
How do you know that? Because, He says they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and then from there to the prisons. And they had prisons. This is Jewish persecution of the followers of Jesus. Not only that though, there will be Gentile persecutions. They will also be bringing you before kings and governors. There was no king and no governor in the Jewish social structure. The kings were Herods. They were Idumeans. They were non-Jews. And the governors were Romans. So now you have not only the promise of Jewish persecution, but of Gentile persecution. The whole world is going to gang up on you.
And that is certainly what happened. If you go in to the book of Acts, it doesn’t take you very long to find out that the persecution breaks out immediately in the book of Acts and it comes from the Jews. It starts in chapter 3. You see it in 4, 5, 8, 12, 13, 14, 21, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, persecution by the Jews, of Christians. And as you keep reading in the book of Acts, you see the gospel extend, chapter 13, toward the Gentiles. Gentile persecution starts to break out. You see it in chapter 16, 17, 18, 21, 24, 25, 26. The whole world gangs up on them. It is exactly as Jesus said it would be. He said expect to be persecuted. You will be persecuted by Jews and Gentiles.
Why? End of verse 12, “For My name’s sake.” They persecute you because they hate Me. They persecute you because they hate Me. That’s the issue. It isn’t that Christians are unkind, unlovable, not nice. It’s what they represent that the unregenerate Jews and Gentiles hate. They represent the gospel, which indicts all these as sinners on their way to hell who need to repent and believe in Jesus Christ, and that’s the only way to be saved. They hate that message. They hate the Christ of the gospel.
So they have to be scratching their heads and saying, “This is not according to the plan.” But Jesus gives them hope in verse 13. And He says this, “It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony.” I love that. It’s going to open up the door for you to take the gospel everywhere. You remember what Paul said in Philippians chapter 1, that since he was a prisoner the gospel was furthered by his chains, and even brought into Caesar’s household so that he had led some in Caesar’s household to the knowledge of the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. The persecution of the church always brings gospel opportunity. Persecution of the church always purifies the church. The persecution of the church always makes the church strong, it makes the church bold.
And a parallel passage, and remember now, Luke 21, teaching of Jesus here, is part of what He said. The rest of what He said is contained in Matthew 24 and Mark 13, combine all of those. But in Matthew 24:14, this Jesus said as well on this same occasion, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations. Then the end shall come.”
Before the end comes, the gospel is going to go to the end of the world. Well they might have wondered how that could happen then. How could that possibly happen? How could it possibly happen that the gospel could go to the end of the world when we’re going to be arrested, imprisoned and killed? That’s only part of the story. It’s going to create opportunity for your testimony. Persecution of Christians has allowed Christians to give, strong, bold, confident, faithful testimony to the glory of the gospel. You read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. I’ve been reading it my whole life, just pieces and bits, and pieces, and over and over again. And you hear these incredibly stirring, beautiful testimonies of those who were brought to the edge of the flames, about to be burned to death, or to the edge of the sword, or the guillotine for their love for Christ and how powerful their testimony is now resounding.
And so, in verse 14 the Lord says, “Make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves.” Don’t worry about this. Don’t think you’ve got to…This is literally technical language in the Greek for preparing and rehearsing a speech. Don’t do that. Make up your minds not to literally beforehand practice what you’re going to say. No need. Why? Because, verse 15, “I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute.” I will give you what to say.
This isn’t the first time the Lord told them that. This is not the first time the Lord told them they’re going to be persecuted. But it was so hard for them to grasp even though He said it again and again. Going way back into Matthew chapter 10, way back in the early part of His ministry He said this to them in verse 17 of Matthew 10, “Beware of men. They will deliver you up to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you shall even be brought before governors and kings for My sake,” same thing, Jewish persecution and Gentile persecution, “as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles.” Verse 19, “But when they deliver you up, do not become anxious about how or what you will speak, for it shall be given you in that hour what you are to speak, for it is not you who speak, it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.” Ah, what a promise. Don’t worry, don’t be fearful. Don’t wonder whether you’ll be able to say the right thing in that hour, in that moment.
I remember reading some of the literature down around the time of John Calvin. And there were young ministers writing John Calvin passionate letters, pleading with him to teach them what to say when they had to stand before the martyrs’ guillotine. And what did Calvin need to teach them to say? Nothing, but to depend upon the promise of God who said, “In that hour the Spirit will tell you what to say.”
In Mark 13:11, “When they arrest you and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand about what you are to say but say whatever is given you in that hour for it is not you who speak but it is the Holy Spirit.”
Again, much earlier in the Lord’s ministry, in Luke 12, verses 11 and 12, “When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not become anxious about how or what you should speak in your defense or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” That is so clear. There is nothing ambiguous about that. Don’t worry about it. You’re going to be persecuted. That’s right. You’re going to be persecuted. It will give you an opportunity to give a testimony to the gospel, to make a good confession of the gospel and your faith in Christ. Don’t worry about what you’re going to say, the Holy Spirit who dwells within you will show you what to say, and in such a way that none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute you.
You can go through the book of Acts and you can see illustrations of this, how that when they were brought before the authorities they said exactly the right thing, for which the authorities had no response. Even in my little world, I have rested on this promise. I get myself in situations where I’m under fire from people who hate the gospel, sometimes on worldwide television. And people ask me, “How do you prepare for that?” And I have always said this, “I prepare for that by simply trusting in the Holy Spirit.” I’m actually excited. It’s an adventure. I’m eager to find out what I’m going to say. And sometimes I’ll replay it and I’ll say, “Wow! That was pretty good.” But they’re never a match for the truth. They’re never a match for the truth.
Yes, on the world stage there will come relentless persecution. Don’t worry, it’s going to come. You need to know it’s going to come because that will insulate you against it. You don’t need to be surprised by this.
Now He’s already told them way back as we read in Matthew 10 and Luke 12. But let me show you John 14. John 14 is Jesus with His disciples the next night. This is Wednesday when He’s on the Mount of Olives talking about His Second Coming. The next night is Thursday. He’s in the upper room. He’s having Passover with His disciples. This is one day later. And in John 14:29 He is talking to them, all through this section, from the 13th chapter on, but look what He says in 29. “I have told you before it come to pass that when it comes to pass you may believe.”
So what He’s doing is telling them to expect persecution so when persecution comes they won’t be surprised and say, “Hey, this whole thing’s gone south on us.” Chapter 15, drop down to verse 19…well, verse 18, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.” This is one night later He’s telling them this. “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. You’re not of the world, but I chose you out of the world. Therefore the world hates You. Remember the word that I said to you. A slave is not greater than his master, if they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.” I’m telling you this.
Now go down to chapter 16 verse 1, and He says why. These things I’ve spoken to you that you may not be…that you may be kept from stumbling. “These things I’ve spoken to you that you may be kept from stumbling.” I don’t want you to falter and fail when persecution comes because you didn’t expect it.
Verse 2, “They will make you outcasts from the synagogue but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he’s offering service to God.” The Jewish persecution will come and they will think they’re serving God in persecuting you. “These things they will do because they have not known the Father or Me.” The Jews not only do not know the Son, they do not know the Father either.
Then verse 4 is the key verse. John 16:4, “These things I’ve spoken to you that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you of them, and these things I didn’t say to you at the beginning because I was with you.” As long as I was with you, I took the heat. As long as I was with you, I took the fury. As long as I was with you, I took the animosity. When I’m gone, it’s coming to you and you need to know it. You need to know it.
Now back to Luke. How intimate will this persecution be? Verse 16 of Luke 21, “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends and they will put some of you to death and you will be hated by all on account of My name.” Everybody is going to hate you on account of My name, right down to your intimate circle of friends and family. You’re not just going to be hated by the Gentiles. You’re going to be hated by the Jews. You’re not going to be hated by just the Jews. You’re going to be hated by your own parents and your own brothers and sisters who resent the gospel. You’re going to be hated by everyone because of My name, for My name’s sake, because you identify with Me.
I’m telling you this now so that when it comes you will remember that I told you and you won’t stumble. Expect it. Expect it.
Is that the way it worked out? Was Jesus right? Well He was right about the wars. He was right about the earthquakes. He was right about the famines and the plagues. He was right about the terrors in the sky, the wind and the fire. He was right about all of those things. He was right about the destruction of the temple, not one stone upon another. You can go there today, stand there, and you will not see two stones on top of each other where the temple was. He was right about that.
Was He right about the persecution? Oh yeah. And did it come before anything else? Absolutely. From its inception on the Day of Pentecost, here’s a little history, from its inception on the Day of Pentecost, the church of Jesus Christ began to face Jewish hostility. All you have to do is look at the church. The church starts in Acts 2. In Acts 3 Peter and John heal a man crippled from birth. In response to the healing, Peter preaches a powerful, evangelistic sermon in Acts 3. And then we read this in Acts 4, “The priests, the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, being greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead and they laid hands on them and put them in jail until the next day for it was already evening.”
The church starts in chapter 2. Peter preaches his first sermon in chapter 3. They’re put in jail in chapter 4 before anything else could happen, as exactly as Jesus had stated it. Shortly after that, however, stung by the phenomenal growth of the church, 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost and thousands more soon after, you come in to chapter 5, the next chapter in Acts, and what do you read? “The high priest rose up along with all of his associates, that is the sect of the Sadducees, filled with jealousy they laid hands on the apostles and put them in a public jail.” Just exactly what Jesus said would happen at the hands of the Jews. That’s chapter 5.
You come to chapter 6. You meet Stephen, a servant in the church. Stephen is falsely accused. He is arrested by the Jews. He is put on trial before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council. And then he is, in chapter 7, stoned to death. After his death, you come to chapter 8. How does chapter 8 begin? With a general persecution breaking out against all Christians, spear-headed by none other than a man named Saul of Tarsus. The persecution begins and it spreads.
It finally reaches the apostles in the 12th chapter. The first of the apostles to be martyred is James, the brother of John, and he is executed by the will of the Jews at the hands of Herod, chapter 12.
Soon after that, Peter, Andrew, Philip, James the son of Alphaeus, all crucified. Bartholomew whipped to death and then crucified. Thomas stabbed with spears. And these are the very men to whom Jesus said you will be hated, persecuted and killed. And they were.
Even outside that original circle of disciples, Mark was dragged to death through the streets of Alexandria. James, the half-brother of Jesus and the leader of the Jerusalem church, was stoned by order of the Sanhedrin. Matthew, Simon the Zealot, Thaddeus, and even Timothy were killed for their unwavering commitment to Jesus Christ. It was Clement of Rome, a contemporary of the apostles, who died around 100 A.D. who observed this, quote: “Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars of the church have been persecuted and executed.”
Jesus said it would happen and it happened. Jesus wasn’t limiting this persecution just to them. He said it would start with them and it would continue. The apostle Paul says, “All that live godly in Christ Jesus shall su…shall suffer persecution.”
Turn to Paul. Before his execution, Paul encountered fierce opposition from the Jews primarily. His bold, fearless preaching of the gospel astonished and enraged the Jewish population in Damascus, who then sought to kill him. He had to flee for his life. Acts chapter 9, he was lowered from the city wall at night in a basket. The incident really charted the course for the rest of Paul’s life. He was always on the run.
Luke records that in the course of his missionary journeys he was forced to flee from Iconium. He was pelted with stones and left for dead at Lystra. He was beaten and thrown into jail at Philippi. He was forced to leave Thessalonica after his preaching started a riot. He was forced to flee from Berea after hostile Jews from Thessalonica followed him there. He was mocked and ridiculed by Greek philosophers at Athens. He was brought before a Roman pro-consul at Corinth by his Jewish adversaries. And he faced hostility constantly from the Jews and the Gentiles at Ephesus. And that’s Paul’s life from Acts 14 to Acts 19.
As he was about to sail from Greece to Jerusalem, a Jewish plot against his life forced him to change his travel plans, and that’s Acts 20. On the way to Jerusalem he met the elders of the Ephesian church and he said this to them, “I’m bound in Spirit on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me that in every city…that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city” in other words, the Spirit keeps repeating it “saying that chains and afflictions await me.” I don’t know exactly what to expect when I get to Jerusalem except I’m going to become a prisoner.
When he finally arrived in Jerusalem, he was recognized when he went to the temple, by Jews from Asia Minor who knew him. He was then savagely beaten by a frenzied mob. He would have been killed right there in the temple area except the Roman soldiers saw what was going on and saved him from a certain death. And they arrested him, and now you’re into Acts 21. They arrested him for his own safety.
While he was in custody in Jerusalem, under Roman guard, the Jews were plotting another plan to kill him, prompting the Roman commander to get him out of jail in Jerusalem under heavy guard, take him to the governor in Caesarea. And by then you’re in Acts 23.
Eventually he has a harrowing sea voyage and shipwreck. In Roman custody he arrives in Rome. There, Acts 28, local Jewish opposition comes against him. They tracked him even to the end of the book of Acts because they hated Christ. The Romans released him after two years of imprisonment — Acts 28:30 — eventually rearrested him and cut off his head under Nero’s persecution.
This is the story of the apostles. This is the story of the disciples, including the one added later, our beloved Paul. Jesus said it would be like this and this is the way it was. But under their ministry even in the midst of persecution, as they stood before kings and governors and councils and synagogues and proclaimed the glorious gospel, made a faithful confession, the gospel flourished, the testimony was clear. Their boldness made the message believable and people were converted to Christ. That’s always the way it is with faithful Christian testimony under persecution.
The Jews, however, thought they were serving God. They thought they were honoring God. They considered Christians to be heretics. As I read you in John 16, “They will make you outcasts from the synagogue because they think they’re offering service to God.” And some of the Jews, particularly the Sadducees and the people in power, knew they had that power because they had managed to get into a relationship of complicity with the Romans. In other words, they politically got their power by condescending to Roman authority. They were afraid of Christianity because Christians put Jesus above Caesar and they thought if Christianity flourished, it would so irritate the Romans that they would lose their positions of power. So you had Jewish persecution coming from those who were politically motivated and Jewish persecution coming from those who were religiously motivated. But it was persecution, nonetheless.
Oh by the way, Jewish persecution ended when Judaism ended, 70 A.D. It was over. When the temple came down; when the city was destroyed, it was over. And Jewish organized persecution ended. But Gentile persecution was just getting started and it’s still going on today. And I’m going to talk about that next time. We think about 160 thousand Christians are killed every year since 1990. This persecution will get worse, far worse, in the time of tribulation. We’ll leave that for next time.
I want to give you one word of hope. Look at verse 18. “Even though you will be hated by all on account of My name, yet not a hair of your head will perish.” You may die, but you’re going to be OK. The worst that can happen to the believer is the best that can happen to the believer.
Father, we thank You for Your truth. Thank You for the power of the words of our Lord and sometimes we read these words and they just kind of fly by and we don’t grab their impact, but it’s a stunning thing to see the accuracy with which Jesus knew the future. It was counter to everything they expected. Even just lining up with the conventional wisdom of His day He was saying things that were just beyond comprehension.
And they were right. Everything He said was exactly the way it is in the world. Millions of believers have died since that original group died at the hands primarily of the Jews and some Gentiles. Millions have died. And many more will. And even more saints will be slaughtered in the time of tribulation by the Antichrist and his agents. But the church will still grow and flourish, according to Your plan. History is unfolding exactly the way You said it would.
And, Lord, we pray that we will be faithful, that when we get into situations with those who are hostile to the gospel, we might know that we are safe and secure, not one hair of our head will be harmed. That’s an idiomatic way of saying we’re safe in the care of the One who has given us life that is eternal and we will never perish. But, Lord, help us in those situations to rest on the fact that You will give us what we need to say and You will allow us to make a bold confession no matter how trying it may be. We know that we live in a part of the world and a time in the world when we can be soft. We don’t have a strong experience of persecution, not like so many in the world, not like Christians in Muslim countries and Hindu countries who are dying for their faith. Not like Christians who live under tyranny of communism who are executed for their faith. We have a…We have a different environment for us. And we know that not all of us experience the great earthquakes and the famines and the plagues either but these are the general realities. But, Lord, we know that if and when those things come, even if it’s just in our family or friends who condemn us, hate us, because of the gospel and because of Christ, that You will give us what we need to say that can’t be refuted or resisted and that You will give us opportunity to make a good confession, even as Jesus made a good confession before Pontius Pilate, even as Paul made a good confession as he stood before his executors, even as saints of the ages make that good confession, You will enable us in all things, all struggles to make that good confession, a true gospel confession and You will use our testimony to advance the gospel to the ends of the earth.
History is Your story. You are writing it. And we see it again unfold exactly the way You said it would. You are the true God. Christ is the true Redeemer, and the true Savior who speaks to us the truth. We rest in that truth. We’re not surprised, we’re not shocked. We’re not stunned. We don’t falter and stumble in our faith because of persecution. You said to expect it and it has come. If they hated You, they will certainly hate us in Your name.
Father, we pray for those who are still a part of that kingdom of darkness, who are not under Your protection. We pray, Lord, that those who do not know Christ and forgiveness and salvation would receive that gift today.
Lord, we do know that it is a great joy to suffer for Your sake. Bring on that suffering for righteousness’ sake that produces joy and effective testimony. May we be bold and confident that the Spirit will give us what to say in that hour! We pray, Lord, that as Your true church moves ahead and feels the increasing hostility even of our culture, the chaff will fall away and the real grain will stand the test and have an impact for the gospel. These things we ask only for Your glory in Christ’s name. Amen.