The Seven Churches and Us

The challenge in examining ourselves is to examine ourselves, not as we see ourselves, but as God sees us. We often hold ourselves to one standard while God may hold us to another. This is true both individually as well as a congregation. As a congregation, we have successes; we have failures; we have challenges; and we have times of growth. In these times, we have to remind our selves this: that God knows our work and our hearts, that He cares about our work, and that He has standards against which our congregation is measured.

In Revelation 1:13, Jesus is pictured as being present among seven churches of Asia Minor. He walks in their midst. Throughout the next couple chapters, Jesus speaks to the strengths and challenges faced by these congregations. Often, we wish to be like the church of Philadelphia, but, had Jesus addressed us in this book, what might He have said to us?

Jesus’ Address to His Churches

Repeatedly, Jesus begins by affirming He knows these congregations. He knows their works, their deeds, their challenges, their tribulations. This paints a picture of a Savior, not one who is disinterested and uninvolved. Instead, through this, Jesus reassures them and us that He takes an active interest in our lives. He cares about us. He knows what trials we face.

Jesus also speaks to “him that overcomes,” in the letters, reminding us of the reward that lies ahead. Likewise, Jesus repeats, “he that has an ear, let him hear.” These days, we might say, “I know you can hear me, but are you listening?” He is making it clear that the words He shares are important to their spiritual survival. What, then, can we learn from those words, and how can we apply these letters to our own efforts as a congregation?

The Message to the Seven Churches

  • To Ephesus, Jesus commends their efforts in keeping purity among their congregation. He knows they have endured in their work and have resisted evil. However, He chastises them for losing love in their service.
  • With Smyrna, he contrasts their physical poverty with their spiritual wealth. He warns them of impending persecution and promises them reward should they endure.
  • To Pergamum, Jesus praises them for holding to His word even in a place where Satan has a symbolic throne. He warns them, however, that there are those among them holding to false doctrines.
  • With Thyatira, He speaks of their love and their ministry as well as their growth. He holds against them their tolerating a Jezebel among them, leading members of their congregation astray, and he calls for those that have succumbed to her influence to repent.
  • To Sardis, Jesus says they have a good reputation, but He knows they are spiritually dead. He acknowledges, however, that even they have some among them whose robes remain white and pure.
  • To Philadelphia, Jesus promises protection in times of tribulation to come. He knows they have remained faithful, and He encourages them to endure in the times to come.
  • With Laodicea, Jesus criticizes the congregation for being lukewarm, uncommitted, and He warns He will dispense of them if they refuse to repent from their indifference. He admonishes them to see themselves as Christ sees them.

The Message to Us

We are probably most familiar with the letters to Ephesus and to Laodicea, but we can learn from the themes that run through all of these letters. We see Jesus commend, time and again, congregations’ endurance, their intolerance of false doctrine, their love. In contrast, a vein of indifference seems to affect many of these congregations’ efforts. They may have become unloving. They may have tolerated unscriptural teachings in some aspects. They may have been simply going through the motions.

We can relate to letter to Ephesus when Jesus calls on them to return to their first works. When we first obey the gospel, we may be full of energy and enthusiasm, but the cares of this world can wear us down. We can become comfortable with routine and forget the reasons behind those actions. Thyatira stands in contrast to Ephesus, whose later works are greater than their first. One congregation is praised for growing in their efforts while the other was dwindling. Which are we?

To Laodicea, Jesus encourages them to find their strengths. He asks them to find how they can be beneficial. He asks them to either be cold or hot, just as we all need cold refreshment at times and hot at others. We can be soothing or refreshing in different ways – a cold glass of water to some and a warm cocoa to others. Laodicea, however, is neither. They are uncommitted, but Jesus encourages them to simply get to work.

In these chapters, Jesus reminds us that He knows where we are and what we are going through, but the message is the same: “Get to work.” We can fall back on many excuses for lack of ministry, lack of growth, or lack of love, but Jesus calls on us to overcome those excuses. He reminds us to give ear to His word and endure with His promises set firmly before us.

lesson by Tim Smelser

A Christian City

After the kingdom of Israel divides in I Kings 12, Jeroboam wishes to restrict travel between the northern kingdom and Judah. He forbids travel to Jerusalem, hoping to create new holy cities in the north. Some forsake the north to worship in Jerusalem during the times of Asa, but the separation of holy cities remains even to the days of Jesus when the woman at the well asks Jesus where God desires worship. She is concerned that she worship from a location approved of by God, but Jesus redirects her attention from the physical to the spiritual.

Augustine’s City of God

About 300 years after the time of Christ, Constantine professed to convert to Christianity. One year later, the Edict of Milan legalized Christianity in Rome. In 380 CE, the Edict of Thessolonica made Christianity the state religion of Rome. In short, it made Rome into a “Christian nation.” This was a drastic departure from polytheism. Rome was sacked in 410 CE, a mere thirty years after becoming an officially Christian nation, causing many to decry the conversion from polytheism to Christianity.

Around this time, St. Augustine wrote, in The City of God, that official state religions mean nothing to the message of the gospel. He discourages Christians from becoming entangled in secular politics, for God’s kingdom, New Jerusalem, is a spiritual entity. It is unsurprising that St. Augustine’s message was unpopular then, and it is unpopular now. He is, however, entirely correct.

God’s City of Jerusalem

In Deuteronomy 12:5, Moses tells the people of the importance of God’s physical city that would become the center of Jehovah worship in the ancient kingdom of Israel. In verse 11, Moses goes on to emphasize that sacrifice should only be made in the place God chooses. Moses is telling the people that there will be a city of God, a place significant and special to worshiping Jehovah. We know that Jerusalem becomes that city.

In II Samuel 6, the Ark of the Covenant comes to the city of Jerusalem, and I Kings 9 records Solomon praying to God to hollow the temple at Jerusalem, God promising to consecrate the place forever. The sons of Korah, in Psalm 46, express confidence of God’s divine protection over the land. Psalm 48:1-3 again expresses the majesty and beauty God’s people see in His city, as do Psalms 122, 46, and 132.

Jerusalem represents a place where God’s name and His Ark resides. It is the place of God’s worship. It is where He dwells. It is a city of rest, of refuge, of holiness, and of peace.

Abandoning the Physical

This changes in the days of Jeremiah, when, in chapter 26 of his book, God promises to destroy the city, that He will curse the city for their sins. Political and religious leaders of Jerusalem threaten death to him for his words, but Jeremiah continues to press them for repentance. Jerusalem’s glory would never be restored, and memories of Zion are recoded in Psalm 137, expressing pain and sorrow at the loss of God’s holy city.

No great city or nation can be saved simply by calling themselves a “Christian” city or nation. To do so is to forget the lessons of Jerusalem and to forget that God does not intend to dwell here with us on Earth. Rather, He wants us to dwell with Him in heaven, leaving this physical world behind for a spiritual inheritance.

In Isaiah 65:17, the prophet proclaims a New Jerusalem, new heavens and a new land. Galatians 4:21-31, Hebrews 12:18-24, II Peter 3:8-12 – these point to something beyond this physical world. This is the city of God on which we need to focus. We get caught up looking upon the nations of man. It does not matter if it is Jerusalem, Rome, Paris, Moscow, or Washington D.C. Cities of man will always fall. Our refuge, rest, and peace should be found only in God’s City. Philippians 3 calls on us to place our citizenship in Heaven. We need to look up from the conflicts of this world and look heavenward.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Crossing the Veil

In Genesis, Adam and Eve have a relationship with God we have a hard time relating to. It’s interesting to see their special fellowship with God and the close interaction they share with Him. They forsake that relationship in trying to become as great as Him, and angels are put in guard around the garden, forever cutting that relationship off between God and man.

Fast forward to the establishment of the nation of Israel. In the middle of their tents, as they travel to the Promised Land, is God’s tabernacle. Physically, He is in the center of their community as He is to be in the center of their lives. They would come to that central location for sacrifice and intercession, seeing the horror of sin in the gore of their sacrifices. The priests would intercede between God and the people, and none could come into God’s direct presence except for one sacrifice once a year.

The Curtain of Separation

A curtain was separating the Holy place from the Most Holy Place, embroidered in blue, gold, and scarlet with cherubim woven into the pattern. The same angels that guarded Eden from Adam and Eve emblematically protect God’s most Holy Place in the tabernacle. Later, God’s people have a temple, a solid, impressive structure serving as God’s center among His people. The curtain partitioning the Most Holy Place in the temple of Herod is now sixty feet high and very thick.

In Matthew 27:50-51, that curtain is torn from top to bottom. Imagine tearing a curtain sixty feet high. This is an act of God, and Hebrews 10:19-20 says Jesus wipes out those boundaries between God and Man. In John 14:6, Jesus says access to the Father is through Him.

Previously, access to God was through the curtain guarding the Most Holy Place. The tree of life was guarded by cherubim. Jesus claims to remove those barriers. Now access to life and God are through Him.

We no longer need continual sacrifices atoning for sins as illustrated in Hebrews 9. Instead of entering a physical tabernacle, Jesus enters Heaven. Instead of His blood needing sacrifice time and again, His sacrifice is once and for all. No more is intercession accomplished by one man approaching God once a year. Now we access the Father directly through His Son. He removes that barrier created by sin.

The Barrier Removed

God does not dwell in a structure made by hands, but He now dwells among His creation. Acts 17:24-25 speaks to this exact point. In Acts 7:44-50, Stephen reinforces the concept that God is not contained in a physical structure. Heaven is His home, and Earth is His footstool. Also, I Corinthians 3:16-17 and describe our personal bodies as temples to God. He cannot exist where sin resides, so we must purify ourselves for Him to live in us.

II Corinthians 6:16-17 assures that we can live and walk with God as Adam and Eve did in the garden. Ephesians 2:19-22 calls us God’s temple, His dwelling place, and Hebrews 10:19-22 again calls on us to cleanse ourselves so we may draw near to Him. We have to acknowledge our sins as in Colossians 1:21-22. Then, we have to strengthen our faith in our resurrected Savior. We must accept His forgiveness and have our sins wiped clean as in Acts 2:38.

Romans 8:9-11 reminds us we are not controlled by sin if Christ is in us. Rather, we are controlled by His Spirit. We live directly in His presence. The sacrifices and curtain of the tabernacle and temple served as a reminder of a barrier of sin standing between man and God. Hebrews 4:16 and Romans affirm that Jesus removes those barriers, so we can approach His throne in full knowledge that nothing can come between us and God.

lesson by Ben Lanius

Jesus and the Little Children

And they were bringing unto him little children, that he should touch them: and the disciples rebuked them.

But when Jesus saw it, he was moved with indignation, and said unto them, “Suffer the little children to come unto me; forbid them not: for to such belongeth the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein.”

And he took them in his arms, and blessed them, laying his hands upon them (Mark 10:13-16).

One of the aspects of Jesus that is most commonly known involves His concern for children. For generations people have drawn or painted various representations of Jesus with little children. For us today it only seems natural that Jesus would show such concern for little children.

Yet, as the response of the disciples indicates, His concern was not considered natural automatically in the first century. It is easy for us today to look back on the disciples and think them to be hard-hearted or perhaps even inconsiderate or uncaring for children. But that is unfair. It is not as if the disciples do not like little children – the disciples want to make sure that the Lord is not inconvenienced or bothered so that, at least in their estimation, He can continue to focus on the adults who really need Him, His power, and His message. The children, after all, will probably not remember Jesus too well, and certainly not as well as the adults would and should. Jesus and the disciples were at work in “grownup” matters, and therefore why should the Lord be hindered by a bunch of little children?

Jesus responds to them sharply. Yes, He has great concern for the “lost sheep” of Israel (cf. Matthew 10:6), and focuses much of His energy on pointing them toward God’s Kingdom. Nevertheless, the little children are very important!

Our society has become very child-focused and child-oriented in the past century; it is easy for us to work diligently to make sure that we do not overlook children. Jesus’ care for the children should surely demonstrate to us that care for children is extremely important in the sight of God. Jesus’ care for the children underscores a more fundamental point: God cares for all the “little people” of the world, both in terms of age and social standing. Whereas many may overlook small children, the dispossessed, the widow, and the like, God cares for all of them and desires for us to care for them also (cf. James 1:27). Everyone is important to God!

Jesus’ concern is not just for the little children; He also takes advantage of the opportunity to teach the adults a very important lesson. Jesus was well aware that the disciples had been disputing among themselves who would be the greatest in the Kingdom (cf. Mark 9:33-37), and even in that instance pointed out how God receives children and those who receive children. In Mark 10, a more fundamental point is made: those who enter God’s Kingdom enter it like a child. The Kingdom belongs to children!

One can only imagine the response of the disciples. They had good reason to be ashamed – the very ones whom they were willing to overlook were the ones most precious before God. They were trying to forbid those to whom the Kingdom belonged so that Jesus could more freely proclaim that Kingdom among others!

Jesus’ point is quite humbling, and such is the intent. The illustration puts to lie the belief that children are born inherently sinful – how can the Kingdom of God belong to unregenerate brats? If the way we enter the Kingdom is by becoming as children, and if children are inherently sinful, did Jesus bear the cross in vain? By no means; children are pure and innocent before their Maker, and only as they grow up do they learn to sin (cf. Romans 5:5-18).

So what is it about little children that makes them ideal citizens of God’s Kingdom? It is their unfailing trust in their parents. They look up to their parents and think the world of their parents, no matter how worthy or unworthy that belief may be. They naturally depend on their parents to take care of their needs in life and trust that their parents have their best interest at heart and seek the best for them.

And so it ought to be with believers and their heavenly Father. Those who are part of God’s Kingdom have unfailing trust in God the Father (cf. Hebrews 11:6). They look up to and think the world of their heavenly Father, and He is worthy of that honor (cf. Psalm 150). They learn to depend on their heavenly Father to take care of their needs in life and know that He has their best interest at heart, seeking what is good for them, since He was willing to give up His Son for their salvation (cf. Matthew 6:21-34, Romans 8:31-39).

It is easy for little children to have that trust in their earthly parents and their heavenly Father; they do not really know any better. Such trust is a profound challenge for “grownups,” however, because they have lost that innocence and are always tempted to trust in themselves and what they can perceive. It is always easier to walk by sight than by faith, but citizens of the Kingdom are willing to trust in God no matter how terrible things may seem (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:7)!

Jesus loves the little children. Let us praise God that He is concerned for the lowly and easily overlooked, and let us develop that childlike trust in Him!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

God’s People

But ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that ye may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: who in time past were no people, but now are the people of God: who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10).

The wall had come tumbling down.

For two thousand years God worked with a specific group of people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants.  The Israelites were uniquely the people of God (cf. Hebrews 11:25).  They were given the ability to stand before the One True God, the Creator God, YHWH (Isaiah 43:15).  They were very proud of this distinction – probably too proud (cf. John 8:31-58)!

Everyone else, however, was excluded.  If you were not an Israelite, you were without Christ, without the state of the people of God, without the covenant with God, without hope, and without God (cf. Ephesians 2:12).  It was a distressing place to be.

And then, in Jesus the Christ, everything changed.

When Jesus died on the cross, He killed the hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles by abolishing the law that separated them, thus allowing Him to bring both together in one body (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18).  Jesus’ death was not effective only for the sins of the Jews, but for all people (cf. Acts 10:34-35, 11:17-18).  The Kingdom of God was not limited to any particular nation or ethnicity (Galatians 3:28)!

Peter eloquently describes exactly what this means for believers today in 1 Peter 2:9-10.  He cites many passages from the Old Testament that refer to physical Israel – Israel the “chosen race” (Isaiah 43:20 LXX), Israel the “royal priesthood” and “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6, 23:22 LXX), Israel the “people of God’s own possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).  Peter also cites the passages in Hosea where the prophet had spoken of how God would cast off the Israelites and receive them back again in Hosea 1:9-10, 2:23.

But, as Peter indicated before, these prophets and messages were designed to benefit us (1 Peter 1:12).  Whereas physical Israel had been God’s chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, and a people for His own possession, now these benefits are bestowed upon Christians.  Whereas God once placed His Presence in the Temple in Jerusalem with priests and sacrifices, now God places His presence with Christian believers who represent the Temple, the priests, and the sacrifices of the new covenant (1 Peter 2:4-5; cf. Romans 12:1, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20, Ephesians 2:19-21, Hebrews 13:15).

We are the people who were once not a people (Ephesians 2:11-12).  We are the people who were once without mercy (cf. Titus 3:3).  But now, through Jesus Christ, we are adopted into the family of God and have become His people (cf. Romans 8:15-17).  In Jesus Christ we have found mercy (Ephesians 2:4-9).  We are now God’s “chosen race,” His “royal priesthood,” His “holy nation,” and His “people for a possession.”

Despite what many may say, this definitively indicates that Israel according to the flesh has no more standing before God than anyone else.  The Israel that will be saved is the spiritual Israel, not Israel according to the flesh (Romans 11:1-32).  The destruction of Jerusalem and the obliteration of any hope of ever truly observing the Law of Moses that came as a result was God’s definitive judgment on Israel and the end of that covenant (Daniel 9:24-27, Matthew 24:1-36).  Those of physical Israel have as much opportunity to become believers in Jesus Christ and His obedient servants as the Gentiles (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18, Galatians 3:28).  Therefore, we ought not make distinctions based on nationality, as it is written (2 Corinthians 5:16).

Did we deserve the opportunity to become God’s people?  By no means!  If physical Israel found itself cast off because of disobedience, we in the spiritual Israel should not expect preferential treatment (Romans 2:5-11, 1 Corinthians 10:1-12).  Instead, we should be thankful for the opportunity to become God’s people, and to never take that privilege for granted.  We ought to serve God with all of our hearts because of what He has done for us (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 2:10).  Let us represent God’s people and do His will on the earth, representing Him and His values in all things!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

The Mustard Seed – Part 1

And he said, “How shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or in what parable shall we set it forth? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown upon the earth, though it be less than all the seeds that are upon the earth, yet when it is sown, groweth up, and becometh greater than all the herbs, and putteth out great branches; so that the birds of the heaven can lodge under the shadow thereof” (Mark 4:30-32).

Many of Jesus’ teachings regarding His Kingdom were set forth in parables. This is understandable, for it is difficult for humans to wrap their heads around the realities of a spiritual Kingdom while living on the earth. We understand things best when they are compared with things we know and understand.

The Jews of first century Palestine would understand the mustard seed and the mustard plant. The mustard seed was incredibly small, about three millimeters in diameter. Nevertheless, when the mustard seed was planted and the plant grown, it far exceeds the size of other herbs, looking like a shrub or a small tree, large enough for birds in which to lodge. The mustard plant, therefore, is a story of growth explosion from a small beginning.

Jesus found the example of the mustard seed and plant quite useful and applied its lesson in different ways. In Mark 4:30-32, the mustard seed and plant represent God’s Kingdom. Its beginnings would seem rather insignificant: Jesus of Nazareth went about doing good and proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom in the relative backwater of Galilee and Judea in the days of Tiberius Caesar (cf. Mark 1:15, Acts 10:38). Around Him gathered a small following of devoted disciples of whom He selected twelve to be His special representatives (Mark 3:14-19). Neither Jesus nor His representatives seemed very significant – He an unlearned son of a carpenter from Nazareth, His followers mostly Galileans, many of whom were relatively ignorant fishermen (cf. Mark 6:3, John 7:15, Mark 1:16-20, Acts 4:13). This Jesus went to Jerusalem in triumph and yet was soon executed by the Romans (Mark 11:1-10, 14:1-15:47). All of this did not seem to be that earth-shattering.

Yet, on the third day, this Jesus was raised by the power of God from the dead, and He instructed His followers in all things concerning Himself (Mark 16:1-20, Luke 24:1-53). After He ascended to His Father, His representatives, the Twelve Apostles, received power from the Holy Spirit and began proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom in power to all the Jews (cf. Acts 2:1-36).

At first there was the One (Luke 17:20-21). Then there were 120 or so (Acts 1:15). After the first lesson there were over 3,000 (Acts 2:41). Soon after it would be 5,000 more (Acts 4:4). The message would then spread from Jerusalem throughout Samaria and Galilee (Acts 1:8, 8:4), and then throughout the Mediterranean world, and ultimately into all the world (Acts 1:8, Colossians 1:6). The Kingdom is proclaimed to this day, almost 1,980 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth!

Thus the Kingdom is like a mustard seed: it started extremely small but expanded out into all the world, and its message and those who proclaim it are a refuge for those who despair. Let us be part of that Kingdom and promote that Kingdom in our lives!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry