BIBLE IN A YEAR
The book of Revelation: feared, revered and misunderstood. This book and the book of Genesis are some of the most talked about in all the Bible. In a way, that makes sense. The questions of, “How did it all begin?” and “How will it all end?” are poignant for every age and generation. They speak to things we cannot truly know.
And so, as we come to the end of our Bible, we run head-long into a very poetic, imagery-laden explanation of the end of time. However, before we get to that, Jesus, speaking through John, has some instruction for 7 churches in Asia. While these instructions have been picked apart at the most minute levels, sometimes a basic reading gives us the real meat of what the author is trying to say.
Let’s look at the instructions to each church:
- You are hard workers and you persevere
- You try to stay clean and avoid the traps of false prophets and evil people
- But you’ve lost some passion. You’re doing the right things, but your heart’s not in it.
- You’re poor and you’ve suffered a lot
- You’ll have to suffer more
- Don’t be discouraged. It’s gonna be worth it!
- You’re in a tough place
- Most of you have remained faithful
- But, you tolerate – even condone – some behaviors that you shouldn’t. You need to repent.
- You are doing the stuff – faith, love and deeds
- Hang in there!
- But, you have a poison in your ranks named Jezebel. She is a seductress. She’s going down. Don’t go down with her.
- You look good, talk a good game, but you’re really dead
- You came up with great plans, but didn’t execute well
- But, some of you actually followed through and that has not gone unnoticed.
- I know you’re tired
- I’m going to make things easier for you
- In fact, the ones tormenting you will soon bow down to you
- You guys are kind of milk-toast. Nothing horrible and nothing great
- You flaunt your wealth, but it’s all meaningless
- In reality, you are poor, pitiful and I’m going to spit you out if you can’t turn it around.
Seven churches, seven observations by Jesus himself. These are instructions about passion, courage, holiness, purity, commitment, perseverance and priorities – timeless themes that we find in the Bible from beginning to end. These seven churches aren’t just little groups in Asia. They are us.
Imagine if each of us took to heart these instructions. What if we could all be all of what Jesus commanded these churches to be? As I read today, I recognized how easy it would have been for the original audience to read this writing and be prideful. After all, he wasn’t talking to them…or us…or was he?
There’s something special about a personal visit. To be sure, a lot can be accomplished in a letter, a phone call, or an email, but some things are best said in person. John understood this as he wrote his letters.
In 2 John, he says almost nothing. His letter is more of a reminder that he is thinking about this woman and a note that he hopes to visit soon. 3 John has a little more substance, but still falls short, in the writers admission, of really getting to the heart of the matter. In both cases, John says that he doesn’t want to put down on paper what he would rather discuss in person.
There could have been numerous reasons for this. Perhaps John was afraid the letters would be stolen and his safety or the safety of others would be compromised. Or perhaps, like some of us when composing an intricate email, he recognized that it can be difficult for a reader to understand tone of voice and impossible for them to see facial expression or to engage in dialogue about the issue at hand.
In short, a letter is a one-way communication devoid of expression and emotion other than what can be communicated through our limited punctuation. It is a good form of communication, but a letter (or email) is far from a replacement for personal interaction.
As we near the celebration of Jesus’ birth, I’m reminded that this principle is as true for God as it is for us. There were many things that God could say, that men could write down. But nothing would have the affect on the world that the birth of Jesus would have. That personal visit – that intimate interaction between God and man – was what set the world on its ear.
As we celebrate over the next several days, let’s remember that Jesus’ birth not only represented the salvation of the world, it was also God’s attempt to be as close to us as possible – to visit us in person to deliver the message that he chose not to fully reveal in writing. The love and power of Jesus and the Holy Spirit are, by their nature, experiential, personal and intimate. Let us pursue that relationship with everything we’ve got. In the midst of that pursuit, we’ll discover that our best friend is also the one who saved our soul.
1 John is an interesting read. So much of it is devoted, seemingly, to identifying who is truly a follower of God and who isn’t. It very much seems like some kind of litmus test for Christians. But if so, it is a confusing one.
In one sentence, John says that once you have become a child of God, you no longer sin. In another, he says that we all sin and need to ask forgiveness. So what’s going on here?
Well, I think we can find a clue when we look at the audience of John’s letter. John is writing, according to his own words, to believers who have already accepted the teaching about Jesus. These are people who would have been well aware that simply accepting Jesus does not make a person perfect. However, John is trying to encourage and challenge these believers by saying, in a sense, “Once you’ve been washed clean, you would never jump back into the filth, right?”
His words show how foolish and stubborn we all are – those of us who know the truth and have glimpsed the reality of God and yet continue to sin. Our actions are like a cheating spouse who, though his wife knows of his indiscretions and has forgiven him, continues to pile misery on misery, affair on top of affair. Now, you could certainly the sanity of the wife, continuing to forgive her husband, but the greater flaw is in the husband.
Likewise, if God had peers, they would probably call him a fool for continuing to stick with us – for persevering in his grace and forgiveness for us. But is is we who have the greater flaw. If we really loved him as we say we do, wouldn’t we just stop the cheating?
It certainly didn’t take long for Jesus’ “brand” to be co-opted. Today, we know that there are sleazy people out there trying to make a buck by claiming this thing or that about Jesus, but it’s pretty amazing to think how quickly that underbelly cropped up.
For the early church, this would have been particularly problematic, because most of them had to rely heavily on what they were being taught by others. They didn’t have Bibles, most didn’t even have access to much of Scripture and even if they did, many didn’t know how to read. Their theology, then, came by word of mouth – from teachers and traveling preachers.
Not only that, but this whole Jesus thing was brand new. Therefore, anyone who was teaching about Jesus was either completely new on the scene or they had been transformed, like Paul, to a new way of thinking. This, of course, left a lot of room for con artists to come in and take advantage of people.
Peter’s advice to his audience and his warnings to the false prophets are just as relevant for us today. For those who are teaching or are in any kind of leadership, the message is clear: If we allow our human desires to corrupt the message of Jesus, we’ll be worse off than if we had never known him. And when considering a particular teaching, those of us listening to that teaching should consider carefully what we’re hearing.
We are fortunate in our modern world to have access to Scripture as well as the ability to read and interpret it for ourselves. And yet, it is still all to common for people to be duped by a slick presentation and a smooth talking preacher. At some point, we have to start taking some responsibility for what we believe and for the teaching we allow to be accepted in our minds. If we aren’t using the tools at our disposal to understand God’s word to us, then perhaps we are just as guilty as the one trying to trick us.
That’s why I think journeys like this one are so important. Reading every single word of the Bible ensures us that “if it’s in there, we’ve read it.” It also helps us to contemplate some of the difficult passages, become aware of new ideas from even the most familiar passages and, overall, to increase our intelligence about this incredible collection of writings – the story of God and his people as revealed through the eyes, hearts and minds of incredible people of faith who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Isn’t that way better than just blindly accepting some random person’s teaching?
Peter’s letter to these exiled followers of Jesus is full of memorable and notable verses – verses that many have memorized and recite when things get rough. It is is a letter full of language about suffering and evil; full of talk of resistance and strength in faith. The reality, though, is that though many of us might look to these verses, very few of us truly understand what it means to suffer for Jesus.
Peter says that is is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. When is the last time that happened to you? I mean real suffering. The only real suffering most of us will have to endure involves an untimely death of a loved one or some kind of health battle (our own or someone we love). Outside of that, most in the “first world” are insulated from suffering – so much so that we have devalued the concepts of suffering and sacrifice. Now, even the slightest amount of discomfort or awkwardness and we give ourselves a little extra credit. After all, we’re “suffering for Jesus.”
Many have pointed out that the most rapid church growth occurs in areas where Christians are oppressed – places where gathering together in the name of Jesus is illegal and where people risk their lives to own a Bible. Why is that? Wouldn’t it makes sense that people would be less likely to talk to their friends and family about Jesus in those places? Shouldn’t it take longer before someone is comfortable enough in their relationship that they begin to delve into spiritual things?
I’m guessing that these people – in places like China, Central Asia and Northern Africa – read books like 1 Peter often. They know what it means to suffer and they know that suffering is worth it. Here in the U.S., I’m not sure that we understand either of those realities. We don’t understand suffering and, by our actions, we must not think it’s worth it either.
It’s pretty amazing that on one side of this globe, people are risking their lives to talk to their friends about Jesus while on the other side of the globe, people are unwilling to risk feeling a little awkward in order to talk to anyone about Jesus. It’s lopsided evangelism. And frankly, I’m afraid it’s sinful. As Christians living in a country where we have free speech and freedom of religion, we fail to exercise that freedom for the sake of the Kingdom of God while relying on those who don’t have those kinds of freedoms to spread the good news of Jesus. It’s time we step up. It’s time we answer the call of Jesus. And if it gets awkward – even if we see glimpses of suffering – then we can always come back to 1 Peter and be encouraged that the blessing that awaits us is well worth it.