Revelation commentary 3:1-13, To Sardis and Philidelphia
In his book, Time for Truth, Prof Os Guinness writes of a visit he made to Uppsala in Sweden, a place spoken of as the ‘Oxford or Harvard of Scandinavia’. Guinness writes that many visitors go to the older part of Uppsala to look at the remains that go back at least 5000 BC. In the area are also three large royal boat-graves of Viking kings from around 500 A.D. which were dedicated to Odin (the god of war), Thor (the god of thunder) and Frey (the god of fertility). Each grave contains the remains of the warrior-chiefs along with their slaves, horses, weapons and food.
To the side of the boat-graves is the site of the last pagan temple and the first Christian church in the region of Scandinavia. The Christian faith came into northern Europe around 1000 A.D. and the last temple and first church were caught up in spiritual conflict for around one-hundred years. Commenting on this, Os writes:
“To anyone with historical imagination, the tension from this Scandinavian Mt.Carmel is still palpable, a war of the world and worldviews, of the God of Sinai and Galilee against the gods of the pagan Vikings…
Then “inevitably” as Christians might say without thinking, the Christian faith triumphed, the church prospered, and paganism receded from Sweden like a morning mist before the rising sun. But if I was thinking like that on my first visit, the guide soon snapped my reverie. “Of course,” she said gaily, “today the situation is reversed. The churches in Sweden are empty and paganism is on the rise.”
Prof Oz Guinness in, ‘Time for Truth’, page 50.
I mention the above story to highlight a problem that some at the church in Sardis had: a reliance on their religious past to the detriment of a personal relationship with Jesus. The danger to the church was not paganism, the power of the empire or multi-faceted diversity of religious beliefs. The greatest danger was always going to be self and stopping at a basic knowledge about Jesus that is devoid of the Spirit. We find this sort of problem on a personal level in the story of the loving Father and prodigal sons (Luke 15). Both sons knew their father in one sense, but did not engage with him in another – there was little if anything by way of relationship. Yet the father rejoiced when the younger son returned, saying, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24). There were those in Sardis who were dead – in that they were far from God and maybe not even born again and yet in grace and mercy God still reached out to them.
The city of Sardis.
Sardis was a city circa 35 miles south of Thyatira and was built on two levels overlooking a plain. At one time (around 500 years previously) it had been regarded as one of the greatest cities of its day.
The rock structure around Sardis was soft and easily crumbled and there had been a massive earthquake in the area in AD17. The importance of the city is seen in the extensive rebuilding program after the earthquake. The way the city was constructed revealed that its builders thought there could be another earthquake and so precautions were taken. It was a city that looked good, but had suffered greatly.
In every city one of the most important jobs was that of watchmen, keeping an eye out for enemy attacks. However, due to Sardis’ strategic position and feelings of invincibility, she was conquered twice.
At the end of the reign of Croesus, the king of Lydia (560-547) who made Sardis his capital, the Persian king Cyrus marched against the city and found its gates wide open! A city that looked strong and invincible was actually weak and easily defeated. The city was conquered and Croesus was put to death by Cyrus, although his name lived on as a synonym for a wealthy man he being credited as the one who produced the first minted gold coins.
In John’s day, Sardis was still known as a famous centre for clothing, especially richly dyed fabric. There was also large synagogue in the city and this was situated next to a gymnasium which was a centre of pagan worship. The whole area was ‘permeated’ with the cult of the goddess Cybele and Artemis.
Cybele’s name is thought to mean ‘mountain mother’ and the Roman state adopted her as Magna Mater – the ‘Great Mother’. They developed their own form of her cult after the Sibyline oracle (a so-called prophetic school of women) said that she should be conscripted into Rome’s second war against Carthage (Circa 200BC)!
The worship of Cybele was said to bring prosperity and in Sardis archeologists have found an eastward facing altar dedicated to her which is next to an area used for refining gold collected from the river. As already mentioned, five hundred years previously Croesus, the then king, was credited for producing the first gold coins.
In many ways Sardis looked good but relied upon her past glory, forgetting that she had so easily been ‘defeated’ by earthquakes and opposing armies who had so easily marched in to the self-sufficient community.
Jesus introduces Himself.
Jesus introduces Himself to the church at Sardis as the One who has the seven-fold spirit of God and the seven stars. Due to the prominence of a Jewish synagogue in Sardis, there would have been many who understand what He meant in introducing Himself this way.
As mentioned previously, in Hebraic thought, seven is the number for perfection as seen through the seven days of creation and the seven-fold spirit speaking of the perfection and sevenfold character of the Holy Spirit which is mentioned, for example, in Isaiah 11:2-5: -
“The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him — the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord — and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash round his waist.”
In looking through the book of Revelation, we find four references to the seven Spirits (1:4;3:1;4:5;5:6) speaking of God’s perfect way being manifest by the Spirit across the whole earth (north, south, east and west as well as people, tribes, languages and nations).
In this world strength and power is often measured in material wealth and position. In the Kingdom of God the strength of character and power of the believer is indicative of how much of their lives are spent resting in the Lord (Mat 11;28 Ex 33;14, Josh 1:5). This rest is not a cessation of activity but a reorientation of life in the development of a two-way relationship.
All life belongs to God and that includes yours and mine. In light of this, we must recognise that we are the stewards of our lives rather than the owners. We are to wait on the Lord as we seek the leading of the Holy Spirit on a daily basis (Ps 27:8, PS 34:10, Is 55:6, Mat 6:33). We cannot afford to rest in past experiences or past achievements or assume that just because we know more of God’s word than we did a few years ago that we are stronger. Scripturally speaking resting means engaging with the Lord and waiting on Him – it is not about remembering a few scriptures or rushing off in our own strength all the time (Jer 6:16). We are called to rest in His work.
A Christian writer once wrote about travelling in Africa with a group of local men who carried her luggage and acted as guides. “Hoping to make her journey a swift one, she was pleased with the progress of the many miles they covered in that first day. On the second day, though, all the carriers she had hired remained seated and refused to move. She was greatly frustrated and asked the leader of her hired hands why they would not continue the journey. He told her that on the first day they had travelled too far and too fast, and now they were waiting for their souls to catch up to their bodies.” She wrote about this later commenting,
“They knew what they needed to restore life’s balance; too often we do not.”
John Ortberg in Soul Keeping page 130
“…but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.”
We have already noted imagery associated with the seven stars therefore at this point we just remind ourselves of Gen 22:17 where we read that Abraham’s descendants will be more numerous than the stars in the sky. This message given to Abraham came from the One who will bring about all things in His timing. He is also the one who said, “I will build my church and the gates of hades will not prevail.” (Mt 16:18).
In speaking to the church at Sardis Jesus says, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive but you are dead.” (Rev 3:1). Note that Jesus does not say “You are dying” but that from His perspective many were dead.
In light of this, many to whom He was speaking may be second-generation Christians who had heard the word of God yet not fully embracing the truth. Perhaps they went to church just because other members of the family or community did. Perhaps they were like those who make a token commitment to God which is still lacking in a heartfelt change. When things were wrong they sought God but as time went on they became more caught up with just getting on in the world. They were either forgetting, or had never realised in the first place, that life was an incredible gift and that the word ‘life’ was to be defined as a relationship with God. Salvation is a gift – therefore it has to be received, not just learnt about. To receive it requires us to accept that God’s verdict of us being sinners is completely true and that we need Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour if we are to be born again.
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” 1 John 5:13
One man who accepted the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation with God is Steven Lungi whom I met at a meeting a few years ago.
Steven Lungi was born in Salisbury, Zimbabwe to a teenage mother who ran off and left him with an aunt. At the age of eleven he ran away and survived by sleeping under bridges and taking food from dustbins. He was also recruited into a large urban gang called the Black Shadows which constantly preyed on people and had grand ideas of revolution.
When an evangelist arrived in Salisbury Stephen was sent to fire bomb the event. On arriving at the evangelistic campaign he entered the large tent with eleven other members of the gang who mingled with the crowd.
Just before they were going to throw their petrol bombs a young girl called Rebecca Mpongose stood up to share her testimony. She talked about how Jesus was a friend to her who had begun to transform everything in her life when she asked him to be her Lord and Saviour. Steven said he began to feel very dirty and shabby as he listened to her. Meanwhile his gang were getting restless wanting to throw the petrol bombs and leave. They thought Stephen liked the girl who was speaking and this is why he was taking his time in giving the order. In reality Stephen wanted to know more about how her life had how it had changed.
A preacher then stood up and told the crowd that the wages of sin was death. Steven said,
“Through my mind flashed all the evil things I had done of late, all the hatred I had shown. Death, death. No one had to tell me I was going to die as I had lived: in evil and misery. My mind flashed back to my family: how I hated my father and mother and aunts. My mind flashed forward to my present lifestyle of violence and robbery and hatred of everyone outside my gang.”
The preacher then started weeping saying that the Holy Spirit had told him that many people present that night might die without Christ. He then went on to talk about sin so graphically that Steven pulled a knife on his friend thinking he had told the preacher all about him. The friend replied, “Well you’ve told him about me as well, so I will kill you too!”
The more the preacher spoke, the more Stephen thought that he was speaking about him. Reflecting on this later he wrote, “I know now that I Stephen Lungu, had without warning hit a spiritual crisis in my life. But at that time I didn’t know I had a spirit, and I did not in the least understand what was happening to me. I was a very simple, literal person with no sophistication in me.”
The preacher then went on to talk about the love of Jesus and said that anyone who wanted to could come to Jesus. Stephen heard that he could exchange his poverty and sin for Jesus’ love and riches. He later writes, “The transaction that Jesus was offering me suddenly became clear. Then I stopped bobbing about and sat still, utterly at an end to myself. Tears for all the pain, loneliness, self-hatred and fear I had known coursed down my cheeks. If this great burden could not be removed by this Jesus, I no longer wanted to live.”
Clutching his bag of petrol bombs he stumbled forward to be near the preacher who he believed would help him find Jesus. The gang with him threw stones and let off some of ther bombs but the fires did not spread. People ran out screaming yet the preacher remained where he was. He spoke with Stephen who poured out his whole story.
To his surprise the preacher then told Stephen his own story about being born to a fourteen-year old mother who stuffed him into a toilet when he was two weeks old and then ran away. A woman heard his sounds and rescued him. The preacher said to Stephen, “Like you, neither of my parents wanted me” and then went on to talk about Jesus again resulting in Stephen giving his life to Christ. He said, “Immediately I felt as if a heavy burden had rolled off my back there was a tremendous rush of relief and peace. I was astonished by the joy that flowed through me. Me – a thrown-away child among the millions in Africa, but Jesus had found me.”
Quotes taken from, ‘Out of the Black Shadows’ by S. Lungu and A, Coomes, pages 74-87
“Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”
2 Cor 5:1
The need to hear.
I recently came across a description of the human ear and it reminded me that the One who created the intricate details of my ear is fully capable of making Himself heard and known by all who are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. The description I read goes as follows: -
“Our ears are sensitive enough to hear a feather brushing against a cloth; yet they cannot hear blood racing through capillaries a few millimetres away from them. If we heard our breathing, saliva being swallowed, every heartbeat, joints moving, and bowel peristalsis, we would never be able to concentrate on anything else. Our body naturally muffles some sounds; in other circumstances the brain blocks them out. Take a breath and see if you can hear it. Of course you can…but you usually don’t. You took 21,000 breathes in the past 24 hours.
The auditory part of our brain acts like a security guard, listening to every sound and selectively tells us what we need to know, especially if there’s a threatening sound.”
G. Simmons in, ‘What Darwin Didn’t Know page 122.
Grace and mercy.
In the gospels we see that Jesus righteous anger was not always directed at what some would call obvious sinners such as the tax collectors or prostitutes of the day. Instead, Jesus challenged those who were hearing yet not really hearing (Mat 13:13) the word of God and who were, in many respects, still convinced of their own righteousness. Yet Jesus still reached out to them because God’s love is not quenched by our failure.
The grace and mercy of God is also seen in how Jesus helped many who were marginalised, sometimes by wrong teaching, to understand the love of God. One of the ways He did this was through parables such as the loving father and two sons (Luke 15), the compassionate landowner (Matt 20) and the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector it is the Tax Collector (Luke 18) who beats His chest in genuine repentance and is raised up and not the man standing in his own strength despite great religious knowledge (Luke 18:14).
Life is not about feeling good or taking the easy option. At times it is going to be tough for all of us and it is then that we find out how spiritually strong we are in the Lord. It is then that we find out if we have the word of God or whether the word of God has us. Take for example, the words of Jeremiah who often struggled but could still bring words of blessing from God to those who placed their trust in Him:
“My blessing is on those people who trust in me, who put their confidence in me. They will be like a tree planted near a stream whose roots spread out toward the water. It has nothing to fear when the heat comes. Its leaves are always green. It has no need to be concerned in a year of drought. It does not stop bearing fruit. The human mind is more deceitful than anything else. It is incurably bad. Who can understand it? I, the Lord, probe into people's minds. I examine people's hearts. I deal with each person according to how he has behaved. I give them what they deserve.” Jeremiah 17:7-10
The world around us can be incredibly hard at times and affect us all, yet we can still place our trust in Him as many have done even in the most difficult of situations.
When the so-called Islamic group ‘Isis’ took over Mosul, Christians were driven out of the city and their homes were looted. Archbishop Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, the Archbishop of Mosul, fled with only five minutes to spare when the IS fighters were just 300 metres from his house. In speaking about these events he said, “They take everything from us but they cannot take the God from our hearts, they cannot.”
In grace and mercy Jesus encourages the church at Sardis to wake up and strengthen themselves with all that He is so willing to provide. By way of action and half-hearted obedience, many at Smyrna were dead yet things could change in the twinkling of an eye if they renounced their apathy and self-empowered ways and turned back to God. There is hope because Jesus is the Shepherd King and in Him God has turned His face towards us.
“….the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.”
The Hebrew mind would know that the word ‘face’ (panah) speaks of that which turns to look at us. When a person turns and faces us it speaks of their life being directed toward us; therefore, concerning God, ‘face’ it refers to His nature and character reaching out to us. Despite the fact that man is a rebel and a disturber of peace in God’s world, God has not given up on man; He turns towards us and, at great cost to Himself, stoops low to lift us from the mud and mire of our existence. God wants to be known (Psalm 11:7).
“The face is a portrait of the heart, it reveals what is going on deep inside. The face expresses a person’s character – it can display kindness, compassion, excitement and enthusiasm for life itself. The lines, wrinkles and contours of the face can be as an open book, revealing a life of experience. The eyes in particular can be windows into a person’s heart and mind. In them we catch glimpses of love, sorrow, anger, frustration, loneliness and longing. We can reach into a person’s life with just a look.”
A thief in the night.
The words that Jesus spoke about the need for the church at Sardis to wake up and His coming like a thief in the night would not be lost on its members living in a city conquered twice through its own complacency. When we are conquered it is through straying from God and not the power of the enemy. Our enemy is a defeated enemy and the only power he exercises is that which we give him through our own apathy and lack of willingness to engage with God.
"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.” Matt 24:42-43
“Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.”
In many pagan rites the temple priesthood would be immaculately dressed as a sign of respect to their gods. For believers the white clothing speaks of being clothed in the victory of Christ – of being in His righteousness.
“It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” 1 Cor 1:30
Jesus then goes on to say that the believers names would not be blotted out of the book of life (Rev 3:5). This is an interesting verse in that is has sometimes been used to say that you can lose your salvation. However as we look at the picture of blotting out names in scripture we see this is not the case.
In Exodus 32:32 we read of God blotting out the names of those who had sinned against Him. In context, we see that these people were those who had made false gods and were worshipping them (Ex 32:23). Israel had come out of Egypt, but that did not mean that Egypt had come out of Israel and as Paul rightly pointed out many centuries later, not all of Israel are the true Israel (Romans 9:6). There are also many people who attend church but have never bowed the knee to Christ as Lord and Saviour.
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Mat 23:27-8
In John’s day, most cities had a registry with the names of all its citizens on it. When a person died, his or her name was removed from the book as were the names of those who had committed certain crimes. The names of previous kings or rulers would also sometimes be scratched out and replaced with the new king’s name. Believers from a Jewish background also had their names removed from the synagogue registry when they turned to Christ as Lord and Saviour.
In John’s day, registers were a matter of importance in an Empire which liked to keep tabs on all its citizens. Christians would have had their names removed from the registry of certain guilds which they had been a part of because they no longer participated in the worship of false gods. In an empire that could appear seductive at times and hostile on other occasions, believers could be ostracized and marginalized yet, as Jesus had said to those of the faith in Sardis, they would never have their name blotted out of the book of life. Their security was rooted in Him and through Him, through His victory they overcame death itself. Now that’s encouraging!
“Their worthiness, however, does not consist in any meritorious virtue of their own, nor is there a basis here for a doctrine of self-justification in the presence of God. The essential precondition for the restoration of the pristine fellowship of man with his Maker is the total cleanings away of the alienating defilement of our sinful ungodliness, and this is effected by the blood of the Lamb, which means the atoning death of the incarnate Son in our place on the cross.”
P. Edgcumbe Hughes in ‘The Book of Revelation.’ P 55-56
Though the work of Christ we are seen as righteous (1 Cor 1:30) and He will acknowledge who we are before our Father and His angels. There will be many religious people who think they have worked well for God but He will say to them, “I never knew you” He does not say, “I used to know you” indicating that these people were never His in the first place.
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' Matt 7:21-23
God’s will is to encourage all who struggle, challenge all who have slowed down or have stopped along the way and engage with all through His love, grace and mercy. In the Roman world many members of the church in Sardis had their names removed from registries in guilds and synagogues. Yet this would never happen with God. The true beleivers had a certain future with God because of His work.
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us — whatever we ask — we know that we have what we asked of him.” 1 John 5:13-15
Philadelphia was a city rooted in Hellenistic culture and was known as ‘Little Athens’ because of its many temples. It was also perceived as the gateway to the region of Phrygia, being situated at an important junction on a Roman postal road. The city was under the jurisdiction of Sardis which was roughly twenty-eight miles from Philadelphia.
Philadelphia was originally founded by the Eumenes 2nd (197-159BC), who then became the king of Pergamum. During his reign there was a period of time when Eumenes fell out of favour with the Roman Empire. This happened when Rome assumed that Eumenes had been conspiring to work against them with Perseus (212-166BC) from Macedon, a city created after the death of Alexander the Great. In response to this so-called conspiracy, the Romans tried to get Eumenes’ brother, Attalus, on the throne at Pergamum. This failed due to Attalus’ loyalty to his brother. The brothers later built a city and Eumenes gave it the name ‘Philadelphus’ meaning ‘brotherly love’. Attalus eventually came to the throne and on his death he bequeathed the territory to Rome in 133BC he not having an heir.
Philadelphia was situated in a major earthquake region, with the most notable earthquakes being those of 17AD and 61AD. On both occasions the city was badly damaged and received help from the Roman Emperors at that time. As a means of honouring what Rome had done, the city was renamed on more than one occasion. For example, after Emperor Vespasian’s help following the earthquake of 61AD the city was renamed ‘Flavia’ (Vespasian founded the Flavius dynasty). From this we see that, in this context, a new name spoke of the restoration of fortunes from a benefactor.
The soil around Philadelphia was very rich and the whole area was known for its wine production. As already mentioned, the area was also known for its many earthquakes. Despite this the people of Philadelphia remained in the region, probably due to the huge profits they could gain from their wine production. Although the town walls were unsafe, due to the number of earthquakes (some were not fully rebuilt after 17AD), many would live in tents. The expenses incurred by the necessary repairs increased taxes greatly and anyone on the fringe of society (such as Christians) would have suffered financially.
Jesus introduces Himself.
Jesus speaks of Himself as the One who is holy and true and who holds the key of David and the power to open or close all things. The Christian communities had little strength, yet were partakers of the Kingdom of God with complete and continual access to Him through the work of Jesus (hence the open door). This would have been encouraging to those who would have been thrown out of synagogues for being Christians and others who had little by way of financial power in the city.
Due to their faith and stand for the truth there would have been some no-go areas for Christians who had been told to leave guilds because of their refusal to worship pagan gods.
Yet the door to heaven was completely open to them (Col 1:13-14, Heb 4:16, Heb 12:28) because they are citizens of another kingdom. This kingdom was far above the power, ability and resources of any earthly kingdom, yet very much with believers through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Christianity has no absent landlord and God is always going about His work of reconciliation and restoration. One man He works with is Sean Litton.
Sean Litton gave up his job as a lawyer with an elite national law firm in order to work with the International Justice Mission in the Philippines. He opened the first IJM office addressing cases of child sexual assault, sex trafficking and illegal detention. In talking about his work on one occasion he speaks of one hurting girl and said, “I looked into the eyes of a fifteen-year-old girl who had been brutally raped two years previously and no one had done anything to help her. I was able to tell her, “God loves you. I know he loves you because he has sent me here to help you. I don’t know what will happen, but I will fight for you.” The man who raped her, the son of a police officer is now serving a twenty-year prison term. The fifteen-year-old girl is now a radiant twenty-year old woman studying social work in a university so she can help abused children.”
G. Haugen in, ‘Just Courage’ pages 120-121.
The Key of David.
In using the term ‘Key of David’ John’s hearers would be reminded of Isaiah 22:22. Just prior to the time that Isaiah 22:22 alludes to (along with the key of David), a man called Shebna who was a government official to King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:18, 26). Shebna was a man of great influence and had the keys to the palace, but was starting to ignore the fact that his authority was delegated by another. Shebna grew in pride and even built his own burial vault, a privilege reserved for kings. God removed Shebna and replaced him with Eliakim of whom it was said,
“I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no-one can shut, and what he shuts no-one can open.”
Power and authority in the life of a Christian is always a gift and in order to be available to continue to receive this gift we need to be humble as we submit to the all-powerful One who is spoken of as having the ‘government on his shoulders.’ But exactly what does it mean to have the government on your shoulders?
In Isaiah’s day, keys were very large and often made of wood with many pegs to fit the holes in a lock. These keys were too big to be carried on a fob or chain and would often be carried on the shoulders as a sign of official authority.
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” Isaiah 9:6-7
The incredible truth is that the Son of God has all power and authority yet was willing to come to us in the weakness of the flesh (Phil 2:5-11) and experienced suffering (Mk 8:31), isolation and death (Heb 10:7-9) so that we could find life (John 6:51). Jesus knows exactly what we go through.
“Consider the image of a despised German Jew, stripped naked by the Nazis and then mocked, tormented, and beaten, before being taken away to die a very public, humiliating death. In a moment, he is shot in the back of the head and burned to ashes in a massive, flaming pyre. Then consider the image of Jesus our Messiah, flogged and beaten beyond recognition, ridiculed and mocked by the Roman soldiers as they push a crown of thorns deep into his scalp, then stripped of his clothes, nailed to a cross, and raised up to die a slow, agonizing and very public, humiliating death, hanging naked alongside two common criminals.”
M.Brown in Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, page 191.
Using imagery that clearly speaks of His power and authority, Jesus encourages those who were struggling to look to Him - the Master of all things.
In a world where most people seek to avoid suffering at any cost, Jesus willingly came into the place of suffering; such is His great love for us and even in His hour of trial, Jesus promised never to leave or forsake His people. His love for people and power to help was seen in everything from His words to a Samaritan woman (John 4:10-14), His support for a Centurion seeking help for a trusted servant (Matt 8:5-13) and His raising of a Synagogue ruler’s daughter (Luke 8:49-56). Yet this does not mean that He takes us out of every difficult situation, as seen in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man; but it does mean that we are known and loved (Luke 16:25) no matter what. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is the only parable where someone is named; God knows us by name.
The lie of the enemy can often seek to distance us from God by making us think ‘Why me? when life gets tough or Where is God is all this?’ Yet His promises remain true as many in prison or facing death have testified. God’s promises say, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’ (Heb 13:5 cf: Deut 31:6), ‘None can take them from my hand’ (John 10:28) and so there is nothing in the created order need separate us from the love of God’ (Romans 8:37-9).
Christ was with His church at Philadelphia by the presence of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-18) and is with His church today (Rom 8:11) helping us live out what we now know to be true (2 Tim 1:14). He knows all things and is the master of everything who will one day bring all things to their God-appointed conclusion (1 Thess 4:16). In his book, ‘The Divine Conspiracy’ Dallas Willard comments on Jesus’ knowledge of all things in such a way that encourages us all to continue to place our trust in Jesus. He writes,
“Jesus knew how to transform the tissues of the human body from sickness to health and from death to life. He knew how to suspend gravity, interrupt weather patterns and eliminate unfruitful trees without saw or axe. He only needed a word…He is not just nice, he is brilliant. He is the smartest man who ever lived. He is now supervising the entire course of world history (Rev 1:5) while simultaneously preparing the rest of the universe for our future role in it (John 14:2). He always has the best information on everything and certainly also on the things that matter most in human life.”
D. Willard in ‘The Divine Conspiracy page 108
One day there will be an end to suffering (Rev 7:16-17). There will be a resurrection where all that is evil will not only fall away (taken away as if wrapped up like old robe, Heb 1:10-12)) but be completely destroyed as the world is renewed (Romans 8:19-21) and morphed into its full glory as heaven and earth meet (Rev 21:1-5: new: Refreshed). Jesus is the One who will return in all His glory and He is also the ever-present One, by the Holy Spirit, the Shepherd who tends His flock. As I write this I am reminded of a story I once read which reminded me of God’s love and care for us.
In his book, Let me tell you a story, Tony Campolo speaks of the love of his mother. He lived in a city where it was too dangerous for him to walk to school alone, so his mother paid a girl who was a few years older than Tony to walk with him. As Tony grew older he thought that the amount paid to the young woman was too much and told his mother that he would walk himself to school for a nickel a day. It took a long time for him to persuade his mother to let him to do this but eventually she gave in and told him she’d give him the money each day as long as he saved it to buy Christmas presents for his sisters.
A few years after his mother had died Tony was talking about the incident to his two sisters and commented on his independent spirit. This is what he then writes:
“My sisters laughed at me and one of them said, “Did you think that you went to school alone and came home alone? Every day when you left the house Mom followed you. And when you came out of school at the end of the day, she was there. She always made sure that you didn’t notice her, but she watched over your coming and going, just to makes sure you were safe and that nobody hurt you."
T. Campolo in, Let me tell you a Story, pages 9-10
At times we will all go through various situations and circumstances that take us by surprise and life is not always easy. Yet let us never make the mistake of thinking that God is not with us or that God does not care.
A friend of mine who is a local Councilor and Christian once told me of a time when he was really struggling with life. He was at an all-time low and his job was one that he never thought he’d end up doing. He used to drive into London at night with a small car that had a camera fitted to the top of it to photograph all the parked cars late at night. The data collected would then go to a database where the relevant authorities would be able to see if the cars were taxed and insured.
In the early hours of one summer morning, just as dawn was breaking my friend was driving home wondering where God was, if anywhere, in his life. He felt a failure, totally useless and wanted to give up on everything. As he drove along he saw what initially appeared to be a pile of rags at the side of the road. He slowed down and it turned out to be a woman who needed a lift. After a few miles she asked to be dropped off although they were still in the middle of nowhere. As she got out of his car the woman turned to him and said, “God is with you.” As my friend drove off the words resounded in his mind and he looked in his rearview mirror to find that the woman had just disappeared. He told me that this was a major changing point in his life.
The mistake we can make is forgetting that God is with us and therefore not being available to receive all that He gives to help us in our walk with Him.
Jesus’ promise to the church.
The Christian community at Philadelphia was in a city that constantly suffered from earthquakes yet this was not the only instability they faced. Many would have lost stability of the Synagogue or guilds that were associated with local deities such as Dionysus (called Bacchus by the Romans), the so-called god of the grape harvest and religious ecstasy in Greek mythology.
Jesus encourages the struggling community to see that their stability and security is in Him. Heaven is an open door and they, like us, will one day be in the eternal temple - this signifying not a literal building but the presence of the Lord.
In scripture the word ‘Tabernacle’ means ‘dwelling place’ and is from the root ‘to entwine’. The Tabernacle, in its precision and His presence, was representative of God’s creation and His desire to be with man. The word Temple means ‘palace of God’ – God’s dwelling which again speaks of dwelling with His people. The church is known spiritually as the ‘Temple of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor 3:16). We are His people, a royal priesthood and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:5,9).
He will write on them the name of God (Rev 3:12).
Imagine what it would be like to be rejected by all people – not only those who sought to oppress and destroy you, yet also those who helped you but then turned away. How would you feel?
In his book, Liberating Belsen, former Lt Colonel Leonard Berney writes of those who experienced exactly this. He writes of the time the British Amy entered Belsen a concentration camp run by a Nazi regime which considered all Jews as subhuman and says,
“About two-thirds of the prisoners were women, one-third were men. There were 400-500 children. Crowded into, and dying, in Bergen-Belsen were people from every walk of life: academics, professionals, musicians, political activists, housewives, doctors, teachers, skilled factory workers, clerks, and convicted criminals, anyone the Nazi regime classed as “undesirable.” Half or more were Jewish, there because they were Jews.”
L.Bersen in ‘Liberating Belsen’ page 8.
50,000 people starved to death in Belsen despite there being a Panzer Barracks less than two miles down the road with hundreds of tons of food. The Allied troops were horrified at what they found, as were civilians on reading of the atrocities in their newspapers across the world.
The liberated men, women and children started a long journey to recovery but were in for another shock when it came to leaving the camps. Many did not want to return to their home areas which were now under Russian control, and sought asylum in America, the UK, France or Australia. Yet each country in turn refused to take them. Having been regarded as inconvenient nobodies who suffered all manner of human indignity, they were ostracized yet again. Imagine how that must have felt.
Jesus speaks to a the church at Philadelphia where people were struggling and suffering through the actions of others. In a geographically unstable area there was also financial instability and rejection to contend with. To these increasingly marginalized people Jesus says that the name of God would be written on them. But what exactly does this mean?
In the Ancient Near East, writing a name on a building or city (e.g. Nebuchadnezzar writing on tiles in Babylon) signified ownership and protection and was done to please the gods (“this is what I have done”). The writing of God’s name on believers speaks of His protection and all He has done for us.
Jesus speaks of believers as pillars in the Temple in order to underline how stable and secure believers were in a city known for earthquakes and reminds them that no matter what happens to them they are known and protected by God. He is the One who keeps His people in the hour of trial (Rev 3:10), or through the hour of trial that was to come upon the world of the Roman Empire.
The word ‘keep’ in a Hebrew context captures an image of tents in an orderly layout in a place of protection. No matter what we go through, God can keep us strong in heart and mind.
“You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord, is the Rock eternal.”
We now finish looking at Pergamum by seeing the encouragement in the usage of the phrase that speaks of believers as ‘pillars in the temple’.
After fires or earthquakes, pillars were often the only things left standing whilst all weaker structures fell to the ground. This is why Paul could write of believers’ work in the Spirit as building with gold, silver and costly stones (1 Cor 3:12-16). In Corinth, the temples were built out of stone and many would have had ornate pieces of gold, silver or costly stone on them. These stones would survive fire unlike the surrounding buildings that were made of wood.
Like the gold, silver and precious stones symbolizing stability at Corinth and the work of God, the imagery of being ‘pillars in the temple’ speaks of the strength of God’s people with the imagery not being lost to those living in the city of Pergamum. There is also the link that they could make with other scriptures, depicting the people of God as pillars and in so doing be encouraged.
“Moses then wrote down everything the Lord had said. He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel.” Exodus 24:4
“James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognised the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews.”
God is about His business and all across the world today men, women and children are finding security as they turn their lives over to Him.
“The wonderful fruit produced by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah continues to flood the world and because of him, to this very day, terrorists are laying down their weapons, serial killers in prison are finding a new way of life, idol worshipers are turning to the one true God, drug addicts and alcoholics are being set free from their addictions, child abusers are changing their ways, prostitutes are no longer plying their trade and broken families are being restored."
M.Brown in, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus. P 115