Sermon Live Stream March 22nd, 2020.
An old and deadly sin
When we think of the concept of sin and of individual sins, usually the first acts that come to mind are things like murder, adultery, stealing, idolatry. Sins of the tongue are probably not listed very high in a list of heinous sins, but they should be. Perhaps sins like slander and gossip are so commonplace that we tend to overlook them. Or maybe they come so easily to our own tongues that it is too painful, personally, to think about. But with sober minds we must consider these sins of speech if our lives and our church are to be pure and joyful.
The Bible has much to say, in general, about the use of the tongue and how destructive a careless word can be. Listen to the descriptive passage about our words from James. It ought to cause each of us to tremble and cry out to our God for help in our tendency to speak in a cavalier and cutting manner.
Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. S Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (Jam 3:4-6)
The idea that the tongue is set on fire by hell itself, is not the way we usually view our speech. The twin sins of slander and gossip are hellish in their destructive power. Words can destroy a reputation or destroy joy or peace or hope. They can pierce the heart to places that are central to our deepest experience of life. It is no accident that gossip is found in a list of heinous sins in Romans 1:29-32, alongside deceit, arrogance, murder, inventors of evil, greed, envy, and haters of God.
Gossip may be defined as passing along information that is not appropriately intended for the hearer. “Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a simple babbler” (Prov 20:19). A gossip is a person who reveals secrets … something that the hearer has no business knowing or no honorable reason to hear. How easily we pass along information (often negative information) to another person that has come to us second or third hand and we don’t even know if what we heard was true. And how easily such speech can fall into the category of slander. Gossiping and slander are a kind of hatred. Look at the way Scripture connects slander and hatred. “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the LORD. You shall not hate your brother in your heart” (Lev 19:16,17).
One rule of thumb to follow in our speech is that we should not say anything which, if we were being the one talked about, we would not want to be passed along concerning us. Each of us is responsible to govern our tongues and each of us is responsible for what we allow to be spoken to us. When gossiping ceases, then the tempest stirred by it ceases. “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases” (Prov 26:20).
Of course, the opposite of words’ cruel destruction is their capacity to give life rather than destroy it. By God’s grace and the work of His omnipotent Spirit our speech can be wonderfully transformed. Let the following verses sink deeply into our souls that God may be honored by the way we talk. And let us ask God to change our hearts that our words may also be changed.
… Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Eph 4:29)
… The lips of the wise spread knowledge; not so the hearts of fools. (Prov 15:7)
… A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. (Prov 25:11)
… The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. (Isa 50:4)
… My tongue will sing of your word, for all your commandments are right. (Psa 119:172)
… The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor, but the lips of a fool consume him. (Ecc 10:12).
Finally, let us be made sober by the warning our Savior Himself gave us concerning our speech. “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Mt 12:36).
Longing for gracious speech,
Meditation on the importance of world evangelization.
Every year we have a North American Baptist Missions Conference and I serve on the committee that plans the conference. And every year, as we plan the activities, we ask questions like, “How can we make the conference effective? How do we want the conference to affect us? How can the people in our churches be more concerned with missions? How can the people of our churches be more involved in missions?”
These are not just academic questions to me because I am concerned with my own heart that I might be more affected by mission work and more involved in mission work. The notion of world evangelization is not at the bottom of God’s agenda. It is the first item on God’s agenda. It is the reason Jesus died on the cross … to secure a people for the glory of God for all eternity. “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18).
To bring to God a people from every nation on the earth and every language and every tribe is the reason Jesus died and rose again. So if world missions … and by that I mean evangelism and discipleship, both local and distant … if world missions is not the main agenda of my life or the main agenda of our church, then our agenda is different than God’s agenda. Of course, God does not call everyone, individually, to go to a far off land. But if we are not called to such a life, we must be concerned about using our money to send someone else to those lands. How else can we obey the command of Matthew 28 that commissions us to go make disciples of all nations? Someone has to go to the Muslims in Afghanistan and someone has to pay for that person’s going. We all have to care about the world wide spread of the gospel and we all have to be involved in it.
It is easy to give lip service to the idea of missions, but not really care about it. It is easy to send our money to the mission boards of our missionaries without really being emotionally engaged in what those missionaries are doing. Our perpetual problem is that our hearts are too small and our perspective too introspective. The key to being thrilled with world evangelization is being completely thrilled with God’s glory because that is the ultimate goal of missions.
Matthew 12:18-21 describes the work of Jesus in wondrous terms. Matthew quotes an Old Testament prophecy to show us that the nature of Messiah was what the Old Testament foretold. Here Matthew quotes Isaiah 42.
Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,Isaish 42:1-4
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not qunch,
until he brings justice to victory;
and in his name the Gentiles will hope.
Twice in this passage the Gentiles are mentioned (Mt 12:18, 21). The purpose for the coming of Christ is global. The reason why Jesus came to earth as the Servant of the Father is to gather, not only the Jews back to God, but to gather a people from every nation and tongue to God (cf. Isa 49:5,6). Why is God intent to gather together a people for Himself? Because this will be an everlasting display of honor to God, an eternal demonstration of His mercy and glory. And forever and ever God’s glory will be displayed in His people and they will enjoy the infinite pleasure of knowing Him and of His presence.
When we become consumed with the grandeur of the living God … when it becomes our reason for living … when everything we do is for the glory of God (the promises of marriage, the raising of our children, the use of our money, the way we use our spare time, the way we talk to each other, our study of our Bibles, the time we spend in prayer) … when everything we do we do within the context of God’s glory and realize that everything is made for that purpose, then we will love missions. We will see missions as one of the wondrous things God is doing in our world for His honor for all eternity and we will be thrilled with the idea.
We are not more consumed by the enterprise of global missions because we are not more consumed by the wonder of the absolutely matchless splendor and beauty and wonder of God in our own hearts. Beloved, when the notion of living for the glory of God gets a grip on us, it changes the way we view missions. And even though we cannot all go to a foreign country, we become interested in what our missionaries are doing and we write them with concern and we read their letters with great interest. We pray for them.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”Rev 7:9-11
That is the goal of missions … and that is the only motive which can so ravish our souls that we love the enterprise of world evangelization. The work of missions is not only our duty … it is our marvelous pleasure.
Praying for the nations,
Meditation on Luke 14:26,27
I have a book in my library entitled The Hard Sayings of Jesus. The title is taken from a phrase in the King James translation of John 6:60. Jesus had just said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” And His listeners responded by remarking, “This is a hard saying” … no doubt referring to the notion of eating His flesh and drinking His blood. A ‘hard saying’ is a statement that is hard because it is difficult to understand. What appears on the surface is startling and seems, sometimes, to be something Jesus would not say. And ‘hard sayings’ are hard because they sometimes challenge our assumptions about what is true and they show us another way.
Jesus promises eternal life to all who truly trust in Him, but He also tells us what life will be like until we see heaven’s glory. And He doesn’t sugar-coat His description. He says things like … “In the world you will have tribulation” (Jn 16:33) … “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles” (Mt 10:17,18) … “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).
In Luke 14, we have a call to thoughtful obedience. The sober, startling statements in this paragraph ought to echo in our 21st century souls, reminding us that the call of Christ is not a call to a life of ease, but to a life of discipline and whole-heartedness and passion for Him that outshines all our other passions.
Jesus starts here by saying, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). It sounds like a contradiction to the 5th commandment … “Honor your father and your mother.” It sounds like it contradicts 1 Tim 5:8 …”If anyone does not provide for his own family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” What does Jesus mean here? The parallel verse in Mt 10:37 is very helpful to us. “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.”
Jesus’ point is piercing. He is saying, “Do you know how much you love your mother and father? Do you know how great your allegiance is to your spouse? Do you know the feeling of being willing to give your very life for your children? Love me more than that! Give to me greater allegiance than you do to them! Lay down your life for me!” The call of Christ is a call to complete and unchallenged devotion to Him. He wants to be more dear to us than the dearest people we know. In fact, He says, love me more than you love yourself. “Are you willing to lay down your life for Me? Are you willing to renounce your pride and selfishness? Are you willing to leave off that pet sin of yours because your love for Me is so consuming?” And the thing that startles us most is to hear Him say, “If you are not willing to give this kind of allegiance, you cannot be My disciple.”
For clarity, something very important must be said at this point. The salvation offered by Jesus is free. It is free in the sense that there is nothing we can do to earn the favor of God. Salvation is not obtained by the number of times we go to church or by our baptism or by our compassion for the poor. We cannot, by hundreds of honorable acts, merit God’s mercy. His mercy is given to the undeserving … and that is every one of us. We do not deserve God’s forgiveness and we cannot earn God’s forgiveness.
In that sense God’s gift of eternal life is absolutely free, without cost. But in another sense the salvation of Christ costs us everything. It costs us our life. The call of Christ is a call to obedience. We do not earn heaven by our obedience, but inherent in saving faith is a willingness to obey Christ … to abandon ourselves to Him. None of us does that perfectly, but the seeds of such allegiance are present at our conversion and they grow through the years. Jesus is saying, “You cannot just follow me with words. It is not simply a matter of saying the right phrases. Christianity is a matter of heart and soul. I am calling on you to give your life to me. Are you willing to do that?”
I remember a Voice of the Martyrs representative showing a picture of Christians in Pakistan singing at a church service. They were singing with one hand on their throat and one hand in the air. The upraised hand was symbolic of praise to God and the hand on the throat was symbolic of willingness to give one’s life for Christ. And they were singing a song based on Revelation 2:10 … “be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” To lay our lives down at the foot of the cross is not the easiest way to live, but it is the best way to live and yields the deepest pleasures … today and forever.
Seeking fuller discipleship,
One of the reasons why we love Christmas is that it seems to be a time filled with wonder. There is the wonder of compassionate giving and beautiful music and a feeling of peacefulness. Sometimes there is even a temporary truce between warring nations … or warring family members.
But without a doubt, the greatest marvel of the Christmas season is the absolutely stunning doctrine of the union of the divine and the human in the person of Jesus. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) clearly states the truth about this wonder of wonders:
The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did . . . take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin.
We do not say that Jesus was half divine and half human, but that He was completely God (“In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” – Col 2:9) and completely man (“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” – Jn 1:14). If we want to teach our children wonder during the Christmas season, let us teach them about the amazing, mysterious unity of divinity and humanity in Jesus. The story of a bearded man riding on a sleigh to give presents to the world’s children pales as being trifling next to the mystery of Christ. Truth is, indeed, more wondrous than fantasy.
But why was it necessary that the eternal Son of God should become a man? Why is the Christmas story an absolute necessity for us? Our eternity depends on the truth of the incarnation of God the Son and the more clearly we understand this mystery, the fuller our joy in our standing as Christians … the deeper our strength … the richer our daily experience with God … the greater our pleasure in rejoicing in His glory … the more wonderful our Christmas season.
First, it was necessary that the sacrifice for our sins be a man because it was a man who sinned. Adam was our representative as head of the human race. Romans 5:12 says that sin entered into the world through one man and in him “all sinned.” Therefore, bulls and goats can never be an appropriate and acceptable sacrifice because they are animals … amoral creatures which do not reflect the image of God. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4). Just as Adam was our representative (our sinful representative), if we are going to be acceptable to God, we must have another representative who will be perfectly obedient. Thus it was necessary that Jesus be truly human.
Further, God the Son had to become a man so He could die. God, being life, cannot die. Charles Wesley’s great hymn “And Can It Be?” captured this marvelous truth.
‘Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies! Who can explore His strange design? In vain, the firstborn seraph tries to sound the depths of love divine!
Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou, my God, should die for me?
Second, it was necessary that the sacrifice for our sins be divine because the person we have offended is God. As God, He is an infinite being. This means that the penalty for rebellion against God is an infinite penalty. No finite being could ever satisfy the holiness of an infinite God. And the holiness of God will not allow Him to simply turn away from sin and look the other way. If He is just, sin must be punished. So only a sacrifice of infinite value is enough to be sufficient to fulfill the justice of a limitless God.
The story of Christmas is the story of the need for a God-Man, if a single person will ever experience eternal life. The birth of Christ displays, in profound and astonishing detail, the surprising wisdom of God. It is quite astounding that His plan of salvation would center on the union of divinity and humanity in God the Son. Beloved, let us, again this season, revel afresh in the beauty and dominion and perfections and glory of the infant in Bethlehem’s manger. He is more thrilling and amazing and satisfying than we can even imagine!
In humble adoration before the King,
Persecuted and enduring
We have it easy. No one is knocking on our door at home because we are Christians. No one is confiscating our property because of our faith in Christ. Our lives are in no danger whatsoever because we read our Bibles and meet to sing hymns about Jesus. Of course, perhaps this is one of the problems in the church in America. Maybe we have it too easy. Our faith is usually not challenged. Our comfort has the danger of producing a spiritual lethargy. How many Christians are there who do not study their Bibles or regularly pray? And how many are there who are not prepared for any kind of struggle? Many Christians would probably be hard pressed to clearly state what they believe, let alone defend it Biblically.
The story of the church in Smyrna (Rev 2:8-11) is the story of an impoverished, persecuted church and it is a stirring one. Smyrna was a lovely city in antiquity. It was sometimes called the ‘ornament of Asia’ and, in that region, was second only to Ephesus. Smyrna boasted a famous stadium, a library, and the largest public theater in Asia. The population during the first century has been estimated to be around 200,000.
The letter written to Smyrna was one of two letters, out of seven, which contained no rebuke from the Lord (the other one being the letter to the church at Philadelphia). The first words Jesus says to this church are “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)” (Rev 2:9). These Christians were materially poor, but were spiritually wealthy. They were financially bankrupt, but were rich in grace. James 2:4 uses the same words to describe someone who is poor in this world’s goods, but rich in faith.
There are rich men who are poor and there are poor men who are rich. There are rich people who lack nothing of this world’s goods, but if one could see into their hearts, there would be emptiness and fear and confusion. And there are poor people who have nothing of this world’s goods, yet if one could see into their hearts, there is fullness and peace and security. Which one is truly rich? The Lord is reminding us here that the treasures of the earth break down and wear out and rust away, but the treasures of heaven are imperishable.
True riches are not to be found in the goods provided by this world, but in the riches secured in heaven. The account of Smyrna is an indictment of the American brand of Christianity which places a high premium on comfort and things while neglecting eternal treasures. For many professing Christians it is comfortable to talk about financial matters … interest rates, pension plans, mutual funds. But do they talk as freely and as enthusiastically about the grace of God or the mystery of salvation? Can they speak as knowledgeably about the atonement of Christ or the implications of the 10 commandments?
There are so many who talk about their cars or their homes or the latest restaurant they have been to, but the minute you start talking about the sovereignty of God or the filling of the Holy Spirit or the prophecies of the second coming of Christ in the Old Testament and you’ve lost them. Why is this? Answer: they are not interested in the sovereignty of God. The notion of the power of the Holy Spirit in the human soul doesn’t really push any buttons in their catalog of interesting subjects. They are not really interested in such things.
The church in Smyrna was a church under persecution. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10). It is significant to notice that Christ never shrouds the perils of the Christian faith in rosy hues. “The great Captain of our salvation never keeps back or conceals what those who faithfully witness for Him may have to bear for His name’s sake; never entices recruits into His service, or seeks to retain them under His banner by the promise that they shall find all things easy and pleasant there” (Trench, The Seven Churches, 110).
Troubles come to Christians to deepen their faith and strengthen their endurance and when those things happen in the soul of a child of God, the Lord receives honor because He is prized in the heart of His people above their very lives. And that is how it was for Peter and Paul and Moses and Jeremiah and for every child of God. No persecution could rob them of what they had. They could be robbed of their homes and their possessions, they could be taken from their families, but no hand could take away from them the heavenly treasures God safeguards for His children. The worst that could be done to them was to take away their earthly life, but that was not to take away their life. Their life was hidden with Christ in God (cf. Col 3:3).
Whether God saves us from suffering or whether He sustains us through suffering, the strength of heart in our faith is an unshakable hope that our God is better than life. The mission of our church … Sunday School, worship services, children’s and youth groups, men’s and women’s groups, relationships … is to cultivate such a deep and satisfying relationship with God that, whether living or dying, whether comfortable or miserable. we rest in Him.
Praying, with you, to be rich in faith,
Meditation on Ephesians 6:14
Ephesians 6:10-20 is a well-known passage that is usually referred to as the ‘Christian’s armor.’ Using the imagery of what a first century soldier would wear for battle, Paul describes qualities necessary for spiritual battle, which is a reality in the life of every believer. He makes reference to articles of clothing like the “belt of truth” and the “shield of faith” and the “breastplate of righteousness” and the “helmet of salvation.”
This well-known passage is not about our money or our marriages or our families or our jobs … at least it is not about those things directly. The focus of this passage is the foundation for all those things because it speaks about the spiritual vitality of our lives … things that you can’t see, like faith and righteousness and truth. It is these things that determine the quality of our lives and our marriages and our families and our church. The things in our lives that we cannot see determine the quality of the dimensions of our lives that we can see.
Of this section in Ephesians 6, someone might ask, “Is this armor automatically part of our lives if we are Christians? Do we automatically have the shield of faith if we have believed in Christ? Do we automatically have the breastplate of righteousness if we are Christians?” The answer is ‘yes’ in one sense and ‘no’ in another sense. ‘Yes’ in the sense that when we come to Christ, we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ. That is our standing with God now and will be our status for all eternity. But in our lives presently we are not totally righteous. In one sense we have put on the righteousness of Christ, but in another sense, which is the sense this passage has in view, we must be in the process of putting on the righteousness of Christ as long as we live. We must struggle with our sin and plead with God to take it away and change our hearts more and more to be like Jesus. In one sense we have salvation, which we will enjoy for all eternity. But in another sense, we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (cf. Phil 2:12) … learning about it, trusting its promises, glorying more deeply in its hope.
Though the imagery in Ephesians 6 is figurative, there is a very serious reality behind the figures of speech. On this earth we are at war. One of the unspoken messages of this passage is that we must live with a wartime mentality. For the Christian, this is not peacetime. When we go to our heavenly home we will rest, but for now every Christian of every age lives in a world that is hostile to Jesus Christ and so living is a battleground.
The first piece of armor is “the belt of truth.” “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day . . . Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth . . .” (Eph 6:13,14). The soldier’s belt was usually made of leather and was used to gather his rather free-flowing tunic around his waist so his legs could be freer to move. The spiritual reality in view here is that the belt is God’s truth. There is an objective dimension to truth and a subjective dimension. The objective dimension of truth is outside of us. Truth, as an objective reality, stands apart from us. The subjective dimension of truth, on the other hand is personal.
Truth, as an objective matter, is outside of us. It is absolute and exists quite apart from us. Truth is not subject to opinion polls. It won’t work to get 1,000 people to log onto a website with their computer and vote on what is true. The fact that 40% of Americans do not believe there is a hell, does not change the reality of hell. Whatever is true is not affected by a vote of the people. Further, there are not several truths. There is only one truth, rooted in the person of true and living God. Whatever is true comes from Him. And there is only one source of our knowing the truth and that is the Bible. The Bible is our only totally reliable guide for our living our lives according to what is real, in this world and the next.
A second aspect of truth here is the subjective dimension. It is not enough to be convinced that truth is absolute … we have to ‘put it on.’ Our hearts have to be captivated by the truth, so that the truth becomes the way we think. Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, then you will be my disciples indeed; and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:31,32).
The subjective dimension of the truth is to take a statement from the Bible and meditate on it until your soul burns with its fire. “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe” (Prov 18:10). It is not enough to memorize that verse, but to taste it and know the strength of running into the tower which is our God. It is to take a verse like “God works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11), and to consider the providence of God revealed in the Scriptures until we see life as an outworking of the hand of God … and we trust His wisdom and goodness and promises. The subjective element of truth is for us to really believe the things we say we believe.
The definition of a hypocrite is that there is a lack of truth in his heart. What he says and what he is inside are not the same. To put on the belt of truth is not to be hypocritical. So the objective, absolute element of the truth is for our heads and the subjective, experiential element of truth is for our hearts. We must study so we understand what God has said … and we must meditate on the wonder of what He has said until it grips our hearts and dominates our lives.
Rejoicing in the God of truth,
A study in doctrinal corruption
The day in which we live is no time for easy-going Christianity, especially when it comes to doctrinal matters. Our society is drowning in a sea of confused values.
Life must be guided by some fixed standard of what is true, or it is so easy to get lost in the shuffle of confusing ideas and shifting principles. Our culture stands in need of Christians who know who they are and what they are doing and, most of all, Christians who are certain of what God has said in His Word. Life is always a product of thought. Behavior is the result of what we think. If our thinking is wrong then our living will necessarily be wrong. And that is exactly what happened in the church in Pergamum in the first century. They had become doctrinally corrupt and their behavior followed.
The seven churches of Revelation 2,3 were chosen because of the specific situations in their assemblies, situations which apply to churches of every age. Seven were chosen to represent all churches. These letters contain messages not just for the 1st century, but for churches of the 11th century, and the 16th century, and the 21st century.
The letter to the church at Pergamum is found in Revelation 2:12-18. Verses 14 and 15 read, “But I have a few things against you: you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”
Paganism had an iron grip on Pergamum. It was home to a great altar of Zeus as well as multiple temples to pagan gods and the worship of Roman emperors. Though the Christians in Pergamum had not been compromised by the blatant idolatry of the altar of Zeus, some of them had fallen prey to a subtler seduction, the doctrinal heresy of the Nicolaitans.
According to early tradition (Irenaeus and Eusebius), the Nicolaitans were the followers of a certain Nicolaus. These followers had left true Christian doctrine and had begun to teach unrestrained indulgence. In the name of Christian liberty they taught that you could live in whatever manner you desire. No activity was to be condemned, including immorality. The Christian faith was being used as a license for lawlessness. Their logic went something like this: the body is sinful . . . Christ died for all sins . . . therefore what is done in the body does not really matter.
In Revelation 2:14 the Lord compared the situation in Pergamum to the OT story of Balaam. Balaam was a prophet hired by the enemies of Israel to curse Israel so her enemies could gain a military victory. Instead of cursing Israel, Balaam blessed Israel. It appeared that he was doing the right thing, refusing to utter a curse on God’s people. But later in the story the truth was revealed. Balaam would not openly curse the Israelites, but he privately advised Israel’s enemies on how they could conquer the Jews in a more subtle fashion. “Entice the Jews through immorality and intermarriage. They will become like your people and they will serve your gods.” And it worked. What could not be accomplished through war was accomplished through immorality. Applied to the situation at Pergamum, the corruption of the church there was not being accomplished openly, through worship of Zeus or the Roman emperor. It was being done subtly, through immorality, perhaps intermarriage with unbelievers, and doctrinal compromise.
This passage points out two problems in the church which stifle purity.
First, while condemning public evil, we sometimes make allowances for more subtle sins. For example, we renounce, in loudest rhetoric, the proliferation of pornography in our land. And well we should because it is a blight on our society. But what about our own lust … do we deal ruthlessly with that? We are appalled with abortion and condemn it in no uncertain terms as murder (which it certainly is). But what about our own hatred for our neighbor, or our Christian brother … do we deal with that?
We might lament that public prayer has been banned from our schools, but the prayer meetings in many of our churches are the emptiest of all the meetings. What happened in Pergamum is happening to many of our churches today. There is some success in dealing with corruption from without while succumbing to subtle, rationalized corruption within.
Second, and connected with the first lesson, there is a chilling danger today of haziness when it comes to doctrine. To an alarming degree, we simply do not know well what God has said and the implications of what He has said. The problem in Pergamum was first, doctrinal, and then practical. Wrong thinking led to wrong living. It always does. Beloved, the Word of God must not be only a Sunday practice. It must be part of our lives like eating and sleeping and working are part of our lives. Job said that the Word of God was more important to him than the food on his table. If we do not know what God has said, then the church is in grave danger … not, perhaps, from the pressures from outside our walls, but from subtle corruptions within our own hearts.
Striving to know and do what is right,
The mindset of a martyr
The name Roland Taylor is not found in conventional books on church history, nor in religious biographical dictionaries. But his name and story are found in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and it is a stirring account. In 1553 Edward VI died and England’s throne passed to his sister, Mary Tudor … “Bloody Mary.” She was fully given to the Catholic church in Rome and passed edicts that made it illegal for dissenting pastors to carry on their ministries. Nearly 800 of England’s clergy refused to obey the laws and lost their churches. Many of them fled to Geneva and Frankfort, but 300 of them were martyred, usually burned at the stake, for their faith. Among them was Pastor Roland Taylor.
Not long before his execution he wrote the following in his journal. “I say to my wife and to my children, ‘The Lord gave you unto me, and the Lord hath taken me from you, and you from me; blessed be the name of the Lord! . . . I have ever found Him more faithful and favorable than is any father or husband. Trust ye therefore in Him by the means of our dear Savior Christ’s merits . . . Count me not dead, for I shall certainly live, and never die. I go before, and you shall follow after, to our long home.'”
When he was being taken away, he knelt down with his wife and two daughters, Elizabeth (a thirteen year old girl he and his wife had adopted) and Mary, her younger sister. “. . . he took his daughter Mary in his arms; and he, his wife, and Elizabeth kneeled down and said the Lord’s Prayer, at which sight the sheriff wept . . . After they had prayed, he rose up and kissed his wife, and took her by the hand, and said, ‘Farewell, my dear wife; be of good comfort, for I am quiet in my conscience. God shall stir up a father for my children'” (Foxe, Book of Martyrs, 218). Soon afterward Roland Taylor was burned alive while he recited the 51st Psalm.
What is the mindset of a martyr? What is the motivation that causes someone to give up his family and his very life for the sake of Christ? This is an important question because the mindset of a martyr is exactly what Jesus calls us to. “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it” (Mt 10:38,39).
First, a Christian martyr realizes, fully, that there are some things more important than life. “Because Your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise You” (Psa 63:3). “I am hard-pressed between the two [earth and heaven]. My desire is to depart and to be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil 1:23). Earthly life is not as precious as the honor of God and the presence of God.
Second, a Christian martyr realizes, fully, that even tortuous death comes to Christians by the hand of a sovereign God. When Jesus spoke with Peter about his future and his martyrdom, He did not downplay the horror that awaited him. “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go. This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God” (Jn 21:18,19). The hand of God led Peter to a cross for the purpose of bringing glory to Himself.
Third, a Christian martyr realizes, fully, that there is a wondrous glory that awaits believers on the other side of this veil of tears and pain. “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day . . .” (2 Tim 4:6-8).
“For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17).
Though we do not suffer the threat of death, a Christian martyr’s mindset is helpful to us as we live our comfortable lives. It gives us perspective that clears our minds of sentimental, fuzzy thinking. It causes hope to course through our veins. It shakes us from our cultural silliness. It purifies our priorities and fixes our eyes and affections on our eternal home and our eternal Shepherd.
Am I a soldier of the cross? A follower of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own His cause, or blush to speak His name?
Must I be carried to the skies on flowr’y beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas?
Longing to love Christ more deeply,
Listening to sermons as an act of worship
Most people probably listen to sermons in church the way they listen to a president’s State of the Union address or the evening news on television. First, they make assessments as to whether or not the sermon is interesting. Then, perhaps, is there humor? Are there stories the listener can relate to? Is the preacher nervous or relaxed? Does he make any mistakes in grammar? Is his tie straight and did it match his suit? When the sermon is finished, they ask the question, “What did I get out of that?” The interaction between sermon and congregant is often more inspection and scrutiny than worship.
This sort of analytical approach to listening to sermons was decidedly not the way righteous people in the Bible listened to the Word of God. During the reign of King Josiah in Judah, the temple underwent a massive restoration. In the process of repairing the temple the ancient Scriptures were found, perhaps in a jar in the corner of some forgotten room. The scroll was brought to Josiah and was read in his presence. “And it came about when the king heard the words of the book of the law, that he tore his clothes” (2 Kgs 22:11). Upon hearing the Word of God read, Josiah tore his clothes in shame and wept (2 Kgs 22:19). In response to Josiah’s reaction to God’s Word, the Lord heard and answered his prayers (2 Kgs 22:19,20).
After the people of Judah and Israel returned from a seventy year captivity in Babylon, Ezra helped restore worship among the remnant in Jerusalem. A certain day was set aside so the people could hear the Word of God read and explained (much like a modern-day sermon). A podium was constructed for the purpose of this special presentation (Neh 9:6). When Ezra opened the book in the sight of the people to read it “all the people stood up . . . And all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground . . . all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law” (Neh 8:5,6,9). In Ezra 9:4, we read that when the people of Israel heard the Word of the Lord read and as they realized that they had been disobedient to its laws, they trembled.
These Biblical reactions to hearing the Bible read and explained are markedly different than the way most Christians respond to Sunday morning sermons in their churches. What we must learn to consider is that God is the One who watches and evaluates on Sunday mornings and that all members of a congregation, both preacher and listeners, are being assessed by the Almighty.
To listen to a sermon, no less than the preacher preaching it, is an act of worship. When we have a deep reverence for our God and a passionate love for Him, we cannot hear His eternal Word read and explained without a heartfelt response. Our hearts respond in shame, due to our sinfulness . . . and trembling, due to the majesty of God speaking . . . and thanksgiving at the wonder that the Creator would speak to us . . . and joy, due to the value and truth of what God declares.
To hear the Word of God declared and to respond with relative indifference is to proudly stand before the Ancient of Days in arrogance and self-satisfaction. In the parable of the Sower and the Seed in the gospels (Mt 13, Mk 4, Lk 8), the only soil that can be praised is the fertile soil. “And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it, and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold” (Mk 4:20). The people of God are those in whose hearts the Word of God takes root and produces the fruit of righteousness. When told that His mother and brothers were outside waiting to see Him, Jesus responded by saying, “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21).
It is not acceptable to the living God for a Christian to go to church on Sunday morning and simply evaluate the sermon without being conscious of the importance of letting the Word of God evaluate him/her. Listening to a sermon, rightly, is an act of worship. It is to hear in the sermon and to observe in the Scripture the supreme excellencies of the King of Kings and to rejoice over Him with pleasure. Repeatedly, in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2,3, the Lord calls out, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Let us come to church on Sundays not only to worship by the joy of our songs and by the thanksgiving of our offerings, but also by the delight in our souls inGod when we listen to the sermon.
When the disciples on the road to Emmaus heard the teaching of Christ they later recalled, “Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Lk 24:32). If our hearts do not burn when the Scriptures are explained to us, then whatever else we may have done, we have not worshiped the living God. Let us plead with God that there might be a trembling and an awe and a burning delight in our hearts at the Word of God, whether on Sunday morning in church or on Thursday morning in our living rooms. God clearly declares, “. . . to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isa 66:2).
Rejoicing over God’s truth with you,