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Jesus Prepares His Church [2-6-22]

We're going to start with a little geography. Who doesn't love a little geography lesson, right? Here's a map of the churches where the seven letters from The Revelation to John were written:

You can see where places were from this map. And you can see how far the church spread by the close of the first century A.D. and as the first generation of church leaders died off. John was the last of the original 12 disciples still alive. While the map doesn't tell the whole story, one of the things you can see is the grouping of the churches. These cities are part of a postal route. It makes sense. Churches were planted where there were well-traveled roads and access to commerce. And so the seven letters to the seven churches, beginning in chapter two, will be delivered along this route. What the map doesn't show are the details of Christians living in hostile places. From the beginning, the church grew up in a pagan world. As it grew out from the home church in Jerusalem, it put down roots in hostile territory. And their reality is a reality we need to recognize ourselves in…we are strangers living in a strange land. They were considered enemies of the culture they were in. The world was broken, and in open rebellion against God. And there stood the church, in all these places, sharing a message of repentance from sin and turning to Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation and eternal life. In a world that offered so many distractions and opportunities to cobble together a religion of one's own design, the church stood out, and not in a positive way. And so, persecution broke out. As we've already seen, John is the last survivor of the original disciples. Most of the others were martyred in one way or another. John himself was exiled to Patmos, a rocky island roughly ten miles long and five miles wide. He was sent there because political authorities believed his preaching was inciting people to rebel against their authority. So they isolated him from the church in an attempt to inhibit his influence on its growth. Almost from the beginning, the church has been counter-cultural. That was especially prevalent during the final years of John's life as well as the years that followed. The church lived in a time of trial and tribulation. We're going to explore more details of that later in this series. Keep the rolling persecution of the church in mind as it informs so much of why Jesus told John to write these words down. The Revelation to John was the way Jesus prepared his church for the troubles to come. Make no mistake. Our context is not the same as 2,000 years ago. In some parts of the world today, Christians are enduring horrific persecution. But not us. Yet we North American Christians do face trials and temptations. When we speak out against cultural corruption or political authoritarianism, we're told to shut up and honor separation of church and state. That's usually spoken by people who understand neither the first amendment nor the meaning of the words themselves. Christian parents watch as their children are educated in ways that don't fit their worldview, and then are put under the watchful eyes of governing authorities when they push back. It shouldn't come as a surprise to see homeschooling on the rise. And worst of all, in 2021, worldwide, over forty million babies were destroyed before they were born. That's the worldview we struggle against. While the current ebb-and-flow is sometimes hard to nail down, we live in times of increasing hostility to the gospel of Jesus Christ. - {Side Note} - As an example of how politically charged things could be, these places had a day set aside to honor their emperor. So the Christians chose the first day of the week {the same day as emperor worship day} to honor Christ. To fix in our minds what is going on with the seven letters to the seven churches, here's something you might want to write down: THE PURPOSE OF THE CHURCH IS TO BEAR THE LIGHT OF THE DIVINE PRESENCE IN A DARKENED WORLD. We can't do that if we're conformed to the world. We can't do that if we're not lovingly and graciously pushing back. The Revelation to John is our instruction, for our encouragement, and it is for our motivation to be faithful witnesses in a time when faithful witness is so desperately needed. We know it's easy to become discouraged about the state of the world. Sometimes we just want to hide from the animosity and hostility toward the gospel. That's why some people throw in the towel. They give up and they give in, and they simply go along to get along. It breaks our hearts when churches and denominations do that. Chaos and confusion abound in the church. What, then, is the church to do? How are we to respond? The Revelation to John is a message to us to faithfully endure, as the gospel is under attack. Another way to frame the coming chapters would be "Letters to Churches in Times of Trouble." In other words, in times of trouble, turmoil, and tumult, what ought the church look like? Here's how chapters two and three are going to answer that question. First, the church would desire all the noble things. This gets back to Galatians 5 and the Fruit of the Spirit. We should all strive to be the fruit bearing branches that Jesus describes in John 15. When we are doing these things, we are moving away from the corrupt and rebellious agenda pushed by a wicked culture. Second, all of us in the church would clearly understand that we sit under the authority of Jesus Christ and his Word. The Bible is our guide for sound doctrine and sound behavior. That is God's way to counter the deception of the wicked times in which we live. Third, our primary goal for the church is that she shines forth the radiating glory of God. That is what our worship is about. No gimmicks or fads. Simply faithful worship from faithful people. We study the Bible…we learn from God's Word. And we love each other and our communities in ways that reflect the Fruit of the Spirit. These are the ways in which we hold on to the truth of the gospel in the midst of paganism. All of these issues, and more, will be addressed by Jesus, through John, to the seven churches. But before we get there, let's finish up chapter 1. Remember, we are studying The Revelation to John. The whole book is a revelation of Jesus Christ. It is one revelation after another of the glorious Christ. Here, in verses 9 - 20 is the first vision: I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches." Remember, not only are Christians being persecuted, and not only has John been exiled as a criminal of the state, but churches are also defecting. They're abandoning their faithfulness to the one true gospel. It's a bad time. And so, in verse twelve, what's the first thing Jesus shows John? Right - seven golden lampstands. The purpose of the church is to bear the light of the divine presence in a darkened world. That's exactly Jesus' point in Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." The opening of the vision contains the reiteration that the primary purpose of the church is to bear light. Finally, as we move on to the seven churches next week, a simple word about the highly stylized description of Jesus in verses 13 - 16 is in order. Like many things we'll encounter in this book, we don't want to overthink many of these descriptive phrases. Case in point, these wonderful, beautiful images of verses 13 - 16. Remember, it is Jesus giving this vision to John. And the point is quite simple…this image is used to elicit an emotional response from the reader. We are overwhelmed by the beauty and majesty of the description. Reading too much into it would be like trying to unweave a rainbow. See it for what it is. The beauty and majesty of the Risen Christ. Who can imagine anything more glorious than the sun shining in full strength? It is brilliant, like in Matthew 17:2, "There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light." And so it comes as no surprise in the right hand of this brilliant manifestation of Jesus are held seven stars. Seven stars, meaning Jesus is exercising his sovereign control over the churches. Meaning even now, today, the glorious Christ is exercising his sovereign control over Covenant Church. To that, we can all say together: SOLI DEO GLORIA… To the Glory of God Alone!

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