Why study the “seven churches of Asia Minor” in the first place

(6th in a series on the Seven Churches of Asia Minor.  Revelation 1-3)

“Now, all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (I Corinthians 10:11).

When I asked on Facebook why we should study the Seven Churches of Asia Minor, a professor friend gave what must be the simplest, clearest and best answer:  “Because it’s easier than anything else in Revelation.”  I laughed out loud, realizing that he had expressed precisely what I have felt over the years in turning to that book.

My New Orleans buddy Jim Smith came up with he most creative answer: “Because the churches of Asia Major weren’t so interesting?”

But, back to the question:  Why should we study letters to seven churches we would never have heard of otherwise?

Maybe the Lord is using it for discipline? Like putting us through boot camp, giving us something really hard–and it is that–to toughen us up for whatever lies ahead.

Maybe He wants us to be historians?

Does the Lord somehow need His children to know what went on two thousand years ago?  Are we to be trivia buffs regarding the first century of believers?  History experts?  Why does this stuff matter?

It’s a legitimate question, one every generation asks.

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Playing these little games with God’s Word

(Third in a series on John’s Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor.  Revelation 1-3)

“John to the seven churches which are in Asia….” (Revelation 1:4).

Did you know if you take the seventh letter from the 7th chapter of each book of the Bible, it forms a secret message?  I didn’t either.  But it’s no weirder than some of the schemes people come up with to make Scripture say more than it was intended.

The cults are notorious for finding secret messages in Scripture.

God’s faithful children must be careful not to fall for such schemes and not to try to read hidden messages into God’s Word.

His Word is sufficient.

I’m deep into studying the first three chapters of Revelation, for the umpteenth time in my life.  There is so much here.

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When planning, reading the instructions is a good place to start.

“Our company asks prospective employees to fill out a written application,” a man wrote in the Readers Digest.  “One question said: In one word, describe your greatest strength. This woman applicant wrote: I’m always faithful to read the directions first.”

Recently, Bertha and I voted at the church a few blocks from our house.  As you sign in, the poll workers give you a paper ballot.  Since only two races were left for the runoff, the page was mostly empty.  At the top were these instructions:  “Using black ink, fill in the oval circle beside the name of the candidate for whom you are voting.”  You were given a closed space to mark your ballot, which you then handed to a clerk who fed the paper into the voting tabulator.  Mine went through fine.  Bertha’s was spit back out.  The clerk looked at it, smiled at her, and said, “Ma’am, you put a checkmark by the candidate’s name.  You’re supposed to fill in the oval.”  She laughed, was slightly embarrassed, they gave her another ballot, and she got it right this time.

On the way to the car, I said to my schoolteacher/wife: “Honey, do you tell the students to read the directions before they take their test?”  She gave me that look.

On the drive home I said to her, “I’ve not changed the clock in this car since we went on Daylight Savings Time.  The truth is I’ve forgotten how to do it.  I’ve had the car a whole year now, so I know I’ve done it before. But I don’t recall how.”

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Part 3 Matthew 19’s questions of divorce and the law

“If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17).

Are we saved by keeping the Old Testament Law?  By keeping the commandments?

In our earlier installments on this chapter, we pointed out that if all we had on the subject of divorce were these words–especially Matthew 19:9–we would conclude that anyone divorcing “without cause” is an adulterer, the only remedy for which would be another divorce.  However, no scripture is of private interpretation, the Bible itself says, meaning among other things that we should not build our doctrine on one verse in isolation.  Take the full teaching of Scripture on a subject.

And we tried to point out that the whole of Scripture makes it clear that a sin forgiven is gone forever, and adulterers are no longer such when the benefits of Calvary are applied.  “Such were some of you,” says I Corinthians 6:11.  A most blessed phrase!

In the same way, if our Lord’s instructions to the “rich young ruler” were all we had on the subject of the Old Testament Law, we would gravitate to His saying “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17) and be sentenced to a lifetime of endless frustration in our attempts to do something that cannot be done.  But we have the rest of the Lord’s teachings as well as the epistles to the Romans and Galatians.  And of course, we have the 15th chapter of Acts where that very question was on the table before the church leaders.

To keep our discussion here brief–always a good idea but one which I struggle with at times!–I want to reference just one Old Testament text which knocks this out of the park.

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Things to know–and not to know–about Bible prophecy

“But of that day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels of Heaven, but My Father only” –Matthew 24:36.

“But of that day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  –Mark 12:32

Make a list of what we do not know concerning the end times.  What we put on the list would tell a great deal about us.

One of the greatest Bible teachers of the past fifty years is (or has been) Dr. Warren Wiersbe.  Once, when he was asked to speak on Bible prophecy, he began with this disclaimer:  “I used to know a lot more about prophecy than I do now.”

I appreciate that.

What Dr. Wiersbe was saying was that in his earlier years, he sounded forth with certainty on matters about which he knew little.  But with maturity came a healthy dose of humility.  In time, he was able to say just as confidently that “I do not know” concerning some of these prophetic subjects.  That’s what maturity and integrity do:  Admit when they do not know something.

I’m personally convinced that no one has all the answers to the mysteries of Revelation.  The only way, of course, to prove that assertion wrong is for the events to proceed to unfold just as someone has predicted.  Until then, every Bible teacher who sounds forth claiming to have the answers does so by faith.

“We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).  Our faith may be in Christ, it may be (also) in Scripture, but it just as easily could be in ourselves, as I suspect is true of some of the most dogmatic interpreters.

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Half right; totally wrong: Shallow things religious people say

But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine.  –Titus 2:1 

We hear them all the time.  Something about these oft-repeated claims just does not seem right, we think.  So–let’s look at a few of them.

One. “Christianity is not a religion;  it’s a relationship.”

Sounds right, but it’s wrong.  Ask yourself one question:  As a follower of Jesus, that is one in a (ahem) relationship with Him, would it be all right if I joined a religion and became a Buddhist or Taoist or a Jew or a Muslim? After all, as a Christian I’m not in a religion as such (according to this thinking) and there would be no reason not to.   Of course those religions are incompatible with the way of Jesus Christ.

“The way of Jesus Christ”?  What we call The Christian Religion.

Friend, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, well….

A religion may be defined as a systemized practice of worship involving a God, a place or places of worship, a system of beliefs, and in most cases exclusivity (that is, it claims to hold The truth).

Sure sounds like the Christian faith to me.

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Friends of the Cross

For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ:  whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame–who set their mind on earthly things.  For our citizenship is in Heaven….  (Philippians 3:17-21).

There is a reason each of the four gospels devotes at least a fourth of its chapters to the final week of Jesus’ life on earth.  His death-burial-resurrection is the heart of the story.

The cross is not just the heart of the story; it is the story!

In Philippians 3, Paul weeps over church members who claim to be authentic and present themselves as leaders and teachers but are actually “enemies of the cross of Christ.”  He does not say specifically what these trouble-makers are doing.  Often, when Scripture is silent on something crucial like that, I suspect it means the Holy Spirit does not want us to camp out on what these offenders did, lest we become too narrow in our focus.  Enemies of the cross of Jesus can be found across Christendom today and their emphasis may be entirely different from the shenanigans of the First Century.

Scholars think that in context, because of Paul’s indictment of them (their god is their belly, etc) these “enemies of the cross” were probably libertines, forerunners of the Gnostics, or Judaizers. Or both.  The first group taught that since they were saved anything they did afterwards did not matter, which brings great shame to the cause of Christ. The second group held that they were saved by their works.  In each case, the result was  to undermine and nullify the work of Jesus on the cross.

After all, if we go right on in the same wickedness and debauchery after being saved as before, what was the point of the cross?  And if we are saved by our good works, why did Jesus go to all the trouble of dying for our sins?

The good-time charlies and the rigid Pharisees are both enemies of the cross and have no place in church leadership.  (Let the church pay attention to this!  Everyone may enter the church without changing their lives; but only the faithful and godly should be given leadership positions.)

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What to do when preparing to teach a Bible study at church

Somewhere I read that G. Campbell Morgan, the great British pastor and expositor, would read through a book of the Bible at least forty times before teaching it. Any less and he felt unprepared. 

We pastors often set aside a few days on the church calendar for an intensive Bible study on a particular theme or book of Scriptures.  Our denomination–the Southern Baptist Convention–has for many years promoted a “January Bible Study” or “Mid-winter Bible Study.” This time–January, 2019–it will be Revelation 2-3, “The Letters to the 7 Churches of Asia Minor.”

I’ll be teaching this for several days at a church near Birmingham, Alabama, and hopefully another place or two.  But months in advance, I’ve been working on it, trying to learn all I can in order to feel competent to teach it.  Never mind that I’ve taught through Revelation several times and preached sermons on these seven churches in the past.  None of that means much at the moment.  The challenge is not to dig out old notes and rehash ancient messages, but to listen anew for what the Holy Spirit is saying through His always-up-to-date Word.  The Word does not change, but its application to our daily lives is as fresh as it’s possible to get.

Furthermore, I’ve changed. I’m not the same person as decades ago when I pastored churches. So, I open the Scriptures and tackle this delightful project with excitement about what the Father has in store.

So, it’ll be interesting to see how this Bible study develops.

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Let’s not go beyond what the Lord said

For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy City, and from the things which are written in this book (Revelation 22:18-19). 

Someone says, “I’ve had a revelation from the Lord, something Scripture doesn’t address.”

Run, as fast as you can.

Scripture calls it “adding to the Word,” and it’s clearly verboten throughout the Bible, off limits to all who take seriously their devotion to the Lord and His Word. Deuteronomy 4:2 reads, “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” (Need more?  Try these: Deuteronomy 12:32; Joshua 1:7; Proverbs 30:6. The Father is consistent on this point.)

Let’s not go beyond what the Lord says through His Word.  After all, Scripture teaches that Scripture is sufficient.  Some would call that circular reasoning.   That’s a possibility, but a better plan is that Scripture is Holy Spirit inspired. God knew what He was doing.

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The one book for your whole life

What great nation is there that has statutes and judgements as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?  (Deuteronomy 4:8)

A national news columnist–I forget his name–is from Okalona, Mississippi, just up the road from here.  In a column some years back, he was telling of visiting his 90-year-old mother, a retired librarian.  She had always been a voracious reader.  “Son,” she told him, “I’ve just finished reading the most fascinating book.”  As she showed it to him, he smiled.

“Mother,” said the columnist son, “I distinctly remember you telling me you had read that twenty years ago.  In fact, you bought me a copy.  Don’t you remember?”

“The way my memory is going,” she said, “honestly, I could just own one book.”

We smile at the idea of reading one book over and over again.  Those of a certain age will understand.

And yet, focusing on one book is exactly what disciples of the Lord Jesus do.  We read the Holy Bible every day and plan to do so for the rest of our days. We read it to know it, to know the Lord through reading it, and we read it to know how to serve Him.

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