Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Missional Application of the Seven Letters: Emphasize Warnings and Promises

It is clear from the seven letters that the reward of eternal life with Christ is conditioned upon perseverance. Persecution is not the only pressure that threatens the church and her mission so perseverance is not only to be thought of in terms of enduring suffering, but also persisting in doing good, in pursuing holiness, and in loving well.

Throughout the study of the seven letters we have seen that faithfulness to the witness bearing mission of the church requires fidelity to God as the sole object of worship and does not allow for a syncretistic blending of allegiances or affections. Moreover, the mission requires the church to keep itself clean from the stain of immorality and pursue holiness. Love is also an essential element of the witnessing task given to the church – a love for God, love for brotherhood of believers, and a love for the unbelieving neighbor. In summary, the church is to be a contrast people, their uniqueness serving to draw the world attention and ire.

Jesus takes the mission of the church quite seriously and threatens to come in judgment upon those churches that forsake, compromise or abandon their missional calling. It is, I believe, the duty of the the church and especially its pastors to issue these warnings to its members on behalf of Jesus, calling her to become “conquerors” and so fulfill the mission given to them and attain the promise of eternal life in the kingdom.

In five of the seven letters Jesus issues explicit warnings and calls to repentance. Jesus threatens to come to Ephesus and remove her lampstand if they did not return and “do the works they did at first” (2:5). The church at Pergamum would face Jesus waging war against them with the sword of his mouth if they did not repent of their toleration of false teachers leading them into idolatry and immorality. In Thyatira, Jesus had given Jezebel and her followers ample time to repent, but proving unwilling they faced judgment including being thrown onto a sickbed and death. Jesus will come against Sardis like a thief in the night if the church does not wake up. The Laodicean church is about to be spewed out because they have become indistinguishable from their culture and hence useless.

Maybe even more significant are the conditional promises given to each church. In each of the seven letters the inheritance of salvation is made conditional upon “conquering” (νικάω). Implied in these promises is a threat that those who do not conquer (or “overcome”) forfeit the promised inheritance in the future kingdom. Two examples will suffice to emphasize the nature of these implied warnings. To the church at Smyrna Jesus says, “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” Implied in these words is the warning: those who don’t conquer will suffer a second, eternal death. Also consider Jesus words to the church at Sardis, “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life.” Again, it only those who conquer will have their names indelibly written in the book of life. Could the stakes be any higher?

When considered together, the seven letters present the church with an urgent plea to overcome all that will threaten her ability to faithfully complete her mission of bearing witness to the world. Conquering always includes maintaining belief and refusing to give into disbelief, but it also includes overcoming sin that is a stain on the church's witness, false teaching that threatens to shipwreck the church, resisting idolatry and immorality and, in summary, being the distinct people of God.

Moreover, it is clear that conquering or overcoming must be a persistent activity; one does not conquer once, but must continue conquering, persevering to the end. Even those churches that were commended are called to persevere in their faithful witness and lay hold of their eternal reward.

This concern for perseverance in faith must inform the teaching ministry of every pastor; yet, several factors conspire to make many pastors reluctant to emphasize these and the many other warning passages of Scripture as well as the conditional nature of many biblical promises.

Of course, threats and conditions will never be popular, even when the pastor is only communicating a threat made by the church’s Lord. But even courageous pastors are often reluctant to teach the biblical warnings. The main reason, I believe, is the lack of clarity regarding the complex of issues surrounding these warnings – issues related to the nature of faith, the importance of works, assurance of salvation, etc. In some cases this reluctance may be the fruit of an overly simplistic doctrine of perseverance of the saints or eternal security, while in others it may stem from a reluctance to preach anything akin to a work-based salvation.

While a complete study of the issues related to perseverance is not possible, a few truths need to be considered as important theological background to a proper presentation of these warnings. First, regarding faith, pastors need to acknowledge and teach a robust understanding of faith that is more than simple mental assent or belief. Schreiner and Caneday liken faith to a multifaceted gemstone and demonstrate how the many metaphors utilized in scripture for Christian faith are necessary to fully grasp what is required by the concept, metaphors that include athletic images (running a race, training, etc.), military images (fighting the good fight, armor, etc.), rational metaphors (knowing, understanding), sensory language (hearing, seeing), images of discipleship (following), bodily action (eating, drinking), and metaphors of endowment (receiving).

While some of these metaphors emphasize the passive aspects of faith, when taken as a whole it should not be missed that there are many active aspects to faith. Commenting on Hebrews 11, Schreiner and Caneday point out “In every case, faith sprang into faithful action. God commends each one [Abel, Noah, Abraham, Rahab, etc.], not merely for possessing faith, but for faith that obeys.”

This truth is also apparent, for example, in the letter to the church in Ephesus where Jesus calls them to “do the works you did at first.” Christ expected their faith to give rise to action. Schreiner and Caneday continue, emphasizing faith’s perseverance, “God is pleased with faith that perseveres; God does not commend a person for a singular act of faith that fails to endure. God does not reward faith that does not go the distance.”

This too is seen in several of the letters to the churches in Asia. To the church at Smyrna Jesus says, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” This does, of course, raise the issue of a believer’s eternal security and assurance. How does one fit the necessity of perseverance alongside Biblical promises that seem unconditional and emphasize the believers secure standing before God?

In navigating these doctrines, teachers must avoid blunting the warnings by superimposing the promises overtop of the admonitions to persevere (and vice versa). Schreiner and Caneday are right, "We believe that God’s promises of assured salvation have their proper function to ground our faith in God and to assure us that God faithfully keeps his promises to his children. We also believe that God’s admonitions and warning have their distinctive function to evoke faith that perseveres in holy devotion to God’s heavenly call on in Christ Jesus. Thus, God’s warnings do not conflict with God’s promises. His warnings serve his promises, for his warnings elicit belief and confidence in God’s promises."

Pastors who blunt the warnings of Scripture, refuse to preach Biblical warnings, or avoid the conditional nature of biblical promises deprive their churches of the full counsel of God. In so doing, they fail to recognize that God uses these warnings, admonitions and conditions to reinforce faith and beckon the believer to persistence. Too often pastors get caught up explaining [away] these warning texts, importing the theological truths that those who truly comprise God’s people and have genuine faith will persevere till the end (being preserved by God’s sovereign power through his Spirit) and this truth’s corollary, that those who fail to persevere prove their faith was not genuine saving faith. But, the point of these texts is different.

The conditional promises of Revelation, let alone the repeated warnings, are not included in Jesus’ letters to the church to explain that those who have fallen away were not sincere in their faith to begin with (though other texts make this point), but to call the churches to repentance and encourage them to persevere and overcome. Schreiner and Caneday call attention to this propensity for pastors to interpret the “the biblical warnings from the retrospective vantage point of apostasy completed rather than from the prospective threat lest someone fall away.”

While the retrospective vantage point is the focus of some passages (i.e. 1 John 2:19), turning every passage this way is unwarranted and counterproductive – God inspired both the backward looking explanations of apostasy and the forward looking warnings for the good of his church. Just as the author of Hebrews urges individual believers to “lay aside every weight” that hinders them from running well and “run with endurance the race set before us,” so in Revelation 2 & 3 Jesus urges every church and every member of the church to cast off that which would hinder them from their mission of bearing witness and remain faithful so that they will numbered in the company of who conquer and lay hold of their eternal reward. Pastors must bring these pleas to their churches.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Could Paul Have Been Wrong?

Maybe.

The question came up (not for the first time) last week as I was preparing to preach on 1 & 2 Thessalonians. It's common to hear that Paul, at the outset of his ministry, thought Jesus would be returning within his lifetime. So, did he? Could Paul have been wrong?

It depends. 

Paul might have thought the earth was the center of the universe. He might have thought Spain represented the western edge of the world. He might have thought baseball was boring. If so, he would have been wrong.

Paul could have been wrong about a lot of stuff because Paul wasn't inspired, inerrant or even necessarily authoritative in all areas.

Not even all his theological opinions were necessarily correct. For example, I have conversations with my Grandma and occasionally, the topic will turn to Christ's return. Grandma usually says something like, 'I really think I'm still going to be around when Christ returns.' Is it possible Paul had similar conversations?  Sure. 'Hey Timothy, did you hear Nero set the fire in Rome. Dude's crazy. The world's going nuts. I think maybe Christ could be coming soon.'

Problem? No!

It's even possible that Paul articulated some of those theological thoughts in sermons in churches.

Pushing it a little further, not even all of Paul's writings were necessarily inspired.  There's probably some letters we don't have - a lost letter to Corinth, one to Laodicea. Maybe one to mom and dad. Could there have been errors in those letters. Sure.

It's the letters of Paul that are included in the canon of Scripture that are inspired and free from doctrinal error. It's the teachings of Paul (and James and Peter and whoever wrote Hebrews, etc.) included in the pages of the New Testament that are authoritative. 

I think we as evangelicals sometimes get caught fighting battles we don't need to fight because we assert too much.  I have no interest in defending Paul, James, etc against error. I do have a stake in the fight when it comes to the Bible and to the apostles inspired and authoritative writing.

So, the much more important question: Are Paul's NT writings on the timing of Christ's return in error. Did Paul teach in the pages of the NT that Jesus would be coming during his lifetime?
No, he didn't. But, I can understand why people might think he did.

Here's a few of the places where Paul may appear to be saying Christ's coming was going to be soon (since some attribute Hebrews to Paul, erroneously I believe, I'll handle two verses from Hebrews as well):

1. Phil 4:5 - "The Lord is at hand."

Sam Storms, of whom I a huge fan, points out that this could mean one of two things. He writes, "This phrase 'at hand' could be taken temporally or personally. That is to say, he may be referring to the nearness of Christ in terms of time or space.

If it's personal, then its saying Christ is with you and there to give you the strength you need. This phrase does come, signicantly, in a prayer.

However, I think it's likely a temporal reference. But, this doesn't mean Paul was teaching that Christ would come back soon (as we think of soon).  He spoke at the end of Philippians chapter three of our citizenship in heaven from which 'we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ'.  I think Paul is speaking of Christ's return which is 'at hand'.  And it has been 'at hand' for a long time and simply means 'impending'/'imminent'.  It could happen at any time (though in 2 Thes., written well before Philippians, Paul teaches that it won't come until the 'Man of Lawlessness' is revealed) .

2. 1 Thess 4:16-17 - "For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord."

Since Paul says "we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up..." some have used this verse to argue that Paul mistakenly thought Christ would return while he was still alive. This, I think, fails the common sense test. Paul was alive when he wrote it, so naturally he would have put himself in the category of those who are alive vs. those who are dead. He could have said, "then we, if we're still alive at the time, will be caught up...," but that's just needlessly cumbersome and a little pedantic. Paul put himself in that category because, at the time, it was true - he was among those still alive who'd be caught up with Christ in the clouds, not one of those who'd be resurrected.

Paul writes similarly in Romans13:11, "For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand."  Obviously, if Christ's return is an event in history it's nearer now than it was earlier. Time/History move forward - future events get nearer. But what about the night being done and the day being at hand?  Read below on the Hebrews 1:2 passage.

3. Hebrews 1:2 - "Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son"

Again, I don't think Hebrews was written by Paul (it doesn't claim to be), but many do. This text clarifies a lot I think. In these last days God has spoken to us through his Son. So the last days are connected to the revelation of the Son, which means the last days began when he was revealed.

The Bible speaks of two stages of history - this present (evil) age and the age to come. Sometimes the language is used to convey this same idea is 'former days' vs. 'later days' or 'last days'.  With Christ the age to come broke into the present evil age and the two ages now, for a time, overlap. But, the entire period from Christ's first advent till his return is rightly called 'the last days'.  See also Acts 2:17 where Peter reminds the people witnessing the outpouring of the Spirit that this is what the prophet Joel said would happen 'in the last days'.

4. Hebrews 10:37-38 - "Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”

The author here is contrasting the relative shortness of waiting (and enduring suffering) with the length of eternity. The greatness of the believers reward, which is eternal, is worth waiting for. In fact, the wait, though it seems exceedingly long to the one suffering, is but 'a little while' when compared to the span of eternity in which they'll enjoy their reward.

Also, the second half of this verse is a quote from Hab. 2:3-4. The full quote is helpful, "If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay." There is a recognition that the response could seem slow, but wait for it...it won't delay.

The quote fits our call to wait for Christ's return very well. It may seem slow by our standards. But God isn't delaying - it will come in the fullness of time. Wait for it. Be awake, vigilant, prepared and eager. 

No problems here. No real challenges to the truthfulness of Scripture. Paul wasn't wrong in what he wrote. To see this you just need to look at the fullness of what Scripture teaches, not simply isolated texts and phrases. And you can't define terms as you wish, you need to understand how Paul (or anyone else who writes) used a phrase. Hermeneutics 101.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Take a Load Off

Especially true of sound eschatology...as the books of 1& 2 Thessalonians attest.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Missional Application of the Seven Letters: Prepare for Suffering

Continuing to think through some missional applications of the seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor, we need to consider the theme of suffering. As we learn to live the narrative and “indwell God’s story”, our individual and corporate life's will increasingly be shaped by the story. As the church lives out her mission and becomes the “contrast community” she was called to be, persecution will inevitably follow.

Persecution is explicitly mentioned in two of the letters we have examined. Jesus knows of the tribulation of the believers in Smyrna and encourages them in the face of what they are about to suffer while calling them to be faithful even unto death. Also, Antipas was martyred in Pergamum, and despite this the other believers were holding fast.

Three other letters speak of the enduring church, though violent persecution is not necessarily the source of suffering. The Ephesian church was “enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake” under pressure from false apostles (from what we know about the circumstances in Ephesus it is likely that Christians were the object of intense vitriol and violence; see Acts 19). Thyatira is commended for their patient endurance and called to “hold fast” to what they had, not yielding to temptation, false teaching or persecution. Philadelphia is suffering from the false Jews who comprise the synagogue of Satan, but are patiently enduring.

Sardis and Laodicea do not appear to be suffering any degree of persecution at the time of writing (or be in significant danger of suffering except under the judgment of God). This lack of suffering is likely due to the degree to which they had sinfully assimilated themselves into the pagan culture. The conclusion that can be drawn from these letters is that faithful churches will likely suffer and need to endure tribulations that may include persecution, whether slander or violence.

Stott writes, “If the first mark of a true and living church is love, the second is suffering.” This has certainly proven true through large swaths of the church’s history and is true in many places across the globe today; yet, in the West the church has enjoyed a relative amount of ease and comfort. That is not to say there has been no pockets of persecution even here in the United States , but on the whole, this has not been the norm. This should lead us to ask two poignant questions.

First, why are we not facing more opposition? Is it because God has blessed us with a period of peace and allowed the church to flourish or is it because we have become so sinfully accommodating to our culture that we are no threat to the status quo. I believe there is some truth is both answers and both need to be thoughtfully explored, though likely the latter is more to credit/blame. Again, Stott writes, “We shrink from suffering. The ugly truth is that we tend to avoid suffering by compromise.”

Secondly, the we need to ask if we and our churches are prepared for suffering and persecution should the situation change. How would the church fare if she were to face the same kind of persecution and suffering that Pergamum did, or Ephesus? Faithful shepherds will, as we see Jesus doing throughout these letters, prepare the church for suffering. Keener states it bluntly, “If we have not prepared ourselves and our congregations to die for Christ’s name if necessary, we have not completed our responsibility of preparing disciples.”

I believe there are five important ways we need to be preparing ourselves and our churches for suffering. First, we need to remind ourselves that suffering is normal for the faithful Christian; it is their lot. Peter tells us as much, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). Demonstrating this truth will be natural for the pastor committed to telling the grand story of Scripture: Abel was murdered by a jealous brother for his righteous offering. The people of God suffered in Egypt. The prophets suffered and were persecuted by unrighteous kings and queens. Peter and Paul are a part of this suffering story. The story includes people who, though righteous, suffered. This part of the story needs to be heard in our churches, for as much as we would hate to admit it, the “prosperity gospel” has found an all too eager audience in our evangelical churches. Suffering is seen as something to be avoided and even a sign of divine displeasure. People have been taught that being in God’s will is a safe place, free from danger or hardship. So we need to start by reminding ourselves and our churches that suffering is normal, and according to Jesus would inevitably come to his followers.

Second, suffering needs to be put in the context of God’s love and commitment to do his people’s good. Of course God disciplines his children, as every loving father does. But even beyond discipline which calls for repentance, God allows his people to suffer persecution to test and refine their faith (see James 1:3,12; 1 Peter 1:7). There is a mysterious element to God’s will as it relates to suffering: in some instances God rescues from violent persecution while at other times he allows his church to suffer greatly. Yet, in both circumstances, we must place the outcome within the context of God’s love and concern for their ultimate good. Keener comments, “Suffering has a way of reminding us which things in life really matter, forcing us to depend radically on God, and thus purifying our obedience to God’s will.”

Third, God's promise His grace is sufficient to see us through the suffering needs to be heralded over and over again. Jesus makes his intimate knowledge of and presence with the churches a point of emphasis in each of the seven letters – he is the one who walks among the seven golden lampstands and “knows” them. To some this would be disconcerting, for Jesus knew their failings. But, for the faithful church enduring persecution it was meant to be an encouragement. Jesus knew their struggle, was with them in the midst of it, and offers his strength to endure it.

Fourth, we need be pointed to Christ and his pattern of suffering. Jesus himself does this in the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia. To the suffering church at Smyrna Jesus identifies himself as the one “who died and came to life”, reminding them that he too suffered but also that he prevailed. The church at Philadelphia had taken to heart “the word about my [Jesus’] endurance”, noting and emulating his pattern. Of course this theme is an oft repeated one throughout the New Testament. For example, Hebrews 12:3 encourages the believer, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Churches need to sound this note clearly – our suffering is something the author of our faith himself endured and it is, in some mysterious way, participation with him in suffering.

Finally, we need to think often about the hope we have if we will endure. Setting aside the conditionality of these promises for a moment (more on that soon), we need to have our eyes set on our future hope so that we grasp what it is that stands to be gained on the other side of patient suffering. The glory the believer will attain and the reward of eternity in God’s perfect shalom needs to be a theme we come to often in our teaching, preaching, praying, and conversing. This is the focus of each letter’s conclusion – the right to eat from the tree of life in God’s paradise, immunity from the second death, hidden manna, a place in Christ’s kingdom, white garments, the crown of life, God’s name, sitting with Jesus on his throne, etc. The sufferings the believer endures will only seem “light and momentary” if we know and long for the true “weight of glory” that will be granted to those who endure.

Keener sums this call to be ready for suffering up well, “Revelation prohibits us loving our lives more than his gospel; it summons us to follow the model of Antipas as faithful witnesses, no matter what the cost.” Being faithful to our mission will lead to suffering, but Christ, our suffering servant walk with us through it and rewards us richly after we have suffered "a little while."

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Prayer From a Needy Man

Lord, I thank you for your willingness to supply all my needs.
At every point I stand needy, there you stand ready to meet my need.

I am your creation, so dependent on you utterly. You are my Sustainer.

I am a sinner and stand in need of your grace and mercy. You are my Redeemer.

I'm drowning in guilt and shame. You are my Savior.

I need to be freed from the defilement of sin. You are my Sanctifier.

I need daily sustenance. You are my Provider.

I'm weary. You are my Rest.

I need purpose in a world that pulls towards meaninglessness. You are my Telos.

I need security amid the tumult of today. You are my Refuge.

I'm worried. You are my Peace.

I need wonder and mystery. You are the Three-in-One God.

I'm lost. Your are the Way.

I'm confused. You are the Truth.

I'm dying. You are Life.

Show me all the ways I think I'm self sufficient. Reveal yourself there as the one who meets the needs I don't even know I have.

Be gracious and ever giving.
Amen.