My children, there could hardly be a more important book for you to read, understand, ponder and internalize than the book of Proverbs. You are going to discover soon enough that while there are many Christians, there are not many wise Christians. Most Christians believe that if you believe in Jesus, that is enough. And that is enough for salvation. But it is most certainly not enough for a life well-lived. A life well-lived requires insight, prudence, and understanding what is right and just and fair. It requires knowledge and discretion, learning, understanding, and wisdom. And Proverbs promises all of these to its students. I’m more convinced than ever that this book would have saved me from the vast majority of my self-inflicted wounds. I’m more convinced than ever that the more I internalize this book, the more fully, usefully, satisfyingly and joyfully I will live. Hear, my sons and daughter(s?), your father’s instruction.
A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 3:7-13
How good are you at coming up with excuses?
Man… I’m pretty good. It’s frustrating to me how easy it is for me to come up with clever reasons for not doing what I should be doing—at least in some areas of life.
I’m not an excuse maker at work. I work hard, do the job, take responsibility when I’ve gotten something wrong, and ask for feedback on how I can do even better. I’m not an excuse maker when it comes to my family. I love strongly, discipline firmly and fairly, invest time and thought, I’m intentional in discipleship, and when I screw up, I seek forgiveness—even from a 6- and 4-year-old who don’t even fully understand why Daddy is apologizing and asking forgiveness from them for forgetting to lead family devotions this week.
But I tend to be pretty good at coming up with excuses for ignoring the voice of the Spirit. Especially when he’s prompting me to do something that transgresses social norms—the customary rules of a civil society. Too often I don’t do things that might “weird people out.” Like asking a client how I can pray for him and his wife because she’s having surgery (“Not professional”). Or sharing the story of Jesus with a stranger working on her laptop at Caribou (“She looks busy”). Or… I mean, you know, right? Social norms and civil codes too often make us ignore the quiet voice we know to be God’s own, prompting us to live out his design for our lives—the only design that really matters.
It’s why I need to hear God’s words to the church at Philadelphia over and over again. Excuses couldn’t have been easier to come by than for the believers at the church in Philly. They’re being opposed by a dominant, vocal, well-established Jewish population who have favor with the powers-that-be and who try to sabotage their work at every turn. These are Jewish opponents of followers of the Jewish messiah. What could be more discouraging? It reminds me of the way whistle-blowers in large companies often get treated. They try to tell the truth and do the right thing, and their own company eats them alive. So, would-be whistle-blowers often don’t blow the whistle. They just quit. Better to keep your head down and move on to something else.
It would have been very easy and very tempting for the believers in Philadelphia to do the same. Worship Jesus in private. Keep to yourself. Keep your head down. Meet in secret. Don’t “weird anyone out.” Don’t break social norms. Be excited about Jesus. That’s fine. Just keep it to yourself. Keep it in church. Keep the fire in the fireplace.
But God, the Cosmic Interferer, says to them: “I’ve opened the doors for ministry for you. All of them. We’re going to set the world on fire. Ready?”
These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know you have little strength…” (Rev. 3:7-8)
Jesus isn’t refusing to acknowledge the challenges. He isn’t looking through rose-colored glasses and imagining that it will be easy. He knows we’re tired. He knows there’s lots of excuses. He’s simply saying, “I’ve done the hard work. I’ve placed open doors for ministry all around you. Walk through them. I’ll be there. I’ll help you. Ready?”
And the privilege we receive for walking through these doors and living as his followers is the gift of being “pillars in the temple of my God” (v. 12). The temple of God is the church—not the church building, but all believers everywhere. He’s calling us to be pillars.
A pillar. I don’t want to be a brick. I don’t want to be a bit of mortar. I don’t want to be part of some decorative facade or something else that looks nice, but doesn’t matter much to the temple itself.
God, make me a pillar.
May I quit with the convenient excuses. May I overturn the social norms like so many table of money changers.
God, make me a pillar.
May I stop typing and talk to this girl with the laptop who needs to know Jesus. May I call that client back and see how I can pray for him.
God, make me a pillar.
May I listen willingly and earnestly to your Spirit, go where he points, and do what he says.
God, make me a pillar.
A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 3:1-6
One of the things I’ve tried to emphasize most in my writing and speaking throughout the years has been what one might call the absoluteness of Jesus. I’m almost certain that “absoluteness” isn’t a word. But it does convey fairly well what the angel of the church at Sardis is saying about Jesus.
Jesus deals in absolutes. Something is right or it’s wrong. Something is good or it’s evil. You’re either with him or you’re against him. You’re either faithful or unfaithful. You’re a follower of his or you’re not. Our culture is very fond of blurry lines and expansive gray areas between the black and white, but Jesus really wasn’t. He draws a very clear line and asks us which side of it we’re on.
It seems to me that there is a tendency among believers to try to isolate areas of sin and rebellion in their lives—a few certain behaviors and decisions that are contrary to God’s revealed will, but nevertheless we try to “protect” from God’s intervention. We say, “I will give him all of my life, except this part. And I will go along with him as he refines and beautifies every part of my life, so long as he leaves this protected area of rebellion alone.”
It’s a story very familiar to me. I attempted to maintain a certain reputation among believers while I guarded a protected area of rebellion that for some time I refused to allow God to enter. Until it did what those protected areas always do. They turn on us. They break out of their boundaries and infect everything else. They never stay contained where we planned for them to. Suddenly we find ourselves ruined and broken, not having realized that what we were so closely protecting was actually a grenade with the pin pulled out.
Jesus says to the believers as Sardis, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. WAKE UP! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God“ (vv. 1-2).
Perhaps the single most important element in the pursuit of holiness is one that is almost never addressed. It is the virtue of prizing God’s thoughts about us far above anyone else’s. Good reputation is what happens when our known deeds make us highly esteemed by other people. Holiness is what happens when our known and unknown deeds make us highly esteemed by God himself.
Our progress in holiness will largely be determined by which we decide we want more and will chase after. Of course, high esteem among people often follows in the wake of genuine holiness. But as Sardis found out (along with myself and many of you) good reputation can be achieved without an absolute commitment to Jesus in every part of our lives. It can be achieved by harboring areas of rebellion, so long as those protected areas are not known.
The problem, of course, is that there are no true “protected areas.” There are no “unknown deeds.” “I know your deeds,” God says. I know them. You have not confessed them. They may not be public. But I know them. You have a certain reputation, but your reputation does not reflect realty.
So the question is: Do you want the reputation of holiness? Or do you want the reality of holiness?
God shows his grace toward us reputation-chasers with his call to WAKE UP! It is grace that he shouts and shakes us, allowing us to blink our eyes and let fall away the trance we so often walk around in, believing that what people think of us matters most of all.
It does not matter most of all. Here’s what will matter most of all: “The one who is victorious will…be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels” (v. 5).
What does that mean? What does it mean that Jesus will acknowledge the holy and victorious ones before his Father?
It means that in the end he will introduce him to the Father. It means that Jesus will usher us into the very throne room of God and say, “Father, I’d like you to know [your name here.] I know his deeds. I’ve seen his life. He has given it to me completely.
That will be the moment in which reputation will become a perfectly and completely empty concept. We will be completely and truly known by the one whose knowing matters more than anyone’s. That’s the moment we’re after. That’s why Jesus is so absolute. It’s why he’s so demanding. It’s because he wants that moment for us. He sends his Holy Spirit to work in us, driving us toward that moment. He died to bring to life our hearts, minds and eyes so that we can see that moment.
So may we choose to concern ourselves above all with God’s thoughts about us. May we care less about our reputation among people, and care nothing about it if it is ill-deserved. May we seek the sort of life that leads to the moment when Jesus introduces us proudly to his and our Father.
A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 2:8-11
A question I was asked with surprising frequency when I served as a pastor was, “Why didn’t Adam and Eve die when they ate the fruit? Didn’t God say they would?” Seems pretty clear, right?
“And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.'” (Gen. 2:16-17)
He said “when you eat from it,” right? Not, “If you eat from it, someday you’ll die.” Not, “If you eat from it, you could die at any time.” No, “When you eat from it you will certainly die.” When. At that moment. That instant. Right? Did God forget he said that? Did he chicken out? Is he like one of those parents that issue over-the-top threats of penalties for disobedience to their kids (e.g. “If you ask, ‘Are we there yet?’ one more time I am going to take away all of your toys FOREVER'”) and then realize they can’t possibly follow through, and subsequently their kids learn to ignore them? Is that what God is like? Did he just change his mind? Did he realize he was being a little hasty before, and decided to take it down a notch?
No. God did exactly what he said he was going to do.
But death isn’t mainly what happens when your heart stops beating and your neurons stop firing. Death isn’t mainly a physical event. Death is mainly a spiritual event. Physical life and death are merely shadows and pointers toward the truest forms of life and death, which are spiritual. According to Scripture, just because you’re breathing doesn’t mean you’re alive. Not in the truest sense. And just because your heart stops doesn’t mean you’re dead. Not in the deepest sense (cf. Rom. 5:12-21).
That idea of death and life is at work in God’s message to the church at Smyrna. God, through John, is encouraging them to persevere through the attacks and persecution of their opponents, who in this case are people claiming to be Jews. But John makes it clear—as Paul did on several occasions (see Romans 2:28-29 and 9:6)—that they’re not really Jews at all (v. 9). Being born into a Jewish family doesn’t make a person Jewish. Only being born (again) into God’s family through faith in Jesus can make a person a true Jew. These “so-called Jews” who are persecuting the believers in Smyrna aren’t truly Jews at all because they are attacking the followers of the Jewish Messiah. Which is why God calls them a “synagogue of Satan” (v. 9). They’re certainly not Satan-worshipers. But in aiding and organizing the persecution of followers of Christ, they have become a group of people in league with Satan.
The believers will be under attack from this group (and likely others) for “ten days,” a symbolic period of time drawn from Daniel 1:12-15. Revelation is constantly alluding to Daniel, Ezekiel and others, and this is a great example. The “ten days” recalls Daniel and his three friends’ time of intense and painful testing to reveal whether they would remain faithful in suffering, or would compromise with pagan religions. God is essentially posing the same questions to the believers at Smyrna: Will you remain faithful through suffering? Or will you take the easy road of compromise? Will you trust me even when it hurts? Or will you mix and match ‘gods’ and beliefs to suit your own needs and comfort?
How they answer that question will have eternal ramifications. As it will for us.
God says to them, and to us, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.” (v. 11)
The second death. That’s the one that counts. N.T. Wright explains:“There are, it seems, two forms of death. The first is the bodily death to which all will come except the generation still alive when the Lord returns. Jesus has already passed that way, and those who belong to him can know that he will first welcome them on the other side and then, at the end, raise them to new life in his final new world. But the ‘second death’ is the ultimate fate of those who steadfastly and deliberately refuse to follow Jesus, to worship the one God who is revealed in him. This ‘second death’ will, it seems, do for the entire personality what the ‘first death’ will do for the physical body.” (Revelation for Everyone, 18).
In other words, the “first death”—what happens when your heart stops beating and your brain stops sending signals—is pretty inconsequential. We tend to make a huge deal out of it. But it is significant only as a time marker. What happens before that moment in time determines what will happen after that moment in time. That’s it.
Those who persevere in faith and faithfulness to Christ before that time marker will not be touched by the second death. The final death. The death that entered the world with Adam’s sin. But those who make up their own god to worship—a god made to their liking; a god that doesn’t have a timeless will; a god whose standards merely mirror the standards of whatever time and culture we happen to live in; a god made in our image… They will find themselves swallowed up by the second death. And that’s the one that counts.
So, may we refuse to worship a god of our own making. May we drink deeply of the life that flows only from the God Who Is. May we trust and treasure Christ. May we follow him alone, and not ask him to follow us. May we trust that his sacrifice on our behalf is alone and entirely sufficient to endear us to God. And as his sons and daughters through Christ, may we enjoy life. Life forever. Life for real.
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. (3:19-21)
My little girl is three-years-old. Still young enough to believe that when she closes her eyes not only can she see nothing, but also no one can see her. She does it all the time when she knows she’s done something wrong and Daddy’s upset. She closes her eyes because she thinks that maybe I’ll lose track of her.
Don’t you love that?
It’s such a beautifully innocent understanding of how sight and reality work. It even has a coherent (if childish) logic to it: “If I can’t see it. It must not be there.” Being a kid means you get to believe things like that.
The problem comes when we believe it as adults. Can you imagine a person going through his adult life believing that if he closes his eyes, reality won’t be there anymore? “If I close my eyes, my frustrating boss won’t be there.” “If I close my eyes, my credit card bill will vanish.” “If I close my eyes, my mother-in-law will cease to exist—at least for a while.” Can you imagine someone like that?
The apostle John can.
A few days ago I wrote about Jesus being the light that has come into the world so that we can truly see for the first time. He is the light that has allowed us to see our sin, our need, to see the love of God, and to see that Jesus is the one who has lived and died to save us. Sadly, it says in John 3, “Light has come into the world but people loved darkness instead of light…” (v. 19).
Light brings sight. Light exposes. Light reveals what truly is. The only way you can avoid seeing when there is light is by closing your eyes. Which is exactly what we do sometimes. Did you notice what John says about why the people loved darkness instead of light? He says, “Because their deeds were evil” (v. 19).
Boy, that sounds a lot like what my beautiful little girl does sometimes. Doesn’t it? She tries to close her eyes and hide in the darkness behind her eyelids because she knows she did the wrong thing.
Sometimes we want what is evil so badly that we will close our eyes and try to pretend God isn’t there. We close our eyes and try to pretend that the truth isn’t true. We close our eyes and try to pretend that we know better than him, and that there really won’t be any consequences.
But to follow Jesus is to live with our eyes wide open.
Loving the light. Loving the truth. Believing God’s word and trusting that his will is always the best; the most pleasing; the most satisfying; the most for our good—even when it’s not easy to believe that. Jesus is the light of the world. He is real. He is true. He is there. And he alone is our highest good.