In the history of mankind there have been a small number of significant revolutions based around the way we communicate. From writing and drawing on stone, we discovered that a form of writing material could be developed from the papyrus plant. From there we discovered that animal skins, or parchment, was a valuable writing material and that created a significant change in society at the time. Paper was invented in China but the invention of the printing press in the 15th century represented another revolution in our society. Then, in our own lifetime, we have experienced the technological revolution.

This is the third in a series of posts based on the first couple of chapters of the book of Revelation that are focussed on a letter sent by the Apostle John to seven churches in western Turkey. This letter was sent to the church in Pergamum.

Pergamum is famous because it is from the name of that city that we gained the word for parchment. Pergamum was home to a library that, according to the writings of Plutarch, housed about 200,000 volumes. The Library of Pergamum became one of the most important libraries in the ancient world.

Prior to the creation of parchment, manuscripts were transcribed on papyrus, which was produced only in Alexandria. When the Ptolemies of Africa refused to export any more papyrus to Pergamum, King Eumenes II commanded that an alternative source be found. Parchment reduced the Roman Empire’s dependency on Egyptian papyrus, allowed for the increased dissemination of knowledge throughout Europe and Asia, and greatly expanded the holdings of the Library of Pergamum.

So, to the church in this great city of the book, John’s letter says: “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. What a strange picture.  But perhaps this wasn’t so strange because the readers of this letter may well have had the opportunity to read the letter to the Hebrews where you can find these words:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

When Jesus is described as having a sharp double-edged sword coming out of his mouth, it tells us something about character. It tells us that Jesus is the eternal word which John had already confirmed in a previous writing like this: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Jesus is the eternal word. What a great message that was for the Christians in Pergamum, that great city of words, the centre for the production of parchment and the dissemination of knowledge. The Jesus who they worshipped was far greater than the quest for knowledge that was so central to their city.

But John knew how bad things were in that city; it was so bad that he described it as the city where Satan had his throne. Tradition has it that John ordained Antipas as bishop of Pergamon during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian and that he was martyred in ca. 92 AD by burning in a brazen altar in the shape of a bull.

Yet despite the opposition they received and the evil that existed all around them, the church had remained faithful to Jesus. But there were a few people who were causing trouble and enticing people into idolatory and immorality. The word that is translated as entice, or in some cases, stumbling block, is the Greek word, skandalon from which we get our word scandal. It was specifically used at that time to refer to the bait stick on a bird trap. When I was a kid I remember setting up bird traps in my yard. The idea was that the bird would be enticed into the trap by some seed on the ground, and I could then pull a piece of string, the stick would be removed and the box would fall down, and the bird was caught – it’s OK, I let it go afterwards.

That was exactly the idea that was referred to in this passage. Christians were being enticed into a trap that included idolatory and immorality and while it seemed very innocent at first, it ended up being a disaster for them. While it was only a small group of people within the church who were causing trouble, the whole church was called to repentance.

The letter then went on to explain how the problem would be overcome. Jesus said he would come and fight against them with the sword of his mouth.Remember the sharp double edged sowrd coming out his mouth? It is the Word of God that will maintain the standards within the life of the Church. Not the blunt instrument of our self-righteous judgement, but the sharp sword of God’s Word. When we allow Jesus the eternal word, to be the focus of our church, and allow his written word to be our guide, the Holy Spirit is given the freedom to penetrate people’s hearts and minds and change occurs.

So then we come now to the final part of this letter to the church at Pergamum. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.

We learn more in another part of the Bible where Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died.  But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

To this great city where the written word was so important through its parchment industry, and its library, Jesus came as the Eternal Word. And as the Eternal Word he offered three things:

  1. He knows us intimately and can look deep into our hearts to prompt us to follow him in full obedience (that’s the sharp double-edged sword)
  2. He came as spiritual food to sustain us in every situation. Jesus feeds our souls and generously ministers to our every needs. We need to be willing to be fed from the Word of God that we may grow to be more like Jesus (that’s the hidden manna)
  3. The eternal word came to prepare us for eternity and to promise that our name would be written in the Lamb’s book of Life. (That’s the white stone with the new name). Jesus welcomes us eternally as we accept his great gift of salvation. We need to be willing to receive Jesus and allow him to change us inside out.

This is the second in a series I have been preaching through at Maida Vale Baptist Church entitled, Listen Up, Church”, based on Revelation 1-3. You can also read the Introduction, Listen Up Church #1, and Listen Up Church #2. Read on at Listen Up, Church #4.

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refugees

Acknowledgement: hurriyetdailynews.com

If you’ve been following the refugee crisis in Europe you may have heard the name Izmir. It’s the third largest city in Turkey and is situated on the Aegean coast. Refugees have come from Syria to Izmir in their thousands and from there, have been finding any means possible to get across to Europe, or in many cases, just to get to the Greek Island of Lesbos.

Izmir is an ancient city that was originally called Smyrna, the second city addressed in a letter by the apostle John to seven churches in Western Turkey. It was the birthplace of one of the world’s richest men, Aristotle Onassis, but was also the home of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna in the second century, who according to tradition died a martyr.

This post is the second in the series based on John’s letter to the seven churches. You can read what he said to the church in Smyrna here.

As with each of the letters, John begins by telling us something about the character of Jesus. “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.”

To a church that was suffering persecution, this was a very powerful introduction. This message is from Jesus himself, the first and the last. The beginning and the End. The Alpha and the Omega. The Smyrnan church had seen religious fads come and go. Smyrna was one of the first cities to engage in the worship of Roman emperors. They had seen the worship of Greek gods and goddesses. But Jesus, John reminds them, is the first and the last. What they needed was constancy and stability in a changing, and frightening environment.

On an earlier occasion John had written in what has become known as John’s Gospel. It started with these words: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

Now at the beginning of his letter to the seven churches, John says: “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him; even those who pierced him; and all peoples on earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen. I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Jesus is God. He is the creator of the world. He is the beginning and he will return at the end to bring all things to fruition. The message to the church in Smyrna in the face of persecution was first of all a reminder that despite the poverty caused by the opposition they were receiving, they were rich in Jesus. Secondly they were told not not be afraid, and thirdly the call was to be faithful.

The message of John to the seven churches is a message of hope that Jesus is coming and that there will be a victor’s crown for those who are faithful to him.

He finishes his letter to the church in Smyrna in a similar way to each of the churches. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Listen up, Church. Then he concludes by saying: The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.

Hang on, what’s the second death? Perhaps this had been part of John’s teaching that was already known by the church in Smyrna, but we don’t become aware of it until we get to Revelation 20 where it says: “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”

This is a very graphic and frightening depiction of the end times, but the message of John’s letter is not a message of fear, but the promise of victory. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.

The church in Smyrna is facing persecution that will lead to imprisonment and even death. Yet Jesus comes to them: Jesus, the First and the Last, who died and came to life again and says:  I know your afflictions … I know about the slander … Do not be afraid.

There is victory for those who confess and repent of their sins, receive his gift of love and forgiveness, and continue as faithful followers. And the promise is that these will not be hurt at all by the second death. That’s great news.

This is the second in a series I have been preaching through at Maida Vale Baptist Church entitled, Listen Up, Church”, based on Revelation 1-3.

See also: Listen Up, Church – Introduction and Just Do It: Listen Up, Church #1. Go on to Listen Up, Church#3.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 3.51.56 PMLast year we were in the ruins of Ephesus in western Turkey where we came across an image of the goddess Nike, now better known as the symbol of the footwear giant, Nike. The word nike in the original Greek means victory and is a key word used in the letter to the seven churches in the first few chapters of Revelation.  Each of the churches were told how they could be victorious.

But the reference to victory may have been particularly significant to the church in Ephesus which was one of the leading churches in Asia Minor, situated in a busy trading centre at the heart of a bustling multicultural, multi-faith society. John started his letter (read the letter to Ephesus) by saying something about the character of Jesus: “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.”

The lampstands represent the churches and John is assuring the church in Ephesus, and all who read the letter, that Jesus is not just present among his churches, but he walks among them personally. They could communicate with each other, the church could experience Jesus among them, and he could observe them and see what was going on for them.

In his letter, John highlights some really positive things about the Ephesian church. He commends their hard work and their perseverance. He’s aware that they can’t tolerate wicked people, and that they have tested those who claim to be apostles but aren’t. He stresses again that they have persevered and have endured hardships for the name of Jesus, and haven’t grown weary. He also notes that they hate the practices of the Nicolaitans. We don’t actually know who the Nicolaitans were, but were probably an heretical group that operated within churches.

But he then goes on to raise a particular issue with the church. “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”

They were a good church. They were a hard working church that stood up for the truth and maintained all that was just and right. But they had forsaken their first love.

The first love of the Ephesian Church was an overwhelming commitment to follow Jesus and to honour him in every part of their lives. Jesus was central in everything they did. But over time that first love had dwindled away. They were still faithful in their service. They worked hard and the made sure that the truth was maintained, but something was missing.

According to the letter to the church at Ephesus the solution is not just about dreaming about the good times in the past. The instruction is: Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

The letter to the Ephesian church started with Jesus being present with his church, walking among the lampstands. In Genesis 3 we read of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day and Adam and Eve recognised the sound. Clearly it was normal for him to do that and perhaps for them to walk with him. There were trees that were planted in that garden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan and took of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which they had been told not to eat.  And God punished them for their sin.

We read at the end of Genesis 3: So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

It was God’s plan for humanity that mankind should eat of the tree of life, but because of sin, the tree of life was put under guard and access was restricted.

As Jesus spoke to the Ephesian Church and to all who read this letter thereafter, he promised: to the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

I just love the way the first book of the Bible and the last book of the Bible agree and complete the circle.

  1. God’s original plan is that we may eat of the tree of life;
  2. Sin has blocked access to the tree of life;
  3. The original plan is restored and the right to eat of the tree of life is offered once again to the one who is victorious, that is, the one who is willing to repent and return to Jesus as their first love.

Go back to: “Listen Up, Church – Introduction” or forward to “Listen Up, Church#2”.

Listen Up GraphicOK, I know I haven’t written much lately, but it’s all going to happen in a rush now. On Sunday mornings at Maida Vale Baptist Church I’m currently preaching through a series called “Listen Up, Church”. It’s based on the first few chapters of Revelation which makes up a letter that was sent by the Apostle John, then an exile on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, to seven churches in what is now Western Turkey.

You can listen to the messages in full at the Maida Vale Baptist Church website.

Well, here goes.  CLICK HERE to go to the first of the series.

Oh, by the way ….  as an introduction to Revelation, you really have to hear Blind Willie Johnston singing the blues classic, John the Revelator. Described as one of the most powerful songs in all of pre-war acoustic music, John the Revelator was first recorded by Blind Willie Johnston in 1930.

7023400-nick-vujicic-quotesNick Vujicic was born without any limbs. As a boy he spent many nights praying for limbs. He would go to sleep crying. He went to school and found that being accepted by other kids hard to come by. He hid behind shrubbery or in empty classrooms to avoid being hurt of mocked.

But Nick Vujicic found Jesus. He discovered that God loved him despite his physical setbacks. This is what he said: My name is Nick Vujicic and I am thankful to have been born 30 years ago with no arms and no legs. I won’t pretend my life is easy, but through the love of my parents, loved ones, and faith in God, I have overcome my adversity and my life is now filled with joy and purpose.

Nick now runs an organisation called Life Without Limbs and is a popular motivational speaker around the world. He is married with two children.

This is something that Nick said in his book, “Life Without Limits”: Often we feel life is unfair. Hard times and tough circumstances can trigger self-doubt and despair. I understand that well. But the Bible says, “consider it pure joy, whenever you face trials of any kinds” That is a lesson I struggled many years to learn. I eventually figured it out, and through my experiences I can help you see that most of the hardships we face provide us with opportunities to discover who we are meant to be and what we can share of our gifts to benefit others.

I have just concluded a series on Sunday mornings called, “Facing Giants”, and this morning I talked about self-pity.  Self-pity feeds into the idea of being a victim; that everything goes wrong for me and that life’s not fair. It leads to blaming other people, your upbringing, your circumstances and even the environment.

Instead of being a victim, Jesus shows it’s possible to be a victor, and that’s what has influenced Nic Vujicic.

In Romans chapter 8, the apostle Paul says:

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.  Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

bigDon’t get mad – get even! That’s been a well quoted mantra for a very long time. But is it the best option available to us?

In his latest book, “The Big Picture: Building Blocks of a Christian Worldview”Brian Harris, Principal of Vose Seminary in Perth talks about three options in dealing with our apparent need for revenge. I talked about it this morning in the latest of a series I am preaching on at Maida Vale Baptist Church – “Facing Giants”. My topic this morning was revenge.

The first option is presented by a man called Lamech. Genesis 4:17 and 18 gives a quick summary of the descendants of Adam’s son Cain. Four generations on from Cain, we are introduced to Lamech.

Lamech had two wives and he said this to them in verse 21 of Genesis 4: “Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.”

Lamech had been injured and in return he killed the person who hurt him, and claimed his right to avenge that hurt 77 times.

The second picture is in Exodus 21 where instructions are given about personal injury.  The law it would seem, was to overcome the problems associated with Lamech’s approach. Verse 24 says: But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Now that was helpful, because it showed that indiscriminate murder of people who injured you wasn’t appropriate, and it introduced a process of thinking that still exists in law today regarding compensation and just forms of punishment. That was the law that the world lived by for thousands of years.

Then Jesus came, and he introduced a third picture. And that picture was of grace and forgiveness. In the Matthew 5 we read these words:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ they certainly had heard that, because that was the standard by which society had learned to live.  But then he went on: But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

And a bit later on Peter comes to Jesus – he’s obviously been thinking about the issue a bit and says: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” He’s got the message that forgiveness is something he needs to take seriously. To forgive someone seven times was radical Christianity for Peter. This was counter-cultural.

But surprisingly, Jesus answered, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. In that statement Jesus showed that the precedent set by Lamech was completely overturned. The law had partially dealt with the Lamech problem, but Jesus came to complete the picture. No longer is revenge to the 77th degree appropriate.  No longer is simply an eye for an eye appropriate. The new law under Jesus is forgiveness to the 77th degree.

It’s Spring and two places you’ve got to visit in Perth are Araluen Botanic Park

Araluen…. and Kings Park ….

Kings

The 1987 movie Princess Bride includes this conversation between the Albino and the hero of the story, Westley inside the Pit of Despair:

Pit-of-Despair-wordsWestley: Where am I?
The Albino: [raspy voice] The Pit of Despair! Don’t even think…
[clears throat]
The Albino: … don’t even think about trying to escape. The chains are far too thick. Don’t dream of being rescued, either; the only way in is secret. Only the Prince, the Count, and I know how to get in and out.
Westley: So I’m here till I die?
The Albino: Until they kill you, yeah.
Westley: Then why bother curing me?
The Albino: Well, the Prince and Count always insist on everyone being healthy before they’re broken.
Westley: So it’s to be torture?
The Albino: [nods enthusiastically]
Westley: I can cope with torture.
The Albino: [shakes head enthusiastically]
Westley: Don’t believe me?
The Albino: You survived the Fire Swamp, so you must be very brave, but no one withstands The Machine.

Unfortunately, few of us would cope with the pit of despair with as much nonchalance as Westley. For most of us, the pit of despair is a dark place where there’s no humour. American author Erwin McManus said: “I realize that I live on the bubble of insanity. I feel the weight of human suffering, loneliness and despair on me all the time. It’s not getting easier; if anything, it’s always right on the edge of my skin.”

The Bible is a book that addresses life as it really is: There is the story of Elijah who experienced one of the high points of his career, then the next minute is sitting under a Broom Tree in deep depression. Jonah was another who hid away in deep depression, once again, after he had experienced a high point in his career.

The interesting thing is that in neither case did God accuse these men or blame them for their situation. In fact  Elijah’s case he fed him and allowed him to sleep – perhaps aware that one of the solutions to despair is simply dealing with the physical need for food and rest.

But for my part the Apostle Paul hit the nail on the head when he described the groaning of creation, a great picture of that pit of despair. Paul then goes on to explain how the Holy Spirit goes down into that pit of despair with us and, when we don’t know what to say to God, groans with us.

In the same way the Spirit also comes to help us, weak as we are. For we do not know how we ought to pray; the Spirit himself pleads with God for us in groans that words cannot express.  And God, who sees into our hearts, knows what the thought of the Spirit is; because the Spirit pleads with God on behalf of his people and in accordance with his will.

It’s a great encouragement to me to know that no matter how deep we go into that pit, God looks on us with compassion, he enters the pit with us and leads us out in hope.

384927-slim-dustyIf you’ve been around country music in Australia for any length of time you’d be familiar with Slim Dusty. His career as a country music entertainer spanned nearly seven decades. One of his early songs went like this:

And the biggest disappointment in the family was me
The only twisted branch upon our good old family tree
I just couldn’t be the person they expected me to be
And the biggest disappointment in the world was me

Why do people think like that? Why would we tell ourselves that we’re a disappointment to our loved ones? Why would we listen to the little voice in our heads that says we’re inadequate, we’re not good enough, we’re a failure?

It’s something called shame.

Brene Brown did a great TED Talk on the subject of shame, and she called it the swampland of the soul. I think we all get affected by shame at some stage, but for some people shame has led to addictions, violence and even suicide. Shame is that voice inside our heads that says, you’re not good enough, and it eats away at you and leaves you feeling worthless.

Some people will tell you the way to overcome shame is to improve your self-esteem, but I want to suggest something else. You see, one of the big issues with shame is around identity. People need to find some sense of identity and it’s usually shame that holds them back. They begin to believe the voice that says they’re no good – and that becomes their identity.

In an earlier post I quoted veteran biker John Smith’s book, Busting the Myth of Self Esteem, in which he argued that the western approach to self esteem has led to us thinking that the purpose of life is to find ourselves, but that there is actually something more: the search for meaning and purpose beyond ourselves.

There’s a guy we read about in the Bible called Paul who was an accessory to murder and was known as a violent person. He had a radical conversion to Christianity and over time wrote some significant letters that make up a large part of the New Testament in the Bible.

If anyone should have experienced shame it’s Paul because of his past experiences, but he said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone. But he also said this: For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. Now that sounds like a statement of shame, but then he goes on: But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.

That was a pretty significant statement of identity: By the grace of God I am what I am. Here was a man who overcame shame and discovered his identity in Jesus Christ.

But he also had this to say: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. That’s a pretty significant statement too.  Why would we condemn ourselves when the creator of the universe has promised us that he loves us so much he sent his son Jesus to die for us, in order to bring us into a right relationship with himself.

In those moments when you doubt yourself, or worse, you actually tell yourself that you’re no good, remember Paul, an accessory to murder, who learnt that his identity was rock solid when he allowed Jesus to change his life.

You can download or hear my message to Maida Vale Baptist Church on shame here.

chin_stateA year ago I wouldn’t have known there was a place called Chin State. I am now aware that Chin State is a mountainous state that is home to the Chin ethnic group in Western Myanmar (Burma). It is the poorest of 14 regions in Myanmar and the most remote. Since the end of July, much of western Myanmar has been hit by monsoon rains that have left hundreds of thousand people homeless.

Late last year the Perth Chin Baptist Church commenced a special relationship with Maida Vale Baptist Church, making use of our facilities in High Wycombe. As a result I have become more aware of this amazing group of people, many of whom lived in refugee camps before making a new home in Australia.

The news media has been silent, to a large degree, on the disaster in Chin State, but Chin people around the world have been united to try and get much needed assistance to their families. Take a look at this short video from the Chin community of Indiana in the United States.