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Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Revelation Letters to the Seven Churches: Philadelphia

Our little church congregation is embarking on a bible study of that book at the end of the Bible that everyone talks about but no one actually reads - The Revelation.  I'll try to publish here in this blog some of my notes as we go along.

Revelation 3: 7 – 13 Philadelphia

Philadelphia, the city of “brotherly-love” was a frontier city 28 miles south-east of Sardis. The main road from Rome to the farthest eastern parts of the empire passed through Philadelphia as the last “civilized” stop along the way. Unfortunately, it was built on the edge of a great plain called the Katakekaumene , which means the “Burnt Land.” It was the edge of a great volcanic area. The earthquake that leveled Sardis in A.D. 17 also destroyed Philadelphia. The frequent earthquakes and tremors sent the people of Philadelphia running out to the plain to escape the falling masonry and crumbling buildings.

Philadelphia, known as the “little Athens,” was a center of Greek culture and was influential in educating the central regions of Asia Minor in Greek philosophy and thought. The city was founded by King Attalus II who had been given the title “Philadelphus” (Brother-lover) because of his loyalty to his brother (Newport, 156).

The message to the Christians at Philadelphia came from The Holy One the True One.

“Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Sabaoth.
His glory fills the whole earth.

Isaiah 6:3

Throughout the prophets, and especially in Isaiah, God is described as “the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 1:4; 5:19; 10:17, 20; 40:25; 41:14, 16, 20; 43:3,14, 15; 47:4; 49:7)” This Holiness is a separation from all else, a transcendence of everything. He is also the God of Truth (Isa. 65:16). The Christians in Philadelphia receive no word of condemnation from the Holy One, the True One. Instead they are praised by “the Holy One, the True One who has the key of David, the one who opens and no one shall close and who closes and no one opens.” This description is drawn from Isaiah chapter 22 wherein Isaiah prophesies against Shebna who had attained the highest office, next to the King, the master of King Hezekiah’s palace. He was to be run out of his office and replaced by an honest servant:

I shall dress him in your tunic,
I shall put your sash around his waist,
I shall invest him with your authority;
And he will be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem
And to the House of Judah.
I shall place the Key of David’s palace on his shoulder;
When he opens, no one will close,
When he closes, no one will open.

Isaiah 22: 15 – 25

Handing over the key was not just an appointment as a porter and servant in the palace, but an endowment with full authority and complete power. The false Jews at the Synagogue of Satan were to be replaced by true and honest servants, who would be endowed with the authority of Christ. Though the Christians living in Philadelphia had only “a little power,” they had remained true to Jesus and had not denied his name.

Therefore, the false Jews (those who were Jews on the outside by circumcision but not inwardly by faith – Romans 9:6 – 13) would be made to come before the Christian community to kneel down and to recognize that it was the Christians that Jesus, the Messiah had chosen and loved. “Your oppressors’ children will humbly approach you, at your feet all who despised you will fall addressing you as ‘City of Yahweh’, and ‘Zion of the Holy One of Israel.’ (Isaiah 60:14)”

Because they had been faithful during their times of oppression, Jesus promised that they would be kept “safe in the time of trial which was coming for the whole world, to put the people of the world to the test.” Though some teachers maintain that John is speaking about the rapture here, but this is not a rapture verse. The weak Christians in this city would not be rapture” out of their trial, but would be kept safe through it. They would not be seized away, but bought through.

John was not speaking about a time of trial some 2000 years removed from his first century audience- such a message would have been completely irrelevant to them. What value would a letter saying, “Be of good cheer you patient, suffering, faithful servants of first century Asia Minor, I won’t let Soviet missiles, killer bees, or nuclear explosions (or anything else Tim Lahaye, Hal Lindsey, or Jack Van Impe might dream up) get you.” The hours of testing that John wrote about was in their immediate future, “I am coming soon,” Jesus said – words that would have been of immediate relief to that first century audience.

The time of trial which was coming for the whole world, to put the people of the land to the test was the same time of trial and tribulation that Jesus spoke of in his Olivet discourse (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21:5 – 36). “The people of the land,” is an expression used 12 times by John – once for each tribe of Israel – to refer to the False Jews, Apostate Israel (3:10; 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 11:10; 13:8, 12, 14:6, 17:2, 8). In addition, it is used in the LXX version of the Old Testament throughout the prophets to describe the rebellious idolatrous Israel about to be destroyed for her sins, and driven from the land. (Jeremiah 1:14; 10:18; Ezekiel 7:7; 36:17; Hosea 4:1, 3; Joel 1:2, 14; Zephaniah 1:8)

The whole world being put through this tumultuous time of trial and tribulation was the oikoumene, the “inhabited world,” or the “Roman world.” This is not the entire globe – and does not point to a “universal period of tribulation, (Lahaye, Revelation, pg. 57)” still in the future, despite the claims of many prophecy experts.

The faithful and victorious followers of Philadelphia are promised that they will be made into pillars within the heavenly Temple of God. John tells us later that he, “could not see any temple in the city since the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb themselves were the temple. (Revelation 21:22)” The temple where God was formerly said to reside was in Jerusalem, but according to the revelation John received that physical temple was about to be removed (Revelation 11: 1-2) and the spiritual sanctuary (which is God and the Lamb themselves) would be opened (Revelation 11: 19). Faithful overcomers would be made into a pillar in this spiritual temple and they would never depart from it, they would be forever in God’s presence.

They would be marked with three names: 1) “the name of my God,” 2) “the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem,” and 3) “my new name. (Revelation 19:12, 16) Much anxious speculation is made about Revelation’s “mark of the beast,” but Revelation’s true emphasis on the mark that God’s people receive, not the mark of the beast. (Ezekiel 9:1 – 7; Revelation 14:1) “The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city; his servants will worship him, they will see him face to face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. (Revelation 22:4).

I shall give them in my house and within my walls
A monument and a name better than sons and daughters;
I shall give them an everlasting name
That will never be effaced

Isaiah 56:5

Not many years after the Revelation, Ignatius also addressed a letter to the church at Philadelphia, warning them against the coming of “judaizers” saying that unless they speak of Jesus Christ they are “monuments and sepulchres of the dead, upon which are written only the names of men. (Ignatius, 6:1)

Newport, John P., The Lion and the Lamb Broadman Press, Nashville TN, 1986.

LaHaye, Tim, Revelation Illustrated and Made Plain, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids MI, 1980.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014

Biblical Limericks: It’s Not Right

It may be a proverbial rule
that luxury’s not fit for a fool,
but just look all around
and see the well-dressed clowns
who don’t have the brains God gave a mule.

Proverbs 19: 10

Blessed Are the Poor (That’s not You)

This is a sermon I wrote back in 2002.  I’ve dug it up from the basement and dusted it off a little bit…

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now
for you will laugh.

Luke 6: 20 – 21

This section of scripture is not for you.  This scripture passage is not for me.  This scripture is not for us – not directly. 

The beatitudes as recorded by Matthew are better suited to those of us living in America today.  We can claim to be the poor in spirit, the hungry for righteousness, the peacemakers (even if our continually increasing reliance on militarization would seem to belie those claims).  But we cannot claim to be the poor, not as Luke has defined them.

A good question might be – “why is Luke’s version of the beatitudes different than Matthew’s?”  It is very likely that Jesus preached this sermon on several occasions to different groups of people in different locations.  The two authors have combined the various sermons in slightly different ways so as to emphasize different parts of Jesus’ message.  Matthew included more of the blessings.  Luke left off some of the blessings but balanced them with curses.  Matthew focused on spiritual aspects, Luke on physical. If you want warm fuzzies, read Matthew’s version of the beatitudes.  If you want a confrontational challenge, check out Luke’s.  If you want balance, read both.[i]

Preachers, teachers, pastors, and priest have usually preferred to stick to Matthew’s version – choosing to talk about the poor… in spirit and the hungry… for righteousness because, for the most part, the preacher, teachers, pastors and priests are not among the poor, and Luke’s version of this sermon causes us to feel more than just a little uncomfortable.

“Luke’s blunt talk about the ‘poor,’ we are instructed, must be interpreted in light of Matthew’s fuller ‘poor in spirit,’ a classification to which we can all aspire since it has none of the rude realities of ‘material poverty’ (lack of food, clothing, shelter, employment) attached to it.  ‘Spiritual poverty’ in fact becomes a Christian virtue, and we are encouraged to affirm a life-style that puts no premium on goods and possessions but equally does not suggest that we need to get rid of them (Brown, 89).” Reading the beatitudes only from the gospel according to Matthew is a way of letting ourselves off the hook without requiring any sort of compromise to our materialistic lifestyle.

In the New Testament there are two different Greek words used for “the poor.”  The first of which is penes. This simply describes “the man for whom life and living is a struggle, the man who is the reverse of the man who lives in affluence (Barclay, 248).”  That is most of us.  We live from day to day, week to week, paycheck to paycheck.  We sometimes struggle to make ends meet.  We don’t often have the money to afford the “nicer things.”   We don’t drive flashy cars.  We don’t wear designer clothes.  But we do have a home to live in, food to eat, and clothes to wear.  We have hospitals and doctors available to us.  We have clean water to drink.  If we are “poor” we are penes poor.

The word used by Luke in his version of the beatitudes describes those who don’t have any of those things.  The word is ptóchos and it comes from the verb: to cower.  “It describes abject poverty, which has literally nothing, and is in imminent danger of real starvation (Barclay, 248).”  They are the oppressed, the abused.  The poor, according to Luke, are those who have absolutely nothing, and have no help and no hope.

“The poor in the bible are the helpless, the indigent, the hungry, the oppressed, the needy, the humiliated.  And it is not nature that has put them in this situation; they have been unjustly impoverished and despoiled by the powerful (Brown, 89).”

They are the Restavek children in Haiti, orphaned children who are taken in by individual families with detrimental results.  These boys and girls are reduced to lifestyles that are close to slavery.  They spend their days doing chores – toting water and working the fields – without pay. They get leftovers to eat and are regularly abused (Campolo, 12).

They are the poor, the hungry, the weeping.  They have been beaten down, their land has been stolen from them and their children taken.  Their husbands have been killed, their dignity trampled.  And because they have nothing on earth they have come to put their trust – their complete and total trust – in God to provide and protect.  They are blessed, not because they are good, but because God is good. They are God’s people because their faith is in him.

But, an easy life is not promised to us.  Immediate vindication is not promised.   The hungry, who are hungry now, will be filled in the future.  Those who are weeping now are promised that they will laugh later.  If they are hated and abused now, they will have great rewards in heaven.  It’s all in the future.

Except for this one:  the poor who are poor now they have the Kingdom of God now.  The Kingdom of God is with them now.  The Kingdom of God is present in the lives of those who trust him.  The Kingdom is daily being built by those who rely on him and his strength.

The rich seem to be excluded from the Kingdom of God in the here and now, not because they don’t seem to perceive their need for the saving power and healing work of Jesus.  They have what they need, and if they don’t have it they can certainly buy it, or take it from someone who does.  Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.

That’s not to say that being rich is sinful in and of itself.  The bible never condemns the rich for being rich – but rather for being proud of their riches, for greed, for the abuse of others by the rich and powerful.  It just seems more difficult to get around their money. 

Where Matthew’s account has Jesus speaking to the crowds, Luke describes Jesus delivering this message to his disciples directly, “fixing his eyes upon them.”  It was addressed to them to strengthen them, and encourage them in a life of sacrificial giving.  Jesus called them to follow him – but he had no home, and no bed.  He had no job, no money of his own.  He was one of the poor.  He was one of the oppressed – despised by many, abused and murdered by the powerful.

 But blessed are you the poor, you the hungry, you who weep, you who are hated, despised and denounced as criminals.  Rejoice and leap for joy because this is how they treated the prophets.
These blessings upset our expectations.  They’re backwards.  They’re wrong.  The world does not bless the poor, it blesses and esteems the rich. 

Jesus’ message continues by further upsetting his listener’s (and our) expectations by delivering a series of woes and curses.

“It will be hell for you rich people, because you’ve had your fling.  It will be hell for you whose bellies are full now, because you will go hungry.  It will be hell for you who are so gay now, because you will sob and weep.  It will be hell for you when everybody speaks highly of you, for their fathers said the same things about the false prophets (Jordan, 31).”

We are not the poor, not the ptóchos poor, as Luke has described them.  But neither are the rich – not really.  So what do we do with this scripture?  How do we make it ours?  How do we read it?

We need to be willing to be poor – even if we are not – both physically and spiritually, admitting that everything we have (money, food, grace, forgiveness) comes from our good and gratuitous god and not through our own efforts. 

We need to be hungry.  In America we eat – too much, I think.  But we need to be hungry, for food nad for righteousness.  Food tastes better to the hungry.  We appreciate it more.  We need to accept grief and sadness as part of this world here and now.  We are not promised a happy life.  If you came to Jesus to be happy, you’re in the wrong place. In this world we will have trouble – not, as so many televangelists claim, health and wealth, and prosperity.  We need to be ready to be hated, despised, abused. (And by this I do not mean whining about people who say “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas…”) The prophets of God have been cut in two, boiled alive, thrown to the lions, burned at the stake, beheaded…

We also need to remember that we are responsible to the poor, the hungry, the mourning.  We are to help those in desperate need.  We are to relieve their sufferings and end their abuse wherever we can.  We are to bring good news to the afflicted.  We are to soothe the broken hearted and comfort those who mourn.

This text isn’t for us – not directly.  We are not the poor, even if we’re not exactly rich.  But we are followers of Jesus.  We are his disciples.  We are to take his message and let it transform our lives so that the Kingdom of God is made more and more evident in the world today.

Blessed are you who are poor for the Kingdom of God is yours.

Barclay, William, New Testament Words, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, PA 1964.
Brown, Robert McAfee, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible through Third World Eyes, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, PA 1984.
Campolo, Tony, Following Jesus Without Embarrassing God,  Word Publishing, Dallas, TX 1997.
Nickolof, James B, editor, Gustavo Gutiérrez: Essential Writings, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 1996.
Jordan, Clarence, The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts, New Win Publishing, Inc. Clinton, NJ 1969.

[i] If I were writing this sermon today I’d draw this distinction a little less starkly – it is not as if Matthew’s gospel is focused on spiritual aspects of the faith to the exclusion of physical realities – there is a notable insistence “on the need for concrete and ‘material’ actions toward others and especially toward the poor,” in Matthew.  – Gustavo Gutiérrez (Nickoloff, 162).


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