Preaching, teaching and leading is often more about what’s going on inside the preacher/teacher than it is what he or she is actually sharing with others. Recently, I had a very influential mentor help me understand that all of my research, studying, preparation, reading, praying and preaching was most likely doing more for me than it was for others. Now he wasn’t saying this because people didn’t like what I was saying, but rather, because I put the majority of the time into it and was greatly impassioned about it, that God was doing more in me than He was doing through me. To me, this insight was what I would consider to be a truth statement.
With this being said, it never ceases to amaze me what God shows me and reveals to me as I am actually preaching/teaching the lesson that I didn’t see when I was preparing the material. I call this the beauty of revelation. It’s the revelatory knowledge and insight that doesn’t come from flesh and blood, but through the Person of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 16:17). There’s something to be said for the preacher who spends ample time searching out a truth, to share only a portion of what they gleaned. I believe the excess that’s gleaned, but never gets shared, strengthens the researcher in a way it doesn’t strengthen the hearer. There’s a blessing for the listener and for the one threshing out the wheat in the stall and thank God He gives us some of the first fruits, even before the others eat.
As I have been preaching and teaching through the book of Revelation at New Life on Wednesday nights, I have started to see various truths and connections throughout Revelation 2-3 from Jesus’ letters to the Seven Churches that have deeply touched me. There is a powerful common thread that He weaves throughout all of the Churches that speaks not only to their present circumstance but also to their future with Him in the New Jerusalem. It’s in this chapter that I would like to share with you a few of these truths and connections with the hope that they touch you in a similar way as they have touched me. In this chapter I am going to share three primary truths that touched my heart as I have preached through Revelation 2-3. Firstly, I want to talk about the power of understanding the age which is yet to come as the primary means to produce patient endurance in this present age. Secondly, we will look at the need to overcome both our personal sin and the various obstacles that are before us. And thirdly, I am going to cover the importance of understanding Jesus’ perspective of our lives, in contrast to how we view our lives or how others view our lives.
The Importance of Seeing the Age Which Is Yet To Come
It’s clear from even a brief reading of both the Revelation and various commentaries on the Revelation that those whom John was writing to, under the influence of the Holy Spirit were in need of motivation to look beyond where they were presently. The letters were written to Churches and to Christians in need of something to motivate them to overcome the trouble facing them both internally and externally. It wasn’t just that the Churches had external pressures (emperor worship, persecution, idolatry and immorality) but they also had the internal pressures of sin, compromise with being too conservative or too liberal and holding onto truth in Christ.
This is where the conversation from Jesus becomes central to their hope of overcoming both internal and external pressures and sin. If these Churches and Christians were to look only at their present circumstances they would have great reason to both continue where they were going in a negative way, or to quit because the trouble, both internally and externally, was too great. And even though each of the Church’s internal and external pressures were different, they were all motivated by Jesus in the same way. His motivation to them was to look beyond what they could presently see (this age) and look at that which they couldn’t see (the age which is yet to come). In short, Jesus was calling them to live for another age.
The Churches were all different, and struggling with different things, but each of them receives the same motivation from Jesus: that they should anchor their lives in the age which is yet to come, and disconnect their lives from this age. For instance the Church of Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7), which was separated from Jesus because of their extreme conservatism, was told that if they returned to Jesus, repented and continued with Him over the long haul that He would grant them access to the Tree of Life in the midst of the paradise of God. Their promise wasn’t one primarily in this age, but in the eschatological Kingdom that would come at the consummation of this age. They were being called out by Jesus, to first return to Him, but secondly, to put their hope not only in this age but in the age which is yet to come.
The Church of Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11) on the other hand was suffering severe persecution (external pressures) from their fellow countrymen, the Jews. Because of Emperor Worship, the natural Jews in the city who didn’t yet love Jesus were turning in their fellow Jews who loved Jesus in order to get the state off their backs so they could continue practicing Judaism. Jesus encouraged them that even in the face of death, if they stay faithful, He will give them the crown of life and that they wouldn’t be hurt by the second death. Now these promises that the Church of Smyrna received seem to have a solely eschatological connection. Jesus knows that this group of people who are about to suffer unto death, under His leadership, will need something strong to keep them faithful, so He offers them seemingly outlandish promises from the age which is still yet to come. The purpose of setting these promises before them is to once again anchor them in the eternal age, not this temporal age. To a temporal Church, or a Church connected to this age, it would be nearly impossible to let them know that they were about to die under Jesus’ leadership but they should still stay faithful to Him because there’s some sort of reward in the end. Jesus’ words would be too much for a temporal Church to bear.
Part of our problem in the Western world is that so much of the promises we are offered from the pulpit have the majority of their connection to this age, not in the age which is yet to come. What we must not do is pick and choose whether to have promises in this age or in the age which is still yet to come. This would be unbiblical. But to have the majority of our hope in this age, leaves us without much hope for the age which is yet to come, and the age which Jesus talked most about is the one which is still yet to come. I have never added up the percentages but I would guess that Jesus spoke mainly of promises connected to the age to come about 60-70% of the time, which leaves 40-30% of promises being spoken of for here in this age. The number might even be higher, but this is at least a safe guess. In order to overcome both now and in our near future, we must be people who are storing up our treasures in the age which is yet to come, more than we are enjoying them here.
The last Church I want to look at from Revelation 2-3 is the Church of Philadelphia in Revelation 3:7-13. In my personal opinion, this Church received the most seemingly outlandish promises related to the age which is yet to come. Jesus identifies this Church as being smaller, struggling with external pressures both from the people in the city and from their fellow countrymen, much like the Church of Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11). Today, many of us would most likely reject this Church from its external appearance, but the Church of Philadelphia is one of only two Churches that Jesus addresses in Revelation 2-3 where He has nothing negative to say. To the natural eye, this Church would be rejected, but because Jesus’ eye is perfect, this Church is very dear to Him.
History tells us that the ruler of the city of Philadelphia would inscribe the names of local citizens that were either remarkable people, or large financial contributors on large pillars in various places through the city for all to see. And it’s to this group of people that Jesus promises if they overcome, He will make them a pillar in the temple of His God. Jesus speaks to this small, struggling Church that the primary way they would overcome would be to take their eyes off earthly pillars and set them on eternal pillars. Jesus’ advice to them was to stop setting their eyes on that which is, and to set their eyes on that which is yet to be seen. Paul said something similar when he wrote 2nd Corinthians 4:18 while we don’t look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. Paul was also challenging the people of his day to look beyond what they could see, because the things which they could see (earthly pillars) were passing away, but the things which they couldn’t see (eternal pillars) were eternal.
Related to this whole idea of motivating people to live for the age which is yet to come, Mike Bickle has a powerfully true statement. He says If you don’t think rightly about heaven, you won’t think about it at all. What Mike is saying is that when we fail to understand the age which is yet to come, we also fail to live there; we anchor our lives more here than there. There hasn’t been a generation on the earth that Jesus didn’t expect should live as if He could return within their generation. This means that our lives should be lived in light of where we are headed, more than they are where we are presently located.
These Churches from Revelation 2-3 help us understand that Jesus motivates our lives in the same way He motivated theirs. There is something transcendent about living beyond this age; for when we do it in real time, we truly becoming pilgrims who are living for another age. Jesus doesn’t care nearly as much about this present evil age as He does about the age which is yet to come. But, because this age is the preparation for that coming age, He cares about it greatly. Therefore we can’t separate this present evil age and the age which is yet to come. They are dynamically connected.
Many notable people have considered this age to be the dress rehearsal for the age to come. Some have also called it our job interview. Whatever you want to call it, it’s true that we are training our bodies in this age, working to have dominion over them. Because in the age to come we will receive dominion over nations, if we work in partnership with the Holy Spirit. Beloved, Jesus has offered us thrones to sit upon if we stay faithful to Him in this age (Revelation 2:24-28; 3:21). We will then exchange the partnership with the Holy Spirit in this age, for real time partnership with Jesus over the nations in the age to come. But once again, receiving these promises is connected to our response to Jesus in this age as we work to overcome both our personal sin and our external circumstances.
The Need to Overcome Our Personal Sin/Struggles and Our External Sin/Struggles
After spending some time looking at the various Churches in Revelation 2-3 it was clear that though they were very different Churches and had different circumstances, the two things that were common, were that Jesus was motivating them with truths about the age to come and that they all needed to overcome. Overcoming was a central message to all the Seven Churches.
Richard Baukham in his book The Theology of the Revelation states John the beloved clearly understood, that there were only two options facing the Christian of his generation: overcome, or surrender to the beast and worship a system that hates Jesus. Richard isn’t saying that they would be subject to worship the Antichrist, but rather that they were already being forced to openly worship a system with a godlike man, and if they couldn’t overcome that one, then they surely wouldn’t be ready for that coming man and his system. At the end of the day, Richard is saying the same thing that John was clearly communicating: there was much overcoming to do.
I think that it’s common in our understanding, coming from a Western perspective, that once we are saved, we are in. There isn’t much else we need to do. For the majority of the Christians I know, they are under the false assumption that we are going away to heaven forever, where we will be floating around on an ethereal cloud, playing harps all day, bored out of our minds. It’s no wonder we don’t think about heaven, and the glory of what that age will include for the person who loves Jesus in this age. But it’s not the issue of heaven and hell that’s necessarily at stake for the believer, it’s what our time in the age which is yet to come will look like that is the issue. When I say look like I am referring to the judgments and rewards that will be given at the Judgment Seat of Christ, based on our overcoming in this age.
Did you know that there are around twenty-two eternal rewards offered to the overcomer in Revelation 2-3 alone, not to mention the other rewards offered throughout the whole of the Bible? But what we must understand is that those rewards aren’t automatic because you have given your life to Jesus. They are only guaranteed to those who overcome both their personal sin and struggles as well as the external sin and struggles we face as we journey through this age, on our way to the Eternal City.
It’s not that the eternal rewards Jesus offers aren’t guarantees; it’s just that they are only invitations to guarantees based on our response to them. If we respond to the promise offered by Jesus, in a worthy manner, then we will receive the reward. But if we hear the eternal reward, and choose not to respond both to it and to Jesus in a worthy manner, we lose out on that reward, though we are still saved. Many have a false assumption that just because we have said yes to Jesus, we automatically receive everything God has to offer us in the age which is yet to come. For many, if not the majority, this empowers a lethargic approach to Jesus where we don’t have an appetite for prayer, for Bible study, for worship, for Christian fellowship, fasting and other various spiritual disciplines. Because we have an automatic mindset, we don’t engage with Jesus in the mundane areas of our lives to receive not only what He will give us in this age, but primarily what He will give us in the age which is yet to come.
Looking at the Churches in Revelation 2-3 we can see clearly that Jesus connected the eternal rewards to their overcoming the various internal and external things that would work to hinder them. Let’s take a look at what Jesus expected them to overcome. To the Church of Ephesus (2:1-7) they were expected by Jesus to repent, to return to Him and to remember from where they had fallen if they wanted to receive the eternal reward He was offering. The Church of Smyrna (2:8-11) was expected by Jesus to suffer unto death from the hands of the devil under Jesus’ leadership if they were to receive the crown of life and be free from the second death.
To the Church of Pergamos (2:12-17) they were expected by Jesus to repent from their agreement with the doctrine of Balaam and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans if they were to experience some of God’s hidden manna. The Church of Thyatira (2:18-29) was expected by Jesus to repent from their toleration of the teaching of Jezebel if they were to sit on thrones judging nations with Him in the age which is yet to come. The Church of Sardis (3:1-6) were expected to wake up, repent for having a name but being dead on the inside, if they were experience victory with Christ and hear their names confessed before the Father. The Church of Philadelphia (3:7-13) were expected to remain faithful to Christ in the midst of great external pressures if they were to receive an eternal pillar, having both God the Father’s name and Jesus’ new name written on their foreheads.
And lastly, the Church of Laodicea (3:14-22) were expected to repent, return to Jesus by purchasing gold, clothing and ointment from Him, if they also were going to sit on a throne in the same way that Jesus sat down on His Father’s throne. The reality throughout all of these Churches is that they present a truth for you and I today. That truth is, if we want to receive the eternal rewards that Jesus has offered both them and us in the age which is yet to come, we have to respond to Him in a worthy manner which equates in our overcoming the various things in front of us.
The last thing I want to point out related to our need to overcome in this age, is what Paul had to say about this very issue in 1st Corinthians 3:11-15. This is what Paul had to say For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for that Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work, is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. There is so much in this passage, but I want to look at just a couple of parts.
As Wes Martin says, Thank God for His truthfulness to us. Because Jesus loves truth, and is actually called the Truthful One (Revelation 19:11) He longs to speak to us in this age about the many things we must overcome, so on that Day (the Judgment Seat of Christ) as we sit before Him we suffer loss in nothing. What we must remember is that Paul is talking to Christians through this passage and He is not talking about heaven and hell issues, but about rewards and judgments that will be meted out by Christ to those who have said yes to Him. This Day, when Christians will sit before Jesus is the most important day of our lives; what we are doing here in this age will directly reflect what that coming Day looks like.
Again, Paul is not talking about heaven and hell in relationship to this Judgment seat. I have found that most Christians stumble over this idea of the Judgment Seat of Christ. In fact many Christians that I know have much fear about this coming Day before Christ at the Judgment Seat, because they are worried they might be going to hell. This is not what Paul is addressing here. The Judgment seat that will send people to hell is the Judgment seat of Revelation 20: 11-15. The Judgment Seat of 1st Corinthians 3:10-15 is a judgment seat for Christians that is better described as an evaluation seat, where Jesus will either hand out rewards, or burn up our life’s work, but it won’t be about heaven and hell for those who are currently Christians. The Judgment seat of Revelation 20:11-15 is called The Great White Throne of Judgment. That judgment seat is an evaluation of non-Christians and everyone who sits there will end up in the lake of fire, eternally.
But, as many preachers have rightfully said, this idea that Paul presents in 1st Corinthians 3:11-15 is terrifying when we think about what it might mean to suffer loss on that Day when Christians stand before Christ. Now, we know why these Christians will suffer loss on that Day. Paul said they will suffer loss because of the way they built their lives in this age. Another way to say that, related to our conversation of the Seven Churches in Revelation 2-3, is to say those Christians who don’t overcome or respond to Jesus in a worthy manner will be saved but suffer loss. The reality is we all have many internal and external pressures that we must overcome in this age if we are expecting to receive eternal rewards in the age which is yet to come. Beloved, you can make sure that on that Day when you sit before Christ, you won’t suffer loss in anything, by making sure you talk to Jesus about your life right now in this age. If we talk to Jesus about our lives now, we can make changes based on the age which is yet to come. Because it will be too late, when we are seated before Christ, to make any changes with our lives then.
We must overcome, but being able to overcome also means that we understand what needs to be changed in our lives. It’s clear to all of us that we aren’t perfect, and there are many things that we need to change. But only when we start talking to Jesus about our lives and asking Him, can we truly understand what it is that Jesus wants to change. This leads us into the last section of this chapter where we will cover the importance of seeing our lives from Jesus’ perspective.
Seeing the Importance of Getting Jesus’ Perspective on Our Lives
Until the past few years, the idea of getting Jesus’ perspective of my life wasn’t on my personal radar at all. In fact for the majority of my experience in Christianity I never really thought twice about what Jesus felt about my life (my money, my time, my entertainment, my friendships, my thought life, etc…). I figured because I was serving, trying to read the Bible, working to build a (shabby) prayer life and doing fulltime ministry, Jesus was really proud of me and just wanted me to keep my head down while grinding it out. It wasn’t until I started understanding the age which is yet to come, that I was actually able to begin viewing my life differently.
I hear often that we don’t need to study Eschatology and think about heaven, because we have too much work to do right now. That being preoccupied with the future will only take me away from my work in the present. This advice is not Biblical, but also it’s not helpful at all. One of the greatest things Eschatology has done for me is to change my present. It’s not that it made me work harder, but rather it makes me work smarter. Understanding the age which is yet to come, helps me hit rewind in my life, from the future back into the present, so that I can make the changes now based on how I am working.
As I said at the beginning of this chapter, when I started preaching through the Seven Churches of Revelation 2-3 I was totally blown away that five out of the seven had no idea how Jesus viewed their lives and ministries. Beloved, that terrified me. What it said to me is that it’s possible to assume that we are loving God, and partnering with Him even though we really aren’t. This is why I believe it’s critical to receive Jesus’ perspective on our lives in contrast to how we view ourselves and even how others view us. If we only view our lives from our personal perspective we can be tempted to discredit the great activity of God in our lives, or over-exaggerate that activity and make it more than it is. And if we take the perspective of others, the same thing can happen; we either seem like we aren’t making any progress in the Gospel or that we are the greatest thing since sliced bread. We don’t want to base our lives on what we say or what others say, but on what Jesus says.
Let’s take a quick look at five of the seven Churches in Revelation 2-3. The Church of Ephesus (2:1-7) which was commended by God in roughly six different areas was also rebuked by Jesus for having abandoned their First Love. In their busyness of ministry, they had forgotten God. They were working hard but wouldn’t have realized without the intervention of God and His personal rebuke of them, that they were close to having their ministry shut down. The Church of Pergamos (2:12-17) was actually embracing doctrines that Jesus hated, the doctrine of Balaam and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. Though they were encouraged by Jesus in a couple positive areas, they didn’t know that Jesus was willing to come and fight against them with the sword of His mouth, if they refused to repent. This doctrine they were embracing, Jesus said that He hated (2:6).
The Church of Thyatira (2:18-29) who was also approved by Jesus in a couple areas, was most likely totally shocked when Jesus exposed this woman Jezebel in their midst, who as one of their co-workers was teaching a demonically inspired doctrine. When Jesus said that this woman was teaching a doctrine that was from the depths of satan, it was most likely a total shock to these Church overseers, because Jesus rebukes them for tolerating her. Beloved, they had no idea that Jesus was ready to personally step into their ministry and cast this woman into a sickbed and physically kill her disciples with death. How scary that we can be approved by Jesus in some areas, while other areas can be totally out of line according to the will of God for us.
The Church of Sardis (3:1-6) was spoken of by Jesus in only negative terms. The Kindest Man to ever live, had nothing positive to say to this ministry, although everyone else loved them, Jesus hated what was happening at the heart level. Jesus said that they had a reputation in the city, and maybe even among the nations, but that they were totally dead at the heart level towards Him. This ministry was influencing many in their city and beyond, but according to Jesus they were totally dead at the heart level. Did you know that it’s possible to be commended by men and even cities and nations for your work in the Gospel and have Jesus tell you that you’re simultaneously dead at the heart level towards Him?
And lastly, the Church of Laodicea (3:14-22) was another Church that Jesus had nothing positive to say to. According to the confession of this Church they were rich, had become wealthy and didn’t need anything. According to the natural eye, they were correct in their perspective of themselves. But what Jesus thought about them was very different than what they thought about themselves. According to Jesus they were poor, wretched, miserable, blind and naked. This Church is probably the most glaring example of a ministry and a people who couldn’t be more separated from Jesus’ perspective of them. This ministry was running hard, filled with great finances, growing and influencing their city, but all the while totally bankrupt at the heart level towards Jesus. In the words of Allen Hood, They had a large stature but a shriveled heart. Beloved, this is terrifying.
It should greatly concern us that’s it’s entirely possible to be running hard for God, but totally separated from Him at the heart level, not understanding that the more you run and influence others, you’re actually moving further and further away from Him. Five out of the Seven Churches had no idea that they were facing the suffering of loss when they stood before Jesus if they didn’t repent, and overcome the various things facing them. Don’t run on your own assumption of your life or on others’ assumptions of your life. Get in sync with Jesus, by talking to Him about what He thinks when it comes to the way you’re living your life. So many of us don’t take the time to ask the One who knows more about everything, what He thinks about our lives. Beloved, it’s my belief that He longs to tell us, but is also looking for an invitation from us. Give Him permission to speak to any area of your life. Don’t let the pain of holding onto something in this age keep you from receiving rewards in the age to come, because it can. Make the necessary changes today, so that you don’t suffer loss on that Day!