The Church at Laodicea

Below are my notes from yesterday morning’s teaching on Revelation. I hope you enjoy!

To the Church in Laodicea

Laodicea is an ancient city in present-day western Turkey, founded by Seleucid King Antiochus II in honor of his wife, Laodice.[i] The city was originally called Diospolis, which is “the city of Zeus.” The city of Laodicea was in the Lychus valley, and it was near two other cities – Colossae and Hierapolis. Like the other cities, it was in the general area of the SW corner of modern day Turkey, but it was actually one of the furthest to the East of the others – about 100 miles east of Ephesus. It was located on a very tall plateau and had a prominent position along several trade routes, making it an ideal city economically.

John MacArthur notes on its economic situation:

It was strategically located at the junction of two important roads: the east-west road leading from Ephesus into the interior, and the north-south road from Pergamum to the Mediterranean Sea. That location made it an important commercial city. That the first century BC Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero cashed his letters of credit there reveals Laodicea to have been a strategic banking center. So wealthy did Laodicea become that it paid for its own reconstruction after a devastating earthquake in AD 60, rejecting offers of financial aid from Rome.[ii]

The city’s only weakness was that it didn’t have its own source of water. It had a culvert that ran into the city and provided it with water from several miles away. This would have been a problem if the city was ever under attack, but I didn’t read a lot about attacks on the city.

So this city was basically economically and socially stable, non-controversial, and boring.

In fact, one of the things I found most interesting in my study about the city of Laodicea was that the city itself was not very remarkable. In fact, Ramsay says, “There is no city whose spirit and nature are more difficult to describe than Laodicea. There are no extremes, and hardly any very strongly marked features.”[iii]

Life was pretty easy in Laodicea, and “even the Talmud spoke scornfully of the life of ease and laxity lived by the Laodicean Jews.”[iv]

All of that seems an appropriate segue to what Jesus has to say about the Christians living in this part of Asia…

3:14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.

Let’s just take a moment to notice Jesus’ words about Himself and what they mean. Jesus calls himself the “Amen” because He is the truth. The only other place in Scripture where “Amen” is used as a name is Isaiah 65:16 where God uses it to describe Himself, and the word used is also translated “truth” (that is how the NASB, ESV and NIV translate it). The context of the passage is worth bearing in mind, because the next verse in Isaiah also provides help:

So that he who blesses himself in the land shall bless himself by the God of truth, and he who takes an oath in the land shall swear by the God of truth; because the former troubles are forgotten and are hidden from my eyes. [17] “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. (Isaiah 65:16-17)

When commenting on this passage in Isaiah, Peter Gentry says this:

God’s plan of restoration brings us back to the pristine state of Eden – in a world now much better and greater. Augustine once said that he feared to entrust his soul to the great Physician lest he be more thoroughly cured than he cared to be. God’s plan of salvation is absolutely thorough, and He is not going to be satisfied with some half job of reformation and renewal.[v]

We’ll return to verse 17 momentarily…

Next He says that He is the “faithful and true witness” which has to do with the work that God has been doing in and through redemptive history from Adam up until His own life, death and resurrection. Jesus has been a faithful witness to this work, and His word can be trusted because He is “true.”

As Christians we want to be “true” witnesses of the work God has done not only in our lives, but most especially of the work done by God in Christ.

Lastly, He says that He is “the beginning of God’s creation.” Just as mentioned in the context of Isaiah 65:17, which deals with the new creation, Jesus is calling Himself the first creation – not in the sense that He was first made at the beginning of the world, but in the sense of how Paul mentions this in his letter to the church at Colossae “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:15-16)

When Jesus tells this church that He is the “first born”, the faithful “witness” and the “Amen”, He is quite simply stating that God has been working in and through redemptive history to bring it to a teleos, a specific goal. And that goal was Jesus Christ. That is Why Paul can say, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

He is the beginning of God’s work of renewing the entirety of creation. What He inaugurated in Christ, He continues with us, for as Paul says to the Corinthians:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. [18] All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; [19] that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19 ESV)

And what does it mean to be a minister of reconciliation but that we are fellow witnesses to the work of God, and His great purposes in this world. What began as a promise in Genesis 3:15 has come to fruition in Christ, and now includes us, His new creations!

3:15-16 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! [16] So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.

Once again Jesus begins his exhortation with the words “I know.” Therefore let us pause and once again remember that while Jesus was indeed man, and is indeed ever making intercession on behalf before the Father, yet He is God and He shares in the power and wisdom and knowledge of the eternal Godhead. All things are known to Him. He has eyes like a “flame of fire” (1:14) “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13)

Now, a lot has been made of the chastisement here to this church in past sermons and teachings on this passage. The charge is that they are “lukewarm” – they are basically going through the motions. They hold to the faith – for He is writing to believers, to the church – yet they are lukewarm in their heart attitude about Jesus.

G.K. Beale provides some helpful background:

Laodicea had two neighbors, Hierapolis and Colossae. Hierapolis had hot waters which possessed medicinal effects, while Colossae had cold water, which was also though to be healthy. Laodicea had no good water source, however, and it had to pipe it in. By the time it arrived, it was lukewarm and dirty – only fit for spitting out. In fact, it was generally held to be true in the ancient world that cold and hot water or wine were beneficial for one’s health, but not water which was lukewarm.[vi]

Of course Jesus’ reaction is brutal. He says He’d like to spit them out of His mouth!

It got me thinking – what is it that causes Christians to become lukewarm?

I think that constant trials, discouragement, lack of time in the Word of God, lack of prayer, and especially a forgetfulness of the privileges we have in the Gospel. Perhaps all of these things contribute to this state.

John Owen put it well, “Our greatest hindrance in the Christian life is not our lack of effort, but our lack of acquaintedness with our privileges.”[vii]

Christians become lukewarm when we forget the length to which Christ has gone to bring us life and joy. Contemplation on the Gospel of Christ so crucial for helping remind us all that we have in Christ. This is why I love the passage my discipleship group is working to memorize right now from the book of Titus:

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. [4] But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, [5] he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, [6] whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, [7] so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)

This is one of the reasons why Paul resolved to preach nothing but Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1) – because if our foundation in life comes from ourselves, it’s easy to fall away. It’s easy enough to fall away when we believe all the right things! We need help – and we need to remember the Gospel.

Now, one other thing also pushes us away from God, and that is idolatry. That is more specifically what was going on with this particular group of people…

3:17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

They were in this prosperous city, on two major trade routes, and they had everything they needed.

When we are weak, when we are sick, when we are desperately looking for a job – that’s when we turn to Jesus. That’s when we “get religion” isn’t it!

But how quickly we fall away under the weight and distraction of our comfortable lives.

The same thing happened to Israel, which is what Hosea was saying in his prophecy to them. Samuel Rutherford explains:

…that was in Hosea’s days (Hosea 2:14). “Therefore, behold I will allure her, and bring her to the wilderness and speak to her heart.” There was no talking to her heart while He and she were in the fair and flourishing city and at ease; but out in the cold, hungry, waste wilderness, He allureth her, He whispered in news into her ear there, and said, “Thou art mine.”

What was the solution?

3:18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.

Jesus urges them to purchase refined gold, white garments, and salve for their eyes. To purchase the truth of His word, the purity of the work of regeneration of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel opening power of the Spirit so that they could see.

He describes His gospel as gold – and in many ways He is the true treasure, the true inheritance. He is the great prize, Amen? When we have Him we are rich beyond the measure of this world, we have consciences cleansed from all iniquity and we wear the righteousness of Jesus before the throne of God.

And as I mentioned before, it is only through the supernatural power of the Spirit of God that we are able to see the truth of these things.

I am reminded of the story of the blind man in who Jesus healed in John 9. After washing in the pool of Siloam he was not only able to see, but his whole life changed. His heart changed. It was evident that God was working within him.

That’s what we need; we need to see and to savor the Lord Jesus Christ. We need to see reality – and reality is that He is a great treasure.

3:19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. [20] Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat in sermon after sermon and heard this verse used as a plea to the unbeliever. That would be using this out of context. Jesus here is clearly speaking to believers. He begins by saying that “those whom I love” I will “reprove and discipline.”

God doesn’t reprove and discipline unbelievers – He lets them go their own way and in the final day will judge them by their deeds.

Later on here he closes the letter as He does all the other letters, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Unbelievers don’t have ears to hear. Unbelievers don’t have eyes to see. Those things come from God the Holy Spirit.

Therefore He is speaking to believers here, and knowing this, what He says is all that much more precious. He reminds them that He loves them!

This is very much like what the author of Hebrews says in chapter twelve:

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. [6] For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” [7] It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? [8] If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. [9] Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? [10] For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. [11] For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:5-11)

And He is calling on them to “repent” – specifically to be zealous and repent. The idea here in being zealous is to snap out of the lukewarm condition He has found them in and act as a Christian ought to act – zealously! And in their zeal they are to humble themselves before the Lord and repent, with the promise that all who do will be once again restored to communion with our Lord. He will “eat with him.”

Eating with someone is an intimate form of communion. You’re guard is down. You’re relaxed. You’re enjoying food – and food is an emotional thing. People are connected to what they eat – they care about it, they spend tons of time preparing it, searching for the best restaurants, learning how to make good food, learning what they like to eat and so on. If you eat a bad meal it sort of angers you. When you eat with someone that is another level of fellowship with them.

And this is the aim of what Jesus is doing here. He is working to restore fellowship with mankind. He is reconciling them to Himself. He is bringing us into a loving relationship with God. All of this is part of His grand program of redemption, and recreation. Once we walked in the Garden with God, now He wants to walk with us through this life and forevermore after this. But fellowship with God requires holiness – it requires repentance. That is what God is calling on them, and on us, His children to do day by day.

3:21-22 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. [22] He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

Jesus finishes the letter with another wonderful promise that is also grounded in the covenant of creation. Mankind was made to rule the earth, to represent God as His image bearers here on earth. He is now promises that we will reign with Him. This is a HUGE deal. And note what its all hinged upon – the fact that He has already conquered (the resurrection) and that He is already reigning even now.

You see, Revelation helps us understand that Jesus has indeed come into His kingdom, He is reigning now – not simply spiritually in the hearts and minds of believers, but over all the created order. His kingdom is not an ethereal idea that simply illumines our hearts and minds, it is a reality.

We are called to be faithful witnesses as He is faithful. Witnesses of an invisible kingdom, declaring that which is invisible to those who are blinded by their sin and desperately need to be reconciled to their Creator.

This requires faith that isn’t lukewarm. You see the incongruity here. Those who are concerned primarily with the treasure of this earth will never make a difference for the kingdom of God. And there is the challenge: let us rise out of our slothfulness, let us shed our old man with his desires for worldly possessions and gain. Let us repent, and put on the new man. Jesus is calling you Christian to repent for the express purpose of restoring you to Himself, both for your joy and His glory!

 

Footnotes

[i] According to manifold commentaries, but also summarized here: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/laodicea

[ii] John MacArthur, Commentary on Revelation Volume I, Pg. 135.

[iii] Ramsay, Pg.’s 422-423.

[iv] MacArthur, Pg. 135.

[v] Peter Gentry – this came from notes in my Bible’s margin, and I believe he said this at a Bunyan Conference in 2014.

[vi] Beale, Shorter Commentary, Pg. 91.

[vii] As quoted by Rev. Ian Hamilton: http://www.reformation-scotland.org.uk/articles/cross-of-christ.php

 

To the Church in Philadelphia

From yesterday morning’s Sunday School lesson…

To the Church in Philadelphia

The church at Philadelphia was a church beset by weakness, but one who had stayed true to the only True Lord.

Philadelphia earned its moniker from a king of Pergamum named Attalus II (Philadelphus). Attalus was both true and loyal to his brother Eumenes, and that reputation had far outlasted his life. He reigned along with his brother, who was ill, and when his brother died he took his widow as his own wife.

Attalus was a very culturally refined man, and emphasized the arts – even inventing a new king embroidery!

The city itself was founded as a sort of missionary city for the spread of Hellenism throughout the Pergamenian Empire. Ramsey says, “The intention of its founder was to make it a centre (sic) of the Greco-Asiatic civilisation (sic) and a means of spreading the Greek language and manners in the eastern parts of Lydia and Phrygia.”[i]

So here is where Eastern and Western cultures meet and meld together. A very interesting experiment which actually went pretty well. Well before the time of this letter the whole region spoke Greek instead of Lydian. Hellenization had taken hold.

3:7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.

Our text begins with a quote from Isaiah 22:22, which states:

And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. (Isaiah 22:22)

The context of the verse from Isaiah is in reference to Eliakim, who God promotes to take the office of another man who has been found wanting/lacking in God’s eyes. Eliakim is pictured in the text as God’s chosen instrument for the task at hand, namely (I believe) the priestly duties in Jerusalem.

Beale comments, “The point of the quotation is that Jesus holds the power over salvation and judgment. In 1:18 the stress is on his sovereignty over death and judgment, while 3:7 the emphasis is on his authority over those entering the kingdom. John compares the historical situation of Eliakim in relation to Israel with that of Christ in relation to the church in order to help the readers better understand the position that Christ now holds as head of the true Israel and how this affects them.”[ii]

The idea here is that the local unbelieving Jews are as worthless and contrary to the Lord’s true heart as the former priest Shebna (from Isaiah’s day), and Eliakim is a type of Christ who will righteously lead the church/Israel.

There is some Messianic fulfillment of the typology here, according to Beale (who gives 5 reasons why this is so). One of the red flags to this that “whenever David is mentioned in connection with Christ in the NT there are usually discernable prophetic, messianic overtones.”

There is also a striking resemblance to Isaiah 22:22 and Isaiah 9:6-7 which is the passage we commonly have come to know as referring to Christ:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. [7] Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

So we see clear similarities between the Messiah in Is. 9 and Eliakim typologically in Isaiah 22.

What does this all mean though? Beale says, “Ethnic Israel, which was claiming to be the divine agent wielding the power of salvation and judgment, no longer held this position. Christ’s followers could be assured that the doors to the true synagogue were open to them, whereas the doors remained closed to those who rejected Christ.”

Therefore these keys symbolize the fact that Jesus is in control of who is let in heaven – contra popular jokes, it isn’t Saint Peter at the pearly gates determining whose coming and going! It is Jesus. He is the one who determines who is allowed into the blessed realm.

3:8 “‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

Surely we think of the fact here that Jesus himself is the door to salvation. This is what He says in John 10:

So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. (John 10:7-9)

Matthew Henry says, “He opens. He opens a door of opportunity to his churches; he opens a door of utterance to his ministers; he opens a door of entrance, opens the heart; he opens a door of admission into the visible church, laying down the terms of communion; and he opens the door of admission into the church triumphant, according to the terms of salvation fixed by him. [2.] He shuts the door. When he pleases, he shuts the door of opportunity and the door of utterance, and leaves obstinate sinners shut up in the hardness of their hearts; he shuts the door of church-fellowship against unbelievers and profane persons; and he shuts the door of heaven against the foolish virgins who have slept away their day of grace, and against the workers of iniquity, how vain and confident soever they may be.”

3:9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.

Different churches have different struggles. For the church at Philadelphia, the issue pertains mostly to local Jews are causing them issues. Jesus is brutal in his framing of the issue. I couldn’t help but think back to times in the Bible when God re-named someone, like Abram who became “Abraham.” Later Jesus would “name” the Pharisees “brood of vipers” and so forth. The point is that when God “names” something He cuts right to the heart of the matter, and sometimes His assessment is very very frank. Every time I feel a tad bit sheepish for my own frankness in a loving rebuke, I read passages like this and remember again that God is brutally honest in His naming, and in the case of those who cause his children to stumble, he minces no words. In this case, he’s affiliating the local Jews with the “synagogue of Satan”!

It is a reminder to all who read this that there is nothing hidden from the eyes of the all-knowing, all-seeing God.

Historically speaking, even the Talmud speaks of the money loving, morally compromised Jews in this region when it states, “the wines and the baths of Phrygia have separated the ten tribes from Israel.” Beale says that the Jews of this area had compromised their religion and mixed it with Roman customs and religion.[iii]

Interestingly, Beale makes the point that there is some ironic fulfillment here in Jesus’ statement “I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.” For there are many passages in Isaiah and the Psalms that speak of the gentiles being made to bow down before Israel. The point here is that the these Jews have compromised their true religion, have rejected their Jewish Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, and are Jesus now states they will bow down before the true Israel of God, His elect children in Philadelphia.

Therefore the fulfillment comes but not in the way expected on the surface. And Beale argues that it will be the realization of this irony that will make them jealous and save many of them (which is exactly what Paul argues in Romans 11):

The understanding of Rev. 3:9 as an ironic reversal of the Isaiah prophecies sees it as parallel to Romans 11:11-31, where Gentile salvation is a missionary tactic on Paul’s part of bring about Jewish salvation. Paul quotes Isaianic prophecies in Romans 11:26-27 and views them as fulfilled in apparent reverse manner, since the pattern of Isaiah 59-60 places Israel’s salvation first, which then sparks the homage of the Gentiles (thus Paul uses “mystery” in 11:25 to introduce the quotes from Isaiah 59:20-21 and 27:9 in Romans 11:26-27).

This is a complex thing to think about when you read so many passages and start digging deeper. But the simple way to think of it at the 5,000 foot level is that the Jews had hard hearts and refused their Messiah when He finally came. Despite this, many will be saved through jealousy of the gentiles, who are receiving the blessing of prophecies fulfilled in a way that would not have been before easily understood, hence the term “mystery” in Paul’s writing.

When we step back from this and think about all God is doing here and His grand plan, we simply have to join with Paul, who, after considering what we just mentioned, ends the 11th chapter of Romans in doxology:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! [34] “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” [35] “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” [36] For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)

3:10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.

This is speaking not of tribulations, or the final tribulation, but of the final judgment of the world. Those who keep the word of God are those who are his children and who will escape the final judgment.

3:11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.

This is the exhortation that the church was called to, and to what we are called to. We are called to “hold fast”! And it is the Spirit of the Lord who will give us the endurance and power to hold onto what we have. For it is he who truly holds our souls in his hands.

And it is very much like Jesus to warn His followers to be on their guard, to be ready and to “be alert” (Eph. 6) for the time of his coming. We are to live in a state of alertness.

3:12-13 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. [13] He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

Here believers are referred to as “pillars” in the temple of God – they are part of the Temple” and therefore part of the New Jerusalem which comes down from God out of heaven. This is an allusion to what John will write later:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

Now we are getting into more of the symbolic nature of the book of Revelation. Many go straight to chapter 21 and say “look there’s going to a new Jerusalem and this city is going to be where Jesus reigns from, and its going to be a literal city with literal dimensions and He is going to reign over a literal 144,000 and a literal “Israel” – and by “literal” they mean the wooden definition of the word.

However, it is clear from chapter three here that there is symbolism used throughout this book, not to confuse us, but to help us get a better grasp of what Jesus is telling us. It enriches our understanding of what he’s conveying once we have a clear understanding of the context.

In this case, the wooden literal interpretation of this saying would not work. After all, you don’t believe that Jesus is going to turn you into a stone pillar do you!?? Is that your great destiny, to stand as a composite of limestone for eternity? Of course not, that’s silly. We must be consistent as possible in our application of how these word pictures are used in the book. So that when we read of John saying these things in the context of this book, we cannot then say, “well you are going to be spiritual pillars, but the city of Jerusalem is going to be physical.” Let us not make distinctions that John or Jesus himself does not make.

But what is the point of the imagery? The point is to say that He is gathering all his elect together to himself, and that he is building a kingdom, a family. We will all be part of that family – a big part, pillars, in fact. Pillars are important parts of the building of Gods. This is just to say that redeemed mankind, his image bearers, will makeup an important part of His eternal kingdom.

James Hamilton says that our main takeaway is that, “If we are to stand as oaks of righteousness, we must keep the word of Jesus.”

When I was reading this passage I was reminded of an important passage in Isaiah which speaks of the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. It says that the Messiah will, “…grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified” (Isaiah 61:3).[iv]

Samuel Rutherford once said, “The Great Master Gardener, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in a wonderful providence, with his own hand, planted me here, where by his grace, in this part of his vineyard, I grow; and here I will abide till the great Master of the vineyard think fit to transplant me.”[v]

The images are slightly different, but the point is the same: God has planted us here in this world of affliction to grow strong amidst the trials of this age. But when our Lord returns, his mighty oaks, his “pillars” will show forth his goodness. We are all pillars to our God, “living stones” being built up into a great and glorious city, the New Jerusalem.

The Close

He closes this letter like he does the others, with an exhortation to “hear” what the Spirit is saying. And as a reminder, this is a similar truth to what Jesus was say during his earthly ministry. He was always calling on people who “had ears to hear” to obey his word. Having ears to hear is having the Spirit’s supernatural work within us to help us “hear” and understand what it is He is saying to us. Paul explains as follows:

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:12-16 ESV)

Conclusion

The call here by Jesus is to hold fast to the Lord Jesus, to that original confession that we made as Christians. It is a call to even those who are weak, like those at Philadelphia. In our weakness he is much stronger (2 Cor. 12) and we must call upon him in all our trouble and despair. Even in persecution and distress. Even in financial instability, sickness, and death. We must not look at our own weakness, but to His great and mighty strength.

We must look to Him, knowing that we are branded with His name – we are his own. His ownership is all over us. He has not only made us as creations for himself, but has sovereignly called us to himself according to his great purpose and mercy. So we have reason to hope – and to look to Jesus, the “founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

 

 

 

[i] Ramsay, Pg. 391.

[ii] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 284.

[iii] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 287.

[iv] Incidentally, when the word “oaks” here is not necessarily referring to a particular type of oak tree, but to a large tree (see Alec Moyter’s commentary on Isaiah).

[v] Samuel Rutherford, the Loveliness of Christ, Pg. 1.

Introduction to Acts

This past Thursday our small group began a study on the book of Acts.  Derek Stone, Parris Payden, and myself (PJ Wenzel) will be teaching through the book verse by verse over the course of the next 10-12 months.  I’m thrilled to be starting this study, and look forward to many wonderful months of in-depth learning and growth for everyone.

In that spirit, I wanted to post my introductory notes for week one.  Enjoy!

Introduction to Acts

The Author

Very few people contend that Luke was not the author of this book.  His detailed account of things, and his reference to Theophilus early on in the both books are just two of the internal evidences that show he was the author Acts.

One of the internal evidences that Luke wrote this book and was actually a traveling companion of Paul can be found in the “we” passages of the book (16:10-17; 20:2-21:18; 27:1-28:16) where MacArthur notes that “the writer switches to the first person plural, showing he was present.”

In addition to being a follower of Christ, and one of Paul’s travel companions, Luke was also a doctor, and a man of education.  His Greek is some of the most eloquent that we find in the New Testament, and his precision when it comes to details has earned this book praise – even among critical secular scholars.

Both MacArthur and Sproul tell of the account of British Archeologist William Ramsay, who was a doubter of Christianity and decided to retrace the accounts of Luke step by step to show his inaccuracies.  What started as a de-bunking mission, ended up being a verification process of all that Luke had written.  Here’s what Ramsay said, “It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth” (cf. MacArthur’s commentary, pg. 5).

MacArthur notes further, “…he was a remarkably accurate historian. Acts shows familiarity with Roman law and the privileges of Roman citizens, gives the correct titles of various provincial rulers, and accurately describes various geographical locations.”

Luke also was very thorough in his research.  “According to tradition, Luke personally interviewed Mary, the mother of Jesus, to get her perspective on all the events surrounding the annunciation and the Nativity” (Sproul, pg. 20).

The Context

The first thing we must realize from a contextual perspective, is that Acts is really the second volume of a two-volume set written by Luke.

F.F. Bruce explains, “The Acts of the Apostles is the name given since the second century A.D. to the second volume of a History of Christian Origins composed by a first century Christian and dedicated to a certain Theophilus.  The earlier volume of this History is also extant as one of the 27 documents ultimately included in the New Testament canon: it is the work ordinarily known to us as the Gospel according to Luke.

Because of this, we need to realize that the introduction to the Gospel of Luke is really the introduction to both books (such was the custom in the ancient world).  John Stott comments, “it was the custom in antiquity, whenever it work was divided into more than one volume, to prefix to the first a preface for the whole.”  Therefore, it is important to first examine the beginning of Luke’s Gospel which states the following:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, [2] just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, [3] it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, [4] that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

Sproul and MacArthur say much the same thing.  Sproul comments, “In antiquity, that standard length of a book written in this manner (scrolls) was about 35 feet long. The scrolls were then rolled up and carefully preserved as they were read and passed from church to church. Initially Luke penned two volumes on separate scolls, on, the gospel account of Christ, and the second, which was carried along with the first, the book of Acts.

The Timeframe

There are basically two schools of thought on when this book was written.  Some say that it was written during the end of Paul’s lifetime, while others say that it was written after the fall of Jerusalem (70AD).  John MacArthur lays out some great reasons to believe this book was written before Paul died, and before 70AD:

  1. It best explains the abrupt ending for the book of acts.  The book ends by saying, “He lived there (Rome) two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” Luke doesn’t talk about Paul’s death, something that I think would have been important to note.
  2. The Roman officials in Acts were friendly, if not favorable, to Christians.  This wasn’t the case later on.
  3. Luke doesn’t talk about the violent persecution of Christians during the reign of Nero.  Given the other persecution that Luke mentions (like the stoning of Stephen), it would not have made sense to leave such an important thing out.
  4. There’s not mention of the fall of Jerusalem.  Given all the disputes about Judaizers, and the way Luke documented the Council of Jerusalem, surely he would have written about a momentous event like the fall of the temple, and the city.  The temple was central in the life of Jews until 70AD, and Christ’s coming signaled the end of its physical significance.
  5. The subject mater of Acts is really more focused on early church disputes about the new covenant, and how to deal with the law, and the dietary elements of the law etc.  Whereas later in the first century, most of the debate turned to more theological matters.
  6. Acts doesn’t reflect any theological familiarity with Paul’s epistles.
  7. There’s not one mention of Paul’s travels after his second imprisonment, even though Luke was with him during this time.  If the book was written later, it would have made no sense to leave out those other great ministry stories from Paul’s travels.

The Purpose of the Book

I think we find this laid out in Luke’s preface to his gospel, which states, “it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”  So I think we see here that first of all, Luke wanted to put together an “orderly account” of what had happened.

The second, and more central purpose is what he says to Theophilus “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”

MacArthur comments, “…Luke’s primary purpose is to show the spread of Christianity empowered and energized by the Holy Spirit, throughout the Roman world (1:8).”

Sproul comments, “Luke’s agenda was not only to verify that Paul was obedient to the heavenly vision but to remind his readers of the commandments that Jesus gave just before he ascended. What follows is the rest of Acts is a drama of the highest magnitude – the drama of the obedience of the early church to the mission that Christ had given to it.”

The Meta-Narrative – The Kingdom of God has “come upon you”

R.C. Sproul ends the first chapter of his commentary on Acts this way:

A whole new chapter of world history began with the ministry of Christ and with his ascension to the right hand of the father, where He is enthroned as the King. One of the worst distortions of theology that plagues the Evangelical world is the idea that the kingdom of God is something completely future. That view completely destroys the biblical testimony of the breakthrough of the kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus, especially in his ascension. Yes, the consummation of the kingdom is still in the future, but the reality of the kingdom is now. The mission of the early church was to bear witness to the reality of that kingdom in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost part of the earth.

The grand scope of redemptive history has seen an ushering in of a new chapter – an entirely new epic is birthed in the book of Acts.  This book was written to remind us to, and bear witness to itself, the fact that Jesus had ushered in the Kingdom of God.

For thousands of years mankind had been living in darkness.  We had gone astray, we had failed to keep the law of God.  We had failed to live in love toward each other, and we had failed to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and minds.

The time for a rescuer had come.  The long-appointed time for the recue plan had finally arrived, and Jesus had been victorious over even death itself.  Now, as He was wrapping up His earthly ministry, He wanted to ensure that we had closely understood all that He had come to teach us.  We were to be His witnesses to the entire world.  What were we bearing witness to?  Answer: To the reality of His kingdom.

Jesus is reigning in glory now, and has left us to carry on the work of expanding His kingdom through the power of the Holy Spirit.  We are to be obedient to that calling as Paul was – and the book of Acts tells us how this began.  That is why Acts is an important book.  It is showing us how the early church took on the mission that we carry out to this day.

In order to understand the importance of this book, we need to understand the historical importance of the time in which it was written.  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is like a mile marker that divides all of human history.  By His birth we even measure time to this day.  So when we read through the book of Acts, keep in mind that reality, and the fact that this was really the beginning of an entirely new epoch in history, as well as an entirely new spiritual reality in that Jesus had ushered in His spiritual kingdom.

Lastly, we need to remember as we read this book that so much of what is written in here emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit. Both Sproul and MacArthur rightly comment that the book of Acts could rightly be called “Acts of the Holy Spirit through His Apostles.”  The Spirit is mentioned over 50 times in this book, and its clear that the events in this book were guided by Him.  Also, since He is the writer of all sacred scripture, we must realize that as we study this book, what is included in these pages is not a comprehensive history, but rather what God wanted us to know about this time.  It is quite literally God’s own commentary on the events as they unfolded in the early days of the church.

Overview of Each Chapter

Chapter 1

Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, remains with the disciples for 40 days, and ascends into heaven.  Then the apostles chose Matthias to replace Judas as the 12th apostle.

Chapter 2

The Holy Spirit is given by God at the first Pentecost (there are four in the book of Acts), Peter gives a bold sermon that leads thousands to give their lives to Christ, and Luke details for us the harmony of the early church.

Chapter 3

Peter and John heal a lame man in the temple and give a rousing testament to the live and death of Jesus Christ, boldly sharing the gospel in the middle of the temple in Solomon’s Portico.

Chapter 4

Peter and John go before the council and speak with such bold clarity that the Sanhedrin are completely stumped and decided to chide them and release them.  Once released the church prayed for even more boldness and the entire building was shaken.  Luke tells us that they had “all things in common.”

Chapter 5

Ananias and Saphira die for lying to the Holy Spirit, Peter and John are arrested and speak before the council, but the council decides to let them go again because, under the Gamaliel, they thought it better to let the political situation play out…and they didn’t want to be “caught” on the wrong side of what God might be doing…they never thought about testing what the disciples of Christ were actually saying against what Scripture attested to.

Chapter 6

The apostles and early church members were getting overrun with work, and some were being neglected, so 7 men were chosen to lead a special service effort – similar to what our church deacons do today.  One of the seven men was a man named Stephen.  Stephen was especially bold in his preaching and was a man “full of the Holy Spirit.” Because of this, the Pharisees brought him before the council under arrest.

Chapter 7

Stephen details the historical meta-narrative of Scripture leading up to Jesus Christ.  The end of his testimony concludes with a stinging rebuke against the Pharisees for putting the “Lord of Glory” to death.  This is one of the richest historical narratives in Acts.  The chapter ends with Stephen being stoned to death and Saul standing by approving of the execution.

Chapter 8

Saul ravages the church and drags many to jail. Meanwhile, Phillip is evangelizing from city to city and having great success.  Here we learn about a false convert named Simon, and the end of the chapter details how Phillip shared the gospel with an important officer from Ethiopia. So the gospel is now going to go south to Africa!

Chapter 9

Chapter 9 details the dramatic Damascus road conversion of Paul where he is struck blind from a light from heaven.  Later we learn that Paul immediately proclaims the name of Jesus and is baptized, and even has to escape from Damascus in a basket. After a period of about 3 years, Luke tells us that Paul went back to Jerusalem to meet up with the apostles.  Meanwhile, amazing miracles were still going on. Peter healed a blind man and even raised a lady, Dorcus, to life again.  Amazing stuff.

Chapter 10

Then Luke goes back to focusing on Peter and details how Peter was given a vision from God that related to the kinds of food that Jews were used to eating – specifically God was explaining the end of the ceremonial law to Peter. The famous line from this section is that “what God has made clean, do not call common.”  At the end of this important chapter, the Holy Spirit falls on the gentiles in an amazing show of grace from God to those outside of the physical Jewish heritage.

Chapter 11

Peter describes everything that happened in chapter ten to the Christians in Jerusalem, and Luke details how the church has been spreading abroad because of the persecution and martyrdom of Stephen.  Luke also tells us of a thriving early church in Antioch where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.”

Chapter 12

Then Luke turns to the dramatic rescue of Peter, and the death of James.  Peter was imprisoned and freed by an angel.  God is glorified by this amazing rescue, and counter to what most would think Peter would do after this, he obeys God and goes right back to the temple the next day and begins to preach the gospel. At the end of the chapter we learn of the death of Herod.  So time is moving right along here.

Chapter 13

A major shift occurs in chapter 13.  Luke is now going to focus mostly on the mission of Paul, who, along with Barnabas, is sent off on his first missionary journey by the Holy Spirit.  This chapter also details for us Paul’s first preaching in public, and like Stephen, he makes an appeal to history, and to Scripture and shares the gospel with boldness.

Chapter 14

Paul then moves on to Iconium and Lystra and ends up facing many hurdles – the end of the chapter concludes with Paul nearly dying by getting stoned by the people in Lystra! After that they returned to Antioch and shared about how God had opened a door to the gentile world for the gospel.

Chapter 15

This chapter is details the first ecumenical council in Jerusalem where the issue of the Judaizers needed to be dealt with – men who said that the gentile believers needed to adhere to the dietary restrictions of the OT and also be circumcised.  The council finds this to be incorrect, and sends a letter of clarification to the gentile churches.  Unfortunately the chapter also ends with a dispute between Barnabas and Paul, which leads them to separate and go different paths.

Chapter 16

In chapter 16 Timothy joins Paul and Paul receives the call to the people in Macedonia.  Whereupon he sails immediately to that region and begins to preach the gospel.  But they encounter resistance and are jailed.  During their stay in jail they began singing hymns and songs of praise to God and the entire jail is shaken by an earthquake that unleashes their bonds.  But they don’t leave, instead witnessing to the Jailer in charge of their protection.  This man is saved and the leaders of the city let them go (once they learn of Paul’s roman citizenship).

Chapter 17

Next Paul goes to Thessalonica and his teaching persuades some but other form a mob against them uttering the famous words, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.” They escape to Berea, and find a lot more willingness among these people to learn and seach out what the Scriptures have to say about the Christ. Then they go to Athens where Paul addresses the city in the Areopagus and gives his gospel message using the reasoning style and citations of the Greeks.

Chapter 18

Next Paul went to Corinth and where we meet Pricilla and Aquila who were Jews scattered by the Diaspora (the Jewish dispersion). The local Jews in Corinth were so reviling in their reception of Paul that he said “from now on I will go to the Gentiles”, signifying a significant shift in his strategy for sharing the gospel.  The local Jews are so violent that they bring Paul before the roman proconsul who dismisses their charges out of pettiness.  So Paul returns to Antioch and Luke concludes the chapter by introducing us to a man named Apollos who was a great speaker and a great witness for Christ.

Chapter 19

Paul then goes to Ephesus and finds disciples who have not yet received the Spirit, and Luke details yet another Pentecost for these god fearing men and women who received the Spirit and were believers. Luke also takes time to tell us of the amazing miracles that Paul was working – even allowing people to take his handkerchief to the sick to be cured.  The amazing chapter ends with Luke telling of a riot in Ephesus over the preaching of the gospel.  The entire town – led by the silversmiths who made gods for a living – was in an uproar and a mob formed to deal with these Christians.  Fortunately, the town leaders dismissed the gathering and no one was hurt ad Paul was able to leave in safety.

Chapter 20

Paul then leaves Ephesus for Macedonia again, but the Jews plot his demise, so he sailed to Troas and preached there for 7 days during which he raised a young man from the dead who had fallen out of a window during his preaching.  Then Luke tells us that Paul sent for the Ephesian church elders and had them meet him so he could give them some last instructions before he went down to Jerusalem again.

Chapter 21-22

Luke details Paul’s trip to Jerusalem and his meeting with James where he gave a report of all that had been accomplished among the gentiles.  Then Paul went to the temple but was mobbed and for his own safety was detained by the roman tribune who allowed him to give his defense to the people – which they rejected.  The Tribune wasn’t going to keep a roman citizen bound in detention so he called for the Jewish Sanhedrin council to meet and hear Paul’s matter from there.

Chapter 23

Paul gives his testimony before the Jewish council and because of their dissension the Romans keep him in custody for his own safety.  During this time some Jews hatch a plot to kill Paul but its found out and they end up moving him to the care and protection of Felix the Governor of the area until a safe court date can be set with Paul’s Jewish accusers coming before Felix as well.

Chapter 24

Paul’s accusers arrive and lay their case before Felix who Luke tells us has a “Rather accurate knowledge/understanding of the Way” – probably because his wife was Jewish – and so Felix put them off and said he’d decide the case later.  But eventually two years passed and he did nothing until Festus succeeded him.  Festus left Paul in prison for the meantime to do the Jews a political favor.

Chapter 25

In chapter 25 we see more court maneuvering by the Romans.  Now Paul is sent to Caesarea and appears before Festus and the Jewish leaders as well as before Agrippa the king and his wife Bernice. They heart initial statements and concluded that Paul couldn’t have done anything to deserve death.  But Paul had made an appeal to the Caesar – which he was lawfully allowed to do due to his Roman citizenship, so the leadership locally couldn’t simply dismiss him now.

Chapter 26

In chapter 26 Paul gives his defense and testimony before Agrippa and it’s an amazing recounting of what we heard about in Acts 9.  Paul’s testimony is so powerful that Agrippa asked Paul if “in such a short time” he would have him become a Christian.  Paul’s answer is great: “And Paul said, ‘Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.’” At the end of the defense all the authorities agreed that Paul seemed innocent enough to them, but they were forced to send him to Rome.

Chapter 27-28

So Paul is put with a bunch of other prisoners and sets sail for Rome.  In the middle of the trip they encounter a storm at sea and are shipwrecked but swim to safety on the Island of Malta where Paul is bitten by a snake with no affect on him, and then goes on to heal many of sickness and disease.

After three months of sailing and being shipwrecked, they finally arrive in Rome where Paul is greeted by other believers and placed under house arrest.  Paul preached the gospel to the Jewish leaders in Rome right after he arrived.  Luke ends the book by saying that “He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”