Lift Your Head! (Revelation Intro)

(Click here for the sermon audio of the Introductory sermon to Revelation.)

In his commentary on The Revelation of Jesus Christ, John Walvoord says:

“No other book evokes the same fascination… the book reveals truth relative to every important fundamental of Christianity. It is advanced in the Gospels which unfold the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Son of God. The epistles add the theological interpretation of the person and work of Christ. To all of this dramatic and tremendously significant revelation, the last book of the Bible provides the capstone. It is indeed THE Revelation of Jesus Christ not only as the Lamb that was slain, but as King of Kings and Lord of lords who is certain to return.” (The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Walvoord. p. 7)

Many evangelicals and mainline Christians read this book in hopes of discovering within the apocalyptic literature a secret to identifying antichrist or predicting the hour of Christ’s return. But it’s not “the revelation of antichrist” or the “revelation of the date of Christ’s return.” The book was given the title by its author, John, under the direction of our Lord. It is, indeed, The Revelation of Jesus Christ.

There are a variety of interpretive approaches. While I believe the Revelation contains apocalyptic visions describing the consummation of the ages, we must never forget that this book meant something, from beginning to end, to the persecuted church at the end of the first century. Actually, that should give the book greater relevance. For we are not certain whether or not Christ will return in our lifetime. But we can be certain that the church will face persecution, and is facing great persecution, in the last days.

The Revelation of our risen and glorified Lord served as great encouragement to the suffering churches in Asia Minor. Therefore, I believe these scriptures will encourage the body of Christ to lift our heads in the face of the persecution and marginalization we are facing as believers around the world in the twenty-first century.

How Jesus Christ is being revealed in this book:

  1. The Person of Christ is Being Revealed: It is the “revelation” (unveiling) of Jesus Christ (vs. 1). Jesus appeared to his beloved disciple personally. Can you imagine what that must have meant to the one who overheard Jesus tell Peter, “What’s it to you if he lives until I return?” If we read this book with greater passion to determine dates, interpret current events in the Middle East, or identify antichrist than we do to fall more in love with our resurrected Lord, we are missing the point. Verse 2 reminds us that this is the testimony of Jesus Christ!
  2. The Promises of Christ are Being Revealed: Verse 3 contains the first of seven beatitudes, promises of blessings for those who read this book, obey its precepts, or heed its warnings. Yes, many of the promises are contextualized by apocalyptic visions. The principles behind the precepts, however, point to a blessed way of life and entrance into eternity for those who walk faithfully with our Lord.
  3. The Power of Christ is Being Revealed: The seven churches, as referenced in verse 4, are quickly reminded that Jesus is still on His throne. The “seven spirits” possibly even refers to the omnipresent nature of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, as the “firstborn from the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth”, not only has resurrection power, he also has ruling authority! (vs. 5)
  4. The Purposes of Christ are Being Revealed: Verse 5b-6 serve as reminders that everything that was, and is, and is to come is wrapped up in the message of the Gospel of the kingdom and the Glory of God. As Christ-followers, Revelation should motivate us to live to those ends… knowing and glorifying Jesus Christ as we make Him known to the world, over which He has ultimate dominion.
  5. The Plans of Christ are Being Revealed: Verses 7 and 8 conclude this introduction with a reminder from John that Jesus is coming. While we do not know the day or our, we find strength for living in knowing that he will return and make all things right!

I know the message of the Gospel is not as popular in our nation as it once was. I also realize that religious freedom is under fire like never before. But as we study this book written to a church that had suffered immensely under the hands of Roman emperors Nero and Domitian, we are reminded that Christ’s faithful servants can lift their heads come what may! Lift your head today and walk in the confidence of one to whom Jesus Christ has been revealed.

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GROWING PAINS

Growing pains accompany growth, naturally. Can you remember experiencing pain in your arms or legs during one of those seasons of life when you had hit a major growth spurt, especially during adolescence? While you did not appreciate the pain, it certainly became more tolerable when a parent explained that you were experiencing growing pains. In fact, it was quite worth the pain. You may have even welcomed the pain just to know that you were growing up.

That should also be our response when we experience growing pains as a church. As with anatomical growing pains, the pains related to church growth (both spiritual and numerical) can come early or late in the seasons of growth spurts. The problem is when we begin to think the pain is unnatural or not worth the growth that comes with it. If we are called to be missional and to grow in discipleship and evangelism, we must beware of the growing pains and refuse to be discouraged by them.

In a future post I will deal with the pains associated with your personal spiritual growth. I am currently experiencing some of the those myself. But for now I would like to share with you some of the growing pains that I believe a church family will experience if they desire to grow. Perhaps these observations will enable you to rejoice over symptoms about which you have occasionally been tempted to be overly concerned.

Growing Pain 1: Personality clashes may become more prevalent. A greater missional spirit and the addition of people means a wider variety of personalities. This calls for greater patience and a willingness to learn to appreciate people that are not like you, people who do not think like you do about everything. Keep in mind, 1 Peter 2:9 says that we are all a “peculiar people.” You will also find that in the context of spiritual growth and the promotion of church unity that Paul told the church at Philippi to “do all things without grumbling or complaining (Phil. 2:14).” Don’t be threatened by people who have different personalities. To embrace them is to be kingdom minded.

Growing Pain 2: Ministry responsibilities must be networked. By the way, this is biblical. Smaller churches, however, often become accustomed to the pastor or pastoral staff doing most of the work of the ministry. Paul explained to the church at Ephesus that the primary responsibility of the pastoral leadership is to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-12).” If the pastor doesn’t embrace the growing pain of equipping and letting some things go, he will likely master the church version of the art of bonsai. In Acts 6 the apostles provide us with a model for raising up leaders and networking ministry so that leaders can focus on their primary areas of calling. I am fortunate to be a part of a church that gets this. But we may be tempted to forget this from time to time, either by not embracing our roll in the networking process or by expecting the pastoral staff to be involved in everything.

Growing Pain 3: Assimilation strategies must change. There, I said it. The “C” word. The message of the Gospel never changes. Nor does our call to assimilate believers for discipleship. The larger a church becomes, the more necessary it is for people to be a part of a small group. Small groups can no longer be viewed as extra-curricular Bible study groups. They must provide opportunity for intimate fellowship. Whether you call them Life Groups, Sunday School, Men’s or Women’s Bible Studies, or Cell Groups… there must be a place to connect, open up, get real, and become a more functional faith family. Small group leaders must become as concerned about the facilitation of building community as they are about teaching the Bible. So it is A-OK to not finish the lesson because real community is taking place.

Growing Pain 4: Leadership and decision making strategies change. Tim Keller has pointed out that in smaller churches (the average church size is less than 100 active attendees) most decisions are made by the congregation as a whole. As a church grows, however, and expands its ministries and ministry staff, many decisions concerning direction, strategy, organization, finances, calendaring events, and ministry and mission opportunities have to be made quickly. Decision making will become a daily activity of a growing church staff.

Therefore, the ministry staff must be thoroughly vetted when called. They must be accountable to one another and keenly aware of their future accountability to God. They must model a walk with Christ. And they must demonstrate that they LIVE and LEAD by the Word of God. They must do all of these things so that they can earn the trust of the people. And when they have earned such trust, the people should allow them, even make life easy on them, when it comes to making leadership decisions under the direction of the Word of God, the mission of the church, and the guidance of the Spirit of God (Hebrews 13:7&17). The wise leader will cast vision and listen to the hearts of the spiritually mature in the body as often as possible. Learning to trust and follow God-called leadership can be a growing pain for some believers, especially if they come from a smaller church that never kept a pastor long enough for him to earn the trust of the people.

That is not to say that there are not certain systems of accountability, certain protocols of protection, or certain shared responsibilities. But our systems and structures must never become the proverbial “tail that wags the dog.” And when a leader is clearly unethical, unbiblical, or deliberately carnal, believers should apply the biblical steps of church discipline to lovingly confront the situation. (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Timothy 5:19)

Growing Pain 5: Communication streams must become more effective. There is balance to this particular area of growth. Unfortunately, the pain comes in finding that balance. First of all, everyone simply cannot always be “in the know” about everything in a growing church. As illustrated by points 3 and 4 above, many activities and ministries will take place on the small group or ministry team level. And many decisions will be made by pastoral staff on a daily basis. It would take 3 or 4 hours each evening if I explained to even my wife everything that took place during the day in the life of our church. Yes, the staff is busy all week, not just Sundays and Wednesday nights. We also trust that the church is busy “being the church” throughout the week. We actually love to hear stories of what you are doing for the sake of the kingdom, but we obviously don’t have time to hear and know everything there is to know. Why? Because so many wonderful things are happening! Praise the Lord!

But to bring balance to this, we must strive more and more to communicate the vision and mission of the church. We must especially keep folks posted on how they, how you, can be a part of it. Opportunities for service, prayer needs, and praise reports of how God is working must saturate our church family. This means that as we grow, there will be growing pains in the process of learning to better communicate. There is greater likelihood that someone will be left out by accident. With more people calling our church family home, the chances are greater that someone will have missed the Sunday that a particular announcement was made, or even consecutive Sundays an announcement was made. Not only does this provide a growing pain for the leadership to learn to use more communication channels than ever before (for example, you are probably reading this because of email or social media), there is also a growing pain for members to learn to access all of the various communication streams. Uh, growing pains! Praise the Lord!

What is the alternative to all of these growing pains? The pains of lethargy and stagnation are much worse, only to be followed by spiritual rigor mortis! So I prefer to embrace the growing pains. How about you?

Don’t Stunt Your Growth!

(Click Here to Listen to the Complete Sermon)

I enjoy a good cup of joe as much as anyone. And its not always for the early morning stimulation. I like a variety of flavors and origins, both regular and decaf. One add for a particular brand of energy shot asked the question, “Why drink 3 or 4 cups of coffee when you could have 1 (perhaps 3 ounces) of [this energy shot]. My answer was simple. I enjoy drinking coffee. 

But I remember when I was younger, in my teens, and I received this warning from a few adults – “Coffee will stunt your growth.” I didn’t want to stunt my growth! I was a skinny dude back then. Perhaps the fact some older men would occasionally inform me that coffee would help grow hair on my chest brought the balance I needed to continue the coffee habit.

Isn’t it funny that we will so seriously consider the impact of something on our physical growth and development, but pay little attention to those things that affect our spiritual growth and development?

In Ephesians 4:1-16 the Apostle Paul provides us with insight into stages of spiritual growth. There are individual and corporate implications to these principles. This letter, in providing a dissertation on “body life”, transitions from the doctrinal to the practical at this point. In doing so, we are given sort of a check list, if you will, to examine where we are and how we’re doing in our spiritual journey.

1. Evangelized with the Message of Christ. (Verses 1-9)

In the first verse we are reminded that salvation, as described in the previous chapter, is a calling to be lived out. So “walk in it.” 2 Corinthians 5:17 informs us that we a new creation, old things are passing away and all things are becoming new. Anyone reading this should stop and ask, “Has there been a time in my life when I turned from sin and self, trusted Jesus Christ and His Gospel alone for salvation, believing completely in the finished work on the cross and confirmed by the resurrection?”

Verses 2-3 describe the fruitfulness of such a life transforming response to the Gospel. Our lives give evidence of faith and repentance in how we relate to others. So there is a test of our fruitfulness that is described throughout the New Testament in passages like John 15:1-17.

There is also the test of right beliefs. In verses 8-10, Paul describes the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus Christ. The fact that Christ “descended” points out that He is the “Word Made Flesh” from John 1:1&14. Philippians 2:5-11 describes his “descending” as becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross, but now having been exalted (resurrection and ascension) to the right hand of the Father! There are also glimpses of Pentecost and the indwelling Spirit in the final words of both verses 6 and 10. Paul would build on this in Ephesians 5, specifically verse 18 which admonishes us to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit.

Hopefully this clarifies the fact that evangelism isn’t just leading someone to make a faith decision and chalking them up as being on “our side” now. Evangelism and discipleship are mutually exclusive. In fact, they are so far from that they are almost synonymous. To be evangelized with the message of Christ is to have begun cooperating with the process of discipleship. This leads to the next stage in our checklist.

2. Equipped for the Ministry of the Cross. (Verses 10-12a)

As Paul continues to describe the “body life” that believers who have been evangelized are called into, he promptly explains that ministry leaders, including pastor-teachers, have been placed within the various local congregations for the “equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry.” (vs. 11)

One might think that Paul would have dealt with growing toward maturity, as he does immediately following the subject of equipping, before he explains that those who are evangelized are called to a ministry. I have certainly taken that approach as a leader at times. I mean, why would we be given an assignment before we’ve proven ourselves and become better established, right?

One way to illustrate what I believe Paul is setting forth under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is to compare it to when I became a father. There is nothing like knowing that you are about to become a father, nothing like holding that newborn in your hands, to make you see the importance of being a leader, growing in maturity, acting like an adult, and learning everything you can about being a dad.

If new believers understand that they are called to be equipped for ministry, this will increase their recognition of the need to grow in grace as disciples of Jesus. There is a holy sense of inadequacy that accompanies God-given ministry that drives us to be all that we can be for His glory. 

3. Edified toward Maturity as a Christian. (Verses 12b-13)

Both individually and corporately we are being “built up” as a mature Christian and a unified body prepared to exert major kingdom influence in the world for the glory of God. In fact, love and unity among members of the body becomes an evidence that we are being edified (or built up) as individuals Christ-followers.

Mature believers hunger for depth in the study of God’s Word as it pertains to all of life. You will find them taking notes during sermons and small group Bible studies. They will learn to depend on a daily devotional time in the Word and in prayer. Though avoiding legalistic tendencies, you will find them tuning their car radios (or designing their playlists and accessing podcasts) more and more around the music and Bible teaching that feeds their souls. 

4. Established in the Mutuality of the Church. (Verses 14-16)

A spiritually mature believer, or one who is moving toward maturity, will delight in being knit into the fabric of the church. This is authentic body life. We may seem like a small and insignificant part of the body, but Paul says that we are all “supporting ligaments.”

If you encounter me on the street, in the pulpit, or in the bleachers of a football game, you may conclude that I am in relatively good health other than being a little overweight. What you likely will not discern is that I am far from being at my best when it comes to pick-up basketball (which I used to really love) or hitting the tennis courts with my kids. No, I am not referring to the aging process here, though that may not be totally unrelated.

The fact is, I have blown out the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) for yet a second time. And, at my age, I am delaying surgery for now. Indeed, our church may look healthy to outsiders. And in many areas we are functioning with a great degree of “church health.” But we aren’t reaching our full potential. Why? There are various supporting ligaments that are not in place. Paul describes a need here for the “whole body” to be functioning as one. 

I am afraid that we must constantly strive to overcome the consumer mentality of the church. The temptation is to show up on Sundays for a little encouragement to get through this thing called life. But when one comes to faith in Christ after being evangelized with the message of the Gospel, he or she has been enlisted in God’s army. And one doesn’t enlist to simply wear the uniform and enhance their resume. No, we then receive equipment for the duty we’ve been assigned. We begin to grow and develop. We realize we are part of a team that depends on us to help accomplish a mission. And, in the body of Christ, our mission is to make Him known to our neighbor, the nations, and the next generation.