The Most Critical Text for Today’s Disciples

SBC Leadership Conference March 20-21, 2020

by Dr. Darrell Johnson

There are a number of critical texts in which disciples of Jesus in our time would do well to inhabit. Like Matthew 5-7 where we hear Jesus preach His now famous, but not yet fully understood, Sermon on the Mount, developing what entering into and living the Kingdom of God looks like is this world. And like John 13-17, where Jesus prepares His disciples to go on living in the absence of His physical presence, doing so through the person and ministry of His Spirit. And like Romans 5-8 where the apostle of Paul, who clearly has the mind of Christ, opens up for us, and takes us into the heart of Christian living and discipleship, calling us to die to the flesh and live to and in the Spirit.

But perhaps the most critical text for disciples living in the early decades of the 21st century is Revelation 1-3, wherein the Risen Jesus in the 1st century, standing in the middle of His churches, speaks to His churches. While on the prison island of Patmos, just off the coast of what is modern day Turkey, where the apostle John, sent there because of his uncompromising allegiance to Jesus as Saviour and Lord, is met by Jesus in a vision, and hears His word of comfort and challenge to seven churches back on the mainland. Why these seven churches and not others (there were many), we are not told. But somehow in speaking to those seven, Jesus was speaking, and is speaking today, to the whole Church in every era and in every location.

Although He speaks a particular word to each particular context, He speaks to the basic issue disciples in each of the seven cities were facing: the issue of compromise. Each church in each city was under pressure to compromise on the essential affirmation of the Christian faith: Who Jesus claims to be, gathered up in the word “Lord.” In the Gentile world, the word, kurios in Greek, was what the Emperor, the Caesar, was called, indeed, what the Emperor demanded all citizens call him. Kurios, sovereign of the land, the one who holds the last word over nearly everything in the Empire.

In the Greek-speaking Jewish world, Lord, kurios, was the substitute for the sacred name Yahweh, the One and only God. And disciples in the city of Asia Minor were in various ways under great pressure to compromise on this essential affirmation. Under pressure from both Rome and the synagogue. In each letter Jesus calls disciples to stand up under the pressure, and not only speak the affirmation, but live it out in their cities, a very risky and costly thing to do.

In the lectures I will bring on Revelation 1-3, I will try to unpack Jesus’ word to such a context, very much like what we increasingly face in post-modern Canada. I do not want to give away what I will develop during our time together! So, let me make a few observations that might help you as you read the chapters in preparation.

Pressures When Two Kingdoms Collide

None of the churches of Asia Minor had the benefits many think we have to have in order to be all that Jesus wants His church to be. That is, none of them had any clout with their government; indeed, they were held in suspicion by the powers that be. And none of them had the favour of the culture; indeed, they were living at odds with the major ideologies of the day. Everything around them was calling them to mute their all-out commitment to Jesus.

They all experienced, to one degree or another, what the apostle John calls “tribulation.” Which John says is inescapable if one seeks to follow Jesus. “I, John, your brother, and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance that are in Jesus” (1:9). John is saying that to be “in Jesus”—and given Who He is, who would not want to be?—is to be “in the kingdom,” and, therefore, “in tribulation.”

The word John uses, thlipsis, refers to the kind of pressure when two kingdoms collide. Two different value systems, two different visions of human flourishing, two different understandings of world history. When they collide, there is thlipsis, pressure. Sometimes crushing pressure. All seven of the churches Jesus loves and addressed were experiencing that pressure to one degree or another. And under pressure to “back off,” don’t take Jesus that seriously, “go with the flow.” In one way or another, in each of the seven messages Jesus speaks to thlipsis, and calls us to “hang in there,” “keep going.”

Symbols and a Fierce Battle

In each of the seven messages Jesus speaks in words and images people were using in their particular city. That is, He ties into language and symbols with which people of the particular city would immediately connect. For example, in His message to the church in Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17) Jesus refers to Himself as “the One Who has the sharp two-edged sword” (2:12). Why in this message? In one sense it is something He could say in addressing any of the churches. Why here? Well, for one thing, the symbol for the city of Pergamum was the sword, for it was one of few cities of the Empire given the power of the sword, the power to exercise capital punishment.

And for another, there was fierce battle going on in the city, a battle for the mind, around human sexuality and the human quest to know and find the Divine. Jesus is telling that congregation in that particular city that He is present with them in the battle, indeed, that He can win the battle. In the upcoming lectures I will give, I will identify how Jesus connects with other cities. If Jesus were to write a letter to your church in your city what words and images would He use?

Who is ‘the Angel’ of the church?

In each of the seven messages Jesus speaks to “the angel” of the church. What does that mean? No one knows with absolute certainty. Real angels, assigned to oversee the life of the congregation? What would that involve on a practical level? Or does “angel” refer to the “spirit” of a congregation, shaped by decisions and practices over the years, which influences the congregation’s life, whether leaders can articulate it or not? Or does “angel” refer to the human leader of the congregation? To pastors and/or elders? Whatever option we take, Jesus clearly knows the spiritual and political dynamics of the congregation.

In each of the seven messages Jesus tells the congregation what He likes about their life and ministry, and what He dislikes, “I have this against you.” Except in the messages to Smyrna (2:8-11) and Philadelphia (3:7-13). Why? Why no critique of those two congregations? Neither was situated in easier contexts than the other five. Why then were these two able to stand under the pressure to compromise?

To Smyrna: “I know your poverty” (2:9). To Philadelphia: “little power” (3:8). Is it because both churches knew they could not stand on their own, and so unlike the other five, threw themselves on the only One Who can stand? In which category does your church line up: “This I have against you” or no criticism? Or somewhere in between? If the former, what do you think Jesus wants to name in your situation? And what do you think He wants you to do about it?

Wonderful Promises

In each, Jesus calls the congregation to do something. The “do” is a function of what He sees to be “off” in the life of the church. Each of the calls to “do” relates to the particular form of the pressure being experienced in the particular city. What are the pressures the churches in your city are facing? How are you under pressure to not stand in faithful allegiance to Jesus as Lord? Although spoken to two churches (Smyrna and Philadelphia) Jesus would give the same exhortation to all churches in all cities of the world in every era of history: “Do not fear,” “Be faithful,” and “Behold,” or “Look.”

In each message Jesus makes wonderful promises. It is a wonderful “persevering-building” exercise to list all the promises He makes in the seven messages. (He still speaks them to us!) “I will grant you to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God”(2:7); “I will give you the crown of life” (2:10); “You shall not be hurt by the second death” (2:12); “I will give some of the hidden manna” (2:17); “I will give them authority over the nations” (2:26); “I will give the overcomer the morning star” (2:28), which from 22:16 we know is Jesus Himself; “I will not erase their names from the book of life” (3:5); “I will keep you in the hour of testing” (3:10); “I am coming quickly” (3:11); “I will come in and dine with them, and they with Me” (3:20); “I will grant them to sit down with Me on My Father’s throne” (3:21). Mercy! How can we ever absorb the full implications of such promises?

Hear the Right Voice

Now, it turns out that all these promises to “overcome” are then fleshed out in the closing chapters of the whole of The Revelation of Jesus Christ. Fleshed out in the new heaven and new earth Jesus is preparing for this broken world.

From nearly every side, we hear all kinds of voices telling us what the church is supposed to be and how we are to live it out in our time. What we need is to hear the Voice of the Head of the church. Which we do in the seven messages to the seven churches. Immerse oneself in these texts, and we become all the more sensitive to the word He is speaking to the churches of Canada in these quickly changing, increasingly challenging times. “Speak Lord, Your Church is listening.”

I look forward to our time together on March 20-21 of the new year.

Dr. Darrell Johnson

Dr. Darrell Johnson has served as pastor and preaching minister for churches in the U.S., the Philippines, and Canada. He taught full-time from 2000-2009 at Regent College (Vancouver) in the areas of pastoral care and preaching. He is currently involved in writing, preaching, and mentoring. Dr. Johnson is the speaker at the Leadership Conference to be held on the campus of Steinbach Bible College on March 20-21, 2020. He and his wife Sharon have four children and they enjoy their grandchildren.

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