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Understanding the Seven Letters

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
June 6, 2023 12:01 am

Understanding the Seven Letters

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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June 6, 2023 12:01 am

Assailed by enemies outside and within, the seven churches of Revelation received letters from Christ calling them to overcome in faith. Today, W. Robert Godfrey shows how these letters speak to many of the temptations and struggles we face today.

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Where there is a threat that a lampstand might be removed, there's also an encouragement that faithful members should not lose heart. So while the focus is on the church as an institution and as a community, this is not to be set over against the fact that if a church loses its way, individuals ought to pursue the truth and remain faithful to the Lord. The seven letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation were real letters written to real congregations. Yet that doesn't mean that they don't have warnings and encouragements for you and I today.

Hi, I'm Nathan W. Bingham, and thank you for joining us today for Renewing Your Mind. If Jesus wrote a letter to your local church, I'm sure everyone would rush to read it, to study it, and to apply the truths to their lives. Well, Jesus did write letters to seven churches, and they're found in the book of Revelation. Well, as W. Robert Godfrey continues his Blessed Hope series, his overview of the book of Revelation, he'll demonstrate why these letters are worthy of our study and are filled with practical insights to help you and I faithfully follow Christ today.

Here's Dr. Godfrey. Well, we're returning now to our study of the introduction to cycle one of these seven cycles we're going to see in the book of the Revelation. And we came to that moment where John looked over his shoulder in the midst of his earthly ministry and his earthly worship and his earthly suffering and saw revealed by the Spirit of God this glorious vision of the heavenly temple and how encouraging it is to see that that heavenly reality is not far away and distant from us but is right here with us. It's a little like what the prophet Elisha described, isn't it, in 2 Kings 6, talking to his servant who was all worried they didn't have any strength. And Elisha said, well, let me let you see the hosts of the Lord, and suddenly was displayed the reality that surrounded them.

That's a little like what's going on here. And this is intended to encourage us. Even if we don't see it with the eye as John did, we're called to see it by faith that we're already citizens of heaven.

That will be a major theme as we go along in the book, and we'll see it again and again. So I hope already you're beginning to sense a little bit of how this book becomes a blessing. And I thought I would read for you those seven blessings. I said there were seven blessings. I saw the skeptical looks on some of your faces.

Is that really true? And so here are the seven blessings, and see how they encourage us in the course of this book. Revelation 1, 3, blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. Revelation 14, verse 13, blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Blessed indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow after them. Revelation 16, verse 15, blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed. Revelation 19, 9, blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. Revelation 20, verse 6, blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection, over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign for him a thousand years. Revelation 22, 7, blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.

Revelation 22, verse 14, blessed are those who wash their robes so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. You notice how the blessings sort of begin to pile up as you get further through the book, and all of this reminding us that this is indeed for us a book of blessings. So John hears a voice. He looks behind him, and what does he see? He sees an amazing sight. He sees seven lampstands and any pious Jew would have known that there was a lampstand in the holy place in the temple of God in Jerusalem, and that lampstand represented the presence of God among his people. And now suddenly he sees the heavenly temple, and he sees seven lampstands there for the seven churches.

We'll be told that explicitly at the end of the chapter. So here he's seeing the churches in the presence of Christ in the heavenly temple. And in the midst of the lampstands, once again Christ is not far away from his people.

He's right there in the midst of them. And in the midst of the lampstands, one like a son of man. And then follows a description of Jesus. Now this figure is not explicitly named Jesus, but there's no doubt at all that this is Jesus revealed in His glory.

And these next verses are the longest physical description of Jesus that we have in the Bible. Do you know how little we're told about Jesus in terms of His physical appearance in the Bible? We know He was a man. We hardly know anything else. We can assume He had a beard because the prophet Isaiah talked about plucking out the beard.

Beyond that, we don't know anything. We don't know if He was fat or skinny or tall or short or hairy or bald. We really know nothing about Him for sure, except that the prophet Isaiah said He would have no form or comeliness that we should desire Him.

So probably if we passed Him on the street, we wouldn't take a second look. He was no Saul. He wasn't even a David, apparently, because we're told David was good looking. Now again, whether what Isaiah said about a beard and about no form or comeliness should be seen symbolically, we don't know for sure. But it's amazing how little we're told about the physical appearance of Jesus.

This is the fullest description. And as we read it, think for a minute as you hear it, if I were an artist—maybe there's somebody hearing this lecture who isn't an artist—if I were an artist, how would I paint this? And in the midst of the candle stands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white. His head were white.

Do you ever think of Jesus as white-haired? The hairs of His head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars. From His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in full strength. Well, you couldn't paint this, could you?

You could maybe start with a long robe and a gold sash, but how can you paint a face that's like the sun fully shining and still have shining eyes in it? All of this is clearly symbolic. All of this is a symbol of the power and the purity of our Lord. And we see that particularly, don't we, in the sharp two-edged sword that comes out of His mouth. His words are determinative words when they come in judgment. The two-edged sword divides, doesn't it?

It separates. And here is Jesus in power, in glory, white-haired probably because He's being linked to the eternal God, the ancient of days. And here is a magnificent description, but a symbolic description, of who Jesus really is in His heavenly glory. And John responds by saying, When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead. He fell to worship Him. And, you know, sometimes people have said, Well, does the New Testament really teach that Jesus is divine? And the answer is yes, over and over again in all sorts of ways.

But here's one of the ways. Because throughout this book, John says, Well, because throughout this book, John will occasionally see things that overwhelm him, and he falls at the feet of an angel. And the angel always says, Stand up. Don't worship me.

Worship God. But here, Jesus receives the worship of John as he falls before Him. And I saw Him, and when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead. But He laid His hand on me, saying, Fear not. It's wonderful how often God comes to His people and says, Fear not. The sight of God in His glory is fear evoking. It's a natural response.

It's even an appropriate response. But Jesus says, Fear not. Fear not.

Why should He not fear? I am the first and the last. The glory that you see is the real glory that belongs to me. I am the beginning and the end. I'm the living one. I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades. You don't need to be afraid. I'm alive, and I'm in charge of life. And death cannot hold you. Hell cannot hold you, because I'm the Lord of life, and I'm here with you.

Fear not. What a wonderful encouragement. And I think, in part, John is saying to us in this revelation, when you gather for worship in this earthly sphere, and sometimes our worship may seem insignificant, certainly ignored by the world, Jesus is saying, You're really with me in the heavenly temple. You're really communing with the one who is alive and who holds the keys of death and hell. So, verse 19, write, Therefore the things you have seen, those that are, and those that are to take place. So, what you're saying is partly about right now and partly about what will soon happen.

That's what you're to write. And as you write, John, the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands that I'm walking among, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. One of the remarkable things in the book of the Revelation is that every now and again, there's a pause, and there's an explanation of the symbols. So, it reminds us that these really are symbols. We'll later be told that the incense are the prayers of the saints. So, we don't have to be under any illusions about that. When we read about seven lampstands, we might have thought, I wonder exactly what that is.

Well, we're told exactly what it is. It's the seven churches. So, the churches of God are in the heavenly temple now, and the seven stars are the seven angels.

Now, there's been a little bit of debate about that. What does that mean, the seven angels? And some people have argued, well, that means the ministers of the churches. And that's possible because, as I said, angel means messenger. And so, it's possible that when he says the seven stars are the seven angels, it's still being symbolic in what's being said, that the word angel is being used for the messenger. But I think, because everywhere else in the book of the Revelation, angel means angel, that it probably means that here, and especially since it is the interpretation of the symbol, the star.

And I think what is being said then, in a certain sense, every congregation has a guardian angel. Sometimes we wonder exactly why does God need angels? Why can't God do things immediately and directly? And, of course, He can. But you could say, you know, why does God need so many different kinds of birds?

We could have done with fewer birds, couldn't we? Well, obviously, as Creator, God demonstrates He likes diversity. He likes fullness.

He likes variety. And so, He has not only peopled the physical world, but He's, I don't know, peopled is the right verb, but He's created creatures in the heavenly world as well, and He's given them tasks. And the Bible doesn't tell us exactly what it means to have a guardian angel as a congregation. We're certainly not to talk to the Bible. We're not to talk to the congregation.

We're certainly not to talk to them or pray to them, but we're to be aware that God shows His personal, present care for us by assigning angels for it. And it's just another way in which we should be encouraged about the presence, the power, the care, the love of God for us. And then we see that wonderfully portrayed here in this text.

So that's the introduction to the first cycle, and now we finally get to the substance. Sometimes the introduction is about as long as the substance, but that's the way John wrote it, and I'm not here to criticize John. So we have a somewhat long introduction, but it wonderfully sets the stage for the letters, because one of the features of each letter is that Jesus will identify an aspect of Himself that the particular church particularly needs.

And so that self-identification is drawn from this introduction. So every church can find in this introduction something to help itself, and John is making that point by the way he develops this. Now again, some interpreters have said, well, these seven churches are seven ideals or some have even said seven ages of the church.

And again, I think this is making symbol where there isn't a symbol. These were seven well-known cities in Asia Minor, and there were churches there, and these are letters to those churches facing those particular problems. And it reminds us not every church has the same problems. And it reminds us that as we study the problems of these churches and the strengths of these churches, we can be encouraged in our service to the Lord. We don't have to turn it into some kind of weird symbol. It's just letters, sermons to churches with special needs, and we can use it as a kind of template to look at ourselves and our churches and say, how are we doing about those things?

How is it working for us in relation to those things? Well, let me read the first letter. These letters are the familiar part of the book, and I don't want to spend a huge amount of time on these letters because they are more familiar, but nonetheless, we want to see what's going on in these letters as part of the blessing and as that first cycle that is calling those churches, but all of us, to faithfulness in the face of suffering and struggle. So, to the church in Ephesus. To the angel of the church in Ephesus write, the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven lampstands, I know your works, your toil, your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary, but I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember, therefore, from where you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and release you from you and remove your lampstand from its place unless you repent. Yet this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

To the one who conquers, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. Now, I hope you noticed as we read that that there are a number of phrases that have been lifted from the first chapter and used in relation to this church. That's how an introduction works.

It introduces things that are going to be used later, and we certainly see that. And as we look at these letters, we can see each letter, or almost every one of the letters, contains seven elements. This was noticed by Dr. Beale in his commentary, that all of the letters contain certain common elements that bind them together. In each letter, Christ commands John to write, and that's underscoring and reinforcing that this is Christ at work. This is Christ speaking.

This isn't just John. Secondly, Christ identifies himself. Here at the beginning of the Ephesian letter, he identifies himself as the one who holds the seven stars or walks among the lampstands because he's going to come and say, beware or I'll remove your lampstand.

So he identifies himself. Thirdly, in almost all the letters, he praises the good works of the church only to Sardis and Laodicea. Are there no words of praise at all? And then there are words of accusation from Christ for the sins of the churches. And again, only two churches do not have sins addressed, Smyrna and Philadelphia. Fifthly, Christ is calling to repentance and or encouragement in every letter, and Christ exhorts the churches.

Sixthly, how to live, and then he concludes seventhly with a promise. So there's a common structure that's followed in these letters that we can notice, and we notice as well that the sins focused on in all of these letters are pretty much the sins of worldliness and idolatry, worldliness and idolatry. That is, the sins are living too much like the world, adopting too much the standards and values of the world, or compromising one's commitment to the true and living God by involving oneself in idolatrous practices.

What's intriguing, of course, is that sounds a lot like Israel in the Old Testament, doesn't it? I mean, those were sort of the besetting sins of Israel, worldliness and idolatry. And so it shows the sort of continuity of the life and the struggle of the people of God in this world, and that's why the repeated insistence is be faithful, don't compromise, don't give in, overcome, conquer.

That's what the church, what all of us are called to. And then in these letters we find some rather specific enemies listed. Rome is listed as an enemy. That is the civil government, the civil political power. And as we look at the history of the church, we can see how often it was that the church was at odds with the civil government, and the civil government put pressure for the church to conform to its values, sometimes persecuted the church. And this is not true of all churches throughout the whole history of the church, but it's true of a lot of churches in a lot of the history of the church, and we see that very clearly here. So one enemy could be the civil government. Another enemy listed here are the leaders of the synagogues of unbelief, where God's old covenant people have not believed and are opposing the church.

On one level we can understand that. There are two real different religions going on here. There's the religion that recognizes Christ as Messiah, derived from the Old Testament, and there's the religion that doesn't recognize Christ as Messiah, derived from the Old Testament. Another way of putting that would be to say there's an apostolic reading of the Old Testament, and there's a rabbinic reading of the Old Testament.

And that there's competition between these two groups is not surprising. So the rabbinic leaders oppose Christianity, and Jesus is warning the church not to be led astray by them, but to follow the apostolic understanding of the Old Testament. Another temptation is pagan religion. We'll see as we look at these letters that some of them were in the centers of strong pagan temples that were not only powerful centers of worship but were integral to the economy of the city, and therefore to oppose the pagan religion was to undermine the economy.

And sometimes people are more sensitive to their pocketbook than to their prayer book. And so that was an enemy and a problem that Christians had to face. And then we see as a fourth enemy that there are false teachers who claim to be Christians.

So the enemies are not just out there, they're also in here. And these letters put Christians on notice that they have to be sensitive and thoughtful about this. We also see in these letters that while the letters are to the churches, they are also very keenly aware of the members of the churches. And in some of the letters, we see a distinction being made between faithful members and unfaithful members, and that where there is a threat that a lampstand might be removed, there's also an encouragement that faithful members should not lose heart. So while the focus is on the church as an institution and as a community, and reminds us of the importance of the church as an institution and as a community, this is not to be set over against the fact that if a church loses its way, the individuals ought to pursue the truth and remain faithful to the Lord. And so what we see is a wonderful balancing of the individual with the community, the one believer with the the one believer with the institution of the church.

Both are important, both are necessary, but they don't all live and stand together. And so really, as we conclude, we can see Jesus saying, church be faithful. But if you find yourself in a church that's not faithful, you be faithful.

And that's a great encouragement to us. May each one of us be found faithful. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind, and that was Ligonier Teaching Fellow, W. Robert Godfrey, introducing us to the seven letters to the seven churches found in the book of Revelation.

And we'll be studying those letters in greater detail this week. These messages are from his Blessed Hope series, and the complete series can be yours for your donation of any amount. When you give your gift at renewingyourmind.org, we'll send you this 24-part series and also give you digital access to all those messages and the study guide. In this series, he walks you through the book of Revelation, chapter by chapter, clearing away much of the confusion that surrounds this book. So give your gift today by visiting renewingyourmind.org or by calling us at 800 435 4343. We may all say that we'd love a personal letter from Jesus, but what if that letter said we had lost our first love, our love for Christ? Well, Jesus did say that to the church at Ephesus, and that's what we'll be considering tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind. you
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-06 04:17:01 / 2023-06-06 04:26:16 / 9

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