Revelation 12:7-17: Turmoil in Heaven.

7] And war broke out in heaven:  Michael and his angel fought with the devil; and the dragon and his angels fought, 8] but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer.  9] So the great dragon was cast out, the serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

10] Then I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, “Now salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before God day and night, has been cast down.  11] And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.  12] Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them!  Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea!  For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time.”

13] Now when the dragon saw that he had been cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male Child.  14] But the woman was given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness to her place, where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent.  15] So the serpent spewed water out of his mouth like a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away by the flood.  16] But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up the flood which the dragon had spewed out of his mouth.  17] And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.

Verses 7-17 give us some details about what verses 1-6 have to say.  For example, this “war” in heaven happens before the woman flees into the wilderness.  They also introduce us to two more of the seven beings in chs. 12 and 13, as well as giving us further information about “the woman.”

They are:

1. Michael, v. 7.

War broke out in heaven:  Michael and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer.

Daniel 12:1 refers to this event.  It says, “At that time Michael shall stand up, the great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time.

Revelation tells us why there will be such a “time of trouble.”

One thing about this “war.”  Daniel 10:13, 20 tell us that Satan and his angels oppose and try to hinder God at every step, but that does not mean that they can in any way alter His purpose or ultimately prevent God from doing what He wants to do.  There is entirely too much of this idea, however veiled it might be, that God and Satan are equals, that the “forces of good and evil” are somehow evenly matched.  Or as one false teacher puts it, if the church doesn’t pray enough, then, in effect, heaven falters.

*sigh*

From the earliest record in Scripture, it’s taught that Satan has access to heaven, Job 1, 2.  And, as we see in the life of Job, he accuses the people of God.  This tells us the significance of 1 John 2:1: we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  And don’t overlook the significance of the fact that Jesus is called “the righteous.”  He appears before the Father as our Substitute, our Savior.  It’s His righteousness imputed to us through faith that we must have because we have none of our own.  Religion, yes, routine and ritual, bucket loads, righteousness that God will accept, not a bit.

Revelation tells us that there is coming a time when Satan will finally be thrown out of heaven and that will result in a time of trouble on this earth never seen before and never to be seen again, a time referred to in Jeremiah 30:7 as the time of Jacob’s trouble.

Lest there should be any doubt as to who this “dragon” is, he’s clearly identified as the serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, v. 9.  Further, he’s characterized as one who deceives the whole world.  We could do a whole series just on this.  He deceives, he denies, he distorts, he counterfeits.  Do you really think that everything in our time that calls itself “Christian” is of God?  To say nothing of all the other religions in our world, or the cultural chaos that has engulfed society?

Woe is pronounced for the earth, though heaven rejoices that, at long last, this would-be usurper of the Throne, this interloper, is finally banished.  There is one thing these who rejoice say, and that is that, once thrown out of heaven, the devil knows he only has a little while remaining before he himself is judged.  It’s an interesting study in Scripture to see what the devil knows to be true and what he teaches about it, as, for example, the existence of God.

There are some things said about our brethren that we could spend a lot of time on, as well.  We’ll just touch on them.  Even though they possibly die, they are still called “overcomers.”  Three things about this in v. 11:

a. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb. Remember that John saw a Lamb as though it had been slain, Revelation 5:6.  This is where it all starts, because without shedding of blood there is no remission, no forgiveness of sins.

b. and by the word of their testimony.  We have a lot of misconceptions about the Devil in our culture.  Some people deny his existence altogether, some people run around rebuking him, other spend all their time worrying about him.  1 Corinthians 6:20, You were bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.  What price?  This gets us back to the first point:  knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct…, but with the precious blood of Christ, 1 Peter 1:18-19.  We don’t overcome the Devil by “rebuking” him, but by living for God and eternity.

c. and they loved not their lives to the death.  Our Lord makes a promise to such:  “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life,” Revelation 2:10.  While that promise was given to a specific church, don’t you think it applies to those who were hunted and killed in their thousands by Rome and the Reformers and by groups like ISIS in our time?  Jim Elliot, who himself gave his life serving our Lord, said, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep in order to gain what he cannot lose.”

2. The woman, vs. 14-16.

These verses amplify what’s already been told of this woman’s plight and persecution.  For example, she is given some sort of assistance in her flight.  John describes this as wings of a great eagle, v. 14.  By some means, she is enabled to flee quickly from her persecutor.  Again, her place is mentioned , vs. 6, 14, and a specific period, time and times and half a time.  This corresponds to the one thousand two hundred and sixty days, or three and a half years, mentioned in v. 6.  The devil sends a flood after her.  Ezekiel 38 describes an invasion of Israel from the north by many armies.  See also Zechariah 14:2.  Perhaps this is a contingent from that army pursuing the fleeing Jews.

The references to “her place,” the assistance given her when fleeing, the fact that she is nourished during her time of isolation, these all remind us of what Zechariah 14:2 tells us.  God says, “I will gather all the nations to battle against Jerusalem.”  In all this God is in control of events.  He’s not sitting up there on His throne anxiously waiting for someone to take the first step so He can step in Himself.  That’s the only real hope any of us have as we see our world, perhaps maybe even our lives in one way or another, circling the drain – that there’s a reason, a purpose, for what’s going on around us.

The enemy sends a flood to destroy the woman, but, again, she is delivered:  the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up the flood, v. 16.  If necessary, God can even marshal “the forces of nature” to aid His people.  Now, we’re not told exactly what this intervention is, perhaps an earthquake, as in Exodus 15:12, Numbers 16:31.  Perhaps it’s the result of the earthquake which accompanies the Lord’s invasion, Ezekiel 38:19, 20; Zechariah 14:4.  There are historical references of sandstorms burying armies.

Whatever this deliverance is, it introduces the last of the five beings or groups:

3. the remnant, vs. 17.

And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.

Jews are spread all over the world and even in the time of temporary peace for the nation that Daniel speaks of, not all of them will come back to the land.  Those who do not become fair game for the anger of the devil as he finds himself backed into a corner, as it were, knowing he has only a short time to do damage to Israel.  But it isn’t simply that the objects of his persecution are simply ethnic Jews; they are describes as those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.

In short, they receive both halves of Scripture.

Some folks have difficulty with the idea that saved people, in this case, Jews, “keep the commandments of God.”  The whole subject of the Law is well beyond the scope of this post.  Just let me say that the Mosaic Law wasn’t simply the Jew’s “religion.”  It was his culture, his life.  True, if he “kept” it, it became a means of “righteousness” for him, but even after a Jew “knew the Lord,” like Paul, the Law was his culture.  It defined what he was.   He didn’t throw it out simply because he had found the One to whom it pointed.  He DID NOT look to the Law for his salvation, but then, neither did he abandon living by its principles.

We see an example of this in Acts 21.  Paul had returned to Jerusalem.  While he was there, he was told that his enemies had circulated rumors that he had been teaching “all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses,”  v. 21.  To counter this, he was advised, “therefore do what we tell you:  We have four men who have taken a vow,  Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law,” vs. 22-24, emphasis added.

But pay attention to the rest of what it said!  But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols,” etc, v. 25, emphasis added.  The whole story of this edict is found in Acts 15.

Once again, let me repeat, it was not a matter of salvation for the early church, which was, after all, composed almost entirely of Jews.  It was a matter of simply continuing to be who they were.

In the same way, this remnant is defined as made up of those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.

Revelation 12:1-6, A Damsel in Distress

1] Now a great sign appeared in heaven:  a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars.  2] Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.

3]  And another sign appeared in heaven:  behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads.  4] His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth.  And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born.  5] She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron.  And her Child was caught up to God and His throne.  6] Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days.

In early days of man-making, when an area was unknown, sometimes dragons or other monsters were drawn in, with the phrase, “here be dragons,” or “here be monsters,” perhaps to signify the dangers of the unknown.  Truly, the chapter before us enters the unknown, because it talks about the spiritual world, and talks about forces and events far beyond our ability to discern.  In fact, with our eyes and ears and tactile senses, we’re able to “see” only a tiny, tiny part of what goes on around us.  Furthermore, unbelief and skepticism tells us there is no “spiritual” world, that the material universe is all there is.  There is no “spirit,” no “God.”

God says otherwise.  That, in fact, without Him, there would be no material world.

This chapter tells us something of the unseen happenings of this material world.

Chs. 12 and 13 introduce the first of a series of “7s” in the rest of the book.  There are: seven beings, chs. 12, 13; seven visions, ch. 14; seven bowls, chs. 15, 16; seven dooms, chs. 17-20; and seven new things, chs. 21-22.

Chapter 12 introduces us to five of the seven beings.  We’ll look at the first two in this post.  They are:

1. The woman, v. 1.

Many attempts have been made to identify this woman:  the church, the Virgin Mary, Mary Baker Eddy, Ellen G. White, a host of others.  It seems to me that Scripture identifies her in a description which reminds us of another, similar description in Genesis 37:9, 10:  And [Joseph] dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, and said, “Look, I have dreamed another dream.  And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me.”  So he told it to his father and his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed?  Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come to bow down to the earth before you?”

“The sun, the moon, and the eleven stars.”

It seems to me that these two descriptions identify the woman in Revelation as Israel, but Israel from a particular standpoint:  in labor, that is, in childbirth.  A few verses later, more detail is given.

2.  The dragon, vs. 3-6.

This being is identified as Satan in v. 9.  Here again, though, there is a particular context.  The seven heads and ten horns identify a particular time, which we believe is yet future, as we’ll see, and the rest of these verses identify a particular theme: opposition to and attempts to destroy her Child, that is, the Lord Jesus.  Reference to His birth doesn’t change our view of Satan and that what Revelation tells us is still future; it simply tells us that it wasn’t just Herod trying to kill the infant Jesus, but Satan himself as well.  He has consistently opposed God’s revealed redemptive purpose.  It’s beyond the purpose of this post to pursue this study, but from the Garden of Eden onward, Satan has tried (unsuccessfully) to thwart God’s working.  All he’s managed to do is to further its accomplishment.

Two things only are said of her Child: that He was to rule all nations with a rod of iron, and that He was caught up to God’s throne.  It’s important to understand that Scripture never says that He was caught up to His own throne, or that this is just a reference to His headship over the church.  Cf. Revelation 3:21.  We’ve mentioned this before and will visit it again later in these studies.

Perhaps there is one thing:  how can we say the woman is Israel, and yet it was not “the nation” who gave birth to the Lord, but the virgin Mary?  For most, if not all of her history, Israel has yearned for the coming of the Messiah.  It was simply through this young woman, this virgin, that God brought the Messiah into Israel.  The fact that Israel rejected Him because He didn’t fit their notions of what the Messiah would do doesn’t alter the fact that God has a redemptive purpose for Israel, and that she’s not permanently put aside.  That purpose will one day be completed.

Between vs. 5 and 6 lies the whole church age.

In v. 6, the woman flees into the wilderness to a special place prepared by God, where she will be preserved, protected and provided for during a time identified as 1260 days, or three-and-a-half years.  More details are given later in this portion of Scripture.

Revelation 2:8-11, The Church at Smyrna: Rich In What Matters.

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write,
“These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life:  I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.  Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer.  Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days.  Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”  (NKJV)

This letter has the distinction of being the shortest of the seven.  It also is one of only two in which our Lord has no complaint.  The other is the letter to the church in Philadelphia.

1. The City of the Epistle.

Smyrna was founded about a thousand years before Christ.  In the ebb and flow of history, it had been destroyed and lay mostly dormant for several centuries.  Then it was rebuilt and, in fact, still exists today.  It’s called Izmir, in Turkey.  In effect, the city has “been dead and is alive.”

In these letters, and in His earthly ministry, the Lord used things with which people were familiar to teach spiritual truths:  sowing and harvesting, fishing, eating and drinking, the ordinary things of everyday life, to illustrate the extraordinary things of eternal life.  The people would certainly have made the connection with His statement about Himself living though once dead and their own city’s history.

Smyrna was known for its exceptional beauty.  As one looked up the slope from the harbor toward the city, with temples and ornate buildings on the rounded crest of the hill called Pagos, he would see what was known as “the crown of Smyrna.”  This would fit in with our Lord’s reference to a crown, not of dead buildings, but of eternal life.

The Greek word “smurna,” from which the city gets its name, named a fragrant and very valuable substance, used both for the living, Matthew 2:11, and the dead, John 19:39.  It’s fragrance was released by crushing, an apt metaphor for the suffering church at Smyrna.

2. The Contents of the Epistle.

– His appraisal of them, vs. 8-9.

“I know.”  So often we act as if the Lord doesn’t know what’s going on in our lives, but Scripture says otherwise.  For example, Psalm 139:16: Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed, and in Your book they were all written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.  There is no escaping His omniscient eye.

There’s some discussion as to whether the phrase “your works” belongs in the text because some manuscripts don’t have it.  Certainly the main theme of the letter is about affliction and not activity.  Yet someone has pointed out that activity for God is likely to bring on affliction.

– tribulation.  An account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, 69-155 AD, a bishop (pastor) of the church in Smyrna, will give us some idea of what early Christians went through:

“Faithful unto death, this venerable leader was burned at the stake in the year 155 A.D.  He had been asked to say, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ but refused.  Brought to the stadium, the proconsul urged him, saying, ‘Swear and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ.’  Polycarp answered, ‘Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?’  When the proconsul again pressed him, the old man answered, ‘Since thou art vainly urgent that…I should swear by the fortune of Caesar, and pretendest not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian….’  A little later, the proconsul answers: ‘I have wild beasts at hand, to these will I cast thee, except thou repent.’  Afterward:  ‘I will cause thee to be consumed with fire, seeing thou despise the wild beasts, if thou wilt not repent.’  But Polycarp said, ‘Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly.  But why tarriest thou?  Bring on what thou wilt.’  Soon after the people began to gather wood and faggots; the Jews especially, according to custom, eagerly assisting them.  Thus Polycarp was burned at the stake.”  (Quoted from W. Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors, pp. 79, 80.)  Other accounts add that he was also stabbed through the heart.

– poverty.  Quite possibly these believers were poor to begin with, but the pervasive place of religion in the society of that day, with every part of it being tied into the worship and service of whatever false gods were in that particular society, would make the believer an outcast from society, cutting him off from it and making it very difficult for him to make a living or even to live.

Strange,  isn’t it, that when religion is false, Satan has it all over the place, but when it’s true, Satan says, “Oh, no, we have to keep that out of everyday life.”  As in his current idea from the highest levels of our government that Christians may “worship” as long as they keep it in church, but they have to leave it there and must live like pagans and accept whatever ideas the world comes up with the rest of the time.

In spite of all their troubles, the Lord said to the church at Smyrna –

– “you are rich.”  Truly, our Lord doesn’t look at things like we do.  Even many professed Christians have fallen into the trap of “health and wealth” preachers and believe that blessing is based on the size of our bank account.  But the “riches of faith” have nothing to do with all that.

Our Lord said, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?  Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Mark 8:36, 37.  Revelation 21:21 tells us the street of the New Jerusalem is pure gold, like transparent glass.  I’m not going to get into the discussion now as to whether or not this is “literal.”  But it certainly tells us that heaven’s idea of wealth is different from ours!    The asphalt we pave our streets with may be expensive, but it’s not worth anything.  No man takes a chunk of asphalt to the jeweler and tells him to put it in a fancy setting in a ring.  No woman wears a necklace of asphalt around her neck.

In heaven, what we think is one of the most precious and valuable commodities is used as pavement!  James 2:5 refers to the poor of this world rich in faith.  The poor believer who has nothing of this world’s goods and is hard pressed to feed his family is wealthier than that person who lives in a fancy gated community and has more than heart could desire.  We just can’t see it and don’t think of it like that.  But “faith” deals with things which can’t be seen, Hebrews 11:1.

But there’s something else the Lord knows about them:

– “the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”  This seems like a very harsh statement, but it’s the assessment of the Lord Jesus.

The Book of Acts reveals the difficulties Paul had with the Jews and how they hindered and persecuted him at every turn, cf. Acts 13:45, 50.  Even many believers had difficulty in accepting the idea that one no longer came to God through Israel, but through the Lord Jesus, and that the Gospel was to be preached to every nation.  Peter especially had difficulty with this idea.  This was the reason behind the happenings in Acts 10.

There’s a lot of discussion about the place of the Jews in the current age.  Some say that they have no place at all, that God is done with the nation of Israel as a nation.  Others say that they are still God’s chosen people and try to get them to “accept” Jesus as their Messiah.

I think both views are unScriptural.

If words have any meaning, God is not done with the nation of Israel.  The prophetic books of the Old Testament are filled with promises of Israel’s future restoration – if words have any meaning at all, and aren’t wrested from their context and their message.  At the same time, it is equally clear that Israel has been temporarily set aside and the Jews are not, in this age, God’s chosen people. That place is filled by true believers.

Jesus is not to be presented as the Jew’s Messiah, but is to be proclaimed as Savior.  There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, Romans 10:11.  While it’s true that that verse talks about salvation, there’s not one message for the Jew and another for the Gentile.  Indeed, Paul goes on to say that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, Galatians 3:28.  There are no ethnic distinctions at the foot of the Cross.  We all stand condemned as sinners, regardless of where else we may stand in this world.  A biological link to Abraham means nothing, Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:8.  Apart from the grace of God and faith in the Lord Jesus, we are all under the influence and control of Satan, the god of this world, Ephesians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4.  It doesn’t matter what we say.  This is what God says.  It’s what the Lord Jesus said in Revelation.

At the same time, this gives us no right or reason to hate and despise the Jews, as some of the early church fathers did.  Some not so early, too….  And some folks today….

– His advice to them, vs. 10.

– “Do not fear…”

Fear is a natural reaction to the idea of pain and suffering.  Jesus doesn’t tell these believers that they have to like what they’re about to endure, just that they’re not to be afraid of it.  It won’t last very long – ten days, however that’s to be understood in this context.  The point is, these things are not permanent, but, in light of eternity, are almost insignificant.  I know.  That’s easy to say in comfortable surroundings, but difficult to hold onto in unpleasant situations.  It’s still true, and, by God’s grace, we’re able to hold onto God’s promises.

I was thinking about this the other day.  Sometimes we can’t really think of a pertinent promise from God for a particular situation.  In such cases, perhaps we just need to “pray Christ,” because all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, 2 Corinthians 1:20.

– His affirmation, v. 11.

Some folks try to use this verse to “prove” salvation can be lost.  I think it says that those who “persevere” are the only ones truly saved.  In speaking of false prophets, who were plentiful even in his day, the Apostle John wrote, They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us, 1 John 2:19.  This is true of professing Christians, as well.  There are multitudes of people who’ve been led to “make a profession of faith” who are nowhere to be found.  In fact, many have become avid opponents of “Christianity.”  I believe this is where so many of the “fundamentalist-turned-atheist” websites and such have come from.

The church at Smyrna was threatened with terrible forms of torture and death.  Our Lord was simply saying that there are worse things.  Warning His disciples of persecutions to come, He said, “My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.  But I will show you whom you should fear.  Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” Luke 12:4, 5.

In the Greek of v. 11, there’s a double negative – “he who overcomes shall not at all be injured by the second death.”  These saints may have to bow their heads to those who execute the first death – as many are now doing in our day – but who have nothing more that they can do after that.

Our Lord had said something about this in His earthly ministry.  In Luke 21, He said, “Take heed that you be not deceived.  For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He’, and, ‘The time has drawn near'[date setting]. Therefore do not go after them.  But when you hear of wars and commotions [increased news coverage ability – radio, TV, internet], do not be terrified; for these things must come to pass first, but the end will not come immediately.”
Then He said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  And there shall be great earthquakes in various places, and famines and pestilences; and there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven.  But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons.  You will be brought before kings and rulers for My name’s sake.  But it will turn to you as an occasion for testimony.  Therefore settle it in your hearts not to meditate beforehand on what you will answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist.  You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.  And you shall be hated by all for My name’s sake.  But
not a hair of your heads shall be lost.  By your patience possess your souls,” vs. 8-19, emphasis added.

“Not a hair of your heads shall be lost.”

It probably sounds corny in this context, but there’s a phrase the world uses that used here goes so much farther than the world can imagine:

He has our back.

This was His promise to Smyrna.

It’s His promise to us.

Revelation 1:19, 20: The Seven Churches

“Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.  The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands:  The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.”  (NKJV)

John had been so overcome by the vision of our Lord that perhaps he had missed part of it, that is, what the Lord was holding in His hand.  He held seven stars and was standing in the middle of seven golden lampstands.  Our Lord describes what these things mean:  the seven stars are the “angels” (“angeloi”) of the seven churches and the lampstands represent the seven churches themselves.

There’s some discussion about who these “angels” were.  Some believe the word is simply used in its primary meaning of “messenger.”  These are human messengers sent from the churches.  “Angel” is simply the transliteration of the Greek word into English.  And it’s true that angels often brought messages from God.  Another view is that they are actual angels, who watch over the churches.  We do read in Scripture of the activities of angels with regard to what goes on in this world, Psalm 91:11; Daniel 11:20, many others.  Others believe it refers to the actual pastors and leaders of the various churches.

I tend to the view that it does refer to the actual pastors and teachers.  It teaches us that pastors don’t belong to the church, or to the denomination or even to themselves.  They belong to the Lord Jesus Christ.  They are His and, though they have responsibility to the church they lead, they are ultimately responsible to Him.  There is no greater calling in this world than to stand before people and open to them the Word of God.  But there is also no greater responsibility than that.  Even the simple posts that I write for this blog have eternal repercussions.  Spurgeon used to say that it crushed him into the dust to stand before eternity-bound men and women with the Scriptures.  I’m afraid we’ve lost that sense of awe in this day of mega-churches and Christian “personalities.”

The churches are depicted by seven individual lampstands.  These were lamps which would have burned olive oil.  This compares to the single lampstand with seven flames which burned in the Tabernacle, Exodus 26:31, 32, 37.  I think these portray the distinction between Israel and the church.  As a nation or as a people, Israel was a single entity.  They had a single “holy city,” and a centralized religion with its headquarters in the Tabernacle, then, later, the Temple in Jerusalem.  Later on, in the various dispersions and such, the “synagogue” sprang up as a local focal point of instruction and worship.  But the Jewish heart was always with the land of Israel, regardless of where the body was.

I don’t think Gentiles really understand the attachment the Jew has for his homeland.  I worked for a few months as a janitor in a conservative Jewish synagogue and saw firsthand their love for “eretz Yisrael”.

In contrast to the unity of the nation, “the church” knows no such centralization.  We have no “holy city,” no “headquarters” on this earth.  There is no such structure to the church.  Each church is directly responsible, not to some earthly leader or body, but to the Lord Himself.

Scripture describes the church as both an organism and an organization.  The “organism” is called “the body of Christ,” 1 Corinthians 12:31.  True believers are members of that one body.  If you are a believer, though you and I may never meet in this life and might be separated by thousands of miles, live on opposite sides of the planet and have different languages and cultures, we are still related through the Lord Jesus.  We are brothers and sisters.  For lack of a better word, the body is “universal.”  There is only one.

But that one body functions in and through the local church, the local “organization.”  The problem comes in with the confusing of the organism and the organization.  There is no universal “organization,” no world-wide “church,” in Scripture.  Each local church is independent.  No other church can tell it what to do, and it can’t tell any other church what to do.  Certainly, churches can cooperate in various endeavors.  The problem is that the “endeavor,” whatever it is, tends to take on a life of its own and to overshadow the local church.

Through John, our Lord addressed each of the seven churches.  He didn’t have John give the message to some centralized authority, which then filtered it down to the various churches.

These were seven local, contemporaneous churches.  They all existed at the same time.  But “churches” are really just the people who make them up.  So our Lord isn’t just addressing some nebulous something out there.  He’s talking through them to you and me.  He’s giving each one of us counsel, warning, encouragement, promise.  We can find ourselves described in one of these churches, with the attendant counsel given by our Lord.

“Three Paths to God”

I recently watched a very interesting documentary on holy places in Jerusalem.  It showed places which Islam, Judaism and Christianity hold to be sacred.  The Islamic shrines in particular were very beautiful.  I marveled at the patience and dedication it must have taken to build them.  They are truly works of art.  Islam was once the bastion of science and math.  Though I recognize that not all Muslims may agree with the practice, it’s a shame that Islam is now known mainly for blowing things up and killing people.

One of the things that struck me was the difference in the places honored by the three groups.  Islam and Catholic Christianity have large, ornate buildings.  Judaism has a ruin….

In contrast to the ornate monuments of the other religions, Judaism has the Wailing Wall.  There was a segment describing excavations at the base of the Wall, showing what Herod did to prepare to build it.  There was also mention of the oldest synagogue in Jerusalem, on the first floor of the home of the Jewish family featured in the film. Nevertheless, the Wailing Wall is the main Jewish location in Jerusalem.

The documentary told the story of Jerusalem through the eyes of three families, one from each of the three religions represented in the city.  In a way, it was a sad documentary.  The Muslim family was separated by the politics of the region.  The mother and son lived in Jerusalem.  The father was forced to live elsewhere because he was not Jewish.  The family could only get together at a “neutral” site, which they did once a week on Friday.

The Jewish family had been in Jerusalem for nine generations, except for a few years because of one of the frequent battles in the area.  In fact, they were responsible for watching over the oldest synagogue in Jerusalem.

The Christian was a member of the Franciscan Order, whose brother had been murdered and the perpetrator had never been found.

The story revolved around these three families preparations for their respective ways of worship on Friday.

The Islamic woman and her son had prepared food for a meal with the father, then had to go through security checkpoints to get to him – then to get back home.  The Jewish family observed a meal before making their way to the Wailing Wall to pray for their city and people.  The Franciscan monk, with several of his brothers, walked the Via Dolorosa, the traditional journey Jesus took on His way to the Cross.  In it are the 14 Stations of the Cross, which depict various events believed to have been part of that journey.  The Franciscans’ goal was The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of the Crucifixion.  It was this monk’s job this time to read the English version of the narrative at each Station.  The interesting thing about him was that he is Palestinian, not Jewish or Caucasian.

There was something else which struck me.  During the course of his narrative, the narrator described these three religions as “three paths to God.”

If “God is One,” as all these religions teach, then how can such divergent views – indeed, such contradictory views – all lead to Him?

Toward the end of the documentary, one of the Muslim spokesmen referred to the teaching of the Quran that “the people of the Book,” that is, Jews and Christians, were to embrace the teachings of his book.

Although the theology of all this is way beyond the scope of this post, I acknowledge each person’s right, humanly speaking, to believe as they will or not in this present world.  We have that freedom in the US, a freedom not enjoyed in other countries, particularly where Islam is predominant.  I would never force others to accept my views. I put these views on this blog with the hope that they may at least give others something to think about.

The thing is, how can I, as one of “the people of the Book,” turn from it to receive new and contradictory teachings?

For example, Islam, though recognizing Isaac, teaches that Ishmael was the favored son of Abraham, and it was he who was sacrificed on the Mount.  Scripture teaches that Isaac was the chosen son of promise and that Ishmael, though blessed as a result of Abraham’s prayer, was rejected and sent away. Isaac was sacrificed, not Ishmael.  And he was truly sacrificed, the fact that God intervened at the last moment notwithstanding.  Abraham was fully prepared to kill his son, though he was prevented from doing so.  Hebrews 11:17, 18 has a commentary on this, which you ought to read to get Abraham’s thoughts during this trial.

Jesus is looked on as just another prophet, like Moses and Adam.  Of His crucifixion, Islam says that it is a “monstrous falsehood”.  On these two distinctions lie the main differences between Islam and the Bible.

Moses was indeed a prophet, but Scripture never tells us whether Adam was ever “saved”.  His son Abel is the first one it ever calls “righteous”.

During His own lifetime, some people thought Jesus was merely a prophet, or a reincarnation of one of the Old Testament figures, Matthew 16:14.  As the spokesman for the disciples, Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” v. 16.  Though the disciples didn’t understand everything that was involved until after the Resurrection, they understood that Jesus was more than just a mere man.

It’s often said that Jesus never claimed to be God.  This is false.  John 8 records one of what were probably many such confrontations between Jesus and the Jews.  In this particular incident, the Jews were talking about Abraham and during the discussion wanted to know if Jesus were greater than their founding patriarch.  In John 8:58, Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, ‘Before Abraham was, I AM.”   By His use of the designation Jehovah in the Old Testament used of Himself, Exodus 3:14, the Jews understood fully that Jesus was claiming to be God.  That’s why they tried to kill Him, v. 59.

As for the crucifixion, our Lord many times referred to His death, Matthew 16:21; 17:22, 23; 20:18, 19.  The disciples fell woefully short in their understanding of what He was saying when He told them about it because His dying didn’t fit in with what they thought would happen when the Messiah came.  They failed to understand that without that death, none of the things promised in the Old Testament about the final restoration of Israel could happen.

This is outside the scope of this post, but let me say only that the OT promises of Israel’s restoration were not all fulfilled in the return from Babylon under Ezra and Nehemiah, nor are its promises of “the kingdom” fulfilled in “the church” in some sort of “spiritual Israel.”  Many disagree.

As for the other, how many “paths” are there to God?

The Lord Jesus was very clear on this.  In Luke 12:24, He said, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” In Matthew 7:13, 14, He said, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.  Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

You see, there is no salvation in a Christianity which is looked on as just another of the world’s religions.  Indeed, if that is all it is, it’s unnecessary.  “Religion” is about ornate buildings, impressive ritual, solemn liturgy, all part of what someone has called “the trappings of religion.”

It’s only as we understand what the Lord meant when He said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  In other words, if you ever want to get to know the Father, the Son will have to introduce you.

“Religion” looks on His statements as unnecessarily restrictive, or as “bigoted.”  But Christianity is the only religion with a Cross, with a Resurrection.  In just a little while, it will be Easter.  Multitudes will take part in “Easter Sunrise Services.”  I wonder, though, how many truly understand the significance of what they’re celebrating.  Or is Easter just an opportunity to wear a new outfit?  One of a couple of time a year one goes to “church”? Something to be done before the annual Easter egg hunt?

The Resurrection is the evidence that God accepted the death which preceded it.  That death was a payment for sins.  In theological terms, it was a “satisfaction” for the penalty required by our breaking of God’s Law.  The Franciscan brother mentioned above talked about “getting to salvation” by suffering, etc.  But salvation is NOT about what WE do.  There’s nothing we can do to pay for our own sins.  It’s all about what the Lord Jesus did, not only on the Cross, but during His whole life.

God requires absolute perfection, with not a single misstep in our whole life.  Who can honestly say that of themselves?  A single fault, a single “mistake” is enough to condemn us forever.  What, then, about the innumerable things of which we are all guilty?  There’s only been One Who could ever challenge His enemies, “Which one of you can accuse me of sin?” John 8:46 paraphrase.

It’s that perfect righteous life that’s imputed to the believing sinner that allows him or her to stand uncondemned before a holy, righteous and just God. It’s that effective death which allows him to enter heaven rather than being consigned to hell.  In and of ourselves, we have no such life or death.

There’s no salvation in “religion,” no “path to God” through the doors of any religious building, no matter how beautiful or impressive it may be.  No religious observance can atone for a single sin.

Salvation is only to be found in the Lord Jesus Christ, who He was and what He did. There is no other “path to God.”  No other door by which we may enter.

There’s so much that could be said about this.  Let me just finish up with this:  Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, Acts 16:31.  He alone is the path to God.