Tag Archives: courage

GLIMPSES OF VICTORY BRING HOPE! (REV. 14)

I tend to be an intense individual. Two of my greatest assets are my ability to concentrate for long periods of time without distraction and my commitment to the tasks at hand. That’s true of my studying. That’s true of my planning. That’s true of my teaching. It’s also true of my praying. Whatever I do, I tend to be all in. Those are my strengths. But with every strength comes a corresponding weakness. In my case, I can be too intense at times and forget that not everyone is built like me, particularly members of my own family.

The first time this struck home our daughter was 3 years old. Rebecca hadn’t seen much of me for two weeks. Every time she tried to get my attention, I was headed out the door to a meeting. What she didn’t know was that I was busy for her. We were about to leave on a long vacation to Orlando, Florida, which meant I had to finish several projects before we could go.

But she didn’t know that. All she knew was she hadn’t see her Daddy for two weeks, and that made her sad. When I finally saw how sad she was, I decided to have a talk with her. I got down our calendar and explained to her in 3-year-old terms that we were about to leave on vacation and she was going to have me all to herself for 3 weeks. But first, I had to finish my work. To my surprise, she got it right away. “3 weeks with no church people to bother us?” “Yes,” I said, and showed her on the calendar when we’d leave and how long we’d be gone. Her attitude instantly changed. Instead of being mad or sad, she was excited! Why? She got a glimpse of the future and what lay in store for her and our family.

God’s children are like that. We labor long and hard, often enduring great disappointment in the process of pleasing our Heavenly Father. So, from time to time, He renews our hopes by giving us a glimpse of what is ahead. That is the purpose of Revelation 14. Our last two studies focused on bad news. Revelation 12 pictures Satan’s wrath poured out on the earth after being cast out of heaven. Chapter 13 then follows by describing the suffering brought about by Antichrist and the False Prophet. But now in chapter 14 our Father give us a refreshing break from the gloom and doom. The message is serious but full of hope.

John writes, “Then I looked and behold…” This is the eighth time he’s used that phrase in Revelation, and each time it’s a prelude to something awesome he’s wants us to see. In this chapter, it occurs three times and introduces three great visions—the victory of the 144,00, the victory of the gospel, and the victory of believers in the day of judgment.

  1. VICTORY #1 – THE 144,000 OVER THE ANTICHRIST

The first vision is a touching scene of the Lamb reunited with His sheep on Mount Zion. For seven years of tribulation, the 144,000 have been hunted down by Antichrist for their faithful preaching of the Gospel. What has kept them faithful? Their longing to see the Jesus face to face. Now that day has arrived! The Lamb is reunited with His sheep and the Kingdom is about to be set up. Notice three facts John emphasizes in describing their reunion:

A. THE LOCATION OF THE 144,000

John says, “Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with Him 144,000 who had His name and His Father’s name written on their foreheads.”

Where at the 144,000 at Jesus’ return to earth. They are waiting to meet Him on Mount Zion. That’s significant because Isaiah 2 and Zechariah 14 say that Mount Zion (the hill on which Jerusalem stands) will be the capital of Christ’s Kingdom. The fact that the 144,000 are there to greet Him means each one has survived the tribulation and are ready to take their places of service in His Kingdom. What a tribute to the power of God to protect His people. Think of it! By this time, half the world’s population has been destroyed by plague and persecution. The 144,000 Jewish evangelists (see chapter 6) have meanwhile been hunted and starved due to their refusal to worship the beast and receive his mark. But when Christ returns, they are alive and well. What is their secret? Instead of “the mark of the beast” (see chapter 13), they have the seal of God on their foreheads, reminding us of God’s power to protect us even amid grave danger.

Felix of Nola found himself in similar circumstances while fleeing persecution. Calling on God for help, he took refuge in a cave. Scarcely had he entered it than a spider began to spin a web over its opening. Seeing it, his enemies didn’t even bother looking inside. They assumed that no one could enter the cave without disturbing that lacy curtain of silk. So, they road on and the life of one of God’s great servants was spared. Later, Felix summed it up like this. “Where God is, a spider’s web is a wall; where He is not, a wall is but a spider’s web.”

B. THE SONG OF THE 144,000

John continues, “And I head a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.”

Why are the 144,000 the only ones able to sing this song? Because their experience has been unique. No other group has endured the hardships they will endure. Of everything on earth, only they will come through the tribulation alive, unscathed, and completely faithful. This makes their testimony different from all other testimonies that have ever been given.

As a pastor, it’s been my privilege to listen to the testimonies of hundreds of Christians over the years. In doing so, I have discovered that there is something unique about the faith story of one who has suffered for Christ. Such a believer not only radiates a love for Christ, which goes beyond understanding, but he or she is also able to give supernatural comfort to others.

Cheryl and I learned this firsthand when our daughter Heidi contracted cancer. We appreciated the support of all God’s people. But it was a couple whose child had died of cancer who gave us the most comfort and hope, that “no matter what happens, God will carry you through this.” Likewise, the song of the 144,000 will be an eternal reminder that God’s grace is sufficient for every trial.

C. THE LOYALTY OF THE 144,000

The most outstanding characteristic of this group is their loyalty. John gives three evidences of it. First, their holiness. Verse 4 says, “These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure.” The words “did not defile themselves with women” doesn’t necessarily mean that all 144,000 are bachelors, though being constantly hunted and on the run, will make marriage difficult at that time. Paul uses the same term in 2 Corinthians 11:2, where he says to the church at Corinth, I want to “present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” The point is not that they are unmarried or that being single is superior to being married. The Bible says that both can be pleasing to God, that “marriage is honorable among all and the bed undefiled.” (Hebrews 13:4) The point is at the end of the sentence where John adds, “for they kept themselves pure.” They are fully devoted to Christ, using all their time and energy to preach Christ to others, and refusing to succumb to Antichrist and his temptations.

Second, he emphasizes their truthfulness. Verse 5: “No lie was found in their mouths.” What a contrast to Satan’s tactics! Antichrist’s power is the power of deception. And of his spiritual father, the devil, Jesus said, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44) But not the 144,000! No matter how the world tries to take advantage of us, God’s people fight fair. 2 Corinthians 10:4 says, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.” In other words, no matter how personally threatening it is, we’re to speak the truth in love and trust God to defend us.

Is that true of you? As Jesus commanded, “Is your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ ‘no?’” Or do you leave “loopholes” in your promises and sprinkle your words with half-truths and little white lies? “Tell whoever is on the phone, I’m not here!?”

Third, he emphasizes their witness. “They follow the Lamb where He goes” and “were offered as first-fruits to God and the Lamb.” The term “first-fruits” carries with it the idea of a harvest to follow. For example, when the ancient Israelites offered their first-fruits in the Temple, it was an act of faith symbolizing their confidence that God was going to bless them with a bountiful harvest to follow. In the same way, the 144,000 are just a foretaste of the innumerable multitude that is going to be saved through the ministry of the 144,000. That promise is seen in the phrase, “they follow the Lamb wherever He goes.” For what did Jesus say would happen when we follow Him? He said, “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19)

The lesson? You cannot please Christ without caring for souls. That doesn’t mean we should knock on doors or pass out tracts on streets corners. If God calls you to do that, by all means do so! But it does mean that we will be witnesses for Him. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be My witnesses.” (Acts 1:8) What about you? Have you passed that test of loyalty? Is your greatest desire in life to help reach others for Him?

I wonder, have I done my best for Jesus, Who died upon the cruel tree? To think of His great sacrifice on Calvary! I know My Lord expects the best from me.

How many are the lost that I have lifted? How many are the chained I’ve helped to free? I wonder, have I don’t my best for Jesus, when He has done so much for me?

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Revelation #5: Pergamum – Courage or Compromise?

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Study #5: Pergamum—the Compromising Church

Have you ever wondered how the bat became a creature of the night? Aesop, the Greek storyteller, gave his take on it. He said it happened as a result of a war between the animals. The beasts and birds were fighting for control of the earth, and the bat, being a consummate politician and not wanting to risk the disfavor of either side, decided to join both parties. When the birds were winning, he winged around with the birds. When the beasts prevailed, he walked and pretended to be a mouse. But finally, his duplicity was found out and he was rejected by both groups. So today he hides his face in shame, only daring to appear at night.

batOf course, that fable wasn’t intended to teach us about bats. The bat is what he is, not because of his misbehavior but because of God’s design. Aesop’s fable, like all his stories, was intended to teach us something about ourselves. In this case, the disgust with which we view the coward and hypocrite. If you and I believe something, we should believe it strongly enough to say so. For if we try to please everybody, chances are we’ll wind up pleasing nobody, because there are few people we respect less than those who lack the courage of their convictions.

This is especially true of spiritual convictions. Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters, for he will either hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. In other words, serving Christ is a fundamental choice of masters. Joshua earlier referred to this when he demanded of God’s Old Testament people, “Choose you this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

The truth is that fallen man never likes to be pinned down. Because he finds his strength in what others think about him—his family, his friends, his neighbors, his co-workers—he is always asking himself, “What will people think of me if I do this or that?” But the Bible warns that “the fear of man brings a snare.” When we become too concerned about what others may think, it not only destroys our usefulness to Christ, it also enslaves us to the opinions of others.

That was the dilemma in Pergamum, the third church in our study of Revelation. Located in a city that was hostile to Christ, the believers faced this decision: Do I go along with the crowd and try to keep from offending those around me? Or do I ignore the peer pressure and take a stand for Jesus Christ, even if it isn’t the popular thing to do? To help us understand why they made the decisions they did, but even more importantly, to help us make the right choices, there are four major facts I want to emphasize about this church. The first fact is—pergamum-1

  1. Where They Lived

The letter begins, “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write, “These things says He who has the sharp two-edged sword: ‘I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is.’” Three things stand out about this city. First, it was a strategic city. When the Roman legions conquered Pergamum, it became their provincial headquarters and the capital of Asia Minor for over 400 years. Second, it was a culturally elite city, famous for its theaters and art galleries and boasting a university with a library of 250,000 books. Third, and most important to understand, it was the devil’s city. Jesus says in verse 13, “You dwell where Satan’s throne is.”

You say, “I thought Satan’s throne was in hell?” No, the Bible teaches that Satan is “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), not the next, and that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19) In fact, the Bible says he deploys his demons like a military commander appointing the strongest demons to ruler the greater cities and the lesser demons to rule the smaller cities. The angel Gabriel referred to this in Daniel 10:13, where he explained why he was slow in bringing the answer to Daniel’s prayer. It was because the prince (or demon) of Persia resisted him and he had to wait for Michael the archangel to come to his aid. So, yes, the devil does have a kingdom, but its throne is right here in this world. In John’s day, it was located in the city of Pergamum. Today is likely located in some other strategic spot.

pergamumTheaterWhy did the devil choose Pergamum? Well, not only was it a capital city, it was also fertile soil for false religion. There was the strictly enforced worship of Caesar. There was the worship of Bacchus, the god of drunkenness. There was also the 100-foot altar of Zeus erected on the side of a cliff, which looked like a giant throne. But the most awful evidence of Satan’s presence was the temple Asclepius, the serpent-god. Its reputation as a healing center was so well promoted that people came from all over Asia hoping for a cure. The patient would enter his temple, be given hallucinatory drugs, and then be led through a tunnel filled with snakes. From openings in the walls, voices would whisper, “You will be healed. All praise to Asclepius who is healing you. Asclepius has touched your body.” History reports that a few were healed, but others died of snake bites, and many emerged from the temple hopelessly insane.

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You may wonder, “Where is Satan’s throne today? And what demons control the city where I live?” Only the Lord knows for sure. But I assure you: We’re living in occupied territory. Drugs. False religion. Sexual perversion. The Pergamums had nothing on us! Yet the good news is, we can be faithful, no matter how much evil we face. The devil is a liar and has convinced himself (and some of us) that this is his world, and there’s nothing we can do about it. “After all, look at the hold he has on the schools, the media, the government!” But then we read Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell within it.” Jesus added, “All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples…and lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the age.” Suddenly we realize, it is not a hopeless battle. In fact, even if it were, it is still worth being faithful to Christ. As someone has said, “I’d rather fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed, than succeed in a case that will ultimately fail.

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  1. How They Succeeded

Jesus continues in verse 13, “I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” In spite of their wicked surroundings, Christ was pleased with these believers for two reasons:

First, they held fast to His name. Did you know that confessing Christ’s name is an essential part of salvation? Romans 10 tells us that to believe in our hearts that Jesus is Lord is a good thing, but that the proof of our salvation is whether or not we’re willing to confess Him with our mouths. “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is without your mouth that you confess and are saved.” There are no secret disciples, then. Jesus never called anyone to follow Him privately. Instead, He said, “Whoever confesses Me before men, him will I confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him will I deny before My Father who is in heaven.”

I used to worry, “Does that mean if I get nervous and fail to confess Christ in a moment of fear, I won’t go to heaven?” No, Jesus wasn’t talking about a one-time denial. If that were true, no one would be saved! Peter denied his Lord three times and still found forgiveness. But if we suffer an ongoing embarrassment to be identified with Christ, we need to double-check our salvation. Because that isn’t normal for a child of God. On the contrary, we ought to feel a holy pride that we belong to Jesus. As Paul wrote in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of salvation for everyone who believes.”

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Let me ask you. Have you taken that initial step of confessing your love for Jesus Christ by being baptized as a believer? If not, it’s important that you do that as soon as possible. Many of us were christened as babies, but we didn’t realize at the time what we were doing. That is why the Bible says that baptism is for those who know Jesus and have committed their lives to Him. Baptism doesn’t save us. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But there is something about confessing Christ publicly that seals our salvation and makes it real.

Second, they did not deny His faith. Or to put it another way, they spoke out for Christ even when it wasn’t the politically correct thing to do. Antipas is the best example. His name means “against all,” symbolizing his willingness to speak out for Christ even if it meant standing alone. History says when he was brought before the statue of Caesar, he was told, “Swear that Caesar is Lord.” But he refused. “Jesus is Lord and there is no other God but He.” The Roman official exclaimed, “Antipas, don’t you know that the whole world is against you?” To which the great man replied, “Then Antipas is against the whole world!” He was then placed inside a brass bull, which was heated with fire until he slowly roasted to death. Antipas was an obscure little man in church history. But he is the one we remember when we think of Pergamum.

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And who knows? Maybe it will be the same way when we look back on the church of today. When I think of heroes, the names of Billy Graham, James Dobson, and Jim Elliot come to my mind. But is it possible that some little known saint will head the list instead? The girl who stands up in her classroom and politely says, “Teacher, I don’t believe we came from monkeys. I believe God created us.” Or the young man who stands up among his friends and says, “You bet I go to church, and I’m proud of it. Why not come with me?” Or the single mother who says to her children, “Yes, I know everyone else is doing it. But this is a Christian family and we’re going to please the Lord!” Those are the real heroes among us. Those who are willing to risk the wrath of the crowd and say, “No,” even when the rest of the world is saying, “Yes.”

Courage. That’s what we need more of today. Winston Churchill put it like this, “Without courage, all other virtues lose their meaning.” He was right! The reason we American Christians have had so little impact on our modern society is because we fail to add to all our other virtues the courage to stand up for what is right. We’ve seen where they lived and how they succeeded. Unfortunately, their success did not last. Let’s see why.

  1. Why They Faltered

The Lord continues in verse 14, “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.”

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Jesus cited two acts of disloyalty by this church. First, they tolerated the Nicolaitans. Who were the Nicolaitans? The word comes from two words—niko meaning “to conquer” and laos meaning “the people.” It was a heresy in which the leaders of the church began to act as lords over the congregation, taking on powers and privileges which God never intended. In fact, many scholars believe this is when the non-biblical distinction between clergy and laity began, the leaders creating a hierarchy of deacons, elders, pastors, and bishops. But the Bible is clear. The ground is level at the foot of the cross, we are all brothers and sisters in the family of God, and though there are offices in the church, leaders are to be humble examples to the flock, not lords over the congregation. (1 Pet. 5:3) Therefore, Jesus said to them, “This thing I hate!”

Why did Jesus use such strong words? Because of two dangers. They were robbing God’s people of the opportunity to use their spiritual gifts under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. You see, there are some pastors who give their people the impression that “you cannot serve the Lord in this church unless I give you my permission.” That’s wrong! After all, whose church is it? Not mine or yours. It belongs to Jesus. He purchased it with His own blood. So pastors and elders can give their counsel, and if you’re wise, you will listen to them. But the permission and authority to do ministry in the church comes directly from Jesus Christ through the leading of the Holy Spirit, not any human leader.

The second danger of this heresy is that it lets God’s people shift their responsibilities to the professional staff. “After all, Pastor, that’s what we pay you to do. Besides, you’re better at it than we are—the counseling, the confronting, the visiting, the evangelizing, the organizing. I have a good theological words for that—Baloney! That’s not why you pay your pastor or others on the ministerial staff. Ephesians 4:12 says the reason Christ gave pastors and teachers to His church was “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” In other words, pastors exist not to do your work for you, but to help you do your work better. In fact, other than preaching and making the most difficult decisions facing the church, I am hard-pressed to think of one other job in the church that only the “clergy” can do. I believe the saints can be trained to do it all!

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The second evil they tolerated was the doctrine of Balaam. Who was Balaam? He was a powerful and demonically-inspired false prophet who was hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the people of Israel. Three times he tried to do so, but each time God stopped him—once by speaking to him through the mouth of a donkey. So when “Plan A” failed, he turned to “Plan B.” He advised the Moabites to send their daughters to intermarry with the Israelites. By doing so, he accomplished two things: 1) He made the Israelites hesitant to fight the Moabites, since they were now their in-laws. 2) He ate away at the moral core of Israel by introducing idolatry and immorality to their homes. The Israelite men married the beautiful daughters of Moab and began to accept their false religion and the immoral practices that went with it. What Satan failed to do through cursing, he very quickly achieved through compromise.

Nor have his tactics changed. As they say, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” So, in Pergamum, when persecution didn’t work, he began to raise up leaders who assured the people, “It doesn’t matter who your friends are as long as you love Jesus!” So, while continuing to speak out for Christ, they began to form wrong relationships—Christians marrying non-Christians, believers becoming business partners with unbelievers, and God’s people visiting the temples of idols.

What about you? Have you let the world, the flesh, and the devil worm their way into your life? I talked to a Christian couple some time ago who innocently entered into a business partnership with an unbeliever—a very nice unbeliever—and then spent the next three years trying to get out of it without losing their shirts as a result of all the unethical decisions he was making. Or perhaps you’re viewing movies and television programming that have no place in a Christian home. Or maybe you’re letting your children or grandchildren spend time and money on video games that do not please the Lord.

Last but not least, I warn young adults and your parents that according to 2 Corinthians 6:14, Christians are not permitted to date non-Christians. “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”

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But you say, “I only want to date him, not marry him!” Perhaps so. But the fact is, you don’t marry someone you haven’t dated. And having watched the pattern develop from start to finish dozens of times, I can tell you it almost always ends in sorrow. Typically, the girl says, “I’ll date him until I lead him to Christ, and then will I marry him.” But rarely does that happen. Rarely does the unbeliever make a genuine commitment to Jesus Christ. He may say he has, because the girl is attractive and he wants the benefits of a Christian wife. But rarely does the believer lift the unbeliever up to her level of morality. The lesson of Balaam is that we’re pulled down to their level of unbelief. So, parents, teach your children to trust the Lord not only their salvation, but also for His choice of a soul-mate.

As a personal testimony, I can tell you it was difficult for our two daughters to wait and pray until God brought loving Christian men into their lives. But their patience paid off. Our older daughter has just celebrated 12 years of marriage to a wonderful Christian man and pastor. Our younger daughter will soon celebrate 8 years of happy marriage to a very faithful and devoted Christian man. All of which brings great peace and joy to our hearts as parents.

 

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I’m the last person on earth who wants to keep you from making friends with unbelievers. After all, that’s how we lead them to Christ. But there is a difference between being friendly toward unbelievers and forming partnerships with them. That’s what we need to avoid. For that was and is the doctrine of Balaam. We’ve learned where they lived, how they succeeded, and why they faltered. Now notice a final fact with me. Notice—

  1. What They Risked

First, they risked judgment. Jesus continues in verse 16, “Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth.” Did you notice the two different pronouns Jesus used? Two groups are being addressed in this verse—you and them.

Who are the “them” in this verse? False teachers who like Balaam were leading God’s people into sin. How do we know? Because of how they are punished—with the sword of His mouth. This is a reference not to the small sword used by Roman soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, but to the large two-handed sword used to decapitate the leader of an enemy army. It speaks of Jesus’ complete and everlasting victory over all of His enemies.

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Christians are often gullible. The moment someone claims to be a Christian, we say to ourselves, “Well, then, he must be OK?” What we forget is that Satan can transform himself into an angel of light to deceive us. Then when they begin to teach things contrary to the Bible or form their own little following, we give them the benefit of the doubt, “He’s just a misguided Christian who has gotten off the track.” Not so! 1 John 2:19 explains, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they are not all of us.”

The second group is identified by the word you. Who does this refer to? Backslidden Christians who are giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And the warning of Jesus is: Come out from among them and be separate, or “I will come to you quickly!” This isn’t the Second Coming, but Christ stepping into the midst of His church to bring judgment. You say, “Will God really judge His children?” Absolutely! Not for the purpose of condemnation. Romans 8:1 assures us, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” But God does discipline us so we don’t continue to put ourselves into circumstances that would cause us to be condemned with the world. (See 1 Cor. 11:32.)

The story is told of a farmer who was bothered by crows eating his new corn. So he loaded up his shotgun and crawled along the bottom of his fence to get a shot at them. Unfortunately, he also had a sociable parrot who, hearing the noise of the birds, decided to join them in the garden. BOOM! BOOM! The farmer pulled the trigger. Climbing over the fence, what did he find lying on the ground next to the dead crows? His pet, badly ruffled with a broken wing, but alive! Carrying it up to the house, his little girl tearfully asked, “Daddy, what happened to Polly?” Before he could reply, the parrot spoke up, “Bad company! Bad company!” For as 1 Corinthians 15:33 warns, “Bad company corrupts good morals.”

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Not only does He allow us to suffer the natural consequences of our sins, Jesus also reminds us, “There are rewards to be lost, if we do not repent.” The letter closes like this, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the white stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it.”

The “hidden manna” refers to soul-satisfying fellowship with Jesus, the Bread of Life. Just as the Israelites enjoyed bread from heaven, you and I find everything our souls long for in Jesus Christ. Why is He called the “hidden manna?” Because fellowship with Him is something the world knows nothing about.

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I remember a phone call I received shortly after I became a Christian. A friend called me on Friday night and asked me, “Want to go drinking tonight?” “No,” I said, I don’t think so.” He said, “Well, then why don’t we go to the drive-in theater and see if we can pick up some girls?” “No,” I said, “I don’t want to do that either.” Then he mentioned a few other possibilities, and each time I said, “No, I can’t. I belong to Jesus Christ now, and it wouldn’t be pleasing to Him.” So, finally, in frustration he asked me, “Then what in the world do you do for fun now?” I remember I didn’t have a good answer for him at the time, because I was new at being a Christian. But even if I a good had an answer, I doubt he’d have understood it. Why? Because the joy we experience as Christians makes no sense to the world. They’re looking for a happiness based on happenings, when in fact the greatest joy of all simply comes from knowing Him.

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And not only is their soul-satisfying joy at the present time, the “white stone” reminds us of the special places of honor reserved for us in His kingdom. In ancient times, the Romans rewarded their athletes by giving them white stones with their names written on them, which served as entrance passes to the feasts that were held after the games. So, combined with the hidden manna mentioned above, I believe this is a reference to the special places of honor we will enjoy at that future feast called the marriage supper of the Lamb.

So ask yourself before we finish. How clean is my life before the Lord? Have I shown the courage to be in the world but not of it? Or am tolerating things the Lord hates? Remember:

All the water in the world, however hard it tried, could never sink a sailing ship, unless it got inside. All the evil in the world, the wickedness and sin, can never sink your soul’s craft, unless you let it in!

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Smyrna: Will I Suffer for Christ?

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Study #4: The Letter to the Church in Smyrna

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Debora Johnson Horse Picture of John Wesley

One of the best stories about John Wesley involves his expectation of persecution. One day he was riding along when it suddenly dawned on him that three days had passed without an egg or brick being tossed at him. But instead of than being happy about it, he worried. He slid down off his horse, knelt on the ground, and began to pray, “Lord, what’s wrong with me? Am I backslidden?” And for several minutes, he asked the Lord to show him the reason for his lack of suffering. Just then, an irreligious fellow looked over the hedge and spied the preacher praying. Recognizing him, the irreligious fellow said to himself, “I’ll fix that Methodist preacher!” and picked up a brick and threw it at him. The brick missed its mark and fell harmlessly to the ground. But Wesley saw it and leaped to his feet with joy. “Praise God!” he shouted. “It’s all right. I still have His presence.”

You may wonder, “Was Wesley crazy or just an old fool?” The answer is neither. He was simply taking literally what Jesus told us from the beginning. John 15:20, “No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” 2 Timothy 3:12 repeats the warning, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Today one of the big debates among Christians is the Tribulation. Will the church remain on earth and go through the Great Tribulation? That’s a question that we will address in Revelation chapter 3. But regardless of the position you take regarding the Tribulation, there is one issue on which all Christians can agree. Every church and every Christian will go through some tribulation. The enemy of our souls will not be content to let us serve Christ without some sort of opposition. If he can stop us through official persecution, he will do it. And if the Lord does not return soon, we in the West may begin to face a degree of persecution we have never experienced before. But even when that avenue isn’t open to him, he finds other ways to hurt us—personal insults and injustices, rejection by family and friends, financial disasters, mental and physical disorders. Satan never ceases in his search for something to weaken our faith and destroy our effectiveness for Christ.

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But as great as his opposition is, let’s not forget. God has a purpose and a victory in our suffering. Jesus said in John 16:33, “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” One of the best examples is found in Revelation 2:8-11 where we meet the church of Smyrna, who suffered intensely for Christ. But they did it to the glory of God, providing a timeless example that we can follow today.

By the way, I failed to mention something significant when we began our study of the churches. But I want to mention it now because, as you’ll see shortly, it becomes very important in the study of this letter. The seven letters to the seven churches follow a common pattern. First, the destination of the letter is given along with a description of Christ which is intended to encourage them or warn them. Next a commendation is given citing the good deeds of the church, followed by a word of correction from Jesus. Finally, each letter closes with an exhortation and a promise of blessing to those who hear and obey it. But as we study the church in Smyrna, one of these features is intentionally missing.  There is not one word of correction. Let’s learn why as we look at several key factors about this city. They will help us understand what is said in the rest of the letter.

  1. City

The letter begins, “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write.” Historians report three facts about this city. First, its beauty. The Romans called it the “ornament of Asia.” For it boasted the safest, most beautiful harbor of its day and was an excellent example of city planning, laid out according to the specifications of its founder, Alexander the Great.

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Second, it was a Roman city. Even though it was located 500 miles from Italy, Smyrna was infatuated with Rome, so much so that even before Rome became a super-power, they erected a temple in its honor at the center of their city. Later, due to their loyalty in war, Caesar also made it a free city, granting Smyrna all the rights and privileges of Roman citizenship. This was then followed by an even greater honor. In 26 AD, Smyrna was chosen as the site for a new temple in honor of Tiberius Caesar. This not only deepened their devotion to Rome, it also made it a center of emperor worship. This delighted all but the Christians in Smyrna, for now the choice before them was: Worship Caesar or suffer.

But the most striking thing about the city was its name. The word “Smyrna” means myrrh—a spice used as an embalming agent and as an anesthetic for pain. As such, it became a symbol and synonym for suffering. For example, when Jesus suffered on the Cross, it was myrrh He was offered to drink, and it was myrrh that was used in preparing His body for burial. It is fitting, then, that the suffering church of Asia should be found in the city of myrrh. In fact, what is interesting about myrrh is that it has to be crushed to give off an odor. And the more it is crushed, the sweeter its odor becomes. That was the experience of the Smyrnans. God let the devil crush them, but the more he crushed them, the sweeter their testimony became. I pray the same will be said of us when we go through trial or persecution.

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  1. Comfort

Notice also how fitting the description of Christ is in verse 8: “These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life.” “First and the Last” refers to His eternity, reminding us that nothing catches Him by surprise. Whatever hardships or heartaches lie ahead of us, He has already previewed them and made sure they all work together for our good. (Rom. 8:28) Remember that was you await that medical biopsy, make that pivotal career decision, or pray for that long-awaited need. Remember that “the eternal God is our refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms?” (Deut. 33:27)

“Was dead and came to life” is, on the other hand, a reference to His resurrection and the reason He can say to us in verse 10, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer.” Why needn’t we fear? Because regardless of what we suffer in this life, Jesus promises that we will live forever, “Because I live, you will live also.” (John 14:19)

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Several years go, an ocean liner called the Empress of Ireland sank. On board were 130 Salvation Army officers, only 21 of whom survived, very few compared to the number of people on board the ship. Many wondered, “Why would God let so many of His children die?” When they examined their bodies, they learned why. Not one of those who drowned was wearing a life preserver! When interviewing the survivors, they said that when these brave souls saw there weren’t enough lifejackets to go around, they took theirs off and strapped them onto others saying, “It’s OK. I can afford to die. I know Jesus.”

Do you? Are you a follower of Jesus? Then you don’t need to worry about the future, because no matter what you suffer here, you’re going to live forever. And not only live forever, Jesus promised that whatever we give up for Him in this life—friends, family, or possessions—will be more than made up for in the life to come. What a comfort to those suffering saints in Smyrna. Now listen to His commendation of the Smyrnans.

  1. Commendation

In each of the letters to the churches, Jesus begins His commendation with the statement, “I know your works.” But in comforting the Smyrnans, He adds, “I also know your suffering.” That’s true, isn’t it? As the old hymn puts it—

Jesus knows all about our struggles, He will guide till the day is done;  There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus—No, not one! No, not one!

First, He says, “I know your tribulation.” There are many words for tribulation in the Bible. This one means “pressure from without,” referring not to physical illness or emotional stress, but to physical persecution from the world. Think of the torture of the first Christians—flogging, prison, mauled by lions in the arena, lit as torches in Nero’s garden, beheading by the sword. Yet Jesus says, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.”

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Next He says, “I know your poverty.” The word means “destitute.” As victims of the “ten percenters,” the Smyrnans gave up everything for Christ. Roman law stated that when someone was turned in for being a Christian, 90% of the victim’s property went to the government, but 10% was awarded to the informant as a reward, leaving the Christians absolutely destitute. And yet, Jesus could say to them in verse 9, “You are rich!”

How could that be? How can a person be both rich and poor? Because God’s definition of riches is radically different from that of the world. For example, there are many in today’s Christian culture who will tell you that if you have enough faith and you’re in God’s will, you will never be sick or impoverished. God always wants His children to be healthy and wealthy. But I can tell you without apology that those who say such things know nothing about the Kingdom of God. As James corrected his readers, “Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” (James 2:5) The truth is that God frequently lets His children go through lean times. Not because He doesn’t love us, but because He wants us to experience first and foremost of all the richness of knowing Him.

This reminds me of the Thomas Acquinas’ visit to the holy city of Rome. While there, the pope took him on a tour of the papal treasures. Smiling proudly, the pope said, “So, you see, Thomas, no longer can we say like Peter, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” To which the great man replied, “No, and neither can we say, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise and walk.” You see, as American believers, we are rich when it comes to creature comforts, but I wonder, how wealthy are we when it comes to knowing God?

Third, He says, “I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” In Smyrna there was a large Jewish population who claimed to love God, but rejected Jesus His Messiah and did everything in their power to destroy His church. For example, when Polycarp the pastor of this church was sentenced to be burned at the stake, history records that it was the Jews who stacked the wood for the fire.

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Synagogue in Ancient Smyrna

Does this mean all Jews are Christ-killers and deserving of our contempt? By no means! Paul reminds us in Romans 11 that the Jews are still the apple of God’s eye and that one day all Israel will be saved. Therefore, whoever curses them will be cursed himself. Still, the Bible is clear that the greatest enemies of the saints are often religious themselves—Cain, Caiaphas, the Inquisitors. That has been the devil’s strategy from the beginning. He uses religion and religious people to discredit and persecute the people of God.

  1. Courage

So for what did Jesus correct the church at Smyrna? He didn’t. Unlike the other churches, the outstanding feature of this letter is they needed no correction. For one of the benefits of persecution is that those who have suffered for Christ normally demonstrate a deeper purity and loyalty to Christ than those who are comfortable in their faith. 1 Peter 4:1 talks about this, “Therefore, since Christ has suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” Is Peter saying that those who suffer physically reach a state of sinless perfection in which they are no longer susceptible to sin? No. He is reminding that suffering can, if we let it, purify our values, break our infatuation with the world, and deepen our love for Jesus.

Hal Lindsey described a conversation with a European Christian who made frequent trips behind the Iron Curtain prior to the fall of communism. This believer witnessed amazing examples of faith and devotion to Christ. He added, “One church that was undergoing considerable persecution said they were praying for God to send persecution upon their Western brothers, so that they too might be purified.” That’s a little unsettling, isn’t it? To realize that God may be answering their prayers even now, as we experience more and more opposition in our country. But let’s not forget that suffering can be a blessing if it purifies and intensifies our love for God.

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Corrie Ten Boom talked about this in one of her books. She told about a group of Russian believers meeting behind closed doors. Suddenly two soldiers burst into the room with machine guns, giving the believers five minutes to renounce their faith and leave, or they would be shot on the spot. A few fearfully got up and left. Then the soldiers walked to the door, locked it, and announced, “We’re believers too! But we can’t risk worshiping with anyone who isn’t totally committed to Christ. May we join your fellowship?”

Jesus did not correct the church at Smyrna. He encouraged them. First, He said to them, “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.” Let’s see what we can learn about suffering from the Savior’s words.

The certainty of suffering. You say, “I’ve had enough suffering. Now it’s time for some peace and pleasure.” But who knows what’s coming? The testimony of those who are mature in the Lord is that trials are often constant. That’s what the word “suffer” in this passage means. It means to be “constantly suffering.” Listen to the words of Dr. Edward Judson at the dedication of Judson Memorial Church in New York City. Referring to the life of his father, Adoniram Johnson, the great missionary, he said, “Suffering and success go together. If you are succeeding without suffering, it is because others before you have suffered. If you are suffering without succeeding, it is that others after you may succeed.”

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The source of suffering. Jesus adds, “The devil is about to thrown some of you into prison,” making it clear that our suffering is not always the result of our sin. Sometimes it’s the result of doing what is right. You see, now that Jesus has ascended to His throne in heaven, the only way for the devil to show His hatred for Christ is by attacking those of us who love Him. But the Savior encourages us not to be afraid. Why not? Because of two more facts about suffering.

The purpose of suffering. “The devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested.” The word “tested” means to prove the value of something. In other words, Satan may mean it for evil against us, but one day, if you belong to Jesus, you’ll be able to look back on what you’ve suffered and say with the Patriarch Joseph, “God meant it for good. He used it to bring out the best in me and bless others in the process.” Or as Job the Great Sufferer put it, “When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.”

The brevity of suffering. Jesus says, “You will have tribulation ten days.” Those who believe the seven churches represent seven ages of church history say this refers to the ten Roman emperors who persecuted the church. That may be true. Others think it is an homage to Daniel and his friends. For when they were tested by King Nebuchadnezzar, how long did the test last? Ten days after which they were exalted to high positions in the king’s court. But whatever the reference, its meaning is clear. Our suffering will not last long. Life is like a mist that is quickly vanishing, and as we suffer the things of this life, 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “God will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make a way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”

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  1. Crowns

You wonder, “Is it worth it to suffer for Christ?” Jesus answers that question in verse 10, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” That’s interesting, isn’t it? Jesus could have said, “Be strong or smart or successful,” something that would fit right in with our success-driven culture. But He didn’t. He said, “Be faithful.” Why? Because that’s what we lack—in our marriages, our families, our work, our churches. All it takes is a little opposition and we are ready to quit. Yet faithfulness is what God treasures most. Remember the master’s words in the parable of the talents, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you’ve been faithful over a few things. I will make you ruler over many things.”

But you say, “I’ve tried to be faithful, but I always end up failing.” Then try David Livingstone’s formula. The great missionary to Africa was standing before a group of students at the University of Glasgow, the signs of suffering evident in his body. Thirty different illnesses had left him emaciated. His left arm, crushed by a lion, hung limp at his side. But he offered the students hope for the trials they too would face. He said to them, “May I tell you what supported me through all the years of exile among people whose language I could not understand and whose attitude toward me was always uncertain and often hostile? It was this: ‘Lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the world.’ On these words I staked everything and they have never failed me.”

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If that is not enough motivation, cling to the double promise in verses 10 and 11. The first half is found in verse 10. Jesus says, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” The Bible talks a lot about crowns, promising that just as the ancient Olympic athletes won laurel wreaths to celebrate their victories, you and I can win imperishable crowns to signify our loyalty to Christ forever. One crown is the crown of glory, given to faithful elders. Another crown is the crown of joy, given to faithful soul-winners. A third crown is the crown of righteousness, given to those who look forward to the Lord’s return. But this is the crown of life, given to those who are faithful until death.

“Then it’s a martyr’s crown!” you say. “Something only martyrs can wear.” No. Jesus doesn’t say to be faithful in death. He says to be faithful until death. James makes the same point in James 1:12, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation, for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” So it isn’t only martyrs. It’s for anyone who loves the Lord and proves it by being faithful under trial. That’s the real test of our faith – not how often we go to church, read the Bible, or pray. The real proof is how we respond to temptation and how faithful we are under trial. So ask yourself: How much do I love Jesus? Am I as holy in private as I seem to be in public? Am I as cheerful when things go wrong as when they’re going well?

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Verse 11 gives the second half of the promise—escape from the second death. “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.” What is the second death? According to the Bible, those who reject Christ die two times. The first death is separation of the soul from the body. James 2:26 explains, “The body without the spirit is dead.” But that’s not the end of it. The Bible says those who reject Christ will be resurrected one day to stand before Him in judgment, and because they’ve not given Him the worship in this life that He deserves, they will be separated from Him forever in eternity to come. Revelation 20:14 says, “This is the second death…anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.”

Those are two powerful reasons, then, why it is worth it to be faithful to Christ until death: 1) Because we’ve been forgiven and will live with Him forever in heaven; and 2) Because every act of loyalty in this life will be rewarded in the life to come.

Let the testimony of Polycarp inspire you. It was towards the end of February. His congregation urged him to get out of Smyrna and escape the persecution that was beginning again. But he didn’t want to leave. So they forced him. They hid him in a cave, certain no one would find him. But they did. And to the surprise of his captors, he offered them something to eat and drink when they arrived. When they finished, he asked if he could get them anything else. “No,” they said. So he asked for permission to pray. “What can it hurt?” they thought looking at the old man. Little did they realize that he would go on in prayer for more than two hours. Imagine his words. “Dear Lord, we know that all men are sinners, and that no one can come to God except through your Son, Jesus Christ.” And on and on he went, giving them a full-length presentation of the gospel.

Finally, they took him away, back to the city. The officer in charge kept urging him to recant. “What harm can it do to sacrifice to the emperor?” Polycarp replied, “Jesus is Lord, and I cannot compromise that fact.” On arrival, to impress the crowd, they pushed him out of the carriage and onto the ground. Then they led him into the amphitheater and made him stand before the pro-consul. The pro-consul said, “Have respect to your age, old man. Swear that Caesar is Lord. Swear once and I will let you go and die in peace. Revile the Christ. He cannot be Lord.” Polycarp said with fearless devotion, “Eighty and six years I have served Him and He has never done me wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” The pro-consul persisted, “Swear by the genius of Caesar. I have wild beasts you know, and if you will not change your mind, I will throw you to them.” Polycarp was unmoved. He replied, “BID THEM BE BROUGHT!” (I love that!) But that angered the pro-consul all the more, so that he went on, “Since you despise the beasts, unless you change your mind, I will make you to be destroyed by fire.”

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Infuriated by the old man’s composure and eager to see him suffer, the mob began to gather wood for the pyre. Polycarp stood by the stake and said, “It will not be necessary to fasten me. I have strength from my Lord and Christ.” Then he prayed, “Lord, Almighty God, Father of Thy Beloved Son, Jesus, through Whom we have received knowledge of Thee, I thank Thee that Thou has thought me worthy this day and hour to share the cup of Thy Christ among the number of Thy witnesses.” Then the fire was kindled. But the wind kept driving the flames away, prolonging his agony. So finally, no longer able to stand it, a soldier drew his sword and put an end to his misery. Misery? He continued to praise Christ till the moment of his death.

That was the pastor of the church in Smyrna. He was faithful until death and is now enjoying the crown of life. Do you love Jesus enough to follow his example? The truth is: Nobody likes to suffer. But suffering is a fact of life. The only unresolved issue is: How will you respond to it? By God’s grace, let’s respond with faithfulness and love. For Jesus has promised, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

 

 

Prayer: The Most Joyful Resolution!

When you set out to make something new—build a picnic table, knit a scarf, cook a gourmet meal—do you like to follow a pattern or recipe? Or do you like to make it up as you go along? Most of us, unless your name is MacGyver, feel much more confident if we have an example to follow. In fact, even those who are experts in their field usually like to have a pattern to guide their work. Very few of us are creative enough to invent something out of thin air.

Picture14My wife Cheryl, for example, has been making and mending clothes since before we were married. In fact, that was our first big investment as newlyweds. At the time we had an old sewing machine that someone gave us – a White machine. I’m sure it’s an antique by now. So we decided to step out in faith and spend $300 on a new Bernini machine that came with a 30 year warranty. And 40 years later, we got our money out of it! And yet, even though Cheryl is great at sewing and making alterations, ask her and she’ll tell you, she always looks for a pattern before she sets out to make anything new.

Or here’s something you may not know about me. I took 10 years of piano lessons as a boy and played in 25 or 30 recitals. But unlike Cheryl, I was a technician, not a musician, because instead of playing by ear, I had to have the sheet music sitting in front of me. So when I saw how much talent she had and how the music just flowed out of her, I decided to invest my time and energy in other projects. And you may be like that too. When you employ a new skill, you want a model or mentor to follow.

Now, transitioning into our study, I can’t think of a place where that’s more important the area of prayer. You’ll remember the disciples asked Jesus at one point, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.” Jesus then went on to teach them what we call the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus-Christ-Praying-Wallpapers-13But the example I want to focus on tonight is Daniel the prophet whose prayers were so life-changing that King Belshazzar of Babylon said of him, “I have heard of you, that the Spirit of God is in you and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom are found in you.” (Daniel 5:14) But my question is: Where did Daniel get such unusual wisdom and winsomeness? He found it (And we can find it too! (in a regular quiet time alone with our Lord where we ask Him to fill us with His love, His wisdom, and His joy.

To see what’s involved in that, let’s look together at 3 lessons we can learn from Daniel’s pattern of prayer. The first lesson is: He had a fixed time for prayer.

1. He had a fixed time for prayer.

If you read our last study, you know that we finished Daniel chapter 9, which means we have just three chapters to go—chapters 10, 11, and 12. But before we move on, I want to backtrack and zero in on Daniel’s prayer in chapter 6. I do so because I don’t believe there’s any better way to invest our time and energy in the year ahead than by developing a daily habit of spending time with God.

Picture2You know the back story. Babylon has just been conquered by Persia, and Darius the new governor is in need of a few trusted advisers who can help him understand the language and culture of Babylon. So guess who rises to the top! Daniel who impresses him so much that he not only appoints him to his cabinet; he plans to set him over his entire staff. But that does not sit well with the other advisers who are jealous of Daniel and set out to find a way to destroy him. But try as they might, they are unable to find any fault in him. So they turn instead to the most predictable and vulnerable area of his life, and that’s his prayer life. It’s so consistent that it provides a way for them to trap him. They trick Darius into signing a law that bans prayer to anyone for 30 days but the governor himself. So Daniel is thrown into the lion’s den, and the Lord comes to his rescue.

That’s the back story. But what I want us to focus on now is verse 10, where Daniel describes his practice of prayer and how it gave him the courage, the wisdom, and the faith that set him apart from everyone else. It says: “Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God just as he had done before.” Daniel loved spending time with God, so much so that he was unwilling to give it up even in the face of death! Is it any wonder, then, that his prayers were so powerful? Imagine how powerful our prayers would be if we were willing to sacrifice everything else in our pursuit of God and His holiness.

By the way, do you know what Daniel’s habit of praying three times a day brought to my mind? The Muslim call to prayer! That’s how Cheryl and I were awakened every morning at 5 am on our trip to Cairo—the call to prayer going out from the top of minaret with faithful Muslims all over the city rolling out their prayer mat and kneeling in prayer – not just three, but five times a day – which is impressive until you realize why they do it. It isn’t out of love for their god. Allah is not a warm and loving deity who invites his followers to enjoy intimate fellowship with himself. Theirs are rote prayers that come not from a heart of love, but from a fear of punishment.

Picture16That is not what Daniel was doing! Daniel knelt before his Lord three times a day not to win His favor or earn salvation, but because he loved Him and didn’t want to miss the joy of spending time in His presence. And Jesus extends the same invitation to you and me: “Come unto Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt. 11:28)

But you say, “I’m not really a ‘structured person.’ I’m what you’d call a free spirit. I like to pray whenever the urge strikes me—riding in the car, washing the dishes, folding clothes.” And I do too! I like to pray about everything all day long. That’s what the Bible calls praying without ceasing. But I believe it’s also important to make a date and set aside a special time every day to meet with God in prayer and worship.

Picture5But I realized I could be wrong, so I tried it on my wife. We’ve been busy lately and haven’t spent as much time together as we’d like. So I made a date with her this last week. I promised her that we’d spend time together during the halftime of the Seahawk game. And you know what? She wasn’t excited about it. Wasn’t that ungrateful of her? To tell you the truth, I didn’t actually do that. After 40 years of marriage, I know what draws us together and what doesn’t. And the same thing is true of God! You’ve heard of the five love languages through which people like to give and receive love? Well, time is God’s love language! That means if you want to get closer to Jesus, the only way to do it is by spending lots and lots of time with Him, not during the halftime of a football game, but when it costs something, early in the morning, just the two of you alone together.

If you don’t believe that, go down the list of those who have been especially close to Him: Martin Luther the great reformer, John Bunyan the Puritan preacher who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress in prison, John Wesley who helped ignite the First Great Awakening, in America, William Carey the first Protestant missionary sent out into the world, David Brainerd the missionary to Indians, and George Mueller the lover of orphans and man of prayer. They all pursued the same persistent pattern. They spent two or three hours in prayer every day, which is how they also became the great saints that they were. And I urge you to do the same, even if it’s just five or ten minutes to begin with.

Picture6Like Daniel, set aside a fixed time to meet with God every day. That was his first habit of prayer. The second was this: He had a fixed place for prayer.

2. He had a fixed place for prayer.

Read verse 10 again. It says, “When Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went home and in his upper room with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he knelt down on his knees three times that day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days.”

Picture7No fear, no shame, no hiding! Daniel simply did what he’d always done in the place where he’d always done it. He knelt down in his upper room with the windows open facing Jerusalem, praying and giving thanks to God. This is why we call it a spiritual discipline. It’s called that because it’s something we do again and again until it becomes such a natural part of our lives that we no longer have to strain to do it. Think about it! Taking a shower, brushing your teeth, tying your shoes—does it take a lot of mental energy to do those things? Not really! Why? Because they’re habits! That’s how God designed the human personality. He designed us so that what would normally be very difficult becomes easier the longer we do it. That’s also the difference between trying and training. Trying is putting out one big effort on one big day to get the job done, whereas training is something that becomes easier through regular exercise and practice.

Some of you may know that I started power walking a couple years ago. When I first started I could barely make it a mile, huffing and puffing if I had to climb a hill. But now that it’s a habit, I can do that very easily. And I always do it in the place that works best for me, especially during these rainy winter months. I do it on my treadmill in the comfort of my own home at 5:30 or 6:00 o’clock at night.

So let me encourage you, if you want to experience a spiritual breakthrough with God, set aside a regular time and place where you meet with Him—a chair in the living room, a place at the kitchen table, a little corner in your upper room with a Bible, a pen, and a notebook next to you, so you can write down what the Lord says to you. Again, the important thing is not where you do it but finding a place that works for you. The only caveat I offer is: Don’t do it in bed or you’ll find yourself falling back to sleep.

Picture8 John Wesley, the evangelist who helped spark the Great Awakening, prayed so consistently in the same spot every morning that if you visit his home today, you can see two worn spots in the wooden floor where he knelt in prayer three hours every morning. Where you do it isn’t the important thing because wherever you meet with God becomes a holy place. Remember what the Bible says about Jacob when fleeing from his brother Esau? It says that God spoke to him in a dream promising to bless him. So what did he do the next morning? He said to himself, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!” Then he took the stone he used as a pillow, set it up as a pillar, poured oil on it, and called it Bethel, meaning “the house of God.” And the same thing can be true of the place you meet with God! You can literally make it the “house of God” by setting it apart as a special place where you spend time with God every day.

By the way, while I’m talking about the place of prayer, let me remind you what Jesus said about it. In the Old Testament, God’s people worshiped in the Temple in Jerusalem. That’s why Daniel prayed with his windows open facing Jerusalem.  He was praying towards the place where God’s Temple had once stood. But no longer is there a temple standing in that place. Instead, where does God’s Word say that God’s Temple is today? 1 Corinthians 3:16 says that we the church are His Temple and that the Spirit of God lives in us who love His Son. Therefore, wherever we meet for worship is holy because God is there. Furthermore, Jesus said our first priority when we meet together is to make it “a house of prayer.”

Picture9That’s why we open the room next-door to our worship center every Sunday at 4:00 o’clock inviting you to come and pray with us. And I hope even more of you will choose to join us in the months ahead, not because you ought to, but because God is with us when we pray. That’s why we also set aside time in our services for prayer. We do it, not because we ought to, but because we love God. Knowing Him is our passion and joy. So that’s what we want to be known for. We want to be known as a people of prayer.

Daniel had a fixed time for prayer. He had a fixed place for prayer, and most important of all, he had a fixed purpose for prayer.

3. He had a fixed purpose for prayer.

Read verse 10 one more time. It says, “Now when Daniel knew that the document was signed, he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously.” Have you ever felt so strongly about something that you’ve said to yourself, “I’m going to do this even if it kills me!”? That was Daniel’s attitude, except that it wasn’t an occasional feeling on his part; it was his daily resolution even in the face of death!

Picture3So I say to you with all love and seriousness, if you make any resolution in the year ahead, make it this one. Determine, with all the grace God gives you, that you’re going to spend time with Him every day, even if it kills you! It won’t, of course. It’ll be difficult at first, like most new habits are. But it won’t kill you to do it. It will bless you beyond anything you can imagine, just as it did Daniel.

You know the rest of the story. Daniel is caught in the act of praying, as his enemies plotted, and sentenced to didin the lion’s den. But what’s amazing is that it was Darius, not Daniel, who was racked with anxiety. Verse 18 says that once Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den, Darius returned to his palace, refused all entertainment, and spent the night in fasting and prayer, unable to get a wink of sleep. Whereas Daniel? He was at perfect peace. Isaiah 26:3 promises, “You will keep him perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You because he trusts in You.”

That takes us to Daniel’s purpose for prayer. Sometimes we get the mistaken notion that the reason we pray is for God’s benefit, as if He’s dependent on us for His happiness. Nothing could be farther from the truth! God is by His very nature an infinitely happy God who has from eternity past enjoyed perfect fellowship with His Son, making Him dependent on us for nothing! God has no unfulfilled needs. But we do. And that’s why we pray! We pray not because He needs us, but because we need Him.

To illustrate this, let me finish with the example of another great man of prayer, George Mueller pastor of the Baptist church in Bristol, England for 64 years -from age 28 in 1834 till the day he died at age 92 in 1898. (Credit goes to Pastor John Piper for his biographical message on the life of George Mueller from which I learned much about this great man and his passion for prayer.)

Picture13But what he’s best known for is his work with orphans. Before Mueller, there were 3600 orphans being cared for in all of England with twice that many under the age of 8 in debtor’s prison with their parents, whereas 50 years later, because of Mueller’s work, there were over 100,000 orphans being cared for in England. Mueller himself built five orphanages where he cared for over 10,000 orphans, even though he was penniless. In fact, he said that’s why he did it. He wanted to find a way to prove to the people of England, who had lost their faith in God, how good God is to meet His children’s needs. So he took on a project that could only be explained by the power of God. He also did it without asking for donations, for he wanted it to be clear that it was God who did it through prayer alone.

Mueller also happened to be one of the biggest givers to missions in his day, even though he took no salary from his church, nor did he have any money of his own. For example, he was by far the biggest supporter of Hudson Taylor, giving more than $3 million to his ministry in China all by kneeling in prayer and asking God for money that he could give away.

Imagine having thousands of orphans depending on you for their daily bread with no means to provide it! Would that make you anxious? Not Mueller! He said he welcomed every problem as a chance to prove the sovereign goodness of God. In fact, he talked about that a lot: God’s sovereign goodness electing him to be saved, preparing good works for him to walk in, and providentially ordering every detail of his life.

Picture15For example, when Mary his wife died, whom he loved with all his heart, he could say with perfect peace, “I am fully satisfied with the will of my Heavenly Father and seek by perfect submission to His holy will to glorify Him. I continually kiss the hand that has afflicted me for whilst He smites with the one hand, He supports with the other.” And when he was about to lose a piece of property he wanted for an orphanage, he said, “If the Lord were to take this piece of land from me, it would be only for the purpose of giving me a still better one; for our Heavenly Father never takes any earthly thing from His children except He means to give them something better instead.”

Picture11Where did he get such great faith in God? From hours and hours enjoying the presence of God. He said in a message to his students, “In my judgment, the most important point to be attended to is this: above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord. Other things may press upon you and the Lord’s work may make urgent claims on your attention, but I deliberately repeat: It is of supreme and paramount importance to keep your souls happy in the Lord Himself. Seek to make this day by day the most important business of your life. This has been my firm and settled condition for the last five and thirty years! The first few years after my conversion, I knew not its importance but now after much experience, I specially commend this to my younger brothers and sisters in Christ—the secret of all true and effective service is joy in Christ.”

Why is that important? He explained, “I have stated he deep importance of being satisfied with the will of God not only for the sake of glorifying Him, but also as the best way in the end of satisfying the desires of our own hearts. Whatever we do must be the result of joy in God.” And again, the way he did that was by spending daily time reading God’s Word and talking to Him in prayer.

Here’s how he finished his message, so that’s how I’ll finish mine. He said, “My dear Christian friend, will you not try it this way? Will you not learn for yourself the preciousness and the happiness of casting all your cares and necessities on the Lord? This way is as open to you as to me. Everyone is invited to trust in the Lord, to trust in Him with all your heart and cast all your burdens upon Him and call upon Him in the day of trouble. Will you not do this, my dear brother and sister? I long for you to do so, to taste the sweetness of that state of heart in which, though surrounded by difficulties and necessities, you are yet at peace, because you know that the living God, your Father in heaven, cares for you.”

Do you believe that? Then begin to put it into practice right now in prayer.

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