One of the most memorable moments of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games involved a marathon runner from Tanzania. John Stephen Akhwari.
He doesn’t get a mention in the record books. In fact, he came in LAST. But it’s fair to say more people remember John Akhwari… than the guy who won gold.
Half way through the race Akhwari fell. And badly gashed his leg, injuring his knee. Most runners at that point would give up. But after a few minutes John Akhwari picked himself up. Strapped up his leg. And kept running.
By the time he got to the stadium, the race had long finished. The winners had crossed the line over an hour before. Night was falling. And most of the spectators were heading for home.
And as the officials were packing up for the day, the figure of this final, lone runner appeared at the stadium gates. Bandaged, y; every step agonizing… And he began to run the regulation laps around the stadium track. Finally, at last, Akhwari crossed the finish line.
The small crowd left in the stadium clapped and cheered him on. As Akhwari limped off the track. And finally collapsed.
The next day he was interviewed by the world media. In every marathon, lots of athletes drop out. With far less reason than Akhwari. So they asked him, “Why didn’t YOU stop?”
And Akhwari said this. “My country did not send me 7000 miles here to Mexico City to START the race. My country sent me here to FINISH THE RACE.”
And so he did.
Finishing the race. That’s the job we’ve got. As Christians, Jesus has called us to FINISH the race. To make sure we’re still following him at the end of our life. To make sure we don’t take SHORT-CUTS along the way. Following other loves, or taking wrong turns.
That we don’t GIVE IT UP because things are HARD. Or because we think there are BETTER things to be doing with life.
But that we keep trusting him. We keep obeying him. And we keep declaring to those around us that he DID rise from the . That he IS King, and that he IS coming back to judge.
Jesus doesn’t promise that our race will be EASY. In fact, for MOST of us, life may well be more like the race of John Akhwari than that of WINNERS. There WILL be stumbles, and hills, and tough conditions, and injuries.
Some people will tell you that life ISN’T like that for REAL Christians. A friend of mine was telling me about a lady he knew. A few years back she had a pre baby, she injured her neck and was in traction in hospital and could hardly move, and her husband was diagnosed with cancer. All of them happening within a few months of each other.
And a woman from her church said to her, “It’s obvious. You haven’t got enough faith.” Because, she said, “REAL Christians don’t have problems like that.”
Well, I want to say to you today, real Christians do. So far, maybe you HAVEN’T. But the fact is, real Christians are running a marathon.
And Christians back in the first century had it a lot tougher than we’ve got it today.
Especially the seven churches John was writing to. Because on top of the bad backs and cancer and business problems and house repayments that stress us out TODAY, Christians BACK THEN were being PERSECUTED FOR THEIR FAITH. And just around the corner, they’re going to be persecuted a whole lot more. All because they were following Jesus.
Each church was made up of different individuals. Who each reacted to things differently. Each church had its own particular problems. Some were doing better than others. And so Jesus has different things to say to each.
And yet the theme that comes up AGAIN AND AGAIN is that Jesus wants them to PERSEVERE. To stick it out to the end. WHATEVER the obstacles. Whatever the injuries. Or hills. Or pains. Or burdens.
Because, for Jesus, that’s what victory is. To do “a John Akhwari” – to keep going despite 100 good arguments to stop. That’s what it means to win. And it’s that sort of performance that will earn a gold medal.
It’s what he wanted for THE SEVEN CHURCHES. And it’s exactly what he wants from US.
And as we read over them, I hope you noticed that, even though there’s much that’s DIFFERENT, there’s also much in common between the letters. There are SIMILARITIES.
Assessment that matters
For a start, each one is a REPORT CARD. Assessment that matters.
I don’t know if you’ve thought about it. But it’s AMAZING how many times you get ASSESSED by other people when you’re GROWING UP.
Kids seem to get used to it. Always having EXAMS. There’s school exams, and piano exams, and driving exams.
Year 12 students are used to being ASSESSED every few weeks, with marks going towards their HSC.
But the thing you find as you grow older is that those ASSESSMENTS often don’t mean that much in the end. They may SEEM IMPORTANT at the time. But a little further down the track they seem INSIGNIFICANT.
Not too many people are going to ask you how you did in your 4th grade PIANO EXAM.
Even things like the HSC…When I got to Uni NO-ONE was interested in the MARK I got in my HSC. When I started TEACHING no-one wanted to see my RESULTS from Uni.
This morning we’re looking at the section of REVELATION that’s CLEARLY about ASSESSMENT – but the difference is THIS ONE MATTERS.
A royal letter
You can see that within the first verse of each letter. Because each is A ROYAL LETTER. A letter from a KING.
Look at how each one starts.
Read Revelation 2:1
1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands:
Read Revelation 2:8
8 “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.
Read Revelation 2:12
12 “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.
Read Revelation 2:18
18 “To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.
Read Revelation 3:1
1 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
Read Revelation 3:7
7 “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David.
Read Revelation 3:14
14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.
Each one, given from King Jesus, to his messenger, to deliver to his church.
And EACH DESCRIPTION comes from the picture of Jesus in Ch 1. The picture of the POWERFUL and HOLY and GOOD King who rules THE WHOLE EARTH, and KINGS and EMPERORS, and who EVEN RULES .
This is a letter to make you sit up and take notice. With assessment that MATTERS. A ROYAL letter.
But, more than that, each TITLE Jesus uses about himself, seems to FIT THE SITUATION, of the church he’s writing to. Jesus specifically chooses his description that will most COMFORT, or CHALLENGE, the church in question.
Let me show you a few examples.
I know what you did last summer
One of the constant themes is that of Jesus’ KNOWLEDGE of the churches. He knows what they’re like. Nothing’s hidden from his sight. Every letter, bar one, has the words “I know your deeds”. “I know your deeds”. “I know your deeds”
Look for example at Ch 2 v1.
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2 I KNOW YOUR DEEDS, your hard work and your perseverance. I KNOW THAT YOU CANNOT TOLERATE WICKED MEN, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. NIV
Jesus KNOWS because he WALKS AMONG HIS churches. Protecting, guiding, holding.
Or over to v18 of Ch 2.
These are the words of the Son of God, whose EYES ARE LIKE BLAZING FIRE and whose feet are like burnished bronze. 19 I KNOW YOUR DEEDS, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first. NIV
Jesus’ eyes are like blazing fire. They see right through every wall. Into every heart. Read every mind.
His feet are like burnished bronze. He goes EVERYWHERE. There’s nowhere you can go to hide from King Jesus. He KNOWS.
There’s a movie called “I know what you did last summer”. A horror movie. I haven’t seen it, but the plot is that a group of friends have a secret they share. A secret they think no-one else knows about. They’ve killed someone in a hit and run. And tried to cover it up. Until they get a letter with these words. “I know what you did last summer”.
And this is Jesus’ letter. “I know”.
And it’s the same with US. He knows. He knows your thoughts. Your so-called secret sins. Your secret longings. Temptations. Failings. Your past. Your dirty laundry.
So what can you do about it? It’s a no-brainer really! Turn it all over to him. If it’s a past sin you can’t seem to forget. Repent, then forget it! Jesus has washed you clean. And walk into today with your eyes forward, looking to Jesus.
If it’s a PRESENT sin – a struggle you’re having in a certain area. Repent. If it’s SECRET, think about sharing it with someone you trust. Someone who can keep you accountable. Who can pray with you, and help you keep following Jesus. Bringing it out in the open seems to help to emphasise the truth that Jesus ALREADY sees. It’s ALREADY out in the open to HIM.
To bring it out in the open seems to rob the sin of its hold on you. NAMING it. Admitting it. SHARING it with someone seems to have a tangible freeing effect. Jesus sees.
And REPENTING is exactly what Jesus calls on most of the churches to do.
Like the church at Ephesus. Ch 2 v4.
Rev 2:4-6: 4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! REPENT and do the things you did at first.
Same with Smyrna. 2: 15. Or Sardis Ch 3 v3.
A letter from the king. The king who knows everything. Who calls you to REPENT.
And yet, there’s a warmth and compassion and love to the rebukes, as well. Look over to Ch 3 v19.
Rev 3:19-20: 19 Those whom I LOVE I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. NIV
What a wonderful picture that is. Of closeness. Of intimacy and concern. Jesus rebukes and disciplines for OUR GOOD. So that we can share fellowship with him.
A promise (2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:26; 3:5; 3:12; 3:21)
And there’s certainly plenty of POSITIVE NOTES in the letters as well. EVERY ONE finishes with A PROMISE OF REWARD.
Rev 2:7: To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. NIV
Rev 2:11: He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second .
Rev 2:17: o him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna.
Rev 2:26: 26 To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations- NIV
Rev 3:5: 5 He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. NIV
Rev 3:12-13: 12 Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. NIV
Rev 3:21: 21 To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.
All wonderful pictures of an eternity spend with Jesus. With wonderful blessings.
And what do all these promises have in common? They’re all for those who OVERCOME.
But what does it mean to overcome? Is it about victory as the world sees it? Success and riches and authority? Healthy and wealthy? Big buildings, big attendance, big budgets?
Let’s look at what Jesus COMMENDS. These are the things which are signals of overcoming. True victory.
Zeal AND love (2:19)
Zeal but no love (2:4-5)
The first things we see is that Jesus wants ZEAL AND LOVE. Enthusiasm for TRUTH, as well as enthusiasm for love in behaviour and attitudes.
And for the church at Ephesus, they were only doing well in ONE of these areas. They had ZEAL, but NO LOVE. Look at Ch 2 v2.
Rev 2:2-3: 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that YOU CANNOT TOLERATE WICKED MEN, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. NIV
These guys were the – THEOLOGICAL THOUGHT POLICE. They’re ZEALOTS. Full of passion – absolutely mad keen to have right doctrine, to have right theology. They know all the big theological words, they can talk about infralapsarianism till the cows come home.
Trouble is, THEY’VE GOT NO LOVE. That’s what he says in the next verse. “Yet I hold this against you. You’ve forgotten your first love.”
At the start things were different. When they were first converted they knew about love. But now in all their efforts to be right and true, and to test these false apostles and to not tolerate wickedness, they’ve lost it.
They’ve lost their love. They’ve beaten off all the enemies from the outside, they’ve got rid of false teaching – but they’ve been eaten away from the inside.
And loveless Christianity – whether love for Christ or love for Christians, or love for non-Christians – isn’t Christianity at all. Which means whether they know it or not, they’ve pulled out of the race.
Love but no zeal (2:14-16; 2:19-25)
Then you’ve got the opposite problem over in Pergamum and Thyatira. They PUT UP with people who taught HERESY. False doctrine. That it was okay to do whatever the world does. ual immorality – fine. Anything goes. Look at 2:20 for example.
Rev 2:20: 20 Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into ual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. NIV
But it’s interesting to see the thing Jesus has got against the church isn’t that they’ve all FOLLOWED these false teachers. It’s just that they’ve PUT UP with her. Jesus is against their TOLERANCE. Because they’ve just turned a blind eye while she’s led people astray.
Pergamum and Thyatira might have plenty of love. But they’ve lost touch with the truth.
Folks, can I say to you, if there’s ever a problem we’re up against as Christians today, this is it. The idea that everything’s okay. The idea that there’s no such thing as TRUTH any more. The idea that it’s arrogant to try to say the Bible says something’s wrong. Cause you’ll be told it’s really just a matter of interpretation, isn’t it? The idea that it’s unloving to take a stand and correct someone. That it’s divisive.
And so people will be caught up in all sorts of ual immorality. All sorts of wrong living and wrong thinking. And we’ll just stand there like statues. And we won’t say a word. Not wanting to be thought of as bigoted, or narrow-minded.
Now again, notice he’s not saying “go out and critique the non-Christians”. We must LOVE non-Christians – whatever they DO or BELIEVE. He’s saying don’t redefine what it means to be Christian. We can’t BEND on that. We mustn’t REDEFINE what acceptable Christian behaviour is.
Two opposite problems. Zeal without love. And love without zeal. When real Christians have got both. We’ve got to love the truth. And love people as well.
REAL riches – clothes of holiness (2:9; 3:17-18)
Another aspect of overcoming is to have REAL riches. There’s another comparison between the churches. There’s Laodicea, who think they’re RICH, when they’re really POOR. And then there’s Smyrna who thinks they’re POOR, but are really RICH.
Look at Laodicea. Ch 3 v17
Rev 3:17-18: 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and . 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful ness; NIV
They thought they were the DOUBLE BAY of Christian churches. But the reality was/ they were KINGS CROSS.
They had all the marks of a successful church. All the programs, the staff, the buildings. Big budget, effective evangelism.
But they’d forgotten their REAL riches. The beauty of their relationship with Jesus. The rich jewellery of acts of servanthood, lives of holiness, and submission to God – lives taking up their cross and following Jesus.
And so Jesus pleads with them to COME TO HIM. And buy refined gold. And buy white clothes to wear to cover their shame. They represent holy living. Good deeds of obedience, and perseverance.
Which is just what those at Smyrna were wearing. The opposite of Laodicea/ is Smyrna. Look at Ch 2 v9
Rev 2:9: 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty-yet you are rich! NIV
Suffering much in this life. Barely enough food for the table. Enduring the disdain and discrimination of being Christian. And yet Jesus says they ARE RICH. He says (v10) Be faithful even to the point of , and I will give you THE CROWN OF LIFE”
That’s REAL riches.
REAL strength (3:1-3; 3:8-10)
The last aspect of what it means to overcome is to show real STRENGTH. And once again, there’s a comparison. Sardis, who THOUGHT they were strong, but were really WEAK.
And Philadelphia, who thought they were WEAK, but were really STRONG.
Look at Sardis. Ch 3 v1
Rev 3:1-3: I know your deeds; you have A REPUTATION OF BEING ALIVE, but you are . 2 Wake up! STRENGTHEN what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. NIV
They LOOK alive, but they’re . They LOOK strong, but they’re WEAK, wasted, perishing. There’s a HOLLOWNESS to their Christianity. Things look healthy, but underneath, there’s disease and infection festering.
Is that what YOU’RE like? A mask of strength. A thin veneer of maturity. But underneath, things aren’t RIGHT? Repent, put things right. Talk to someone. It’s too important to put off. It’s too important to worry about what OTHER people think. It’s MUCH more important what Jesus’ assessment of you is like.
The opposite of Sardis was Philadelphia. They LOOKED weak, by were really strong. Ch 3 v8.
Rev 3:8-9: I know that you HAVE LITTLE STRENGTH, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. NIV
And a bit further down in v10
Rev 3:10: 10 Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world …NIV
The Philadelphian Christians seem WEAK. Insignificant. But despite the pressures, they’ve kept faithful. They haven’t bowed the knee to the emperor, or named him as Lord.
And so, Jesus has a wonderful reward in store. V11
Rev 3:11-12: 11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. NIV
To the angel of the church in Western Blacktown…
What wonderful words they are!
I wonder if Jesus were to write a letter to US. To the angel of the Presbyterian church at Western Blacktown. What he would say.
I know your deeds. In your short life, you have a proud tradition of proclaiming my name. Of being evangelical and evangelistic. You pride yourself on being friendly and welcoming.
You’ve planted another church.
But don’t become complacent. Don’t lose your first love. Keep your zeal for truth. Don’t be tempted to keep quiet. Don’t be tempted to think truth doesn’t matter, or your neighbours don’t need me.
Keep loving each other. Make time. Show love in ACTION, not just words.
Rev 3:11-12: 11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God