Aren’t All Religions the Same?

Aren’t All Religions the Same?

John 14:1-11

Dr. Jim Denison

Poliomyelitis, or polio, is a disease caused by tiny virus particles which attack the brain and spinal cord. Until this generation, polio was a kind of AIDS in American society. Many of you remember those days when polio was a feared enemy; many of us know someone affected by the disease and its accompanying physical problems.

Why is polio not feared as it once was? The answer is named Jonas Edward Salk. Dr. Salk, an American research scientist, announced in 1953 that he had developed a trial vaccine for polio. He tested his vaccine on himself, his wife, and their three sons. It worked for them. Immediately it was tested widely; by 1955, it was being used across the world.

In those exciting days, there were two questions no one thought to ask. First, aren’t all vaccines basically the same? They knew that all others had failed, and that Dr. Salk’s had succeeded. And second, why only one vaccine? For the simple reason that only one was needed.

No one asked these questions, for the answers were obvious. And across the world, millions of people made sure they were vaccinated, and those they cared about as well. Today polio is virtually no threat to world health.

Unfortunately, there is another disease which still exists today, and is far worse even than polio. This disease has infected every person who has ever lived, and is always fatal. Fortunately, there is a vaccine which will work for every person on earth, and is free of charge.

The disease, of course, is sin, our broken relationship with God. The cure is salvation through Jesus Christ, his Son. And yet questions persist about this spiritual, eternal “vaccine”: aren’t all faiths the same? Why is there only one way to God?

Today, as we continue to ask hard questions about God, let’s explore this issue together.

What does the Bible say?

First let’s examine what God’s word says, four clear facts in Scripture. We need to understand what Jesus claimed about himself.

Fact number one: Jesus is God (v. 1). “Trust in God; trust also in me,” he says. In verse 9 he repeats the assertion: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Earlier the authorities tried to stone him to death “because you claim to be God” (John 10:33).

Other religious leaders claimed to reveal God; Jesus alone claims to be God.

Fact number two: Jesus is preparing our place in heaven (v. 2).

“Prepare” means one sent ahead to get ready for the arrival of those to come.

This is the picture of an Army scout, making sure the way is clear. It’s the President’s envoy, preparing the way for his arrival. In Malaysia, I had guides who would hack a trail through the jungle for me to follow. This is what Jesus is doing for us, right now.

He says that his Father’s house has “many rooms.” This is an oriental picture of the family, where all the rooms are under the father’s one roof. Jesus has already gone there, to get our room ready for us. This is what he’s doing this moment.

Other religious leaders taught about heaven or the afterlife; Jesus alone claims to be preparing it for us.

Fact number three: Jesus will take us to heaven personally (v. 3).

Here we discover another great word for what he is doing for us. “Take you to be with me” translates a word which means “to walk alongside of.”Jesus hasn’t gone to heaven and merely left us directions for finding our way there. He will come back and lead us there, personally. He will escort us home.

Other religious leaders taught about the way to heaven; Jesus alone claims to take us there.

Fact number four: Jesus is the only way to the Father (v. 6).

Jesus is not just a way, truth, or life. His Greek is emphatic: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” He claims to be the exclusive way to God the Father.

Later he was even more emphatic: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). No one in all of human history ever made this claim! Not Buddha, or Mohammad, or Caesar, or Stalin, or anyone else. No one but Jesus.

Peter made the same announcement: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Now, you may agree or disagree with Jesus, but you need to know what he claims about himself: that he is God, preparing our place in heaven, and that he will one day take us there, as only he can. These are the clear statements of Jesus Christ.

What do people say?

Now, this claim flies in the face of contemporary culture, doesn’t it? These statements are politically incorrect, to say the least. Three “isms” dominate our culture and reject everything we’ve heard so far today.

The first is relativism, the idea that all truth is relative and subjective. Most Americans don’t believe there is such a thing as absolute truth, let alone that it is found in Jesus Christ alone.

200 years ago, philosopher Immanuel Kant said that we come to truth as our minds process sense data. As a result, we cannot know “the thing in itself,” but only our experience of it. Now, two centuries later, everyone seems to agree. Truth is personal and subjective, we’re told. This “postmodern” worldview dominates our culture.

And so 93% of us say that we alone determine what is moral in our lives.

Only 13% of us believe in all ten of the Ten Commandments.

We’re taught that language is only a convention of human power; words do not describe reality, but only our version of it. There can be no objective truth claims, only subjective experiences. It’s fine if Jesus is your way to God, but don’t insist that he must be mine.


Does God Work For You?

Does God Work For You?

Isaiah 6:1-8

Dr. Jim Denison

Henry Blackaby, the author of Experiencing God, tells of the time his church in Canada started their first mission. They had no money to move the mission pastor or pay him the $850 per month he would need, and no idea where to get such funds. So they asked God to provide, and the mission pastor agreed to come on faith.

As he was on his way, Pastor Blackaby received a letter from an Arkansas church he did not know, giving him $1,100 for their ministries. A few days later he received a phone call from a person whose pledge was just enough to complete the money they needed for the pastor’s salary.

As he got off the phone, the mission pastor drove up. Henry asked him, “What did it cost to move you?” He said, “Well, Henry, as best I can tell it cost me $1,100.”

God is so good, so powerful, so able to meet our needs. And so we are continually tempted to come to him for what he does more than for who he is.

The ancient Canaanites worshipped Baal and Ashtoreth, believing these gods would make their lands fertile and their crops abundant. The Egyptians worshipped the sun and other heavenly bodies for the same reason. The Greeks worshipped or at least placated Zeus so that their lives would be blessed and prospered.

Muslims seek heavenly reward from Allah, and Jews from Yahweh; Buddhists seek Nirvana through their meditations and asceticism; Hindus seek moksha, which is union with ultimate reality through manifold reincarnations.

And Christians seek God’s help through church attendance and worship. We want our children to prosper, our finances to grow, our bodies to be healthy, our families to be happy, and we come to church in the hope that God will bless us in return. Not all of us do this consciously, but most of us have this understandable and all too human motive in our hearts.

Today I want to convince you that there’s more to God than what he does. I want to show you who God is. I think you’ll know what to do in response.

Who is God? (vs. 1-4)

Three stands for perfection in Scripture. In the Hebrew language, anything repeated three times is raised to the highest level. We say “good, better, best.” They would say “good, good, good.” And the third time means the very best.

Only once in all the Bible is an attribute of God raised to the third power. This attribute must therefore be the highest and best single description of God, and the foundation for all the others. This characteristic will define, better than any other description, who God is. And we have that characteristic, that word, before us today.

First let’s enter the scene, standing alongside Isaiah the prophet. If Isaiah could see God in the midst of his circumstances, we can in the midst of ours.

It is the year 736 B.C. Uzziah had ruled Judah for 52 years; he modernized the army, conquered the Philistines, extended commerce, and brought peace and prosperity such as the nation had not known since Solomon. But now King Uzziah is dead.

So Isaiah comes into God’s presence with grief and fear in his heart. Grief, because the king was his cousin. Fear, because hard times are ahead. Uzziah’s young and untested son Jotham has ascended the throne, war-clouds are gathering to the North, and economic storms are beginning to brew.

The great king is gone from his throne, so Isaiah goes to a higher throne and a higher King. And in his grief, pain, perplexity and fear, he sees him. If you would come to God today in the midst of your pain, anger, hurt, or fear, you will see him as well.

Here’s what we see.

“I saw the Lord,” Isaiah says (v. 1). Not his face, for no one can see God and live (Exodus 33:20). But we are in his presence.

We see his throne “high and exalted.” In the ancient world, the higher his throne, the greater his power and authority. And “the train of his robe filled the temple.” The longer his robe, the greater his power.

This scene is occurring in the Most Holy Place, a room in the Temple thirty feet by thirty feet in length and width, by forty-five feet in height; God’s robe filled 40,500 square feet of space.

“Seraphs” fly around him. They are mentioned only here in Scripture; their name means “to burn.” And they burn with the presence and awesomeness of the God who is “a consuming fire” (Hebrews 13:8). The closer we get to fire, the hotter we become. So with them.

They cover their faces, an Oriental expression of humility in the presence of a greater person. They cover their feet in expression of his holiness as well. Moses took off his shoes when he was standing on holy ground; the seraphim have no shoes, so they cover their feet.

And they shout to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.”

In the Hebrew, we actually hear them as one says, “Holy”; a second replies, “Holy”; and a third cries, “Holy.” They repeat this again and again and again.

Nowhere does Scripture say that God is “love, love, love,” or “light, light, light,” or “fire, fire, fire.” But it says that he is “holy, holy, holy.”

And not just here. In Revelation 4:8 we read of heavenly worshippers, “Day and night they never stop saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.'” All of heaven is shouting his holiness, even right now.

This word “holy” translates the Hebrew “qadosh,” which means to be clean, hallowed, pure, sacred, different from all else.

No genie in a bottle, here. No mere problem-solver, or dispenser of blessings, or tool for our use, or means to our ends. The only One in all the universe who is holiness to the highest degree, sacred, hallowed, pure.


Is God Fair?

Is God Fair?

Hebrews 12.25-29

Dr. Jim Denison

Some children wrote questions for God, including these: “Dear God: Instead of letting people die and making new ones, why don’t you just keep the ones you have? Johnny.”

“Dear God: I read the Bible. What does ‘beget’ mean? Nobody will tell me. Allison.”

“Dear God: Did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident? Norma.”

“Dear God: Did you really mean, ‘do unto others as they do unto you’? Because if you did, then I’m going to fix my brother. Love, Darla.”

We have many questions for God. But none is more pressing than ours today: is God fair? How can God be fair when a fifteen-year-old kills two innocent high school students and wounds eleven more? How can God be fair when an American submarine crew makes a mistake and kills nine Japanese fishermen? How can God be fair and allow so much that is not fair?

If God were only fair, this would be a better world, we say. Let’s see if that’s true.

Consider these facts

Let’s begin with the facts of our text. First, God speaks to us: “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks” (v. 25a).

More than 300 times in Scripture, God speaks to his people.

Mother Teresa said that at the beginning of her spiritual life she spent 90% of her time talking to God, and 10% listening to him. At the end of her life it was the reverse.

He spoke from Sinai in giving the Ten Commandments: “At that time his voice shook the earth” (v. 26).

He has spoken in his word: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Hebrews 1:1).

And now he speaks most fully in his Son: “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (Hebrews 1:2). God is not an apathetic deity, removed from our lives and fears and problems. God speaks to us, every day.

Second, we must obey what he says (v. 25b).

The Jews at Sinai refused to obey what God said to them, and so died wandering in the wilderness far from their Promised Land (cf. Hebrews 3:16-19). The author says, “they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth” (v. 25a).

Now Jesus speaks to us, and we must listen: “how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?” (v. 25b).

Have you ever refused to obey God? Refused to obey his word? His Spirit’s urging in your life? His will for you?

Third, God will judge our obedience.

Verse 26 is clear: “At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.'” This is a quote from Haggai 2:6-7, the promised judgment of God.

He will do this to separate that which can be “shaken” from that which cannot (v. 27).

We will each stand before God in this judgment: “If any man builds on this foundation [Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

God will judge our obedience to his word and will.

Last, we must approach God with reverent gratitude.

But despite our failures and sins, “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (v. 28). This is by God’s grace. So we must be “thankful,” the NIV says. The Greek says: “let us live in this grace,” or “let us be grateful.”

We are to come to God in reverent gratitude because of what he has done for us, and because of who he is: “Our God is a consuming fire.” This quote from Deuteronomy 4:24 evokes the purity of God, his power, his justice and judgment, his awe and righteousness.

And so, because of his grace and because of his purity and power, we must approach God with reverent gratitude.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, the most famous theologian of his day, defined religion as a “feeling of absolute dependence.” While religion is certainly more than a feeling, it is at least this.

Remember Isaiah before God: “Woe is me! I am ruined!” (Isaih 6:5). Remember Jeremiah before God: “Ah, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am only a child” (Jeremiah 1:.6). Remember Peter’s response to seeing Jesus’ miraculous power: “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). Remember John’s response to the risen Lord: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).

If his best friend on earth, and his leading disciple, and two of his greatest prophets had to come to God in reverence, awe, and humility, what of us? When did you last come to him in this way? Not flippantly, or easily, but in deep awe and reverent worship?

If God were fair in judgment

Now, in light of these facts, let’s address our question. Is God fair? Well, if God were fair, what would happen to us when we stand before him in judgment one day?

Scripture is clear: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). What would happen to you and me then, if God is truly fair?

Let’s think about that question for a moment.


When Success Isn’t Enough

When Success Isn’t Enough

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Dr. Jim Denison

Revelation 3:14-22

Laodicea stood 43 miles southeast of Philadelphia, on the Lycus River at the border of Phrygia, six miles south of Hierapolis and ten miles from Colossae. The city occupied an almost square plateau several hundred feet high with mountains to the south rising to more than 8,000 feet. The city was founded in the mid-third century BC by Antiochus II, who named it after his wife Laodice (meaning “justice of the people”).

The Laodicean Christians received two letters from Paul: one letter sent first to Colossae and a second (now lost) sent directly to Laodicea (see Colossians 4.16). The church at Laodicea was probably founded by Epaphras (Colossians 4.12-13) during Paul’s third missionary journey (Acts 19.10). There is no evidence that Paul ever visited Laodicea, although his letter to Colossae reflects his concern for the church.

The enormous wealth of Laodicea was derived in large measure from her location. She stood at the intersection of two great trade routes: one going from Ephesus to the east and the other heading south from Pergamum to the Mediterranean Sea. Five of the seven cities in Revelation lay on the latter route: Laodicea, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Philadelphia.

Laodicea was also the site of large manufacturing and banking operations and was known for fine woolen carpets and clothing. The city served as the center for the worship of Asklepios and the seat of a medical school. Cicero lived there and wrote many of his letters at the provincial court located in the city.

How we get to Laodicea

The city’s great material success did not translate into spiritual significance. In fact, Laodicea is the only church in Revelation to receive no praise whatsoever from Jesus. Let’s see why, and how the same problem can exist in our spiritual lives. Ask yourself three questions.

First, is my faith routine? Jesus says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” (v. 15). Why does he use this metaphor for their souls?

Laodicea had every natural resource except one–water. The city’s location had been determined by the road system, not by water sources. Water had to be transported through stone pipes which were three feet in diameter. This aqueduct was an engineering marvel (many parts still exist), but the water it supplied was adequate at best.

Pipes were laid to two sources, each six miles from Laodicea. One was located to the south at Denizli. This water source was fed by snows from the mountains and started the journey to Laodicea at near freezing temperature. By the time it had traveled six miles through sun-warmed stone pipes the water temperature became lukewarm.

The other source was the hot springs at Hierapolis to the north. These are still stunningly beautiful and are a major tourist attraction. The ruins show how wealthy and prosperous the city once was. The springs arise from within the city, flow across a wide plateau, and then spill over a broad cliff 300 feet high and a mile wide. At its source, this spring is near boiling temperature with steam rising from its surface. It felt like a sauna to my touch when I visited it. However, by the time the water was piped six miles to Laodicea, it, too, became lukewarm.

The people of Laodicea knew all about lukewarm water. Unfortunately, their souls had come to the same state. Their worship had become boring, routine, comfortable. The newness of their faith had worn off in the 40 years since their church had been founded, and their relationship with Jesus had become a religion about him. Faith was just one part of their lives. They had lost their joy, zeal, and passion. Their hearts were as lukewarm as the water they drank.

How long has it been since you were excited about coming to church to worship Jesus Christ? When was the last time you were overjoyed to read God’s word, or thrilled to be with him in prayer? Do you share your faith with zeal? Do you give your money to God gratefully? If your faith is lukewarm, it’s certain that Jesus is standing outside your life today. He continues knocking to get your attention.

Second, am I self-sufficient? Prime land contributed to Laodicea’s wealth. The fertile ground of the Lycus Valley provided great agricultural prosperity. The sheep bred in this area provided a soft, glossy black wool that was in demand across the Empire. Clothing from Laodicea was even mentioned in an edict by Emperor Diocletian.

The city’s location brought trade from across the world to her merchants. Her bank was famous across Asia; in fact, Cicero wrote of cashing his treasury bills of exchange there. Although most cities had only one theater, Laodicea possessed two.

The most striking proof of Laodicea’s wealth occurred in AD 60, when an earthquake devastated the region. Without financial aid from Rome, the people rebuilt their opulent city. Tacitus, the most famous of all ancient historians, paid tribute to their wealth: “Laodice arose from the ruins by the strength of her own resources, and with no help from us” (Annals 14.27).

Against the backdrop of such affluence, Jesus quotes his church: “You say, I am rich, I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing” (v. 17a). They thought their future was secure and their resources sufficient for any crisis. But self-reliant people are always wrong. Circumstances eventually will force us to recognize that we each need the protection and power only Jesus can give.

Today the formerly beautiful Laodicea lies in ruins, mostly unexcavated. A large mound of dirt covers the place where this proud city once stood. These Christians and their city were self-sufficient, until they were gone.

In the same way, it is easy for prosperous Christians to become self-sufficient, blind to our need for Jesus Christ. And so we become lukewarm in our faith, and lose all passion for our Lord.


When You Lose Touch with Your Soul

When You Lose Touch With Your Soul

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Dr. Jim Denison

Revelation 3:1-6

Sardis was located 30 miles southeast of Thyatira and 50 miles northeast of Ephesus. She had been an important and wealthy city for centuries, dating back to 1,500 BC when she was the capitol of the Lydian Empire.

Sardis was the center of transportation for the entire continent. Like spokes of a wheel, major trade routes led from the city in five different directions–northwest to Thyatira and Pergamum, west to Smyrna, east toward Phrygia, southeast to Philadelphia, and southwest to Ephesus. These trade routes brought the citizens commerce beyond any city in Asia Minor.

In addition, the Pactolus River carried gold dust literally into the city’s market place. Croesus, whose name is synonymous with wealth, was king of Sardis in 560 BC. He minted the first modern coins, so Sardis became the place where money was born.

The dye and woolen industries thrived here. Merchants lined her streets with their shops, some of which have been excavated and reconstructed today. The public baths with their ornate columns, swimming pool, and gymnasium have been restored and truly impressive. The people were so wealthy that when an earthquake devastated the area in AD 17, the people of Sardis rebuilt the city in nine years without any aid from the Empire.

Sardis was the political capitol for her region and a thriving religious center as well. She possessed a temple of Artemis which, while never completed, rivaled in size the famous Temple of Diana in Ephesus. The Jewish synagogue was famous for its size and opulence.

And the authorities in Sardis were tolerant of all religions, including Christianity. The church faced no persecution, and believers here had no need to compromise their doctrine or moral convictions to survive. These believers had none of the problems plaguing the other churches of Revelation.

In every way Sardis seemed to be an ideal church in an ideal city. The believers had a wealthy support base, enjoyed religious tolerance, and experience no apparent problems. In fact, Jesus says they “have a reputation of being alive” (v. 1a).

Then comes his shocking indictment: “you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (v. 1b).

How a soul falls asleep

How did things get this way in Sardis? The same way they do in Dallas, or any place.

First, trust appearances: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead…I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God” (vs. 1, 2). If you want your spiritual life to grow useless and lifeless, trust how it looks. Sardis was infamous for trusting appearances historically, and this tendency led often to her fall to military enemies. In the same way, Christians in Sardis are trusting in the appearance of spiritual vitality, when their souls are in fact far from God.

Second, live in the past. Sardis had a wonderful reputation for past greatness. But her present situation was critical. In the same way, we often trust in our past spiritual experiences when we should be seeking God today.

Third, preserve the present. Sardis is happy and complacent with the present. These Christians are engaged in none of the self-examination and spiritual introspection so important to a growing soul. In the same way, if our circumstances are good we are the last to examine our spiritual lives. And the results are disastrous.

Any Christian who believes that the tragedy of Sardis could not occur in his or her spiritual life, is close to repeating it today. When did you last examine your own soul before God?

How a soul revives

Jesus’ call is clear: “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God” (v. 3a). How do we revive a sleeping soul?

First, listen to God’s Spirit: “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard” (v. 3). “Remember” is in the present imperative and should be translated, “Go on remembering,” or “don’t ever let yourself forget.” Remember “what you have received.” “Received” translates a word for a possession deposited with a banker for safekeeping. We received the Christian faith in the same way a banker receives money. Faith did not originate with us. We do not need to create resources or to manufacture vibrant spirituality. God’s gift of the indwelling Spirit is our means for growing deep in the things of God, and we have already received it.

Remember Peter’s encouragement: “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1.3).

Remember “what you have received and heard.” The Spirit delights to speak God’s word to us: “Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live” (Isaiah 55.2-3). We need both time and silence to listen to the Spirit of God, for the sake of our souls.

Next, obey what you hear: “obey it, and repent” (v. 3b). “Obey” translates a Greek word which means “to keep,” in the present imperative, so that it could be rendered “continually hold onto and never let go.” We must continue to obey what God has taught us. This obedience will require constant repentance. The closer we come to God, the further away from him we realize we are.

Third, act now: “But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you” (v. 3c). We have only today to be ready to meet God.

Rewards for a living soul

Even in this city of sleeping souls, it is possible to be alive and dynamic spiritually: “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes” (v. 4a). The woolen industry in Sardis was famous the world over. Jesus contrasts their beautiful outer garments with their dirty souls. Yet, he says, there are a few who have stayed close to him. And he commends them.


When You’re Ready to Quit

When You’re Ready to Quit

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Dr. Jim Denison

Revelation 3:7-13

Philadelphia, the youngest of the seven churches of Revelation, was located 28 miles southeast of Sardis. The city was probably founded by Eumenes II, king of Pergamum (197-160/159 BC), and was named in honor of his younger brother Attalus II, surnamed Philadelphia (“brotherly love”) for his loyalty to his older brother. But some evidence suggests that the official founding of Philadelphia did not occur until 140 BC when Attalus II had succeeded his brother as king of Pergamum (159-138 BC).

From the very beginning, Philadelphia was given great opportunity to fulfill its name. Located on the great highway which connected Europe with the East, the town stood at the intersection of the three countries of Mysia, Lydia, and Phrygia.

As the easternmost frontier of the Hellenistic world, Philadelphia was intended to be a missionary city. Its founders envisioned the Greeks using the city as a beachhead for spreading their language and culture throughout the regions beyond. Philadelphia was literally the gateway from one continent and civilization to another. But such hopes were unfulfilled. The Phrygians to the east stubbornly resisted Greek culture. In time the city decayed into ruins.

It is noteworthy that Jesus says his tiny church in Philadelphia will do what the mighty Greek empire had not been able to accomplish: God would make them an open door to the East and the world. “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut,” he announced (v. 8). Things are not what they seem.

How others must have scoffed at Jesus’ claim! This church had “little strength” (v. 8). The believers here were small in number, perhaps no more than a handful of people. They were small in resources, for it was difficult for Christians to find work in Philadelphia. And they were small in status and significance. Many of them were slaves, street people, or other outcasts. They had no standing in their community whatsoever.

But Jesus’ promise is clear: if they will hold onto the opportunities God has given them, no one will take their crown (v. 11). The same promise is ours as well.

When we’re in Philadelphia

When we find ourselves in Philadelphia, we have three options:

•We can give up, assuming that we don’t have the strength or resources to go on.

•We can give in to the culture and pressure which surrounds us.

•We can go on. Jesus urges us, “Hold on to what you have” (v. 11).

Why go on?

•God will use us: “What I open no one can shut” (v. 7).

•God will vindicate us. Jesus says of our enemies, “I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you” (v. 9).

•God will help us stand: “Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it” (v. 12a).

•God will claim us: “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” (v. 12b).

We will all spend time in Philadelphia. Perseverance is the key to the power of God.


Where Is God When It Hurts

Where Is God When It Hurts?

1 John 4:7-12

Dr. Jim Denison

So you think you had a bad day recently. This true account was taken from a recent Florida newspaper.

A man was working on his motorcycle on his patio when it slipped into gear and dragged him through the glass patio door and into the dining room. He lay bleeding on the floor as his wife called the paramedics, who transported him to the hospital for stitches. Then she went into the living room, pushed the motorcycle back outside, and used some paper towels to blot up the gasoline which had spilled onto the floor. She threw the towels into the toilet and went to the hospital to check on her husband.

His stitches done, he was released to go home. As he looked at his shattered patio door and damaged motorcycle, he became despondent, went into the bathroom, sat down and smoked a cigarette. He then threw it into the toilet where the gasoline-soaked towels were. It exploded, blowing his trousers away and burning his backside. His wife again ran to the telephone to call for an ambulance.

The same paramedics came to the house again. As they were carrying him on their stretcher down the stairs to the ambulance, one of them asked his wife how he had burned himself. She told him, and the paramedics started laughing so hard one of them tipped the stretcher and dumped the man out. He fell down the remaining steps and broke his arm.

Now, how was your week?

We begin today a series on problems with God, starting with the hardest question of all: where is God when it hurts? Christians believe three facts: God is all powerful, God is all loving, and evil exists. If you’re hurting today or care about someone who is, you know the third statement is true. But what of the others? Where is God when life hurts?

God is love

One answer to this problem is to deny the first statement, the assertion that God is all-powerful. If God could not prevent this problem, or heal this disease, or change these circumstances, then we should not blame him for them. Across the years many have unfortunately chosen this approach.

Here’s an example. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, out of the suffering and death of his own child. In his book, the rabbi states flatly that God cannot change the laws of nature for our benefit, and will not answer our prayers for the impossible or the unnatural. The rabbi has chosen a limited God as his approach to suffering in the world. Many would agree.

But most of us would not. I am assuming today that most of us know that God, if he is indeed God, is all-powerful. The God who created the universe out of nothing clearly has the power to intervene in that universe. If I can create a watch, I can change its time. If I can create a car, I can drive it.

We more commonly question God’s love, don’t we? If God really loved us, he wouldn’t allow this problem or this pain, we say.

Now our text is clear: “God is love.” The text does not say, “God loves,” for we love and we are not God. It does not say “love is God,” for God is more than a loving feeling or action. The Bible says that God is love.

Love is his nature, his very being. You and I sometimes do loving things—God is love. God loves in action because he is love in essence. Love is who God is, the Bible says.

Do you believe that it’s really true?

Many did not believe these words when John wrote them. The Greeks of his century pictured their gods living on Mt. Olympus, removed from our cares and problems, throwing thunderbolts at us on a whim.

The Roman Stoics of his day saw the gods as fates. They said that we are dogs tied to carts. We can run with the cart or be dragged with the cart, but we’re going with the cart. Apathy—literally “no feeling”—is the best way to deal with gods who do not feel.

Some today struggle to picture God as love. They know that Jesus loves us, but are not so sure that God the Father does. I still remember the preacher’s story about the dying woman, with her husband on one side and their estranged son on the other. In her last act, she took the hand of the father and the hand of the child, brought them together, and died. And so the preacher said that Jesus on the cross took the hand of the wrathful Father and sinful humanity and brought them together in his death. But the Bible says, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).

Perhaps you struggle with this assertion that God is love. If God really loved you, he wouldn’t let you hurt like this, would he? He wouldn’t allow a plane to crash, killing ten people associated with a college basketball team; he wouldn’t permit an earthquake to kill multiplied thousands; he wouldn’t countenance cancer or heart disease, or rape or drug abuse, or poverty or pain. Or so it seems.

How do we know that God really loves us in the face of hard times? This must have been a question John anticipated in writing this letter as well, for he answers it immediately: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (vs. 9-10).

He sent his Son as our sacrifice (v. 10). He died in our place, for our sins, to prove his love.