409 Ways to Trust God

409 Reasons to Trust God

Revelation 3:7-13

Dr. Jim Denison

Do you know why Formula 409 is so named? Its developers experienced 408 failed attempts before their final product was created.

Edmund Mcilhenny operated a sugar plantation and saltworks in Louisiana before the Civil War. When Yankee troops invaded his area in 1863, he fled. Two years later he returned to find his plantation in ruins. Mcilhenny fell into deep despair. Surveying his once prosperous plantation, the only part he could find undamaged was a small plot of hot peppers growing in the corner of a garden. He made a sauce with the peppers to add to his meager dinner, and thus invented Tabasco Sauce. One hundred years later the Mcilhenny family still produces it.

What about your past still plagues your present and hinders your future? If you could live your life over again, what about the past would you change?

Would you work harder in school? Try for more degrees?

Would you like to go back and make things right with someone? Have another chance to deal with that problem or failure which still plagues you with guilt today? Avoid that ditch you drove into? Say “no” to that serpent whose temptation expelled you from your personal Garden of Eden?

What about your present hinders your future? What do you wish were different about your circumstances today? Where is life disappointing you? In what way are things not working out as you dreamed they would?

Are your children worrying you today? It’s been said that we’re never more happy than our unhappiest child. Is your marriage not what you dreamed it would be? How would you change your job if you could? Your finances? Your health?

Where is God in all of this? His word promises that he has “plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). We know that the sovereign, omnipotent Lord of the Universe is our Father, so we expected better treatment as his children. If Bill Gates was your father, you’d assume a certain standard of living. If your dad is Tiger Woods, you’d expect a certain advantage in the game. And you’d be right, but not in the way you might think.

When you’re living in Philadelphia

Philadelphia was the newest town in Revelation. It was founded in 140 B.C. by Attalus II, a man who so admired his brother Eumenes that his city was named “one who loves his brother.” Christians in Philadelphia must have thought the name a cruel joke.

Some cities have slogans or reputations. New York City is “the city that never sleeps.” Ft. Worth is “where the West begins.” Of course, they say that Dallas is “where the East peters out.”

Philadelphia was known to the culture as “the city of the open door.” She was situated on one of the great highways of their world, leading from the West to the Orient. She was placed on the eastern edge of the Greek civilization, intended to be an open door for the export of Greek language and culture to the larger world. But things hadn’t worked out that way. The Phrygians to the east refused Greek culture and ways. The “open door” the Greeks intended was not successful.

But Jesus says that his tiny church would do what the mighty Greek empire could not: “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut” (v. 8). Things are not what they seem.

That’s what Jesus said, but it’s certainly not what their past or present would indicate.

This church had “little [micro in the Greek] strength” (v. 8). They were small in numbers, perhaps no more than a handful of believers. They were small in resources, for it was difficult for Christians to find work in Philadelphia. And they were small in status or significance. Many of them were slaves, street people, or other outcasts. They had no standing in their community whatever. Their present circumstances made future significance impossible.

They were oppressed by those in “the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars” (v. 9). These Jews in Philadelphia were happy to turn the Christians in their midst over to the Roman authorities, in return for ten percent of their confiscated goods. Their every neighbor was a threat to their future.

Those reading this letter must have wondered at Jesus’ providence and plans for them. No believers in Revelation were more hindered by their past and present from a glorious future of significance and joy.

But if they would “hold onto what you have” (v. 11), a remarkable future is indeed on the way. They would be a “pillar in the temple of my God” (v. 12a). Philadelphia was so filled with altars and statues that people called the town “little Athens.” However, earthquakes were so common in the region that people fled their temples at the first tremor, lest these marble pillars fall on them and crush them. By contrast, Jesus’ people would be such a pillar in his eternal temple that “never again will they leave it” (v. 12b).

He would “write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God . . . and I will also write on him my new name” (v. 12c). When a leading citizen of Philadelphia did something noteworthy for the town, another pillar was erected with his name on it. Their pillars are just rubble today, but the name of God inscribed on our hearts and souls will endure forever.

The Christians of Philadelphia were exhorted by Jesus to look from their frustrated circumstances to their glorious Father. To look up rather than down, to look out rather than in, to look to God’s future rather than their past or present. This letter is in the Bible so that we can do the same today.

How to live in Philadelphia

But it’s not easy to do that, is it? How can God redeem your child’s death, or your parents’ divorce? How can he be at work in the discouragements and setbacks which have wounded your soul? How could an all-powerful, all-loving God permit you to be trapped in Philadelphia? How are you supposed to trust his heart when you cannot see his hand?

I have wrestled with this question a great deal over the years. In fact, it has been the issue which has most perplexed me in my Christian life. Over the years I have come to these conclusions.

First, not everything that happens expresses the perfect will of God. 2 Peter 3:9 seems clear: God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Yet many perish; many do not come to repentance. 1 Timothy 2:4 adds that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Yet many are not saved; many do not come to a knowledge of the truth.

Why is this? God made us to worship him; worship requires freedom; so God has chosen to honor the freedom he has given us. This is no denial or depreciation of his sovereignty: he has chosen to limit himself at the point of our freedom. When we misuse our freedom, the fault is not his. We have stepped from his perfect will to his permissive will. Tragically, this is a common experience for us all.

Second, when God’s perfect will includes suffering and judgment, he tells us. There are times in the Bible when he causes difficulty and pain for people. But he always makes sure we know why.

He brought the plagues against Egypt, but only after warning Pharaoh of the judgment to come. He brought Babylon to enslave the Jews for 70 years, but only after warning the people of his judgment if they would not repent of their sins.

I have concluded that if God causes suffering in life, if pain is part of his perfect will, he’ll make sure that I know it and the reasons for it. If I suddenly demanded Craig’s car keys or confined him to his bedroom with no explanation, leaving him to figure out what he may have done wrong, I’ve not been a very good parent. Given that he’s now taller than I am, I’m not a very smart parent, either.

When God brings hardship, it is always for a larger purpose. Always.

Third, God’s holiness causes him to redeem all that he permits. Everything that happens must come from God’s perfect will, or his permissive will. He must at least permit all that happens, or he is not God.

But he is holy and just in all his ways. Psalm 9:8 promises that God will “judge the world in righteousness and govern the peoples with justice.” He is perfect in every way. And so his holy nature leads him to redeem all that he permits. If he will not use bad for a greater good, if he will not redeem suffering for a greater purpose, he violates his own character.

If we are submitted to his will, we will join in the blessing which comes from his redemptive work. Joseph got to see the ways God redeemed his suffering at the hands of his brothers. Paul saw the salvation of the Philippian jailer who imprisoned him. John met Jesus in his prison cave on Patmos.

If we refuse his will, we will miss the ways he redeems bad for good. Pharaoh certainly never saw the Promised Land. Many of the Jews perished in the Babylonian captivity. According to tradition, Pilate committed suicide without ever trusting the risen Christ whose atoning death he arranged.

So when we’re in Philadelphia, when we have “micro” strength and our past and present seem to stifle our future, we can know that it’s not so.

We can know that so long as we are yielded to the Spirit of God, the open door he has set before us can never be closed. So long as we trust him to redeem all that he permits, he will. In ways we will see now, and ways we will not see until eternity is ours.

Beethoven lost his hearing and the music world thought his genius was at its end, but he later composed his best works. Louis Pasteur made his greatest discoveries after suffering a stroke which threatened his life. John Milton’s best poetry came after he lost his eyesight. William Cowper wrote his greatest hymns between periods of insanity. The lowest valleys can lead to the highest mountains.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Charles Darrow found himself out of work and money. He was an engineer with years of experience, but no job. He and his wife were barely surviving. One evening they made up a little game to take their minds off their troubles. They drew a circle on a piece of cardboard, and recalling a fun visit to Atlantic City, marked the circle with the names of its streets. Charles carved little houses and hotels out of pieces of wood, and they called their game Monopoly. In 1935 they sold the game nationally and became millionaires. Bad became good.


God’s holiness causes him to redeem whatever he permits. When you’re in Philadelphia, never give up or give in. Give yesterday to his forgiving grace. Get on your knees and do this. Then give today to his redeeming power. Ask him to use your present for his future. You have not because you ask not. Prayer positions you to receive all that God wants to give. Stay faithful to the last word from God, while open to the next. Know that success is obedience. And rejoice that the door God opens for you, no one can shut. Not today–not ever.

Giant pillars framed the door to the ancient church of Philadelphia. They are all that stands today of any of the churches of Revelation–the only visible remains of any of these congregations. In the smallest church, the greatest doors. And God is still using the faithful church they welcomed.

When I visited the site of the Philadelphia church, I was greeted by a Muslim government worker employed as the caretaker of this archaeological site. He gave me the only Christian literature I found in all my tour of Turkey: an extensive booklet on the Seven Churches of Revelation.

Written as an evangelistic witness, the brochure is available in three different languages, but only at the site of the Philadelphia church. This Muslim caretaker distributes hundreds a year, without fully understanding its content. These booklets clearly outline God’s plan of salvation, and are the only evangelical witness in that part of the country.

Even today God is using his “church of the open door.” And every Christian like her.

If you’re in Philadelphia, today is a day to rejoice. God redeems all that he permits. Your door is open, and the best is yet to be. This is the promise of God.

The Cure for Restless Hearts

The Cure for Restless Hearts

Revelation 2:18-28

Dr. Jim Denison

Jesus wrote the longest letter in Revelation to its smallest church, proof that the issue we are studying today is crucial. Thyatira was located 40 miles due east of Pergamum. Its major importance was as a textile manufacturing center. Purple dye, the most coveted in the ancient world, was made from the roots of the madder plant, a species which was abundant in the region. The book of Acts describes Lydia of Philippi as a dealer in purple from Thyatira (Acts 16:14).

If Pergamum was the Washington, D.C. of ancient Asia, Thyatira was their Chicago–a blue-collar workers’ town. And central to her economy and culture were the trade unions which dominated her life.

Every industry had one. Each trade union had its own patron god or goddess. Each week the union would meet together to worship its deity. An animal would be sacrificed on the altar of that god, then eaten in a feast. Drunken orgies would usually follow. If you did not attend the meetings of your trade union, you could not work. You could not support yourself or your family. You might starve to death.

Moral compromise was the greatest temptation in Thyatira. It is the greatest temptation in Dallas. Our options are two.

Refusing the call to compromise

“Jezebel” is the voice of compromise, then and today. The original woman by this name was the wife of King Ahab of Israel. She was responsible for bringing Baal worship into the nation and corrupting its soul (1 Kings 16:31).

This Jezebel has the same message: go along to get along. You have a God-given responsibility to support your family. Compromise for the sake of those you care about. These false gods are harmless. What difference does it make if you eat meat offered to them, or participate in the culture? You’re supposed to go into the world as Christians, not withdraw from it. Compromise is the way the real world works.

After all, we live in two worlds: the spiritual and the secular, Sunday and Monday. Why not go to church on Sunday and the trade union meeting on Monday? Why not go to prayer meeting and Bible study, then to a party with your trade guild?

Why not read your Bible and pray and worship, but also drink with your friends and get involved in private immorality and do what the popular kids do? Why not go to the movies and the clubs that the culture has made popular? Why not have your church friends and your worldly friends, your church life and your “real world” life? The arrangement seems to be working well enough.

In fact, Jesus commends “your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first” (v. 19). His description escalates: actions, to the love and faith which prompt them, to the ministry and perseverance which makes them effective, so that we are doing more than we’ve ever done.

We’ve built a new Community Life Center. We are doing ministry around the world. Our programs are healthy. Our giving is good. All seems well. Why be more committed than we already are? We may not have all of Jesus we need, but we have all we want. So long as we’re in Thyatira, we have to get along with the people who live in Thyatira. That’s just the way it is.

Such is the message of Jezebel. Now hear the message of Jesus.

Obeying the call to courage

He is “the Son of God,” the only time the phrase is used in Revelation. His eyes “are like blazing fire,” symbolic of judgment and omniscience. His feet are “like burnished bronze,” symbolic of glowing holiness and glory.

He will bring all who advocate compromise to repentance, employing any means that are necessary. He will use a “bed of suffering” until “they repent of their ways.” He will “strike her children dead,” probably a reference to his judgment on the spiritual results of her message.

Then “all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds,” that he is a God who sees our private compromise and brings it to judgment. He will “repay each of you according to your deeds,” as gently as he can or as harshly as he must. He will do whatever it takes to remove the cancer of compromise from the soul of his Church, the body of Christ.

When we stand with courage, we receive “authority over the nations” as reward for our commitment. Even better, we receive “the morning star,” Jesus himself. In Revelation 22:16, Jesus calls himself “the bright Morning Star.” We are given the most intimate, joyful, life-transforming personal relationship with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He repays every sacrifice our courage requires.

To see life this way requires a worldview shift, a change in our way of understanding our world. If Thyatira is our home, our destination, we need to go along to get along in Thyatira. If Dallas is our home, our purpose, our definition of success and significance, then we need to do whatever it takes to be prosperous and happy in Dallas. But what if it’s not? What if we are going about life in the wrong way?

According to the word of God, life on earth is the journey, not the destination. Our lives are cars in which to travel, not homes in which to live. As with the children of Israel, we are in the wilderness, traveling to the Promised Land. If Christ is your Savior, you have been freed from slavery in spiritual Egypt. You are on your way to the Holy Land which none of us has ever seen. You are traveling in the wilderness now. It is the means, not the end; the road, not the reward. Seeing life that way changes everything.

We can settle down in the desert and make the best of things here, but we will miss all that is waiting for us when we get to the Holy Land. We can try to scrape together a life in the wilderness, or live for the “land of milk and honey.” We can follow our friends and culture here, or follow the pillar of cloud and fire which is leading us home. He alone knows the best way. He alone can give us manna and quail for the journey. He alone can give us protection and significance in the wilderness, until we follow him to the eternal joy of our eternal homes.

If this is just the wilderness on the way to the Holy Land, what people living in the desert think of us doesn’t really matter all that much, does it? Turning from the One who leads us to joy, compromising with the stragglers along the road so we can have a little bigger tent or a newer camel for the journey doesn’t make much sense. Straying into immorality and cultural compromise so we can get a larger caravan for the temporary journey isn’t very wise. By contrast, “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose” (Jim Elliott).


You and I were made for the next world, not this one. Have you noticed that the best in this life is never good enough? In gazing at the most beautiful sunset over the ocean, there’s something empty, something missing–it’s not enough. The finest meal isn’t quite enough; the most delightful walk through the woods is somehow imperfect. In the best moments, it’s as though there’s something more, something missing, something beyond this. There is. Augustine was right: “God have made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in him” (Confessions 1.1).

But when we rest in him, when we live for the Holy Land and not the wilderness, when we pay the price of courage to refuse the peril of compromise, we find a joy in the journey that we will discover in no other way. We find a purpose to every day, a direction to every step, a fulfillment in every moment. Life makes sense. The problems and pains of this fallen world are less significant. We consider that the present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory to be revealed (Romans 8:18).

There is true joy waiting for us even in Thyatira, if we will trade Jezebel for Jesus. Why did God bring you to hear that invitation today?

The Cure for the Complacent Souls

The Cure for Complacent Souls

Revelation 3:1-6

Dr. Jim Denison

The church we’ll visit today was located in the most ideal city for Christianity in all of Revelation. If any church should have been alive and exciting, it was this one. And that was indeed their reputation, with everyone but Jesus.

Sardis was located thirty miles southeast of Thyatira and fifty miles east of Ephesus. She had been an important and wealthy city for centuries. Her foundations date to 1500 B.C., when she was the capital of the Lydian Empire.

This was the center of transportation for the entire continent. Major trade routes led from Sardis in five different directions, bringing her citizens commerce and wealth beyond any city in the region.

In addition, the Pactolus River carried gold dust literally into the city’s market place. Croesus, her king in 560 B.C., minted the first modern coins, so that Sardis became the place where money was born.

Dyeing and woolen industries thrived here. Merchants lined her streets with their shops, some of which have been excavated and reconstructed today. Her baths and its columns, swimming pool, and gymnasium have been restored, and are among the most impressive in all of Turkey. Her people were so wealthy that when an earthquake devastated Sardis in A.D. 17 she rebuilt herself without aid from the Empire, in just nine years.

Sardis was the political capital 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 in Ephesus. Her Jewish synagogue was famous for its size and opulence. It has also been reconstructed, and is strikingly beautiful.

The authorities in Sardis were very tolerant of all religions, including Christianity. The church here faced none of the persecution believers endured in Smyrna or Pergamum. These Christians were uncompromised in their doctrine or moral convictions. None of the problems plaguing the other churches of Revelation are to be found here.

In every way this would seem to be an ideal church in an ideal city. And in fact Jesus says they “have a reputation of being alive” (v. 1). If we could visit this church, we’d be very impressed. A beautiful meeting place for worship, a wealthy congregation in attendance, an eloquent sermon, by every appearance the strongest church we’ve visited so far.

And so we expect to hear a strong word of support and commendation from Jesus. Then comes the shock: “You are dead.” You look alive, but you are not. You look healthy and wealthy, but you are not. You are asleep, and dying. And if you don’t wake up, now, “I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you” (v. 3). I’ll come and you’ll be gone.

These Christians are asleep spiritually, and near death. Though they live in the most ideal city in Revelation, they have lost touch with their souls. Now Jesus must do whatever is necessary to wake them up. The deeper the sleep the harsher the alarm must be, before the coma leads to death.

How a soul falls asleep

Trust appearances. Jesus says, “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” (v. 1, 2). If you want your spiritual life to grow useless and lifeless, trust how it looks.

Of all the churches and cities in Revelation, these should have known better. Sardis stood at the top of a mountain, 1500 feet above the valley. The mountain sides were smooth, so that there was no good way for an army to ascend and attack. The city stood like a giant watchtower over the Hermus valley below, and appeared impregnable.

When Cyrus of Persia attacked Sardis, her people were convinced that their walls would protect them. But a Persian soldier saw a Sardian soldier accidentally drop his helmet down the cliff and climb down to retrieve it. He knew then that there must be a crack in the side of that cliff by which a man could climb. That night he led a raiding party of Persian soldiers up the side of the mountain, through that crack. They found the Sardian watchmen sleeping and took the entire city. Sardis appeared safe, but they fell asleep and perished.

Two centuries later history repeated itself, as the Greek leader Antiochus and his troops climbed the same crack and found the watch asleep. Again the sleeping city fell. And now history was being repeated a third time in the church of Sardis. These believers were asleep and dying. Trusting appearances. Believing that because they looked healthy and vital, they must be.

This can happen so easily to us. We can think that because our church’s statistics are good and our meetings well-attended, we must be healthy. Because we come to church on Sunday morning and act religious, we must be. Because we keep up our activities, we must be growing spiritually.

But remember the Scripture: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16.7). If you want your soul to grow cold and lifeless, trust appearances.

Live in the past. Sardis’ greatest days were behind her. By this time she had become famous for decadence and immorality. She constantly remembered her great kings and achievements of the past, and lived in them. Her Christians gloried in their reputation and took pride in their great history. And soon their church would be history as well.

Christians can still make their mistake today. You may remember with joy the day you came to Christ, but that was to be just the beginning of your Christian life. You may recall a great revival your church experienced, or an exciting mission trip, or your days teaching the Bible or leading a ministry. But if you live in those days now, you will miss the power of God.

What is Jesus doing in your life today? Where is he at work now? Is he a living presence, or a historic figure for you? The subject of your religious faith, or a present reality? Who was the last person with whom you shared Christ? The last life you touched? The last time God spoke powerfully to you? The last time you gave your heart to Jesus in prayer? If you want your soul to grow dry and cold, live in the past.

Preserve the present.. Maintain the status quo. Become comfortable and complacent. Don’t rock the boat or offend your society. Fit in–keep things as they are. These were the mottos of Sardis, and her church. And they preserved the present until it was gone.

But many Christians still haven’t learned the lessons of Sardis. The seven last words of the church are, “We never did it that way before.” We want the status quo, some place in our lives to remind us of how the world used to be. In a postmodern, post-Christian society, we want one hour a week where we can go back in time to a place that is safe and comfortable. We like things efficient and organized. And nothing is better organized than a graveyard.

Are you comfortable with your faith today? Is your soul where you want it to be? Do you read about Sardis, unconcerned that it might be your church as well? Then it is. If you want your soul to be dull and dry, trust appearances, live in the past, and preserve the present. But a comfortable soul is soon complacent, and then comatose.

When a soul falls asleep

How do we “wake up”? “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? “What you have received….” “Received” translates the word for a possession deposited with a banker for safekeeping. We “received” the word of God and the Spirit in the same way a banker receives money. The indwelling Holy Spirit is our all-sufficient help for growing deep in the things of God.

Here’s how Peter states the fact: “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). We already have in our lives all we need.

How do we receive this help? We’re to remember what we have “received and heard.” The Spirit of God delights to speak to those who will listen. He is waiting to speak to us. God has so much more to say than most of us have heard.

Here is the Father’s plea: “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). The best way to feed our souls is by listening to God.

Every church in Revelation received the same invitation: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” I have counted over 300 times in Scripture where God tries to speak to his people. The Spirit wants to speak to us today.

Then why don’t we hear him more clearly? Because hearing anyone requires time and silence. We must make time to listen, and be still enough to hear. When last did you hear his Spirit speak to yours?

When we hear God’s voice, next we must “obey it, and repent” (v. 3). It is imperative that we surrender to what we hear God say, for the sake of our souls.

“Obey” in Jesus’ letter to Sardis translates a word which means “to keep.” It is in the present imperative, so that it could be rendered, “continually hold onto and never let go.” It is essential that we continue to obey what God says to us.

When we obey, we will usually need to repent as well. The closer we come to God, the further away we realize we are. When you’re walking at night and a passing car splashes mud on you, in the dark it doesn’t look too bad. As you come closer to a streetlight you see more mud, and begin to brush it off. When you stand in the light you see that you must go home and change. So with our souls.

The essence of growing spiritually is to live yielded to the voice of God’s Spirit.


It is possible to be close to Jesus, even in Sardis. In their sleeping, dying church “you have a few people who have not soiled their clothes,” Jesus says (v. 4a). The woolen industry in Sardis was famous the world over. And so Jesus contrasts their beautiful outer garments with their dirty souls, and commends the few who have stayed close to him.

The future of these few is bright: “They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy” (v. 4b). In the ancient world white garments stood for purity, as a white wedding dress does today. They were also the robes of feasting and festivals, and of victory. Those whose souls are close to God are pure, joyous, and victorious.

And these robes will last forever: “I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels” (v. 5b). “Acknowledge” means to advocate before the courts. Jesus will be our defender and win us approval before the Judge of the ages.

All this is waiting for those who will listen to God’s Spirit and obey what they hear. Even in Sardis we can overcome, walk with Jesus, be robed in white, and gain eternal favor with the Father. We can find our souls, never to lose them again.

An elderly, bedridden man became discouraged about his spiritual life. God seemed distant and unapproachable. He felt as though his prayers weren’t heard. He spoke to his pastor about this problem, and received some unusual advice. The pastor suggested that he put an empty chair next to his bed and imagine Jesus sitting in the chair. Then speak to him as though he were right there. The man did, and it worked. He kept the chair beside his bed always.

A few months later the man died. His daughter found him and called their pastor immediately. “It’s so hard,” she said through her tears. “He was fine when I left him. When I came back, he was gone. And there’s something I don’t understand. When I found him, his hand was in the empty chair. I wonder why.” Her pastor said, “I think I know.”

Do you?

Thermostat of the Soul

The Thermostat of the Soul

Revelation 2:12-17

Dr. Jim Denison

When Janet and I were married in 1980 I became a bigamist. I was already married to a 1966 Ford Mustang coupe. From the beginning we were a marriage of three, much to my new wife’s chagrin.

I had to sell my Mustang a few years later after a neighbor wrecked it while it was parked on the street. I’ve always suspected my wife of complicity in the crime. She was delighted to see her competition drive away. I still miss that car.

My Mustang was perfect in every way except one: the thermostat. This was the device which regulated the temperature of the car’s engine. Unfortunately, the “289″ Ford engine had a thermostat which was too weak, and the car would eventually overheat. So I had to replace it two or three times a year–a small price to pay for love.

I soon became an expert on thermostats, at least for old Mustangs. I learned the basic difference between a thermostat and a thermometer: a thermostat controls temperature, while a thermometer reflects it. One changes its environment, the other becomes like it.

What we are in public is the thermometer. Everyone knows that it was hotter than Hades around here in August. We’re all hoping for a better September. What we are in private is the thermostat. How healthy is the one in your car? Do you even know where it is? But if it breaks, pretty soon the entire engine overheats and the car shuts down.

We’re going to work on our spiritual thermostats today, because they are the key to spiritual success, joy, and power; or to spiritual defeat, frustration, and failure.

Checking your thermometer

Jesus’ letters to his seven churches are addressed in a circular route. From Smyrna the road north followed the coastline some 40 miles before turning in a northeastern direction up the valley of the Caicus River. About 10 miles inland from the Aegean Sea stood the city of Pergamum.

Because of her inland location the city could never attain the commercial and trade importance of Ephesus and Smyrna, but in political prestige she surpassed them both. If Ephesus with her trade and wealth was the New York City of Asia, and Smyrna with her beauty and culture was their San Francisco, then Pergamum with her political significance was their Washington, D.C.

Built on a cone-shaped hill a thousand feet in height, Pergamum dominated the valley below. From this height her inhabitants could see the Mediterranean Sea fifteen miles away. Her name in Greek means “citadel,” and she was. A citadel of evil, that is.

Jesus calls her the place “where Satan has his throne.” The reason was simple: this was the seat of emperor worship on the continent of Asia Minor.

The city had been given to the Romans back in 133 B.C. In 29 B.C. they became the first city on earth to build a temple to the worship of a living emperor. When they became the capital of the Empire on the continent, such emperor worship became the mandatory requirement of every inhabitant.

Once a year, every resident was required to bow before a bust of Caesar, burn a pinch of incense as a sacrifice, and say “Caesar is Lord.” The person then received a certificate proving that the sacrifice had been made, and was required to carry it at all times to show to any who demanded it.

According to tradition, by the end of the first century such sacrifice was made at the Temple of Trajan, a magnificent marble structure which still stands today.

It was here that Antipas, the only person named in the entire Book of Revelation, refused to worship Caesar and died for his faith. His name means “against all,” a commitment he honored with his death.

Every other Christian in Pergamum could expect the same fate. If parents would not deny Christ, their children were brought to the Temple, where their throats were cut unless their mother or father worshiped Caesar. What would you do? What would I do?

The Bible requires that you “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2). To give our “bodies” is to give our lives, completely and totally to God. Why is this so hard for us?

I have been taught that religion is a private, personal thing, a kind of spiritual hobby. Who wants to sacrifice for their membership in a garden club? I enjoy playing tennis, but I’m not willing to die for the game or to defend a tennis court. I have long admired Charles Spurgeon, but I’m not going to lose my job to defend his theology.

In a world which separates the spiritual and the secular, Sunday and Monday, church and the “real world,” why pay a price to follow Jesus in public? Because such an integrated commitment to him is the only way the Christian faith works. He can bless only what he can touch and control. He can bring the car safely home only when he is driving it. He can heal a body only when he can operate on it. When I separate God from Monday, I lose all he can do for my work, my family, my money, my life.

Are you paying a price to follow Jesus in public? When last did it cost you something to stand for him? A client, because you would not compromise your integrity? A friend, because you would not do what he or she wanted to do? When last did you share your faith? When last did you take an unpopular stand for him?

It may cost us something to serve Jesus on Monday, in public, in the “real world.” But we gain far more than we lose.

Checking your thermostat

So that’s the public part of faith, the thermometer everyone can see. Christians in Pergamum were doing well in this regard. But there’s more to their story, and ours.

The letter continues: “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you. You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality” (v. 14).

Balak, the king of Moab, tried to entice Balaam the Hebrew prophet to curse Israel, but he refused. However, Balaam did even worse. He arranged a plan whereby the daughters of the Moabites seduced the men of Israel. Then these women led them to sacrifice to the pagan god of Moab and worship him (Numbers 22-25). From then to now, Balaam stands for the deception of idolatry.

It is idolatrous to adopt unethical business practices, for they put money before Jesus. It is idolatrous to gossip or slander, for they dishonor God and his people. It is idolatrous to commit personal immorality, for it dishonors the Spirit of God who dwells in us (1 Corinthians 6:18-20). Private sin is idolatry, for it puts itself before God.

Then Jesus warns them:  “Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (v. 15). They were an early heresy which taught that physical actions do not affect our spiritual lives. And so we can be involved in sexual immorality or any other private, physical sin, without spiritual consequence. We can abuse alcohol and drugs; we can engage in pornography or other sexual sin; and still keep our souls intact. But we cannot. The world may not see that our thermostat is leaking, but it is. And soon the engine will be ruined.

Eighty percent of the warships sunk during World War II were attacked by submarines. Just because we cannot see the danger does not mean we’re safe. And the danger is very real.

What was your last private sin? Why is it such a problem? Because God’s word says it is. Consider Proverbs 26:27: “If a man digs a pit, he will fall into it; if a man rolls a stone, it will roll back on him.” That’s why Romans 6:23 warns us that “the wages of sin is death.”

Why is this true? Because private sin always becomes public. David’s adultery is known to 30 centuries of history. Moral failures by recent television ministers are easy to recall. Even if we don’t see the sin itself, we see its effects. Alzheimer’s affects the patient long before it is diagnosed. Lung cancer shortens your breath before it is discovered. Private sin affects our effectiveness and service in ways we may not even realize at the time. And it creates a sense of guilt and hypocrisy which grieves and plagues us all through our days.

Why is this true? Because, as Jesus said, the branch must be connected to the vine to bear fruit (John 15:4). If the body is not connected to the head, it will die. I found some poison ivy in our backyard the other day. Being very allergic to the stuff, I knew not to touch it. Instead, I reached out with long-handled clippers and cut it off at the root. The leaves were just as green and poisonous as before. But three days later, they were withered and brown.

Churchill said that an army travels on its stomach, that supply lines win the war. Christians travel on their knees–our connection with Jesus wins the spiritual war. Secret sin stifles that relationship, cutting the power at its source. And the results, over time, are disastrous.

So Jesus says, “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (v. 16). If we do not deal with our private sin, Jesus will. He will treat us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must, but he will do whatever it takes to remove the malignancy on our souls. If he must expose our sin to the light of day in order to defeat it, he will. If he must use disease or disaster to bring us to our knees, he will. Any loving father will do whatever it takes to rid his child of cancer. You would; I would; God will.

But when we pay the price of personal integrity, we receive his “hidden manna,” spiritual food like unto the food from heaven which fed the children of Israel in the wilderness. We will receive a “white stone with a new name written on it”; this was the tessera, an invitation to a great banquet. God will always repay our faithfulness–always.

This week I was reading in Bunyan’s Grace Abounding, where this faithful, imprisoned Christian reminded his readers of the time Samson killed a lion and left its carcass on the side of the road. When he passed it later, bees had used it for their nest and made honey in it (Judges 14:5-9). Bunyan commented: “Temptations, when we meet them at first, are as the lion that roared upon Samson; but if we overcome them, the next time we see them, we shall find a nest of honey within them.” Guaranteed.


Our society is more prosperous than ever before. I read this week that we will spend $22 billion this year on luxury bathrooms alone. Yet the number of people who say they are “very unhappy” has risen 20 percent since the 1950s, and depression rates are 10 times higher than they were 50 years ago.

Why? This week I also read J. P. Moreland’s new book, The Lost Virtue of Happiness. He says that our culture has a distorted definition of happiness. We see it as a feeling of pleasure which we achieve through the gratification of our physical desires. The ancients knew better. For them, happiness was “a life well lived, a life of virtue and character, a life that manifests wisdom, kindness, and goodness,” not a life consumed with self and self-gratification. And they were happier than we.

D. L. Moody was right: what you are in the dark, that you are, and no more. If your thermostat is broken, eventually your thermometer is going to show it. Where have Balak and the Nicolaitans found you? What private sin is keeping you from the presence and power of Jesus? From public commitment and courage and joy?

As I learned from my 1966 Mustang, the time to fix a broken thermostat is today. Tomorrow the engine may be ruined. This is the warning, and the invitation, of God.