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

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.

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.

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