T. A. McMahon
The Berean Call
When writing or even thinking about the biblical Jesus, problems may arise. One of them occurs when we focus on just one of His attributes and lose sight of His many others. This can give us a distorted view of our Lord and Savior. It’s also possible for us to not even consider a particular attribute of His, which likewise can distort our true understanding of His character as revealed in Scripture. All of Christ’s attributes are related, and, of course, they are all perfect in every way. Moreover, Jesus is “the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8). He doesn’t change. So, what’s with this title —“Jesus Gets Tough”?
Well, the title has to do primarily with our reaction when we read that Jesus acted or said something in a way that may startle us. We’re surprised because we may not have considered that particular characteristic of our Lord although it is clearly presented in Scripture. For example, He is called the “Lamb of God,” and quite often we see Him reflecting qualities of meekness and gentleness, including the aspect of His being the sacrificial “Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world.” But in contrast to that, He is also “the Lion of the tribe of Juda” (Revelation 5:5). He appeared to Joshua with sword in hand as “captain of the host of the Lord” (Joshua 5:14).
At His Second Coming, He will lead an army to rescue Israel from the nations that desire to destroy it. No characteristics that we think of as lamblike will be involved in that scenario. Neither did He reflect the characteristics of a lamb when He overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. Yet He is and will forever be the Lamb of God and the Lion of Judah along with all that those titles imply. They all are an indication of the perfect qualities of the biblical Jesus. I emphasize the adjective “biblical” because it is only through the Scriptures, through which Jesus Christ has revealed Himself, that anyone can know Him in truth. All other perspectives are mostly what men think about Him. Mormons perceive Him as a family man, married to Mary Magdalene and Mary and Martha. The PETA people say that He was a vegetarian. The gays promote Him as gay, and so on.
But believers can also fall prey to a distorted view of Jesus. We therefore need to question ourselves as to where we are getting our thoughts about Him. Is our understanding from the Word Himself, or from man’s opinions, speculations, and even “scholarship so-called”? If it’s the latter group, then it’s certain that “another Jesus” will be fashioned in our minds (2 Corinthians 11:4). He will be a counterfeit Jesus who can benefit no one. A continual refrain from the Emerging Church leaders, who desire to “reinvent Christianity” to make it more accommodating to our culture (particularly to young adults), is “We love Jesus, but we don’t like his church.”
You have to wonder what Jesus they’re talking about. Even a cursory reading of the Bible would show them that the church is His bride (temporal flaws and all) who will be taken to heaven when He returns for her. Additionally, there are popular movements, trends, and books that feature isolated characteristics of Jesus and doctrines of the Word that distort a correct biblical view. These include books such as Rob Bell’s bestseller Love Wins and Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel, both of which take the doctrine of love far beyond the teaching of Scripture—the former in the heresy of universalism, the latter implying that God, in His love, simply winks at our sins.
Yet even we who have walked with Him for many years, who love Him and desire to please Him, can also fashion a distorted view of Jesus if we major on a particular attribute of His at the expense of others. Understanding that a biblically balanced view of Jesus is vital, we need to consider one characteristic that seems to have been intentionally dismissed—or at least purposely avoided—in the church today. In fact, in my more than three decades as a believer, I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon preached on the subject of Jesus “getting tough” with His church.
To leave that characteristic out of our understanding of Him will lead to problems in our walk with Him. The gospels certainly give us information regarding His sternness with the Jewish religious leaders as Jesus confronts their hypocrisy. The Lord also offers a few rebukes directed at Peter and the other apostles, whose inspired writings became foundational for the developing church. The Epistle to the Hebrews, however, is the first book that indicates a rather tough characteristic of Jesus for those who are His own—who are, in fact, His bride: “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” (Hebrews12:6-7).
We’re given specific reasons for the Lord’s discipline of those whom He loves: it is “…for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). Nevertheless, it’s not until the Book of Revelation that we see Christ in a lengthy and very stern light regarding His bride. John, the apostle beloved of Jesus, is taken aback by the appearance of the One upon whose breast he had rested his head when Jesus dined with His disciples (John 21:20).
That former intimacy with Jesus seems to have been lost in this startling vision of his Savior:
And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks; And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. (Revelation 1:12-16)
We can’t know what was going through John’s mind at seeing such an imposing image of his Savior, but we do know his reaction: And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead…(v. 17).
Jesus could have appeared to His beloved disciple as when John last saw Him after His resurrection, but He chose to send John (and us) a very different message. I certainly don’t understand all the symbolism involved, but one doesn’t need to in order to come away with a very sobering impression. His hair, His eyes, and His feet all seem to represent purity and the process of purification. The instrument Jesus chose for His purifying process is “a sharp twoedged sword.” That which comes out of His mouth can only represent the “Sword of the Spirit,” His Word (Ephesians 6:17), which we learn in Hebrews 4:12 is living and powerful and is a “discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
There is nothing timid about the symbol that Jesus selected to represent His Word . A sword is not only a weapon of war; it is also used for clearing one’s path—for cutting away that which would entangle and choke out life; moreover, a surgeon’s “sword,” the scalpel, can pierce one’s “joints and marrow” to excise cancerous tumors. That is how sin in one’s life must be dealt with. The psalmist wrote, “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word” (Psalm 119:9). Jesus prayed to the Father that those who follow Him would be set apart from the world by Scripture: “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (John 17:17). That was our Lord’s prayer for the disciples who walked with Him then, and it is the same for those of us who follow Him today. The first three chapters of Revelation are quite unique in Scripture. In them we see Jesus directly addressing, encouraging, but mostly correcting the church. To say that He “gets tough” with His bride would hardly be an abuse of the text.
The churches to whom He was speaking existed during the time that John wrote Revelation and were located in the Roman province of Asia, which is now modern-day Turkey. Six of the churches were within 100 miles of each other; Laodicea, the furthest south, was about 200 miles from the northernmost church of Pergamos. None of those churches exist today, although the problems that Jesus raised can be seen throughout church history.
William MacDonald, in his Believer’s Bible Commentary, gives an overview: “Ephesus: The church of the first century was generally praiseworthy, but it had already left its first love. Smyrna: From the first to the fourth century, the church suffered persecution under the Roman Emperors. Pergamos: During the fourth and fifth centuries, Christianity was recognized as an official religion through Constantine’s patronage. Thyatira: From the sixth to the fifteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church largely held sway in Western Christendom until rocked by the Reformation. In the East, the Orthodox Church ruled. Sardis: The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the Post-Reformation period. The light of the Reformation soon became dim. Philadelphia: During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were mighty revivals and great missionary movements. Laodicea: The church of the last days is pictured as lukewarm and apostate. It is the church of liberalism and ecumenism.”
Such general observations ring true to history, but they are not exclusive. One can also see various aspects of the things Christ addressed to the seven churches in local assemblies throughout the world today. In other words, the churches of Revelation are alive and not so well (five of them at least) wherever believers dwell together today. Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea all had issues that Jesus wanted corrected. And He still wants this in our own churches. As the text clearly shows, these are not merely suggestions on His part.
The church at Ephesus had many standout qualities: good works, perseverance, and critical discernment regarding doctrine and leadership. Even so, Jesus takes the fellowship to task regarding a very important issue: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hath left thy first love” (Revelation 2:4). We are not told exactly how the believers came to lose their “first love,” but we can get an idea from Scripture. Their good works, which should have been a byproduct that grew out of their love for Jesus, very likely took precedence over the relationship the Ephesian believers had with Him. The Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Galatians seems applicable here: “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). A believer’s love of the Lord must be central to whatever he does. When that begins to slip, what follows is an automatic slide into efforts generated and accommodated by the flesh. To whatever degree the flesh has its way, to that degree God’s grace is displaced. Our works need to be “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).
There’s little doubt that the church in our day would be even more prone than the Ephesians were to displace their love for the Lord, considering that we have been so influenced by the “self” teachings that have entered the church: self-esteem, self-love, self-worth, self-image, self-confidence, and on and on to self- ad nauseam. Furthermore, a preoccupation with self makes it difficult to recognize and receive a stern correction. We’ll see that clearly when we consider the church of Laodicea.
The common refrain is “You can’t mean me!” because most of us have been conditioned to think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Romans 12:3). Moreover, many Christians are of the opinion that Jesus surely wouldn’t say or do anything to lower a believer’s self-esteem. That’s the Jesus of psychobabble and so-called Christian psychology, who is a false Christ fashioned by fleshly men. This is the Jesus whom the world loves, who is all about accommodating mankind, and who certainly doesn’t square with His Word. He is especially foreign to the chapters of Revelation that we are presently considering.
The consequence for the Ephesians, who were drifting away from their “first love” and who failed to repent of having abandoned their focus on the Lord, would be the removal of their “candlestick”: “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent” (Revelation 2:5). There is no deep secret in the symbolism of the candlestick. It represents quite simply the light of Christ, who is the “Light of the World,” i.e., the Word. The only way for one’s love for Christ to increase is for believers to grow in their personal relationship with Him by the continual reading and living out what the Word of God teaches.
Without that discipline, the love of Christ, who is “a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path,” will inevitably wax cold. And as that light dims, it follows that a believer will have no basis for biblical discernment and will therefore cease to produce any spiritual fruit. Notice that Jesus said, “I will come quickly, and will remove thy candlestick….” One of the points I want to emphasize here is the fact that it is Jesus himself who is correcting His church. He is the one “getting tough” here.
There has been a tendency throughout church history that continues today to deal with biblical correction when it is presented by “shooting the messenger” rather than heeding the message and repenting. Although the messages have been true to the Scriptures, a common ploy in rejecting the message has been to dodge the convicting biblical subject by diverting attention to God’s less-than-perfect messengers, who thus become vulnerable targets. But that’s not the case with the Messenger to the churches in the Book of Revelation. Both He and His message are perfect and cannot be subverted. Furthermore, Christ’s strict admonitions have never been more needful for His church to heed and make the necessary corrections than they are today, in this time of great spiritual delusion and rampant apostasy to which His bride finds herself more and more susceptible.
As this series continues through chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, many will have to come to grips with a characteristic of Jesus of which they may not have been aware—but it is imperative that we all know Him and love Him as He is in truth. TBC