In the Old Testament, about two hundred years after King David, the Book of Chronicles tells us that one of David’s descendants was crowned king in Jerusalem. His name was Uzziah, and he was just sixteen years old when he began his rule.
And he was one of the good kings! — at first. The ancient chronicle records that, when he was young he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD. But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall: basically, he went to the temple on the mountain above the city, and walked right into the outer room.
Now, we should know that this outer room contained three items: golden lamps, which symbolized God’s guidance for his people; a golden table for bread, which symbolized God’s care for his people; and a small golden altar for burning incense, which symbolized the prayers and the worship of God’s people in God’s presence.
Even more importantly, we should know that only priests were allowed to enter this outer room. Only priests were allowed to light the lamps, replace the bread on the table, and burn incense before the LORD.
For some reason, King Uzziah decided that he was going to burn the incense himself. So he walked right in, a censer in his hand ready to burn incense. Priests confronted him, ordered him to leave the sanctuary. Uzziah refused to listen. He became angry. And while he was raging at the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead — some kind of skin disease. And when the priests saw this, they grabbed him and hurried him out. Indeed, we are told, Uzziah himself was eager to leave, because the LORD had afflicted him.
And King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died. He lived in isolation for the rest of his life, in a house set apart from everyone else. Even worse, because of his disease he was banned from the temple, never again allowed to attend worship, not even in the outermost courtyard with the rest of God’s people.
King Uzziah rejected God’s clear and direct instructions about worship. He tried to take control of the whole system, and as a result he lost even the most basic benefits of being a citizen in God’s nation.
But in the year that King Uzziah died, a man named Isaiah also entered God’s temple, even though he was not a priest either. The difference is that Isaiah did not enter on purpose, he was carried there in a vision; and Isaiah was terrified to find himself standing in God’s presence! He thought for sure he was going to die under the same kind of curse King Uzziah had.
But an angel took a live coal from the altar of incense, and touched Isaiah’s mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
And as the vision goes on, Isaiah heard the voice of the LORD saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us? I need a prophet to speak to my people.”
And Isaiah said, “Here am I. Send me!”
But he really should have asked for some details before he volunteered. Because this is what God told him:
“Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’”
Now, I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the worse possible mission statement ever. And Isaiah thought so too. We can tell because he immediately asked for a transfer to some other department: he says, “For how long, Lord? Is this a two-week project? Three weeks, maybe?”
And God answered, “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken.”
How can this be God’s calling for one of his prophets? Aren’t prophets supposed to call God’s people to repentance?
Well…yes, they are supposed to call God’s people to repentance. But apparently God sometimes predestines his people to stop listening.
Which immediately makes us feel a bit uncomfortable: why would God deliberately keep his own people from repenting? That does not seem fair!
But that is not quite what is happening here: God is not predestining his people to do what they are not already doing by their own free will anyway.
See, God is a good Father — the very best of all fathers. At this point in his people’s history, he has spent hundreds of years trying to lead them to repentance through clear and direct instruction. But God’s children have refused to listen. They have insisted that they know best how to run God’s program for their nation. And as every wise father knows, there comes a point in every stubborn child’s life when the time for talk is past: if they absolutely refuse to learn wisdom through instruction, then they must be allowed to learn wisdom through painful experience.
This is that time. God does want his people to understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed. But he has now exhausted every other option except exile: his children need the hard lesson, the one that will get right down into their bones and convince them that they cannot heal themselves. That is why God tells Isaiah that his job is not going to be really done until his land has been ruined, his people carried away.
So God called Isaiah to preach…not so the people will repent now, but so that, later on, when they look back, they will understand why their Father let them stumble and fall into defeat at the hand of foreign nations: so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless, so that they might instruct many in the ways of God.
Unfortunately, even after their extremely painful experience in exile, God’s people still struggled to learn this lesson. They struggled to accept that it is central to God’s plan for them to suffer defeat in this world. They struggled to accept that their defeat was not just for their own benefit, but even more for the benefit of the nations around them.
Like all of us, they wanted to prove that their God is the greatest God by conqering the nations and forcing them all to submit to God’s law. But God wanted to prove that he is the greatest God by submitting himself — and his beloved people — to defeat and even death so that the nations might be drawn to submit by the beauty of his self-sacrificing love.
And this is why, by the time we get to the New Testament — about 1000 years after King David — the gospel writers tell us that most of God’s people had once again become hardened against God’s plan. They thought Isaiah’s prophecy was only about the sins of those earlier generations, they refused to believe that Isaiah’s warnings might also be for them.
And this is why, when one of David’s descendants showed up — a man named Jesus of Nazareth — claiming that it was his destiny to restore David’s ancient throne and rule as king over Israel, the people loved him! — at first. They were ready! In their minds, the age of defeat and exile and humiliation was finally coming to an end. This Jesus was going to raise an army, start a rebellion against Rome, and conquer the world baby!
Instead, Jesus walked around talking about ethics and faith and the need for repentance and forgiveness and self-sacrifice. He talked about loving the nations instead of destroying them. And after a while, the people got frustrated. They stopped listening: they refused to learn wisdom through clear and direct instruction.
So, part-way through his ministry, Jesus changed his strategy: instead of teaching clearly and directly — which was not working anyway — he began telling parables to the crowds, ending them with the phrase, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” And when his disciples asked him about this change, Jesus’ answered: “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’”
Jesus quoted directly from Isaiah’s prophecy. Which means that, in Jesus’ assessment, the people of his generation had reached the same stubborn level of rebellion as the people of Isaiah’s generation. So, by telling parables that take more effort to understand, Jesus was basically warning the people that, if they continued to refuse to learn wisdom through his direct instruction, then the time was coming when they would have to learn it for themselves through painful experience.
And what we see, as the story of the gospels goes on, is that Jesus’ parables began to act as a sorting device. By using symbols and metaphors instead of plain teaching, Jesus was able to force people to self-select in or out of God’s kingdom.
This is how it worked:
When confronted with a parable, most of the people of that generation responded with, “Ummmm, okay. That was weird. But hey, can you do another miracle? Can you turn these stones into bread? — or, no, wait! I’ve got a better one: can you turn these stones into gold! That would be really useful!” Those people proved, by their responses, that they were just not interested in actually learning from Jesus or following where he might lead. They were only interested in the benefits that a miracle-worker could provide.
But there were a few — Jesus’ disciples among them — who, when confronted with a parable, responded with, “Mmmmm, okay. Can you explain what you meant?” Instead of backing away and asking for benefits, they moved closer and asked for an explanation. They proved, by their responses, that they were ready to learn, they were ready to receive clear and direct communication from God. They proved, by their responses, that they understood reality has multiple layers, and that any real communication about reality must also have multiple layers that need to be explored, examined, contemplated — but not contemplated alone.
Ultimately, these people proved that they were interested in a real relationship with Jesus as the source of all true wisdom; a real relationship built on interaction and trust and the kind of covenant-based commitment that can carry a family even through the most difficult of exiles.
And last week, as we opened John’s Book of Revelation and began reading, almost at once we found that this book is packed with symbolism and metaphor. Right from the beginning, when John turned around and found himself looking into the outer room of God’s heavenly temple, he saw some of the same objects that existed in God’s earthly temple, most notably a collection of golden lampstands and Jesus standing there dressed like a priest taking care of the lamps.
But was John supposed to believe that God’s temple is actually lit by lamps that burn olive oil and need constant trimming and refillling by a priest? If we received this vision today, would we find that God has upgraded to long-lasting LED lighting?
No! Of course not. Because if God did that, then Jesus would have nothing to do except guard the light-switch and make sure no one turned it off…
I think most of us understood right away last week — even before Jesus explained it — that the objects in John’s vision were figurative: they are real manifestations of real objects, but the original realities behind these objects are so real, so profound, so multi-layered, that they really cannot be communicated except through multi-layered imagery and metaphor.
So this much is already obvious to us: the Book of Revelation is really a book of parables about “what is now and what will take place later”.
And this is where the frustration sets in for many of us. Because we would all like to know what will take place later, right? So it is annoying to open the book and find out that it is almost all symbols and metaphors. And our response is, “Oh, come on! If you’re going to promise us some insights into the end of the world here, speak plainly! Are the locusts in Chapter 9 actually helicopters or not? Is Kim Jong-un the antichrist, or not? That would be really useful information!”
So this is our question for today: why did Jesus decide to speak to his churches through parables in this Book of Revelation? Why didn’t he just tell them — and us — what will take place later clearly and directly?
Well, Chapters 2 and 3, which we just read together, actually contain the answer to our question.
Now, this was a long reading — and I am sorry for that, because it can be hard to concentrate through such a long and dense set of letters. But that is actually why we did it this way: by reading straight through without pausing to pick apart the details, we were left with a general impression.
And let me pause and ask you now: what was our general impression? Was it good, or bad?
If, in general, you came away with a bit of a bad taste in your mouth, then you have experienced what Jesus wanted us to experience.
Yes, each one of these seven letters contains high points: words of praise for good deeds performed in the past, or promises of reward in the future for those who are victorious. Some of these seven churches are in better condition than others. But generally speaking, these letters were designed to leave us with a negative impression.
And this is communicated even through the order in which Jesus speaks to the churches:
For instance: the first church on the list and the last church are both in really bad shape. Jesus tells both of them, “Watch out! If you do not turn back from the road you are on, you are going to cease being a church!”
The second church on the list, and the second-to-last church, are actually really good, which is a relief! But then both are guaranteed persecution before they are redeemed.
And then the three churches in the middle of the list are a mixture of good and bad, faithfulness and increasing levels of unfaithfulness.
So the fact that the list begins with a dying church, centers around three self-destructing churches, and then ends with yet another dying church, is meant to help us realize that 70% of the Church in Roman Asia at this time is in serious trouble.
Which is very troubling.
Because we realized last week that the Book of Revelation was written barely two generations after Jesus first laid the foundations of his Church, and the whole project is already falling apart! And this left us wondering what exactly is going wrong here: how can the Church be falling apart just two generations after Jesus started it?
Well, in some ways, after reading these seven letters today, we have an answer: churches are apparently like two-year-olds, they will get into trouble even when their Father is watching over them closely.
But that is just common sense, that’s not really the kind of answer we are looking for. We want to know what went wrong on a big picture level. What is the fundamental issue here that is affecting all seven churches, not just one or two?
Our biggest clue comes from this phrase that Jesus uses in every single one of these letters: “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” This is the same phrase Jesus used at the end of his parables. So this is just further confirmation that the Book of Revelation really is a giant book of parables.
And we already know now, from the gospel stories, why Jesus tells parables: he tells parables to people who are no longer willing to listen to clear and direct instruction.
So here we have our answer. We were asking why Jesus decided to speak to his churches through parables, why he didn’t just tell them what will take place later clearly and directly? Because 70% of the people in these churches have stopped listening. They are no longer interested in actually learning from Jesus or following where he might lead. They are only interested in the benefits that a miracle-worker like Jesus can provide.
So that is scary. Isn’t it? Because, if this could happen to the churches of Roman Asia just two generations after Jesus, then this could definitely happen to us in Modern Asia, two thousand years after Jesus.
And, in fact, if we are going to take this book seriously, then we have to realize that this has already happened to us. Because last week we learned that these seven particular churches are not just seven particular churches, they are symbolic of all churches in all places at all times. Which means that these letters — these warnings — were written for us. When we read the Book of Revelation, Jesus is speaking to us through parables. Which strongly suggests that about 70% of the people in our modern churches have also stopped listening.
Sure, some churches are better than others, but the ratio of failing churches to good ones is not encouraging: according to these chapters, out of every seven churches in the world, two are being purified by persecution — those are the two good ones — three are busy welcoming false teachers who promise full integration with the world; and of the worst two, one is obsessed with pure doctrine at the expense of everything else, while the last is obsessed with prosperity and power, and they are both right on the edge of losing their place as churches!
…well. Okay. Worse and worse!
But we all have a defensive, self-righteous tendency. At least: I know I do. So when I read these seven letters, in the back of my mind there is always a voice that says, “Oh, yes, these are very serious warnings! What a relief to know that my church is one of the good ones! What a relief to know that I am in the 30th percentile of people who still listen to Jesus!”
But then I realize that I am actually trying to save myself from these warnings by patting myself on the back for all my good work. Most of these letters frighten me, so I am trying to tell myself that the scary ones do not actually apply to me or to my church.
In other words: I am proving, through my defensive response, that I am actually among those who are no longer interested in listening to Jesus. Jesus says, “Hey, I have some warnings for you!” And I say, “No! Nope. No you don’t! But you know who you should be warning? Here, let me get out my list of churches I don’t like…”
So after I go through this little journey in my head, where I try to save myself from these warnings by refusing to listen to them, and so prove that I am exactly the kind of non-listener who needs to be warned…after all this I finally come to a point where I say, “…okay, Jesus. What do you want me to do?”
What does Jesus want us to do, as a church, in response to these warnings, in response to our realization that — like most two-year-olds — we really struggle to listen and obey?
Well, as it happens, Jesus’ practical application for us today is really easy to figure out. Because he says it seven times: “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches!”
But now we experience a fresh burst of irritation, don’t we? Our problem is that we do not listen well. So we say, “Jesus, what do we need to do to listen better?” And Jesus says, “Well, that’s easy: just listen better!”
But that is not quite what Jesus is saying.
Remember how, back in the gospels, Jesus always ended his parables with this phrase? Well, guess what used to happen next? The disciples would come to Jesus privately and say, “Hey, Lord, we did not understand your point just now. Could you explain it to us clearly and directly?”
And if you remember, as we discussed earlier, that was the whole point of Jesus’ use of parables: those parables were really a sorting machine, designed to separate out the wheat from the chaff, the true believers from those who were just joining for the earthly benefits.
Whenever Jesus finished a parable with, “Whoever has ears, let them hear,” that was actually an invitation to approach him personally and admit ignorance and ask for help.
So here we are, as a church. We know we have trouble listening and understanding and obeying. We are asking Jesus for help. And really, Jesus has just invited us to approach him whenever we are confused, so that we can receive a personal explanation directly from the source of all wisdom!
Okay. Okay! We are making progress here.
So now we have to ask: how are we going to approach Jesus? He is in the heavenly temple taking care of the lamps. He is not here on earth for us to just walk up to. So how is Jesus going to explain the parables in Revelation to us? Is the Holy Spirit going to speak directly to us through dreams and visions that will finally explain John’s dreams and visions?
Not quite. The Holy Spirit can speak through dreams and visions, as he did to John. But as we look back through scripture, we realize that even when the Holy Spirit speaks through dreams and visions, those dreams and visions are not just completely made up out of nothing: they all depend very heavily on clear and direct intructions that came before.
For instance, the prophet Daniel received a lot of dreams and visions and parables. Those dreams and visions and parables were about his current situation and about the future. But the key to understanding them was in the past. It was only as Daniel looked back through the clear and direct teachings of Moses that he understood his current situation and what was going to “take place later”.
We are going to find that John’s experience was just like Daniel’s. He also received a lot of dreams and visions and parables. They were about “what is now” — John’s current situation — “and what will take place later”. But the key to understanding these parables lies in the past: in all of the clear and direct teachings of Peter and Paul and Jesus and David and Moses, going all the way back to the beginning of scripture.
What this means is that the Holy Spirit could speak through dreams and visions in order to explain John’s dreams and visions to us. But he does not need to! Instead, the Holy Spirit is going to explain the parables of John’s book by directing us back to the clear and direct teachings contained in the rest of the bible!
Does that make sense?
Let me try to express it this way:
The Old Testament begins very simply. The foundational patterns of who God and how he works in history to redeem his people are all outlined in the first nine chapters of the bible. Everything after that is just a lot of repetition and development, and God’s early prophets — like Moses and David — instructed God’s people very clearly and directly. It is only near the end of the Old Testament, as more and more people prove unwilling to listen to clear instructions, that God’s prophets begin to use parables and symbols and metaphors.
And to those who had already rejected God’s direct instructions, these later prophets just sounded crazy. But those who still valued God’s direct instructions realized that the key to understanding these prophets’ parables was found in God’s direct instructions.
It’s the same way for us:
The New Testament begins very simply, with four gospels that are built on the foundation set by the Old Testament. Everything after that is just a lot of repetition and development. God’s early apostles — like Peter and Paul and James — instructed Jesus’ Church very clearly and directly through their letters. It is only at the end of the New Testament, as more and more churches prove unwilling to listen to the apostles’ instructions, that we find this book called the Revelation from Jesus Christ, which uses parables and symbols and metaphors to sort out the true listeners from those who refuse.
Those who claim to be Christians, but refuse to accept the simple instructions found in the rest of the bible, are not going to understand the parables in the Book of Revelation.
But those who still value God’s Word will realize that God’s Word is itself the key to understanding John’s parables.
So this is what we, as a church, are going to do, this is our application:
As we read a little bit more together every week, and as confusion sets in — every week — we are going to turn to Jesus and say, “Help!”
Then Jesus is going to invite us in closer, so that we can really hear what the Spirit says to the churches. But he is not going to send us dreams and visions. Instead, he is going to do with us exactly what he did with his first disciples: he is going to open up the older scriptures for us, and show us how John’s dreams and visions are really nothing more than fantastic, symbolic expressions of realities that our Father has been teaching his people, plainly and directly, for thousands of years!
Before we go on, perhaps it would be good to summarise what we have covered here so far:
We were wondering why Jesus’ “Revelation” is not very revealing, why it is not more clear and direct.
And we have discovered that this is because many of the churches in Roman Asia had a lot of extra members who had joined for…reasons I guess, not because they loved Jesus or God’s Word. Some churches had 90% listeners, 10% non-listeners. Some were more like 50/50, 60/40. But some were 90/10 the other way! And so the Book of Revelation was given to the churches as a sorting mechanism: those who loved Jesus and loved God’s Word would turn to God’s Word for explanation, and so they would really hear this book and take to heart what is written in it, and they would receive a blessing. But those people in the churches who did not really love Jesus or the Word of God…would get no understanding or blessing out of the book at all.
We were also wondering why 70% of Jesus’ Church-building program ran into trouble so early, and why Jesus’ Church has continued to run at 30% efficiency — or less! — ever since.
And we have been discovering that it is actually Jesus’ plan for his Church to run at no better than 30% efficiency even in the best of times. We wish Christianity could run at 90% efficiency. We wish we could glorify our God by conquering the nations with our power, our wisdom, our perfection. But it is apparently God’s will for us to glorify him through our failures. Because it is actually through our repentance from failures that we are refined, purified and made spotless. And it is through our weaknesses that God’s power and grace is revealed most clearly. Because, look: what kind of amazing god must our God be if he is willing to love and keep on loving a bunch of stubborn screw-ups like us, his children?
In the end, our Father is asking us to accept that these shameful defeats of our faith are not just for our own benefit, but even more for the benefit of the nations around us, that they might see the grace of Christ in action and so be drawn to salvation by the gentleness of our Saviour.
So, before we finish, I want to go back and point out that all this is really actually Good News for us.
And I want to make sure to do this because, honestly, Jesus gave his Church a pretty stern scolding today. We are like small children frightened into silence by a father’s lecture, and we could be tempted to wonder if we are about to lose our place in the family!
So, please, allow me to explain what this scolding really means — and what this call to “hear what the Spirit says” really means:
It means that failing to listen well does not get us kicked out of God’s family. We have just learned that, on average, five out of every seven churches in the world fails to listen well — and yet, all seven churches still have a place in God’s heavenly temple, all seven churches are still being cared for directly by Jesus Christ, our great High Priest!
So failing to listen well is not the real problem here. Failing to admit that we fail to listen well is the real problem.
People who are convinced that they are already in the 30th percentile of good listeners never feel the need to approach Jesus and ask for an explanation, because they’ve got it all figured out already. And so — ironically — by their response, they prove that they are not willing to listen, and they self-select out of God’s kingdom.
But those who admit that they are having trouble listening…ask for help. And Jesus gives it freely. Our church may not be a very bright lamp, we may produce more smoke than light, but as the bible tells us in another place: Jesus “will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”
Is that hard to believe?
Let me close with this example:
King Uzziah was just like us. When he was young he was dependent on God and knew it, so he did what was right. But like all of us, when he became powerful and more independent, he stopped listening so closely. He ignored God’s clear and direct instructions and tried to enter God’s presence under his own authority. He was confronted by the proper authorities. Like we do, he got defensive. And, like we do, he suffered the consequences of his refusal to admit that he was failing to listen. Now, he did repent! He realized quickly that he needed to cooperate with God’s instructions — but too late: he was never again allowed to enter even the outermost courtyard of the temple, and he suffered with a wasting disease for the rest of his life.
But King Uzziah’s story does not actually end there. The Book of Chronicles tells us that, in the end, Uzziah rested with his fathers, and they buried him with his fathers in the field of burial which belonged to the kings — even though people said “He is a leper.” Then Jotham his son reigned in his place.
Despite Uzziah’s sin, God did not disown him. God did not kick Uzziah out of the family, but allowed him to be buried among the honoured kings of Jerusalem. And God did not let Uzziah’s family line die, but made sure Uzziah’s own son took the throne after him.
And, in fact, when we look up the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Uzziah’s name is there on the list as one of the fathers of the Messiah. What an honour!
Now, you tell me: if our Father showed that kind of grace to an ancient king who broke into God’s temple without an invitation…how much more grace must he be prepared to show us, who have been invited to live in his presence?
Friends, we are going to see that by the end of the Book of Revelation, all seven of these churches will be redeemed. All of them are going to make it across the finish line: limping, blinded, crawling, weeping, praying, but they will make it. And carried within those churches, all who have answered Jesus’ invitation to approach and ask for help and wisdom and an explanation for this whole mess.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God — and keep on drawing near — with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings.