Grace in the End Times
During this age of “grace” in which we live, most servants of God in an effort to distance themselves from the legalistic works of the law bend over backwards to avoid “ministering condemnation” by teaching instead about the free gift of God’s love, comfort and blessing.
Many believers feel that we are now in the last days preceding the Second Coming of the Messiah. More and more we are studying Revelation in an effort to understand better what will happen. Let us here focus on Jesus’ words to the Seven Churches in Chapters 2 and 3 to better understand the role of grace in the Church during these last days.
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
Today in the church grace is commonly taught in contradistinction to works. Unfortunately, the theme of this kind of grace is not evident in the Lord’s words to the church in Ephesus. Instead he in fact commends them for their “deeds, hard work, and perseverance.” To make matters worse for us, he then rebukes them harshly for forsaking their first love and tells them to consider how far they have backslidden. He commands them to repent. He threatens to remove their lampstand from its place if they do not. Whatever this action may mean, it is clearly not good for the church people. (What foolhardy minister would dare preach such a message of condemnation today?) But thankfully Jesus then relents a bit by commending them for their hate of the practices of the Nicolaitans. Overall, we can conclude that the message of popular grace heard so often today is not present in the Lord’s message to the Ephesian church.
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty–yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.
The church in Smyrna is only two of the seven churches which Jesus does not rebuke and command to repent. The Lord commends them for their afflictions and their poverty. Then he informs them that they are going to suffer painful persecution, even to the point of death, for his name’s sake. After that they will receive the victor’s crown, signifying authority to reign with him in the next age. They will not be hurt by the second death. We note that even toward this faithful church Jesus’ words did not smack of the grace about which we hear so often today—the grace for comfort, material prosperity, and “effortless success” in this life. Rather it was the grace to endure afflictions, poverty, slander, persecution, and even death for the Lord’s sake.
“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live–where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city–where Satan lives. Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
This church was also commended for not renouncing their faith in Christ even during times of persecution. Jesus then rebukes them for tolerating those who held to the teaching Balaam—something to this author sounding much like contemporary prosperity teaching. He also rebukes them for holding the teaching of the Nicolaitans which created a wall of separation between the authority-wielding professional clergy and the common lay people under them. He commands them to repent. Failing that, he threatened even to fight against them. Where’s the grace in this message? We find the grace of God in their enduring the persecution and not renouncing their faith. This contrasts starkly with the grace popularly taught today for “effortless success” in this world.
“To the angel of the church in Thyatira write:
These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first. Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds. Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.’ To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations– that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’–just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give that one the morning star. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Again Jesus begins his message with a bit of comforting good news first, commending them for their deeds, love, faith, service, and perseverance. But then comes a heavy dose of bad news which clearly outweighs the good. Very severely he rebukes some of them for tolerating the teaching of Jezebel, a teaching I believe found today in contemporary Christianity. He threatens those who accept her teaching with intense suffering and even death. This is clearly condemnation for those who refuse to repent. To top it off, he assures the believers in this church that he will repay each of them according to their deeds—whether good or bad. Where’s the free gift of grace as popularly taught here? But the Lord ends his message with a wonderful promise: those who are victorious by doing his will to the end will receive authority over the nations in the next age. This is not the popular message of grace here, but rather the fact that eternal reward is related to obedience and good works in this life. Bad works and deeds may mean loss of eternal reward.
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Contrary to his usual custom, the Lord does not begin his message here with any comforting good news. Rather he labels them outright as “dead.” He rebukes them for their unfinished deeds and calls them to repent. The mention of his “coming like a thief” here is a clear reference to his Second Coming. He ends the message by comforting the worthy and victorious ones in the church who have not soiled their clothes by doing his will obediently. Their names will never be blotted out from the book of life. The very strong implication here is that some people will in fact have their names blotted out by not repenting and not doing his will. (Whatever “blotted out” may mean, it is clearly to be avoided.) Again, where’s the “grace”? Aren’t we saved by grace forever through faith and not by works so that no one can boast?
“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars–I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
The church in Philadelphia is the only church from among the seven to which Jesus actually says “I have loved you.” By contrast, five of the seven churches suffer his rebuke. But there is no hint of rebuke or call to repentance to the church in Philadelphia. Why? Because they have kept his word and his command by their “deeds.” If they hold on to what they have, they will receive their crown of authority to reign with him. The only caveat here is that they must still finish their race successfully. So where’s the “grace” and the “completed work of Christ on the cross” which assures us of our salvation no matter what as long as we have repeated the sinner’s prayer? James answers this nagging question unambiguously: “faith without works is dead.”
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Rev 2:1-3:22)
If we consider the seven churches to reflect the Church down through the ages in a chronological sense, then the church in Laodicea would be the affluent and comfortable church in the end times. In contrast to his words to the first six churches, there is no commending of this church at all anywhere to alleviate his scathing rebuke. He hates their lukewarm deeds. He does say that he loves them, but not because of their obedience. Rather, he rebukes them so harshly precisely because of his merciful love for them. That is certainly the grace of God. Despite their wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked state before him, he loves them. This, however, is not the kind of grace in which we should want to excel. If repentance is not forthcoming there will be severe consequences, something made abundantly clear by Christ’s earlier warnings to the other churches. Once again Jesus concludes his message by reminding them of the eternal reward awaiting those who are victorious in their lives on earth by their obedience to him and carrying out his commands in Scripture, including the Great Commission.
So where’s the salvation?
It may be worthwhile to note that Jesus speaks little of “salvation” in his messages to the seven churches. Rather he concentrates on the crown of authority and the right to sit on his throne given to those who finish the race victoriously by obeying his will in their deeds. Although there would appear to be a definite difference between salvation by grace and eternal reward by works according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, that difference is blurred here—perhaps deliberately so. Perhaps the Lord Jesus Christ is not looking for those who believe simply as an “insurance policy” just in case the gospel happens to be true, and so only want to do the minimum just to be saved. Such people are not interested in eternal reward or reigning with Christ in the next age. His messages to the seven churches perhaps deliberately blur the distinction between salvation and eternal reward in order to weed out such lukewarm believers, and also to wake up those who have been put to sleep by the popular message of grace. When Christ returns, many such believers may be asleep and not ready to stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10).
So where’s the grace?
The real message of grace is implicit in Christ’s words to the seven churches. How so? Those whom he commended for their obedience had clearly learned to excel in the grace of obeying God’s commands which included patient endurance of suffering, persecution, and even poverty. Furthermore, the authority to reign which obedient and victorious believers will receive in the next age will be far out of proportion to their good works of obedience in this life. In the Lord’s Parable of the Minas, the first servant received authority over ten cities—clearly far out of proportion to the ten minas he earned, worth only something over US$2,000 today.
“The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’ “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’ (Luke 19:16-17)
There goes the real grace of God during these last days. Will the Church dare to preach this kind of grace and risk losing the Sunday crowds and their generous offerings? Jesus was often wary of the crowds, knowing what was in their hearts. He preferred instead to concentrate on his disciples, preparing them for the great responsibility of fulfilling the Great Commission after his departure. And this is the grace we ought to teach to prepare disciples today to fulfill the Great Commission during these days preceding the great and terrible Day of the Lord.