Christmas 2013

My book Today in a Manger is what you should be reading this Christmas!  Twenty five meditations in the run up to Chrismas Day, beginning 1 December. See the link at the bottom of this page.

Blog 8: Smyrna

Smyrna was forty miles north of Ephesus and was a prosperous and large port city. It was a centre of science, medicine and fine wine. Homer, the greatest of Greek poets, reputedly was from Smyrna. It had temples of worship to Roman emperors and other gods. Jesus introduces himself to the church in Smyrna as the one who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.

Jesus warned the Christians that although they would suffer and some would be imprisoned, this would not last long. They were to be faithful, even to the point of death, and then Jesus would give them life as their victor’s crown.

Smyrna was famous for its athletic games, so the concept of a victor’s crown would have had resonance.  Twenty years after this letter was written, we have a record of a thriving church in Smyrna in a letter written by Bishop Ignatius of Antioch to the Bishop in Smyrna, Polycarp. Polycarp was martyred in Smyrna in AD 156.

Blog 7: The message to Ephesus

Ephesus was the capital of Asia Minor, one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire. It was John’s home city prior to his exile on Patmos. The major religion there was the worship of Artemis (Diana in Latin), the goddess of fertility. Her temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Christians had faced opposition in Ephesus from the moment Paul arrived to preach the Gospel. It was possibly the strongest church in the Roman Empire. It had had the great privilege of being pastored by Paul, Timothy and John. Church tradition is that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her adopted son, John, are buried there.

Jesus  knows what is happening in every church on earth; he holds every leader in His right hand. He walks among the churches. He acknowledged the hard work and perseverance of the Christians in Ephesus. They had the gift of spiritual discernment. The church had persevered through hardships for the name of Jesus and had not grown weary.

Yet their love for Jesus had diminished: for love read commitment, priority setting, respect, self-giving and exhilaration.  If they did not repent, then Jesus would remove their light. Sadly this is what happened across Asia Minor. When Jesus addressed Ephesus, this area was the centre of world Christianity, following the Jewish revolt (AD 66-73) and the mayhem inflicted by the Romans on Jerusalem. There were as many as 80,000 Christians in Asia Minor by AD 100. Yet by the beginning of the Twentieth Century there were estimated to be less than 18,000 Christians in modern Turkey: the lampstand had been removed. Ephesus today is a small village and silt has destroyed its port status; it is six miles from the sea. The lesson for us is to listen to Jesus.

Blog 6: The messages to the seven churches


Usually these seven messages are called ‘letters’, but they give no evidence of being such. They are oracles from the divine, exalted Jesus to His people in seven of the many churches spread across Asia Minor. Even the world ‘church’ needs qualification. There are no known church buildings in Christendom before 250 AD. Christians met in house groups. Within cities they had an overseer, also translatable as bishop or elder. The growth of bishops responsible for a city or other geographical area became widespread in the Second Century. Each time Jesus addresses one of the seven churches He uses a different description of Himself.

Blog 5: John meets Jesus

In Unearthing Joy I describe in detail, with footnotes, the day John met Jesus again. One Sunday,  on the island of Patmos John was “in the Spirit” when suddenly he heard a loud voice behind him that sounded like a trumpet. Then Jesus speaks for the first time in Revelation. John was told to write down what would now be revealed to him. John turned round, “to see the voice”, to see who was talking to him. He saw a figure that he had the greatest difficulty describing – “someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.

At first he probably need not recognise that it was Jesus. John would have been aware of the ‘Son of Man’ tradition in Daniel. His hair was white, like wool or snow, his eyes like blazing fire. This was not the human Jesus whom he had followed on earth for three years.

This utterly awesome figure was too much for John to absorb. His hair, eyes, feet, voice and face are indescribable. The sharp double-edged sword portrays the Word of God coming in judgement. John fell at his feet as though dead. Then Jesus placed his right hand on John. This is the same hand that in verse 1:16 held the seven stars –

Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lamp stands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lamp stands are the seven churches.

John must have been mesmerised. Once, when Jesus was on earth He had appeared to John, Peter and James in a manner like this. Perhaps John recalled that Israel, and in particular, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel had experienced similar visions of the greatness and glory of God. In the three years he had walked with Jesus on earth he had never experienced such divine, awesome majesty as he did now. However there is no description in the Bible quite as breath-taking as this one, because here Jesus is so incredible to behold and yet so personal.

Blog 4: Revelation 1:1

Right at the beginning of Revelation John testifies that he has written down everything he saw, even if neither he nor we fully understand what is being revealed to us. This revelation has two important credentials – it is the Word of God and it is the testimony of Jesus the Messiah.  We are about to see Jesus fully revealed as the Son of God in a way that was not apparent to those who were with Jesus in His first coming to earth.

3: Blog What is the overall message of Revelation?

However we read Revelation, all Christians are agreed what the message is: at the end of time God has won final and complete victory over Satan, sin and evil; Jesus the Son of God will be worshipped forever by those who on earth acknowledged Him to be their Lord and Saviour. Sin will cease to exist; there will be no more pain, suffering or death. We will enjoy eternal life with God in a heaven beyond anything we can yet comprehend. It is because any meaningful description of this final destination is outwith our present physical, time-bounded experience that we find Revelation so difficult.

Blog 2: Unearthing Joy

Revelation is the most difficult book in the Bible to fully understand. It is bursting with strange figurative language, supernatural imagery and numerical symbolism. As a result Christians have either ignored any desire to study it or have argued about what it means. Before I began my personal study which led to this book, I was probably in the former camp. I did not truly understand John’s message, so I was unable to argue what it means.

Blog 1: Unearthing Joy

I am starting today a year long blog on my second book, Unearthing Joy. I have had so many wonderful responses from around the world from readers of Today in a Manger. These have been deeply encouraging.

When I started to write about the Revelation given by Jesus to John, it was not my intention to write a book. I was writing a final Chapter in another book, It’s not the land: a walk through the Bible looking at God’s covenant relationship with His people. I plan to publish that book, my third, later this year.

Unearthing Joy is very different from Today in a Manger, which I published in October 2010. This book is a challenging read, and I accept that. Yes, there are many commentaries out there trying to explain Revelation. Some are very complex, few are a simple read. So I have written this commentary as a thoughtful guide through the maze that is Revelation.

Out of Egypt

When Mary and Joseph returned with  baby Jesus  from Egypt to live in Nazareth they must have recalled Israel leaving Egypt, the most significant event in Jewish history. The Exodus was a redemptive flight from slavery to freedom, from a totalitarian regime to nationhood.

Isaiah prophesied that God’s future plans did not envisage Israel out of Egypt but God Himself in Egypt. Egypt would, in poetic terms, speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to God. There would be an altar to God in the heart of Egypt. When the Egyptians would cry out to God, He would send them a Saviour and Defender, and He would rescue them. As God made Himself known to the Egyptians, they would worship and make vows to Him. “In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”  To Jewish listeners, this appeared totally impossible, something wholly contradictory. Only with the coming of a Messiah could this come true.