There’s a difference between being approved and being accepted. We talk about what it looks like for an overcomer to lean into this distinction. Revelation calls us to be a faithful witness, an overcomer who lives above our circumstances. Tim begins by tying in chapter 1 of James, which shows us how to overcome a vast array of circumstances to live the life Revelation asks of us.
Two kinds of circumstances to overcome
James gives us two different kinds of circumstances. In verse 9, there’s the lowly circumstance. Can’t get much lower than getting thrown into prison for doing what’s right. You can’t get much lower than being persecuted for doing what’s right. That’s pretty low circumstances.
And in low circumstances, what we’re supposed to do is glory in what an exalted place we’re in, which is exactly what Jesus is telling the church in Smyrna. You’re an amazing place. Just hang on, and I’m going to give you this incredible crown of life and something else, that we’ll talk about.
I’m going to give you an amazing crown of life, and I’m going to help you avoid something that you don’t want anything to do with.
The other kind of circumstance is circumstance we’re going to see in Laodicea, the circumstance of plenty, which is actually the more difficult one to overcome. Because when we have everything, when we’re rich, as Americans are—
If you’re an average American, you’re in the upper one percent of income earners in the world today. Which means you’re probably the upper half percent of income earners in all of human history. Which means we’re rich beyond the wildest imagination of almost everyone who’s ever lived. It’s hard to think of ourselves as needy when we have so much. But that’s what we need to do.
Verse 11. For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes.
When we have plenty, it’s important to remember, this is passing. Don’t put my faith in plenty. Don’t put my faith in great circumstances.
And then in verse 12, he says, Blessed is the man who endures temptation (trials, this same root word) for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life—
Being an overcomer is being approved. Being an overcomer is saying, your life was the kind of life I approve of.
Being approved is different than being accepted
None of this has anything to do with being accepted. None of this has anything to do with being born again. Acceptance is a gift that has nothing to do with performance, nothing whatsoever. We believe, we’re born, we’re children. And God loves his children.
But God is not a five-year-old soccer God. Not everyone gets a trophy just for participation. He approves the kind of behavior that is good for us and disapproves the kind of behavior that’s not good for us because he’s the perfect parent.
When we are approved he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love him. If we love him, we’ll do what he asks us to do.
Then he says something very interesting: Let no one say when he’s tempted, I am tempted by God.
Now this is interesting, he says I’m sending you these circumstances. I’m sending them. Then he turns around and says you’re not tempted by me. Keep reading and we’ll understand what he’s telling us here.
James 1:13. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived—now we have a pregnancy analogy here. First is conception.—it gives birth to sin.
So we start by conceiving. We think the thought. And then the thought becomes a child. And then we birth the child. And sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.
So these circumstances themselves do not cause us to fall. What causes us to fall is when we refuse to receive the circumstances with faith. And instead, we evaluate the circumstances with our desires.
This is a real challenge. Who desires to be uncomfortable? Who desires to lose that which makes us comfortable in favor of that which makes us uncomfortable? Who desires to invest in something that causes us loss now for gain later? That’s not normal human behavior which is why it takes faith.
Do not fear
He tells us in Revelation 2, do not fear. Where does fear come from? Well, it comes from within us, doesn’t it? And what fear is is looking at a circumstance and saying I don’t want that, and I’m going to try to control that from happening.
What God is telling us here is, when the circumstance comes, just embrace it. If you’ll embrace it and trust me, that I have things under control, I am the first and the last, if you will embrace that circumstance, I’ve got an amazing reward for you. That is the kind of life I approve of. Just hang in there when you’re tested.
The crown of life
The crown of life is interesting. The notion of crowns is something that is all through the scripture, but it’s not in the seven churches as much as I would have expected.
The Greek word here is stephanos. James 1:12, stephanos. Revelation 2, stephanos of life. Jesus wore a stephanos of suffering, a crown of thorns. The world gives a crown to those of us willing to walk in faith. If we walk in obedience, we should expect a crown of thorns from the world. Along with that crown of thorns came mocking. But if we endure the mocking, if we endure the thorns, we get the crown of life.
I Corinthians 9 says we’re seeking to achieve a crown that’s incorruptible. Here the picture is a wreath for an Olympic champion who would take some leaves of some tree or something and put it on the champion. And Paul says, you know, those leaves, they wither. Those leaves turn into dust. But the crown that God’s going to give us will never fade.
Here’s the idea: We went to the Baseball Hall of Fame one time in Copperstown, New York. It was really cool. I really like baseball. Fascinated by it. And I got to see Babe Ruth’s plaque there. Joe DiMaggio. It was really neat.
And then I started looking at everybody else’s plaques. I had no idea who any of those people were. They’re in the Baseball Hall of Fame, I really like baseball, and I’d never heard of most of these people. They had faded away. Such is life. You fade out of people’s memory.
The Olympic champions of yesterday that were on the Wheaties box yesterday, nobody can say their names anymore.
But Paul says, we’re going to get a crown where the memory never fades because we’re an Olympic champion. We’re approved by the judge.
Philippians 4:1 says our crown will be full of people. The people that we bless in this life will be our crown. That’s an interesting thought, isn’t it?
2 Timothy 4 says we’ll get a crown of righteousness for those who look forward to Jesus’ returning.
If you’re a teenager, and your parents went out of town for the weekend, two basic ways you can think of that time: One is, well I hope they come home early and see how great I’m doing. And the other is boy, I hope they don’t come home early and see what I’m doing with this time.
How are we living? If we’re living in such a way where we say, man, it would be awesome if Jesus would come back now because I think he’d really approve of what I’m doing. Or, man, I’ve got time. I’ll do that stuff later. Which way are you living? A crown.
If we look at Revelation 3, if you want to just flip over a chapter, it’s pretty interesting what it says there, verse 11. This is to the church in Philadelphia, the missionary-sending church, the church that did such an amazing job of populating the world with the gospel.
He says, Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. Crowns are laid up for us, but we can squander it.
I was listening to ESPN for a little while last night, and Villanova is going to the final game. And it said they’d had two championships, but one was vacated. They’d won it, but it got taken away from them. It’s not on the record books anymore. And this is the idea, our crowns can be laid up and then squandered. Keep going so you don’t squander that which is laid up for you. These crowns, they’re amazing opportunities of life.
The second death
Revelations 2:11. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. And now comes the really hard one. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”
We saw that an overcomer is someone who’s a victor, someone who wins. And we saw in the church of the Laodiceans that Jesus says if you overcome as I overcame. It’s really hard to say here that overcomer means become a Christian, because Jesus did not accept Jesus into his heart. Jesus did not come to salvation through believing. Jesus is God.
But, Jesus was an overcomer because he overcame temptation and trials. He did all these things we just got through talking about in James. And he was tempted in every way we’re tempted.
And Satan tried to get him to succumb to his desires. Man, you’re really hungry, right? Well, why don’t you eat your own way rather than wait on God? Nope, man does not live by bread alone. I’m going to depend on God.
It says, Jesus lived a life of perfect dependence, even though he was the only person who could have lived a perfect life of independence.
So what do we make of this? This is not easy.
I’m going to propose a model that I think explains how this can be. It’s just a model. Struggle with it on your own.
The second death, which is the lake of fire—let me show you that first.
Look at Revelation 21:7. He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son. But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
So, fire and brimstone is the second death. The lake of fire is the second death. You could read this and say, he who overcomes shall not be hurt by the lake of fire.
This is very difficult for us because in our paradigm, lake of fire means hell. Hell is a place. And it’s a place that we’ve been promised we won’t go. So how can you be hurt by some place you would never go?
Well, take this into account. It’s very possible that the lake of fire is not a place.
Let me show you what I mean by that. Look at Revelation 20:14. Hell most certainly is a place, but in Revelation 20:13, it says, The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire.
Death and Hades, Hades being what we think of as hell is actually in the Bible called Hades, is the place where people go, like the rich man and Lazarus when they’re looking over, and he’s in Hades, and he’s in torment, that’s usually what we think of. That’s Hades. And Hades is thrown into the lake of fire. So this place of Hades actually goes away. And it’s in the lake of fire.
So, then, is the lake of fire a place? I’m going to propose that it’s not, that it’s a presence.
Let me show you how I get to that. And, if it’s a presence then I think that opens up some other possibilities for us, and we can have an understanding of this that makes this fairly simple to understand.
Look at Daniel 7. In Daniel chapter 7, something very interesting happens. Verse 9.
I watched till thrones were put in place,
And the Ancient of Days was seated;
His garment was white as snow—
And we’re going to see a lot of the imagery from Revelation comes straight out of Daniel. We’re going to be going back to Daniel a lot.
His garment was white as snow– We’ll see white as snow all through Revelation.
And the hair of His head was pure like wool. Which I’m a fan of.
His throne was a fiery flame. His throne was what? A fiery flame.
Its wheels a burning fire;
A fiery stream issued
And came forth from before Him.
A thousand thousands ministered to Him;
Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him.
The court was seated,
And the books were opened.
I watched then because of the sound of the pompous words which the horn was speaking—
This was a horn on a beast. The beast represents Rome.
I watched till the beast was slain, and its body destroyed and given to the burning flame.
So here’s the beast, the beast of Rome, put in the burning flame coming from the throne of God.
And if we look at Revelation 19:20, what we’ll see is that the beast, that ruler of Rome, is thrown directly into the lake of fire.
Then the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who worked signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image. These two were cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone.
We also see that our God is what? Look at Hebrews 12:29. For our God is a consuming fire.
The reference in chapter 12 of Hebrews goes back to Mount Sinai. It talks about Mount Sinai and it says, if God is a consuming fire there, he most certainly is a consuming fire now, because our God is a consuming fire.
When the people saw the fire on Mount Sinai, they said oh, we’re afraid we’re going to die. Don’t speak to us anymore. And God said, it’s a good thing to be afraid of sinning but not of dying. You know, death’s not that big a deal. Sinning, now, that’s really scary. Don’t sin. That’s the point here, because our God is a consuming fire.
When you see fire in the Bible often it’s just an expression of God himself.
What I’m going to propose is that when we say these sorcerers and evil is outside the city, Revelation 22:14, let’s go to Revelation 22:14. Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life—We saw that in Ephesus. —and may enter through the gates into the city. But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie.
This is in the new earth. And outside the new Jerusalem are these sorcerers and liars and stuff. And I asked myself, well, who’s that? I thought the new earth was not going to have any people like that. And here they are outside the city.
So the model I’m going to propose to you is that the lake of fire is the presence of God, the holy presence of God.
Think about this: What did God tell Moses about seeing his face? I can’t do it, why? You’d die if you saw it because you can’t live in the presence of my holiness in your current state.
So, when we come into the holiness of God, what happens? What happened to John when he saw Jesus? He fell down like a dead man. What happened to Isaiah, the prophet who never spoke anything wrong? He said, man, my lips are dirty. I feel dirty here, because he’s in the presence of the holiness of God.
Here’s what I propose this is saying “shall not be hurt by the lake of fire” that the lake of fire is just God’s holiness. And when we come to the judgment seat of Christ, and let’s end with that. Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 3. 1 Corinthians talks about the fire that we are all going to encounter.
I Corinthians 3:9. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it—Paul speaking—But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones—what happens to those when fire hits it? Gets even better, right? Gets even purer. —wood, hay, straw—What happens when fire hits wood, hay, straw? Dissipates. —each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it—this judgment day when works are revealed because it will be revealed by fire. Our God is a consuming fire. If we have works that last, it will refine. And if we have works that don’t last, it will be consumed.
If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved—This is not about whether we’re accepted or not. This is not where we go. The place we go will be the new earth. The place we will be in as believers will be children of God. The reward we get is dependent on whether we’re overcomers. And if we’re not overcomers, we’ll be saved yet so as though fire. Singed, and our whole life shown to be nothing. Or part of our life shown to be nothing.
So here’s where we come back to. Jesus is saying, look, you’re going to go into persecution. It’s going to stink. If you will hold on, all of the refining will be done here on earth. I’m going to give you a tremendous reward. And when we get to this judgment-seat thing, there’s not going to be anything left to burn. There’s not going to be any pain for you.
Other people, who live their life as unto the world, what they’re going to do is they’re going to get before me and my holiness, and they’re going to watch their whole life go up in smoke, because they didn’t do anything that was lasting. It was all for themselves. You will not have to go through that pain if you will endure the circumstance I give you now.
Okay, now I’m motivated. Now I get it. I don’t want to have my life go up in smoke. I want to live my life in such a way that Jesus says, you endured all the suffering down there for me, it’s all past. Now, let’s go into my presence. You learned what you needed to learn. Let’s go to the next phase. Be faithful unto death. I will give you the crown of life. When you enter my holiness, instead of suffering loss you’re going to get this incredible gain.
Well, what about the unbelievers? Our God is a consuming fire. And what his judgment does to us is refine us. Jesus says, I chasten those who I love. God’s judgment fire consumes the adversaries. That’s not going to be a pleasant thing for them. They’re going to live the life of being consumed. I’m not sure what that’s going to look like in terms of them being outside the city, and we can see them. I don’t know what that is.
But, we don’t have to worry about that. We’re not talking about that in the least because God’s fire doesn’t consume us.
God has good things for us
When God says to the Israelites in Jeremiah 29:11, I know what I have in mind for you and it’s just good things. What he’s telling them is “I’ve got just good things,” as they’re headed to Babylon, and they’re going to be there for 70 years. And he says, hey, build houses, live there. You’re only going to be there 70 years, but live there like you’re going to be there indefinitely. I’ve got good things for you. And half a million people are about to die. Massive pestilence is coming upon their city. And Jesus says, I’ve got really good things in mind for you because he disciplines those who he loves. And he gives us this amazing opportunity to know him by faith.
Now, that’s not easy to do. But James tells us if you need wisdom, ask. So let’s do that now.