The Greatest Gambler
But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. (Revelation 3:4)
A main theme that seems to run like a strong thread throughout Revelation is the idea of worthiness. But the concept of worthy can mean different things depending on what is valuable to the one looking on.
Is someone worthy because they are worth a lot? What makes us thing they are worth something? And how much does it take to exclaim that someone is worth a lot or that they are worthy?
We assign worth to people based on how much net worth they have accumulated. We generally mean that they have amassed a fortune financially so they are worth admiring to some respect. But we also know that just because a person might be rich does not mean they have a character worthy of admiration. In fact, the richer a person is often brings with it some suspicion on the part of many that maybe they acquired their wealth relying on dubious methods.
Another kind of worth that is very common in our world comes with earning educational degrees. The more letters one can add to their name the more respect they usually hope to earn. Most of our world revolves around a hierarchy dependent on maintaining social stratification based on educationally earned worth. But is education really the way to achieve real worth? Or can it turn into a cover to make people appear worthy while not having real worth inside?
I believe it is important to step back and reexamine just what real worth might entail. Simply allowing our assumptions to determine what a passage like this means without unpacking the meaning of a key word like this could result in very misleading conclusions about the entire book. What prompts those speaking of who is worthy in Revelation should be something clearly understood, for it just may become a vital key that unlocks many other things in this cryptic book.
But as I look at the context of this verse to look for clues, let me first take a look at another word that is very often used with little to no understanding of its true meaning in Scripture. In this message to the church of Sardis, when I go back and review what Jesus has to say to them I find this:
Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. (Revelation 3:2)
A number of versions including the King James translates this word as perfect. Using the word perfect makes it even more difficult to unpack given the great deal of religious baggage associated with that word that makes many people very discouraged. So when they read these words of Jesus saying that someone's deeds are not perfect, it sounds like Jesus trying to make it even more difficult to please Him than what we already fear is the case.
So, one thing I have learned to do with words such as this is to go back and look at the definition in the original language to see if there may be a better or more accurate way of thinking about a word. And in this case that is what I do find. Here is the Greek word that is translated as complete or perfect in English and the accompanying definition from Strong's.
Pleroo - to make replete, i.e. literally to cram a net, level up a hollow, or figuratively to furnish or imbue, diffuse, influence, satisfy, execute an office, finish a period or task, verify or coincide with a prediction, etc.:--accomplish, be complete, end, expire, fill up, fulfill, make full, fully preach, perfect, supply.
One more thing that I find extremely useful when seeking to understand a passage of Scripture. That is, what is the larger context that gives it meaning? And most of all I need to keep reminding myself of the largest context possible and to have a good grasp of the real issues involved. Otherwise people can come up with just about any sort of scenario or interpretation to fit whatever favorite doctrine or belief they might want to subscribe to. But when the big picture of the war between Christ and Satan is used as the constant by which everything else is measured, the lens through which everything is viewed and evaluated, then it becomes much easier to spot and disarm trigger words such as perfect or even worthy.
What I have been coming to see for years now as I become more and more familiar with the real issues in the big context is that at its core the war is over God's reputation and credibility. Revelation 12 exposes the real issues along with other places in the Bible where we see that God's whole system of governing has been brought into question in a massive war involving slander. In fact, the Greek word translated as war in chapter 12 means words and ideas, not physical battles.
So what is it that is being disputed in this war? It can be rather daunting to sort out the lies from the truth since we live in a world permeated with lies and are even born with a predisposition to believe lies about God. But if we honestly want to know the real truth, Jesus promised that His Spirit which is the Spirit of Truth will eagerly guide us into the real truth if we ask for it. So as I look through the Word to see the big picture and the real issues of contention, here is what I am finding.
God says that He can transform rebels who believed lies about Him into lovers who will willingly obey Him. He claims that He can turn sinners into saints, even mortal enemies into intimate friends. We have all been born antagonistic toward God as seen in the inherent selfishness of our nature. But God has never held this against us but instead passionately loves us, seeking all along to change our opinions about Him.
Let me go back and pull some significant words from the definition we looked at for perfect or complete. This word I believe may more accurately be translated using some of the other terms in that definition such as influence, satisfy or accomplish. These actually fit better when we begin to understand that the war between righteousness and evil does not revolve around our performance or lack thereof but rather around whether God can be trusted to do what He claims He can do in the lives of sinners. Then when we read what Jesus is telling those in Sardis that they are not finished yet, it can be seen that He may well be talking about their need to let Him do more in their lives than what they have allowed Him to do up to that point.
Let me share some other versions of this part of this verse to highlight what I am starting to see.
...as judged by me your works have not come up to God's measure. (BBE)
...I have found that you are not completely obeying God. (CEV)
...I have not found your works fully developed before my God. (CGV)
...For I have not found your works fulfilled before my God. (FAA)
...For I have discovered that from the perspective of my God, nothing you’ve done has been finished. (FBV)
...I’ve found you haven’t followed through on your actions in the presence of my God. (SENT)
What is seen here is not a God sternly rebuking people for failing to measure all the way up to a list of standards but rather keen disappointment that they are not following through on their claim to be letting Him transform their lives to effectively reflect the real truth about what He is like. The True Witness is speaking to His witnesses that their lives are not yet consistent with their claims to represent Him which in turn is discrediting His reputation.
So how is this problem best addressed? Does God threaten us if we are lagging behind in our testimony for Him? Will it help if He threatens to punish us if we don't get our act together and quit sinning? Does it work if a doctor threatens a patient with severe penalties if they don't quit exhibiting symptoms of sickness? Will that encourage the patient to want to cooperate with the doctor's prescribed regimen for getting well or will it discourage them?
I have long observed that there is something very important missing from most of our religious dialog about salvation and how we believe God plans to overcome the problem of sin. It is vital to be aware that the root problem of sin lies in the slander that has long been circulated severely damaging His reputation. Sin is not our faulty behaviors or guilt for breaking rules; those are only symptoms of the much deeper problem just as sick patients exhibit symptoms of sickness that are unavoidable. What we call sins are really only symptoms of our distrust of God more than anything else. If we really knew God we would trust Him and when we really come to trust Him we will never have any desire to do anything other than to synchronize with His ways of doing things.
This is where the amazing element of God's trust in us can have such a powerful effect. It is a fundamental principle that only by being loved can true responding love be awakened. As humans it is impossible for us to generate true love, for we were designed to be reflectors of love, not originators. God is love, and John makes that very clear over and over again, especially in his letters. And he reminds us that unless we are connected to God and actively receiving love from God, we cannot be loving of ourselves. Likewise if we are not loving others, it is simply a symptom that we are not experiencing and living in the love of the Father for us.
Sadly what many fail to recognize is that the same is just as true of faith. Faith, or what is really just plain trust at the heart level, is induced the very same way that love is created – by being inspired and awakened responsively when we see how much we are trusted rather than through trying hard to work up faith inside ourselves.
At this point for many, doubt and discomfort begin to cause us to question. We feel uneasy at the idea that God could have faith in us, for we believe that this would be undeserving trust in sinful humans. But that key word deserving should be a tip-off for us, because the entire system of reward and punishment revolves around this fundamental but faulty principle of deserving and it all originates from the Tree of Good and Evil. But basing life in what we earn or deserve is in sharp contrast to the Tree of Life which represents God's way of living and relating.
I am starting to see that God's ways of relating involve much more risk than we believe is feasible. If you take a fresh look at many of Jesus' parables you can begin to notice how much seemingly insane risk is involved. But when we start to see this about God we can begin to grasp how much risk God is willing to take in trusting us. In turn we will begin to experience true faith and trust awakening in our own hearts toward God. This is the secret of the power of God's methods that is so hard for us to believe, for we are so invested in the ways of this world we resist believing that the ways of heaven can effectively overcome the ways of fear and force.
I believe we have spent far too much time focusing on perfection (meaning of course, eliminating symptoms of sin from our behavior). Others despairing that focus on looking for excuses for their faults insisting that it is impossible to be free of sin so we just need to believe in some formula to avoid deserved punishment for our sins. But both of these approaches fall far short of seeing that the real issue behind the sin problem is our view of God's trustworthiness and His perfection of character, not our performance or legal standing before a judge waiting to determine our fate for us.
So how can God's character be vindicated? How might we begin to present a credible witness to improve His reputation, the real issue at stake before the entire universe? How should we take the advice of Jesus to Sardis and begin to complete or better fulfill our profession to be His followers?
I believe the answer goes back to faith, but not just our faith in God because again that is starting with symptoms rather than cause. We must begin to see much more clearly both the love that God has for us along with the faith that God has in us. How do we do this?
Jesus told some amazing parables that reveal the factor of risk in how God relates to us. The parable of the debtor in Matthew 18 involved enormous risk on the part of the king, a risk that failed. The parable of the talents exposed the difference between servants willing to take great risks with their master's resources compared to one who decided it was too risky and it was better to play it safe. But when the master evaluated each of the servant's performances, it became clear that the master was delighted over the first two who had taken risks with his money while he was very upset with the last one who was sure it was too risky to be reckless with his master's assets.
What was the real problem with the last servant who played it safe? It was not that he didn't have opportunity to do anything similar to the others but that his perceptions of the master's disposition about risk was opposite of theirs. It was because he was certain that he would get into big trouble with the master that he chose to play it safe and not make any risky investment. His core problem was one of clinging to false notions about the master. His performance or lack thereof was only symptomatic of a much deeper problem – he didn't believe in his master's trust in him. As a result he was unwilling and even felt incapable of taking risks himself, not seeing that his master was already taking a huge risk by entrusting the talent to him in the first place.
The bottom line is not about our performance to impress God but is rather about our perceptions and beliefs about God and how He relates to us. When we cling to notions that God is demanding and exacting, arbitrary or severe, waiting to punish all who don't get their act together or who fail to measure up, then our focus will always be on playing it safe rather than taking joyful risks.
Conversely, as we begin to grasp the amazing truth that God, at least from our perspective, is playing things loose and taking ridiculous risks with all of us, then we can begin to reflect the kind of God we are seeing and can be empowered to take greater and greater risks like God ourselves.
Does this mean we should throw away all caution or common sense? Not at all. What this means is that we need to learn how to synchronize with God, learn to be led by His Spirit at all times and let Him inspire our risk-taking so that the risks we do take are in harmony with His, not motivated by our own selfish desires or limited perspective. In essence, we need to synchronize with God so that our risks not only produce great joy for both us and God, but we begin to realize that our risks for God can be underwritten by the limitless riches of heaven.
Think about how much better it is to risk the way God takes risk.
- The risks that God's children are willing to take are based on insider information.
- The risks that God's children take are backed by an Underwriter providing magnanimous insurance that is nearly unbelievable.
- What makes God's true children willing to take risks is the reality that they view God as the greatest risk taker far beyond anything they would be willing to do on their own. Because God is willing to risk all of heaven to win as many as possible into a love and trust relationship with Himself, those who follow the Lamb will likewise emulate Him and will begin taking similar risks to attract as many as possible to begin trusting the Lamb for themselves.
When we begin to grasp this little known truth about God as a risk taker, our perceptions of many stories in the Bible will change. We start to see how time after time God approached very unlikely people who had dubious credentials or little apparent ability to do things for Him. Sometimes the trust He placed in people did not result in good returns. Yet it almost seems like God never learns His lesson as He keeps coming back again and again to make high-risk investments in humans.
This should tell us something about God that we are very reluctant to admit. God is a high-roller, an apparently compulsive gambler, a seemingly reckless risk-taker. But it is precisely because of this that we can be finally drawn to begin to trust Him ourselves. For as we realize that it is not our worthiness that causes Him to take risks in trusting us but rather His ability to transform us if we cooperate with Him, then we too can begin to join in His craziness of taking risks in the lives of others around us.
Consider the example of Saul of Tarsus. Seriously, what greater risk might God have taken from our perspective? Here was a man who was fiercely opposed to anyone trusting in God's Son who was sent to reveal the Father's heart. Saul was a religious fanatic fiercely loyal to the mainstream religious views about God and passionate to forcefully bring everyone else into line with his views. He was a terrorist toward all who were coming to learn about the gentle kindness of God in stark contrast to the kind of God Saul believed in. Saul was simply acting out the same kind of behavior that he was sure God would do if He were in his shoes. Saul was very defensive of the same kind of God most people today still believe He is like.
From a human perspective there appeared no reason to trust Saul as far as Jesus' followers were concerned. Saul was bad news all around. He was arrogant, argumentative, proud, harsh and believed tenaciously in a God who advocated violence to enforce His laws. Saul felt completely justified and even righteous in using violence to enforce what he was certain was God's government on earth to stop the serious spiritual hemorrhaging that was taking place in his 'church' from all the new heresies introduced by this dangerous new sect.
If we had lived at the time before Saul's heart was captured by Jesus on the road to Damascus, it would be much easier to see why almost no one among the Christians was willing to have any confidence that God could change Saul. I say 'almost' because I believe there was quite possibly one who was not blinded by fear of the rabid rabbi causing such mayhem among the followers of Jesus. Barnabas was a hopeful person, but more importantly he took seriously the teachings of Jesus that instructed him to love his enemies and pray for those who persecute you. I believe that Barnabas may have been the only disciple who decided to go for the big one, to take a high-risk investment by practicing the attitudes that Jesus taught. He began to pray with great faith for God to do what appeared impossible to everyone else, to capture the heart of their mortal enemy Saul.
Why do I believe that Barnabas was the one who leveraged his prayers and faith to unleash the Holy Spirit's convictions into Saul's life? I believe it was Barnabas because after Saul's conversion there is no record of anyone trusting God's transformation of Saul's heart except Barnabas. It was Barnabas alone who embraced Saul without reservation and risked his own reputation to introduce Saul to the rest of the church in Jerusalem. Barnabas had learned what it means to play the high stakes and to trust in God to bring about enormous returns on his investment. Barnabas was a big gambler, but he learned it from the greatest gambler of all, Jesus Himself.
So, the way we perceive the word perfect in Revelation 3:2 may well reveal our perspective on the disposition of God toward taking risks. If we read this verse with an attitude of perfectionism, as in God demanding perfect obedience in behavior, either from us directly or through some legal fiction whereby the perfection of Jesus is somehow obscuring our record from God's eyes, then we will not likely be willing to take many risks when it comes to trusting others or participating with God in His high-risk investments. We will belike the servant who considered it most safe to bury the talent he received instead of investing it.
But if we have begun to grasp the amazing truth about God's eagerness to invest vast resources in hopes of gaining a stunning return on His investments in lost sinner, then we can begin to get excited about joining in the game to experience the thrill from high expectations of stunning returns backed by a guarantee from heaven's bank backing us up. For the investments made relying on heaven's methods are not investments to satisfy our selfish desires like most gamblers do. No, heaven's gambling strategies are designed to produce far better returns and rewards, for the rewards of good gambling are joy bonds formed with those transformed from enemies into those who have been won by the crazy trust and love of God awakening responding trust in those who finally see that truth about Him.
God's gamblers outrage religious people who are terrified of taking risks. Those who feel we must always play it safe or God will become upset with us can never find courage to attempt much for God's kingdom, for they are certain that God is looking more for conformity to His rules than for exciting, satisfying heart relationships with former enemies.
This is the essence of the ministry of reconciliation that Paul – God's former enemy turned passionate friend – spoke of throughout his writings. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19 NIV)
When we begin to feel the excitement of success and begin to dare to move outside our narrow ideas about God and dare to start taking risks in the name of God, all heaven will get excited eater to join us and encourage us and cheer us on. The bank of heaven then becomes available to us in ways we never dreamed possible. God gets excited when we make high demands of heaven, not in that we are arrogant or reckless but because we are finally starting to enter the thrill and joy of going after the kind of rewards that cause our hearts to thrive, the rewards of bonding with other hearts with the joy of God.
Why did Jesus tell us to love our enemies anyway? Was it because He expects us to work hard at loving the unloveable in order to fulfill yet another demand of God? Or is it because God knows that winning the heart of an enemy will produce exponentially greater joy in our hearts than simply loving friends we already enjoy?
High-risk investments using heaven's way means taking risks with our hearts. The question is, are we willing to get hurt in the process? Most likely we will suffer when we take large risks with our heart. The Bible is full of teaching and examples that bear this out. But we do not become Christians to avoid pain or suffering but to join into the risky business of gambling with God's resources. What are God's valuable assets? Love from the heart. Yet as we learn to gamble using God's methods relying on the infinite resources of love provided from heaven, drawing heavily on the love directly available from the Source of all love, we begin to realize that the abundant life Jesus promised is not a safe life but rather a rough and tumble life where we become willing to risk everything to draw as many as possible into a personal knowledge of God's love who is the ultimate gambler.
Gambling with God means entering into the joy of winning with God each time we watch another opponent switch sides to embrace the real truth about God's passionate love for them.
Gambling with God means we have access to limitless resources so we never need fear running out of God's kind of currency. That means instead of living in stress worrying we might loose what little we have, we live in joyful celebration even when it appears to everyone else that we are losing the game. The Lamb of Revelation is the ultimate example of high-risk gambling, and all who choose to follow that Lamb will appear crazy to this world's way of thinking. But as we come to perceive the truly wild side of God and glimpse that passionate love that is willing to do anything to win even one heart into trust, then we will discover what really makes life worth living.
Who is worthy? The real implication behind that question really is, who is worthy of being trusted. Worth from heaven's perspective is not about finances or value from our selfish perspective but rather worth of being trusted.
The master in the parable of the talents trusted all his servants with investments even though they were not all willing to respond positively to his trust in them.
The king in the parable of the debtor took an enormous risk in forgiving the servant who owed him 150,000 years worth of debt, yet his trust still did not produce the desire result of winning over the heart of that servant back into a trusting relationship with him even after making such an enormous investment. Yet amazingly even then, the king never reinstated the debt owed to him but rather released that servant to torturers, allowing him to suffer the natural effects of his own choice. He released him to continue to live in fear and stubborn resistance to love until he might at last come to his senses.
Jesus Himself took an enormous risk that shocked nearly all His followers when He confronted Saul and won his heart with love and by trusting him with the job of taking the good news about God to the gentiles. And He told Saul this even while Saul was still His bitter enemy. From our viewpoint that is just incomprehensible; but from heaven's perspective it is just playing another hand in the game of gambling for souls.
Do we really want to have more faith? Are we interested in having faith like God has? Then the quickest way for faith/trust to begin to flourish in our own hearts is to begin to grasp the reality of God's gambling faith. The more we come to admire God as the greatest gambler ever because of love, the sooner we will be willing to join into the game ourselves and learn how to cooperate with God in making high-risk investments of love backed by the limitless resources of heaven.
Gambling will be terrifying to one who insists we are just supposed to be good, to play it safe and pay most attention to keeping rules. But for those whose hearts have become enamored with the ultimate Gambler, life suddenly becomes an grand source of opportunities to bet and win when we let the Holy Spirit show us how to be channels of God's currency pouring out in ever greater investments in efforts to win hearts to love. The question is, are we going to live in fear, playing it safe and holding everything only for ourselves? Or are we going to finally plunge into the game and be spent on behalf of God with high expectations for winning big even if it might cost suffering or death? This is what the Lamb has demonstrated showing us how to play the game. Will we join the Lamb and follow Him wherever He leads us? If so we are in for the ride of our life that will never quit for all eternity.
They will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. (Revelation 3:4)
So, how do I become worthy of God's trust?
Well, for starters, how do I handle inside information I receive about someone else? Do I use it as an excuse for gossip, or do I view it as a God-given opportunity to intercede for that person? Do I relate to incriminating information about someone as an excuse to exploit their weakness to my advantage, or do I stop and ask for heaven's perspective on that person, asking God how I should view them and how to pray in faith for them?
God wants to trust me even more. But how am I handling the things He is already entrusting to me? Am I using my current blessings and advantages primarily for personal benefit? Or am I starting to view things in the context of provisions by God to make me a conduit of blessing for someone else?
Being faithful in little things can earn me more of God's trust to give me greater responsibility. That means being full of trust in God in whatever situation I find myself; for what God's trust in me is seeking to do is to awaken responding trust in Him. That is how true faith is increased.
I sense that God gets excited when we ask for more faith, that is if we have some clue as to what we are really asking for. If I want more of the power of God in my life which should be associated with greater faith, something like what Jesus' disciples experienced, then my question should be, is God able to trust me with greater power. If I had power or faith or whatever you want to call it, say to work miracles of healing, how would my current mindset cause me to use that power? Would I gravitate toward working miracles to draw more attention to myself, or would I passionately use that power to direct everyone's attention exclusively toward noticing how good God is? If not, then maybe I'm not ready for that much trust on the part of God.
Yet God continues to be faithful no matter what we do. And part of what it means to be faithful is to have faith in others, you know – full of faith, faith-full. We are not used to thinking of God having great faith since we tend to exclusively focus only on our need for greater faith. But I have been realizing is that the more we become aware of God's amazing faith in us the more faith will spontaneously begin to be awakened in our own hearts. Then we will be transformed more and more to reflect His faith instead of attempting to work it up in ourselves.
Someone once pointed out that our natural human desire to gamble is really a God-given attribute that has just been to often perverted by Satan. God designed us to want to take risks, to play it up, to take chances and enjoy the thrills involved in all that. But since most people employ these God-given impulses for selfish purposes and people rig gambling to exploit as many as possible for their own selfish ends, the result is that gambling has become something most Christians believe is simply bad.
But if you read many of the stories that Jesus told you begin to get a sense that Jesus was something of a high-roller when it came to taking risks. And He did take enormous risks which is why so many religious people were so scandalized much of the time. They were absolutely certain that God would never do such things as what they saw Jesus doing with people. Yet the truth remains that Jesus is possibly the biggest gambler who ever walked the face of this earth. Its just that He restored this human attribute back into its original intent and function to show us why we were given it in the first place.
God is risking all heaven in a gamble that in the end He can get the highest returns on His risky investments in broken human hearts and lives. All throughout history He has seemed to go for the highest odds when it came to picking who He thought might be a winner. And any experienced gambler knows that when betting on races, when you pick the longest odds, if that horse does win you earn the biggest returns.
Why did God chose Israel, a bunch of savages dehumanized for four hundred years as slaves in Egypt and barely able to function as humans by the time He brought them out into freedom? Well, we don’t have to guess a lot because God explained it Himself.
The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)
Nearly the entire chapter of Ezekiel 36 is God telling Israel (and us) that He intends to salvage His children from the tragic condition in which we find ourselves, a situation where our own choices have ruined His reputation. At the same time however He repeatedly reminds us that He is not saving us for our benefit but rather to salvage His reputation. Interesting motive for this high-rolling gambler.
But if we are willing to take God at His word and cooperate with His plans to salvage His reputation, not just in this world but His reputation all over the universe, then we can finally begin to align ourselves to participate with His motives as well. The more passionate we become about improving God's reputation instead of looking out so much for our own comfort or to avoid suffering, the sooner we can begin to experience the kind of power and passion that energized the early apostles as they turned the world upside down.
I believe it is time to start gambling with God. Want to bet? God already has been for a very long time.