March 9, 2012

Apocalypse Prophecy XXXIV: The Seven Churches of Asia Minor-Part I: Ephesus & Pergamos

Mystery of The Seven Stars & The Seven Golden Lampstands
It will be the primary focus of the next few posts to address the negative aspects of the messages to the seven churches addressed by John in the opening chapters of the Book of Revelation. I will then take these aspects and draw parallels or applications to the Church/churches of today. The churches of John’s day were, to a greater of lesser extent being persecuted by the outside world. Some were in stricter abeyance to the word of God than others in John’s salutation. As I again have a plethora of material to cover in a limited space I will be limiting my scope to the calls to obedience and messages to repent more so than the commendations for faithful service to the King.

If all the churches had been totally faithful there would’ve been little reason to write them other than to encourage them through their persecution and tribulation. But because of their persecution they were essentially being weeded out. Persecution separates the faithful from the unfaithful. The wheat was being separated from the chafe. Their persecutions were causing them to waver and/or make bad decisions that were putting themselves or their “congregations” in jeopardy and/or in line for judgment from the Lord. We to a lesser extent are seeing the same today. Although we are not quite under the persecution of those days, we are certainly not being accepted outright by the culture and the world at large. We are also informed through Revelation and its predecessor Daniel that near the end (eschaton) this persecution will increase so by default we are urged eventually through necessity to learn from the negative aspects of these messages. We need to see the call to correction and address the apostatizing influence of the culture and see how false teaching infiltrates and otherwise faithful and obedient church in subtle seemingly innocuous steps.

Bridge From The Past

The living and applicable character of Revelation addressed to the churches of Asia Minor and their importance to the modern evangelical church is usually completely overlooked my modern pastors (Walvoord 51). Modern leaders/pastors have their sights set on the dramatic and sensationalizing aspects of the latter chapters of Revelation. By skipping over the first few chapters of Revelation these poor observers of Revelation miss the messages to the seven churches. It is a message that has incisive and pointed denunciation of departure from Scriptural standards and biblical morality. A denunciation of departure from sound theology and drift into cultural ambivalence and ambiguity is what keeps this off of modern teacher/preachers lecterns. These letters and the Bible in general are an exacting standard that holds Christians to the highest level of righteous behavior and holiness. A level that is shunned even by those in positions of leadership today (an yesterday) because it makes “doing church” too hard. So hard that many leaders within the church believe it will drive adherents away from the faith (Walvoord 51).

These are God’s words and what God saw fit to print is what is best for believers. We are in no position to say this not “doable” in our churches. IF God said it is “doable” and required of us, then to not do it puts our judgment in the place of God. This is bad news and prelude to a failure (apostasy). First, because we are not to be the ultimate benchmark or decider of what is possible in churches and secondly, these are not our churches they are God’s church (no “s”). It is the Church…His Church…His Body.

People need to stop thinking from a human oriented standard and start thinking from a God-oriented standard. Unfortunately, man is prone to think from the flesh and not from the angle of righteousness and this is where man fails. We need to depend on the Spirit, not ourselves. Most of the problems in modern congregations is the softening standards that seek to “dull the edge on” or “or water down” the demands of what it takes to be Christian or “do church” to make it palatable to those that don’t even want to attend on a regular basis anyway. We are therefore adjusting our churches to the lowest common denominator and are not even attempting to raise the level. We’re just trying to maintain the status quo so not to “rock the boat”. We are therefore shaping churches to accommodate those that are not driven enough to maintain the exacting standards outlined in the Bible anyway. So why water them down? This is exactly what the letters to the seven churches condemns. The evils and wolves (many unintended or unintentional) are the outgrowth of neglect or misguided attempts to make the Church more palatable for the masses. Sorry folks…the righteousness of God is not for the masses it is for the faithful and the few.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14

Many of our individual churches are in a bad way and they will not fix themselves. It will take more than just waiting for others to “right the ship” we all need to do our duty. The first of which is to preach the unadulterated message of the Gospel or as John says the churches at Ephesus and Pergamos...

Ephesus: The Careless Church

“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. Revelation 2:4-6

What was the love they had at first? They had been busy doing the works of the Lord. They were a sacrificing and giving church, for the word in Greek for “hard work” κόπον/kopon (v.2) means to "toil to the point of weariness". These people had paid the price. They had shown the fruits of the Spirit through their actions. Obviously, part of this labor was rooted in the preaching or the Gospel because without the Gospel…there is no faith to have perseverance in (v.2)

So what happened?

Paul had warned false teachers would arise from within the church at Ephesus (Acts 20). John had instructed them to "try the spirits" (1 John 4: 1-6). Indeed, a church must be constantly alert to detect apostasy and reject it. The word Nicolailan means "conquer the people." It is quite possible there was a portion of the church at Ephesus that either purposely or inadvertently controlled or manipulated the church because of either purposeful or poor leadership and robbed the people of their liberty as equals under Christ which is often the case today with churches who see leadership and laity as hierarchical divisions when no such thing existed then or now. Then and now misinformed our misunderstanding church goers initiated the "clergy" and "laity" division that is not taught in New Testament. All God's people are "kings and priests". We all have equal access to the Father through the blood of Christ. Those that take leadership roles and pastoral rolls with the intent to “lead” rather than “serve” are not suited to the position they are given to serve and guide God’s people (not theirs). We’ll see this “derailing “ of the church again in Pergamos. This church who had separated themselves from the world spiritually to be useful tireless tools of Jesus Christ had abandoned their first love! They had left the fervent, personal love. Labor does not substitute for love which is a condition of the heart, not an action of the body. They are called to repent which is to realize you are wrong and come back to Christ and the original intents of the Bible. In the end we see the fruits of a “careless church” (Wiersbe 571-572).

There is then a parallel church also very applicable today…

Pergamos: The Compromising Church

Instead of careless we see another word that starts with a “C”: Compromising.

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.” Revelation 2:14-16

We again see the teaching of the Nicolaitans but it is in conjunction with the teachings of Balaam. Pergamos had been Satan’s “seat” because it had the first temple dedicated to Caesar and was a rabid promoter of the imperial cult. Although Pergamos had suffered persecution and had remained true to God they still lacked in Christ’s eyes.  Although mostly faithful and under persecution…

A group of compromising people had infiltrated the church and church koinonia. It is clear what Jesus thinks of them and those that practice the same things today. Jesus Christ hated their doctrines and their practices. What they taught was the teaching of "Nicolaitans” who we already read about at Ephesus (Rev. 2:6). They taught what is called "the doctrine of Balaam". The truth is that the teachings of the Nicolaitans and Balaam are probably the same. Regardless, those leading in the church with these types of teaching were leading the church astray. So what were they teaching?

Balaam was a real prophet (although pagan) who prostituted his gifts in order to earn money from King Balak who hired him to curse the people of Israel. God ended up turning the curses to blessing. Balak knowing he could not overcome Israel or Israel’s God, took Balaam’s advice and “befriended” Israel and invited them to worship at pagan altars. Syncretism folks…the faithful fell right into it hook, line and sinker. It is the blending of the beliefs of the One True God with false/fake gods or worldly philosophies (a la 1 Corinthians 1-4). Balak couldn’t take on God’s people head-to-head…so he led them astray and had them whoring themselves to other gods and eventually whoring themselves to pagan women within a short time through pagan practices and idolatry. In the end 24,000 died (Numbers 25:1-9) due to this “compromise” with the world. This is the context of the passage in Revelation. There was a group within the church that were “lording over” this church that said there was absolutely nothing wrong with accepting and being friendly with Rome and Rome’s way of doing things. Some resisted and were persecute but most took the easy way out and conformed to the culture and demands of the State (Wiersbe 573-574). The Lord literally accused certain Christians leaders at Pergamos of sinning, of allowing "spiritual fornication" by accepting Rome into the Church (i.e.: the world and culture into the Church).

They are called to repent or He will come and bring His sword. Please note this is not the sword of Hebrew 4:12 μάχαιραν /machairan a noun that refers to a small knife-like sword used for removing meat from bone.

Hebrew 4:12 ~”For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

John on the other hand is referring to a ῥομφαίᾳ/rhomphaia in the Revelation passage, a sabre, long or broad cutlass.

Revelation 2:16~ “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth."

A powerful punishing and bludgeoning weapon meant to exact swift and painful…judgment or death. Since this sword will be coming from Jesus’ mouth…it most certainly is judgment. These people were being warned that they should be more concerned with the sword of Christ than that of the Romans (i.e.: the world/culture). The implications of this text are profound for the church at Pergamos…and us. Jesus will not be playing games. This should give us some idea of how severely God looks upon the infractions of this otherwise faithful church. A church many, many today are emulating and following in the footsteps of. Hopefully this will open a few eyes…but then again…probably not.

The parallel for today’s church should be utterly clear…and frightening.

The admonition for the church then turns singular and individualistic as it is often the individual(s) that affect a change in a church that is in “backslide” mode. (v.17) “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”.

Sorry folks, we of the church are called to be a pure bride of Christ, not a dirty whore of the world. I’m listening Lord, I’m listening… I do not want to be whore.

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