March 10, 2012

Apocalypse Prophecy XXXV: The Seven Churches of Asia Minor-Part II: Smyrna, Thyatira & Sardis

Overview of the Letters to The Seven Churches

The letters to the churches follow some basic outlines: Commendation of the church’s good works, accusation because of some sin, exhortation to repent with a warning of judgment or an encouragement, an exhortation to discern the truth of the preceding message and a promise to the conquerors. In some shape or formula these are the main components. Christ presents himself with certain attributes particularly suitable to the situation of each church. The logical flow of each letter climaxes with the promise of inheriting eternal life with Christ, which is the main point of each letter. The body of each letter provides the basis upon which the Spirit calls the churches to respond by “hearing,” which should inevitably result in “overcoming,” the consequence of which is inheritance of the respective promises.

Seven Churches Broken Into  Three Groups

The first and last (Ephesus, Laodicea) are in danger of losing their very identity as a Christian church. Therefore, they are exhorted to repent in order to prevent their judgment and to inherit the promises that genuine faith deserves.

The churches addressed in the three central letters (Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis) have to varying degrees some who have remained faithful and others who are compromising with pagan culture. Among these Pergamum is in the best condition and Sardis is in the worst. These churches are exhorted to purge the elements of compromise from their midst in order to avert judgment on those that compromise (and probably also themselves) and to inherit the promises due those who overcome compromise.

The second and sixth letters (Smyrna, Philadelphia) are written to churches which have proved themselves faithful and loyal to Christ even under persecution from both Jews and pagans. Even though they are poor and have little power they are encouraged to continue persevering since more trials will confront them. They are to endure with the hope that they will inherit the promises of eternal salvation when they die (perhaps a martyr’s death).

Smyrna: The Commended Church

The church at Smyrna was troubled, poor, and it was being hammered by false Jews, and some were even being martyred. In this way they were emulating Jesus yet He triumphed in the end even over death. Smyrna was abounding in the spiritual riches that churches like Laodicea sorely lacked yet they viewed themselves as poor (as did the outside world). As we understand from God’s comment to Samuel about David in 1 Samuel 16:7, “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart”.

As for the Jews here, they are referred to as a synagogue of Satan, probably to bring attention that they are under the influence and power of the world (which is under Satan's influence). Smyrna was a hotbed of the Roman imperial cult, and anyone refusing to acknowledge Caesar as Lord would certainly have been excluded from the guilds if not persecuted outright. There was also a large Jewish community also thrived in Smyrna. The Jews were not required to patronize the imperial cult since their religion was accepted by Rome; but they did not cooperate with the Christian faith. Therefore the Christians were maligned and persecuted. But Christ says they were rich anyway because they would have eternal life if they remained faithful (Wiersbe 573).

Christians were betrayed by Jewish "informers”. By the second century, Jews in Smyrna were notably “ratting out” Christians such as Polycarp. Since Christians were then clearly not Jewish there was no protection afforded them as a sect of Judaism so they were expected to participate in the imperial/emperor cult and most did not so they were subsequently persecuted (Keener 770).

As 2 Corinthians 10:3-4 states, "we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does." The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. Our fight is not with flesh and blood but rather with the enemy, Satan and the people he uses  to accomplish his demonic purposes. The Jewish synagogues therefore were really anchors of influence  in the culture for Satan.  The Jews had worked within the existing world system to magnify the torment and persecution of God's true chosen at this point in time. What had been done to them for centuries they had now maliciously turned around on the Christians. This to me makes them even more culpable as they knew how guilty they were for doing it...having had it done to them. If they were doing it against God's chosen they were therefore doing against God. The truth is the Christian church does not need the approval of the culture and most often the reason the Church is persecuted is because they are not like the world. Jesus told us that we would always be in conflict with the world if we are obedient to God as the world/man is at war with God.

John 15:18 ~ “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.

This being said we see this abundantly today with churches or congregations that attempt to stay the course in terms of obedience to the Bible. In a culture that clearly becomes more immoral with each passing year, obedient churches find themselves more and more in conflict with the culture on the fronts of issues like abortion, homosexuality and homosexual marriage, unethical medical practices like euthanasia, cloning and medicinal drug use. The Bible has informed us clearly that it will get worse before it gets better. We now even have those from other faiths attacking us, such as Islam (not just Jews) and worse...we have attacks from within Christianity from other denominations and churches that are no longer toeing the line of Scripture. Outwardly they are professing to be of God's chosen people but in reality they are not "really Jews" or God's people. We, like Smyrna will be rewarded in the end though. The pattern of Scripture is clear.  Anything that is of the world will be in opposition to God as the world system is controlled by Satan (Newell 43).

Thyatira: The Corrupted Church

We now reach the church of Thyatira who has been unfaithful and immoral. Thyatira was a small military town as well as a commercial center with many trade guilds (Wiersbe 574). The city had a temple to Apollo (Sun God). John levels a severe message. Although they had been a busy church helping others they had and extreme tolerance of evil. They were permitting false teaching to influence the people and lead them into compromise with the world and unbiblical behavior but they were also being led astray.

The mention of Jezebel is symbolic of the fact that the church was behaving like the queen (of King Ahab) who enticed Israel to add Baal worship to their religious ceremonies in 1 Kings (Gurtner et al 359). These teachings were similar to the "doctrine of Balaam" that we saw in the church at Pergamos/Pergamum. The church was literally falling into a form of syncretism involving Christianity and false teaching.

This is the age old question that many churches including some that I have attended struggle with, "How much of the culture do you let in to the church so you can lead them to Christ before the church itself becomes the culture and indistinguishable from it?" If we have become the culture of today, there is a high probability that you/we are no longer biblical. If we do not put a limit on certain behaviors in a church, then all behavior becomes acceptable. We in the church need to define a reasonable standard of behavior, dress, etc…a minimum standard. To be able to do this we need to define what is right or wrong according to a Biblical measuring stick. Even though these are issue of conscience, we also know that anything that causes a brother or sister to stumble is unacceptable and unbiblical. I have battled this in my own churches and I am usually on the losing end. The same things that plagued the first century church still plague us today.

On the flip side of this we can quickly fall into danger or the trap of legalism requiring people to "do" things to make them more Biblical. We always run that risk or tripping over the line from orthodoxy to legalism. We see this in other ritualistic religions (Burqa anyone?). We see this with denominations or sects that require women (or men) to dress certain ways to an excessive legalistic degree or require women wear head coverings. 

Most often it is an issue of commonsense.

Unfortunately, the church always seems to have a deficit of this and it is to the detriment of the church. We need to better educate our laity and our leaders when it comes to matters of conscience and hold to a biblical standard...not a cultural one. We are to engage the culture, not conform to it. It is often the leaders of the church that are either under-educated or uneducated in these matters that end up running rogue of the Scriptures and allowing these extremes to exist. Sometimes these very leaders end up being the purveyers of false doctrine because of their own ignorance. The misinformed or poorly informed leaders become the Jezebel’s. As a Protestant we have even seen this in the authoritative tact of the Roman Catholic Church and errant doctrines such as Papal infallibility and its ilk. (Newell 64-65). In Wiersbe's commentary there was an awesome statement I quote verbatim about this:

Unloving orthodoxy and loving compromise...both are hateful to God and need to be avoided (Wiersbe 575).

Sardis: The Comatose Church

Fifty miles east of Ephesus lay Sardis. It was located on an almost inaccessible plateau or an acropolis. It was (past tense) a great church. There is another warning in this church for churches today. Just because you are great doesn’t mean you will remain that way if your heart drifts and goes cold. They had begun to live on the merit of yesterday but produced nothing relevant for today. As with the other churches there was still hope but things needed to be rectified. Sardis like churches today may look “big” or “great” from the outside but inside they are dead (Newell 62-63). As with anything Jesus Christ is involved with there is the possibility of new life or being born again. It is the story of a church that has grown complacent and dwell too much on what they did and not on what they could do as we are called to continue preaching the Gospel until there is no breath left in us to do so (Wiersbe 576). We see in in the formulaic evangelical churches that have all drawn off the business model: Worship, prayer, sermon, worship, offering, dismissal…all of this interspersed with emotive music, no dead spaces and audio/visual stimulus. This may produce evocative emotional reaction but over the long haul it begins to stagnate congregations because they get tired of having their heartstrings plucked for a buck. Man’s plans do not a good church make. The continual presence of the Holy Spirit makes a good church. Without the Spirit the church is deader than a doornail and about as effective as one too. An attempt at a revival of the body without a Spirit is man trying to create a zombie…an animated corpse with no spirit/soul, therefore it’s not a church.

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