May 26, 2008

Revelation 2:18-29: The Letter to Thyatira

Thyatira was located at the intersection of two important trade routes which ran from the east to port cities of Ephesus and Smyrna. It is the modern city of Akhisar in Turkey.

A center of manufacturing and trade (wool and linen weavers, dyers, bakers, bronze smiths, potters, and tanners), Thyatira was famous as source of purple cloth. The purple dye produced from the roots of a plant native to the area. Purple clothing was a mark of royalty and wealth and was highly prized throughout the Roman world.

Thyatira was the home of Lydia (Acts 16:14). Paul encountered Lydia in Philippi, in Macedonia. She was a dealer in purple cloth who traveled to sell her goods. She heard the gospel from Paul and became a Christian.

Thyatira, like Smyrna and Pergamos, was part of the Roman empire. Citizens were expected to worship the emperor, and the city also was the home of worship of the pagan religion of Apollo, a mythological Greek god of the sun, truth, and knowledge.

The trade guilds ruled the economy and the city. A craftsman had to be a member of a guild in order to practice his or her trade. But in that time, a guild was not simply a union like we know today, and that brought trouble to the Christians.

Guilds were tied in with the culture and met regularly. The meetings were all-day or all-night religious ceremonies where members worshipped the pagan god Apollo and the Roman emperor. The event included prayers and worship to these pagan gods, sacrifice of animals to them, and a banquet where sacrificed meat was served. Eating the meat was an act of acknowledgement and worship of the pagan gods and part of the guild member’s religious obligation. Apollo worship also included sexual union with the priestesses from the temple.

Remember from our discussion about the church at Smyrna that the Christians there were poor and persecuted because they would not worship the Roman emperor? That was not the case with the craftspeople in the church at Thyatira. Rather than stand against the pagan worship and immorality, the Christian craftspeople in Thyatira participated in it so they could work, and the church accommodated it. This situation is at the heart of Christ’s letter to the church in our passage today.

“And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write, ‘These things says the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet like fine brass: I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience; and as for your works, the last are more than the first. Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent. Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds. I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works.

‘Now to you I say, and to the rest in Thyatira, as many as do not have this doctrine, who have not known the depths of Satan, as they say, I will put on you no other burden. But hold fast what you have till I come. And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations—He shall rule them with a rod of iron; they shall be dashed to pieces like the potter’s vessels’—as I also have received from My Father; and I will give him the morning star.

‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

In the salutation, Christ refers to Himself as the “Son of God” as a reminder to these Christians who also participated in worship of pagan gods, that He, (Christ) and He alone, is God. The Savior has “eyes like a flame of fire” (here and 1:14 and 19:12). This is the picture of one with penetrating sight, Who in this letter to the church at Thyatira lets them know He sees into the depths of His people and His church.

“His feet are like fine brass” is a reference to His purity and to the position of perfection and holiness from which He has the right to judge. He has thus reminded the Christians at Thyatira that He (not Apollo or the emperor) is God, that He sees their sin, and that He has the right to judge them.

Christ commends the Christians in the Thyatira church for their works and service. Their works were increasing. Works include witnessing, caring for each other in sickness and times of trouble and mourning, helping the poor, widows, and orphans, and other similar works typical of committed Christians. He also commends their faith and patience. All of these works by Christians are motivated by love. The Christians at Thyatira, despite their shortcomings, apparently met the ideal of 1 Corinthians 1:1-3—their faith, service, and works were an outcome of their love for Christ and for each other. (Also see 1 Corinthians 16:15; Ephesians 4:12; Galatians 6:10; Titus 3:1,8,14).

The term “patience” may be better understood as “steadfastness” or “perseverance,” referring to the constant, steadfast efforts to serve and do good works. As we find in Galatians 5:6; James 2:24,26, and similar biblical admonitions, our faith is demonstrated to others in our works. Works are not an attempt to simply please God and merit His favor, but they are a result of, and motivated by, our trust in the Savior and love for each other, the special measure of faith, love, and caring that is imparted by the Holy Spirit that lives in every authentic Christian.

The letter to Thyatira is not all positive, however. Despite the great measure of faith and love the Christians there showed, verses 20-23 indicate that the church permitted the teaching of false doctrine and thus led the Thyatiran Christians into sin: sexual sin and eating food consecrated to idols.

The church at Thyatira had allowed the clashing values and demands of the culture to pollute it. A church does not just decide one day to accept obviously false doctrine, but in small steps of accommodation over time, it can happen.

You may remember our discussion about Ephesus, a church that was doctrinally on target, but lazy when it came love for God and each other. Thyatira is just the opposite, commended for works, service, love, faith, and steadfastness but weak doctrinally.

The reason apparently is that they accommodated themselves to their culture, embracing cultural practices that were sinful and which denied God as the only extant deity. In order to work, engage in commerce, own property, and otherwise participate in society, one had to be a member in good standing with the Roman rulers and, in the case of almost everyone involved in any craft, maintain good standing in the guild. And in order to stay in good standing, one had to participate in the worship of Apollo, the emperor, eat the meat sacrificed to the pagan gods as a religious act, and participate in the sexual activities with the priestesses in the temple of Apollo. In other words, people were expected as a condition of freedom and full participation in society, to acknowledge Apollo and the emperor as gods and pay homage to them. For the Christian, that meant the freedom to practice the Christian religion as long as he or she also worshipped the pagan religions.

Evidently, the church at Thyatira accommodated itself over time by adjusting its ideas about Christian doctrine to fit it with the culture and requirements of guild membership. There are a couple of prevailing opinions about just what was being taught.

First, one idea is the church came to believe it was permissible to accommodate to the practices of the culture as a practical means of fitting into the community and enjoying the benefits of citizenship. If Christian trades people needed to submit in order to make a living, then that was regarded as a necessary accommodation, and the church doctrine held that and God in His grace would overlook the sin.

The other idea comes from verse 24. It is what I would describe as the idea that we cannot understand wrong unless we practice it ourselves. From what we know about Thyatira, the people first yielded to the temptation to go along with the pressure to fit in with their culture and the practices of the guilds. Then came the doctrinal error that made it acceptable: that practicing sin would actually enable them to better understand it, and thus make them not only fit in with the culture, but also make them better Christians because they would understand the culture. Notice how the Thyatira church stands in contrast with the church at Smyrna, where Christians endured persecution and poverty because they determined to remain faithful and not participate in emperor worship. By doing so, they were persecuted by their neighbors and the Roman government and deprived of earning a living and owning property.

The leading teacher of the doctrinal error in Thyatira was a woman Jesus refers to as “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess.” We learn the story of Jezebel in 1 Kings 18-22. Ray Stedman, a pastor and author in southern California for more than 40 years, describes her this way:

“The Old Testament Jezebel was the daughter of the king of Sidon, a town in Lebanon that is often in the news these days. She was the wife of King Ahab of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and she is particularly noted for having made the worship of the god Baal popular in Israel. Baal was a fertility god, and his worship involved immoral and licentious practices. There were temple prostitutes, both male and female, associated with the worship of Baal. It was Jezebel who spread that degraded worship widely among the ten tribes of Israel until it became one of the popular religions of the day. She herself supported over 800 prophets of Baal, who ate at her table. She was the one who tried to kill Elijah after his famous encounter with 480 of the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel when fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifice. That mighty man of God had faced with great courage 480 false prophets, but when Jezebel got after him he ran for his life. She was also the one who murdered her neighbor Naboth because her husband wanted his vineyard. She was a ruthless, immoral, seducer of the people, and that is why Jesus selects her name for this dominant woman at Thyatira. According to the prophecy of the Old Testament, Jezebel ended her days by being thrown from her palace window into the courtyard below where the dogs came and ate her body and licked up her blood.”

The church at Thyatira is reprimanded by Jesus for allowing the woman he refers to as Jezebel to teach and thus seduce Christians to follow false doctrine. This leader called herself a prophetess, indicating she claimed to have special knowledge of things others did not know and which were supposedly revealed to her either by inspiration or by dreams and visions.

About 40 years before, Paul had written to Timothy, pastor of the nearby church at Ephesus, to “rightly divide the word of truth” and “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (2 Timothy 2:15, 19). These are principles the church at Thyatira rejected, choosing instead to follow a teacher rather than Scripture. Jesus reprimanded them for not teaching and following true doctrine.

We should not look at the account of the church at Thyatira as mere history. Accommodation to culture and following certain ministry “superstars” take place in thousands of ways.

One lesson to take to heart is that it is always dangerous to regard the teacher as higher than the teaching, an obvious problem in the U.S. church today. Our culture regards as successful the megachurches, for example, not because of doctrinal purity or personal faithfulness, but because of size. Certain “pastors” pursue the American business model of success—growth, wealth, and recognition by the culture, rather than seeing themselves as spiritual shepherds and servant-leaders, as described in the New Testament. Rather than teaching others about the Savior and serving selflessly, they write (or have a writer ghostwrite) books for personal profit, and critical thinkers both in the church and in the secular culture wonder whether the objective is teaching the gospel or accumulating wealth and celebrity. It is not surprising, given this obvious dissonance between talk and walk, that we regularly witness prominent “successful” pastors caught practicing fraud in their ministries or perverse and predatory sexual sin in their secret personal lives. We in the church must take to heart the truth revealed by Paul in his epistles and James in his letter: genuine faith reveals itself in good works and doctrinal purity regardless of the cultural consequences, and false faith reveals itself in sin.

Note in verse 21 that God patiently gave Jezebel time to repent. He is patient with all of us (2 Peter 3:9,15), and His goodness leads us to repentance when we are in sin (Romans 2:4).

But despite His longsuffering, God can and does remove sin from His people when necessary. Verses 22 and 23 are a stern warning. We find in the book of Acts two examples in which God removed by physical death people because of sin: (1) Ananias and Sapphira died for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-5), and (2) Herod was struck down by an angel of the Lord because he accepted worship as a god rather than giving glory to God (Acts 12:20-24).

Significantly, we find in both instances that the church benefited because they were removed. After the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, the church was filled with fear and was of one accord, the apostles performed many signs and wonders, and multitudes of new believers were added to the church (Acts 5:12-14). Upon the death of Herod, Acts 12:24 relates that “the word of God grew and multiplied.” In the same manner, in Revelation 2:23 Jesus indicates that the punishment of Jezebel and “her children” would be so that “all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts.”

In verses 24-28, He addresses those in the church who follow truth, that is, true believers who do not follow false doctrines or tolerate false teachers in the church. He assures them that they will indeed receive the promises of God: power over the nations (i.e., will rule with Him) and “the morning star.” In Revelation 22:16, Christ reveals Himself as “the Bright and Morning Star.” This promise of “the morning star” most likely refers to the Christian experiencing Christ in His fullness in heaven; that is, eventually to be in His presence.

So far, we have learned a number of details from the letters to the churches about God’s will for the church as a whole and individual Christians.

From the letter to Ephesus, we know He praises works, patience, not accommodating sin, recognizing and rejecting false teachers and doctrine, and focusing on “the works you did from the beginning” (love of God and each other, caring for each other, and evangelizing).

From the letter to Smyrna, we read once more His praise for works, that our future eternal life with Him outweighs any worldly or cultural price we may pay, that He allows us to suffer for our faith, and that we have the strength and power to be faithful regardless of trials and suffering.

From the letter to Pergamos, we learn that it is His will that we hold fast to our faith and do not deny Him and that we must turn away from false doctrines and sin.

And today, from the letter to the church at Thyatira, we once more learn that His will is that our works be ever increasing, that we love, serve, and persevere; and that we recognize and reject false doctrine and false teachers.

May 11, 2008

Revelation 2:12-17: The Letter to Pergamos

In the previous two letters to the churches at Ephesus and Smyrna, we have learned something about God’s will for us and for our church.

In the letter to the church at Ephesus, Christ commended it for its doctrinal purity, for recognizing and confronting false teachers, and for not putting up with evil in its midst, but rebuked it because it had lost its first love.

Our Lord wants us to be doctrinally pure. He wants us to study His word, discuss with each other Who He is, what He is like, what He reveals to us about His will. He wants us to be able to recognize false teaching and to confront it, but He also wants us to feel the love for Him that He feels for us: complete commitment; enthusiastic love that puts no one else first; a love that enjoys His presence just because of Who He is; a love that we can know is with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength.

From the letter, we can list the commendations and rebukes and get a sense of God’s will:

To labor for His name’s sake and have patience in the face of trials

Not to put up with evil

To be able to recognize false doctrine and reject false teachers

To persevere in our faith despite temptations and opposition

To remember our first love: the excitement of and dedication to loving and serving Him

To do the works we did in the beginning—more than doctrinal correctness, but also to worship, evangelize, love Him, and live for Him.

The letter to the church at Smyrna, we found that the Smyrnan Christians are a moving example of a people joined to Christ and His saving work, and whose faith God sustained through suffering and even death. We can know from the letter to the church at Smyrna that God may allow us to suffer for our faith and endure trials, testing, and temptation. He also reminds us that our future eternal presence with our Savior and Lord far outweighs any temporary trials or worldly price we pay because of our faith.

So from that letter, we also can make a list that gives us some sense of God’s will for us:

He allows us to suffer for our faith

We are called on to endure trials/testing/temptation

Our future eternal life with Him far outweighs any worldly price we pay due to our faith

His will is that we be faithful, even faced with death

Pergamos (also called Pergamum or Pergamon) was located in what is today western Turkey, near the modern city of Bergama, about 16 miles east of the Aegean Sea coast. Its location was on a prominent 1,000-foot-high hill in the middle of a broad and fertile plain. The city is known in history beginning in the third century B.C., and the area became a Roman province, with Pergamos as its provincial capital, during the late second century B.C. By the first century A.D., three large temples were located in the city for worshiping the emperor, and the first temple for emperor worship in Asia Minor was built there in 29 B.C.. The city also was known for the huge altar to the pagan deity Zeus located there (which Jesus refers to as “Satan’s throne” in the letter to the church at Pergamos).

Another aspect of the city’s economic and cultural practices also bears on the letter to the church. The region was known for mining, principally white marble, and, in fact, the city of Pergamos grew from a small mining village. A tradition grew in the region to use small rounded white marble stones symbolically. In the judicial system, a white stone was given to the defendant who was acquitted, and there is some evidence that white stones and black stones were used for voting on the guilt (black stone) or innocence (white stone) of the person on trial by the judges or jury. (And from this developed the voting on membership by some fraternal organizations, with one or more black stones “blackballing” or denying membership.)

In addition, in Pergamos and the region, a bondservant that was freed was given a white stone with his or her name inscribed on it as proof of his or her freedom and new status as a Roman citizen. In athletic contests, the trophy for the winner was a white stone, symbolic of special status as having overcome his opposition, and warriors returning from battle after a victory were presented with white stones with their names inscribed.

It is the white stone as a symbol of freedom and distinction to which Christ refers in the letter to the church at Pergamos: “And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written” (verse 17).

The city also was a cultural center, with a 10,000-seat amphitheater and a library containing a reported 200,000 volumes, second only to the library at Alexandria. Due to shortages of papyrus, a new medium made of calf skin was developed in Pergamos and took the place of papyrus in codices added to the library. It was much thinner and more flexible than either papyrus or vellum and was called pergaminus or pergamena after the city, a name which evolved into the anglicized “parchment.”

The letter to the church at Pergamos is found in Revelation 2:12-17:

“And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write, ‘These things says He who has the sharp two-edged sword: I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it.’”

As previously mentioned, the church at Pergamos existed in a city of extreme idolatry, with enthusiastic emperor worship and a center of the cult of Zeus, whose altar was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was an important center for worship of several pagan cults, including Athena, Asklepios, Dionysius (also known as Bacchus, the god of drunkenness), and Zeus.

As in other regions, the Christians at Pergamos were tempted to compromise in their faith in order to enjoy the benefits of Roman citizenship. The Roman government tolerated any religious practice that also recognized and worshipped the emperor as deity. In order to have the right to operate a business, work as a day laborer, own property, or expect to receive equal or fair treatment from the authorities and the courts, one had to recognize the Roman emperor as a god and attend worship services to him. The Christian religion was monotheistic, however, and the authentic and faithful Christian could not participate in recognizing any other deity. The choice facing the Christian was remaining faithful and suffering the cultural and economic consequences, or compromising his or her faith in order to work and prosper.

When we studied the letters to the churches at Ephesus and Smyrna, we find no indication of compromise, and, in fact, the letter to the church at Smyrna recognizes (and commends) the suffering they chose to endure rather than worship false gods.

But in the church at Pergamos, we find compromise has taken place: “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.”

While not many specific details are known about the “doctrine of Balaam” in the early church. For the story of Balaam, see Numbers 22-25. Balaam tried without success to sell his prophetic gift and curse Israel for money offered to him by Balak, who was the king of Moab. He attempted to arrange for the women of Moab to seduce men of Israel into intermarriage, and the result was the unholy union of Israel and Moab, leading to the Israelites participating in worship and feasts to the pagan gods of the Moabites. The “doctrine of Balaam” in the early church involved tolerance of, and participation in, pagan religions. In Pergamos, many of the Christians followed the “doctrine of Balaam” in participating in emperor worship so they would be allowed to participate in commerce, work, own property, etc.

Christ also rebukes the church at Pergamos for following the “doctrine of the Nicolaitans.” Irenaeus, a second-century church leader, describes the Nicolaitans as a sect had arisen in the early days of Christianity and which believed that since Christians are saved by grace and free from the law, nothing they do could be called evil. In his doctrinal work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes that the Nicolaitans “lead lives of unrestrained indulgence” as a right of Christian liberty. Clement of Alexandria, another second-century church leader wrote about the Nicolaitans: “They abandoned themselves to pleasure like goats, leading a life of self-indulgence.” Those following the doctrine of the Nicolaitans felt free to participate in worship of the emperor and other pagan deities and lived according to cultural standards of greed, promiscuity, social position and power, rather than godly standards. Today, the “doctrine of Balaam” is generally used in reference to that part of Christianity regarded as having compromised with their cultures instead of holding to biblical values.

The Lord commends the church for doing works of faith, however, and because “you hold fast to My Name and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells” (verse 13).

Obviously, not all of the Christians in Pergamos compromised their faith. This commendation indicates that while the church tolerated false doctrines (as noted in the rebukes), many of the Christians nonetheless were known as followers of Christ and would not deny their faith.

Antipas was a leader of the church in Pergamos, probably its pastor or bishop of the church in the city and other congregations in surrounding areas. There is a tradition that he was arrested by the Roman government, which attempted to force him to recognize the validity of the various pagan religions on the basis that the older religious ideas were, in fact, more honorable than the young Christian faith. He refused, citing Christianity’s roots in the very creation of the world and mankind. This so infuriated the Roman governor that he had Antipas thrown into the sacrificial fire on the altar in the temple of the Roman emperor and burned to death.

In the history of the church, the church at Pergamos is thought of as “the compromising church.” It tolerated among its members Christians who on the one hand expressed their faith in Christ as their Savior, but on the on the other hand accommodated their walk of faith to the world around them. They compromised where it was convenient to do so as a means of fulfilling their worldly desires and accommodating their culture. There are significant parallels in the Christian churches of the world today, especially in the United States, where large segments of the church strive for cultural and political correctness and ignore or deny some biblical standards in favor of the current “pagan gods” of opulence, political correctness, and toleration of personal sin.

May 5, 2008

Revelation 2:8-11: The Letter to Smyrna

Last week, we learned about the church at Ephesus—doctrinally pure but which had lost 1st first love. The church was commended for its pure doctrine, for recognizing and confronting false teachers and not putting up with evil.

Our Lord wants us to be doctrinally pure. He wants us to study His word, discuss with each other Who He is, what He is like, what He reveals to us about His will. He wants us to be able to recognize false teaching and to confront it, but He also wants us to feel the love for Him that He feels for us: complete commitment; enthusiastic love that puts no one else first; a love that enjoys His presence just because of Who He is; a love that we can know is with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength.

At the end of our discussion last week, we listed some things that the letter to Ephesus reveals as God’s will for Christians and for the church:

To labor for His name’s sake and have patience in the face of trials

Not to put up with evil

To be able to recognize false doctrine and reject false teachers

To persevere in our faith despite temptations and opposition

To remember your first love: the excitement of and dedication to loving and serving Him

To do the works we did in the beginning—more than doctrinal correctness, but also to worship, evangelize, love Him, and live for Him.

Today, we want to see what the letter to the church at Smyrna reveals about the church and God’s will.

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, ‘These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death’” (Revelation 2:8-11).

Smyrna was an important seaport city on the Aegean Sea with a population about 250,000. Forty miles northwest of Ephesus, Smyrna was commercial and trading center. Today, on the site is the Turkish city of Izmir with a population of about two million people.

In 200 B.C., Smyrna allied itself with Rome and became part of the Roman empire. The people of the city were awarded full Roman citizenship (unlike the regions Rome conquered, where the people were ruled by the Romans but did not become citizens). This distinction provided special difficulties for the young Christian church at Smyrna, because worship of the Roman emperor was the official state religion in the Roman empire. Worship of the emperor as a deity was required.

When Rome occupied a territory, such as Israel, a certain concession to local religious practices was granted. Israel was not part of the Roman empire, but was an occupied territory under Roman rule, and emperor worship was not required of the Israelites or the Christians in conquered territories. However, Smyrna was part of the Roman empire, not an occupied territory. A Roman citizen was free to worship other gods, as long as he or she also worshipped the emperor.

Roman citizens were required to burn incense to Caesar as a god and their master and lord, making the emperor, in effect, the chief or highest god in the eyes of the state. By doing so, the citizen proved loyalty to Caesar and the Roman government, allowing him or her to work, trade, and own property. To refuse was considered treasonous.

Those who did not worship Caesar were not allowed to take part in the economy and earn a living. They had little status as Roman citizens and were regarded as disloyal. They were barely tolerated by the government, looked on with suspicion, and persecuted by the government and their neighbors.

With this as the backdrop, in the opening lines of the letter to the church at Smyrna Christ reassures them that they worship the only God (v.8): “These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life;” The reminder of His status (“the First and the Last”) stresses that He is the only God that really exists.

He points out that He was dead and came to life, something which no pagan god could claim, proving His claim to be the only God, and, as these Christians knew from the gospels and the epistles of Paul and others, His resurrection was a guarantee of eternal life for His disciples.

In verse 9, the letter also refers to some of the conditions affecting the church: it was enduring tribulation, meaning intense suffering. The Smyrnan Christians were poverty stricken, primarily because they were not willing to worship Caesar. The Christians were among the poorest of the poor. Anyone who did not worship Caesar had no means of earning a living, no right to own property, no access to courts, limited protection of the law, and lived under intense and government-sanctioned persecution.

The temptation must have been great to give in, worship and burn incense to Caesar, and gain the right to live in peace without persecution and work for a living. However, in spite of their living conditions, Christ reminds them they are rich.

There was a large Jewish population in Smyrna, and they joined in the persecution of the Christians. Christ’s reference to them as “those who say they are Jews and are not” may be an indication that they, too, worshipped Caesar. There also is another possibility, found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (3:29). In other words, Jews who rejected Christ were no longer regarded by God as “Abraham’s seed”; that is, no longer regarded as chosen of God.

Notice how the suffering and persecution of Christians at Smyrna do not exactly remind us of the western idea of Christianity, which is so culturally stained, preoccupied with wealth, lethargic doctrinally, and politically correct.

More suffering to come (10)

As if their current extreme poverty were not enough, Christ informs them that some would be imprisoned. In the context of the letter and the conditions, the imprisonment would most likely occur because of their refusal to worship Caesar as a god. The imprisonment would be “that you may be tested” or “tempted.” The word here is the same word we found in James 1:2—“Count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” It means the trial of person’s fidelity, integrity, or virtue; an enticement to sin, whether arising from inner desires or outside circumstances.

For the Smyrnan Christians, it most likely refers to the temptation to turn away from Christ and worship Caesar, an act that would enable them to be released immediately from prison and begin earning a living. Christ tells them, however, not to fear the things they are about to suffer. “You will have tribulation ten days” is His way of stressing how temporary persecution and suffering will be, compared to eternal life with our Lord.

“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” One of the leaders in the church at Smyrna when Revelation was written would become a stunning example of being faithful unto death. He was a young man named Polycarp, who was in his mid-20s at this time and had been a student of John. He later became bishop of the church, which by the mid-2nd century encompassed several congregations in the region.

Years later, in 155 A.D., Polycarp was in his mid-80s and in prison because of his faith. He was given the choice to deny Jesus and worship Caesar or burn at the stake. Polycarp refused to deny Jesus, saying he had served Jesus all his life and was not going to turn against him now. The fire at the stake failed to kill him, and a Roman solder stepped up and killed him with a sword.

Jesus promises the “Crown of life” to those who are faithful unto death. This is a recurring theme in the New Testament as a reward for faithfulness. It is a euphemistic reference to eternal life with God in heaven, which is promised to all authentic Christians, who, because of the authenticity of their faith, will never deny it. Being “faithful unto death” is evidence of real faith.

Christians shall not be hurt by the second death (11)

“He who overcomes” (that is, the one who, through trials and persecutions) has demonstrated his or her faith to be genuine. The term “second death” is found here in verse 11 and in Revelation 20:6,14. In Revelation 20:14, the second death is described as the casting of the lost into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:6 is a clear statement that Christians shall not suffer this fate and will, instead, reign with Christ. The thrust of the letter to Smyrna is that none of this suffering can compare to the joy of the eternal reward waiting for them.

Conclusion

It is difficult for us to imagine the conditions of the Christians in Smyrna, but I can understand the temptation I’m sure many of them felt. I assume many people there initially drawn to Christ had turned away in favor of being able to earn a living, buy food, and just not be hassled by the people and the government.

From this letter, we know that those in the Smyrnan church who had true faith continued to persevering despite the hatred toward them, the prisons, their inability to earn a living, and all of the other persecutions they suffered.

Like Polycarp years later, many of them—perhaps a great many of them—were tested and their faith proved. Faced with prison and execution only because of their faith, they were faithful unto death. Remember that our faith and our faithfulness are not just the result of our resolve and our efforts. Faith also is a gift from God. The Smyrnan Christians are a moving example of a people joined to Christ and His saving work, and whose faith God sustained through suffering and even death.

So, in conclusion, we can know from the letter to the church at Smyrna that God may allow us to suffer for our faith and endure trials, testing, and temptation. He also reminds us that our future eternal presence with our Savior and Lord far outweighs any temporary trials or worldly price we pay because of our faith.

May 2, 2008

Revelation 2:1-7: The Letter to Ephesus

Our recent series of studies has focused on the Old Testament prophets and what their messages reveal about the character of God. The Old Testament prophets were sent with messages that deal with sin of the times, and their prophecies were remarkably similar in showing how His people had turned away from Him, calling them back to worship and righteousness, warning them of consequences if they did not, and promising He would restore them in the future to Himself.

In our study so far in the Old Testament prophets, we have run into numerous of God’s character qualities: He is holy and desires for us to be holy, He is just and desires for us to be just, He is merciful and desires for us to be merciful; in short, He has high standards for us, and those standards involve knowing, adopting, and living out His holiness and character traits.

I want to take a break from the prophets for a few weeks in order to look at a short series of messages that are very similar from Christ in His messages to the seven 1st century churches. We find these messages, or letters, in Revelation 2 & 3, sent from the risen Savior to the seven prominent churches in the western part of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The churches were in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

The letters deal with situations and characteristics of those churches; some worthy of praise and some deserving rebuke and correction. Like the Old Testament prophecies, we can learn a lot about what God expects of His people in the church age; that is, what He expects from us.

These letters have three dimensions.

First, they were written to real churches at the time and deal with real victories and real problem areas. Two of the churches receive only commendations (Smyrna and Philadelphia); four receive commendations for some and rebuke for other characteristics (Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatira, and Sardis); and one (Laodicea) receives only a rebuke.

Second, they were written to all Christian congregations everywhere in every era.

Third, as the church age unfolded, it became apparent that there is also a prophetic element: the characteristics of each church in the order the letters are given tend to correspond to the characteristics of seven eras in church history from that time until today.

The letters to the churches should be a guide for us not only in the ways we individually live out our faith in our culture as well as the purposes and goals of our own church. Today we will start looking at these messages one by one.

The letter to the church at Ephesus

Revelation 2:1-7:

"To the angel of the church of Ephesus write, 'These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.'"

The first letter is to the church at Ephesus, found in Revelation 2:1-7. The account of the beginning of this congregation is found in Acts 19, with Paul traveling to Ephesus from Corinth and, finding a group of a dozen disciples there, baptized them, taught them, and laid hands on them, imparting gifts of the Spirit. He spent the next several months teaching in the synagogue and winning new converts.

Ephesus was port city and shipping center, and three land trade routes passed through the city. It was an important city of trade and commerce, the home of many wealthy merchant families and a very strong economy.

Many religions were practiced in Ephesus. The temple of Diana in Ephesus was one of the 7 wonders of the world. It was 425 feet long, 225 feet wide, and 60 feet high. It featured a stunning solid cypress stairway. Because of the many religions in the city, the sale of idols was a big business, with hundreds of craftspeople and merchants earning their living from carving or casting idols for sale. This resulted in severe opposition to the growing Christian church, which preached not a superior God, as all the pagan religions of the city claimed for their gods, but that God was the true and only deity. If the Christian church gained a foothold, the craftspeople and merchants knew, the industry would suffer. If the Christians became the dominant religion, the industry would die. Acts 19:23-28 describes the reaction of the craftspeople to the new monotheistic practice:

“And about that time there arose a great commotion about the Way. For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Diana, brought no small profit to the craftsmen. He called them together with the workers of similar occupation, and said: ‘Men, you know that we have our prosperity by this trade. Moreover you see and hear that not only at Ephesus, but throughout almost all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands. So not only is this trade of ours in danger of falling into disrepute, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana may be despised and her magnificence destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worship.’ Now when they heard this, they were full of wrath and cried out, saying, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’”

Ephesus was a Roman “free city,” a judicial center for the region, enjoying the status of self-rule, and in which citizens highly valued individual rights and freedoms. The city was the site of annual athletic games drawing athletes and spectators from hundreds of miles away.

Paul spent at least three years ministering at the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:31). Timothy, Paul’s protégé, was pastor of the church (1 Timothy 1:3), and it is thought that John wrote 1, 2, and 3 John from Ephesus, after which he was exiled to the island of Patmos, about 70 miles from Ephesus, where he wrote the book of Revelation.

The Ephesian church was doctrinally sound and opposed evil, false doctrines, and false teachers (Revelation 2:2,6). From its outset, the Christians at Ephesus demonstrated love for truth and righteousness and opposition to false religion and doctrine.

In this letter to the church, our Lord commends the Ephesian Christians for their good works, patience, labor, rejection of evil people and false apostles (tested them and proved their error, verse 2), perseverance, and the fact they hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans (verse 6).

Irenaeus, a 2nd-century church leader, describes the Nicolaitans as a sect had arisen in the early days of Christianity. The Nicolaitans believed that since Christians are saved by grace and free from the law, nothing they do could be called evil. In his doctrinal work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes that the Nicolaitans “lead lives of unrestrained indulgence” as a right of Christian liberty. Clement of Alexandria, another 2nd-century church leader, wrote about the Nicolaitans: “They abandoned themselves to pleasure like goats, leading a life of self-indulgence.”

The practices of the Nicolaitans were similar to the practices of those accused of following the doctrine of Balaam (a charge against the church at Pergamos, verse 14; the church at Pergamos also is accused of tolerating the doctrine of the Nicolaitans in their midst, a fact which Christ calls "a thing I hate" in verse 15).

The Lord also has a reprimand to the Ephesians: “You have left your first love” (verse 4); “repent and do the first works” (verse 5).

What is that "first love"? That has been a matter of some debate over the centuries, but we can get insight from what we know about the Ephesians.

The Christians in the Ephesian church were absolutely doctrinally on target. Next to the Jerusalem church, they in fact were the most knowledgeable about pure doctrine. For years, Paul taught there. He left Timothy in Ephesus to lead the church. John spent many years in Ephesus preaching and teaching. They knew their stuff and knew false doctrine when they heard it. The Ephesians were known for doctrinal purity from the beginning of the church there. Ignatius, a very early church leader and bishop of the church in Antioch in Greece, wrote in a letter to the Ephesian church, “you live according to truth, and no heresy has a home among you; no, you do not so much as even listen to anyone if he speaks anything else but truth concerning Jesus Christ.” Ignatius wrote that sometime around 105-110 A.D.

But, while we find a lot of evidence of doctrinal purity, we find nothing in the epistles or any other literature about the Ephesian church being enthusiastic about their faith, a love for Jesus that just overflows, that shows itself to other Christians and is a witness to unbelievers to the love and power of the Savior. It’s the love Jesus describes when He was asked what is the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:39-31).

The Ephesians were right on when it came to doctrinal truth. But they seem to have lost touch with the zealous and unfettered love for their Savior and Lord; the bubbling-over kind of love for God we all knew as young Christians and which so effectively witnessed about God's love and saving grace to the pagan world.

So what does Christ tell them is the solution? “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works” (verse 5). In other words, think back to the time when Jesus saved you; bring back that enthusiastic love you once felt. Tell others not about your doctrinal purity, but about how deep is the love and grace of Christ, the Savior and Lord. Experience—not just individually, but also as a church—the love for your Savior you felt in the beginning, when you were first saved.

Conclusion

Our Lord wants us to be doctrinally pure. He wants us to study His word, discuss with each other Who He is, what He is like, what He reveals to us about His will. He wants us to be able to recognize false teaching and to confront it, but He also wants us to feel the love for Him that He feels for us: complete commitment; an enthusiastic love that puts no one but our Savior first; a love that enjoys His presence just because of Who He is; a love that we can know is with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength.