Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Available Immediately: Freed From Sin

After three years of work, my third book is finally here. Freed From Sin, A Primer on Holiness is, as the title suggests, an exploration of what holiness is and is not as well as a scriptural manual on how to grow into it. You can find it here on Amazon in paperback, hardback, or Kindle. It is also available on Nook for Barnes and Noble and Apple's iTunes bookstore. It is not a little book, and I do not apologize for that. I have no interest in being another source of independent Baptist fluff. Its forty-nine chapters spread over 438 pages are divided into eight sections discussing and applying nearly 1,000 Scripture references. Below are some quotes from the introduction and foreword as well as some recommendations from pre-release readers.

I have not written it because I think it will sell; in fact, I doubt it will. Who reads entire books about holiness these days? I have written it because it cries to be written. I have written it because God's people in this generation are under what is perhaps a fiercer assault of the devil than any generation has ever been. I have written it because the truths I learned changed my life foundationally, philosophically, and practically; and that change was for the better. In short, I have written it to help you because the truths in it have helped me so very much.  
-Tom Brennan, Foreword, Freed From Sin

In Freed From Sin Tom Brennan has written another excellent book. In this timeless tome he tackles the subject of holiness. His solid doctrinal foundation, his personal transparency, his clear, easily readable style of writing, and his practical applications make this an extremely valuable book. I am very glad to recommend it.
-R. B. Oullette, Pastor Emeritus, First Baptist Church, Bridgeport, Michigan

Pastor Tom Brennan is a gifted communicator and writer and God has given him the ability to take difficult material and bring it down so all of us can comprehend and understand. His past book, Schizophrenic, A Diagnosis of the Independent Baptist Movement was straight forward and dealt squarely and fairly with both the strengths and weaknesses of the independent Baptist movement of the twenty and twenty-first century. This work on holiness is sure to be a classic of our day! The need for holiness in this generation is huge. The need for holiness in each our lives as believers is great, and we are commanded by God to be holy. Reading this book will help develop  a consciousness of this matter. Hopefully it will create the desire in each of us to keep working on developing holiness in the fear of God.
-Kevin Folger, Pastor Emeritus, Cleveland Baptist Church, Cleveland, Ohio

You will get the sense that every sentence in Freed From Sin has been thought through; consequently, this places an expectation on you, its reader. It will both demand and command your concentration. And in era of thirty second commercials and even shorter sound bites, this should be welcomed.  If you are big into “snow” (teachers who assign research papers from their students will catch this analogy), head to Manitoba. There is none to find here. At no point in reading this book did I get the sense I was reading “filler” material. 
All the same, this book is readable. Despite its intensity, it is not a dissertation. I believe that not only is it readable, its contents are teachable. I foresee its use in Sunday schools, sermon series, teen class lessons and discussions, family devotions, even talks between father and son as they drive down the road together. Getting Christians to talk about the holiness of God and its adjacent truth - the holy living of God’s children that is demanded by it - would be a welcome development in our churches, schools, youth groups, and homes. 
-Dan Armacost, Dean of Students, Fairhaven Baptist College, Chesterton, Indiana
Introduction, Freed From Sin

Monday, August 12, 2019

In the Providence of God

Bessemer, Pennsylvania
        In the providence of God, nearly sixteen years ago He moved me to Chicago. I grew up in McDonald, Ohio, a leafy village of about 4,000 souls in the vicinity of Youngstown. My first church was in the not-quite-vast-metropolis of Bessemer, Pennsylvania. Eleven hundred souls called Bessemer home and we would knock on every door in town the week of our Big Day. Thus it was more than unusual for Him to see fit to place me in the middle of one of America’s great urban centers.
          Over the years God has been exceedingly gracious to us here. Yes, Chicago’s difficulties are somewhat well-known around the country but for the people who live here it is just home. And the people of Maplewood Bible Baptist Church became my people, and their home became our home. Over the years God sent us more people, precious servants of His. Together, we put our shoulders to the wheel and sought to move this church forward for the cause of Christ.
          We have seen God do some wonderful things in our years here. He has strengthened this church in numerous ways. Indeed, in every possible way there is to measure a church this one is markedly stronger. In fact, it is doing better than ever. There is no point to citing specific statistics today, as that would probably just feed my pride, and the spiritual health of this church and these people is entirely due to the Lord anyway.
          Then too, God has also wisely allowed some trials. One of those that came into my life nigh on a decade ago is Meniere’s Disease. It is rather rare and entirely incurable, though it is often manageable. It manifests in a variety of ways, and over the years I have become well acquainted with my particular set of afflictions. I have found through research and through trial and error that patience, rest, working out, eating appropriately, pacing myself, quietness, darkness, judicious medication, and as little travel as possible are all helpful to manage my disease. Along the way my family and my church both accommodated my sometimes unusual requests, and I am more grateful than I can express to both of them for this.
          Meniere’s is not only incurable, it is usually progressive. It certainly has been
Chicago, Illinois
with me. I can still pastor, and pastor effectively (without controversy, I think my church is living proof of that) but I gradually came to the conclusion that living where I live frequently aggravates almost every single aspect of my disease. I also came to the conclusion that it would be helpful for me to find a city less congested, less crowded, less noisy, and less busy for me to minister in. Driving, which is only one difficult aspect of living here, is the nightmare of my life. Sheer wisdom says it would be better to find somewhere else to live.
          So I prayed. And I sought counsel. And I worked. All along, as God is my witness, I kept hoeing the row I was in as well as I knew how, knowing that I will answer to Him someday. I am a worker in His vineyard. He had the right to keep me in any particular part of His vineyard no matter how difficult I increasingly found it. For quite some time He did. It grew me, it grew my family, it grew my church, and it grew my ministry. He is just as much right in His timing as He is in every other aspect of His being and actions. But in the providence of His grace He has now led me to another church and another city. My time in Chicago is thus done.
          I covet your prayers in this, my friends, as in all things. As I write I have a hurting church, one that I would see the Lord pour as much grace into as possible as they deal with this. Then, too, my children will be leaving the only home any of them remember, their only church, their hometown, all of their friends, their entire life other than Mandy and me, basically. And I will have to adjust from being a well loved and very respected pastor to being the new kid in town again. I need God’s wisdom, grace, and peace in all of this, as do these people I so dearly love who surround my life here.
          Where are we going? Forward, is the answer, but more specifically to the Bible Baptist Church in Dubuque, Iowa. She recently lost her pastor of twenty-two years in death, and God has sent me to pick up his mantle. It is neither a big church nor a famous church nor a church of great reputation. It is a sweet-spirited church, an evangelistic church, a conservative church, and a missions-minded church. Each of the last two sentences I find to be good, either for me or for them, and hopefully for both of us together.
Dubuque, Iowa
For those of you who read this with no direct, personal connection to me my ministry to you should not change much. In other words, if you read what I write via Brennan’s Pen or listen to my messages via Brennan’s Pulpit, you should be aware there may be a slight hiccup or two but that as this transition is made things should get back to normal fairly quickly. For those of you who read this who have long had a direct connection with me, much will change. In other words, if I have been your pastor I no longer will be. But please know that though God’s providence is often mysterious, as William Cowper said three hundred years ago, it is never mistaken. I love you, more than I could possibly express. He loves you exponentially more than I do. I have tried to be a scriptural shepherd to you; He is the best shepherd of all. Fear not, neither be afraid. You are in excellent hands.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Strong Church/Sardis

Strong Church/Weak Church 16

The Greek gymnasium at Sardis
          Sardis, founded about eight centuries before Christ as part of the Lydian empire, was located sixty miles east of the coastal city of Smyrna at the nexus of an important road network. Conquered or seized by all the usual suspects of the succeeding centuries – Greece, Rome, Byzantium – it was also preyed on by a few too many earthquakes. By AD 1200 it had largely vanished as an operating entity. Currently, a little village named Sart is situated nearby, and operates mostly as a tourist trap for the nearby ruins of Sardis.
          Turning our attention to the church specifically, we find that Sardis was a stronger church than many of the others we have looked at. Its strength is singularly impressive and its weakness is relatively minor, in my view, though perhaps not in John’s view. At any rate, we will examine her strength today and her weakness next time.
          What is that strength? The church at Sardis was strong on personal righteousness, on holiness.
          God often likens sin to dirty garments and salvation to its beautiful white replacement. That begins in the Tabernacle, where we see the courtyard was enclosed in fine twined linen. But explicit mention is made of this all through the Word of God.

Isaiah 64:6
6 But we are all as an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; And we all do fade as a leaf; And our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
Isaiah 61:10
10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, My soul shall be joyful in my God; For he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, As a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, And as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.
Zechariah 3:3–5
3 Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and stood before the angel.
4 And he answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment.
5 And I said, Let them set a fair mitre upon his head. So they set a fair mitre upon his head, and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD stood by.
Revelation 7:14
14 And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Revelation 19:8
8 And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.

          We see from John’s last statement above that in his understanding of this illustration these white garments represented our righteousness. There are two kinds of righteousness. There is positional righteousness, our standing as entirely holy before God on the basis of Christ’s finished work. This cannot change. There is also personal righteousness, our actual state at the moment, how close we are to the Lord from day to day. This does change. Speaking in the personal (not the positional) sense, our garments prior to salvation were uniformly filthy; afterward they are varying shades of white and dark. The church at Sardis excelled in this area. Some of their people had not defiled or made their robes of personal righteousness filthy. In other words, they had lived an exceptionally holy life post-salvation. Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy (Revelation 3.4). Needless to say, we do not obtain entrance into eternity by living holy but we certainly do get complimented by God this way.
          This stands in direct contrast with another church we will look at in just a few weeks. I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed (Revelation 3.18). You do not get positional righteousness (justification/salvation) by buying it, but you do get personal righteousness that way. Holiness, sanctification in this life will always cost you something.
          At Sardis, they had not defiled their garments. How does defilement come? One of the answers involves touching something external that is dirty. If I am wearing a clean coat and I brush up against a salt-encrusted car my coat is going to get defiled. We see this illustrated in the life of Daniel. He purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine which he drank (Daniel 1.8). So he requested and was granted permission to avoid those things so that he might remain pure and clean. In this we see the personal separation from the world that is necessary for a Christian to live a sanctified life.
          More often, however, defilement arises from the sinful condition of our own heart. Jesus placed a huge emphasis on this point throughout His ministry, as we see in these two sample passages:

Matthew 15:10–11
10 And he called the multitude, and said unto them, Hear, and understand:
11 Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.

Matthew 15:18–20
18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.
19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:
20 These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.

          Christianity without separation from the world will inevitably result in close contact with filth, and thus with our own defilement. By the same token, a Christianity with separation from the world but absent a constant emphasis on and watch over the condition of our heart will result in the same defilement. The only difference is the latter will visibly appear to be cleaner while being putrid on the inside.
          This was precisely the problem of the Pharisees, you will recall. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outwrd, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness (Matthew 23.27).
          Apparently, to God’s everlasting glory, there were some in Sardis that were holy. They had a strong personal righteousness, and were thus given the incredible compliment of being called worthy. Worthy of what? Worthy of being called His own.
          Should not this be the aim of every true child of God? That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1.10). 
          Beloved, let us on this day walk worthy of Him. Visibly, externally, yes. But even more so invisibly, internally.
          Let us be holy.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Weak Church/Thyatira

Strong Church/Weak Church 15

          Last week we examined the church at Thyatira and found four strengths. But as great as those strengths were the simple truth is John places the bulk of his emphasis on the weaknesses there. They were severe, and his language in relation to them is harsh.

Revelation 2:20–27
20 Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.
21 And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not.
22 Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.
23 And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.
24 But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak; I will put upon you none other burden.
25 But that which ye have already hold fast till I come.
26 And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations:
27 And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father.

          Clearly, in spite of their strengths, God is angry with this church.
          First, He was angry with them because of the presence of immorality. In the preceding verses we find phrases such as and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, of her fornication, and them that commit adultery. Sexual impurity brings great reproach to the name of Christ. It brings to the corporate body a stain similar to that which it brings to the individual. But whoso committeth adultery with a woman
lacketh understanding: He that doeth it destroyeth his own soul. A wound and dishonour shall he get; And his reproach shall not be wiped away (Proverbs 6.32-33). We see this quite clearly in the sternness with which Samuel speaks to David about the Lord’s displeasure in him in relation to his impurity. Because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die (II Samuel 12.14).
          As I sit here writing this I am conscious of how often this seems to come up in churches. Just two days ago I heard of yet another church in which serious and serial fornication had occurred on the part of the leadership stretching back over the past six years. I could not help but hear of it for it is all over the news. Why does it seem to happen in churches so much? Solomon tells us, The adulteress will hunt for the precious life (Proverbs 6.26) There is value in the homes and marriages of those who lead the Lord’s church. There is both present value and potential value. The devil knows that full well, and makes it his special goal to destroy that value whenever and wherever possible. Smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered the prophet said. (Zechariah 13.7) Pastors, deacons, teachers, leaders of ministries and their husbands and/or wives have a target on their back.
          What are we to do? I cannot in one blog post write a theology of holiness. I have chosen to do that in book form, and it should be out shortly. But I will say it is incumbent upon us to be aware, to be wary, to beware. Be sober, be vigilant; for your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour (I Peter 5.8). When immorality is present in the leadership of a church it often ruins the entire generation of younger people who attend there. Older saints have seen it before and take it stride, but younger people often find their immature faith too weak to stand the strain. And in addition to the lives ruined directly, it takes the steam out of churches for decades. No wonder Paul told Timothy, Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart (II Timothy 2.22).
          Second, and even worse than the first, those who were being immoral were not repentant. This was not something that people were struggling with. They were not struggling at all. They were not fighting a battle and losing. They were not even fighting. And they were hardhearted about it. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not (Revelation 2.21).
          God is very aware of the fact that we sin. He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust (Psalm 103.14) And He very graciously makes forgiveness easy to obtain via confession of that sin. Because of these facts, when His grace is trampled on, when His instructions toward righteousness and His offers of mercy are rudely spurned by His own people it justifiably brings them to the place of judgment. In short, if you harden your heart He will harden His.

Proverbs 1:23–29
23 Turn you at my reproof: Behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you.
24 Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded;
25 But ye have set at nought all my counsel, And would none of my reproof:
26 I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh;

27 When your fear cometh as desolation, And your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; When distress and anguish cometh upon you.
28 Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; They shall seek me early, but they shall not find me:
29 For that they hated knowledge, And did not choose the fear of the LORD:

          Sadly, we are not yet done with the list of Thyatira’s disastrous weaknesses in relation to impurity. It was present. That is bad. The person in question refused to repent. That is worse. But we are only now getting to worst. Third, those who were being unrepentantly immoral were being allowed to influence others to be impure too. Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication (Revelation 2.20).
          This sexually loose woman was clearly influential in the church. She was a self-proclaimed prophetess or teacher. She developed a doctrine to justify this depravity, and developed a following. Who was Jezebel, historically? The woman who influenced Ahab to become so wicked. But there was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up (I Kings 21.25). Fornication is disastrous enough. When those who are immoral are unrepentant Scripture is quite clear – they are to be kicked out of the church. The last thing a church should be doing in that situation is allowing them a platform from which to pass on their self-justified sensuality to others in the church.
          That is just asking to be judged.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Strong Church/Thyatira

Strong Church/Weak Church 14

Ruins of a church in Thyatira
By Klaus-Peter Simon - Own work
The biblical Thyatira, today’s Akhisar, is an incredibly old city. Founded around 3000 BC, it currently has a population of some 100,000 people. In Bible times it was the center of the dying industry, as we see from the story of Lydia. (Acts 16.14) Both then and now it contained a sizeable Jewish contingent. However, unlike many of the other cities we have seen, this one was not on the coast of the Aegean Sea but inland about fifty miles or so. It flourished as a headquarters for the dying industry because it was on the nexus of caravan roads that led between what is now Istanbul and the coastal cities of Pergamos, Sardis, and Ephesus. Interestingly, it also contains one of the world’s oldest continuously occupied religious buildings. First built as a pagan Roman temple, it was converted into a Christian church and then finally converted again into an Islamic mosque. Still in use today, it may well be the church building where the church at Thyatira met when John wrote them his short epistle in Revelation 2.
          I see in John’s short message four distinct strengths. As before, we will examine these this week and look at the weaknesses of the church in the following post.
          The first strength I find in the church at Thyatira was that they were a church hard at work serving the Lord. I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first (Revelation 2.19). What jumps out at me here is not just the mention of them but the fact that this service for the Lord was increasing. It was growing. This is something I aspire to for my own church.
          Growth is an important concept in the Christian life. We see that in the New Testament emphasis on growth in grace and in the parables of the talents. We see it as well in the Apostles’ request that God might increase their faith.

Luke 17:5–10
5 And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith.
6 And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you.
7 But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat?
8 And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?
9 Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not.
10 So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.

          Jesus’ answer reveals a startling truth. If all you do for your company is what you were hired to do you are unprofitable to them. Think of it this way: if you are hired to $20 worth of work and you do $20 worth of work they have not made a profit. They have exchanged $20 worth of work for $20 worth of service or product. But if you find a way to do $25 worth of work while they are paying you $20 you have given them an increase, have you not?
          You say, “Why would I do that?” Right. That is the union attitude. Why should I do something to make my company or my employer more profitable? That attitude, embraced by union workers the world over, is soundly rejected by every small business owner on the planet. They want growth, they want increase, not just stability.
          Now put that mindset into the religious environment. Churches value stability. “Don’t rock the boat. Don’t change too much too fast. Don’t lead us out on a limb. Don’t start too many ministries.” Ah, but God values increase. He is looking for growth, for profit, for return not just custodianship. I am not saying a church has to become unstable. I am saying that to pursue growth like God wants us to, in a variety of areas, we are going to need to prioritize growth like we have historically prioritized stability. Let us give Him an increase.
          The second strength is that they were a loving church. Charity is mentioned specifically in Revelation 2.19. John does not say to whom this charity was expressed but it is a wondrous compliment nonetheless. Without this, everything else is pointless, as Paul points out so eloquently in I Corinthians 13.

1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

          Whatever else your church is good at, it must be good at loving God and loving people. Else what is the point?
          The third strength John mentions is faith. I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith… (Revelation 2.19) Faith is what births us into the Christian life in the first place, and faith is what deepens us in that Christian life. Indeed, everything we do is supposed to be done in faith. I plan to write a rather long blog series on the subject next year. It is absolutely critical in a Christian and in a church.
          The last strength John mentions is their patience. I know thy works, and charity,
and service, and faith, and thy patience… (Revelation 2.19). Patience and faith often go hand in hand in the Word of God. The latter needs the former like a crop needs rain. But this patience is not something we are supposed to exercise toward God alone. We must also exercise it toward one another.
          These four strengths mark the church at Thyatira, but John spends considerably more space exploring her weaknesses. Stay tuned next week as we turn our attention toward those.
          See you then.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Strong/Weak Church, Pergamos

Strong Church/Weak Church 13

          Pergamos, although located in western Turkey, had its roots in Greece. Like
The remains of a Roman theater on a hillside
overlooking modern Bergama, Turkey
many Greek city states it was essentially its own kingdom at one point several hundred years before Christ. It was known in its own day as the headquarters for the worship of Aesculapius, the Roman god of medicine, whose symbol was the familiar-to-us staff and snake of modern medicine. In the temple, which was also a hospital, snakes crawled freely along the floors. Pergamos is known in academic circles for containing what was perhaps the second-best library in the ancient world after Alexandria, Egypt. About a century before Christ, it transferred suzerainty to the Roman Empire, along with the rest of the petty kingdoms in the area. It still exists today, now known as Bergama, and has a population of about 55,000, give or take.
          The Scripture passage that describes this church is found, as with many others in this series, in Revelation.

Revelation 2:12–17
12 And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges;
13 I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.
14 But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
15 So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.
16 Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
17 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.

          I see three things here: one strength and two weaknesses. Because this diagnosis is shorter than some, I will put the entirety of it within one blog post.
          On the strength side, this church handled persecution without denying Christ. Thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you. I have already discussed this in some detail in reference to both Ephesus and Smyrna, so I shall simply note it and move on. I will say that history tells us that like Polycarp in Smyrna, Antipas was the pastor of the church at Pergamos. He, too, was ordained by John but his martyrdom came much earlier than Polycarp’s by some sixty years. Regardless, this church stood strong through it all, and John unhesitatingly commended them for it.
          On the weakness side of the discussion I find two, one already discussed in some detail in reference to Ephesus, namely this: they had begun attempting to lord it over other local churches. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate (Revelation 2.15). I dealt with this extensively a couple of weeks ago and I am not going to repeat it all here. Suffice it to say, Pergamos was on the other side of the equation from Ephesus, and God was highly aggravated with them about it. He uses very strong language here.
          The second weakness was a bit more obscure. I will follow my statement with an explanation, but here is the statement first: they were a sensual church.
          One of the two things God specifically says He has against this church relates somehow to the Old Testament prophet, Balaam. But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication (Revelation 2.14). So, what is the doctrine of Balaam?
Coastal Landscape with Balaam and the Ass
by Bartholomeus Breenburgh, 1636
          Balaam was one of the non-Jewish prophets of the Old Testament. He was asked by the local Midian king, Balak, to call down God’s disfavor on the Israelites, to curse them. Balak had heard of what happened in Egypt, and was fearful of Israel. Motivated by greed, Balaam determined to accept Balak’s offer even though God specifically forbad it. When Balaam went to Balak anyway, God got angry with Balaam, and sent an angel to punish him. Balaam did not see the angel but his donkey did, causing Balaam and his donkey to engage in their famous argument. Balaam repents, but God informs him he is free to meet Balak at this point provided he is careful to only prophesy that which God tells him to say. Three times Balak takes Balaam to a high place in an effort to get Balaam to pronounce a curse on Israel. Three times Balaam opens his mouth to comply, only to have a blessing come out. Unpaid, and apparently unable to curse Israel, Balaam comes up with a new plan. Since he cannot prophetically curse God’s people, he advises Balak on how to ensnare them instead. Essentially, this plan involved sending Midian’s prettiest young women into Israel’s camp to seduce Israel’s young men to join them in the sexual excesses of their pagan religious rites. God’s response was to send a plague that killed 24,000 Jews (Numbers 25). Later, after Israel had won a war against Midian, Moses demanded that these women be killed.

Numbers 31:15–17
15 And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.
17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.

          Back then to the question, what was the doctrine of Balaam? It was Balaam’s teaching to Balak to seduce God’s people via a sex cult away from Jehovah toward Baal. In some sense, then, the church at Pergamos had become similar to many of the pagan Roman cults of its day, one that intertwined sexuality with worship of the divine. That is a harsh conclusion, but a justified one, if I understand the Word of God.
          Such an unholy thing in a church rightly draws God’s harsh condemnation. A church is to be different than the world around it, holy where they are unholy. We are specifically called to be a morally pure institution. Any sexual activity outside the bonds of matrimony is not to be tolerated amongst God’s people; especially in some twisted concept of pleasing God by so doing. And a church, any church, that goes easy on such loose living, on such open immorality is heading down an appalling road.
          He is pure.
          We are His people.
          Let us be pure.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Strong Church/Smyrna

Strong Church/Weak Church 12

          Smyrna, to me, is one of the most interesting churches in the Bible. Like Daniel, nothing negative is recorded about it. I am quite sure it had weaknesses, for it was human and everything human is faulty, but none of them are recorded in the few Scripture verses that discuss the church. For this reason, there will be no Weak Church/Smyrna post, only today’s post about its strengths.
The Agora of Smyrna
circa 500 BC
          Smyrna was a substantial city in Turkey along the Aegean Sea. It rivaled Ephesus, which was located about 40 miles away, in trade until the harbor in Ephesus silted over and the rivalry declined. Smyrna was originally founded as a Greek colony, and later passed into Roman hands in the New Testament era. Although it was ravaged during the Middle Ages, it still exists today as the Turkish city of Izmir. It is huge, slightly bigger than Chicago, in fact. To this day, its most famous resident was Homer, the Greek poet. Homer probably wrote the two most famous poems in history, The Iliad and The Odyssey, from a cave along the river in Smyrna about 800 years before Christ.
          Religiously, in the first century it cultivated the typical pagan deities of the day, with some extra-curricular worship of Homer thrown in one the side. Included in this was a very active Dionysian cult. Dionysus, also called Bacchus, was the god of alcohol and sex from whom we derive the term for a wild party, a bacchanalia. (Grasping this informs as well our understanding of the problems of the church at Corinth too.) This god so embraced by Smyrna, supposedly resurrected from the dead, is given special attention in John’s short epistle when John emphasizes Christ’s own real resurrection in Revelation 2.8.
In fact, here is the entire brief scriptural record on the church:

Revelation 2:8–11 (KJV 1900)
8 And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;
9 I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
10 Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.
11 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.

          In these few verses I see two strengths of the church at Smyrna.
Notice, they served the Lord even though they were poor. Their poverty is mentioned specifically, drawing attention to something that so often prevents people from serving God. It bears repeating, there is no negative spiritual mention about this church which rather shoots a hole in the prosperity gospel theology, amongst other things.
Beyond that, spiritually speaking, poverty engenders two very helpful attitudes on the part of the Christian. First, poverty brings us to realize what our true riches are. When Jonah lost everything a man could lose, including light, he saw an unvarnished value in the mercy of God. Money and the material things of this life so often cloud our vision, and when that fog is lifted we see how wonderful are our relationships, how deep our eternal spiritual blessings in Christ.
Corporately, churches need money to operate. Buildings and staff and ministry are expensive. But many a church can and has focused too much on their income stream, valuing people based on what they give, equating blessing with good offerings, pushing giving at the expense of other spiritual graces, or desiring the things money can do more than the things the Holy Spirit can do. Smyrna was blessedly free from such temptations because it was broke.
Secondly, poverty brings us to the place of dependence upon Christ. Without question, the weakest church of the seven discussed in Revelation is the church at Laodicea. Not coincidentally, it was a very wealthy church. Jesus spoke right to the heart of the matter when He said, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God (Mark 19.24). It was the rich young ruler who thought he needed nothing, and people/churches who do not need anything from God exercise little faith in Him.
If your church has millions of dollars coming in, or a healthy amount socked
Izmir, Turkey, present day
The Agora is on the right side of the foreground.
away in a capital improvements fund count it a blessing. But if you have neither of those there is no need to count it a curse. Poverty in a church can be a wonderful blessing.
The second primary strength I see in the church at Smyrna was that they stayed right through persecution. Along with poverty, tribulation is specifically mentioned in Revelation 2.9. This persecution took verbal form in their fellow Jews who denied Jesus was the messiah. I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. These Christ rejectors may have been Jews ethnically, but any Jew who turns his back on Jesus is in some sense not considered a Jew by God.

Romans 2:28–29
28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:
29 But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
Romans 9:6
6 Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel:

          This verbal persecution from the Jews toward the church in Smyrna later manifested itself as physical persecution, in trial, prison, and martyrdom. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life (Revelation 2.10)
          In Robine Lane Foxe’s massive 1986 work on the era, Pagans and Christians, he tells story after story of those days. I will share just one with you. Sitting in the church at Smyrna that day the letter from John was read to them was a 27 year old young man named Polycarp. He listened eagerly to the Apostle’s message for that apostle, John, had personally won him to Christ. John became his mentor, training him for the ministry. In fact, within just a few short years after he first heard Revelation 2 read he became the pastor of the church at Smyrna. I am sure that passage of Holy Writ was exceeding precious to him and to the people there.
          Polycarp became very influential in his generation, the first generation to claim Christianity without anyone alive who had actually met Jesus. Polycarp stood loyally for the authority and authenticity of Scripture, and for apostolic theology. He refused the bishop of Rome when that bishop attempted to assert control over the church at Smyrna, an example in the historical record similar to what I spoke of regarding Ephesus last week.
S. Polycarpus
engraving by Michael Burghers
circa 1685
          As an old man, after having served Christ faithfully and well for decades as the pastor there he was brought before the authorities during a time of persecution. Just as John warned, the Jews were his most vigorous accusers. He was found guilty of being a Christian, and was burned at the stake with faggots of wood contributed by the Jews. And he went willingly, untied. I am sure he was thinking of John and of John’s words to his church written some sixty years before.

Revelation 2:10–11
10 Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.
11 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.

          At eighty-six years of age, Polycarp, longtime pastor of the church at Smyrna, convert and disciple of the Apostle John, was given one last chance to recant. His reply? “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my Saviour and King?”
          They were made of stern stuff in Smyrna.