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.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Weak Church/Ephesus

Strong Church/Weak Church 11

          Last week, we saw some rather remarkable strengths in the Ephesian church. They were a laboring, patient,fiercely independent church. In the midst of this bounty of spiritual maturity, however, we find one problem. And it is a serious problem, more rightly a massive problem. They had left their first love for the Lord and for people. Nevertheless I have somewhat against the, because thou hast left thy first love (Revelation 2.4).
          In one of the classic New Testament passages that even many in the heathen world know of, our Saviour said that God’s expectations and instructions for humanity hung on two supports – a love for God and a love for people.

Matthew 22:37–40
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

          As I have written in more detail elsewhere, this does not mean there are only two rules. It means every God-given instruction is motivated by one or both of these principles. The church at Ephesus had the right doctrine; they had studied the claims of the Nicolaitans and renounced them. The church at Ephesus had the right character; they labored fervently in their service for the Lord. The church at Ephesus had the right attitude; they bore their trials with stoic endurance. But in a very real sense they did all of this for the wrong reason. Why do I assert that? Because any reason other than a love for God and a love for people as a motivation for our actions is an unscriptural reason. Their reason was something other than love. They had long ago left that behind.
          Beloved, our religion is a relationship. That relationship is with a Person. That Person is Christ. And that Person told us to love Him and to love others. The Apostle Paul wrote an epistle to this same church at Ephesus three decades prior to John doing so, but we find the same message. Paul acknowledges they then had this love. Wherefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus, and love unto all the saints (Ephesians 1.15). He urges them to strengthen the ties which bound their actions to such love. That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3.17). In fact, in that prior epistle Paul connected numerous aspects of Christianity to love i.e. forbearing one another in love, speaking the truth in love, edifying in love, walking in love, and explicitly connecting faith with love. In my view, Paul stressed this not only because it was important, but because he must have had some level of concern about it, as he clearly expresses in the very last verse. Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen (Ephesians 6.24).
          In short, they had it, once. They were losing it. Paul tells them to hold onto it, to grow it. But they turned around and walked away. They left it.

          How does such a thing happen? How does a person or church or organization that once had a fervent love for Christ and for people grow apathetic? At least some of the answer is found in our Saviour’s words in the first gospel. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold (Matthew 24.12). We notice here it is not the existence of iniquity that is the problem. Iniquity exists in every human and thus in every human institution, too. But when we allow that iniquity to pick up steam, so to speak, in the parlance of this illustration to charge down the track unhindered, it will choke the love for God and for His people right out of us.
          As I sit here at my dining room table writing in late May, we have just this past week planted our small urban garden. Tiny zucchini, basil, lavender, rosemary, and tomato plants dot the enclosure. As the weather warms into summer and the weeks pass these plants will grow, and we will enjoy their fruit. Well, that is we will enjoy their fruit if they stay rooted, if we water them, if they receive abundant sunshine, and if we keep control of the weeds.
          I have never yet seen a garden without weeds. Every garden has them. They spring up practically overnight, coming back from the spot you previously plucked them or taking root a few inches over. The problem with gardening, however, is not the presence of weeds. The problem arises when you stop dealing with those weeds, when you allow them to multiply unchecked, when you allow them to abound. A garden that abounds in weeds cannot abound in fruit, no matter how good the soil, abundant the sunshine, and regular the watering. And the exact same thing is true of a Christian and a church.
          This is not a dissertation on holiness. I have a book on that subject at the publisher even as we speak. But even within the severely subscribed limits of a blog post I cannot help but mention that is just here that tools such as frequent confession of sin and the mortification of the flesh enter in. It is only by walking in the Spirit that we will not walk in the flesh. The two cannot be done simultaneously. One always pushes the other out.
          Having established how such a condition as leaving our first love arises let us briefly turn our attention to what happens when it does. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John’s short epistle in Revelation to the Ephesian church warns, Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent (Revelation 2.5). The candlestick in context represents the church itself, a shining testimony to the grace of Christ drawing men into His embrace. But a church that is walking away from love as the motivation for all it does is walking into the twilight. The sun is setting. The gloaming gradually deepens into night. And then the testimony of that church is gone.
          I have pastored in Chicago for fifteen years. It is not an easy place to keep a church going, let alone shepherd one forward for the cause of Christ. Over these fifteen years I have seen two Baptist churches located less than a mile from me close their doors permanently. How does that happen? How is it that their candlestick is removed? Somehow, somewhere, in some way, iniquity began to reign unchecked. Their love waxed cold. Their light grew dim. And then went out.
          When it has gone this far it cannot be reversed, but prior to that point I believe it can be. In point of fact, this is John’s precise reason for writing. He seeks to call them back, to get them to return to their first love. He calls on them to remember, to repent, and to do the first works. He asks them to embrace the humility necessary to admit error. He asks them to show that attitude to be genuine, by attacking the iniquity then abounding in their church. Having begun there, they must proceed on to do the first works. They were a working, laboring people, but they needed to get back to laboring like they did when they first started, out of love.

1 Thessalonians 1:3
3 Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father;
Hebrews 6:10
10 For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.   

          Do you serve God?
          The next question is why?
          The answer must be out of love. If it is not, return to what you left. Repent. Attack the iniquity in your life. And fall in love with God and with people all over again. It is the only way to keep the candle of your church burning for the next generation.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Strong Church/Ephesus

Strong Church/Weak Church 10

The ruins of Ephesus
          Last time we saw the genesis of the Ephesian church. Today we are going to examine its strengths, primarily from John’s message to their church in Revelation 2.
          The first strength I see here is that they were a church that was hard at work serving the Lord.

Revelation 2:1–2
1 Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;
2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:

          “Works” and “labour” here are not the exact same thing. Works is the idea that God knows exactly what you are doing and not doing. It is a statement of accountability, and is found in reference to all seven of the churches discussed in Revelation. God was paying attention and knew what they were doing and not doing. I know… thy labour, on the other hand, means God viewed them as a church that was hard at work serving Him.
          We neither obtain salvation nor keep salvation by our good works, but we are repeatedly commanded in the New Testament to do good works. A good church is a church that is zealous unto good works. In the original language, labor here means working to the point of utter weariness. In the following verse John commends them by saying they had not fainted (Revelation 2.3). Falling over from exhaustion is not a temptation that comes to the lazy man, ergo they were spending themselves in their service for Him.
          Additionally, they were not only hard at work for the Master but they did that work with the right motivation. And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted (Revelation 2.3). They did not pour themselves into this labor out of a desire to please their pastor, or because they were afraid of God, or because their pride spurred them on in an effort to build a reputation. They did it solely for the Lord. And that is a beautiful, beautiful thing.
          The second strength I see here is that they were a patient church.

Revelation 2:2–3
2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.

          In the original language patience implies a persevering endurance. Proper work, good work, high quality work simply must include patience. It requires a careful, methodical craftsmanship. This is true if you are building a dresser or if you are building a new convert into a Sunday School teacher.
Take witnessing, for example. Jesus told us, but that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience (Luke 8.15). Soul-winning is not a church growth method. It’s obediently sowing the seed of the Word of God in the hearts of receptive and unreceptive alike. It takes the Holy Spirit to bring that seed to life, regenerating a lost man, and I cannot rush the work of the Spirit. I can pray for it, plan for it, and prepare for it, but I cannot rush it. Often, it just takes time to bear fruit. Many a pastor and many a church has gotten discouraged because some activity they are doing does not seem to be bearing fruit. But when you connect that work with patience you get “labour”, working patiently to the point of utter exhaustion without giving up.
I want to go to Heaven exhausted. I want to be used up in my service for Him.
The third strength I see in the Ephesian church is the fact that they were fiercely independent.
I am an independent Baptist not by birth but by conviction. I pastor an independent Baptist church. In practical terms, that means our church does not belong to any larger denomination or organization. We do not have any external support, nor do we have any external controls either.
The biblical support for this position is two-fold. First, it is based on the fact the church is local, not universal. Second, it is founded on the idea that the only head of the church, any church, my church or your church, is just Jesus Christ. This theological truth is twice found, not surprisingly, in the epistle addressed to the Ephesian church.

Ephesians 1:22 And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church,
Ephesians 5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.

          Plainly, they took this admonition seriously. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate (Revelation 2.6). Who or what were the Nicolaitans? In answer, I would point to the definition of the underlying words themselves. “Nico” means to conquer, to get victory. “Laos” means the people i.e. the laity, the layman. From those two root words we get the understanding that says Nicolaitanism was to rule or to conquer the people. It involved ruling over or lording it over God’s church.
          This is warned against elsewhere in Scripture. Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock (I Peter 5.3). The pastor as bishop does have some genuine authority in the church but it does not rise to the level of dictatorship. He must ever be primarily an influence via his preaching and his example.
          John, the writer of Revelation, had previous experience with this type of thing.

3 John 9–11
9 I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not.
10 Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church.
11 Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God.

          In that case, Diotrephes inserted himself into the chain of command between the church and Christ. He claimed the preeminence and the power. But who is to have the preeminence in each church? Who alone is to exercise the power of lordship? Jesus Christ. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence (Colossians 1.18). No man or group of men is to lord it over God’s church. No man is have the preeminent authority to determine, individually by himself, what the church should and should not do. Rather, these matters are led by the pastor and agreed to by the church corporately.
          We see this latter example of ministry leadership and congregational ratification in the choosing of the first deacons. It was a joint decision. The leadership cast the vision, and the people entered into it willingly and actively with real influence.

Acts 6:1–6 (KJV 1900)
1 And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.
2 Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables.
3 Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.
4 But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.
5 And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch:
6 Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.

          With this as the stated instruction and exemplified illustration in the church how then did the Nicolaitans justify their power grab? Via the guise of apostleship. See, the Apostles were the earthly foundation of the church. They guided its affairs, often directly, until the canon of Scripture was finalized. Paul appointed Timothy as a pastor in both Ephesus and Crete without any indication of congregational agreement. When dealing with the severely disordered church at Corinth he threatened he would show up and set things in order when he got there. Of course, this apostolic authority, like the apostolic sign gifts, was a temporary scaffold designed to enable the church to grow to maturity in safety. Later, when the New Testament was completed, the authority would belong exclusively to the Word of God. (Remember the first B in the Baptist acrostic? The Bible is our sole authority.)
          Thus it is that if you want to exercise human authority over a local congregation of called out believers you say that you are an apostle. Ergo, they must listen to your edicts.
          The classic ancient/modern example of this is still found in the Roman Catholic concept of church structure and government. It is universal (catholic) vs local. It is top-down authoritarian vs congregational. The popes specifically claim the mantle of Peter’s apostolic authority. The system thus produced is a parish that cannot choose its own priests, does not own its own property, never sees a financial report let alone votes on financial matters. Indeed, they never corporately decide anything in relation to the will of God for their church. The whole, from top to bottom, is controlled by a hierarchy external to the local parish – bishops, cardinals, and popes
          …but there are no more apostles. In order to qualify as an apostle a man must have walked with Jesus personally, been personally called by Him to the apostolic office, and prove this by his power to do miraculous works (Acts 1, I Corinthians 9, Luke 6, Acts 2, II Corinthians 12). The Apostles had no successors, Catholic or otherwise. For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ (II Corinthians 11.13).
          The church at Ephesus grasped this doctrinal truth tenaciously and applied it fearlessly. They dealt harshly with Nicolaitanism, the false doctrine of an external hierarchy ruling over the local church in the name of apostolic authority. How do I know this?

Revelation 2:6
6 But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Revelation 2:2
2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:

          Let’s hear three cheers for a hard-working, rightly-motivated, patient, fiercely independent church.
          That’s exactly what I want to build, God being mine helper.

Monday, June 3, 2019

For Your Consideration: An Explanation and a Request

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Monday, May 20, 2019

The Church at Ephesus

Strong Church/Weak Church 9

An Ephesian theater
          One of the most important churches in the Bible is the Ephesian church. I am, perhaps, speaking territorially for just last year I finished preaching a lengthy series from Ephesians. At any rate, whether my preaching series gives me an undue fondness for this church or not the fact remains it is discussed in detail in the Word of God.
          Historically, the city of Ephesus was one of the largest in the world during the New Testament era, hosting within its borders some half a million souls. Architecturally, it was a combination of Grecian and Roman influences with its multiplicity of aqueducts, temples, baths, and theatres, including one of the latter that sat 25,000 people. Most known for the Temple of Diana, this wonder of the ancient world was longer than a football field and composed entirely of marble. The momentum Ephesus had built up outlived the Roman Empire period but the same factors that doomed Antioch – silt in the harbor and pirates harrying the shipping – doomed Ephesus.
          We first come across it in Scripture during Paul’s travels in the latter half of Acts. And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus (Acts 19.1). Here, Paul found certain disciples. These were believing Jews who been baptized either directly by John the Baptist or by one of John’s disciples. This is not a theological blog series, let alone one on dispensationalism, so let it suffice for the moment to say that John’s baptism was one that looked forward to a still coming Messiah. It was a baptism of faith in the soon coming promise of God, but not a baptism of faith in specific relation to Jesus Christ. Paul explains that John’s preaching was about a man named Jesus, and directs them to put their faith specifically in Him as their Christ. They readily accede, and these dozen men became the seed kernel of the Ephesian church. Paul would stay in that city for years, teaching and preaching the Word of God, and building this church into a mighty work. And this continued by the space of two years; so that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks. (Acts 19.10) While there, Paul ordained Timothy to the pastorate, and Timothy succeeded him when Paul left for the next stop on his never-ending travels.
          Paul chose Ephesus, much like he chose the other cities where he started churches, for its potential regional influence.

Acts 19:17–20
17 And this was known to all the Jews and Greeks also dwelling at Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.
18 And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds.
19 Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.
20 So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed.

          As you can imagine, this monumental Christian influence did
St. Paul Preaching Before the Temple of Diana at
Ephesus by Adolf Pirsch, 1885
not go unnoticed by the religious powers that then existed in Ephesus. These, headquartered naturally in the great Temple of Diana, included a substantial number of people who made their living selling pagan/demonic charms to the pilgrims and worshippers that thronged its massive colonnades. This Ephesian church under the direct leadership of Paul siphoned off so many of these Diana worshippers that the pagan craftsman became alarmed. The resulting riot was both an evidence of and an attack on the power of the growing Ephesian church.

Acts 19:23–28
23 And the same time there arose no small stir about that way.
24 For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, which made silver shrines for Diana, brought no small gain unto the craftsmen;
25 Whom he called together with the workmen of like occupation, and said, Sirs, ye know that by this craft we have our wealth.
26 Moreover ye see and hear, that not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands:
27 So that not only this our craft is in danger to be set at nought; but also that the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worshippeth.
28 And when they heard these sayings, they were full of wrath, and cried out, saying, Great is Diana of the Ephesians.
          We see, then, that the Ephesian church began with an unhesitating commitment to Jesus Christ, and continued under the direct leadership of Paul for quite some time as a thriving institution. But it is not only Acts 19 that informs our understanding of the Ephesian church. There is also an extended passage in Revelation 2 that reveals some very pertinent information about it. We will, in fact, spend much time in the rest of this blog series in Revelation 2 and 3 as these chapters discuss a number of New Testament era churches in some detail. I realize there are some that hold the seven churches discussed here to be representative of seven church ages in history, but I find no warrant for such a position. There is no indication in Scripture that they are to be taken as such, nor are there any guidelines for so doing. The result of those who hold this position is an absolute mish-mash of spiritualization, chronology, and faulty application. I intend to take these two chapters as I believe they were meant to be understood, plain messages to seven actual local churches.
          When we continue next week, we will be looking primarily at the passage in Revelation 2 that discusses the Ephesian church. We will probe it for what it may reveal to us of the their church’s strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully, along the way, we will learn a thing or two that may benefit us in our own churches today.
          See you next week. 

Monday, May 13, 2019

Weak Church/Corinth, Part Two

Strong Church/Weak Church 8

We have already looked at several failings of the Corinthian church. They were serious, but they were not the largest problems. There are two failings that saturate the church and can be found at the root and the branch of its dysfunction.

4. They were carnal

1 Corinthians 3:1-4 
1 And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. 2 I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. 3 For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? 4 For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?

Someone who is carnal is under control of the appetites of the flesh. It is a root issue in many of the failings of the Corinthians. In sexual sin? Obviously. But Paul identifies it as the root issue here, as well.

We see it throughout the Corinthian church, people doing what they want instead of what is wise or right. Following their appetites, their feelings. Following the preacher they like best, eating food known to be sacrificed to idols because they like it with no regard to who may be hurt by it, engaging in fornication. Following the flesh.

Our world is dominated by this ethos: What feels good, is good. Sadly, churches and Christians have adopted the same principle. Choices are made about worship, about whether to witness, about entertainment, about the speech we use, and about every other aspect of ecclesiastical practice and modern life, based upon what our flesh is inclined to do. The criteria used for choice is no longer, “Is it right?” but rather, “do I like it?”

This is a dangerous position. Jeremiah 17:9 warns, The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? Our flesh is the producer of our appetites and a major factor in our emotions, and it is at war with the spirit of the saved person. To invite it to have controlling influence on decision-making is a terrible mistake.

Have you ever shopped for groceries while you are hungry? You are tempted to put everything that looks appealing into your cart. If you simply allow your appetite to guide your shopping, you will leave the grocery store with a lot of food and an empty wallet. Just as it is necessary to follow your shopping list, the Christian must walk in the Spirit and obey the Word of God.

5. They were puffed up

1 Corinthians 8:1-3 
1 Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. 2 And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know. 3 But if any man love God, the same is known of him.
1 Corinthians 4:18-19 
18 Now some are puffed up, as though I would not come to you. 19 But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power.
1 Corinthians 5:2 And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.
1 Corinthians 13:4  Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

The phrase “puffed up” appears six times in 1 Corinthians and once (Colossians 2:18) in the rest of the New Testament. It was clearly a problem in the Corinthian church, and Paul was sharp in his identification of it. What does it mean? The root sense is of inflation, as in, inflating oneself. It is to make oneself proud, to inflate one’s own worth. It is, essentially, pride.

The Corinthian church had an inflated sense of worth. They were prideful. According to 1 Corinthians, this was the root of much of their weakness. They were puffed up regarding their divided loyalties. They were puffed up about their tolerance of sexual sin. They were puffed up in their use of spiritual gifts. They were puffed up about the issue of food offered to idols; so much so, in fact, that Paul reserves 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 just to chastise them for that before restating the original issue in the following verse.

There was raging pride saturating the church at Corinth. We find this ironic, because it is the church with the most troubles recorded in the New Testament. But it is not surprising. Pride, by its nature, ignores flaws and sin where it exists and imagines strength and quality where it does not exist. Pride is never merited in a Christian, but it is interesting that its presence is typically in inverse proportion to the worthiness of the subject.

It is tempting merely to draw direct application from specific areas of pride in the Corinthian church that fit with preferred narratives. For example, the Corinthian church’s pride over its tolerance of sin is clearly an issue that is a problem in Christianity today. However, the specific issues in which the Corinthian church was puffed up were merely symptoms; pride can go in any direction. Indeed, churches and Christians may just as easily be guilty of pride in their INtolerance of sin as their tolerance of it.

Pride manifests itself in manifold forms. It may be in one’s inclination to get into conflict or the way one endeavors to succeed. It may be in the way one speaks, or in the way one draws attention to oneself, or even in how one emphasizes the miseries of their own life compared to others. Any time the key individual in someone’s life is themselves instead of Jesus Christ, they are puffed up. The root issue is an inflation of oneself, and Christian servants are all too prone to it.
Since pride hides in plain sight, it is necessary for Christians first to recognize that even faithful servants of Jesus Christ are capable of pride, and to examine their own behavior and actions. Search for inflation bubbles and puncture them.

Like the Corinthians, we may need a sharp needle. Less flesh, less pride, more of Jesus.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Weak Church/Corinth

Strong Church/Weak Church 7

Fountain of Peirene, Corinth
Corinth was rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 44 BC following its destruction in 146 BC by Rome. The “new” city was a mixed multitude of Roman, Greek, and Jewish citizens, and as a consequence the church was influenced and affected by those cultures. There was a great opportunity for influence, and the church had some great strengths.

However, the Corinthian church is best known for its problems. It is, perhaps, a harsh thing to focus on a church’s weaknesses so heavily. However, God has preserved a clear record of the failings of the Corinthian church for our benefit, and we do well to learn from their flaws. In two installments, then, let us examine the weaknesses identified in the Bible of the church at Corinth.

1. They were divided
1 Corinthians 3:1-7 
1 And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. 2 I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. 3 For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? 4 For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal? 5 Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? 6 I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. 7 So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.

The Corinthian church was divided. They envied each other. They fought each other. They even sued each other.

1 Corinthians 6:1, 5-7 
1 Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints? ... 5 I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren? 6 But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers. 7 Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?

The most visible source of the division was an exaggerated effort by members to identify as loyal to either Paul or another preacher that had spent time in Corinth, Apollos. The greater issue was simply their carnal willingness to find a reason to be divided. If it had not been over loyalty to Paul or Apollos, they would have fought over something else.

Some things never change. Today there are some people who can readily be described as “a fight in search of a cause” people. They will take issue with a policy, or with music, or with decorations, or with conduct in business meetings. They will seek to find people that are on “their side” and identify people that are on “the other side.”

Division has been a reality in some churches since the very first, when the immense growth at Jerusalem resulted in neglect of Greek widows (Acts 6:1). Even there, at a church filled with enthusiastic converts and eyewitnesses of the resurrection, division occurred. And when it happened, the church had to pause and deal with the issue before progress could occur.

Division in a local church attacks the very foundations of what a church should be. Christ’s command to love one another (John 13:34, 15:12, 15:17) is tossed in the garbage. A place that should be a refuge and a place of encouragement for God’s people in a wicked world is instead a place of contention. Instead of a place that is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15), a place that is intended to be God’s embassy on Earth (2 Corinthians 5:20), the unsaved world sees a place that is, at best, no better than the world the local church is supposed to reach.
Trying to function as a church in a divided state is like trying to drive a car with the parking brake on. You will make a lot of noise and exert a lot of effort, but you will not move very well.

2. They were guilty of and tolerant of sexual sin
1 Corinthians 5:1 It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife.

Perhaps the most shocking of the sins of the Corinthian church was the open sin within the church and tolerance of it by the people, a level of sexual sin that Paul describes as outrageous even for (presumably unsaved) gentiles.

Sexual sin is pervasive in our society today, but it has always been a presence in humanity’s landscape. It is telling that Paul spends most of his time addressing not the sinner himself, but the church’s response to it. Instead of addressing the sin, they tolerated it.

As our world has embraced sexual sin with increasing vigor, churches have been put in the difficult position of ministering to large numbers of people who are engaged in sins ranging from pornography to adultery to even sexually abusive behavior. The responses have often fallen short of Paul’s instructions to the church at Corinth.

It is not a problem of one stripe of Christianity or another. Churches on the cutting edge of modernism and old-fashioned fundamentalist churches alike have been guilty of placating sexual sin. The methods vary, but the effect is the same. A number of progressive churches have redefined what it means to be a member of a church so that people engaged in known sin may serve in various ministries. Shockingly large numbers of conservative churches have responded to sexual abuse (which, due to its harm to others, is worse by an order of magnitude) by ignoring it, actively covering it up, or aggressively rehabilitating unrepentant abusers back into public prominence.

It is not just the sin, it is the response.

3. They were Disorderly
1 Corinthians 11:17-22 17 Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse. 18 For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. 19 For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you. 20 When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper. 21 For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. 22 What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.

1 Corinthians 14:34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.

The Corinthian church was disorderly. In the Lord’s Supper, in the role of men and women in worship, and in the use of spiritual gifts (see chapters 12-14), Paul identifies many instances of chaos. The Corinthian church appeared to have a very casual relationship with order.

Order can be as simple as organization and planning. It is possible for a church service to be too thoroughly planned, but a church service that is not organized at all is arduous for everyone involved. Ministries need planning and organization. Church finances must be organized.

But order is more than just a schedule and a ledger. It is an issue of respect. The Corinthian church’s disorder was actively disrespectful to multiple parties. It was disrespectful to God, whom in correcting issues regarding spiritual gifts inspired Paul to write, Let all things be done decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40). It was also disrespectful to people who attended the Lord’s Supper intending to worship and meditate upon the death of Christ, to be distracted by those eating a meal. It was disrespectful to people teaching and to people listening to teaching, as others spoke out of turn.

Order in a church shows proper reverence to God. It shows proper respect to a pastor who has prepared many hours to preach. It shows respect to others in attendance who desire to be ministered to in worship and preaching. And it shows respect to those who may not know Christ but are seeking truth.

Order is respect.