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.