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.