The Corrupt Church – Thyatira

It’s been a blessing to be able to study through the letters to the seven churches with you! This week, we explore Revelation 2:18-29 – Jesus’ words to the fourth church of Thyatira, a church that we often refer to as “the corrupt church.” Despite its problems, however, most of the members of the body are sincere believers. Jesus first begins by commending this group for its effective works of ministry: “I have seen your love, your faith, your service, and your patient endurance. And I can see your constant improvement in all these things” (Revelation 2:19, NLT). Notice how these concepts are related to each other:

Love leads to service; faith leads to perseverance. If you love God, you will serve his people. You cannot help it. It is the sign that you love that you are willing to serve. And if you have faith you will persevere; you will understand that God is in control and things will work out according to his purpose. (Ray Stedman. “Thyatira: The Worldly Church”)

If only the testimony to Thyatira stopped there! “But I have this complaint against you. You are permitting that woman–that Jezebel who calls herself a prophet–to lead my servants astray. She teaches them to commit sexual sin and to eat food offered to idols” (v. 20, NLT). Our first question is, of course: Who is Jezebel? We understand that this was not a literal person in the church, but rather a symbolic figure referring to a spirit of heretical teaching. Jezebel was, of course, the evil queen of the Old Testament who forced pagan Baal worship on the Israelite nation and who massacred God’s true prophets. So, notice the progression that we have seen over the last few churches: In the first church, Jesus applauds the Ephesians for “hating” the deeds of the Nicolaitans. The third church of Pergamum, however, has begun to “tolerate” some who “hold” the doctrine of the Nicolaitans and Balaam. Finally, Thyatira “allows” this Jezebel to openly “teach” God’s followers to abandon themselves to sexual sin and idolatry! The Jezebel heresy is the worst of all.

But what did this influence actually look like? Was it as blatant and obvious as a church teacher plopping down an idol in front of the congregation and telling them to worship it? What we have to understand is business in the city of Thyatira was conducted through a confederation of trade guilds or unions. If you wanted to do business in the city, you were supposed to be a part of one of these guilds and attend their meetings. These meetings were often held in one of the pagan temples and consisted of sacrificing meat to idols and participating in drunken orgies. This quote sheds more light on the situation:

So [Christians] had to make a choice. It was difficult to live in Thyatira for this very reason. But apparently Jezebel had begun to teach that it was all right for them to go along with the requirements of the guild, that they needed to submit to the pressures of the world around in order to make a living, and that God would understand and overlook this. Her philosophy was what you often hear today: “Business is business.” If business practices collide with your Christian principles, then your principles have to go — because you have to make a living. Have you ever heard that argument? (Ray Stedman. “Thyatira: The Worldly Church”)

Jesus closes his letter by once again encouraging the members of the church who have not been fooled by this trap: “I will ask nothing more of you except that you hold tightly to what you have until I come. To all who are victorious, who obey me to the very end… They will have the same authority I received from my Father, and I will also give them the morning star!” (vs. 24-28, NLT). I love how Jesus promises to give the overcomer the “morning star.” From Revelation 22:16, we know that Christ is the Bright and Morning Star. Jesus is promising to give us nothing less than Himself!

With a promise like that, I think we are all encouraged to continue to “hold tightly” to what we have in Jesus! That is our surest protection.

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The Compromising Church – Pergamum

This week, we arrive at the third church of Pergamum. We can read Christ’s letter to this church in Revelation 2:12-17. Jesus’ first words are abrupt and startling: “I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is” (Rev. 2:13). Satan’s throne!? What does that mean? Interestingly enough, the city of Pergamum was one of the most concentrated centers of idolatry and pagan religion in the ancient Roman world. The city housed temples for Dionysus and Zeus, as well as the very first temple dedicated to the cult of Roman emperor worship. Sources even suggest that Pergamum can be identified as the seat of Babylonian sun worship. No wonder Jesus refers to Pergamum as the city where Satan’s throne is! The fact that the church has maintained its identity amidst its evil surroundings is something that Jesus affirms them for. However, Jesus’ next words ought to make us sit up straight and pay attention: “But I have a few things against you…”

Here, we find a radical shift in the spiritual condition of Pergamum as compared to the previous two churches. The days of persecution are a thing of the past for the church of Pergamum. Now, the church finds itself safe and comfortable – too comfortable… Compromise has begun to creep in. The Nicolaitans were not tolerated in the first church of Ephesus, but here in Pergamum they spread their heresy within church walls! On top of that, Jesus rebukes the church for allowing the “doctrine of Balaam” to infiltrate the congregation. We, of course, all know the story of Balaam and the donkey and his attempt to curse the children of Israel for a bribe. When that plot wasn’t successful, Balaam had a new idea. “Instead of cursing the children of Israel from the outside, why don’t we get them to compromise and disobey God’s commandments on the inside? That way, they’ll simply bring the curse upon themselves!” Balaam’s new strategy was tragically successful. His tactics were to get the Israelites to compromise in the areas of idolatry and sexual immorality. Ironically, these were the same sins that the Nicolaitans were known for. The ancient doctrine of Balaam and the new teachings of the Nicolaitans were simply two sides of the same coin.

At this point, we may find ourselves sighing with relief. At least we don’t have to worry about those pesky Balaamites and Nicolaitans today! Good thing we don’t have to worry about eating foods sacrificed to idols anymore… But, let’s not jump ahead so fast. The heresy of the Balaamites/Nicolaitans was much more sophisticated than it sounds. We have to remember the cultural setting of the day. The temples were not only the religious centers of the community, but the social centers as well. The pagan temples hosted important social events and community gatherings. If you wanted to “fit in,” you had to attend these temple feasts where meat was publicly sacrificed to the gods and then consumed as a part of the worship ritual. And then, as the night would wear on… with temple male and female prostitutes at every turn, the temptation to compromise sexually was virtually inevitable. This kind of compromise was exactly what Paul warned against in 1 Corinthians 8:9-13 and 10:14-33. Paul was deeply concerned that “stronger” Christians were attending these kinds of events and partaking of these meat sacrifices because they felt “free in Christ” to do anything they wanted. But through their participation, they were actually compromising their own spiritual integrity and causing newer, “weaker” Christians to stumble. This so-called “freedom” to “do whatever you want” because it “seems all right” and “feels okay” was the real heresy of Balaamites and Nicolaitans.

You say, “I am allowed to do anything”–but not everything is good for you. You say, “I am allowed to do anything”–but not everything is beneficial. Don’t be concerned for your own good but for the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24, NLT)

As I turn this around on myself and attempt to apply these lessons to my own life, I have no other choice but to confront myself with the difficult questions: Is there anything in my life that might be a stumbling block for others? Perhaps in some of my social interactions? Maybe some of my entertainment choices? I don’t want to make the same mistake that Pergamum did, and I don’t believe you do either.

In closing, I would like to offer these questions for personal reflection:

  • How does Christ identify Himself to the church of Pergamum in verse 12? How is that identifying characteristic significant in light of the issue which Pergamum is struggling with?
  • Why is it sometimes easier to hold on to “socially acceptable” sins in our lives? What is Jesus’ solution for this problem?
  • What do you think the significance is to the hidden manna and white stone which Christ promises to those who overcome? Why do you think we will be given a new name?

The Persecuted Church – Smyrna

I hope you will enjoy these devotional thoughts from this week’s study of the “persecuted church” in Revelation 2:8-11.

“Write this letter to the angel of the church in Smyrna. This is the message from the one who is the First and the Last, who was dead but is now alive” (v. 8). I think it’s interesting that before saying anything else in this passage, Jesus first introduces Himself to the suffering congregation by highlighting two aspects of His character and power: First of all, Christ identifies Himself as “the First and the Last.” Let that sink in for a little bit… Jesus is in control of the endless reaches of the universe and the eternal expanse of time, and He is also the “author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He is in control of the beginning and ending of our stories too – as well as everything in between!

Christ is also the One “who died and came to life.” The church of Smyrna would have found special significance in these words. Think about it, here we have a little flock of believers bound for death. Jesus warns that some of them will soon be cast into prison, and some will even face the martyr’s sword. (Even the name “Smyrna” is connected with the word “myrrh,” the balm of death.) But, because He conquered death, Jesus has the power and authority to promise, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (v. 10). The word here for “crown” is stephanos. Rather than a crown of royalty, this is a crown of victory – the kind a champion might receive in the games for which the city of Smyrna was so famous. Tragically, some of the church’s Christians would soon be dragged into the center of these game arenas to be devoured by beasts and slaughtered by gladiators, all to the glee of the screaming spectators. Yet, it is to these faithful sufferers that Jesus promises the crown of victory, the crown of life!

I think it’s also interesting that Jesus has no words of rebuke for the church of Smyrna. Why is that? It seems that because this is a persecuted church, Christ only offers words of encouragement and comfort. There is something about persecution that makes us get our priorities straight, isn’t there? When churches suffer persecution, all of the sudden we don’t see congregations splitting over the color of the carpet, do we? All of the petty arguments over the fluff simply disappear. The season of testing also produces faith and endurance (James 1:2-3). And as the external pressure from the outside increases, the church community grows tightly together as a family. The bonds of fellowship become life-line support systems for each member. That’s when the onlooking world gets to see first-hand how the family of is supposed to act and love. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, ESV).

In spite of the coming onslaught of persecution, however, Christ is also clear on what the church’s attitude should be as they await their fate: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer” (v. 10). I like how The Message puts it: “Fear nothing in the things you’re about to suffer–but stay on guard! Fear nothing! The Devil is about to throw you in jail for a time of testing–ten days. It won’t last forever.” In the Jewish mindset, ten days symbolized a season of testing or trial. (See Daniel 1:12, for example.) Jesus is encouraging the church that their suffering will only be temporary.

We know that the great Christian martyr Polycarp was actually from Smyrna. Around 155 A.D. Polycarp is recorded as saying on the day of his execution, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong… How then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour? Bring forth what thou wilt.” He was then burned at the stake for refusing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor. That’s a bold faith! I often look at that kind of faith and worry that I would simply never be brave enough. And, of course, the reality is that I won’t ever be–and neither will you. But, if we put our faith not in ourselves but in the One who conquered death and the One who is the Beginning and Ending of our stories, then there is no way we can possibly fail. We are guaranteed the crown of victory!

The Loveless Church – Ephesus

This week, we’re studying the letter to the first church of Ephesus as found in Revelation 2:2-7. As many know, the seven churches were located in seven prominent cities in the First Century Mediterranean area. Jesus sends a personal letter to each of these churches, giving them counsel, encouragement, and, in most cases, words of warning as well. The sequence of the churches actually follows the route that a mail carrier would have followed in the ancient Asia Minor world. The church of Ephesus is the first addressee on the list.

seven_churchesEphesus is a church that is doing a lot of things right. They patiently continue a work of ministry and outreach in the midst of difficult circumstances, and, perhaps most importantly, they “do not tolerate those who are evil.” More specifically, Jesus affirms the church for hating the “deeds of the Nicolaitans,” whose works Jesus also hates. We don’t know a lot about the Nicolaitans but it seems that they were a sect steeped in the heresy of Gnostiscm or “dualism.” Gnosticism was a philosophical/religious thought that purported that man’s nature was composed of two parts: the spirit (which is good) and the flesh (which is evil). Because the flesh was evil, they argued, then it didn’t matter what you did with it. You could live however you wanted in whatever kind of licentious lifestyle you fancied. There was no need to obey God’s law “in the flesh.” In his letter of 1 John, the Beloved Disciple of course argues vehemently against this kind of heretical thought: “If someone claims, ‘I know God,’ but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth” (1 John 2:4, NLT). The church of Ephesus, then, has taken a bold stand against this satanic lie and has maintained its spiritual and doctrinal integrity, something which Jesus praises the church for.

But in spite of all the things that this church is doing right, they are also missing something very, very important. Christ warns, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place-unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5). Whoa! Jesus means business here. Somewhere along the way, this church has missed out on the “love factor” – they’ve forgotten about the relationship! As a result, none of the correct doctrines, none of the “good works” matter one iota! Jesus is basically saying, “If you can’t bring the gospel message of love back into the picture, if you can’t restore the joy and intimacy of a personal relationship with Me, then it would actually be better if you didn’t even exist as a church!” Ephesus is a church that has forgotten its true identity and purpose – to share the love of Christ with each other and with the community in which they live. But, fortunately, Jesus provides the solution: “Repent! Go back to the starting point of repentance and forgiveness. Go back to before you were so arrogant in your ‘good works’ and self-satisfied with your ‘monopoly on the truth.’ Go back to the foot of the Cross.

I am reminded today of that first work of repentance as well as the eternal truth of Love and its calling on my life. How sad to think that this church could work so hard and so diligently protect its spiritual integrity and yet miss out on the most important truth of all! I think this paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 from The Message aptly sums everything up:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.
If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.