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?
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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.

BASIC. Communion.

This post is way behind, but I wanted to finish out the BASIC series before starting our new one because it’s been such a fantastic study! Take some time to watch this short video by Pastor Chan on the Lord’s Supper:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer…They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42, 46–47)

I imagine that communion looked pretty different back then compared to what it looks like today. While there are good organizational reasons that we practice communion the way we do today in many churches, we can’t let ourselves forget the point of it all. What did it mean for the early church to break bread together? It was about loving each other like a family. It was about stripping away all of the formality and fluff of traditions and just worshipping and fellowshipping together in primitive godliness and simple authenticity. I like the point that Pastor Chan makes in his study guide:

While this type of gathering is more basic, there’s a scary side to it. I mean, in the old way, you could hide. You could attend a service, and maybe help out in the nursery, and maybe even sing in the choir, and then during the rest of the time, you could build your own kingdom and live your own life.

But there’s something about this idea of true communion – of true participation in breaking the Lord’s bread together – that we just can’t get away from. We have to look past the surface of the communion ordinance and really dig into what’s going on there. We have to remember the depth of Christ’s sacrifice for us, and remember that communion should stand out in our time together as a church and be the most sacred of fellowship experiences.

But how can we ever get to this point? How will we ever make this happen???

the beautiful thing is that, by God’s Spirit, He puts this desire in our hearts, where I want this. You want this. Because it’s something that God is doing. Jesus said that He’s going to build His church. The question is, do you want to be a part of it? To stop attending … and to really be the church … the true church. (Francis Chan, BASIC Study Guide)

Are we ready to stop doing church and start being the church?

(Videos and quoted materials taken from http://basicseries.com/)

BASIC. Prayer.

Hi Friends! We are on our sixth part of the BASIC series. Watch this short video clip on prayer:

Pastor Chan makes some challenging points about prayer, doesn’t he? Do we sometimes approach prayer in a completely wrong way? Today, I want to go through a few passages with you, and let’s ask ourselves some important questions from the BASIC.Prayer study guide. Take some time to read through the following verses and don’t be afraid to confront yourself with the hard questions.

And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. — John 14:13-14

  • How have we typically viewed what it means to pray in Jesus’ name? Is it simply a formulaic way to end all of our prayers?
  • As Pastor Chan explained in the video, what is the significance of praying in Jesus’ name?
  • Do our prayers always line up with Jesus’ mission in the world? Are we willing to change the way we pray as a result?

Next, we have a passage which we don’t usually pay much attention to in terms of prayer. But I think when we take a closer look, we see that it offers some important words of wisdom – and even caution.

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. — Ecclesiastes 5:1-2

  • How do you typically approach your prayer time with God? Do you think of prayer as a time to come into God’s temple — into God’s throne room?
  • Where does listening or even respectful, worshipful silence fit into your prayer life?
  • Have you ever perceived danger in coming to God to make empty promises?
  • How could that change the way we pray?

The Lord’s Prayer

As a final exercise, I hope you will take some time to read and meditate on the Lord’s Prayer as found in Matthew 6:9-13. How many times have we said the Lord’s Prayer without thinking about what we’re really saying? As you prayerfully read through the passage, I hope some of these questions will give you food for thoughtful contemplation.

Our Father in heaven … 

  • What is the significance of the word our in the Lord’s Prayer? Why does it say our and not my?
  • Have you ever considered prayer as an activity that Christ wanted us to do together?
  • What is the significance of the word Father here? Do you relate to God as your Father?

… hallowed be your name …

  • Do you see God’s name as sacred?
  • Do you see it as an honor to be able to address Him?
  • Do you approach God in such a posture?

… your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven …

  • Have you thought through the implications of these words? When we pray these words, do we sometimes forget that we are actually telling God that we want Him to take full control of our lives – that we are asking Him to take the throne?
  • Is this what you really want when you pray these words? Or do we sometimes pray this and then live our lives as if we are on the throne?

Give us today our daily bread.

  • Have you considered that this means that we are asking God to provide for our daily needs and that we are trusting Him to take care of our long-term sustenance in His own way and in His own time? In other words, we are saying that we are okay with not knowing what the future holds…
  • How would you respond to God if He visibly provided for you only on a day-to-day basis? Would you be okay with that?
  • How do these words contrast with what our culture preaches we should expect? Do we often hear that we should pray for “bigger barns” and “larger storehouses” as opposed to day-to-day provision? (See Luke 12:16-21)

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

  • When we pray this, do we realize that we are basically saying, “God, I want you to forgive me in the same way that I have forgiven my brothers and sisters”?
  • Have you prayed these words while holding onto anger and resentment toward another person?
  • Do you want God to forgive you in the same way you forgive others? Does that idea scare you?

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

  • Have you ever prayed these words at the same time that you knew you were actually clutching onto areas of temptation in your life?
  • Do you think we could be in danger of being presumptuous or hypocritical when we do that?

(Videos and quoted materials taken from http://basicseries.com/)

BASIC. Follow Jesus.

Ever thought much about what it really means to follow Jesus? I mean, I’m sure we’ve all spent time in church talking about what it means to follow Jesus. But, do our everyday lives really follow the steps of our Master? Check out this week’s video preview of “BASIC. Follow Jesus.”

We sometimes look at the Bible as words to build theological doctrines upon, as words to systematically study, or as words to memorize and meditate upon. But do we sometimes forget the most basic application of Scripture as words to do? As a life manual for how we are to live our everyday lives? Christ gives us a sobering reminder in Matthew 7 that God is not impressed with the fluff: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). So what is the will of our Heavenly Father exactly? For one thing, Jesus said, “Go, make disciples.” Are we intentionally seeking opportunities in our lives to live out this command?

Perhaps another interesting insight comes from Christ’s parable of the judgment in Matthew 25:

Then the King will say to those on His right hand, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” … “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25:34-40)

Notice that the Judge doesn’t say, “Because you believed the right doctrines” or “Because you worshiped on the right day” or “Because you tithed faithfully.” It all has to do with whether we live out love for one another. Of course, this parable is not intended to systematically outline the conditions of salvation – salvation comes by faith and grace alone! But this parable reveals the pivotal point that God is very concerned about whether or not we are serving the needs of others. One of the most important ways we follow Jesus, then, is by living out His example to our fellow brothers and sisters in this world. Everything else falls into place after that. “If you love Me, keep My commandments…. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 14:15; 15:12).

You might also enjoy this video illustration, “Clean Your Room”:

(Videos and quoted materials taken from http://basicseries.com/)

Philippians 2:5-11 – Our Ultimate Example

Pastor Mike led us in a fantastic study over Philippians 2 last week. I hope you’ll dig out your Bible and follow along with us. Philippians 2 picks up as Paul continues to instruct his readers in humility and unity, and Paul follows up by giving us the Ultimate Example in Philippians 2:5-11. This passage is absolutely mind-blowing. There’s no way we can simply reference it and move on. You’ll just have to read it for yourself!

5 You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

6 Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
8     he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

9 Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (NLT)

Friends, do we really know what this passage is telling us? When verse 6 says “he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to,” it’s saying that Christ did not consider it worth it to hold on to His position of Godhood, reigning eternally with the Father, while we were perishing without a chance on earth! Does that tell you something about the kind of fanatical love and passion that God has for you? If you still need some convincing, just let the weight of this quote sink in for a second:

Jesus did not count heaven a place to be desired while we were lost. He left the heavenly courts for a life of reproach and insult, and a death of shame. He who was rich in heaven’s priceless treasure, became poor, that through His poverty we might be rich. We are to follow in the path He trod. (The Desire of Ages)

And Christ wasn’t just acting out some charade here – playing along until we learned how we ought to act on earth. No, God was acting out who He was at His core being! God is humble. God sacrificed Himself so that we could live with Him eternally! The news doesn’t get any better than that, friends.

We hope you were blessed by the study and that you will continue to read along with us. Join us this week as we finish up Philippians 2.