Mark 2:15-22 – New Wineskins

Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:15-16,NKJV)

Before we go any further, I want to pause for a second on a line from verse 15: “and sinners also sat together with Jesus…” Just reflect with me for a moment on what this verse really means! We have a Savior who is not afraid to associate Himself with sinners! He’s not afraid of our dirt; we don’t have to worry about making Him uncomfortable with our baggage. That’s good news, isn’t it? BUT, at the same time, Christ has a very determined purpose in this interaction, as shown by His response to the scribes: “When Jesus heard it, He said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance’” (vs. 17, NKJV). Jesus’ purpose is to call us to repentance and to bring healing to our lives. Sometimes we’re quick to jump on the first part of Christ’s response — so that we can put those self-righteous snobs in their place! However, we must never forget our own desperate need of healing life transformation. I appreciate how the New Living Translation renders this passage: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” Theologian William Barclay further expands on this point:

Mark 2:17 is a highly concentrated verse. It sounds at first hearing as if Jesus had no use for good people. But the point of it is that the one person for whom Jesus can do nothing is the person who thinks himself so good that he does not need anything done for him; and the one person for whom Jesus can do everything is the person who is a sinner and knows it and who longs in his heart for a cure. To have no sense of need is to have erected a barrier between us and Jesus; to have a sense of need is to possess the passport to his presence. (Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, Mark)

Jesus’ actions here are of course deeply threatening to the socio-religious constructs that the scribes and Pharisees have worked so hard to erect, and in the next scene cut, Jesus is once again at the center of religious controversy. We pick up in verse 18: “Once when John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, some people came to Jesus and asked, ‘Why don’t your disciples fast like John’s disciples and the Pharisees do?’” You see, in Christ’s day, the Pharisees went far beyond the Torah’s prescribed yearly fasts and actually practiced fasting on a regular weekly basis. When the Pharisees fasted, they would wear tattered, disheveled garments and would even whiten their faces so that it would be unmistakably obvious that they were fasting. This, of course, was all done for public show, so that the common people would admire the Pharisees’ austerity. That’s why Jesus would later teach, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting” (Matthew 6:16, NIV). So in our Markan passage, it is apparently one of these self-imposed fasting cycles that Jesus and His disciples are accused of not observing. Let’s read Christ’s response to the confrontation:

Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.
“Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before.
“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.” (Mark 2:19-22, NLT)

For his first counter-example, Jesus picks the most joyous occasion in the Jewish culture. Wedding celebrations would go on for days of feasting and partying! Custom forbade participants from fasting during this time so that nothing would risk spoiling the joyful mood of the occasion. So by implication, Jesus is basically warning the Pharisees that if they don’t recalibrate their thinking—if they remain stuck in their “old wineskin” mentality—they’re going to miss out on God’s own great wedding feast! The Bridegroom of Israel is present, living and walking among them, and they don’t even have a clue. How very, very sad… I am reminded of this excerpt from E.G. White which I find here to be particularly meaningful:

The Prince of heaven was among His people. The greatest gift of God had been given to the world. Joy to the poor; for Christ had come to make them heirs of His kingdom. Joy to the rich; for He would teach them how to secure eternal riches. Joy to the ignorant; He would make them wise unto salvation. Joy to the learned; He would open to them deeper mysteries than they had ever fathomed; truths that had been hidden from the foundation of the world would be opened to men by the Saviour’s mission.

John the Baptist had rejoiced to behold the Saviour. What occasion for rejoicing had the disciples who were privileged to walk and talk with the Majesty of heaven! This was not a time for them to mourn and fast. They must open their hearts to receive the light of His glory, that they might shed light upon those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death. (White, The Desire of Ages)

You know, the more I have studied this passage in Mark, the more convicted I have felt lately to reflect and ask myself: Where in my life could I be missing out on “God’s party next door”? All because I’m stuck in an “old wineskin” mentality and spirit? Where in my heart do I need to allow God to recreate me into a new wineskin, so that I can receive the fresh blessings and the new opportunities that His Spirit wants to pour out on me? 

As we approach the end of Mark chapter 2, we see that this chapter was written to teach us that the old garment can’t just be “patched up.” The old cynical, judgmental mode of thinking which seeks to exclude people who don’t measure up to our biased standards… The old legalistic approach to religion which seeks to impose burdensome, man-made rules in our relationship with God… These old attitudes, biases, and prejudices have absolutely no place in the New Kingdom that Christ is here to proclaim! “New wine calls for new wineskins.”


Mark 2:13-14 – As Jesus Passed By

“Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them. As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ So he arose and followed Him.” (verse 13-14, NKJV)

As Jesus passed by… We all pass by a thousand things each day that we never take a single moment’s notice of, don’t we? People, interactions, opportunities… We simply “pass by” on our way to somewhere else. But when Jesus passes by, He sees things that others don’t. He saw Levi “sitting at the tax office.” Any one of us would have glanced Levi’s way and have simply muttered to ourselves, “What a hopeless sell-out.” But when Jesus saw Levi, He saw a heart hungering for acceptance and love. Aren’t we so thankful that when Jesus passes by us, He looks our way, too?

In Mark’s Gospel, Christ’s call to discipleship and Levi’s immediate response of obedience is abrupt and unexpected. The sudden encounter is one which even leaves us a bit uncomfortable perhaps. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflects on the abruptness of this interaction:

The call of Jesus goes forth and is at once followed by the response of obedience… How could the call immediately evoke obedience? The story is a stumbling-block for the natural reason, and it is no wonder that frantic attempts have been made to separate the two events… Thus we get the stupid question: Surely, the publican must have known Jesus before, and the previous acquaintance explains his readiness to hear the Master’s call. Unfortunately our text is ruthlessly silent in this point, and in fact it regards the immediate sequence of call and response as a matter of crucial importance. It displays not the slightest interest in the psychological reasons for a man’s religious decisions. And why? For the simple reason that the cause behind the immediate following of call by response is Jesus Christ himself. It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, Levi follows at once. This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus… Jesus summons men to follow him not as a teacher of a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God. In this short text, Jesus Christ and his claim are proclaimed to men. Not a word of praise is given to the disciple for his decision for Christ. We are not expected to contemplate the disciple, but only him who calls, and his absolute authority. According to our text, there is no road to faith or discipleship, no other road – only obedience to the call of Jesus.  (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship)

An unexpected call, and an immediate response… You know, I used to look at this story and shudder in awe at the magnitude of Levi-Matthew’s sacrifice. To be honest, I always found the account intimidating. Would I have been able to walk away from everything known and comfortable in my world? After all, Levi’s decision was an irreversible one! Theologian William Barclay points out:

Of all the disciples Matthew gave up most. He literally left all to follow Jesus. Peter and Andrew, James and John could go back to the boats. There were always fish to catch and always the old trade to which to return; but Matthew burned his bridges completely. With one action, in one moment of time, by one swift decision he had put himself out of his job forever, for having left his tax-collector’s job, he would never get it back. It takes a big man to make a big decision, and yet some time in every life there comes the moment to decide. (Barclay, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, Mark)

But, you know what, as I reflect on this passage more fully, I think I now understand why Levi could and would immediately choose to follow the call. Through his whole life, Levi-Matthew had struggled to find meaning and purpose, to feel like he belonged somewhere. And now, here was that opportunity standing before him, in the form of a Person named Jesus. Levi was being offered an invitation to be a part of a community, a family. He was being called into an eternal friendship with the very Son of God. As Bonheoffer concludes, “At the call, Levi leaves all that he has – but not because he thinks he might be doing something worth while, but simply for the sake of the call. Otherwise he cannot follow in the steps of Jesus… When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person.”

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose. ~Jim Elliot

Mark 1:21-45 – The Touch of the Savior

We concluded our last study with life’s single most important question: Why should I also follow Jesus? This is the bottom-line question that each Gospel writer seeks to answer by telling us who Jesus is and why He should matter to us. Matthew, for instance, introduces us to Jesus by letting us listen to what Jesus says via the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). But Mark chooses to introduce us to Jesus by letting us watch what Jesus does.

21 Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught. 22 And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

23 Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24 saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!”

25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” 26 And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him. 27 Then they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? What new doctrine is this? For with authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” 28 And immediately His fame spread throughout all the region around Galilee. (Mark 1:21-28, NKJV)

From here, the pace of the story rapidly picks up! Right after church, Jesus goes straight to Simon’s house and heals his mother-in-law with a simple touch. It doesn’t take long for the entire city to figure out that something wonderful is happening in their neighborhood: “At evening, when the sun had set, they brought to Him all who were sick and those who were demon-possessed. And the whole city was gathered together at the door” (verses 32-33). I like how Luke expands on this: “and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them” (Luke 4:40). On every one of them… I love this. Not one of us is excluded from the touch of our Redeemer’s hand! Not one of our situations is too far gone, too wretched, too advanced, or too difficult for our Savior’s healing: “No matter what their diseases were, the touch of his hand healed every one” (verse 40, NLT).

“Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed” (verse 35, NKJV). The pace of the story has been fast and intense up to this point, but finally as the reader, we catch a break. We can finally take a deep breath… And what an appropriate opportunity to do so. It is crucial that we don’t skip past this verse. Take a moment with me to simply pause and drink the scene in… Jesus, finally alone with His Father. At last, the opportunity to rest in God’s Presence and to listen for His Father’s comforting whisper. Jesus is preparing Himself for what will come the following day. He is “storing up” the Spirit-given wisdom that He will need to discern His Father’s will in every coming challenge and circumstance. If Jesus, the sinless Son of God, needed His quiet, alone time in the secret place with the Father, how badly must we need it, too?

Yet, Jesus quiet hours of solitude and prayer are interrupted all too soon. Jesus will now put into action the discerning direction given by His Father from His night of prayer:

36 And Simon and those who were with Him searched for Him. 37 When they found Him, they said to Him, “Everyone is looking for You.”

38 But He said to them, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth.”

39 And He was preaching in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and casting out demons. (Mark 1:36-39)

Although the community pleads with Jesus to stay, Jesus knows that His true mission has begun and He must move forward in His ministry. Those who carry the mission of God cannot—must not—remain comfortably, stagnantly in the same place. We must learn from Jesus’ example. Sometimes we, too, must say “no” to the din of demands and competing “responsibilities” in our lives. Sometimes we must say NO to a hundred reasonable, logical obligations “to ourselves” and “to others,” so that we can say YES to the one call that really matters. I love what Oswald Chambers writes:

“My determination is to be my utmost for His Highest.” To get there is a question of will, not of debate nor of reasoning, but a surrender of will, an absolute and irrevocable surrender… An overweening consideration of ourselves is the thing that keeps us from that decision, though we put it that we are considering others… Shut out every other consideration and keep yourself before God for this one thing only—my Utmost for His Highest. I am determined to be absolutely and entirely for Him and for Him alone. (Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest).

As we follow Jesus and His small band of followers as they continue their journey, we are next confronted with one of the most dramatic and shocking accounts in the Gospel story. Bear with me for a moment as I attempt to imagine the scene:

Jesus and his followers carefully make their way down the rough Galilean trail. As dusk begins to settle, they reach the outskirts of their next city. Peter, Andrew, James, and John are excitedly conversing about the miraculous events they have witnessed over the last few days. Suddenly, a cloaked shadow plunges in front of their path. What is it? Is it an animal? A man? The figure stops for a moment, as in a daze, and then stumbles straight toward Jesus. In the clumsiness of his effort, the figure’s hood falls back behind his head, exposing one of the most revolting sights to be seen. A leper! (Luke describes this man as “full of leprosy” which means he was in the most advanced stage of the disease!) The disciples recoil in disdain and disgust. The man’s exposed face looks like that of a demonic monster, half of his disfigured face has been eaten away by the putrefying infection. Andrew stands back in paralyzed silence, but Peter, James, and John quickly grab heavy and sharp stones to hurl at the repulsive creature, a man cursed by the very finger of God! Only the quick and decisive hand motion of Jesus stops them from heaving their stones.

The air hangs heavy with unnerving silence. Only the quiet, gentle, unflinching stare of Jesus gives the leprous man the courage to take the last few steps forward. He collapses to his knees and prostrates himself on the ground. Groveling at the feet of Christ and struggling to control his labored breathing, the man hoarsely wheezes, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” (verse 40). Jesus doesn’t say anything at first. The disciples take this as their signal to ready their arms for strong, swift blows at the man—a man who has blatantly broken the Jewish laws of leprosy, daring to contaminate others with his curse. The disciples await the slightest signal from Christ to heave their weapons. The man presses his face to the dirt and braces himself for the sharp impact of hurled stones. But Jesus doesn’t give the awaited signal. Instead, Jesus slowly closes his eyes in distress and His face contorts, as if in pain… Jesus is experiencing splagchnizomai—literally in Greek, to be moved to the bowels with gut-wrenching compassion.

The disciples watch in shocked horror as Jesus then slowly stoops to the rotting, living corpse and extends His hand to do the unthinkable.  Instead of the painful blows of stones, the man feels a touch. A gentle yet firm touch. Jesus’ hand tenderly unfolds on the man’s bare head and then lovingly, almost-caressingly moves down his neck, finally resting in a firm grip on the his shoulder. The man shudders beneath the touch. He has not felt the hand of a human hand in years.  The touch is horribly uncomfortable to his benumbed body, almost painful. The man quivers in silence, not even daring to hope for what might come next. Jesus then speaks for the first time. His words pierce the oppressive silence: “I am willing; be cleansed.”

Emanating from the heavy hand on his shoulder, an electrifying shock of sensation pulses through the man’s entire being. In an instant, he feels everything—the tingling skin of his fingertips, the coarse rub of his tattered garment, the ticklish trace of the shoes on his feet, even the pain of his tender face pressed against the stony ground! The man abruptly looks up and his eyes are immediately met with the loving gaze of Jesus. He is cleansed; he is healed!

In that moment, the gospel is proclaimed—a more dramatic, exhilarating demonstration of the gospel message than could ever have been imagined! Friends, this is the unfolding revelation of the good-news message that Mark so desperately wants us to see. Mark chapter 1 begins with a vague hope, barely a whisper, of the good things that we might be able to expect from this Man who claims to be the Son of God. The chapter then progresses through the escalating miracles that this Man can perform and authority that this Man holds. And it all culminates to the unthinkable touch of the Savior’s hand –a touch that has the power make the sick well, the demoniacs restored, the broken whole, and the unclean cleansed. A touch that can change the course of history!

Mark chapter 1 ends in a cliff-hanger, I guess you could say. From such a fast-paced, short-term exposure to the narrative, we as “the first time reader” still know hardly anything at all about this Jesus guy. But one thing is certain: We absolutely must find out what happens next!

The Law, Part 3 – Relationships 101

Each of God’s commandments defines a safeguard to our relationships. Conversely, the breaking of any one of these principles results in the fracturing of a relationship — either with God or with our neighbors. The last six commandments focus specifically on our relationship with others. The fifth commandment, of course, addresses the love and respect which we owe to our own family, our parents in particular. The remaining commandments instruct us not to murder, cheat on our spouse, steal, lie, or covet.

As we explore God’s law and its demands on our lives, we tend to get caught up on the “don’ts” of it all. In his writings, however, Martin Luther makes that fascinating point that whenever there is a negative prohibition in the commandments, then a positive implication is, in fact, assumed. Pastor Stephen Um expands on this and explains that, for example, when we are told not to murder, the inverse application is that we are to radically love others. (This includes our neighbors and our enemies! See Matthew 5:44.) And when the commandment says not to commit adultery, the assumption is that we are supposed to be uncompromisingly faithful to our spouse. (Matthew 5:27-28.) We are to recognize sexuality as something that is a gift from God and, therefore, treat it as a covenantal commitment. And when it says we ought not to steal, we realize that we ought instead to be fanatically generous with what we do have! (Matthew 5:42.) And to not lie, of course, means that we live a life of complete transparency and extreme integrity. As Jesus expounded, “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No'” (Matthew 5:37).

The tenth commandment drives us even deeper into what it means to live in harmony with God’s law. I like how Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile describes the root of coveting: Imagine that your heart had a pair of hands, and, with those hands, it begins reaching, grasping at things that are outside of its fence of proper ownership. That interior grasping for things that do not belong to us consumes our thoughts and desires. It eventually leads to the breaking of the other commandments in God’s law, all to the ultimate injury of our neighbor! See how devastatingly vicious the cycle is? Pastor Anyabwile goes on to point out yet another deeply-rooted transgression that our hearts can lure us into: “In the act of coveting, what we’re actually saying is that God has not apportioned His creation properly; He hasn’t given us everything that we desire.” It all goes back to the first lie of the serpent, doesn’t it? “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?” (Genesis 3:1) In other words, much like the serpent in Eden, our heart begins to accuse God of not giving us everything we need to be happy. We begin to distrust His motives and distort His character.

In closing, I like how Stephen Um summarizes it all: “You cannot break the rest of the commandments without first breaking the first commandment.” In other words, we are led into breaking God’s statutes when we begin to look at something other than God as our primary source of value — when we follow after another “god.” This ultimately takes us down a road to broken trust and fractured relationships.

But God wants to take us down a very different path, doesn’t He? God wants us to find comfort and security in the protection of His law! And so, rather than thinking of God’s law as an arbitrary set of dogmatic rules, let’s start thinking of them as promises! In reality, each of the commandment acts as a beautiful promise reminding us of God’s power to recreate us into new beings who can and will live in harmony with God’s eternal law of relational love. From now on, every time you read a commandment, read it from God’s point of view, like this: “I promise you that I will create you into a person who won’t ever want to injure yourself or others by ____” (You can fill in the blank.) Isn’t it amazing what God is willing and eager to do in our lives if we will just let Him?

As we close up our three-part study on God’s law, I wanted to share a piece of an enlightening article I read entitled “The 10 Commandments, Sayings or Promises?” Let’s spend some time thinking this week about how each of God’s commandments translates into a beautiful promise for our lives today:

  • Promise #1 – You do not have to live in constant disappointment anymore.
  • Promise #2 – You can be free from rituals and religion and trust in a relationship.
  • Promise #3 – You can trust in a Name that is above every Name.
  • Promise #4 – You can rest.
  • Promise #5 – Your family does not have to fall apart.
  • Promise #6 – You do not have to live in a constant state of anger because you will be motivated by love and not hate.
  • Promise #7 – You do not have to live a life dominated by the guilt, pain and shame associated with sexual sin.
  • Promise #8 – I will provide.
  • Promise #9 – You do not have to pretend.
  • Promise #10 – I will be enough.

The Loving Church – Philadelphia

Of all the churches we’ve journeyed through, I get most excited about the church of Philadelphia. Hands down! Why? It’s the one other church (besides the persecuted church of Smyrna) that receives no rebuke from Jesus, only affirmation! This church “gets it,” and, as a result, there’s much that we can learn from this little group of believers.

In Revelation 3:7-13, Jesus opens His letter to the Philadelphia church by making an important claim: “These things says He who is holy, He who is true, He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens” (vs. 7, NKJV). Jesus’ words become extremely meaningful when we understand the background to the Philadelphian story. Verse 9 clues us in to the fact that this church has undergone vicious persecutory attacks from fellow religious brothers and sisters. This persecution arose either from the Jewish synagogue community from where the church grew out of, or from false Christians who have driven the faithful Philadelphian believers out of a larger congregation body. These false believers have essentially slammed the door in the face of this church of Philadelphia. In a sense, they’ve attempted to restrict access to God’s spiritual “temple.” But Jesus says, I alone have the key of David… “Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.” Jesus assures His faithful followers that He will publicly affirm them one day and that the false believers will be forced to “acknowledge that you are the ones I love” (NLT).

When it comes to what this church is doing right, verses 8 and 10 give us the outline: “for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name… you have kept My command to persevere…” (NLT) I think we can break this down into four points, four areas which we can model our own church after:

  • For you have a little strength… This is a church that first and foremost recognizes its own weakness. The congregation depends not on their own strength but on the strength of Jesus Christ!
  • Have kept My word… This is a church that has immersed itself in the Word of God! The believers have dug their roots deeply down into Scripture, where they draw their strength and spiritual nourishment.
  • Have not denied My name… This church centers its identity in Christ Jesus – His name, His character, His mission!
  • You have kept My command… This church obeys the Word of God! (Enough said!)

Because of their faithfulness, Jesus gives wonderful words of promise for the Philadelphian church: “All who are victorious will become pillars in the Temple of my God, and they will never have to leave it. And I will write on them the name of my God, and they will be citizens in the city of my God” (vs. 12, NLT). Did you catch the additional references to the temple? Despite being excluded from the “temple” community of their false brethren, Jesus promises to make the Philadelphians pillars in His real temple. Jesus is promising the believers full, unhindered access to His very own eternal Presence! He also promises to write His name—His character and identity—on them. When Solomon constructed the first temple, he erected two principal pillars and he named them Jakin and Boaz. Jakin means “He establishes,” and Boaz means “in Him is strength.” This church recognizes its own weaknesses, but now Jesus promises to establish them in HIS strength!

I pray that our own church can be modeled after the faithfulness of the Philadelphians. But it all starts with individuals. It all starts when we each depend on Christ for our strength, immerse ourselves in Scripture, center our purpose in Jesus Christ, and obey His Word!

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.

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.