The Lamb Who Was Slaughtered

(Daniel 7:13-28; Revelation 5)

Each of the letters to the seven churches ends with two addresses: to the one who overcomes, and to him who has ears to hear. To the one who overcomes is a promise, and that promise varies with each letter; to him who has ears to hear is a command: listen, pay attention, hear what the Holy Spirit is saying. These are linked together—in the first three letters, the command is first, then the promise, while the last four reverse that order, ending with the command.

As we’ve noted before, the focus of the command is idolatry, which in all its forms is the great threat to the church in every age; this is the voice of the Spirit calling those who claim the name of Christ to give up the idols that would render them spiritually deaf, to hear what God is saying instead of only what they want to hear. As we saw last week, the vision of God on his throne supports and emphasizes that call by displaying the Ancient of Days in all his glory, so that we can see that truly, he alone is worthy of our worship, and thus see how foolish it is for us to chase after anyone or anything else.

Even if we understand that, though, it can be hard to hold to. The glory of God doesn’t seem to intrude on our daily lives much; we’re perfectly capable of going through an entire week without thinking about him—or wanting to—while the desires, demands, and pains of this world constantly demand our attention, even hopping and screaming in our face if they have to. We said last week that God’s promises to us have already been fulfilled, and we’ve seen over and over again that the promises of the world are undependable—but when the world is practically dumping its promises in our laps, our reflex is to go with what’s right in front of us. It seems counterintuitive, even counterproductive, to reject that for the sake of nothing but faith, just to trust that our self-denial will somehow be worth it. If we want to be blessed, why reject what seems to be a blessing?

It can be easy to wonder if God really knows what he’s asking of us—or even to conclude that he can’t really be serious about it. Sure, the Bible seems to say that I’m not allowed to do this thing that I deeply want to do; sure, it seems to say that I’m supposed to trust him even when all my hopes are dashed, or when everyone is turning against me, when my spouse or my child has died or my career is in ruins; but that’s just not reasonable. This is just too hard, it’s not fair, it hurts too much, it’s more than I can take. God can’t possibly expect me to bear this.

And then we see what God means by overcoming. The verb here is nikao—the noun form is nike; we pronounce it “Nike” and put a swoosh on it. It’s the name of the winged Greek goddess of victory, who’s usually shown as a conventionally triumphant figure. God gives us a very different picture, and a very different kind of victory. The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David who has conquered, is a slaughtered Lamb—but a Lamb who, even though slaughtered, is standing. Not still standing, but standing once again. This is the victory of God, and this is how Jesus conquered. It’s because he allowed himself to be slaughtered that he was able to ransom a people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation; this is why he is praised as the victor who is worthy to receive all honor and glory and blessing.

This is not, I think, a new concept for anyone here; I don’t imagine it’s anything you haven’t heard before. If you’ve been around here very long, you’ve certainly heard me say it more than once. But where it’s hard to translate this into our lives is that when we talk about following Christ, this is where Christ leads.

Our default position is to look at big, successful people and think that God is blessing them, and to see big, successful churches and assume that they’re winning lots of victories for Jesus—and that is no doubt true in some cases; but it isn’t necessarily so. If God gives us a relatively easy time of it in life and a fairly comfortable turn, that might be pleasant, but it isn’t necessarily all that much of a blessing in the long run. Jesus didn’t have a brilliantly successful career, as the world judges these things, and many of those whom he has used most powerfully—from the apostle Paul to Adoniram Judson—have lived lives that are far more appealing to read about than to live through; and their struggles and their trials were the blood and bone of the victories Jesus won through them.

That’s just how it is with great accomplishments and great victories. I forget who it was who said that adventures are a lot more fun at a distance, but that’s very true. A great victory requires a great battle, a great struggle, just like a gold-medal routine at the Olympics requires a high degree of difficulty. If we face a trial, a temptation, a grief, an adversary, that is just too great for us, that doesn’t mean we’re in the wrong battle or it’s time to give up; if Christ has led us to that point, then it just means that he’s on about winning a greater victory in us than we can see or understand. And what is impossible with us is possible with God.

Now, it’s important to stress that this doesn’t mean what we think it means. Victory doesn’t necessarily mean that we will accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish, or that we’ll see the results we hope to see. The victory of Jesus certainly didn’t look like a victory to anyone else that dark Friday afternoon. Victory doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll resist that temptation every time, and thereby bring that particular sin to an end in our lives. We certainly have to keep trying; Paul tells us in Romans 8 to put sin to death in our bodies. But if I’m right about 2 Corinthians 12—and my thanks to Kent Denlinger and Marva Dawn for helping me see this—then the thorn in the flesh Paul is talking about there is a temptation to which he keeps falling, and a sin which he keeps practicing. He begs God to free him from it, and what answer does he get? “My grace is sufficient for you, because power is ended in weakness.” The Greek there doesn’t say my power, and I don’t think that’s what he means. Rather, the point is that Paul’s weakness has shown him the limits of his own power, and his struggle with sin is forcing him to rely totally on the grace of God. And you know, that’s a victory too, and a worthy one, even if it isn’t what we’re normally looking for.

All we can do is try to follow Jesus as best as we can, and trust him for the rest. Trust him in our temptation, that he is making us a way through it. Trust him in our struggles and trials, that he has allowed them to come to us and is using them for his good purpose. Trust him in our grief and our fear, that he’s with us, holding us and holding us up, and that he understands what we’re going through. Indeed, trust him that whatever we face, he does know what he’s asking of us, and that we don’t have to give up: he’s with us making our way through—he is our way through—and if we just hang on to him above all others, that is the victory, and he’ll take care of the rest. We don’t worship a God who stares at our struggles and pain in blank incomprehension; we worship a Lord who knows them all, because he shared them with us, to the bitterest of all bitter ends. Worthy, worthy, worthy above all others is the Lamb who was slaughtered. Amen.

The End Is Worship

(Daniel 2:27-29, Daniel 7:9-10; Revelation 4:1-11)

The biggest mistake people make in dealing with Revelation, I think, comes right here: we get to chapter 4 and we hit the “reset” button. It’s understandable, since from this point on, it’s a different book from what we’ve seen in chapters 2-3; the difference is so pronounced that we don’t see how those chapters fit with the rest of the book, so we tend to treat them as disconnected. We have the introduction, then we have these seven letters just sitting there by themselves, and then with chapter 4, the real book starts.

That’s unfortunate, because the whole book is addressed to the seven churches in Asia—the visions of chapters 4-22 just as much as the vision and letters of chapters 1-3—and the letters are very much connected to the visions that follow. We see Daniel talking about what will happen in the last days, and the angel telling John, “I will show you what must take place after this,” and it’s easy to jump to thinking about the future; but the thing about the vision of the statue in Daniel 2 is that it begins with Daniel’s present time. The statue has a head of gold, and that head is Nebuchadnezzar himself. In the same way, the use of that language in Revelation 4 does not refer to something purely future: it is a future that has already begun. As we’ve seen before, the last days aren’t off in the future somewhere—we’re in them right now, and have been ever since the Son of God became the Son of Man.

This means that the fulfillment of God’s promises to us is also not off in the future somewhere. It usually seems like that, because though the kingdom of God is already come, it’s not yet here; the victory is already won, but the enemy has not yet stopped fighting. All things have been placed in subjection under Jesus’ feet, yet at present we do not see all things subject to him; we see Jesus, but as yet we see him mostly as the suffering Servant and the crucified Savior, not as the Lord of glory revealed in Revelation 1. But though we do not now fully experience the victory of God in Christ, his victory is no less complete for all that, and what he has promised us is already ours, even if we have not yet received it. The promises made in chapters 2-3 to those who overcome have already been kept; they are as certain as the sunrise.

That’s emphasized, I think, by chapters 4-5, because this vision picks up the promises made in the last two letters, to Philadelphia and Laodicea. To Philadelphia, Christ says that the one who overcomes will be made “a pillar in the temple of my God”; the promise to Laodicea is that “to the one who overcomes, I will grant to sit with me on my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.” Here, we have a vision of God on his throne in his temple—we have a picture of what the fulfillment of those promises will look like.

In that, these two chapters are the closing argument for the letters to the seven churches, even as they also introduce the visions and events of the rest of the book. Remember, the common theme running through those letters is the danger of idolatry. The threat of Caesar worship, which was rising as Domitian increasingly expected to be praised as a god, is one main form; another is the temptation of the trade guilds, which organized their activities around pagan worship services. Indeed, even the opposition of the synagogues fits with this, in that they believed Christians should turn away from worshiping Christ and back to the Jewish law. Idolatry in all its forms is the principal concern here; that’s why each of the letters ends, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” because idol worship closes our ears to the Spirit’s voice.

This vision is the ultimate response to the idols of the nations, and especially to pitiful Domitian, who demanded to be addressed as “lord and god,” because it makes it crystal clear that there is only one Lord and God, and he’s not Caesar. He’s not the President of the United States, or any other human leader, as deluded as our leaders and rulers may sometimes be. Whatever glory and power any human being might manage, it is as nothing in comparison to the indescribable glory and power of God—and I do mean indescribable; when John says, “around the throne was a rainbow that resembled an emerald,” you know he’s grasping at straws. He’s seeing something like nothing human eyes have ever seen, and he’s trying to find some sort of words for it, and we’ll never really know what he means until the day comes that we see it with our own eyes.

The glory and power of God dwarf the highest of human glories and the greatest of earthly powers; and more than that, God outlasts every one of them. In the world as we know it, all good things must come to an end, and all human powers are fleeting. Empires rise, and then they fall, and there’s often not much time in between; what goes up must come down, for no one can defy gravity—or entropy—forever. If this world lasts long enough, America will be no different; soon or late, from within or without, our country, too, will fail. It is the way of all flesh. But God is the one who lives forever and ever—and the life that he has, he has given to us, so that we may live with him forever and ever, laying all our glories and honors and powers at his feet in worship.

That’s the key, that’s the end, that’s the goal, that’s the purpose of it all: to worship him. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what forms us as the church, that’s what shapes us, that’s what gives us our focus and direction. That’s why those seven letters were written, to encourage the churches to be faithful in their worship, or to return to faithfulness; that’s why they’re followed by this vision of God on his throne in his temple, that they may see and understand how much greater and how much more worthy of worship is the Lord of all creation than all the little tin gods they’re being tempted and pressured to worship.

And so it is for us as well. Worship is not the only thing we do, but it is the cen-ter, which gives purpose and dimension and meaning to everything else we do. There’s a lot of talk in the church these days about the importance of being missional, of understanding ourselves as God’s missionaries to our own culture, and I agree with much of it; but when they say that mission is primary, they go too far. As John Piper put it, “Mission exists because worship does not”: our mission is to reach out to those who do not worship God, to draw them in to his worship, and to build them up—to build all of us up together—as worshipers of the Lord of the universe. Our worship is not in the service of anything else, nor of anyone but God; our mission, in all its forms, is in the service of worship.

Buying the Hype

(Isaiah 43:8-13; Colossians 1:15-20, Revelation 3:14-22)

You’ve probably been told that the problem with the Laodiceans is that they were spiritually lukewarm, when God wants us to be on fire for Jesus. Better even to be cold than to be lukewarm, because then at least you know you have a problem. This interpretation is so common, even Christian pop music has made use of it—you may remember Steve Camp’s song “Living in Laodicea.” The thing is, though, however important it may be to warn people of the dangers of spiritual lukewarmness, it’s not what this letter is about.

Most of all the letters, to understand what’s going on here, we need to understand the city. We noted several weeks ago that Ephesus was the hub where three of the most important trade routes in the Roman Empire came together, and that one of them was the route from Rome east to Baghdad. That route didn’t go up the Cayster River, on which Ephesus sat, but up the valley of the Maeander to its tributary the Lycus, and then up the Lycus valley. The three main cities of the Lycus valley were Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea, with Laodicea the most important. The route from Ephesus ran right through the city, crossing with a major north-south route between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea; this made it significant both for trade and, as it happened, for banking.

That’s not the only reason the city was rich and important, though. It was a major center in the ancient world for the treatment of eye and ear problems. It was known both for its doctors, as it was the site of a famous school of ophthalmology, and also for its medicines; the city produced ointments that were applied to the eyes and ears to treat poor eyesight and hearing, which were sold all over the Greco-Roman world. As well, the city was a major producer of wool. Hierapolis and Colossae were as well, but Laodicea surpassed them both, because the sheep of Laodicea were highly prized for their exceptionally soft, glossy black wool.

This was a wealthy city; it was also a city which was notorious for the arrogance of its people and their sense of self-sufficiency. For instance, we’ve talked about the earthquakes that devastated some of these cities, and their dependence on Roman aid in rebuilding; when a major one struck Laodicea in 60 AD, they defiantly refused any aid, and proudly rebuilt their city out of their own resources. They were rich enough to do it; they were also arrogant enough, because they saw themselves as a city of kings.

The story there goes back to 40 BC, when the Parthians invaded the Anatolian peninsula; they met with complete success until they hit Laodicea, where Zeno and his son Polemo resolutely shut the doors of the city and held it against them until the Roman army arrived to drive the Parthians back. The Romans rewarded their family for their loyal and successful defense of the city by making Polemo king of Pontus and allowing him to marry into the imperial family. It was the beginning of a dynasty; his son Zeno became king of Armenia, and his daughter Tryphaena became queen of Thrace and the mother of three kings. The branch of the family that remained in Laodicea were never kings of anything, but they acted as if they were, and the rest of the city followed suit.

Given this, it’s really not surprising that the church in Laodicea had the same sort of attitude. The culture of their city was patriotic to the point of being chauvinistic—they were rich, they didn’t need anyone else, they were better than everyone else—and the Christians in Laodicea had bought into that. They’d bought the hype, they’d bought the line their culture was selling, and they fit right in. You’ll notice there’s no hint of persecution in this letter; that’s because what the Laodiceans really worshiped was their own wonderfulness, and the church didn’t challenge that at all. Indeed, they were right there at that altar with all their neighbors.

Because of that, they were a dead church. They had no sense of their dependence on God, of their need for Christ, because they didn’t think they needed anybody at all. They probably kept praying, asking God to do things for them, but they had no sense that there was anything God could do for them that they couldn’t do for themselves if they wanted to. They couldn’t see past their material prosperity to their spiritual need, and it doesn’t appear it ever occurred to them to look; they were rich, so everything was going well, and what else did they need to know? They didn’t understand that all their money had made them spiritually bankrupt, or that all their medicines could do nothing to cure their blindness to the truth; they failed to realize that for all the fancy clothes they could make from their sheep, nothing they could do could make them white.

And so when Jesus says to them, “I know your works,” he describes them in extremely harsh terms, in language that would have hit home hard. You see, in the Lycus valley, water was a major problem. That might sound strange, since there was a river right there, but the river dried up in the summer, and when it was running its water was undrinkable from all the sediment it carried, almost milky with white mud. This is why Colossae was first settled—it was a defensible site which included a source of cold, pure water, in an area in which good drinking water was scarce. Interestingly, Hierapolis was also settled because of water—not cold water, but hot mineral springs which were valued for their medicinal purposes. (The water from these springs may have been one of the ingredients in the Laodicean eye salve.)

Laodicea, by contrast, was settled for reasons of trade, because it was a major crossroads. It had no water supply of its own; the nearest water source was several miles away, and that water was bad. It arrived at the city warm, and left thick mineral deposits in the stone aqueduct that carried it there. Straight out of the pipes, it was undrinkable—it would make you vomit; even in modern times, some who live in that area have had to let their water sit out in open jars before they could drink it. I’m not sure if it was just to cool the water, or if something in it actually had to oxidize first, but whatever the case, it’s been necessary to make the water even tolerable to drink.

The Laodicean church was just like their water. The cold water of Colossae was good for quenching thirst and refreshing the body. The hot water of Hierapolis was good for easing the muscles and healing aches and pains. The lukewarm water of Laodicea was good for neither, and just about worthless; the church there had become so impure that the same could be said of them. Christ essentially tells them, “You make me sick.”

So what do we take away from this? Above all else, one thing. After this vivid picture of the disaster of the Laodicean church, their complete spiritual calamity, we have verses 19-20: “Those whom I love, I rebuke and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” Those whom I love. As little as they deserve it, he loves them anyway. He has spoken harshly to them because he loves them, and nothing less has any chance of cutting through their self-satisfied complacency; even as bad as they are, he hasn’t given up on them—he’s still calling them to repent. He’s still seeking to reconcile them to himself, and offering full restoration of fellowship with him, for in that culture, to share a meal together was to share life.

An Open Door

(Isaiah 22:20-24; Revelation 3:7-13)

Before I begin, I should note that I’m assuming here a fair bit of historical information which is important in understanding this letter, but which I don’t have time to get into this morning. If you’re interested, there will be more posted on the sermon blog.

For now, let me just say that Philadelphia sat in a zone of high volcanic activity and suffered from frequent earthquakes; it had been devastated more than once, to the point of needing extensive aid from Rome, and twice the city had shown its gratitude by taking a new name in honor of Caesar. Even when there were no major earthquakes, there were enough little ones that the city was never truly rebuilt—the walls were always cracked and crumbling. But people stayed; the volcanic soil was very good for growing wine grapes, and most people actually lived outside the city, among the farms and vineyards. In ordinary times, the production of wine was enough to keep the economy going, if not strong. And then in 92 AD, Caesar Domitian ordered that half the vineyards in the provinces of the empire be cut down, which was a greater disaster for the city than any earthquake. Philadelphia had put its faith in Caesar; Caesar had proven faithless.

And so Christ addresses the believers here, a powerless church in a struggling city, as the one who is holy and faithful, who will never fail them. He is the only one who can say that. Psalm 146 says, “Put not your trust in princes, because they’re only human and they can’t save you”; we would say, “Put not your trust in politicians,” because they always promise more than they can deliver. We might also say, “Put not your trust in corporations,” as I know this week’s news from Zimmer has rattled a lot of people, and created some real anxiety; even good corporations exist for their own purposes, not for yours, and to expect them to put your agenda ahead of their own is simply not wise. Only Jesus deserves your full trust and confidence; he alone is always faithful.

Jesus praises the church in Philadelphia because in their weakness, they haven’t backed down or compromised their faith; they have continued to proclaim their faith in Christ and keep his word, no matter how unpopular that might have been. Their weakness hasn’t moved them to stop trusting Jesus, it’s moved them to greater trust—to depend utterly on him for everything they need. And so he says, “I have set before you an open door that no one can shut.” They may have little power, but it isn’t their power that matters; what matters is Christ’s power. They were being persecuted by the Jewish leaders in the city, who had shut them out of the synagogue, but Jesus has opened a greater door for them, into the kingdom of God; and he has opened other doors for them as well, opportunities for them to continue to bear witness to their faith.

Notes on the letter to Philadelphia

  • Philadelphia appears to have been founded by Pergamum, perhaps at the time of their conquest of Lydia and Phrygia.
  • It was the gateway from the west into Phrygia; as such it was an important military point, and also a base for the spreading of Greek culture into Phrygia and Lydia.
  • The city was named in honor of the great love and loyalty between Eumenes II of Pergamum and Attalus II Philadelphus, his younger brother and successor.
  • After the earthquake of AD 17, the Caesar Tiberius canceled the city’s taxes for five years; Philadelphia took the name Neocaesarea in gratitude, and used that name for at least a couple decades.
  • This began a period of frequent earthquakes, which made it unsafe to be indoors. Strabo writes, “Philadelphia . . . has not even its walls secure, but they are daily shaken and split in some degree. The people continually pay attention to earth-tremors and plan their buildings with this factor in mind. . . . Different parts of the city are constantly suffering damage. That is why the actual town has few inhabitants, but the majority live as farmers in the countryside.”
  • During the reign of Vespasian, the father of Domitian, Philadelphia again took on another name: “Flavia,” in honor of the Flavian family to which Vespasian belonged. The reason is uncertain, but Vespasian was noted for his generosity to cities that suffered disasters.
  • The volcanic soil around Philadelphia was excellent for growing grapes, but not especially good for anything else; Strabo says nothing else grew there.
  • Though little is known about the synagogue in Philadelphia, it seems likely it was founded out of the large and prosperous Jewish community in Sardis.
  • The struggling church in its poor, half-ruined city is promised a secure place in the glorious, eternal city of God.

Dead in Spirit

(Daniel 12:1-4; Revelation 3:1-6)

I thought about calling this sermon “Zombie Church,” and then I thought: what would Dan do with that when he prepared the slides? I decided I didn’t want that on my conscience, so I stayed with this more theological, if less vivid, title. Either way, you get the picture: this was a church that appeared from the outside to be alive, but was dead on the inside, where it mattered. As such, this is quite a harsh letter, with no praise for the church at all. There are a few people left who have remained faithful to Jesus, and they will be rewarded; for the rest, there is only a stern warning to wake up and repent before the judgment of God falls.

This warning is expressed in extraordinarily vivid and powerful language. If we get the sense that the church in Sardis was living off their reputation, off the accomplishments of the past, this was no less true of their city. Before Ephesus rose to be the great city of the Anatolian peninsula, what we now know as Turkey, Pergamum was; but before Pergamum, and far greater, was Sardis, one of the most famed cities of the ancient world. The city was founded some time around 1200 BC, about the time the Israelites were coming up out of Egypt; the heart of the city, its acropolis, was a natural stronghold like that of Pergamum, only far more so. The upper city of Sardis sat on a small plateau 1500 feet above the valley of the Hermus river—a plateau bounded on almost all sides by sheer cliffs. Only at one point, where it connected to Mt. Tmolus, was there any access at all by road, and that road was narrow and steep. Even at the time of the Revelation, to capture Sardis was proverbially to do the impossible.

Sardis was the capital of the kingdom of Lydia, which we’ve mentioned several times in this series, and the security it gave its rulers is one of the reasons for their rise to power. The other is that the Pactolus, a small river that flowed through the lower city, had gold in its bed, which was the foundation of the kingdom’s great wealth. The first king of Lydia, King Gyges—who may have been the “Gog” mentioned in Ezekiel, and referred to again in Revelation 20—used that wealth and his impregnable fortress-capital to build a powerful kingdom. He and his successors allied themselves with powers like Sparta, Egypt, and the Phoenicians; it seems likely they were the kingdom known to the Israelites as Lud, mentioned several times in the Old Testament.

And then King Croesus declared war on Cyrus and his advancing Persian empire. Croesus invaded, fought a couple battles, then withdrew to Sardis and sent his allies home for the winter, thinking Cyrus would never follow him—but Cyrus did, and launched a sneak attack on the city. Croesus abandoned the lower city, pulling his troops behind the walls of his citadel to endure a seige, confident that it could not be taken; but after just two weeks, Sardis fell, because Croesus’ soldiers didn’t bother to keep watch. They knew that no one could possibly climb the cliffs to the acropolis, so they didn’t notice when someone did; that someone then opened the gates and let the Persian army in. Ironically, a few centuries later, that story repeated itself: in another war, during another siege, the enemy climbed the walls and opened the gates, and Sardis fell.

Up until that point, the city had retained most of its importance—it had been, for example, the western capital of the Persian empire; but after it was taken by force the second time, it began to fade, and was soon eclipsed by the rising power of Pergamum. It continued to be a prosperous city, but one which lived on the glories of the past rather than on hopes for the future.

From that point on, not much changed in Sardis until 17 AD, when a terrible earthquake struck the area. Sardis wasn’t the only city affected, but it was by far the hardest hit; Pliny the Younger called it the worst disaster in human memory. The great problem was that the mountain spur on which the upper city was built wasn’t rock, it was just ordinary soil, and not even particularly dense soil at that; and it appears that the earthquake caused a large portion of the acropolis to collapse. This, incidentally, is why I didn’t show you a picture of Sardis as I did of Pergamum; what remained of the plateau has been further reduced by 2000 years of erosion, and there just isn’t much left. They did rebuild the city and put up new walls on what remained of the acropolis, but the disaster was a tremendous blow to Sardis’ economic health.

We have, then, a city which should never have been taken by force, but which had been—twice—because its defenders failed to keep alert, and thus failed to notice when their enemies came upon them like a thief in the night; and we have a city that had been struck by disaster and lost much of what had made it great, and had been forced to rebuild and strengthen what remained to it in order to keep going. And we have a church in that city which needed to learn the lessons of that history, for it too was living in the past, failing to pay attention as its strength crumbled. They had been so polluted by the idolatry of their culture that they were all but dead spiritually, and they didn’t even know it.

This is why there’s no hint of persecution in this letter—the spirit of compromise that was tempting the church in Pergamum and had taken root in the church in Thyatira had completely conquered the church in Sardis. It may well have been a different compromise, for the Jewish community in the city was large and powerful—the synagogue was not only huge, it was part of the complex of buildings that made up the cultural center of the city. Whatever the content of their compromise, however, what mattered was that the church had sold out the gospel in order to accommodate themselves to their culture. They had no price to pay and no sacrifices to make for belonging to the church, because they’d gotten comfortable with the world; indeed, they’d settled down quite nicely and gone to sleep, and were in real danger of never waking up.

For us, it’s easy to take this and say, “This is our former denomination, this is why we’re leaving”; and that’s true, as far as it goes. The main line of the Presbyterian Church in this country has a long and honorable history, but its leadership has gotten comfortable with the world and gone to sleep, and the life is bleeding out of the denomination. That said, if we stop there, we’re kidding ourselves, because the temptation to get comfortable with the world, to just give people what they want and tell them what they want to hear, is there for every church.

It’s a particularly insidious one in our fractured culture, shot through with subcultures—that’s why “find a target group and give them what they want” has been a popular church-planting strategy over the last few decades. It’s easy for us to tell ourselves that we’re standing boldly against the world when we’re opposed to someone else’s culture, and never notice the ways in which we’ve compromised with the culture in which we actually live. It’s easy to focus on all the things in God’s word that don’t make anyone here uncomfortable, and just ignore everything that might. It’s easy to coast on what we’ve already accomplished, which is why the seven last words of the church are “We’ve never done it that way before.” Our church in Bellingham was only seven years old when we joined it, but it was already getting that way; which is why it no longer exists.

Look what Jesus says to the church in Sardis: “Be vigilant. Remember what you received and heard; keep it, and repent.” “What you received and heard”—the gospel of Jesus Christ. Repent of putting anything else at the center of the church, repent of following anyone else; return to Christ, remember who he is and what he has done for you. The only thing that keeps the church alive, the only thing that keeps us from sliding into compromise with the world, is to be vigilant to remember—to continue, over and over again, to re-center ourselves on Jesus Christ and his gospel of grace, to focus ourselves on him and allow his Holy Spirit to shape everything we do.

Feet of Clay

(Numbers 24:10-19, Psalm 2:7-9; Revelation 2:18-28)

In Acts 16, Luke writes, “From Troas we set sail for Samothrake, and the next day on to Neapolis. From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony which is an important city in Macedonia, and we stayed there several days. On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women gathered there. One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a trader of purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God; the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she said, ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.”

That’s the only other New Testament mention of Thyatira, which fittingly isn’t really about Thyatira at all; but it captures the fact that what importance the city had came through trade. It was actually founded during the rise of the kingdom of Pergamum as a garrison town to help hold the border against them; but it sat in the middle of a broad, shallow river valley, so it wasn’t really a defensible location, and it wasn’t long before Pergamum captured it. That’s pretty much the way the city’s history went, being repeatedly captured, sacked, and plundered, until the Roman conquest brought peace; with peace, its location went from being a problem to being a benefit, as the city became a center of trade and manufacturing.

We talked several weeks ago about the trade guilds and their importance in economic and social life; in Thyatira the guilds were unusually numerous, and unusually powerful. Indeed, they had more than just trade guilds, they had equivalents to such organizations as the Optimist Club, homeowners’ associations, and even the YMCA (the Young Men’s Pagan Association, perhaps?). The guilds were at the heart of the city, physically as well as socially; the whole life of the city flowed through them, and the guilds were where everything happened.

As we’ve said before, this was a problem for the church because the trade guilds were religious organizations—each one had its patron god or goddess, and when they gathered, it was in part for worship. Caesar worship wasn’t an issue in Thyatira, but that didn’t make things any easier for Christians there. As many times as the city had been conquered, and with all the trade that flowed through its gates, its population was extremely diverse both racially and culturally, including settlers from as far away as Egypt and Persia. As a consequence, religious syncretism—the combination of multiple religions into one mongrel faith—was common; and of particular interest for us, the small Jewish community in Thyatira appears to have blended themselves into the mix.

As a result, compromise was a major problem in Thyatira as in Pergamum, though for different reasons. Instead of political pressure to conform backed by the threat of persecution, there was the subtler temptation just to go along to get along. Don’t make waves, don’t rock the boat, don’t make such a big deal out of your differences—nobody else does around here. Just go with the flow. That temptation was having its effect, and that message had taken root. Thyatira was in many ways a strong church, loving and faithful, bearing witness to the love of Christ in their care and service for others; and not only were they strong, they were growing. But for all that, they had feet of clay: they had given place to a prophet of compromise whose teaching was undermining everything.

Thus Christ is described here in language taken from Daniel 10:6, from the description of the man who appears to Daniel in a vision. The word translated “burnished bronze” is a word from Thyatira—it was a high-quality alloy, perhaps bronze but more likely brass, which was one of the products for which the city was known. Some of those in the church might have been workers in brass, and perhaps members of that guild. The description, then, gives force to the message: the church in Thyatira must stand firm against idolatry, hold fast to the truth of God, and not let themselves be undermined by the temptation to conform to the ways and practices of their pagan culture. Jesus calls us to worship him and him alone, and that is a point on which he will brook no compromise, no matter how we may rationalize it or seek to excuse it.

The situation was particularly bad in Thyatira because they didn’t just have false teachers in the church (which was the complaint against Pergamum)—they were actually tolerating a false teacher, a self-proclaimed prophet. The letter compares her to Jezebel, the pagan queen of King Ahab who led Israel into all kinds of idolatry; this suggests that she and her followers weren’t outsiders in the congregation, they were entrenched in the leadership. The situation is clearly quite serious, and provokes a lengthy word of stern judgment against her and all her disciples.

And note how that word of judgment ends: “Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds”—because his eyes are like blazing fire, burning through everything we use to disguise or conceal our true thoughts, feelings, and motives—“and I will repay each of you according to your works.” You might look at that and say, “Wait a minute—didn’t Jesus just praise the Thyatiran church for their works?” Yes, he did; but for those who followed Jezebel, their good works no longer flowed out of their love for God and desire to please him. As such, they no longer did please him.

I imagine someone from the Thyatiran church hearing this letter read and saying, “But, but, if I don’t belong to the guilds I’ll lose my business! And then I won’t have any money to live on, or to give to the church! Does Jesus want me to go bankrupt? That isn’t reasonable! Look at me—I tithe, I volunteer, I’m an elder—just because I go to the guild meetings and they have a little worship service for Apollo doesn’t make me any less of a Christian!” But then, I imagine someone now saying, “Yes, I know the Bible says we should give generously—but that’s not the way to run a business, especially in this economy.” Or, “Turn the other cheek, forgive your enemies—you have no idea how they hurt me! It’s unfair you even ask me that, and I’m sure God understands why I’m still angry.” Or, “You may think the Bible says I can’t have sex with that person, but this is who I am and this is what I need, and a loving God would never ask me to deny myself like that.” And then always the appeal to rest of their lives, and the insistence that this thing can’t be wrong because “I’m just as good a Christian as you are.” Which may be true, but so what? I’m not good enough either. It isn’t the point.

The point is, if faithfulness to Jesus means we have to lose a job, or give up a relationship, or forgive someone who absolutely doesn’t deserve it, then it doesn’t matter if we think it’s reasonable or not—that’s the price he calls us to pay. All our other good works won’t let us evade that. To borrow a line from Elizabeth Rundle Charles (which is usually misattributed to Martin Luther), it’s where the battle rages that the loyalty of the soldier is proved; if we stand firm on the word of God at every point except where the world and the devil are actually attacking us, then we might be professing Christianity, but we are not confessing Christ.

But here’s the good news: that sacrifice will not go unrewarded. The one who overcomes, who holds fast to Jesus and follows him faithfully, without compromise, will share in his authority and his glory in the kingdom of God. Jesus doesn’t ask us to give things up in this world because he likes to see us give things up, or because he doesn’t want us to be happy; it’s because he has something much, much better in store for us. As C. S. Lewis put it, the problem isn’t that our desires are too strong, it’s that they’re too weak. “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Dulling the Edges

(Numbers 25:1-3; Revelation 2:12-17)

“Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” This is old, old wisdom, a minor variation on Jesus’ rebuke to Peter in Matthew 26, and a pattern which we see over and over in history. The people of Pergamum knew this well, for theirs was a city that had lived by the sword. Its early prominence rested on its prominence—a thousand-foot-high granite mesa overlooking the Caicus River which made a formidable natural stronghold. Pergamum maintained a high degree of independence under the Persian Empire, before joining with the Greeks and Macedonians as Alexander the Great swept through; after his empire broke into four pieces, the rulers of the city broke free and established themselves as a small kingdom along the river valley. When the Gauls moved into the Anatolian peninsula, Attalus I of Pergamum was the first to defeat them. Unfortunately, his successors overreached themselves; in an effort to expand their kingdom, they allied themselves with Rome, which ultimately brought their independence to a permanent end as a part of the Roman Empire.

Even so, Pergamum maintained its prominence for some time. Ephesus may have been the richest city in Asia Minor by the time John wrote, but Pergamum was still the capital of the province; and while Ephesus had surpassed it as a center of Caesar worship, that was a recent development, and the imperial cult was far more important in the city of Pergamum. Attalus I only claimed the title of king of Pergamum after his defeat of the Gauls; at the same time, he also claimed the title “Savior,” and a great temple to Zeus Soter—Zeus the Savior—was built as a consequence. His descendants also built a temple to themselves, and one of them formally claimed the title “Theos”—“God.” Worship of the ruler was part of the life of Pergamum long before the Romans came; once the city accepted Roman rule, worship of Caesar fit right in to that tradition.

Given that, it’s easy to understand why Jesus would say to this church, “I know you live where Satan’s throne is.” The first Caesar to be worshiped as a God was Augustus, and the first temple built to him, in 29 BC, was in Pergamum. The temple of Zeus Soter, associated from the beginning with the worship of their kings, loomed large in the city with its thronelike altar. Pergamum had been well ahead of most of the empire in its adoption of Caesar worship, and it was common there very early on to refer to Caesar as “Savior” and “Lord of the world”; and because it was the capital, it was there that Caesar had his throne in Asia Minor, and there that the proconsul ruled in his stead. The symbol of his power was the gladius, the leaf-bladed two-edged sword of justice.

As such, the religious pressure on the church in Pergamum was immense. Jesus commends them for their faithfulness in the face of that pressure; they would not deny their faith in him even when persecution built to the point of the death of one of their own. They were bearing up under the weight of public hostility and refusing to break, continuing to bear witness to the love of Jesus Christ against all the hatred of Satan.

But if they would not break, they were beginning to bend. The lines between the church and the culture were sharp—as sharp as the edges of the proconsul’s sword of judgment; the differences between those who worshiped Christ and those who worshiped Caesar and Zeus were clear and unmistakable, and it was on those lines that they faced persecution. It’s no surprise that some were looking for ways to avoid persecution by blurring those lines and dulling those sharp edges, and so the Nicolaitans had arisen and gained a foothold in the church. It appears they were teaching that it was acceptable for Christians to participate in idol worship—with the worship of Caesar no doubt the primary focus—as long as they didn’t really believe in the idols, the way most Romans undoubtedly didn’t. The church has always affirmed that Christ alone is Lord and he alone is to be worshiped; the Nicolaitans were setting that aside.

Now, this doesn’t mean they were trying to destroy the church. Most likely, they believed that joining in the festivals of idol worship with their sacrificial feasts and their sexual immorality was harmless, just an empty gesture that would fulfill patriotic obligations and enable Christians to keep their jobs and their businesses. Maybe they even argued that participating in the festivals honoring Caesar or Zeus or Asklepios was a form of cultural engagement, a way to be relevant to the culture and thus make their Christian outreach more popular and effective.

Jesus rejects this, comparing the Nicolaitans to Balaam. You might not remember his story, except for something about a donkey; he was a prophet whom King Balak of Moab hired to curse Israel as they traveled through the wilderness, but who blessed them instead, because he was a true prophet. You can see that if you look at Numbers 22-24. However, he also wanted the money Balak had offered him, and so he taught Balak to use the women of Moab to lure the Israelites astray—to have sex with them and join them in their feasts worshiping their pagan gods. Balaam couldn’t curse them, but he could teach Balak to tempt them into sin so that they would curse themselves, and they did.

What the Nicolaitans are doing is anything but harmless, because we become like what we worship, and what we do shapes how we think. If you’re familiar with the story of the Facebook game Cow Clicker, it was created as a satire on social games like FarmVille, but it quickly became a serious game which thousands of people played devotedly—why? Because the action of playing the game changed how they thought about it. Going out and saying “Caesar is Lord” or affirming by their actions that Zeus deserved their worship would have the same effect on the Christians of Pergamum. You can’t keep doing something you don’t believe in for very long—either you’ll quit doing it, or your beliefs will begin to change to match your behavior. And of course, far from convincing others to worship Jesus, seeing Christians worshiping the gods of the culture would only teach the culture that it didn’t need to change.

The same is true with our own Nicolaitans today. There are a lot of voices in the church urging cultural compromise for the sake of being relevant, or non-judgmental, or loving, or enlightened; and to those who feel that temptation Jesus speaks now as then as the one who has the sharp two-edged sword. Hebrews tells us that God’s word is so sharp, it pierces even to the division of soul and spirit—which is to say, it’s so sharp it can even do the impossible, dividing the indivisible. We need to feel the sharp edge of his word, and we need to live accordingly.

We are not faithful to Jesus when accommodating ourselves to the desires and idolatries of our culture is more important than submitting ourselves to his will; nor are we faithful to him when we are willing to publicly compromise our worship of him to keep people from being mad at us. It doesn’t matter whether our idols are “conservative” or “liberal,” or what part of our culture holds our allegiance; the only thing that matters is that they are not God and do not deserve our first priority. God alone, Christ alone, is to be worshiped; everything else must come second.

Through Death to Life

(Psalm 23, Psalm 135:15-18; Revelation 2:8-11)

What do you think of when I mention myrrh? It was one of the gifts offered by the wise men to Jesus and his parents, and as the carol “We Three Kings” reminds us each year, the perfume of myrrh was one of the smells of death. Myrrh and aloes were used in funeral preparations to make the body ready for burial; and during the Crucifixion, Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh to help ease the pain. Myrrh is strongly associated with suffering and death. Wondering why I’m talking about this? The Greek word for myrrh was “smyrna.”

Now, this is almost certainly a coincidence, but it was understood to be a significant one, because Smyrna was a city of suffering in both mythology and its history. In myth, it was connected with the story of Niobe, who mourned for her children (who were killed by Apollo and Artemis for her pride). In recorded history, as the Kingdom of Lydia was rising to the power that would make its King Croesus famed for his wealth, Smyrna fought them off for many years before they were finally overcome. In revenge, the Lydians destroyed the city. People continued to live there, but they were not allowed to rebuild the walls, mint coins, or do anything else that a city could do. It was over three centuries before the city of Smyrna was allowed to come back to life—and they did think of it as a resurrection, comparing their city to the mythical phoenix.

Another important point about Smyrna is that it was regarded as an unusually beautiful city (especially by Smyrnians, who loved to brag about it). They praised it for its harmonious architecture, rising symmetrically to its battlements, and then to the fortified top of Mount Pagus that rose behind the city. They used various images to express this, but their favorite was the crown; this became the primary symbol for the city, appearing on all its coins. It was not, however, a crown of life. When the city of Smyrna sought to honor one of its citizens, the highest honor it had to give was a crown—and in every case we know of, the crown was awarded posthumously.

Finally, it appears that the Jewish community in Smyrna was particularly unpopular, and particularly hostile toward the Gentiles of the city; this resulted in a stark division between Christians and Jews in Smyrna, with almost no Jewish converts, and exceptionally vicious persecution of the church by the local Jews. To give you an idea, when Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was burned alive a century later, some of the Jews actually went out on the Sabbath to gather fuel for the fire. Combine that with everything else that we’ve talked about, and you can see why the church in Smyrna was suffering.

Which makes it remarkable that Christ has no complaint against them, only praise and encouragement. They have been suffering, they are oppressed and poor, but they have remained faithful, and their hearts have not grown hard or cold; they have not lost their first love. There’s no major problem with the church, nothing big they have to address—they just need to be prepared to hold fast, because as bad as things have been for them, worse times yet are coming.

This is why he says in verse 10, “Do not fear.” You are going to suffer, but don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid, because the one who’s speaking to you is the first and the last, the one who died and came to life. He was there at the beginning, he’s already there at the end, and he’s here all along the way, all through life, every step. He is always present, always faithful, and he’s already faced the worst this world can possibly do to you. They can abuse you, they can torture you, they can kill you—he’s been through all of it, he knows it all well, and he knows what he’s asking you to bear, because he already bore all of it for you. You will not have to bear it alone, because he bears it with you.

And here’s the key: “Be faithful even to death”—not just up to that point, but all the way through it—“and I who died and came to life will give you the crown of life.” Here the echoes of culture ring loud. They could look out at their city, which had been destroyed and then reborn, which gave out crowns but only to be put on people’s tombs, and which had the power to take their lives, and know that they did not need to fear because someone far more powerful was on their side—the one who is Lord even of life and death. They did not need to fear because death was not the end, and did not mean defeat; even suffering and death were included and overcome in the plan of God.

This wasn’t a new thought. After all, the psalmist doesn’t say, “Even though you lead me near the valley of the shadow of death, you show me a way around it so I don’t have to pass through.” The thing is, though, a lot of people live as if God had made them that promise, and they don’t hear his word telling them otherwise. We see the reason for that in Psalm 135: we become like what we worship. What we put first in our lives is what we worship most truly, and when we set our hearts on things other than God—when what we want most and love most are things of this world—then we grow spiritually deaf and blind, because the things of this world cannot give sight, and cannot teach us to hear. That’s why these letters are addressed to “him who has an ear.

Being deaf to the voice and call of God is a terrible thing, but never more than when suffering comes—and it always does. We all pass through the valley of the shadow of death sometimes; for those who are there because they’ve wandered in by themselves, it’s a fearful place, with no certain hope and no clear direction. But if we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow and we know ourselves to be sheep of the Good Shepherd, then we have hope and we have a direction; we know that we’re only there because he has led us there, that he is guiding us through it each step of the way, and that he will lead us out the other side.

And yes, the time will come when the shadow will close around us completely, and we will finally emerge not into the light of this world, but into the life of the next; but for those who walk with Christ, even that is nothing to fear, for it is the final victory. Those who are faithful even to death share the victory and resurrection of Christ, and live to die no more; the one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. This is our promise through times of trial and tribulation; this is our hope in the face of our enemies.

Light Under a Bushel

(Genesis 2:8-9, Isaiah 6:1-10; Revelation 2:1-7)

What would you say are the four most important cities in the world? According to the global management consulting firm A. T. Kearney—I saw this in National Geographic at my in-laws’ house a couple weeks ago—they are New York City (no shock), London, Tokyo, and Paris, with Hong Kong at #5. Now, that factors in things like cultural experience—Paris is that high in part because of the cathedrals and the museums—so if you’re thinking in terms of power, you might arrange that differently; for my part, I think they’re crazy to list Beijing down at #15, given the looming significance of China as a military and economic power. Still, if we all made our own lists and combined them all, I’d bet it wouldn’t be much longer than four.

In the Roman Empire at the end of the first century, the list was even shorter. Rome was most important, of course, but among the provincial cities, three clearly dominated: Alexandria in Egypt, Syrian Antioch, and Ephesus in Asia Minor (which covered the western part of modern-day Turkey). Asia Minor was perhaps the richest of all Roman provinces, and Ephesus was its biggest and most important city—it had a quarter-million people, which was huge in the ancient world. It was a great seaport with a superb natural harbor at the mouth of the Cayster River, and through it flowed three major trade routes between Rome and the East; this made it an extremely important commercial center, and contributed to its great wealth.

Now, I said two weeks ago that we must understand the historical and cultural context if we’re going to be able to understand Revelation. I spent some time laying out the general context—if you weren’t here that Sunday, it would help to pull up the first sermon in this series and either read it or listen to it; we also need to look at some specific things for Ephesus, because this letter—like the next six—uses the particular history and situation of the city to make its point.

First, the city had been completely destroyed twice, and each time rebuilt on a completely different site—if you wanted to mark Ephesus on a map, you’d have to ask which one, at what point in history. The great biblical scholar William M. Ramsay dubbed it “the City of Change.” At the time of this letter, there was the threat of yet another change: the silting-up of the great harbor by the Cayster River, which would destroy the city. That did eventually happen, which is why the ruins of Ephesus now sit several swampy miles from the Turkish coast.

Second, Ephesus was a city of tremendous religious importance. I noted two weeks ago the temple of Domitian that was built there—as a center of Caesar worship it was second in importance only to Rome; but that paled in significance next to the great temple of Artemis, one of the famed seven wonders of the ancient world. The donations and gifts it attracted had done as much as trade to make Ephesus rich and powerful. And of particular importance for our passage, while the temple was the largest building in the ancient world, the original shrine out of which it had grown was a tree shrine. The tree was the emblem of the presence of the goddess in her sanctuary at the heart of the vast building; it was the principal symbol of Ephesian religion. The promise of the tree of life, then, isn’t only drawing on Genesis 2, it’s also an assertion that what the Ephesians claimed for Artemis in fact belonged to God.

Besides the cultural context of this letter, we also need to note the biblical context. If you remember a couple years ago when we worked through 1 Timothy, or if you happen to have pulled those sermons up more recently, you know that I argued that Paul’s central concern in that letter is to help Timothy deal with a group of false teachers who are doing great damage to the church in Ephesus; it’s clearly an urgent situation, and everything in the letter is aimed at stopping the spread of heresy. The purpose of the letter is to keep the false teachers from leading the church completely astray from the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So what do we see here? “You have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.” They have overcome the false teachers and held fast to the truth, even in the face of hostility and opposition from their society. Paul’s concerns are no longer an issue—the church is strong, they’re working hard, they know the truth, they’ve got it right. They are an example to the other churches.

But. “I hold this against you,” Jesus says: “You have forsaken the love you had at first.” Some commentators believe this means they had lost their love for one another—that they had spent so much time and energy fighting for the truth that their hearts had hardened; suspicion and mistrust had eaten away at their relationships with each other. Others say that this clearly refers to their love for God, though really, you can’t separate the two; if one, then the other. Gregory Beale argues that the point is that they were no longer expressing love for Christ by witnessing to him in the world; that’s too narrow, but it is an emphasis in the broader point.

We need to understand the letter as a whole in the light of verse 1. You may have registered that Christ describes himself here in language that refers back to chapter 1; this is true of all seven letters, and in each case, it ties in to the message of the letter. Here, the reference comes from 1:13 and 16: Christ is the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and who walks among the seven golden lampstands. He has authority over the angels of the seven churches—they are in his hand, in his control—and he is present among the seven churches, watching them and watching over them. He knows what’s going on, he knows what they’re doing and not doing, and he has both the right and the power to command them to change. As well, this language reminds the Ephesians (and us) that Christ is the source of their light, and the one whose light they are called to shine. It’s about him, not about them, and not about us.

Ephesus was a proud church. Theirs was a mighty city, and they were the mother church from which the other churches of Asia Minor were planted; and unfortunately, fighting for truth against those who are servants of the lie, as Paul says in 1 Timothy, tends to breed more spiritual pride. They had been fighting these battles, and all their energy and passion had gone into the fight, and all their focus had been on the fight; and when that happens, when you pour yourself into a fight like that, it will change your heart if you’re not careful. You start off fighting for truth because you love Jesus, and after a while, you’re fighting for truth because you love truth; given long enough, you fight because you love being right, and it’s all about you.

Is that where the Ephesians were? It seems a reasonable guess. Christ begins his message to them in a way that emphasizes his primacy. This isn’t all about the Ephesians, it isn’t about them proving their supremacy or superiority by winning theological arguments; it’s about Jesus. The light of the church, the light of the stars and the lampstands, doesn’t come from the church, and it doesn’t belong to them; it comes from Jesus. Doctrinal purity is important, because our teaching is one of the glasses through which the light shines—false doctrine obscures or distorts the light—but it is not itself the light. The light is the character and goodness and love and grace of God, and though the church at Ephesus has their doctrine all in order, the light of God is nevertheless being hidden by their lack of love. Just as their city is fighting for its life against the silt that threatens to fill in its harbor, so the church is fighting for its life against the pride and harshness that had silted up its people’s hearts. If they do not repent of their sin and return to the love of Christ, they will cease to be truly a church, and he will remove them.

Now, we know from Ignatius that the Ephesian church took this warning to heart, but they still stand for us as a cautionary example. We must stand for truth, because God is truth, and false teaching can be absolutely destructive; we cannot let it slide. We must also remember what Paul wrote in Ephesians, that “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Love cannot exist without truth, but truth is not truth without love; and unfortunately, fighting with people doesn’t tend to make us love them.

As we fight for the truth, we must take care that the fight does not harden our hearts, that we do not grow proud and cold. As we stand against our former presbytery, we must be intentional about loving them, and about praying for them and for the PC(USA); and more than that, as we fight for the truth, we must take care to remember why we fight. We must never let our focus be on the battle, but only on Christ. Everything we do should be about him, not us, and for him, not us; everything we do should be out of love, because we love him and we love the people he has placed in our lives, and we want to please him.