Spiritual Warfare Series- What was Jesus’ Spiritual Weapon of Choice?

 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life-John 3:16 NIV

Love is more than a sweet sentiment. 

It is a formidable spiritual weapon. 

It is not an accident (in my opinion) that the “warfare passage” we find in Ephesians 6:10-20 is preceded by two and a half chapters that spell out in detail what love “looks like” and how our faith and love for others ought to work itself out in our churches, marriages, parent-child relationships and workplaces (Ephesians 4:1-6:9). 

Nor is it an accident the “love passage” found in 1st Corinthians 13:1-13 is sandwiched between passages that cover the ins-and-outs of how Christians should do church, worship and use their spiritual gifts. Paul understood probably better than anyone that love only works as a weapon when it impacts every part of our Christian lives. If we don’t get the “love” thing right our spiritual gifts become pointless parlor tricks, our worship never goes further than the ceiling and our churches are powerless to transform the lives of hurting people. 

Love was Jesus’ weapon of choice. 

 Jesus knew everything there was to know about every person He encountered and He still loved each and every one of them deeply and fully (John 3:16). He loved everyone He met in a way they had never been loved before. He did not turn away from the woman caught in adultery (John 8), the demoniac (Mark 5:1-14) or Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:12) or anyone else and for that matter. 

Instead. 

The almighty, all-holy, perfectly clean, absolutely sinless God of the Universe looked the worst humanity had to offer square in the face (literally) and because He was God He saw clearly the ugliness and sin in every person who crossed His path.  He knew exactly how their choices had affected them

And yet:

 He loved them anyway. He loved them by looking beyond their sinful ugliness and the effects of their choices. He met them where they were at and in the process loved them into a state of wholeness and health.  Then He went ahead and did the same thing for the whole human race by dying on the cross to pay the penalty of our sin (Romans 5:8)

Love is critical. It literally has the power to change the trajectory of a person’s life. 

Here’s the thing, though. 

 Love alone— or at least the way our culture defines love is actually dangerous (and icky) because it tends to devolve into a grody form of sloppy sentimentalism.   Twenty-first century love is like the drunk girl at the party who gushes sappy sentiment all over everybody but can’t remember any of what she said the next morning. Contemporary love is all about being okay with the worst in people instead of accepting people where they’re at AND helping them to reach new levels of growth, transformation and health. Sloppy sentimentalism feels delightful and appears to be noble but it isn’t really love because it lacks the power to save anyone from anything. 

Sigh.

 Authentic love: the kind of love that defeats the powers of darkness and changes the trajectory of people’s lives is firmly anchored in biblical truth (Colossians 1:13-14). True Christian love is always characterized by a willingness to resist current cultural beliefs that lead people away from God and into bondage to sin. 

It’s the kind of love Jesus had for people. 

When Jesus freed Mary Magdalene and the demoniac from their demon possession he did not encourage either one of them to go back to the choices that got them demon-possessed in the first place—although those choices may have still felt comfortable to them, even after meeting Jesus. Instead He showed them how they could live free from the sinful choices that led them to a life of bondage and despair.  Jesus did not forgive the woman caught in adultery (John 8) and send her back to her latest partner— instead He told her she should “go and sin no more” because that’s what warfare kind of love does. 

Warfare kind of love sets the captives free with equal measures of truth and grace (Isaiah 42:6-9). 

 Jesus would never have been okay with our culture’s contemporary definition of love. He would be disgusted with drug programs that help people to do drugs “safely” rather than free them from the oppression of their drug use. Jesus is undoubtedly appalled at the notion of encouraging someone confused about their gender to transition because transitioning doesn’t deal with the root hurt, pain or sin that led to their confused state in the first place (Jude 23)  

Jesus grieves deeply when Christians choose to love like the world loves because He knows that real love fights for the best heaven and earth have to offer; instead of simply settling for something easy but vastly inferior to what God wants for all people (2nd Timothy 2:3-5).  

Everyone who has been truly touched by the love of Jesus wants to love like He loved: with a warfare kind of love. We love like Jesus loved by living out the Bible’s standard of righteousness, fearlessly telling people the truth in the most loving way possible and sticking with them through the sometimes-long process of finding authentic freedom and growing into the image of Jesus (2nd Corinthians 3:18, Colossians 3:1-25). 

Spiritual Warfare Series- Understanding Satan’s Favorite Schemes

Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes- Ephesians 6:10-11 NIV

At some point in their spiritual journey Christians have to face the fact that for followers of Jesus this life will never be all sunshine, daisy chains and good vibes (John 16:33).

This is because we live in a world at war (John 10:10, Job 1:1-22, Luke 22:31, Ephesians 6:10-13, 1st Timothy 1:18-19).  

Christians have a very real enemy who wants to destroy us spiritually, morally and psychologically (1st Peter 5:8). Doing so, takes him a long way towards his ultimate goal of rendering as many Christians as possible ineffective at glorifying God and leading others to Jesus.   

 Thankfully, followers of Jesus sit squarely on the winning side of the war (Revelation 20:10). Nonetheless, ultimate victory does not exempt us from battle in the here and now (Philippians 2:25, 2nd Timothy 2:3-4, Philemon 1:2). The good news is that God has given us every weapon we need to be victorious. Our success is guaranteed if we learn how to use those weapons properly (Ephesians 6:13-18, 2nd Corinthians 10:3). 

One of the most powerful weapons we have in our arsenal is the Holy Spirit (John 14:26, Ephesians 6:18). Jesus calls the Holy Spirit our guide (John 15:26). A healthy connection to the Holy Spirit will give us spiritual eyes to see through the schemes and tactics of the enemy (2nd Corinthians 2:11, Ephesians 6:11). When we understand our enemy, we are far less likely to become collateral damage in the battle (Hebrews 12:1). 

We underestimate Satan’s craftiness at our own peril. That being said, he is not a particularly inventive creature. As a result, he tends to use the same strategies over and over again. If we learn to recognize those strategies the Bible calls his “schemes” that knowledge will empower us to live every area of our lives victoriously and lead others to faith in Jesus (2nd Corinthians 2:11).  

It’s a win win for team Jesus. 

Satan’s favorite schemes are as follows: 

The twisting of God’s words- 

This is was the very first scheme Satan used against humanity (Genesis 3:1-5). It was so off-the-charts-effective he stuck with it. Satan twists God’s word around in our minds in such a way that we end up doing the exact opposite of what God wants us to do. For example, I know a person who as a teenager was told (correctly) that Jesus said lusting in your heart is a sin (Matthew 5:28). This person concluded that since that temptation was a sin every temptation must be a sin. It seemed logical to them that if every temptation is a sin then they might as well just do the thing they were tempted to do because they were already guilty.  Sadly, the enemy created a lot of heartache for them before a good pastor straightened out their doctrinal errors. This scheme is dealt with most effectively through consistent church attendance and spiritual community. Messy theology is far more likely to be corrected when we habitually fellowship and study with other Christians. 

Discouragement or difficulty anytime we choose a higher level of obedience- 

It would make total sense for obedience to always equal obvious blessings and a trouble-free existence. Alas, that would be a fast track to one-hundred-percent obedience on our part all the time. Satan is categorically not a fan of spiritual growth or obedience. So, one of schemes is to go out of his way to make our lives difficult and complicated anytime we choose obey God fully or pursue Him on a higher level. 

A smooth path when we choose disobedience-

Interestingly enough, periods of rebellion can be some of the easiest, most stress-free times of our Christian life. When we are rebelling against God in any area Satan has nothing to worry about from a spiritual perspective, so he leaves us alone.  Our sinful choices have already rendered us ineffective.  Consequently, Satan will go the extra mile and find ways to make our path smooth in times of rebellion because a smooth path makes us unlikely to self-reflect and reverse course. Constant self-reflection is the key to overcoming this scheme. We should examine ourselves regularly and ask God to reveal any areas of sin  

Our thing- whatever that thing is- 

We all have an underlying or besetting sin that trips us up in life— usually without us even realizing what it is. Satan knows what our thing is even if we don’t and he uses our desire for that thing to trip us up every chance he gets. Our thing might be greed, lust, power, a fear of man or a desire to be in control or whatever. If you have a recurring theme in your life—and most of us do. Ask God to show you the sin at the root of the recurring theme.  There is one. If you figure out what IT is Satan will lose his power over you in that area.  

At least half the battle in spiritual warfare is understanding the tactics of our enemy. The other half is of the battle is trusting God with our lives and making the choice every day to walk closely enough with the Holy Spirit that we SEE those tactics at work so we can do something about them. 

Is it Really Sinful to Judge the Behavior of Others?

 The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them- 1stTimothy 5:24 NIV

If I were to venture a guess, I would say the best known and most quoted Bible verse of all time would have to be Matthew 7:1: “Judge not lest you be judged”.  Bible believing Christians as well as some folks who have never actually cracked a Bible in their lives have the verse memorized and are swift to whip it out anytime they sense the slightest disapproval from anyone concerning anything at all.  

Most have decided it means that the best way to escape God’s wrath (and perhaps even the fires of hell) is to simply never make a moral judgment concerning anything. A lot of people believe “you do you” and “live and let live” is the New Testament solution to escaping trouble with God. 

I don’t think it means what they think it means. 

If evading God’s judgment were as simple as not being judgmental there would have been no reason at all for Jesus to come and sacrifice Himself on our behalf. Instead He could have just wrote STOP BEING SO DANG JUDGY OR YOU’RE GOING TO BE SUPER SORRY in the sky and saved Himself a whole lot of trouble. He didn’t. So, the meaning of His words matters. 

A lot. 

If judging the actions of others is the fast track to our own punitive judgment then we should watch ourselves very carefully in this area. However, if judging actions is not wrong, then maybe, just maybe a tad bit more of the “right” kind of judging will make Christianity more what God intended it to be in the first place (Matthew 5:13-15, 1st Thessalonians 4:7, 1st Peter 2:9, 1st Peter 2:12-15, 2nd Peter 3:11).    

I’m just saying. 

It is fair to assume “judge not, lest you be judged” is not a warning against making moral judgments about behavior.  Jesus was clear: He came to fulfill the law—not abolish it (Matthew 5:17). Most of the Old Testament law (parts of Exodus, all of Leviticus and Deuteronomy) is just a long list of things God says are right and wrong. The rest is basically just a “how to” properly judge when someone breaks the law and what should be done about law breaking.  It would be more than a little odd for God to say “no” to the whole notion of making moral judgments concerning right and wrong behavior after giving His people two and a half books of commands. 

So.

Cultural context is critical when it comes to understanding what the New Testament has to say about any subject.  It’s especially important when talking about judgment in general and judging others in particular. 

Here’s the thing:

First century Jews were some of the judgiest people on earth and they did not stick to judging actions. Mostly they were all about judging whether or not a person was worthy of heaven.

 Jews believed they were special in the sense that they were the only people capable of being completely righteous and worthy of living forever in God’s presence. If someone was not a Jew—they didn’t stand a chance. Further complicating things, most assumed any Jew who did not fully obey the law was a lost cause as well. Religious leaders were all about deciding who obeyed the law “well enough” to be accepted and loved by God. Even the judging of behavior was tainted with judging the worthiness of the person.

Thankfully, for us Jesus set the standard for who gets into heaven. No one is actually “good enough” to get to get right with God on their own (Isaiah 64:6, Luke 18:19, Romans 3:12). We all suck (Romans 3:23). God in His great mercy God chose to make it all about faith in Him so we would at least stand a chance (Luke 7:50, Ephesians 2:8, Hebrews 10:39). No one (except God) can really know who has saving faith and who doesn’t. No one except God can judge another person’s worthiness of heaven. 

James 2:12-13 gives us some insight into Jesus words in Matthew 7:12. It says:

So speak, and so act, as those who are to be judged by the law of freedom. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment-NASB

Okay, so, the English translation of this verse is awkward and tough to understand.  The Greek, comes closer to saying something like this: You will be judged with liberality, kindness and generosity by God. So, you ought to judge other people’s actions and hearts with the same liberality, kindness and generosity you hope to receive on judgment day.  If you don’t judge others with a measure of grace God will apply the standard you use with others to you. 

Yikes. 

So. Judging the rightness or wrongness of actions or behavior is not a problem. That said, a very big problem arises when we judge the motives or the hearts of people. 

We just don’t have the chops for that.  

It is sometimes critical we make judgments about the rightness and wrongness of actions. However, we must remember the goal of making a judgment about behavior is never to condemn anyone, but ultimately to help and encourage everyone to become a better, godlier version of themselves. 

The mercy we hope to be shown should ALWAYS be the standard of judgment we use on others. 

Period. 

The Seven Churches Series- Laodicea the Church that Gives us Hope (Seriously)

Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord- Acts 3:19 NIV

If one had to live in the ancient world Laodicea was the place to be. 

Those lucky enough to live in Laodicea were affluent, healthy and proud for all sorts of really good reasons. 

Laodicea had it all.

It was a major financial center and home to a medical school that trained some of finest medical professionals in the ancient world. The region was famous for its exports, which included an expensive fabric made from a rare and much sought-after black wool and an eye powder renowned for its healing properties. The city was so affluent that when it was leveled by a major earthquake in A.D. 60 the city leaders refused to take any financial assistance at all from Rome. They didn’t need to.

The Laodiceans were a pull themselves up from their own bootstraps’ kind of a people.

The church in Laodicea had taken on the characteristics of the city of Laodicea. The people in the church were wealthy, sophisticated and self-sufficient. They were also far from God and uninterested in an authentic relationship with Him. The first century church in Laodicea did their level best to avoid hard teaching and controversy and as a result they suffered zero oppression or persecution.  They managed this feat despite living in a city that had all the factors that typically created a lot of problems for Christians (a large and powerful Jewish population, active trade unions and an abundance of pagan temples).

 Jesus begins by comparing the churches spirituality to the water supply in Laodicea.

This was by no means a complimentary comparison. 

For all its resources and natural beauty, the one thing Laodicea lacked was a tasty water supply. There was more than enough water available. However, it all came from a hot-spring located several miles up a hill outside the city. The water had to be piped in and as a result, it had an incredibly unpleasant taste and smell (think sulfur or rotten eggs) as well a warmish temperature, no matter the time of year. Jesus starts out by letting the Christians in Laodicea know that their deeds and lack of zeal is so gross to Him that He wants to spit the whole lot of them out of His mouth. 

Yikes. 

Jesus was fully aware of what was going on in their hearts and none of it was good or life-giving. The Christians in Laodicea were conceited and ungrateful for their many gifts. On top of that they lacked any kind of self-awareness at all. The Christians in Laodicea were snooty and smug regarding their earthly riches, physical well-being and abundance of resources. Jesus was categorically unimpressed with their worldly success.

 The text is clear.

 Jesus loved the Christians in Laodicea but was disgusted with their complete absence of good deeds and unfettered arrogance. The church felt good about themselves, their resources and what they had accomplished in life but in all the ways that really mattered, they were shameful, visionless and adrift.   Jesus urges the Christians in Laodicea to repent in the some of the strongest and scariest language in all of the Bible (Revelation 3:18-19) 

Here’s the thing though:  

Laodicea is a spiritual success story.

Apparently, the church took Jesus’ words to heart. The best evidence strongly suggests the Christians in Laodicea heeded the words of Jesus, got their spiritual act together, repented their faces off and went on to make a spiritual difference in their world. 

 In April of 2021 My husband and I visited Laodicea. Our tour guide pointed out there is ample evidence indicating the church went completely underground by early in the second century (hidden churches, secret symbols, etc.).  The church would have had little reason to hide unless they had started to take their faith seriously and, in the process, became offensive to the pagan culture.  Moreover, one of the earliest church councils took place in Laodicea. It is highly unlikely Laodicea would have been chosen as a location for an early church council if the church in Laodicea still had a reputation for being spiritually weak, lukewarm and proud of their sin. 

The Christians in Laodicea took Jesus up on His offer enter into intimate fellowship with Him (Revelation 3:20).

This makes the final letter to the Seven Churches the most hopeful and encouraging of all the letters to all the churches. The outcome of the most messed up of all the churches tells us that no one is ever too lost to be found and even the most worldly of Christians can hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, respond to God’s prompting and become something beautiful and life-giving.  It’s critical we understand not all churches fared as well as Laodicea. Some ended in a sad fizzle.   

This letter teaches us that our deeds and attitudes matter every bit as much as our beliefs (James 2:14-20, Ephesians 2:1-3).

  Jesus cares about what we believe. Doctrine matters (1st Timothy 4:16, Titus 2:1) Every Christian should strive to understand the Bible and every church should teach it with clarity.  That being said, ultimately, Christians prove their faith by what they do and how they live. If we say we believe in God and live like unsaved people do we probably don’t believe at all.  The key to a thriving faith is to listen to the Holy Spirit and then DO what God tells us to do. 

It’s what keeps us spiritually alive and relevant to the world we live in.

The Seven Churches Series- Philadelphia the Successful Church

For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him- 2nd Chronicles 16:9 NKJV

The city of Philadelphia was a scary place to live.  

The city was built on a fault line and prone to frequent and fierce earthquakes. The entire city was completely leveled by a massive earthquake in A.D. 117. The residents of Philadelphia lived much of their lives either in fear of the next big natural disaster or figuring out how to recover from the last big natural disaster.  

Philadelphia was an even scarier place to be a Christian.

Christians struggled with all of the same difficulties everyone else did. They also had the misfortune of living in a city that was extraordinarily devoted to Rome. 

After Philadelphia was destroyed in A.D. 117, Rome cancelled tax payments for the city. This gift provided the capital necessary to entirely rebuild the city. The residents of Philadelphia were naturally super grateful. They chose to express their appreciation by turning their city into a hotbed of Emperor worship (for details on Emperor worship and how it worked read the blogs in this series on Smyrna and Pergamum).  

Emperor worship was the most common form of religious expression in the city but it was far from being the only one. Philadelphia was so jam-packed with idols and pagan temples it was called “little Athens” after the city in Greece celebrated for being the most “religious” (idolatrous) city on earth (Acts 17:17-34). Between the idolatry and the Caesar worship Christians lived under the constant threat of death or of becoming unemployable due to their refusal to join trade unions that demanded idol worship as a condition of employment (for more on trade unions read the blog in this series on Pergamum). 

Additionally.

  The Jews in Philadelphia could have made life easier for Christians by allowing Christianity to be recognized as an offshoot of Judaism. Instead, they did their level best to just generally make life as difficult as possible for them (Revelation 3:9).  They were so horrible to the church Jesus calls the Jews in Philadelphia a “synagogue of Satan” and promises to “force them to bow down” to the Christians there. This is a promise to personally repay their enemies for all the trouble and pain they were caused.  

Yikes. 

In spite of all the stress they lived under, the Christians in Philadelphia remained unwaveringly faithful to Jesus. They refused to cave to the almost unbearable pressure coming at them from all sides.  

It is just one of two letters that contains no criticism whatsoever.

 Jesus praises the Christians in Philadelphia for their deeds (Matthew 5:16, Ephesians 2:10-11, James 2:14, James 3:13) and for going through a “door” He had opened for them (Revelation 3:8). The history of the city helps us understand what Jesus meant and why He was pleased with the Christians there. The city of Philadelphia was intended from its inception to be a gateway or a door between the cultures in the region. Philadelphia butted up against three city/states (Mysia, Lydia, Phrygia) and led to what was a “great unknown” at the time. The goal of the city planners was to make Philadelphia a launching pad to spread Hellenism around the world. 

Jesus had other plans for Philadelphia. Jesus used men who had no idea what they were doing to create an open door for His message to go out to all the world. Before any of the Christians in Philadelphia were even born God set the city up as one of the major missionary hubs of the first century. 

And.

In spite of all of the persecution and trouble the Christians in Philadelphia experienced, they were off-the-charts successful at doing what Jesus called them to do. At great cost to themselves they went through the door Jesus opened for them. They remained faithful to biblical truth and the missionary call even though it had cost some of them their lives (Revelation, 3:8, Revelation 3:10). 

Jesus’ words give us an intriguing glimpse into the power and sovereignty of our God. Nothing in this life is an accident. Every opportunity we have, every connection we make, every good thing we are blessed with is given to us by God for a purpose. He has a plan and is constantly working to bring that plan to fulfillment. There are times when God is doing more in our lives than we are even capable of understanding (Ephesians 3:20), and sometimes the situations that appear on the surface to be least ideal and most painful are sometimes the ones that will bear the most fruit for eternity. 

We cannot know the future. Sometimes we struggle to even understand the present. It is not our job to understand. It is our job to obediently go through the doors God opens on our behalf. 

Jesus wants His people to be future focused, especially when the present feels dark and uncertain.

He ends His letter to the faithful in Philadelphia with some promises any Christian walking through dark times can hang onto.  He promises a “crown” to the few who remain faithful to Him. This crown will be a public acknowledgement of their fidelity that will be obvious to everyone for all of eternity. Then He says they will become pillars in His Holy temple.  This is a guarantee they will live in His presence for all of eternity.  Those who go through the doors God opens and remain faithful to Him will have the peace, safety and blessing in heaven they lacked on earth. 

The Seven Churches Series- Sardis the Church of Fakers

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness- Colossians 2:6-7 NIV

There really was no place in the ancient world where it was truly safe to be a Christian. The threat of persecution was a constant issue for believers in Jesus into the fourth century. Even a relatively safe situation for Christians could become categorically unsafe overnight with a sudden change of political power. That being said, there were a few places where it was safer and easier to be a Christian. 

Sardis was one of those places. 

Sardis was a sizable, affluent city located in a lovely valley that nestled up against a mountain range. Due to its remarkably safe setting and its excess of natural resources, life in Sardis was prosperous and stress-free by ancient standards. The residents of Sardis were best known for their tolerant, laissez-faire attitude towards just about everything under the sun. 

 Sardis was infamous for being a party town occupied by overindulged, underachieving, slackers.

Seriously. 

There is little evidence Christians suffered much, if any, serious persecution in Sardis.  Emperor worship was not really an issue and there are (to my knowledge) no records of Christians being martyred in Sardis. The folks in Sardis were too busy having fun to persecute anyone for anything. 

Sardis was filled with messy, lost people who needed the life-changing good news of the gospel. There was little stopping Christians from openly sharing. The Christians there were under no real threat. There was little chance they would be arrested or sent to an arena for talking about Jesus in a city as accommodating and tolerant as Sardis.  

However.

The Christians in Sardis did not use their idyllic situation to reach the lost and do good in their city.   

Sigh.

Jesus’ letters all follow a familiar pattern.  Jesus begins each of the seven letters with a greeting to the “angel” (commonly believed to be the pastor or bishop) of the church.  Jesus follows His greeting with a declarative statement about Himself. Each statement reveals something critical about His power, character and/or the authority He has over the world (Revelation 2:1, Revelation 2:8, Revelation 2:18, Revelation 3:1, Revelation 3:7, Revelation 3:14) In all but two of the letters Jesus follows with some kind and affirming words concerning the church in question. Jesus praises the church’s faith, good deeds, perseverance, and/or their love for one another, etc. Only after praising and affirming the good in their lives does He offer any criticism.

In His letter to Sardis Jesus deviates dramatically from His usual pattern. 

After the greeting and declarative statement, Jesus jumps directly to criticism and it’s objectively, quite harsh. He begins by telling them that although they have a reputation for being spiritually alive and life-giving, He knows the people in the church are dead in all the ways that matter. 

There was a lot of spiritual fakery going down at the First Church of Sardis. However, the church looked awesome from the outside. The sermons in Sardis were probably consistently on-point. The congregants as well as the leaders were very diligent with their spiritual practices. They prayed, they fasted, they had amazing discipleship programs and the people gave money to help the poor and support the church. 

However. 

Ultimately, the people in the church were more concerned with looking holy, good, wise and honest than they were with actually being any of those things. 

Their hearts were far from God and as a result, they cared little for the souls of people in their city. They had chosen the route of looking good rather than being good and their fakeness had them on the verge of spiritual death. Sadly, they didn’t even have the spiritual awareness to recognize the danger they were in (Revelation 3:2). Their only hope was repentance and repentance is nearly impossible when a person has concluded they are just fine the way they are.

Unfortunately, anyone can lack self-awareness.

For this reason alone, Sardis is (in my opinion) the scariest of the seven letters. Jesus’ words underscore the sad reality that a Christian (or group of Christians) can be a hot spiritual mess and not even be vaguely aware of any of their own problems. It is possible for respected Christians and even esteemed Christian leaders be so self-deceived they can be half-way to hell all the while believing they are leading the way to heaven (Matthew 7:13-23, Jeremiah 17:9).

Yikes.

The letter to Sardis is a much-needed reminder that we can fool a lot of humans with our surface-y goodness but we can’t fool Jesus. He sees everything there is to see. Including the state of our hearts (Hebrews 4:13). This is why self-reflection is so critically needed for believers (Psalm 26:2, 2nd Corinthians 13:5). Without a willingness to really look at our lives and examine our hearts on a regular basis we can easily deceive ourselves into believing we are way better than we really are and when we do that we risk losing our saltiness and becoming spiritually worthless (Matthew 5:13)

There were a few people in the First Church of Sardis who were the real deal (Revelation 3:4).  These people had remained true to Jesus and genuinely Christian even while being surrounded by spiritual counterfeits. Jesus makes one of His most beautiful promises in all of the letters to those people. He assures them they will be given the honor of walking with Him (experiencing intimate relationship) wearing white (eternally pure and noble) for all of eternity. 

That’s worth staying real for. 

The Seven Churches Series- Ephesus

Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart- Proverbs 3:3 NIV

I have this theory that all Christian churches, denominations and organizations follow the same basic development pattern.

It always begins with a dream, desire or idea God plants in the heart of a person or a group of people.  This dream ultimately produces the birth of something new and beautiful (Isaiah 43:19, Acts 2:42-47).

Then comes childhood.  

Childhood is an exhilarating time in a church or ministry. Childhood is all about beginnings and growth. All the activity of this phase is born out of genuine love for Jesus, passion for the mission of Jesus and a desire to honor and glorify Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).   Leaders seek to obey Jesus above all else and as a result this phase typically results in an abundance of fruit. The childhood phase is also marked by some chaos. Leaders don’t always know what they’re doing, important things don’t get done and there can be disputes between key leaders (Galatians 2:11-14).  Because this stage is naturally volatile, if an organization stays in childhood for too long the ministry or church will die. No ministry or church can endure the disorganization and volatility of the childhood stage for long. 

It’s just too dang messy. 

If the organization or church survives the birth and childhood phase (some don’t). It slides into adulthood. Adulthood is the sweet spot for a ministry or church. There’s still a lot of enthusiasm and there is also a clear vision for where the ministry is going. The vision is firmly rooted in biblical principles and prayer. The ministry is still very Jesus centered but there’s more discipline than in the childhood phase. The policies and leadership structure developed in the early adulthood phase provide the stability necessary to keep the thing from flying off the rails. This is typically a very long phase that is even more effective and fruitful than the childhood phase. The organization or church earns a good reputation in the community and it does a lot of good. People are saved, lives are transformed and Jesus is glorified in a big way (Romans 10:9, Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 3:5). 

Then comes middle age.

If an organization makes it to the middle age stage everything is going super well from an optics perspective. Money is being raised, there are a ton of volunteers and the stated mission is still solid. 

However. 

There is a subtle shift that begins with leadership. Leaders become, usually without realizing it, much more focused on building the organization than they are on Jesus and glorifying Jesus. Jesus is still valued, but Jesus is no longer the main thing. He’s more of a figurehead at this point. Passion for Jesus and devotion to the mission gets lost in the day-to-day of “doing ministry”, “raising money” and “growing the church” (Matthew 28:18-20, Matthew 10:7-9, Ephesians 4:11-16). It not unheard of for shady conduct to become a common occurrence at this point, and because leaders are focused is on how things LOOK rather than holiness, righteousness and pleasing Jesus, it is also not all unusual for shadiness to be swept under the rug, rather than being dealt with.   All or most of the ministry work of this phase is centered on programs and fund raising rather than transforming people and glorifying Jesus.  On the surface the ministry activity APPEARS to be people and Jesus centered. However, most of it is focused firmly on keeping the ministry machine going, raising money and justifying the continued existence of the organization. 

This is exactly what happened to the church in Ephesus. 

The first church Jesus addresses in Revelation chapters 2-3 arrived at middle age and their love for Jesus and concern for the spiritual and emotional needs of people became lost in their desire to maintain the status quo. Jesus called this “losing their first love” (Revelation 2:4-5).

But here’s the thing: 

No one looking at the Ephesian church from the outside would have suspected there was a problem. Even most folks who attended the Ephesian church were likely unaware of the issues. The leaders were undoubtedly clueless. Leaders at this stage almost always lack any kind of real self-awareness. As a result, they thought everything was fine. And why not? All the externals looked awesome. The pastors were skillful, polished and well-educated. The doctrine was solid.  They avoided getting involved with problematic or divisive issues. The people attending gave money and willingly suffered hardship for Jesus (Revelation 2:2-3).  

But. 

Their hearts were far from God. The people stopped caring about the things Jesus cared about. The Ephesian Church was still very busy kingdom building. It was just the wrong kingdom. It was a human kingdom instead of Jesus’ kingdom.  

Jesus’ instruction to the Ephesian Christians is straightforward: “do what you did at first”.  

Jesus knew that one of two things happens at this crossroads.

Most of the time the ministry continues a slow drift further and further from the original mission. Bit by bit it loses its ability to make a spiritual impact on the world. The church remains but the power it once had to make disciples and transform the culture evaporates. The people lose their saltiness and the church or organization becomes spiritually worthless (Matthew 5:13). If it endures it morphs into more of a social service agency than an actual ministry. 

Or.

There is a spiritual awaking.  The people who attend and lead these churches recognize the problem. They see the drift. It breaks their hearts and they repent. They fully rededicate themselves to the cause of Christ. Jesus becomes the main thing once again and the church or organization continues to be a vital part of the body and a solution to the brokenness in this world (Revelation 2:7). 

However.

Spiritual awaking’s don’t just happen.  

We need to ask God to help us see the drift in our lives and our churches and our ministries. It’s imperative we pray daily for wisdom and self-awareness and a heart that is willing to see the problems and our role in those problems. Most importantly, must be eager to do what we did at first (Jeremiah 17:9-10). We have to fight to go back to that childlike state of spiritual existence where Jesus was our everything and our obedience was a gift we joyfully gave Him.  

What are Warning Signs of a bad Spiritual Leader?

My anger burns against your shepherds, and I will punish these leaders. For the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has arrived to look after Judah, his flock- Zechariah 10:3 NLT

Bad leadership is a booming problem in our world. 

However.

I believe there is a huge difference between an ineffective leader and bad leader. Ineffective leaders are seldom terrible people.  They simply lack the knowledge, skills and/or personal appeal necessary to lead well.  They have the best of intentions and try their hardest but they just can’t get the job done. 

Conversely.

 Bad leaders are typically quite capable. They tend to have a great deal of personal appeal and they understand how to get things done. However, because they are also oblivious, prideful, manipulative and self-absorbed they do a great deal of damage to those unfortunate enough to be led by them. 

Regrettably, bad leadership is not limited to the secular sphere.

 After nearly thirty years in all sorts of different ministry situations I feel I can say with some authority that American Christianity is infested with bad spiritual leaders. Bad spiritual leaders do far more damage than bad secular leaders. This is because spiritual leaders are the mouthpieces of God in the body of Christ (2nd Peter 1:21, 1st Corinthians 12:7-11). Moreover, many mistakenly see spiritual leaders as God’s mini-me or stand-in.  As a result, many people (saved and unsaved) are incapable of separating the actions and attitudes of a spiritual leader from the will of God. It is not uncommon for individuals who were treated badly by spiritual leaders to erroneously believe it was God’s will for the leader to mistreat them. Consequently, they blame God for the hurt they experienced at the hands of a bad spiritual leader. 

Sigh.

 God will not bless sin, therefore bad leaders are a principal reason why even many “successful” churches are powerless to convert sinners and make disciples. It’s one reason American Christianity losing people like rats fleeing a sinking ship. 

Satan is real (1st Peter 5:8, 1st Timothy 5:15, James 4:7) and not everyone who says they are a Christian really is (Matthew 7:15, Matthew 7:21).  Moreover, Christians are not robots who do exactly what God wants them to do all the time. Due to these and other factors, problematic leadership has been an issue in the Church since the dawn of Christianity (Acts 15:1-2, Acts 20:28-31, Jude 1-25). Additionally, the Bible warns us, as we approach the end bad leaders will become common in the Church (2nd Timothy 3:1-9). It is our responsibility as believers to be on the lookout for spiritual leaders who give indications of being bad leaders (2nd Timothy 3:5, 2nd Peter 2:1-22). Judgment is God’s responsibility (Ecclesiastes 3:17). However, it is our job to exercise discernment and protect ourselves and our families from the damage these leaders do.

 Bad Christian leaders are as diverse in personality as any other type of leader. However, there are certain hallmarks of a bad spiritual leader we can all look out for. Those hallmarks are:

They universally misunderstand their role- 

Contrary, to popular belief a pastor’s primary responsibility is not to deliver a well-prepared message on Sunday mornings. The primary role of a Christian leader is to equip and prepare Christians to do ministry and serve others (Ephesians 4:11-12). Good spiritual leaders empower the people around them to become the best version of themselves. They value every person for who they are not just what they can do. Conversely, bad spiritual leaders view people as a means to an end. The end is always making themselves popular and influential.  

They tend to isolate themselves from those they lead- 

Bad spiritual leaders are frequently AWOL at church events and rarely interact socially with people in their congregations even though the Bible clearly commands them to do so. (1st Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:7-8). Some isolate themselves out of pride. Others just don’t care enough about people to get past their own awkwardness in social situations. Yes, there are introverts and extraverts and there is nothing wrong with being an introvert. Furthermore, it is the height of emotional and spiritual immaturity to think a leader can or should be besties with everyone in a congregation.  That said, every Christian should care enough about others to go out of their way to make them feel comfortable in social situations. This is especially true of spiritual leaders. 

They demand blind obedience- 

Christians are called to a life of obedience (Deuteronomy 6:25, 1st Samuel 15:22, 2nd John 1:6).  Christians ought to obey leaders who are doing their level best to fully obey God. However, no one is commanded to obey a self-serving or evil leader living in contradiction to scripture. 

They are faultfinders- 

Bad leaders will read a great book like The Emotionally Healthy Leader or Emotionally Healthy Discipleship and immediately weaponize it to assess unhealthy or unspiritual attitudes in others. Bad spiritual leaders don’t self-reflect. This creates a situation where they can only see the sins of others, never their own (Jude 16).  

They don’t apologize- 

Even when it’s evident they should. An inability or unwillingness to admit wrong and apologize is an obvious indicator of a bad leader. 

They don’t have their own junk under control-

All humans struggle with sin; however, bad spiritual leaders are fleshly and carnal at heart.  Consequently, bad leaders struggle to keep their worst impulses in check. This leads to problems with sins like boastfulness, control, anger, greediness, lust, pride and dishonesty.  (Jude, 2nd Peter 2, 2nd Timothy 3:1-9, Matthew 23:23-33). 

Christianity is in crisis. 

Much of the crisis is directly due to the excess of bad spiritual leaders in the fold. Christians must protect themselves and their churches from these men and women. In order to do this Christians must lead themselves well and understand what the Bible says about life and leadership. Bad leaders flourish in the midst of immature followers who lack the wisdom and spiritual sensitivity to see a bad leader or the moral bravery to walk away from one.  

For more on this subject…

Getting at the Spiritual Causes of Depression (Yes, There are Spiritual Causes)-

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Psalm 42:11a NIV

Depression is real and it really sucks.  

Seriously.

Anyone who has battled depression or knows someone who has battled depression knows this is one-hundred-percent true.

It is estimated two-hundred-sixty-three-million people worldwide suffer from depression. Many psalms record David’s struggle with what we would call clinical depression (Psalm 42, Psalm 113:1-6, Psalm 22:1-2, Psalm 6).  Until very recently scientists believed depression was caused entirely by a chemical imbalance in the brain brought on by a shortage of the neurotransmitter serotonin.  Recent studies have disproved that long-held theory and left doctors scrambling to figure out the cause depression.   

It is now thought depression is brought on by a host of factors. Including but not limited to a genetic predisposition, chronic stress, prior trauma, and a tendency to brood over past mistakes (perfectionism).

I do not doubt all those factors contribute to depression. 

Genetics are real. Stress is real. Trauma is real.  Focusing deeply on an issue that cannot be controlled or solved will make anyone feel depressed. All that being said, I also know there is a strong spiritual component to depression. That does not mean a person is an especially bad sinner if they get depressed. Nor does it mean I think every case of depression has a purely spiritual cause. That being said, sometimes people behave or think in ways that create spiritual problems in their lives. Those spiritual problems create fertile soil for depression to take root. Some of the spiritual causes of depression are:

Moral Passivity-

Passivity is the sin of letting sin go unchecked. Anytime a Christian chooses to ignore a moral wrong or sidesteps dealing with sin in their life or the life of someone they love rather than dealing with the sin appropriately (Acts 3:19, Ephesians 4:15, Matthew 18:15-16), one of two things inevitably happens. The believer either becomes hardened to sin (and more likely to become entrenched in sin) or they become depressed. Willfully ignoring a wrong makes the passive observer of the sin complicit in the sin (Psalm 1:1, Psalm 32:5) and sin separates us from God (Micah 3:4, Isaiah 59:2). Human beings were made to be in relationship with God. When we live outside the design we were created for depression is the natural result. The key to digging out of depression caused by moral passivity is to reverse course and begin proactively repenting of our own sin and confronting any sin we have been willfully overlooking in those we love (Galatians 6:1, 1st Timothy 5:20, James 5:19-20, Luke 17:3).

Deferred Hope–  

Wanting something that never materializes is demoralizing (Proverbs 13:12). For Christians who obey the Bible it’s even more demoralizing. This is because serious Christians pray and commit their plans to the Lord and then they expect God to establish those plans, because that’s what the Bible says He will do (Proverbs 16:3). When we don’t get something pray for the disappointment can lead to spiritual doubt. Spiritual doubt is a fast track to depression and anxiety. Here’s the thing we have to remember: God is not liar. This means that if a hope we have has been deferred (delayed) there’s a reason for it. It might be we are hoping for something God knows is not best for us. It might mean God is still working on it. It might mean there’s some growth and maturity that needs to take place in us so we steward the blessing well when we do get it.  In order to deal with this type of depression we must pray, trust and do our part. We should pray God will work in us so that our desires will be in alignment with His will for our lives (Proverbs 3:6). Then we have to trust God to accomplish His will in His timing. We also need to do our part. Our part, is actively seeking to grow, learn, and break any bad habits we have in preparation for “the next thing” God has for us.

Loss of Connection with the Head (Jesus) or the Rest of the Body (the Church)-

Humans were designed to live life in relationship. It’s part of what it means to “be made in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26). God is relational and we were made to be like Him. Anytime we lose healthy connection with other Christians or with Jesus (Colossians 2:18-19) depression is a likely outcome. Getting back into healthy relationship with God and/or other Christians will goes long way in healing the depression caused by a broken relationship with Jesus or His body.

An Absence of Self-reflection-

Humans are capable of a of an absurd level of self-deception (Jeremiah 17:9). It is possible to be knee-deep in sinful attitudes and not even be the teeniest bit aware of it. In fact, we are so prone to self-deception we can even convince ourselves our sinful attitudes are somehow good and healthy. Sigh. Anytime we feel plagued by depression that has no apparent cause we need to examine our lives and ask God to show us if there is anything we don’t want to see in ourselves.

And finally, because Christians are a new creation in Christ (2nd Corinthians 5:17) holding on to the stuff of our old life is a fast-track to a life of sadness, frustration and defeat. Letting go of the old stuff Jesus saved us from is the first step and most important step in living a life of emotional and spiritual flourishing.  

Let’s Talk About the Sin that is Literally the Mother of all Sins-

If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done? Proverbs 24:12-14 NIV


Back in the day. I had a small group of friends and anytime we all got together we would get into these weird theological discussions about all sorts of random subjects. We would spend hours beating to death biblical topics that really had no clear consensus, even among the “experts”.  One of our favorite debate topics was the “sin that leads to death” (1st John 5:16-17) or the “unpardonable sin”. We would make all kinds of wild speculations about what this sin might possibly be. Then we would take turns passionately arguing our half-baked theories concerning a subject we knew nothing about.  

I sure do miss those days. 

I still have no idea what the sin that leads to death is (no one does). That said,  I do know of one sin that rarely gets the credit it deserves for the trouble it causes. 

Passivity. 

It could be said that passivity is the mother of all sins because passivity really is a seldom recognized sin at the root of the original sin. A careful reading of the creation account indicates Eve was not present when God forbade humanity from eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:15-17).  Nonetheless, Adam said nothing as the serpent tempted Eve. He then chose to passively observe as his wife committed the sin that wrecked the whole world. Adam’s passivity was every bit as sinful as Eve’s rebellion (Romans 5:12 and 14). 

Biblical passivity was not limited to Adam and Eve. 

David’s passivity as a parent created a breeding ground for the evil that would destroy the lives of three of his children (2nd Samuel 13) and nearly cost him his kingdom (2nd Samuel 15-18). The passivity of the priests concerning the idolatry of the people was the root cause of the Babylonian captivity. At the core of every one of the doctrinal problems Jesus calls out in Revelation 2:1-3:22 was a group of leaders and regular Christians who were reluctant to call sin sin. 

Sigh. 

  The dictionary defines passivity as:

Acceptance of what happens, without active response or resistance.

Passivity will quietly accept the intolerable without so much as a raised eyebrow. However, passivity is never driven by hatred or spite. It is typically born out of laziness, fear of causing offense, or fear being disliked or made fun of (Proverbs 29:25, Proverbs 26:13). 

There was a shocking display of passivity on the news this past week. A drag queen (a man dressed as a woman) danced at an event in a diner where both adults and children were in attendance. He danced in a very provocative fashion, repeatedly lifting his skirt in the faces of the audience as he sang a very crude song about a female body part. The whole incident was troubling to watch. However, it was obvious from the body language in the video a good number of the adults’ present were clearly uncomfortable with the situation. Nonetheless, no one walked out. No one attempted to remove the children. No one present did anything at all to protest an event that would have been viewed as an obvious act of child abuse just a couple of years ago. 

Sigh.

The sin of passivity is causing all sorts of systemic evil to take root every sphere of life (Proverbs 29:25). Passive elders and docile church members who look the other way when they see sin in the lives of their pastors, priests and church leaders are a key reason Christianity is held in such low regard in our society. Fear of confrontation (a form of passivity) creates a breeding ground for abusive and unjust situations to flourish. Spouses who choose to ignore their partner’s sin rather than lovingly confront it create the perfect environment for sin to take root in the entire family. Passive parents who refuse to correct or discipline their disobedient children are at least partly responsible for the social chaos our culture is experiencing. Passive voters are the primary reason so many democracies have gone off the rails in recent years. 

Passivity can be defined as the sin of allowing sin to continue unchecked. 

Here’s the thing:

The passive person in a situation always bears at least some of the responsibility for the sin that results or grows as a result of their choosing to be passive. Regardless of our personality type we are all inclined towards passivity on some level. It is literally a part of our spiritual DNA. It is an inclination we must fight. 

The key to fighting passivity is to identify it.  Anytime we feel uncomfortable with a situation we see or are involved in, it is essential we lean into that discomfort and ask ourselves what exactly is making us uncomfortable. 

Are we uncomfortable because we are witnessing sin? 

If that’s the case, then the only reasonable course of action is to say something (Jude 23) because speaking the truth in love is the way we change history (Ephesians 4:15).