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. 

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- 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. 

Seven Churches Series- Thyatira the Hot Mess Church


For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions- 2nd Timothy 4:3 ESV

Peculiar fact:

Comfort and ease do not always make people better people.  

Such was the case with the Church in Thyatira.

Unlike most of the churches in Asia Minor, the church in Thyatira was not living under the constant threat of brutal persecution. Martyrdom was not an everyday occurrence in Thyatira. There is zero evidence the believers in Thyatira were suffering from the consequences of extreme poverty like the Christians in Smyrna. Emperor worship was not a huge issue in Thyatira. All-in-all Thyatira was a rather peaceful place to be a Christian, at least compared to other cities in the Roman Empire. This means all of the problems in the church came from within the church.  

Thyatira was a hot mess.

Even so, the letter begins with an encouraging tone. This little detail indicates Jesus chooses to sees the good in our lives even when we are failing to live up to His expectations. Jesus praises the Christians in Thyatira for their faith in God, their love for one another other and their faithful service to Him (John 13:34-35). He applauds their perseverance (Hebrews 10:36) and acknowledges that their good deeds have grown in number rather than diminishing over time (Ephesians 2:8-10, Hebrews 10:24). 

Then the tone changes. 

Dramatically.

 Most of the problems in Thyatira appear to have revolved around a female teacher Jesus calls “Jezebel”. It is possible (but unlikely) “Jezebel” was this woman’s actual name. It’s far more likely Jesus was equating the woman in Thyatira with Queen Jezebel in 1st and 2nd Kings. This was by no means a complimentary comparison. The Old Testament Jezebel was a foul woman who normalized Baal worship in Israel. The sexual immorality and child sacrifice that went hand-in-hand with Baal worship ultimately led to judgment and seventy years of Babylonian captivity for the Jewish people. (1st Kings 16:30-32, Jeremiah 19:5, Jeremiah 32:35). 

Yikes. 

Jesus has three primary issues with the woman He calls “Jezebel”:

First, she called herself a prophetess when she was a complete fraud (Revelation 2:20). There is no shortage of good examples of female prophets in both the Old and New Testaments (Exodus 15:1, Judges 4:4, 1st Samuel 25:28-32, Isaiah 8:3, 2nd Kings 24:14, Luke 2:36, Acts 2:17-18, Acts 21:9). That being said, a title does not automatically make someone the thing they claim to be (James 3:1, 2nd Peter 2:1-4, Jude 16-21). 

Second, this woman’s teaching was ultimately a concession to the surrounding culture. Her teaching permitted Christians to practice paganism while still claiming to “be Christian”. The pagan worship she encouraged which would have certainly involved sexual immorality (adultery, homosexuality, promiscuity) and drunkenness as part of the “worship”. Joining in pagan worship was appealing to less mature Christians because it enabled them to blend in with the surrounding culture, thus keeping persecution at bay. Jesus forbids this type of compromise because He knows Christians never reach the lost with the gospel by mimicking the civilization they live in.

And finally, Jesus had in some way confronted “Jezebel” concerning her teaching and she refused to change. He confronted her, either by speaking directly to her conscience or through people He used to challenge her. She chose to continue on in her false teaching in spite of the warnings she had been given (Revelation 2:20-22). Jesus was not amused. He promises to “cast her on a bed of suffering” for her refusal to repent. This stands as a stark warning to anyone who is tempted to ignore their conscience. 

Jesus also liberally criticizes those in leadership who looked the other way while this woman led the ignorant into a spiritually treacherous compromise with the culture (Revelation 2:20).  “Jezebel” was guilty of false teaching but the weak leadership in Thyatira gave her a place to preach. Her ministry would not have lasted without the platform they provided. It’s clear from the text: the spiritual leadership at the helm in Thyatira were not oblivious nubs led astray by an evil mastermind who was outfoxing them with her excellent (but untrue) arguments. Jesus is clear: by refusing to deal with her sin they aided her ministry. 

Sigh. 

Jesus’ tough talk to the church in Thyatira teaches us that we believe about life and God matters to Jesus. It is not okay for a believer in Jesus to passively accept or willfully go after “Christian” teachings that tickle their ears and make space for sin (2nd Timothy 4:3-4). Nor, is it acceptable for Christians to help a false teacher by buying their books, listening to their podcasts or attending their church. Those who knowingly help a false teacher to grow their ministry bear a share of the responsibility for the harm they cause.  

Jesus finishes His letter to the church in Thyatira with some encouragement to the discouraged faithful there. He encourages them to simply “hold on to what they have” (faith in the goodness of God) in spite of what they see going on in their church. That’s it. That’s all He expects is their fidelity. In return He promises them a place in His Kingdom and the future opportunity to rule and reign with Him if they choose to remain faithful and true even in a church full of compromise and sin. 

The Seven Churches Series- Pergamum the Church that Compromised

Pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil people, for not everyone has faith. But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one- 2nd Thessalonians 3:2-3 NIV

When I was a girl my grandparents lived down the road from an old abandoned house. The house sat by itself a good distance from the main road. The paint was faded and a couple of windows had been broken out. The power had been turned off years before so it was perpetually dark and gloomy. The entire property was covered with overgrown blackberry bushes and all sorts of weird creepy bramble. My brother, cousin and I would torment each other with disturbing stories we made up about “the house”. We were convinced someone had been murdered there (we had zero proof of this conviction). Therefore, it must have been haunted by ghosts and crawling with demons. We were so terrified of “the house” we would literally walk a half-mile out of our way to avoid setting foot anywhere near that property. 

It was just too dang scary. 

Our silly fears were nothing compared to the anxiety ordinary Christians in Pergamum experienced every day of their lives. It’s not an exaggeration to say Pergamum was likely the least safe place in all of the Roman Empire to be a Christian. The city was so sinister and creepy Jesus called it “the place where Satan has his throne.”

Jesus was not overstating the dangers of the city. 

 Pergamum was a dark spiritual stronghold where Satan exerted an extraordinary level of power and authority. Idol worship undoubtedly contributed to the grip Satan had over Pergamum.

Pergamum was a city of idols. 

 On a hilltop overlooking the city sat two massive pagan temples. One was dedicated to Athena the goddess of war, the other to Zeus. The temple of Zeus was an enormous open-air altar that smoked night and day with animal sacrifices. The shape of the altar was such that it looked very much like a huge smoking throne. The “throne” was clearly visible from every vantage point in and around the city. Pergamum was also home to a famous hospital/shrine/temple to the god Asclepios. The symbol of Asclepios was a serpent (snake). Sick people from all over Asia Minor travelled to Pergamum to spend a night in a room full of snakes in order to get healed. There were also smaller shrines to different gods and goddesses dotting the entire city. Many of the shrines were dedicated to whatever Roman Emperor happened to be in power at the time. 

Pergamum was perhaps best known for its zealous dedication to Caesar worship. 

In most cities Caesar worship was a once-a-year thing. A person went to an altar in their city and declared Caesar to be god. Then they were given a certificate of compliance and that was that. The deed was done for a whole year. 

However. 

 In Pergamum Caesar worship was such a huge part of the culture of the city a person could be compelled to pay homage to Caesar daily. Anytime someone walked passed a shrine to Caesar it was expected they would declare “Caesar is Lord”. If a Roman official did not hear the anticipated pronouncement they could (and often would) force the person to say it. If the individual refused they would be sent to the arena in Pergamum where they would be crucified, torn limb from limb, fed to wild beasts or beheaded ASAP. 

The Christians in Pergamum refused to give an inch on the issue of Emperor worship.  As a consequence, there were a lot of Christians martyred there. Jesus praised the Church for not renouncing their faith in Him even when it cost them their lives (Revelation 2:13). 

However.

There is more than one way to cave to social pressure and the Christians there definitely caved. As a result, Jesus’ letter to them was not all sunshine and roses. The Christians in Pergamum had no problem dying for Jesus but many struggled to live for Him. 

Their struggle centered around practical issues of life. 

In order to obtain employment in the ancient world one was expected to join a trade union and all trade unions were associated with some pagan deity. This created a living nightmare for Christians. It was impossible to belong to a union without making regular sacrifices to pagan gods and/or having sexual relations with temple prostitutes. 

Further complicating an already thorny situation were some prominent Christian teachers/pastors in the Pergamum church who taught pagan worship was perfectly okay as long as one ALSO worshiped Jesus.  Apparently, Christians in Pergamum were all too eager to embrace teaching that both made their lives easier and room for sexual immorality (1st Corinthians 5:1-11). 

In Revelation 2:14-16 Jesus makes it abundantly clear He is not okay with Christians who compartmentalize parts of their lives in order to compromise with worldly values and ideas. 

Jesus wanted all of them not just a small part or piece. 

Jesus’ warned the Christians in Pergamum there would be serious consequences (Revelation 2:16) if they continued to compromise. His criticism not born out of an egotistical desire Jesus had to have their devotion at the expense of their personal safety.  

Jesus wanted the total devotion of the Christians in Pergamum because He loves each and every person on earth as if they were the only person on earth.  Jesus knows all eternal rewards for Christians are directly linked to our level of obedience here on earth. Jesus did not want His people to foolishly trade eternal joy, intimate fellowship with God and reward (Revelation 2:17) in order to gain the approval and acceptance of those who do not know or love God. Jesus wanted the Christians in Pergamum to make Him their everything. Because He knew in doing so they would find joy and peace here on earth and greater reward in heaven. 

Seven Churches Series- Smyrna the Brave and Faithful Church

Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them- Hebrews 11:36-38

There was no place in the ancient world where it made sense from a practical perspective to be a Christian. Everywhere in the Roman world there was always a very real chance persecution would break out. Men, women and even children were put to death simply for professing Jesus as Lord.

That said. 

There were some places where it was easier to be a Christian than others. This is because most persecution against Christians tended to center around a practice known as Emperor or Caesar worship. 

The Roman Empire was massive. Its territory covered most of Europe, Greece, all of Asia Minor (Turkey), much of the near East, Israel, Spain, much of Africa and then some. The sheer vastness of the territory created a complex problem for Roman rulers. 

Unity. 

How exactly does one unify millions of people from literally hundreds of diverse cultures and all sorts of religious backgrounds? This was a critical question. Without something to unify all those diverse people groups mayhem, rebellion and anarchy would break out all over the Empire. Clearly, none of the emperors wanted any of those things on their watch.  

This is where Caesar worship comes in. 

All adults living in the Roman Empire were obligated by law to go to a temple in their city once a year. While there they were required to throw some incense onto an altar and declare to a Roman official that whatever Caesar happened to be in power at the moment was God. If the person declined for any reason they would be transported to the nearest arena posthaste where they would be crucified, torn limb from limb, fed to a wild animal or beheaded ASAP. 

This ritual was quite effective at unifying the territories. 

However.

It also created all kinds of problems for Christians who refused to worship anyone but Jesus (Exodus 20:3, Psalm 16:4, 1st Corinthians 8:6, Ephesians 4:5). 

There were cities where Caesar worship was not always strictly enforced. Christians were safer in those places. Jews were one of a handful of groups lawfully excluded from Caesar worship. If the synagogue leaders in a city allowed the church to be recognized as a sect of Judaism the Christians in the area would be given a break as well. 

The Christians in Smyrna got no breaks. Zero. Zilch. Nada. 

 The bureaucrats in Smyrna gleefully engaged in Caesar worship and were more than happy to execute anyone who refused to give Caesar his “due”. Moreover, the Jews in Smyrna loathed Christians. Not only did they refuse to protect Christians. They were so meanspirited towards the Church they would routinely report Christians as a deviant (anti-government) cult. Jewish leaders would suck up to government officials by suggesting Christians be given the “test” of Emperor worship, thus ensuring their death. The Jews were so off-the-charts cruel to Christians in Smyrna Jesus referred to the whole lot of them as a “synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). 

Further complicating an already difficult and scary situation, a person’s ability to work anywhere in the Roman Empire was always tied to idol worship. Because the Christians in Smyrna refused to compromise on this issue they were the poorest people in arguably one of the richest cities anywhere in the Roman world. There are two words commonly used for poverty in the Greek language. One means worker. It describes someone who worked with their hands for a living. The other means utter destitution. Jesus used it to describe the poverty of the Church in Smyrna (Revelation 2:10). The Christians in Smyrna were—by any measurable human standard— a rather sad and pathetic group of people. 

But. 

Jesus loved them. A lot. I don’t know if Jesus has favorites, but if He does they were for sure a favorite.  Smyrna is one of two churches out of the seven Jesus does not criticize in any way.  The Christians in Smyrna held a special place in Jesus’ heart for one reason and one reason only: they were faithful. They refused to cave to the immense social pressure they were under. They could have chosen to avoid taking unpopular stands on certain social issues. They could have chosen to pay lip service to Caesar and then told their church friends they didn’t or that they didn’t really mean it (Matthew 10:32).  They could have worshiped in pagan temples to keep their jobs. They could have lightened up on teaching Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6). Those choices would have helped them gain favor with those in power. Those choices would have allowed them to make a decent living. Those choices would have kept them alive. 

Instead.

The Christians in Smyrna loudly and proudly declared Jesus to be the only God and took the many lumps that came with doing so.  Jesus did not promise them life would get easier, in fact, He did the exact opposite. He forecasted more suffering in their future (Revelation 2:10). However. He also promised He would be with them through the trouble. He also promised He would personally and lavishly reward them for their faithfulness (Revelation 2:10-11).

 Smyrna was not the polished church (that was Ephesus). Nor was it the wealthy church (that was Laodicea). It certainly wasn’t the popular church (that was Sardis) but it was a church Jesus loved passionately because it was the brave and faithful church that was unafraid to take a stand on the things that mattered most. 

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.  

Why Does God Seem to Ignore Obvious sin?

 Therefore, repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord- Acts 3:19 NASB

I have a child who always wanted to know what the limits, rules and boundaries were in every situation she found herself. Unfortunately, this child did not want to know the limits, rules and boundaries because she was a passionate rule following legalist who wanted to be extra vigilant about staying within the limits of the law. To the contrary, she was the exact opposite of a rule following legalist. She pushed passed every limit she was given and busted down every boundary she came across. However, interestingly enough though, unlike most rule breakers, this kid also hated to get into trouble of any kind and absolutely despised getting yelled at. 

Sigh.

So, one day when this child was way past old enough to know better she decided it would be fun to break every rule I had ever made. She then blew off every warning I gave her and did the exact opposite of what I asked her to do. My patience, which is not unlimited, even on the best of days, held up pretty well until late afternoon.  I finally broke down and yelled at her. I told her in no uncertain terms I was done. The consequences train was coming to town.

 Before I could list off even one of those consequences she began to cry and told me she hated it when I yelled. At that point, it was obvious we had both reached our limits so I sent her to her room to give us both some time to cool off and regroup.  

When I went into her room, my first question was: “okay, I totally get that you hate being yelled at. So, help me understand why you wait until I someone starts yelling to do what you’re told?”  She responded with: “I know you’re serious once you start yelling”. 

Sigh. 

Here’s the thing.

A lot of us see God the same way. We just sort of assume that when God has finally gotten fed up with our sin, or is nearing the end of His patience with us He will let us know He’s had enough in a loud and obvious kind of a way. We expect God to “yell” or warn us in some way before He brings the hammer of judgment down in our lives. 

 As a result, we tend to think (subconsciously at least) that when we sin and nothing terrible happens God must be okay with (or at least not mad about) whatever monkey business we’ve been up to. Sometimes we even go so far as to call His lack of clear and obvious outrage at our behavior “grace”. 

However.

The book of Romans tells an entirely different story. The first chapter of Romans starts out rather pleasantly. Paul greets the recipients of the letter (whom he had never met) with genuine warmth. Then he says some really nice things about the Christians in Rome and Jesus and their faith in Jesus. Then all of a sudden in verse eighteen he steers the letter in a rather unsettling direction and begins talking about the wrath of God and judgement and how all human beings are without excuse and ought to know better. Then in verse twenty-four he says something super profound we tend to move past rather quickly. 

He says:

God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired- Romans 1:24a NLT

This means:

 God just let them have at it. He let them go ahead and do whatever felt good to them without so much as a single real-time consequence. God did not scream and yell about their sin. He did not crush their consciences with an overwhelming sense of guilt. He did not pile on a whole bunch of horrible consequences. He just let them do whatever shameful thing they felt like doing and they felt just fine about it. 

So, here’s the thing:

This one little verse tells us a lot about God and the freewill of human beings. Just because there is no an apparent consequence for a sin or we feel okay about what we’re doing. It doesn’t necessarily mean God doesn’t have a problem with what we’ve been up to. 

To the contrary. 

A lack of guilty feelings over sin is actually the exact opposite of getting away with something. According to Romans 1:24 it is an indicator God has stepped back from the situation. When God steps back and lets people do whatever they want to do without guilt or consequences it is actually the first step in a long process of judgement. 

Yikes. 

So. What this means is we cannot judge right and wrong based entirely on whether or not we feel guilty or there are obvious consequences when we do certain things. Instead, of relying on what our heart tell us about sin we need to get into the habit of turning away from our sin quickly and repenting completely. Then we need to trust God with the outcome of coming clean. Whatever that may be. 

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.