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. 

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. 

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 Do the Election Results tell us?

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming– 1st Peter 1:13 NIV

Okay, so a couple of things:

First, just in case you happened to be on another planet for the last five months or so and missed it, there was a mid-term election last week. 

It was kind of a big deal. 

Second, I’m fairly conservative in my political views. I am not conservative because I believe baby Jesus was born with a copy of the constitution in His teeny-tiny hand.  Nor, am I conservative because I believe a person must think a certain way politically in order to become a Christian. I am a conservative because I tend to believe Jesus would be on the side of individual responsibility and personal accountability. Mostly, because responsibility and accountability lead to healthy outcomes and happy people. I also think Jesus would be on the side of life (because He created it) and I’m pretty sure He would be all-in when it comes to limiting the gender spectrum to male and female because it is the design he chose for this world (Genesis 1:27, Genesis 2:23-25)  

For most conservatives the election was a full-on bummer. It was not what we wanted, or prayed for. I know it could have been way worse. That said, it was still, objectively speaking, extremely discouraging. Who would have thought soaring inflation, layoffs, war, cultural chaos and four-dollar a gallon gas would not be punished at the ballot box? But it was not. 

Here’s the thing:

 Christians are commanded to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). One aspect of that command is a call to transform whatever culture we happen to be living in into a better, healthier, more Christ-like version of itself. Because that’s the call, we probably ought to spend some time thinking about this election and what it says about the current state of affairs in this country. We also need to figure out God wants us do about that state of affairs.

So here goes:

It is becoming increasingly more clear that we are living in a post-Christian society. The values Christians have traditionally held dear are no longer a part of the greater cultural narrative.   One illustration of this reality is abortion. Fox News conducted a massive exit poll post-election. Their goal was to discover what issues motivated voters this election cycle. The number one answer was the economy. However, abortion was a very close second. It was pro-abortion supporters who swung the election.   

 This means a large portion of our society cares more about keeping abortion legal than they do about their own economic well-being and future prosperity (Leviticus 18:21, Jeremiah 32:35). Most lefty politicians voted in campaigned entirely on keeping abortion as available and unrestricted as possible. Love of abortion is not the only sign our civilization is in trouble. Violent crime against complete strangers is way up. Euthanasia is rapidly becoming a new normal and the possible benefits of infanticide are very much up for discussion. It will undoubtedly be offered as an option for new parents at local hospitals in the very near future.  

Yikes. 

 Our society is literally hurtling backwards in time towards pre-Christian, heathenish ethics. Most folks are motivated by their individual impulses rather than a desire to build a better future for their children and grandchildren. Our obsession with freedom could actually lead to our own extinction. Literally. A large portion of our population is doing everything possible to keep from reproducing and it could be our downfall.  Human beings are becoming more and more savage as our society has begun to value personal freedom over personal responsibility. Our infatuation with freedom will inevitably lead to less actual autonomy. Governments will step in to control people if they cannot or will not control themselves (Romans 13:4). 

Sigh. 

All that being said. The current chaos could turn out to be a good thing. The culture will likely get worseSometimes bad is better. Hard times cause people to think. Whereas prosperity tends to lead to greater acceptance of whatever the cultural norms are and God knows we don’t need any more acceptance of the current cultural norms.  

So, what is a Christian to do? 

First. 

As strangers living in a strange land (and that’s what Christians are) we must do our level best to live within God’s design for the human race (Genesis 1:27, Hebrews 11:13-16, 1st Peter 1:1-2). Christians should get married, have a bunch of kids, work out their problems and stay married. They should also buy houses, build healthy community and strive to be the kindest, most generous people in their cities and towns (Jeremiah 29:4-8). Living joyfully, well and within the boundaries of God’s design is the first step in “making disciples” in our messy, godless, death obsessed culture.

Then. 

We must be prepared to explain to our friends and neighbors the reasons why we do what we do (1st Peter 3:15). We need to pray like crazy for wisdom and power and boldness. Then we need to open our mouths and tell anyone who will listen about Jesus and the hope He brings to even the most messy and shattered lives. We need to give the world the hope we have received and trust our merciful and good God to bring about the change we need.