Spiritual Warfare Series- Understanding Satan’s Favorite Schemes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a win win for team Jesus. 

Satan’s favorite schemes are as follows: 

The twisting of God’s words- 

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

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

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

A smooth path when we choose disobedience-

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

Our thing- whatever that thing is- 

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

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

Is it Really Sinful to Judge the Behavior of Others?

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

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

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

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

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

A lot. 

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

I’m just saying. 

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

So.

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

Here’s the thing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yikes. 

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

We just don’t have the chops for that.  

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

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

Period. 

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

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

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

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

Laodicea had it all.

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

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

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

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

This was by no means a complimentary comparison. 

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

Yikes. 

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

 The text is clear.

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

Here’s the thing though:  

Laodicea is a spiritual success story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Seven Churches Series- Philadelphia the Successful Church

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

The city of Philadelphia was a scary place to live.  

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

Philadelphia was an even scarier place to be a Christian.

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

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

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

Additionally.

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

Yikes. 

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

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

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

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

And.

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

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

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

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

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

The Seven Churches Series- Sardis the Church of Fakers

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

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

Sardis was one of those places. 

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

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

Seriously. 

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

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

However.

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

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

However. 

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

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

Unfortunately, anyone can lack self-awareness.

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

Yikes.

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

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

That’s worth staying real for. 

The Seven Churches Series- 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. 

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…

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

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


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

I sure do miss those days. 

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

Passivity. 

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

Biblical passivity was not limited to Adam and Eve. 

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

Sigh. 

  The dictionary defines passivity as:

Acceptance of what happens, without active response or resistance.

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

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

Sigh.

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

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

Here’s the thing:

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

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

Are we uncomfortable because we are witnessing sin? 

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