For those who hold deep convictions toward the faith of the Bible we are living in perilous times. In the 2000 year history of Christianity the one country which offered Christians the opportunity for freedom from persecution is rushing at breakneck speed to erase every appearance of the name of Christ from its heritage. From eastern mysticism to Satan worship to pretentious Christian cults, classical paganism is rapidly invading our society and is encouraged under the guise of freedom, while Christianity is repressed under the same guise. I am not among those who make this country and the democratic form of government a quasi-church; quasi-churches are never more than a cheap imitation of God's authentic church. The church is always challenged to be in, but never of this world system, and to offer the tired, Christian pilgrim an alternative to the world's way of thinking and acting.
At the same time large segments of the population are so repelled by massive Christian hypocrisy that they brand all professing Christians as two-faced, money-hungry, ego-driven opportunists. Rather than calling up thoughts of dedicated, unselfish, God-fearing citizens of that heavenly country, the word church is effectively considered a four letter word to be avoided at all cost, a reputation which has been earned by many leading Christian figures. Just try measuring the amount of time most of them spend trying to get your money against the time they spend discussing any legitimate Bible subject. A recent national opinion poll confirmed that this image has deeply scarred the public image of leading Christian leaders in the media. Admittedly, there are many hypocrites in the public circle of professing Christians, sometimes even in the inner circle of the church, but there are also many who deeply believe in God and live out a caring, unselfish commitment to legitimate Christianity. Their example will be clarified in our study.
While these thoughts may seem to be a clouded, pessimistic note on which to begin a series of articles, it is necessary to realistically see the Bible doctrine of the church against the cultural setting of the age in which we live. The doctrine of the church is a common Bible teaching; many of the New Testament letters were written to churches. The Bible church is the backbone of formal, public, and sustained worship and godly service. The Christian influence will quickly fade without a committed relationship with a Bible oriented church. The number of families who were once active and faithful in the church, but whose parents neglected the faithful practice of attending church and actively participating in legitimate church activities are too impressive a witness to the outcome of well-meaning, but flawed thinking that says, "I can serve God just as well at home as I can at church." Within one or two generations the offspring of these homes have no knowledge and no consciousness of the Bible or the Bible church at all.
The Bible presents at least two aspects of the doctrine of the church; one, an eternal concept which includes the saved of all ages; and the other, a timely, practical concept which the Bible places at the heart of all sustained Christianity. A "Called out" dedicated worship of God is at the heart of both aspects; a God-directed activity, a God-centered mentality, and a peaceful harmony with God and with those whom God has added to the church. The common notion of Christian warfare, that a church must be at war with itself, its members, or neighboring churches is not a Bible pattern. Shooting your foot is not effectively engaging the true enemy in battle. The first step in any war is to know your enemy. Study Eph 6 to discover the enemy against whom all Christian warfare is to be waged. It is certainly not against the brother or sister in Christ who happens to disagree with us or see things differently. Differences can, and should be, addressed in a respectful dialogue within the church, but they should not be addressed with verbal guns drawn and smoking!
In our study verse it is instructive to notice the synonyms which describe what the timely, visible, practical church really is. Not just here, but beginning with Romans, look at the introduction to each of the New Testament letters to churches, and compile a list of those synonyms. Let these adjectives lead your mind. "Beloved of God, called to be saints, sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints, faithful in Christ Jesus, faithful brethren in Christ, strangers, them that have obtained like precious faith, the elect lady and her children, preserved in Christ and called." Also take note of the number of times the salutation to these churches includes "Grace and peace," never "War and dissension." The Lord's words from Mt 5:9, "Blessed are the peacemakers," seem strangely absent in too many churches today. By this study I hope to reaffirm the Bible doctrine of the church in our minds. Perhaps by the effort, some of us will be inspired to become a more active, contributing member of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, the one described in those New Testament adjectives listed above.
Let's begin by a friendly, self-challenge. Could a total stranger tell that you, or I, were a sincere Christian by examining various aspects of our life? Our reputation in the work place? Our neighbors' opinions of us? Our use of the time we have each day, what we actually do with each of those 24 hour gifts? Our record of church attendance? Our checkbook?
Many interpret this lesson as applicable to the timely, practical aspect of the Bible doctrine of the church, but it says too much to comfortably apply to that truth. Beginning with verse 20, Paul described the dominion to which Christ was appointed after his ascension, "Set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come." If the lesson is applicable to the timely aspect of the church, many questions arise. If Christ is head and exercises absolute lordship in the church on earth as described in these words, why has the church spent most of its near 2,000 years struggling against persecution, internal strife, and theological rebellion? Why did the Jews reject him?
There is no question that Christ is Lord of the conscience and life in all sincere believers. The question is whether or not these words literally apply to that aspect of the church. Even in the most dedicated of Christian lives, the lordship of Christ is confronted with daily challenges from the influence of Satan and the residual carnal nature of the believer. All too often, those influences temporarily root out the lordship of Christ, a strange and little understood feature of practical Christianity which Paul experienced and described in Ro 7. Participation in the smallest sin is a temporary rejection of the lordship of Christ. In our lesson from Eph 1 Christ is absolute Lord, exercising unchallenged dominion.
In the parallel verse, Col 1:18, we read, "And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence." When Christians fight each other, reject the counsel of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and interpret spiritual truth so as to make it a lie to fit their ego and personal opinions, Christ does not have the preeminence! He is shamed and dishonored!
What is the relationship of the head to the body? What critical parts and functions reside in the head? First, there is the brain, the command center of the central nervous system. The brain's instructions to the various parts of the body are not rejected, disputed, or conveniently interpreted to meet the selfish desires of the local body part which receives those messages. Most brain signals are obeyed involuntarily by the body systems which receive them; for example, the integration of breathing, heartbeat, and digestion which delivers nutrients to the entire body. The conscious mind doesn't direct these activities; they go on at a subconscious level within the body. The brain's absolute control of these functions and thousands of others is vital to the body. Without it the body would die. What does this symbol do to the religionist's emphasis on man's free will? Are the various body parts free to choose whether or not to obey the brain's commands? Would the brain be despotic to impose its commands on the body parts without allowing them to exercise their free will in the matter? Pursuit of modern theology in this lesson quickly turns the whole issue into silliness. The brain is in absolute control of the body, and Christ is in absolute control of the eternal issues of his body, including the human will. This covers the election of the body, the birth of the body (new birth), the salvation of the body, and the preservation of the body. From grace to glory Christ is the head of his body.
Additionally, the senses of sight, hearing, smell, and taste are located in the head. Think of the significance these senses in their spiritual dimension have on the family of God. Foresight, hindsight, insight all are his. In all things spiritual enlightenment comes from him. The very sense of hearing is his and is created in the child of God in the new birth. The definition of the word hearing in Ro 10:17 includes both the sense of hearing and the act of hearing. What does that mean to you?
In Php 2:9-11 we read a similar passage on the exalted glory of Christ, "Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth: and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Does every knee bow to Jesus now? Does every tongue confess that he is Lord? Of course not, but the lesson addresses eternal things from God's perspective and considers the ultimate end when the full lordship of Christ will be manifested. Then every knee shall bow to him, every tongue shall confess that he is Lord to the glory of the Father! Then there shall be no private off the wall interpretations to suit false opinions or faulty understandings. Then there will be no stammering tongues which strain and long for the right words to praise him.
Notice the all encompassing lordship of Christ in his body. In heaven, in earth, and under the earth, Christ is Lord, knees bow and tongues confess him. That isn't happening now on this earth, but when the eternal purpose of God for his body, his church, is accomplished, and it shall be accomplished, all of these words will come to pass. It is easy to see the corruption and sin in the world today and think of Christ's lordship obscurely. Is it literal, or is it symbolic? Does it really mean what is says? The eye of faith falters, but, never fear, the Father has made Christ head over all things to his church, the Father has determined that he will have preeminence in all things, and he will have it!
Eph 5 is one of the most complete marriage manuals in print. Practiced in a marriage, it will do more than Marriage Encounter, counselling, or any other guide outside the Bible. It will redeem marriages in trouble, it will enrich marriages which are stagnated, and it will validate the vows of newly weds. The biblical model for marriage is included in the ten characteristics of the Spirit filled life, Eph 5:19-6:10. And of the ten, it is given more space than any of the others. That should instruct us. The cause of spiritual shipwreck is more often a problem marriage than any other single thing. Paul gave the antidote to the problem, a much better course of action than trying to glue it back together after it has been crushed.
The comparison which Paul used as the basis of his model marriage was the relationship of Christ and his church. The foundation for the relationship between Christ and his church is presented as the foundation for the marriage relationship. Neither the chauvinist nor the feminist are allowed any quarter in this lesson, both are spurned as deficient corruptions. The model wife is neither a slave nor a manipulating deceiver. She is a loving supporter of her husband. The basis of the husband's relationship with his wife is not his greater intelligence, his greater physical strength, a presumed despotic right to rule, or his sex. It is love, that unselfish, caring, giving love which Christ demonstrated by giving his life for his bride.
Beginning with verse 23, let's walk through the chapter, gathering as many facts as we can which define these two parallel relationships. The husband is the head of the wife, Christ is the head of the church, the saviour of the body. The church is subject unto Christ, the wife is to be subject to her husband. The husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. The gift of Christ's life for the church enabled him to sanctify her, cleanse her, and present her to himself in glory without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish. Men should love their wives as their own body. We are members of the body of Christ, one flesh with him. This is quite an impressive list of facts on which to build a study of the relationship between husband and wife or between Christ and the church.
A study of the broad scope of Bible doctrines which deal with our eternal salvation will reveal that they are all closely linked with the love of God. From election and predestination to the bodily resurrection, the love of God is the impetus for every act of God in our eternal salvation. When we were dead in sin and without strength, Christ died for us. Rather than magnifying and publicizing our sins, he covered them with his own life-blood. What an example for married couples who tend to talk about their partners' faults!
Those who see God as an arbitrary despot, whose primary influence is based on his raw undisciplined power and the fear he instills in his subjects, will tend to think of the marriage relationship as a game of power and legal right. They will attempt to keep their wives enslaved by the man's rights, his superior professional, personal and spiritual position. That's ridiculous!!! An abomination to the biblical model of a marriage relationship and a God relationship which is based on love! Peter wrote of husbands and wives as "Heirs together of the grace of life," 1Pe 3:7. The subjection of the wife is not one of legal imposition or the fear of her husband's brute strength, but it is to be the subjection of love and respect. With equal commitment, the husband's position of leadership is to be in the same spirit as Christ's love for his church, based on love and compassion for her.
Jer 31:3 is a lively commentary on this vital truth, "I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee." The issues of the identity of the elect, their salvation, or their preservation are not submitted to chance or risk. They are absolute and absolutely assured, because they are based on the love of God. Many who cannot see the dynamic love of God as the effective, efficient cause of salvation speak of such Bible doctrines (and they are Bible doctrines) as election and predestination as "Cold and arbitrary," because they do not perceive that the force behind these doctrines is the love of God. In this lesson the love of Christ for the church motivated him to give himself for it, to sanctify it, and to wash it. By virtue of this work of his for the church he will present her to himself a holy body, glorious, and without wrinkle, blemish or spot. In Bible customs the bride was chosen and given to the husband. With the church her future joy and fulfillment is not in doubt, because the husband who chose the church is Christ. His choice was made out of love, and her ultimate happiness is his purpose and his vow. As obedience to Christ is to be based on love for him, so the husband/wife relationship is to be built on the same foundation. It is easy to intellectualize the love of God, especially as we apply it to ourselves. We can say that we believe in the biblical quality of God's love, but we quickly stop short of really believing in our heart that he holds such love for us. The perfect marital relationship is for life. But we are fearful to believe that the love of Christ for us is so powerful and so committed that he will never consider breaking the love relationship he holds for us. Yet that is exactly what this lesson teaches us. Do you doubt it? Do you doubt that he died on the cross? No. Well, that was for you! Is there anything more that he could do to convince you of his love? No. Then rejoice in it, for you are the apple of your husband's eye!
$$ Ch.04 Eternal - Christ And His Brethren For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee. Heb 2:11-12.
As we focus on the eternal aspects of the Bible church, we quickly see an emerging pattern. The eternal doctrine of the church is revealed in vital, personal relationships. We have seen Christ as the head of the church, a functional relationship between the parts of a living body. We have seen Christ as the husband of the church, a loving, personal relationship which reveals the love and commitment Christ holds for his church. And now in Heb 2, we see Christ claiming his church before the Father in heaven, but there he claims it as his brethren.
While the Bible doctrine of salvation deals with the legal issues in which God required satisfaction of his just legal claims, the essential Bible doctrine of salvation is presented as a family matter. Writing to these Hebrew Christians, Paul says that when Christ ascended, he had "Obtained eternal redemption for us." But to the minds of these Hebrews, redemption was itself a family matter, for, according to the Old Testament law, only a "Near kinsman" could redeem another. A stranger, even in Israel, could not redeem another Israelite. The redeemer must be a close family member.
Redemption establishes all of the basic parameters of the doctrine of salvation. It will not allow the religionist's idea that God indiscriminately loved all humanity, that Jesus died for them all, and that the Holy Spirit is attempting to lead them to faith in Christ, and that all who obey will become children of God, members of his family, by their obedience. According to the law of redemption, those for whom Christ died were at that time legally members of his family, he had the legal right, and claimed it, to pay the debt which was against them. Once paid, the debt was for ever liquidated, and they were free to return to their inheritance. The Bible teaches that Christ died for a specific number of the human race, identified and named as members of his family, that they were all redeemed by that death, being freed from the legal debt of sin which was against them. The law of redemption requires an existing relationship between the redeemer and the redeemed. All for whom Christ died were already in the legal position of sons and daughters of God before he died for them. The work of the cross was never a provisional, conditional work. From the morning of eternity it was a family affair!
There is a beautiful hymn which we sing in two different versions. In one version the chorus says, "Jesus paid it all. All to him I owe." The other version says, "Jesus paid it all, all the debt I owed." In the first version the debt was transferred from the law to Christ, but we still owe the debt. False! In the second version, Jesus liquidated the debt we owed. Right!
In our lesson from Hebrews those who were redeemed by Christ are described as the sanctified, and we are told that they and the sanctifier are all of one. Because of this special relationship, he is not ashamed to call them his brethren in the courts of heaven. He reminds the Father that they are his brethren! Notice and rejoice! He doesn't simply claim you before men, he claims you before the Father in heaven. "I will declare thy name unto my brethren." This is not a conditional offer of salvation to lost strangers; it is a family statement concerning Christ's brethren!
We further notice that, after claiming us as his brethren before the Father, Christ says that he will "Declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee." In the next verse he says, "Behold I and the children which God hath given me." We are God's children, given into the safe keeping of his eldest Son, Jesus Christ. As our loving brother, he tells us about our loving heavenly Father. According to Mt 11:27, the only people who can know the Father are those who have seen him by the Son's revelation. Again, this is a family matter.
We are also instructed by the order in which the events of the lesson unfold. First, we see sanctification, then they are acknowledged as brethren. This order is exactly the opposite of the popular notion, which admonishes sinners to obey, get to be God's children, and then they will be sanctified.
Regardless of the form of explanation, there are two basic concepts of salvation in the world today, only two. They may be explained in numberless ways, but when the cosmetics have been removed, we see only two. One puts man at the center of the scene, and requires all of the effective, vital actions necessary for salvation to be accomplished by man. The other puts God at the center of the scene, and declares that God has accomplished all of the necessary, vital actions which were required. Which concept best harmonizes with the lesson we are studying? Who is the dynamic worker in the accomplishment? Who does the sanctifying? Who declares the name of the Father to his brethren? Who gave these children to Christ?
Child of God, rejoice! For Jesus Christ, our older brother, is today yet declaring the name of God our Father to his brethren. Have you rejoiced at the thought of this good and merciful God? Have you longed to know more of him and how to honor him? Has your heart longed for him, as the hart longs for the water brooks in a dry land? Then rejoice, for your longing after God is witness that Christ has declared him to you, for you are one of his family!
This verse sounds the trumpet for the ultimate function of the ministry in the New Testament era. Contained in Paul's farewell address to the elders of the church at Ephesus, it is set forth as both the positive function of the gospel and the preventive inoculation against the ravaging wolves which he warned would soon invade the Ephesian church. While set in an address to representatives from a local church, I believe this message defines more than the timely church in the world.
Language which defines scope also defines limitations. In this verse the church is said to be bought with blood. I ask, "Is the scope of the cross, the blood of the sacrificial offering of the Son of God, limited to members of the timely visible church on earth? Is anyone outside the membership of a local church a beneficiary of the purchase of blood? If so, then the scope of this verse, and the definition of the church described there, also reaches beyond the membership of a local church.
First, let us examine the purchase price. The church is described as being purchased with the blood of God. It is quite significant to consider the language here. "The church of God, which he purchased with his own blood." The words drive us to the deep mystery of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. In 1Ti 3:16 Paul taught that the incarnation of Jesus Christ was literally God manifest in the flesh. By the same principle when Jesus died on the cross, it was the blood of God which was shed for sinners. Do you want to explore an even greater mystery? Repeatedly in the Old Testament we are told that the life of every living thing is in its blood. That is the basis for the offering of the symbolic animal sacrifices by the Levites. It is also the basis for the prohibition against blood as an acceptable food.
The simple shedding of a few drops of blood was not sufficient for Jesus to pay the purchase price for our sins. He must give his life! When he was born and circumcised, it is probable that some of his blood was lost from his body. When he lost his baby teeth, he lost some blood. When he walked the long tiring trails through Samaria and rested at the well, Joh 4, it is possible that the long walk caused blisters, maybe even blood. It is possible, though the language is not convincing, that he shed blood in Gethsemane. But none of these were sufficient! His life must be given for the price to be met! The shedding of the blood of God in the light of the Old Testament symbols required that he die! Could we say that God died on the cross? It seems startling, incredible, but that, my friends, is the point of this lesson. That was the price God was willing to pay for your sins! Oh, in the sense of the unbeliever's notion of death, he didn't die. Never, even then, did God cease to exist or be God. But he did allow his earthly body to experience death. Death is not cessation of existence according to the Bible. It is separation, and Jesus did separate his life, his soul, from his body.
This truth rejects the dubious notion of Jesus going to Hell, or an imaginary purgatory, during the three days his body was in the grave. Remember, he told the thief in Lu 23:43, "Today, thou shalt be with me in paradise." Only in Milton's poetry and corrupted theology is paradise a compartment in Hell! According to 2Co 12:1-4, Paul was caught up into paradise, not plunged down into it. Further, in that lesson paradise is defined as the third heaven, hardly a description of any compartment in the lower regions!
What reverence the thought of our purchase price should inspire in us! God loved his church, his eternal, world-wide family, from every age, from every corner of the globe, so dearly that he came as man, suffered at the hands of men, allowed himself to be disgraced by man on a cross, and then he surrendered his life according to his eternal design and purpose. But just as he gave up that life of his own accord, he reclaimed it three days later of his own accord. And just as he gave up his life to purchase his church, he reclaimed his life for the same church. Dear friend, he didn't just die for you. He lives for you, too!
The scope and purpose of preaching is clarified in this verse, "To feed the church of God." The gospel preacher is not God's midwife or God's obstetrician. He is God's shepherd, a feeder of the flock. The new birth is God's exclusive domain; making children of God is God's work! But once the grace of God has been instilled in the heart and the sinner has been saved by the grace of God, it is the roll of preachers to feed that one with spiritual food, knowledge of God's eternal truth. If we restrict the church in this verse to the local, timely church, then no preacher has any authority to feed or help anyone who is not a member of that church. A ridiculous conclusion! The gospel is addressed to all who have been purchased by the death of Christ. While we are not to attempt a final judgement of who is or is not saved, we are to respond to Bible evidences of grace in people we meet. We are also to preach on every occasion which the Lord providentially opens for us and let him make the application of our preaching to the hearts of those who hear.
The theme of this verse should serve to enlarge our thinking, to make us aware that our preaching is to be aimed at all who are touched by the wondrous benefits of the death of Christ on the cross, for they will constitute the "Church of the Firstborn which are written in heaven."
Poets would give their best for words as beautiful as these, but only God could speak them. This is one of those panoramic texts that scans the spiritual landscape, revealing the whole of God's splendid purpose and the saints' grand expectation. The adjectives which describe God's ultimate purpose are vivid; the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem, etc. That this lesson considers the victorious, eternal church is evidenced by several specific points. First, heavenly Jerusalem suggests a vital union, as in the allegory of Ga 4:24-31. Secondly, the company of ministering spirits in the earthly church, angels, is quite small, as scripture prophetically teaches, but the company of angels seen here is innumerable. Next, the city we are approaching is the general assembly of the firstborn, not the local assembly. The list is convincing. Church rolls are kept on earth; this roll is written in heaven. The men who inhabit the church on earth are being perfected, Eph 4:12; the men in this city are already made perfect. The intent of the lesson is clear. Regardless of the trials and scorn of fellow countrymen, as the Hebrews were experiencing at the writing of this letter, or any of the burdens common to Heaven's citizens, we are on our way to a better country, described here in details rarely seen, even in scripture. In the language of the hymn these poor suffering Christians were reminded to "Look away from the cross to the glittering crown."
Allow your imagination free rein, creating a mental image of what heaven will be like? See how it compares with this lesson. Each title is full and rich in encouraging thoughts for discouraged saints who are struggling on earth against incredible burdens. Vivid contrast is drawn with the Old Testament form of worship which was tempting the Hebrews to forsake their faith. The vision of the church on earth, which cannot be complete until it brings the church in heaven within the view of faith, is seen in all its glory here.
Contemplate any one of these thoughts. A city whose ruler is the living God. A worship service in which every angel in heaven sounds the background to the overpowering music of the voices of all redeemed saints from all ages. A church service, attended by every one of the saved, no absenteeism. Greeting every single person whose name was written in the book of the Lamb. Imagine each member of the family of God, all present and assembled, but now without their flaws, weaknesses and sins which plagued them while they lived on earth. Think of conversations about the glory of the Saviour, carried on with full perception of the experience on earth, but seen from God's view for the very first time! Focus on that One who commands the attention and worship of every member of this holy city, Jesus the mediator. Consider with rejoicing the victory accomplished by the blood he sprinkled on heaven's altar. Contrast that victory with the first human blood which was shed, Abel's, which brought condemnation on the one who shed it. Christ's blood brought justification, freedom, release from legal captivity, to all for whom it was shed!
This city is not a sparsely populated place; all for whom God prepared it will be there. It does not have a denominational tie exclusively labeled to it. The keys to this kingdom were never in any man's hands!
Does the thought of such a place make your cross more bearable, your weight lighter, your daily struggles easier to endure? Then rejoice and look forward to the time when you will claim your place in that heavenly assembly!
There is a holy city, A happy world above,
Beyond the starry regions, Built by the God of love;
An everlasting temple, And saints arrayed in white;
They serve their great Redeemer, They dwell with Him in light.
It is no world of trouble, The God of peace is there,
He wipes away their sorrows, He banishes their care;
Their joys are still increasing, Their songs are ever new,
They praise th' eternal Father, The Son and Spirit too.
The meanest child of glory Outshines the radiant sun;
But who can speak the splendor Of that eternal throne,
Where Jesus sits exalted, In godlike majesty?
The elders fall before Him, The angels bend the knee.
Is this the Man of Sorrows, Who stood at Pilate's bar,
Condemned by haughty Herod, And by his men of war?
He seems a mighty conqueror, Who spoiled the powers below,
And ransomed many captives From everlasting woe.
The hosts of saints around Him Proclaim His work of grace;
The patriarchs and prophets, And all the godly race,
Who speak of fiery trials, And tortures on their way;
They came from tribulation To everlasting day.
Now with a holy transport They tell their sufferings o'er,
Their tears and their temptations, And all the pains they bore;
They turn and bow to Jesus, Who gained their liberty;
Amid our fiercest dangers Our lives are hid in Thee
This lesson is a lively commentary on both the Bible aspects of the doctrine of the church, the timely or practical and the eternal. In the area of the timely doctrine of the church it convincingly refutes the notion among the cults and religious orders of modern origin that the church which Jesus built became corrupted and lost its identity somewhere in the past, and the companion assertion that their organization is God's idea of the revived pure church. This is a self-serving doctrine, which justifies the organization of any persuasion which is substantially different than the historic Christian community. It can justify both its existence and its difference from the commonly accepted forms of Christianity by this assertion. If the true church became so corrupt that it ceased to exist, then they can claim that God appeared to their founder to re-establish pure Christianity, their church and its dogma. If their beliefs and practices seem a little strange, they can claim that it is because all of the historic Christian persuasions are simply various manifestations of corrupt Christianity.
Why does this lesson refute that idea? Simple. It asserts that God will have glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, ages being translated from a Greek word which literally means generations. The church must exist in all generations to glorify God, as prophesied here. If the church ceased even for one generation, then this lesson is false. If this lesson is false, then we have a flawed Bible, an absurdity. If this absurdity were true, God would have lost all his glory on earth outside the general witness of the creation. An established, authoritative Bible is widely rejected by many who claim to be mainstream Christians today. Little do they realize that they are miming the exact tactic of the cults in so doing. Jesus said, "The scripture cannot be broken," Joh 10:35. I believe Jesus and the King James Bible more than any self-serving man of the Twentieth Century, cult or mainstream!
The necessary conclusion of the lesson is that there has always been, in every generation of Christianity, a timely, practical church which has glorified God by Jesus Christ. This is the same lesson as we read in Ro 11:1-5. After presenting Elijah's despair over Baal worship in Israel, his feeling that he was God's only faithful man on earth, and God's reminder that he had 7000 reserved, Paul concluded, "Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace." Two vital truths appear in this verse. First, the Divinely, Providentially preserved church, the faithful remnant, remained in Elijah's day. He had no need to crawl off in a cave in the mountains and form a new nation to preserve God's Old Testament church. Even so, according to Paul, in the dark days of the waning First Century, God still preserved a remnant. The lesson extends to the church in every generation of the New Testament era, "There remains a remnant." Secondly, the lesson rejects the idea that all the saved will come to the knowledge of the truth and obey the gospel. The lesson teaches that only a remnant will do so. However, this remnant of faithful believers is in keeping with the principle that God has a greater number who are saved by his grace. The doctrine of the remnant church, preserved by grace in every generation, is a logical, harmonious companion to the fact that God has a greater whole who are saved, "According to the election of grace."
In our lesson in Eph 3, the first view we see is that God receives glory by Jesus in the church in all generations. The second view leaps from the timely church in every generation, the remnant out of the whole of the elect family, to the church in its glorious completion, "world without end." The word world is translated from a word which sometimes means age. In this case, however, it applies to an ageless age, "age without end." The glorious church, the whole, not the remnant, the complete family of God, the redeemed of all ages, will participate in the primary activity of eternal glory, significant, appropriate glory to God by Jesus Christ, throughout the ageless ages of eternity without end. The church on earth is an imperfect, microscopic image of the wonders of heaven. We see this reflection only when we focus our perception of the church in time on the goal, the Bible pattern, and the spiritual drive of the saints. If we focus on the imperfections of the saints in the church in time, we will see nothing worth attending now or in eternity. That's wrong! Stop looking for faults! They are there! Look for Jesus in the church, look for evidences of his love, his goodness and benevolent presence, in your life and in the lives of those in the church. Work to encourage the influence of Christ in both your life and the life of others in the church. Work at "Perfecting the saints" until you see the perfected saints in the church in glory, world without end!
The countless multitude on high, Who tune their songs to Jesus' name,
All merits of their own deny, and Jesus' worth alone proclaim.
Firm on the ground of sov'reign grace, They stand before Jehovah's throne,
The only song in that blest place Is "Thou art worthy Thou alone."
With spotless robes of purest white, And branches of triumphal palm,
They shout with transports of delight, The ceaseless universal Psalm.
Salvation's glory all be paid To Him who sits upon the throne,
And to the Lamb whose blood was shed, "Thou, Thou art worthy, Thou alone."
We now move into a study of the timely, practical phase of the Bible church. As with a physical structure, we begin with the foundation of the church. No better scripture could be found to establish the biblical foundation for the Bible church. Study the context of this verse carefully. It forms a historic spiritual landmark for all opinions of the church of Jesus Christ.
A building's foundation determines the stability of the building as long as it stands, for a shallow, poorly designed foundation cannot hold the constant weight of the structure. Further, a foundation also determines the dimensions of the building. The walls must be built along the perimeter of the foundation, for they are uniquely designed to support that extra weight.
However, the foundation of this structure is not simply Peter's confession that Jesus was the Christ, God's Son. Peter's confession was built upon something even deeper. Jesus' first response to Peter was "Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven." Undoubtedly, these words reveal a Divine revelation which made Christ known to Peter! The Bible doctrine of revelation is shunned like the plague today in favor of the shallow, private, unprovable "God has revealed to me that...." The basis of this idea is soundly rejected by scripture, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good," 1Th 5:21. Prove to me that God has revealed it to you. You can't! But if God has revealed something legitimate to you, you can find it clearly taught in the Bible. Give me the convincing Bible documentation, and I will believe that God has revealed it to you.
Mt 11:25-27 is a prayer of Jesus, specifically thanking the Father that he had hidden the beauties of his truth from the wise and prudent and had revealed them unto babes. Verse 27 sets forth in distinct forceful language the fact that the only way any man can know the Father is by the Son's revelation! In Mt 13:11 Jesus explained to the disciples the difficulty of the parables, "Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given." Both of these lessons send our minds quite forcefully into this subject of God's revelation of truth. There are some things in the Bible which any thinking man with a spiritual conscience can immediately embrace; the moral code of the ten commandments and the Golden Rule, as examples. But there are other things which remain a parable, forever sealed, without God's revelation.
Professing Christendom almost universally acknowledges the deity of Christ and his death on the cross, but, friend, they do not all interpret those stellar truths in the same fashion. In Ga 1 Paul inferred that many were preaching another gospel about another Jesus, using all the right words and acknowledging all the basic facts, but drawing contradictory conclusions, so that they were, in fact, preaching another kind and quality of gospel and another kind and quality of Jesus Christ than he had received by revelation and had made known to the Galatian churches. How timely in 1988 this truth remains. Jesus is being preached, but it is another Jesus in kind and quality than the Jesus of the New Testament. The gospel is being spread far and near, but it is another kind and quality of gospel than revealed in the New Testament. The historic facts are presented to legitimize the message, but the New Testament conclusions which are drawn from those facts are frequently denied! It is another gospel, one not based on revelation, but on man's wisdom and ego. It's proponents, the wise and prudent (If you don't think they are wise and prudent, just ask them.), are the very ones from whom the truth of God has been hidden!
"Upon this rock," a solid footing for a grand structure indeed, the rock of Divine revelation assures the perpetuity of the church and the dynamic, functional, but unchanging, truth of the church's creed. Be it science or morality, the unfolding curtain of time continues to vindicate the Bible as a true, authentic work. In numerous instances the Bible reveals scientific truth about the world in which we live, which was centuries ahead of the prevailing science of the time in which those words were written. And there is no doubt that the Bible is centuries ahead of the age in which we live, too. The wrecking yard of dead nations, cultures and philosophies is a lively witness to the moral truth of God. God's revelation of truth came first in scripture, and then it is confirmed in the revelation and godly conviction which he instills in the hearts of men and women in direct support of that first revelation, Bible truth. Those who oppose Bible authority as "Too legalistic" reveal more than they think about themselves. They are afraid to submit their "Revelation" to the scrutiny of God's benchmark revelation, the Bible. Why? Since God does not change, a revelation from God today will be in comfortable harmony with God's earliest revelation. Won't it?
A building's foundation is not visible to the eye. So the rock of revelation upon which the church is built is invisible to the unenlightened eye, but the presence of God, his Bible and his church are undeniable evidence that a good foundation underlies the structure. If your church is built on a foundation which can be seen, you'd better start looking for another church! Charismatic pastors will leave or loose their charisma, exciting social programs will become old hat, and famous choirs will get out of tune. But God's revelation is as fresh and vibrant as ever. The foundation of the church is in good shape, even after 20 centuries of assault.
This verse describes the mission of the church in language which relates to a building, "Pillar and ground." Mt 16 teaches that the foundation of the church is the Divine revelation that Jesus is the Christ, God's Son. Here we study the structure to be built on that foundation. A building's form reveals much about its purpose. "And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit," Eph 2:20-22. And then, "Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ....that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light," 1Pe 2:5-12. This just may be one of the most common symbols in the Bible. And one of the most instructive!
After reading these two lessons, do you have any doubt as to the purpose and role the Bible church is given? Pillar and ground, not reviser and creator. In most ancient ruins around the Mediterranean Sea we can see massive pillars. They call up thoughts of ancient strength and dignity. Consider the weight they held. No wind would take that building anywhere. "For an habitation of God through the Spirit." In absolute terms God cannot be contained in any physical structure. See Isa 66:1. Yet here we are specifically told that we are built, "Fitly framed together," for the express purpose of being the habitation of God! "To shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." In neither of these lessons is there room in the symbol for an isolated Christian, separated from the body of believers. As each part of a building is trimmed to fit its place, each member of a church body is daily molded into the person God wants him or her to be in his church. The functional part resigns its self-centeredness to fill a more important function in the whole building.
Let your mind explore this symbol. Sometimes we think of the church in such compartmental terms that we cannot imagine it having any real influence in our lives. During six days of the week, we live by one set of rules. Then on the seventh day we change the rules. If this habit progresses too far, the six day patterns wear down the seventh day patterns, and we begin to neglect the church. The structure described in this verse is very much attached to this earth. "Pillar and ground" doesn't exactly describe a flying machine. God designed the church to be a deep, powerful influence in the earth life of his people. But he designed it, as well, to give us a mission and goal in life which is definitely not of this world. The longer I live, the more I am convicted that preaching needs to be bluntly specific and instructive in those very areas of life which are most troubling the people in the church. To mix metaphors, "This building really has its feet on the ground." It is clear from the lesson that the purpose filled by a public, group assembly of believing Christians in church cannot be filled by a lone, isolated Christian all by himself. Neither can we fill our role in the church by permitting ourselves to maintain a casual record of attendance and support. We can't survey the sky and say, "Oh well, there are no clouds. They don't really need the roof today." Every time the building is used, every part is needed to lend support and completeness to every other part. The symbol requires a faithful, consistent attendance record. And by attendance I mean much more than simply filling up a spot in a pew. I'm talking about physical presence, about mental alertness, about sincere prayer for God to bless the service according to his will. Did you ever think that you went to sleep in church because you got what you wanted out of it? But the question is, "Did God get what he wanted out of it?" When he does, you won't be asleep!
"Ground" looks at footing, foundations, the support of the building which was built right into the foundation. "Ground of the truth" vividly tells us that the church, not the deacons or the preachers, is the foundation strength of the truth. Those organizations which have transferred the support for truth to preachers or boards have experienced constant and radical change in what they consider truth, a portable building, which gets moved around a lot. How many seminaries are teaching the same theology now as when they were founded? Preachers who forget that God put them in the church, to be an integrated part of the structure, also forget the foundations upon which their faith is built. "If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?" Ps 11:3.
"Pillar" draws our attention to the transfer of the foundation's strength and stability to various elevations of the building which need that support. Effectively, the pillar is a transmission line, a conduit which holds onto the strength of the foundation and conveys that strength to the upper reaches of the building. God's vehicle for the transmission of foundation truth is the church, the New Testament, Bible church. And the most important role the church can play is to be faithful to that function. The preservation of God's truth among children of God in time is a noble purpose, not to be taken lightly. It is God's special dwelling place. It enables us to show forth his praises. In a Bible church we can reach into God's foundation, then experience and transmit that strength to those around us in church and in life. Can you think of a better reason for the church?
When you think of your church, what is the first and strongest emotion you feel? Is it fear? A sense of being threatened? If these emotions are your strongest impression of your church, then something is terribly wrong! Look at the lesson before us. Single out the key actions which appear in the text. "Speaking the truth in love, grow up into him, the whole body fitly joined together, every joint supplieth, effectual working of every part, increase of the body, edifying of itself in love." This lesson could well be called a church's report card. Before focusing on the several issues introduced here, we note that the lesson begins and ends with love, that the whole setting is a growing experience, and that the various parts are working together for the good of the body. Can these thoughts help us fill our place in the church?
"Speaking the truth in love." Frequently, church people are downright cruel in their treatment of each other. Ask why they did or said a particularly cruel thing and you hear, "Well, it's the truth, isn't it?" It seems that the fact that the truth was told justifies the most cruel and unthoughtful conduct imaginable. Ax grinding and speaking the truth in love are worlds apart! You can salve a bruised ego and gain sweet revenge against someone who hurt you by this conduct. Yes, it is the truth, but is it spoken in love? However deeply provoked, human anger does not react in godliness. Has someone hurt you? Are you flinching in anger from the blow? What should you do? At the moment, nothing! Take up the issue with the Lord, but with no one else. Before you attempt to settle it with the offender, make sure you and the Lord are agreed on it. Once that has been done, it will be the easiest thing you ever did to clear the air with the offender, for then you can approach that person without the oppressive weight of your own unresolved anger. What could have been a major crisis in personal relationships in the church became a "Growing experience." Everyone is stronger for it.
"May grow up into him in all things." This is not just the addition of pounds. It is directed healthy growth. During the time my three daughters were going through their emotional teen years, at times of confrontation or anger with each other, they frequently snapped, "Why don't you grow up!" Somehow the idea of true, constructive growth was missing in those little barbs. But then there were times when one of them had a bad experience and was hurting deeply, desperately in need of a word of kindness. At those times not a word was said about growing, but the compassionate, caring support that was given definitely indicated growth. This verse speaks of growing up into Christ. It speaks of the image, the conduct of discipleship, of becoming more like Christ in those tough situations we all face only too often in life. "All things" leaves nothing untouched by the image and example of Jesus. We don't simply grow up in those quiet painless areas of our convenient choosing. We grow up into him "In all things." What is your weakest spot, the part of your life which is most vulnerable to giving in to the Seducer? How do you feel about exposing that part of your life to your Lord Jesus and his treatment? Isn't that what this lesson is all about? We tend to hide those parts of our lives from the Lord, but they are the very things which we need to take to him most, for he can strengthen them most effectively.
We just looked at two lessons which compared the church to a building, the firm foundation and the solid structure of the building. In this lesson the symbol is a living, dynamic body, alive and growing, each part working to carry its weight and contribute to the health of the whole body. Like happiness, growth never occurs when you are thinking about it. The person who says he is looking for happiness will never find it, for it comes by loosing self in pursuit of a greater goal. If you want to really be happy, find something which is bigger than you, which is more important and worthwhile than anything you can imagine. Then start systematically working to realize some degree of progress for that which is so important. As you progress, you will suddenly realize that you are absolutely aflame with excitement and joy over the effort you have made. Happy? You bet!
Study verse 16 closely. Did you notice the emphasis of the lesson shift from your growth to the health and growth of the body? Just the normal wear and tear of daily living will generate some heat. As the two parts focus on each other and all the friction "That other part" is creating, they forget their purpose in the body, and, sadly, they forget their head. When they realize that, despite the normal wear and heat of the body parts, each part is responsible for how it reacts to the orders it received from the head, then the heat doesn't really amount to much at all. What is important is the health and function of the whole body. So what if a part gets a little heated up now and then. See it as an opportunity to pour oil, not light a match.
In all of this we have grown up into Christ. We have started thinking more like him and less like a little territorial part. What is the impact of not taking up our position in the body? Look at verse 14. We remain children, immature, tossed around, and drawn after every novel idea which enters our brain. Where can we find this growth? Only in church, where we rub shoulders with the other parts of the church body, and learn each other's humanity, and more important, each other's Christianity. Church is the growing place!
Many denominations conduct a beginner's course of study in their particular dogma, after which those who complete the course are "Confirmed." It is similar to an initiation or an acknowledgement that this person has gained a working knowledge of the church's dogma and is graduated into the "Confirmed" membership of the order. While a systematic study of the Bible is not to be criticized, this practice appears to make an external initiation ritual out of what in the New Testament was a regular activity, which continued repeatedly in the lives of the churches. This lesson illustrates biblical confirmation. Verse 21 tells that after Paul and Barnabas preached at Derbe, possibly for the first time, they returned to three cities where they had preached and established churches at an earlier time. Their stated purpose in returning is our study verse. They returned to confirm and to exhort.
The word confirm is translated from a Greek word meaning to establish further, to strengthen. The idea is not a single initiatory rite, but a dynamic part of an ongoing ministry. In Eph 4:11-17, after listing the four major categories of the ministry, Paul defined the function of the gospel, "For the perfecting of the saints." In this verse every Christian who came under the influence of the ministry is called a saint. But the New Testament use of saint is not to distinguish some exceptional category of god-like, near sinless martyr. Here a saint is just an ordinary, sincere, struggling Christian, who, under the influence of the gospel, is brought a little closer to the pattern of Christ. Perfecting, improving, making better and stronger Christians, is one of the primary goals of the church and the ministry of the gospel which the church carries forward. No matter how well we may have studied the Bible, how faithfully we may have applied its teachings in our lives, we have not yet attained perfection. If you are satisfied with your performance as a Christian, it is the best warning you could have that you desperately need help! This thought is not intended as a put down, but as an illustration of the church's work.
The New Testament church is not to be a "Birthing center," or God's delivery room, where lost sinners are born again. That work is performed by God without any form of assistance from any man. Read again the first few verses of Joh 3. "The wind bloweth where it listeth...So is every one who is born of the Spirit." The wind is not controled by mortals, it is not directed by man, but it blows where it pleases. Here we are told that the Holy Spirit operates the same way in the new birth. How different from the common teaching of the high pressure evangelists of the Twentieth Century, just one of a large number of differences between these folks and New Testament preachers.
Those saints who have been born of God are the ones who are helped in the lesson. They are confirmed, further established, perfected, by exposure to the ministry of the church. If more church people understood this simple truth, there would be fewer church people ruled by the harsh, egotistical, "Holier than thou" judgemental spirit which is one of the church's greatest enemies. We would understand that we are all struggling, learning disciples, students of our Lord Jesus Christ. None of us has yet gained perfect insight into the truth of God, but we have discovered that the best way to improve our performance, to gain more strength for a better quality of service is by a close association with the church.
The preacher in this setting is not a judgemental, prickly pear, who threatens and condemns. He is a warm, caring, encouraging type, who helps us live closer to our Lord and serve him better. His greatest strength is not in threatening fire and brimstone, but in setting a good example by his own life. Study 1Pe 5:1-3. I find it fascinating that Peter, the supposed first pope, was chosen by the Holy Spirit to remind these fellow-elders that they were not to be "Lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock." During the Dark Ages in Europe when Roman persecution drove the sincere god-fearing Christians underground, there was a group of simple, godly Christians in southern Europe, known as Waldenses. They lived in small isolated villages in the valleys of the Piedmont Alps. Their ministers frequently had to serve more than one community, so they spent several months in each of the villages they served, often living with families in the village. These brave soldiers of the cross were called by a title in their language which loosely translates as our "Uncle." It was a term of special endearment. This title is a beautiful example of the confirming elements which should always be a strong part of the church's ministry and activities.
All too often, the image of the church is that it is made up of super-Christians, the elite of the elite. This idea rules out the need for confirmation, for it sees the church as being above the need for further strengthening. The church, doctrinally set forth in the New Testament, is a perfect church, but, in the New Testament and today alike, the actual local church bodies are not perfect reproductions of that image. They are striving to live closer to that image, and that is the precise purpose of the spiritual gifts in the church and the activities of the church. Remember, "Perfecting of the saints," "Confirming the souls of the saints." May God help us to be tuned in to the weaknesses, the flaws and the falterings of each other, and then may he grant us grace to confirm and strengthen each other with kind deeds and encouraging words.
Confusion and peace, not quite the historic Tolstoy War and Peace contrast to our natural minds, but in the spiritual world of the church, they are as purely opposite as is possible. The parallels between the physical world and the spiritual run deep, and this comparison is a good illustration of that fact. Most military campaigns, despite intricate plans and strategies, become bloody masses of confusion and hysteria. For the moment think only of the natural side of this illustration, the contrast between the hell of war and a quiet peaceful society. Which do you prefer? How much would you give to assure that quiet serenity for your children and the generations of your family yet to be born? Is it worth a significant price to you now?
Now let's transfer our thoughts to the spiritual world, the world where the peace of God which passes understanding and comprehension rules, and the spiritual world where the prince of darkness is constantly seeking a way to break in upon your life to disturb and destroy that peace. How much is it worth to you to preserve that peace in the church for the generations which are yet to be born in your family and countless others? Many Twentieth Century Christians have fallen upon the notion that a peaceable spirit is a sure sign of softness and weakness. In their minds there is no difference between the devil's legions and a sincere church member who disagrees with them on some minor point of interpretation. Both deserve full scale war and unbridled wrath! They must strain to find a suitable interpretation for the words of the Lord himself, "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God," Mt 5:9. It appears that their preference would be, "Blessed are the warriors: for they shall be called the preservers of the church." They conveniently forget that this verse was a part of the first, and, for that matter, the only confession of faith ever given directly to the church by her Lord. All subsequent confessions and rules of conduct originated with man. This one came straight from the Master's mouth!
While it is true that the New Testament clearly commands the wearing of the Christian armor and active participation in the good fight of faith, it is equally specific in identifying the enemy against whom we are to use these weapons. That enemy is not a brother who holds a slightly different opinion from ours on some particular verse or some non-essential doctrine. The enemies who deserve our righteous indignation and holy war are the rulers of the darkness of this world, spiritual wickedness in high places, not our brother, weak though he may be, for we, too, are clothed in flesh and blood and weakness. Are we sure that we are stronger than he? Or more right? The Christian armament is never raised with God's approval against a weak brother in the church! The Christian is commanded to be two-faced! That's right! With a brother or sister in the church, he is to strain every spiritual muscle he possesses to maintain peace, for God has authored it. Toward the pilgrim who is traveling along the path nearby, he is commanded, "If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men," Ro 12:18. Toward the Bible enemy, he is to be a formidable opponent. His Commander in Chief has said, "Having done all, to stand," Eph 6:13. It is a fatal error to confuse these Bible commands and declare war on one of the Lord's blood bought heirs, mistaken though he may be. In his error we are to admonish him as a brother, not count him as an enemy, 2Th 3:15.
God's people have too long shot the Lord's church body into bloody pieces under the guise of "Fighting the enemy," and "Keeping the church pure." Somewhere we forgot that God refused to allow David to build that magnificent temple in Jerusalem, his greatest desire, because, in the words of God himself, "Thou hast shed blood abundantly, and has made great wars: thou shalt not build an house unto my name, because thou hast shed much blood upon the earth in my sight," 1Ch 22:8. Lest we find ourselves arguing with God, and losing our deepest desire as David did, we must make haste to find the way of peace. God is the author of that way! It is the good way! The way of war and confusion within Zion is not of God, but of the devil!
Allowed its course with the power of God, the gospel will correct those monumental errors which we fight in an erring Christian, and it will also correct our own private, personal errors, which we may have kept secret from others, but not from God. This is the vital truth of Ro 1:16, that the gospel is the power of God to save the believer. The popular notion that the gospel is to save the lost fails to honor the language of the lesson, for it requires the gospel to convince unbelievers, making it save unbelievers, a direct contradiction of the inspired language. According to 1Jo 5:1, the believer is already born of God, making the believer in Ro 1:16 born again, but he needs to be saved from the countless errors of the spiritual world, including judging a brother and sister in Christ too harshly and threatening the peace of the house of God by self-righteous anarchy!
Interestingly, the Corinthian church had allowed a state of confusion to invade the church under the pretense of allowing "Spiritual gifts" their free course. What had happened, in fact, was that these spiritual gifts had been allowed to run undisciplined and had become a curse instead of a blessing to the church. Why does the verse immediately preceding this one, 1Co 14:32, say, "And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets," in marked contrast to the confused worship scene which had just been described? Spiritual gifts make peace! And peacemakers! May it be so with us!
And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost: so that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. 1Th 1:6-7.
In these verses we find two separate examples mentioned, Paul's example to the Thessalonians and their example to believers in surrounding areas. In an age when the professing Christian cannot be distinguished from the dedicated unbeliever, except by his Sunday attendance at church, we need to examine the importance of good examples. The marks of the Thessalonians' following Paul's example were (1) that they received the word which he preached, (2) that their receiving his preaching brought much affliction on them, and (3) that his preaching also caused them much joy in the Holy Ghost. The benefit of a bad example is to prevent others from repeating the mistakes of the one who set it. Solomon's confessions in Ecclesiastes are a good illustration of the bad example. Because of Solomon's life history in the Old Testament, we need not become corrupt in our old age or defame our faith with 1,000 different women to know that such conduct is wrong. The New Testament contains the history of several problem churches to serve as a negative example to us. At the same time and more significant to our lesson, a good example can illustrate model behavior, inspiring us to follow that good pattern. A negative example is half a journey, teaching what should not be, but it never completes the course. The positive example finishes the lesson by showing us what should be the pattern and life style of the model Christian.
This lesson is advanced by the words of 1Th 2:14, "For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews." Locating people in Christ carries at least two New Testament distinctions. In 2Co 5:17 it denotes our legal, eternal position in Christ, a new creation. In this verse it suggests that these churches in Judaea were not churches in name only. They were in Christ Jesus in their conduct. They took his teaching seriously, they believed in him with all their heart, even to being ridiculed by their countrymen. The image of the life of Christ was mirrored in their lives. In real life situations they were concerned that they would react as Jesus would react, they wanted their lives to reflect the image of their Lord.
Significant areas of the Christian life where the Thessalonians were good examples are
1. 1Th 1:8. They became sounding boards for the word of God and faith in God. They were not quiet, secret disciples.
2. 1Th 2:13. They received the gospel as a message from God, not as another philosophical thesis from man. In their minds it was actually God's message to them. How often today do we hear people say, "How can I know anything about the Bible? So many people have contradictory views?" Did you ever try reading it for yourself?
3. 1Th 3:6. The two key marks of their example were their faith and charity. Faith defines our attitude toward God, and charity defines our attitude toward our fellow-man. Are these two traits the mark of our Christianity?
4. 1Th 4:9. Because God had taught them and they had learned the deeper lesson of charity, that profound love which characterizes God's love for us, based on him and not on our being lovable, these Thessalonians had become excellent examples of brotherly love. When we base our love of the brethren on the preciousness they hold in the heart of God, and our own heart, regardless of whether they deserve our love or not, then we can practice the Bible habit of true brotherly love.
A good example is never a perfect example. It will always need improvement. Remembering this humbling truth will prevent us from becoming egotistical Christians. Beginning with 1Th 5:14, Paul closed the letter with fourteen specific exhortations, listed in verses 14 through 22.
Twice in the New Testament Paul's intense desire to set the right example is reflected by the word provoke. In Ro 11:14 he wrote of his desire to "Provoke to emulation" his fellow Jews, to the acknowledging that Jesus Christ was truly the Messiah. The word here translated provoke is translated from a word which means to stimulate by standing beside. Does that give you any helpful ideas? Who do you most often "Stand beside?" Your family? Your neighbors? Your work associates? Those are the three best places to start the habit of "Provoking to emulation." In Heb 10:24-25 Paul gave one of the strongest admonitions for faithful church attendance found in the New Testament. One of the functions of faithful attendance is "To provoke unto love and to good works." The word translated provoke in this verse comes from a Greek word which means incitement to good. Again, the word contains a wealth of thought provoking ideas for implementation. First, how faithful and consistent is your record of church attendance? How can you incite someone to love and good works when you aren't even present? Secondly, what is your pattern of conduct with others when you are present? Does your conduct provoke to love and good works, or does it just provoke? Friends, we have all benefited from the good example of others. Now let's work at passing that good example on to those around us. Try provoking someone to love and good works.
In the midst of a religious era which claims that we in the church age are living in a prophetic hiatus, a period which God injected because the Jews frustrated his purpose for his Son's first advent, this lesson jolts our attention back to the reality of the Bible doctrine of the church. First, there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that Jesus failed in his first advent mission. He never intended to come and reign as an earthly monarch! Old Testament prophecy clearly indicates that God knew exactly what the Jews would do when Christ came. The last week of Daniel's seventy week prophesy has already been fulfilled. Marvelous simplicity, it followed the sixty ninth week! A. D. 70 finished God's prophetic use of the Jewish nation, and completed the transition of God's true worship from temple and law to grace and truth, centered in the New Testament church. The church is not only God's original design for the form of worship in the New Testament Age, it is vital to the spiritual growth and peace of the child of God.
All of 2Co 11 is a church-oriented lesson. From Paul's godly jealousy to the deceiving false apostles, we find a rich source of instructive truth for the church's practical survival and health. Paul's sense of humor also appears in the chapter. Even in the face of crucial enemies to the cross, he used his wit to teach the truth and expose the phony ego religion of the church's enemies. Look at verses 16, 21 and 23. He met the arrogant boasts of the enemy with a tongue in cheek, "If they can boast, I can boast more. I speak as a fool!" His tongue in cheek response suggests that the man who seriously boasts, a common religious activity, speaks as a fool. Paul knew when to "Answer a fool according to his folly." At the same time he kept his mission of teaching the truth in clear view. Our study verse appears in a list of his trials and sufferings. After mentioning an impressive list of troubles he had encountered for the truth, he wrote the words of this verse.
"That which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches." The word care is translated from a Greek word which means solicitude, deep concern. Paul was not just concerned with those churches in which he had a personal interest or those churches who agreed with him in every particular point. He was concerned with all the churches. He didn't just think about them occasionally. His deep, solicitous concern for them was a daily affair.
While we may claim that, as an apostle, Paul had a special burden for the churches, we must also acknowledge that his involvement in the care of the churches sets a pattern for us. As he set himself forth, "a pattern to them which should hereafter believe," we find a New Testament example for our own lives. Let this lesson challenge all of us. Is the care of the churches on our minds daily? Do we just think of what's wrong and lament that it isn't the way it should be? Here is the challenge to each of us. What can I do to improve what's wrong? Can I improve my personal record of church attendance? You know, it's hard to convince others that you are so concerned for the church when your attendance record is deficient. At a minimum, the church doors should be open every Sunday morning, and every member, every child of God who is concerned for the church, should be present to pray for the church, attentively listen to the message, and go forward with a stronger commitment to practice in daily life what was preached. Our family and friends should be so aware of our commitment to regular attendance that they wouldn't dare ask us to miss a service for any reason.
How do we show our concern? By a constant barrage of criticism and complaint, judging those who disagree with us as deficient Christians? No, never! Paul demonstrated his care quite specifically in the verses which follow our lesson. "Who is weak, and I am not weak?" "Who is offended, and I burn not?" We cannot show our deep concern for the church by disrespect and criticism, but by identifying with the weak and the offended, by helping them become stronger in the faith. Ro 14, admonishes, "Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, by not to doubtful disputations." The KJV marginal note reads, "Not to judge his doubtful thoughts." Two illustrations appear in the chapter which characterize weakness in the faith, ritual Sabbath keeping and vegetarianism. Weakness in the faith always seeks an external ritual of some kind. Neither of these practices were approved by Paul, or he would not have used them in the illustration. But his point was that those who are weak in the faith are to be received, not to judge and put them down, but to strengthen them in the faith.
Is our concern for the church so strong that we are willing to identify with a weak brother, not to join him in weakness, but to sit down with him at the table of the Lord, eating and drinking deeply of the spiritual nutrients God provides for his people. Will not the weak brother or sister rise from your table stronger in faith than when he sat down? When someone becomes indignant for no good cause, can we listen and try to understand their feelings, for unless we understand them, wrong as they may be, we will never be able to help them fasten their emotions on their Lord instead of their anger? To borrow from the marginal note in Ro 14:1, when I judge a brother's doubtful thoughts, I alienate him, turn his anger toward me, and loose my influence over him for good. When I listen and show compassion, even if I later tell him gently that I have different thoughts than his, he does not feel threatened by me, and his respect for me will encourage him to look at the situation from my perspective. The strongest influence we have on others is not intimidation and guilt, it is a kind, godly, loving example!
Lest we charge God with building impersonal, assembly line churches with no personality, we should think about this lesson and its greater implications. One need only visit several churches, even those in close proximity and fellowship, to learn that each church has its own unique personality. I have known people who moved from one area of the country to another and rejected godly churches in their new area because they did some little something different than the church back home. I have known people who were raised in a faithful God-fearing home who were never quite satisfied with the church of their adulthood, because it was somehow different than the church they knew as a child, never thinking that they are not the same person as when they were children. A different hymnal, a different preaching style, a slow song leader, or a fast song leader do not make or destroy the vital spiritual identity of the church. The Lord is quite able to bless his churches in a large variety of situations and through a large diversity of habits and customs. Variety may actually be of his making to minister to different people who are in need of the church in different areas and conditions.
We further learn from this lesson that at this particular time, the Corinthian church was inferior to some surrounding churches, because Paul had seen their weak conscience and discerned that they were so carnal they could not provide reasonable financial support to his ministry while he labored among them. Although their conscience was the problem, Paul asked their forgiveness for not expecting them to support him as God expected them to do. I find this action of Paul's fascinating! The church was weak and in error. Yet Paul asked them to forgive him. What a way to win them to the truth and teach them their duty at the same time!
It is not uncommon for a person young in the faith to think of the church as a perfect, infallible institution. If this is the opinion, then any slight difference, however insignificant to Bible truth, is a major stumbling block. Typically, this kind of person is unable to distinguish between essential error and reasonable, non-essential issues which are to be decided on the basis of expedience by each church. The idea of a perfect infallible church is not biblical! It is Roman! A review of each epistle written to New Testament churches will clearly reveal that there was no perfect church, even in the First Century. Those churches, which were selected by the Holy Spirit as Bible examples for all future churches, were all subject to some flaw or some problem which was mentioned, with corrective action advised. Frequently, we use the Corinthian church as an example in the extreme, and it certainly is that. Yet based on Re 2:4-5, even the church at Ephesus had problems which the Holy Spirit pointed out and corrected.
We should not punish ourselves with the disillusioned notion that we have found, or will find a perfect church. The church which seems perfect today will find itself in the midst of a severe difficulty tomorrow. At the time Paul declined the Corinthian church's support for fear of their weak conscience, this church was described in our lesson as "Inferior to other churches." At the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians I suspect it could have been said that this church had corrected many of the problems mentioned in 1 Corinthians and was superior to other churches. The church I remember from childhood was not a perfect church any more than the church I serve today, but I sincerely believe that both are true churches of the Lord Jesus, serving him and accomplishing a necessary ministry to the people in attendance.
In no instance in the New Testament do we read of one church declaring its superiority over the inferior church or placing demands on other churches. Such Nicolaitanism, dictatorial rule over the faith of the common Christian (If a Christian can ever be called common), is thunderously rejected by the New Testament. Someone asks, "But what do we do if we see a nearby church in error?" And I answer, "First, and most importantly, pray for that church. Then do everything you can to see that they have opportunity to hear the gospel preached." If they are in error and repent, then the issue is solved. If not, they are accountable to the Lord for their actions. Even if a major problem exists, let the first and most important effort at recovery be the Lord and his appointed means of correcting error. What is God's method to correct error in churches? Why, it is exactly the same as his method of correcting errors in individual lives, the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ, preached with his power and the pure godly conviction of those who preach it. Isolation never cured error, it only deepened it! The remedy is to encourage the preaching of the gospel, the one thing which will spotlight the real error and offer wise insight necessary to correct the mistake.
When Paul decided that the Corinthian church had some errors in it, he didn't build a fence around it and threaten any preacher who dared go there. He took the lead and wrote the beautiful letter of I Corinthians. An inferior church should be exposed to God's message for erring saints, not a milk-toast message, nor a "Holier than thou" message from a messenger who can tolerate looking at them only as he looks down his nose. It needs a "Get in the trenches" preacher who will preach exactly what God puts in his heart in the godly spirit of love Paul demonstrated in this model book. 1Corinthians is a perfect example of candidly marking the error without demoralizing and putting down those who committed the error. Inferior or superior, we need the word preached to keep us in the way the Lord would have us go.
This verse concludes Paul's discussion of hair styles; specifically, the length of hair for both sexes. His use of the word covering likely refers to hair length, not a scarf or hat on the woman's head. Wonderfully simplified, Paul taught that a man should wear his hair short, probably above the collar, and that the woman should wear her hair long, her covering. More importantly, he made it clear that he was not establishing a new law in the church. In the historic battle of words and ideas which surround customs and traditions, this lesson offers invaluable insight. While using hair length as the basis of his lesson, Paul taught a significant lesson on the difference between biblical customs and customs of convenience which do not violate scripture. Friends, the "Old paths" mentioned in Jer 6:16 have their origin in the Bible, not in convenient customs which began 150 years ago! Let our verse speak, for it solves the problem! Paul delivered certain ordinances, KJV footnote traditions, to the church, and it was praised for keeping them. Yet he warned that hair length was not to be a new tradition and grounds for contentions. I suggest that the New Testament contains all the traditions which we need to hold as sacred and inviolate. I equally observe that specific circumstances may arise in each particular church which require the judgement of the church, situations not directly addressed in the New Testament. In those issues the judgement of each individual church, so long as that judgement does not violate a Bible truth, is altogether appropriate. However, those local judgments should never become the basis for contention!
All too often, the issues which prompt contentions in the church have to do with these local and expedient, but not biblically mandated, practices. Paul made it clear that such issues are not to be a matter of contention. On the vital issue of forcing Gentile Christians to assume the burden of the law, Ac 15, Paul was willing to go to the mat, but on such non-essential matters as hair length, he condemned a contentious spirit. Our people were first called Old School Baptists, then Primitive, because our forefathers in the faith rejected the notion of sudden "Enlightened" departures from solid Bible doctrine, and, like Paul in Ac 15, were willing to stand firm on Bible truth. In that essential area of doctrine the New Testament commends Paul for his firm defense of Bible truth. However, this lesson does not allow us to become so unbending in areas of non-essential local practice.
The Jews took God's law as delivered to Moses, ten simple, straightforward commandments, and expanded them into thousands of pages with minute interpretations. Over many generations these traditions became their law, and they observed them as strictly as God had expected them to observe the original ten commandments. Sadly, in the mass of traditions, they lost the original significance of the ten commandments which came from God, but they remembered every particle of those contrived traditions. Remember the lesson in Mt 15, "Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?" And remember Jesus' answer, "Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?" Emphasis was added to illustrate that we cannot invent our own traditions without violating the traditions which God has imposed on us. Like the Jews of old, if we judge the law, we are not doers! There is a simplicity which is in Christ Jesus, which we should strive to preserve. Included in that simplicity is a spirit of gracious kindness toward those who do not agree with us on every minute point, especially non-essential points.
Many who grew up in god-fearing homes spend most of their adulthood looking for a church which is exactly like the church they remember from their childhood. Unless they have taken the time to study the New Testament carefully, they are unable to distinguish between Bible customs and convenience traditions. Therefore, they frequently condemn the church of their adulthood for not respecting the convenience customs of their childhood church. "It just isn't the same now." "I was raised in a real Old Baptist church." In fact neither that church of their early life, nor the church they attend today, are perfect models of New Testament Christianity, and neither should be made into a perfect fantasy church or a scape-goat church. Since no church in the New Testament is presented as a perfect church (They all were reminded of errors which needed attention.), we should not imagine that we have experienced such a church in our lifetime.
May I offer a few examples of non-essential traditions. Where I grew up in the church, passing the collection plate was abhorred. In other areas it has been practiced since long before the money changers corrupted the house of God. It is practiced there in a godly unoffensive manner. Since the New Testament teaches giving, but not specifically how the giving is to be administered, the how of giving should be reasonably left to each individual church. Some of our churches practice shaking hands at the end of each service, others do not. According to Hassell's church history, this is a relatively new tradition and one which he did not approve. It should never be made a matter of contention! If observed, it should be done with appropriate dignity and respect for the worship service, never allowed to degenerate into a social hour in which singing, shaking hands and chattering talk are all mixed together so as to become a violation of 1Co 14:40. Such issues are to be decided within the general framework of the New Testament by each individual church, based on the particular circumstances of the church, but not to become a matter of contention. May we remember the spirit of 1Co 14:1, "Follow after charity."
The Bible is filled with examples, good and bad. Both are instructive, "For our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope," Ro 15:4. Where is the dwelling place of infallibility? Is there anyone or anything we can trust without reserve? Of course the answer is, "Yes, perfection and infallibility are available." The question is not, "Do they exist?" but, "Where do they exist?" To the Bible student, this should be an elementary question, but, unfortunately, too many sincere Bible students keep looking for perfection in some quarter other than in God. There must be a perfect church somewhere with a perfect preacher, a body of believers who never make mistakes, who are never deceived by the ever-present Diotrephes of religion. It is quite a mystery that, even in the family of God, bad behavior comes so easily, and good behavior takes such effort. Parents don't need to teach their children to get into mischief. It comes quite naturally! This same mysterious flaw in the mind explains why, all too often, churches allow the Diotrephes spirit to take the leadership and spoil the beautiful simplicity God intended the church to exemplify.
Several examples similar to this one find instructive places in the New Testament record. At other times, we read of very sincere, but mistaken, saints, who quite honestly followed the wrong drum beat. Interestingly, in Eph 4:12 Paul wrote that the gifts which God gave in the ministry were "For the perfecting of the saints."
Granted, the verses quoted here tell of a rather drastic situation, but they are intended to get out attention. It is more dramatic to think that the lesson is narrated by John, the Apostle of love, not by Paul, the often rejected warrior. Think about the situation John relates here. Imagine yourself as a member of the church here described. How would you feel? What would you do? Remember, John shows us Brother Diotrephes from the objective view. As a member of that church, Brother Diotrephes would probably look quite different. He might be seen as a fierce defender of the pure faith, unselfishly standing between the church and those power hungry apostles. Even those in the church who did not agree with him would probably excuse his conduct with words like, "But he means well. He certainly has the interest of the church at heart." What purpose or need motivated God to put this lesson in the New Testament? Do you get the image of a sincere, but over zealous, Christian, or do you think of this man as an ego-crazed manipulator?
While the New Testament clearly teaches that the Lord's people are to respect their leaders (preachers and deacons), even as "Ambassadors for Christ," the spirit of leadership to be demonstrated is more as examples than as "Lords over God's heritage." I suggest that no individual in any church should ever be given such power over the church. Such a position offers a direct challenge to the lordship of Christ, and borders on idolatry! No Diotrephes can continue his control without willing followers. God-fearing people in church should faithfully and lovingly resist this spirit in favor of the direction of the New Testament and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The damage of the Diotrephes spirit on good churches is far greater than the damage of the moral failures which periodically occur. How easy it is for young minds in the church to be poisoned by this spirit. If they are not taught to be like Diotrephes, they will be disillusioned by him and reject the gracious influence of Christ and the true spirit of the church altogether. Show me a church with a missing generation in the congregation, and I'll show you a church which has probably lived through a Diotrephes era. Under this spirit, it is easy for the lambs in the flock to become discouraged and think that all are egotistical hypocrites. Not so! A thousand times, not so!
The unoffensive beauty of the church, even a less than perfect church which is sincerely struggling to serve its Lord, is one of the most magnetic influences imaginable. As we read these verses, we probably feel a cold, prickly emotion shuddering through our minds. Just under our breath lurks an emotion loaded, "Yuck!" Before you leave III John, please read verse 12. In one magnificent sweep the bad taste of the Diotrephes spirit is cleared from your mind, and the fresh, cleansing Spring shower of honest Christianity returns.
Demetrius hath a good report of all men, and of the truth itself: yea, and we also bear record; and ye know that our record is true.
The effective, Bible way to deal with the Diotrephes spirit is not to become like him, fighting fire with fire. It is to remember and follow the Demetrius examples which are all around us. How fascinating that, in the grand pattern of New Testament truth, Demetrius, unoffensive and godly, gets the last word. In the midst of all the phony, egotistical religion in the world today, there are still many gracious, godly Demetrius types. They don't strain for the lime light. They are too busy working at the very serious business of living up to the good report they have acquired. But the most important report they desire is the good report of faith and of God. God bless you, Demetrius!
It is quite instructive to search the New Testament for clues as to the exact nature and function of the churches mentioned there. Based on the first several chapters of Acts, we can safely believe that the Jerusalem church had several thousand members. Interestingly, there are four different scriptures, Ro 16:5; Col 4:15; Phm 25, and our study verse, which mention a church "That is in their house." While it is likely that the houses where these churches met were not postage stamp apartments, it is quite probable that they were not capable of accommodating large congregations. What kind of image does this draw in your mind? How large were these churches? Imagine yourself seated in one of their services in the home of Aquila and Priscilla. What kind of mood is there? How well do they know each other?
Frequently, those who are members of very large churches like to boast about their numbers, suggesting that God is automatically behind large numbers in large churches. Conversely, those who are members of small and dwindling church bodies remind themselves and others that the Lord told the little flock to "Fear not." In this attitude there is a suggestion that God is greatly magnified by diminishing numbers and very small congregations. If we boast because of large numbers, then the church with the largest head count is the winner. Right? And, frankly, I find no pleasure in boasting when a church records more deaths than baptisms year after year. That is certainly not a sure indicator of God's blessings and approval. Would it be reasonable to suggest that we have no reason to boast, either because of large numbers or small. In one instance the New Testament record infers a church membership of several thousand, and four different verses scattered throughout the New Testament mention a church which was small enough to regularly meet in someone's house.
In the grand New Testament example there is something much more vital to our minds than numbers, large or small, the spirit which exists within a church, regardless of its size. When a church is too large or too small to cultivate that spirit, it has a size problem either way! Our study verse mentions the word salute. By definition from New Testament times, this is not a cold, formal military command. Strong defines the Greek word translated salute as "To enfold, to welcome." Thayer includes these ideas in his definition, "To salute one, greet, bid welcome, wish well to....to receive joyfully." The words suggest the spontaneous reaction of long separated friends coming together with great joy. It should not be ritualized solely in physical embraces. Rather, it should be demonstrated in sincere loving warmth from the heart. A person can embrace your neck and stab you in the back, but a true friend will embrace you with his heart and stand between you and danger to protect you. I love the emphasis of the study verse, "Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord." Most of the 27 verses of Ro 16 are a list of personal salutations. Why fill so much scripture with personal greetings? The reason should be obvious. The Bible church is a body of intimate, caring people, who love each other and sincerely reach out for each other in loving salutation, frequently across hundreds of miles. The mega-churches which fill many of the headlines and religious commercials have lost that intimacy of spirit which characterized the New Testament church. The media churches, television and radio ministries which exist more for the media than for a local church body, have strayed even farther away from the Bible pattern of a close-knit, intimate, caring body of believers. Notice how many of the New Testament letters begin with "Grace and peace," and end with "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you," or "My love be with you all in Christ Jesus." These are not mere formal greetings or polite literary form. They conveyed the deep intimate love and concern of the writer for the Christians who read his letters. We can reach out and embrace someone with much more than our arms. Kind words, caring thoughts, and gracious actions are all salutary actions in the sense of our lesson.
"Let love be without dissimulation," Ro 12:9, makes the emphatic point we are discussing. Dissimulation suggests hypocrisy, a pretentious, insincere attitude. Paul puts this statement in the form of a short powerful jab. The idea of turning love into a command seems strange and mysterious to us. Isn't love sort of like water flowing down hill? Like flowers blooming? It just happens, you don't control it, much less command it! Or can you? Remember what Jesus said about the two great commandments, "Thou shalt love the Lord.....and thy neighbor as thyself." "Thou shalt" is ten commandment language. It is not a recommendation or a benevolent suggestion. It is a commandment! The problem is with our idea of love, not with the Bible. Bible love is not mushy, gooey, warm fuzzy emotions. It is a social, moral sense of obligation toward that which is good and right for the one loved. It is based on a sense of integrity and caring in the heart of the one who loves, disregarding any merit in the one who is loved. Its effect on us lies not in the sensual emotions, but in the moral fiber of the soul. What is right for me to do toward that person? Pay no mind what that person says or does. What is my obligation before God toward that person? Once we have formed the habit of treating other people with that sense of dignity, we will find it quite easy to look at ourselves in the mirror of the soul and like what we see. The strongest emotional bonds beyond a mother's love for her newborn child are nurtured in this kind of soil, and they grow strong and hearty there. My dear Christian friends, "I salute you much in the Lord."
While highly symbolic Bible language should never be used as proof of any particular doctrine, it is beautifully instructive in our study of Bible truth. Doctrinal truth should be proved by the literal, non-symbolic texts, but we, by all means, should allow the symbolic portions of scripture to add their brilliant color and light to the theological structure established by the literal. Extreme interpretations have made the Book of Revelation into a book of terror by failure to observe this principle of Bible interpretation.
Beginning with Re 1:12 of this chapter, John first saw the seven golden candlesticks. Aren't you grateful that God gave us Re 1:20 to explain the meaning of these symbols? Let's inventory the information we are given.
1. The seven candlesticks are not common, ordinary candlesticks. They are made of gold, precious and dedicated to a holy purpose.
2. "One like unto the Son of man," clothed in radiant glory, was seen in the midst of the candlesticks.
3. He held seven stars in his right hand.
Considering these word pictures with the benefit of the key, verse 20, we can reconstruct a beautiful, instructive lesson from this symbol. First, a candlestick is a functional item. Its purpose is not ornamental show. It is to hold a candle which gives light to an otherwise dark place. Is your religion simply for show, or do you think of it as a vital tool in your life? When the chips are down and the going gets rough, do you remember God and your convictions about him? Is your religion a hindrance, standing in the way of what you would really like to do, or is it a supporting helper in your life? Too often, we want enough religion to make us comfortable, but not enough to make anyone else uncomfortable. Interesting, isn't it?
What is the key mark your church leaves on you? It should be closely linked with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. Where was the oil for this candlestick? The fire to light the oil? What would the candlestick be without the oil and the fire? In Bible symbolism oil frequently represents the Holy Spirit, especially the Holy Spirit's anointing of people to a dedicated place in the service of God. Fire often represents God's presence, especially in a judgmental role. This symbol of fire can be a destructive, consuming fire, or it can be a beneficial helpful fire. Here it is altogether helpful. There is no need to change that trend in the lesson before us. The very purpose, the exclusive purpose, of the Bible church is revealed in this symbol. Fueled by the Holy Spirit and fired by the moral code of Heaven, the church gives light to an otherwise dark, dismal world.
The fuel which drives the Bible church is not large sums of money, social programs, and entertainment committees. It is the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The fire which lights and energizes that oil is the judgement, moral and ethical, of Almighty God. Consider the Bible church's first, and only inspired Confession of Faith, the Sermon on the Mount, Mt 5-7. Remember that in that first message to the church, Jesus said, "Ye are the light of the world."
What does the Bible tell us of the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the child of God? In Ac 1:8 Jesus said, "But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth." How was this power to be demonstrated? In tongue speaking? In wild emotional exhibitions? No! The power of the Holy Spirit was to be demonstrated quite simply, "Ye shall be witnesses unto me." The light of the church, the Bible church, is not seen in a magnificent temple, an ornate cathedral, or a wild emotional exhibition. It is seen in the enlightened lives of God-fearing people in the church, people whose daily conduct is marked by honest integrity, loving kindness, and a deep commitment to help those who are in need. The Master said, "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another," Joh 13:35. I find it fascinating that Jesus spoke these words immediately after he had personally washed his disciples feet! Could he possibly have been giving us an example on how to let our light shine? How do you feel about washing feet? Not your own, someone else's? What kind of role does this symbol call up in your mind?
The words deacon and ministry in the New Testament are translated from a Greek word which means to be a common table waiter. In Mr 9 Jesus told the disciples that he was to be betrayed and killed. Immediately thereafter, we read of a dispute among the disciples. What was their problem? Which of them was to be the leader, once Jesus was dead! You say, "How disgusting! How could they?" Were they really any different than so many today, who strangely blend religion with their ego and use religion to justify their unbelievable arrogance? In our lesson's symbol they have forsaken the candlestick and its light, favoring instead their own private lamp.
The most significant part of this whole lesson is that Christ was walking in the midst of the candlesticks, the seven churches in Asia. Is he walking in our midst today? Is he the first thing a hungry stranger would notice in our church? May our lamps be trimmed and our lights burning!
In a series of writings on the Bible Church it seems appropriate to include some specific New Testament examples. An examination of these churches should give us an excellent perspective, a practical view of what they were and should have been, and it should remind us of what a model New Testament church should be. In Re 2 and Re 3, we find short, pointed letters to seven different churches, an excellent subject for our study.
These seven churches, like the book in which the messages appear, have been made to represent many things by theologians and commentators. Some say that there were never seven individual churches at all, that each church symbolizes a specific era in the New Testament Age. Most who belong to this school of thought agree that the age in which we live is the Laodicean Age, the slothful, self-centered era. So long as vital doctrine is not compromised, I do not consider it advisable to quarrel over the specific application of symbolic language. Such activity is altogether unproductive and should be avoided. Yet much of the Bible is given in symbols and is worthy of study and practical use in its proper station. Symbolic lessons are not appropriate proof texts; they should not form the foundation for any doctrine we hold. However, they can enliven and beautify the truth established in the literal portions of the Bible. That is their purpose. Whether micrscopic agreement exists or not, a symbolic scripture should not be be avoided simply because of its symbolism or because it has been the subject of differing opinions.
I mention these points as a background for my intended use of these messages. In this writing I will consider that there were seven actual churches in Asia, with differing needs and trials which were specifically considered in the letters to each of them. Thus, we will look at seven unique churches, their strengths, the commendations they received, their problems and their shortcomings. Let it be remembered that each of them was addressed as a church, despite their problems, that the introduction of the book sends "Grace and peace" just as the many other specific letters of the New Testament. A fault does not immediately destroy the identity of a church, yet these letters contain warnings that failure to correct certain errors endangered the removal of the candlestick. From this we learn that only God can remove the light of a church. He has not given that authority into the hands of preachers, councils, or other churches! The Lord is in charge of his church! This by all means we should learn from these messages to the churches in Asia.
As these verses will reveal seven struggling, less than perfect, churches, who were striving to serve the Lord Jesus Christ, a clear view of the New Testament church today will reveal the same image. Rather than a symbolic illustration of seven church ages, this lesson suggests that any church, perhaps all New Testament churches, may experience similar difficulties. At one time our church may be like the Ephesian church, strong, well established in the faith, but a little short on love. At another time it may suffer from lax morality in one or more of its members, like the church at Thyatira.
If we expect to find a perfect church or think we have found it, we have programmed ourselves for a cruel disappointment. No church can live up to that image, not for long. At times any particular church will experience one of the seven characteristics of these ancient churches. The church is made up of imperfect, but sincere, people who want to do what is right and serve the Lord. Understanding this, we can accept those temporary faults and work to perfect the saints, Paul's mission for the gospel, Eph 4:12. Despite the grave difficulties each of these churches faced, the resurrected Christ walked in their midst. His walking in our midst is our hope of recovery too. By his grace we can perceive our errors and restore an acceptable course of action. Without his grace we will blindly push ahead, thinking we are aloof from error. The New Testament teaches that there is a progressive, growing formation of Christ in the life of the Christian. While the perfect Christ lives within us, he is imperfectly demonstrated in our conduct. Ga 4:19 and 2Co 3:18 both clearly teach this growing formation of Christ within the practical life of the child of God. Such a formation should also characterize our churches.
The image John saw of the Lord in the midst of the churches was one of magnificent glory. That should be the same image a child of God sees in our churches today. Building, organization, personalities, singing style, preaching methods; nothing should overshadow that image. That glory is the light of the church, and without it we are darkness. In 1Co 14:23-25 Paul taught that the church should consider its effect on outsiders who visit the assembly. In one illustration the visitor walked away shaking his head and thinking he had just escaped from a house full of unlearned, unbelieving madmen. The impact of good church conduct was quite a contrast, "So falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth." May our church be such an influence on tired travelers who stop to visit us!
The church is not a gallery for the exhibition of eminent Christians, but a school for the education of imperfect ones.
Henry Ward Beecher
Each of the letters in Re 2 and Re 3, is addressed to the "Angel of the church," probably the pastor of each church. The normal means God uses to communicate with a church is through the gospel which is preached to that church by its minister, messenger, or angel. It would be wrong to assume that these messages are exclusively to the angel, for the purpose of a messenger is to convey a message. The message given to each angel was for both the messenger and the church which was to receive his message.
The first verse of each message sets the tone for the entire message. To Ephesus, the theme serves to remind the church that Christ is in charge. A church which is strong in doctrine usually has a strong pastor. The first statement reminds us that the star, the messenger or pastor, of the church is held in Christ's hands. He does not stand on his own! It also reminds us that the significance of the church is that Christ is walking in the midst. Even the strong solid Ephesian church was altogether dependent on the Lord for its minister and its light! The God of the Ephesian church was greater than Diana of the Ephesians, Ac 19:21-41.
From the books of Acts, Ephesians and this letter, the Ephesian church seems exceptionally sound and well established, from the deep bedrock doctrines of election and predestination which are set forth in Eph 1 to the brave wearing of the whole armor of God in Eph 6. We respect and admire this church. Of all the churches described in the New Testament, it is most nearly the model church. Consider the commendations mentioned here, "I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted." These are solid traits.
They practiced tender patience with the weak, they exposed and rejected the false apostles; this was a well established church. But there was a problem, even in Ephesus. "Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love." The Greek word translated first means foremost. The Ephesian church had left its foremost love, that which was most important and desired. What a strange problem for such a strong church! There was a problem with priorities in this church. Could they have been flirting with church worship? With doctrine worship? Could the God whose sovereign grace and perfect purpose had inspired this church have second place in their minds? Was the doctrine of salvation more important than the God who established that doctrine? Was the church more important than the God who walked in the midst of the church? This lesson reminds us that there is a ditch on both sides of the well traveled road. For the New Testament church the ditch of immorality is sure to bring shipwreck, but the ditch of self-righteousness on the other side of the road is just as dangerous. Worshiping the doctrine and the church is as surely a sin in the eyes of God as following the nature and appetites which draw us into carnal sin. God alone is to be worshipped!
When God points out an error, he also points out the remedy. "Remember from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent." Bible repentance reaches far beyond morality into what we might call Christian ethics. No moral issue was mentioned which called for repentance by the Ephesian church. The threatened removal of the candlestick and their need for repentance had to do with their first love. God help us to be as concerned with our first love as we are with our morality!
As each of the seven letters begins with an instructive theme, each one also ends with a promise of blessing to the church which heeds the message of the resurrected Lord and overcomes its problems. The problems at Ephesus were not as deep and global as those at some of the other churches, so the promise associated with overcoming is quite an incentive to this church, "To eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God." This promise is suggestive of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve had perfect fellowship with God. While we cannot literally return to Eden, a well rounded godly life offers us more fellowship with God than most of us can imagine. In De 11:21 God promised Old Testament Israel that if they faithfully kept his words in their thoughts and deeds, he would make their stay in the land of Canaan "As the days of heaven upon the earth." When a New Testament church is willing to hold fast to those fundamental truths of God's sovereign grace, election, predestination, salvation by the grace of God without works, and God's eternal loving favor, then remembers its foremost love, the love of God, you will find the nearest thing on earth to heaven itself. Failure to hold to either fundamental truth or first love can equally bring the child of God or a church into a hell on earth. May we follow the faithfulness of the Ephesian church in our belief of God's fundamental truths, and may we learn from her faults and not forget our foremost love.
I have wept in the night For the shortness of sight
That to somebody's need made me blind;
But I never have yet Felt a tinge of regret
For being a little too kind.
The letter to Smyrna reveals a suffering church, one that had been faithful in the crucible of affliction and trial. It is a letter of encouragement and comfort. Intended to renew the tired Smyrna saints, it is designed to do the same for us. While true Christianity has never been far from persecution, we have enjoyed 200 years of relative rest from it in this country. It is difficult for us to imagine being persecuted openly for our faith, to be imprisoned and killed because we owned a Bible or attended a church service. Satan is yet persecuting the church, just by different tactics.
Persecution is not the only crucible of suffering which a church, or a child of God, can experience. Let's expand our thinking on this letter to include some of the "Pressure points" of our lives. What has caused you severe grief, testing your faith to the breaking point? Problems on the job? In the family? Illness? Have your troubles caused you to focus your mind on the dark side of life and sing, "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, Nobody knows my sorrow?" If this describes your life cycle, stop! I want you to spend a lot of time with this message to Smyrna. What have these trials done to your deep private thoughts toward God? How do you see him fitting into your life? Are you disappointed at him for allowing you to have so much pain and trouble? Do you think the Smyrna church may have asked some of those questions, too?
I have divided the message to Smyrna into three major thoughts, "I know," "Fear not," "Be faithful." The introduction leads our thoughts to the theme of the message, "These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive." These words serve to remind a discouraged, suffering church, or you, that God was dead, but he is now alive. The trials of the moment notwithstanding, God is never far away from his suffering saints.
"I know." You may think that heaven is shut up against your prayers with iron bars, but you are wrong. Unlike Baal, God is never on a long journey, where he cannot be reached by the cry of his beloved children. He may delay his intervention, as he did with Lazarus, but he does step in at his time to support and help. At the time when you are most discouraged and stretched, remember the words of Christ to this church, "I know." As he knew the ordeal of a suffering church, he knows every pain and doubt you feel, and he cares!
"Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer." He did not promise to keep us from all suffering, but he did tell us that we need not fear the cause of our suffering. This is a strange verse. After telling the Smyrna church that not to fear the things which they suffered, Christ also prepared them for future sufferings. He even told them about their future sufferings. But he said, "Fear none of those things." God is greater than your worst trial!
"Be thou faithful unto death." The God you serve is faithful, he knows your trials, and he has told you not to fear their consequences. The human tendency in severe trial is to cry out, "Why!" I know, for I have cried out. So have you. But this lesson assures us that God knows, that we are not to fear the cause of our suffering, and it also teaches us what to do in such seasons of our lives. "Be faithful." In Joh 21 we find an instructive lesson on this point. Peter, still flinching from the pain of his denial of Christ, asked the Lord about John. When we are in pain, it is easy to shift attention to someone else, instead of examining our situation with the Lord. The Lord's response to Peter was a kind, but instructive, "What happens to John is between him and me, Peter. You follow me."
Do the pressures of life seem to squeeze the very life out of you? Do they make you feel like a grape in the wine press? Think of this. Left in the field, unpressed, the little grape will soon be eaten by a bird, or will rot and fall to the ground. Subjected to the wine press, it will be torn, the very life blood will be pressed out of it. But that life will be processed by the Keeper of the vineyard into new wine, wine that is well preserved long beyond the harvest of the grapes. It will be used by the Master of the house for his honor. I cannot look forward to trials, for I, like you, fear my own weakness. However, we can trust the Master for the outcome of the process. And our greatest hope is that he will see fit to use us for his honor. There is no better place to be in the suffering seasons of life than in church, for there Christ reminds us, "I know," "Fear not," "Be faithful."
Does Jesus care when my heart is pained Too deeply for mirth or song:
As the burdens press, And the cares distress,
And the way grows weary and long?
Does Jesus care when my way is dark With a nameless dread and fear?
As the daylight fades Into deep night shades,
Does He care enough to be near?
Does Jesus care when I've tried and failed To resist some temptation strong;
When for my deep grief There is no relief,
Tho' my tears flow all the night long?
Does Jesus care when I've said "Goodbye" To the dearest on earth to me,
And my sad heart aches Till it nearly breaks,
Is it aught to Him? Does He care?
Oh, yes, He cares, I know He cares, His heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary, The long night dreary,
I know my Savior cares.
Frank E. Graeff 1860-1919
These words carry an ominous tone. Why does he mention the sword? Who does he plan to assault? Why would he use such language to a church? Let's see if we can answer some of these questions. As in each of the messages to the seven churches, the letter to Pergamos contains a formal introduction which sets the mood, a specific list of commendations, an expose' of major errors, an outline of corrective action, and an encouraging close.
The Pergamos church had many commendable qualities. Although living in a wicked city, "Where Satan's seat is," the church had held fast to the name of Christ and the faith, even in the face of martyrdom. But the Lord mentioned two things which he held against the church. This is a good example of how much we can learn from a negative example.
The first fault had to do with some who held to the doctrine of Balaam. What is this doctrine? What's wrong with it? We are familiar with the narrative of Nu 22-24, where Balaam made repeated efforts to curse Israel, but was prevented by the Providence of God. However, we are not so familiar with the Old Testament verses which support this lesson, Nu 25:1 and Nu 31:16. In those two verses we learn that Balaam, still trying to find a way to get some of Balak's fortune, devised a scheme to curse Israel, one that worked amazingly well. If he could not stand on a mountain and curse the nation of Israel, why not have the citizens of Balak, especially the beautiful women, walk right into the camp and entice the men of Israel. First, get them to violate the moral law of God by seducing them. Then get them to offer sacrifices to their idol gods. Once they committed these two sins, one against the moral law of God and one against the very person of God, God would withdraw his protective care and Balak could attack them with confidence.
The lesson for us in this Old Testament example is rather clear. Moral compromise brings on spiritual corruption. One follows the other as surely as night follows day. In 2Ti 2:19 Paul taught this same truth, "Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity." Satan's seductive tactic worked in Balaam's day, at the Pergamos church, and it works in the life of deceived Christians today. You cannot desert the morals of the Bible and hold any semblance of a balanced relationship with the God of the Bible.
The second problem in Pergamos related to those who held the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes. The word Nicolaitanes comes from a compound Greek word which means victory over the people. Think about the current usage of the words "Clergy" and "Laity." The Nicolaitane doctrine is one of the most accepted concepts in religion today. If God objected to it at Pergamos, rest assured that he objects to it now. The Christianity of the New Testament is for the common Christian, not a body of elitists, ruling over the common believer.
The judgement of God, predicted by the opening words to Pergamos, is precise and certain. Consider verse 16, "Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth." Who is the them of this verse? Is it not those who hold to the doctrine of Balaam and of the Nicolaitanes? The lesson of this verse is vital to the doctrine of the Bible church. It is not man's church, it is God's. He sits as its judge, and he alone is responsible for judging its conduct. We should be cautious about putting ourselves in the role of judge against an erring church, for we are competing with God and his exclusive authority in that position. When man attempts to judge an erring church, he must punish the innocent with the guilty. When God judges the same situation, he raises his sword against the guilty, leaving the innocent unharmed. I like God's way better, don't you?
This sword symbol also appears in Heb 4:12-16, and it does not suggest the Bible as the "Word of God." The word of God in that verse is the One before whom "All things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do." To see more of this warrior image of Christ, study Re 19:11-16. The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, is capable of stepping into our lives and cutting out sin with the skill of a surgeon, or, if we stubbornly resist him and his word to us, he can step into our lives with the sword and stand against us. "God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble," 1Pe 5:5, tells the child of God that he can enjoy the blessings of grace or face Divine resistance. This is not a salvation text; it is a discipleship text. Where is God in our lives? In our churches? Is he fighting for us or against us?
The overcomers in Pergamos were promised three special blessings, verse 17. Hidden manna suggests spiritual food, Divine nutrition for the wilderness trials of service. A white stone symbolizes a favorable judgement. The Lord always communicates his pleasure with the obedient, as well as his displeasure with the rebellious. The new name conveys the idea of those special, very private blessings which the Lord gives to his obedient child in the quiet moments of grace. He seals his love and support in ways which only the faithful, the overcomer, can understand.
It is better to prepare and prevent than to repair and repent.
The first words to Thyatira offer a preview of the message to come. The symbolic view of Christ borrows from the imagery of Re 1:14-15. The function of the natural eye requires that the eye receive light from an outside source to reveal the image before it, but the sovereign all-knowing Son of God sends light out from his eye to enlighten the secrets of the hearts of men. Likewise, the feet of brass is a rich symbol. Brass is a hard metal. The walk of Christ is a determined walk, not distracted by the Jezebel's around him. This church was in for a glaring view of itself.
It bears repeating to note that all of the messages to these seven churches are set in exactly the same form; introduction, commendation, faults, recommendations, and the promise of blessing to the overcomer. Remember the cliche, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down?" Well, the Lord practiced that thought with these churches.
Verse 19, the commendations, suggests a church on fire with zeal, alive and active in her service. The adjectives describe a church which should be in the Who's Who of great churches; works, charity, service, faith, patience, and more works. There was just one problem, one big problem!
Anyone who has studied the Old Testament remembers Jezebel, Ahab's wife, and one of the most wicked, manipulative, overbearing women in the Bible. Whether there was a woman in Thyatira named Jezebel or not, there was a woman whose conduct was clearly known by this name. The Thyatiran Jezebel was condemned for three things; teaching in the church, seducing the church members to commit fornication, and leading them to eat things which were sacrificed to idols. Do you get the idea of a woman who would do anything to get her way?
The goodness of God is as evident here as anywhere in the Bible. Even Jezebel was given space to repent! At the same time the judgement of God is seen with equal force. Apparently, there is a point at which the goodness of God which leads to repentance is withdrawn, and the severity of God is aimed at the disobedient. Jezebel had reached that point, along with those who had been seduced by her, unless they repented.
At this point in the study we need to note that the church was not held accountable for Jezebel's sin, but for allowing her sin to influence the church. In some way the church was permitting the Jezebel influence to continue, rather than censuring it. The subject of the Bible Church would not be complete without an awareness that the penetrating gaze of the Son of God sees every action and knows every intent of every heart. None can escape his sight and judgement. Verse 23 tells of Jezebel's sentence, but we also learn another key truth, "And all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts." Too often, church leaders become over anxious and take matters into their own hands, judging and condemning others in the process. Even the Lord did not mention one word about this sinful woman to the other churches; he mentioned it only to Thyatira. While the church was responsible for allowing this woman to continue her influence in the church, and should have taken action to stop that Jezebel influence, the Lord was the one who promised to punish her and her followers.
The judgement of God was promised upon this woman and her followers in such a unique way as to demonstrate to all the churches that he had judged. Let God judge and punish the wicked; he knows how to bring just judgement and to demonstrate to all the churches that he has judged. This lesson is taught impressively in 1Co 4:5.
Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.
Premature judgement, any judgement which we make before the Lord makes his judgement known, will result in strife and confusion. When the Lord comes in judgement, there will be no doubt that he has made himself known. Sin will be exposed, and the works of the righteous will be praised of God.
To those poor struggling, faithful Thyatiran Christians, the Lord extended a word of encouragement which is priceless, "I will put upon you none other burden. But that which ye have already hold fast till I come," verses 24 and 25. It is fascinating to think of a God whose wisdom and judgement are so precise that he can step into a church and severely judge the sin and the sinners, while comforting the true disciples in the same church body.
The overcomers were promised four blessings, three relative to his enabling power which would accompany them against this frontal attack from Satan, and the fourth "I will give him the morning star." The morning star marks the good news that a new day is about to dawn. However dark the night, or long the sleepless darkness of doubt and trial, the morning star tells the night pilgrim that the day is near. The Sun of Righteousness is soon to rise with healing in his wings. In Pergamos Satan used a well camouflaged assault and in Thyatira he used a direct frontal assault. When the roaring lion threatens us, may we remember the all-sufficient grace of God.
The messages to Sardis and Laodicea are the most severe convictions to any of the seven churches. In the five other messages the introduction is immediately followed by a commendation, but in these two churches there was little to commend. From the outside this church looked great, but inside it was dying, almost dead. The description of Christ in verse one draws our eye to an object well beyond the seven stars, the messengers of the churches, to the "Seven Spirits of God." This church, as all churches really are, was under Divine scrutiny.
Verse three contains a strong exhortation to watchfulness, "If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief." Years ago, I heard a story of a farmer who plowed the straightest row in the community. A young man who was learning about farming asked the farmer how he could plow so perfectly. The farmer answered that at the beginning of each row, he looked for some object just beyond the far end of the field which lined up with the row he wanted to plow, then he just plowed straight for that object. He then invited the young man to try his method. At the far end of the field the young man looked back at one of the most crooked, embarrassing furrows anyone had ever seen. When the farmer asked what happened, the young man replied, "I did exactly what you told me to do." "What was the object you set your sights on?" asked the farmer. "Oh," said the young man, "It was that old cow grazing in the pasture." The young man had selected a moving object, rather than a stable one. This is like the spiritual goal of many Sardis churches and Sardis Christians. True, they are working toward a target, but the target they have selected is built on the shifting sands of change. Unfortunately, the results of their lives proves the folly of their method.
Let's look at just two factors in the Sardis church syndrome. The stern exhortation to watchfulness suggests a sly, subtle influence which slowly crept into the church without being detected. One of the most subtle weaknesses to infect a church with the "Moving objective syndrome" is the ever-changing, ever-moving, unsettled factor of tradition. It is so very easy to appeal to "The way the church did things when I was a child fifty years ago." However, when we think of fifty years, compared with almost two thousand years, it is such a brief time. Tradition is not a bad word to the church. In fact it is a common New Testament word. I offer a very simple test by which we may evaluate every tradition. Is it a New Testament tradition? Is the tradition of fifty years ago the tradition which Paul, Peter, or John taught the First Century churches to observe? Times change, and wise churches use the New Testament to critique the changing times and to apply the unchanging truth of the New Testament traditions to the changing world in which we live. The final test for any doctrine or practice is not whether it was practiced fifty years ago, but whether it was taught in the New Testament! Anything more recent is too young to deserve the church's respect!
The second Sardis syndrome has to do with the pattern of a dying religion. Any time an individual or a church begins to die to the living reality of a vital, functional relationship with God, it shifts its focus, like the young man looking at the cow, from the stable, solid internal realities of the Holy Spirit to external, ever-changing form and ritual. Form becomes more important than substance. The Sardis church had a name that it was alive. It sang the right songs, its preachers prayed the right prayers, and probably they preached very worthwhile sermons, but something was wrong on the inside. The heart was not in touch with its Lord! Sardis had the appearance that it was alive, but in fact it was dead! Is our emphasis on the external form or the internal substance of our religion? An honest answer to this question just might give us a worthy clue as to our spiritual vitality.
It is encouraging to note that, even at Sardis, there were some who were still alive, but weak, and some few who had not defiled their garments. After such a severe indictment, we might expect the Lord to just write off the church as a lost cause, but he didn't. As with the other churches, he admonished repentance and commended those who had remained faithful.
The Lord promised to clothe those who overcame in white. This seems to appeal to the Jewish trial of a new priest. If someone came to the Levites and claimed to have the right family tree and qualifications to become a priest, he was subjected to extensive examination. If, after the examination, he was found to be qualified, he would be clothed in white, a symbol of his successful examination. The priesthood of believers, a vital New Testament doctrine, is based on a believer's internal qualifications, not his appearance! Talking a good game is not sufficient. Remaining faithful and overcoming in the face of heated trial, that is the test of the true believer, the one who leaves the presence of his Lord clothed in white and ready to engage himself in the faithful service of his Master.
The supreme Judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scriptures delivered by the Spirit, into which Scriptures so delivered our faith is finally resolved.
London Confession of Faith, 1689
If God sent a letter to your church, what would he say? Perhaps he does each time he blesses a preacher, his messenger, to preach to you. Perhaps when the preacher "Stepped on your toes," he was actually relaying God's message to you; it was really God rebuking your conduct. This is one of the vital lessons we should learn from these seven practical, relevant messages to these First Century churches. In 2Co 5:20, after claiming the office of an ambassador for Christ, Paul said, "As though God did beseech you by us."
Probably, the Philadelphia church was in better condition than the church at Ephesus. A significant exception to the form of these seven letters, there is no criticism of the Philadelphia church. The message begins immediately with commendations and promises. The Lord was definitely on this church's team, "I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it." This represents a stark contrast with the closed door in the church at Laodicea, verse 20.
The lesson to learn from Philadelphia is that a church never outgrows its dependence on Christ. A church may have the best preacher, the strongest, wisest deacons, the best singers, and the most beautiful building. But unless Christ opens doors of opportunity and blessing, it is a church in prison! Prosperous churches, like prosperous people, face grave dangers from the human tendency to become self-reliant, smug, and even arrogant. A church may have five hundred members or fifty, it matters not, unless the Lord opens spiritual doors of opportunity. Our reliance must be on the Lord, or we will smother in our own empty cloud of illusional self-importance!
Having spent most of my adulthood in the business world, I can speak from observation about the false security of power and success. Too much too soon is a certain guarantee for corruption and failure in any field of human behavior. Churches can suffer this same disease. The Lord blesses them with growth, wisdom, and spiritual prosperity, but they fail to relate their blessing to the Lord's open door and slowly lull themselves into thinking they are personally responsible for their wondrous state. Then they are amazed at their sudden calamity.
The "Key of David" is pregnant with significance. This description of Christ is taken from Isa 22:22. David was the last of Israel's prosperous kings. The man after God's own heart spent enough time evading his jealous enemy, King Saul, that he was starved for the blessings of his God. Can we forget such lessons as Ps 42:1? "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God." Such a dedicated, demanding thirst for God is a sure indicator of a church's success, the Lord's open door. What happened to the nation of Israel after David's death? Ego, division, selfishness and greed abounded. Never again did the nation rise to the state it experienced under David.
We are living in the reign of the Greater David, Jesus Christ, the true "Man after God's own heart," his own son. King Jesus rules on Heaven's throne today! He opens doors, and he closes doors! Whether we are rejoicing in the fertile valleys of the land of milk and honey or weeping in Babylon, whether we are ripped with trial or stand before the Lord's open door, King Jesus is Lord! It is his sovereign right to bless or to wisely refrain from blessing! We may be strong in the faith or have just a little strength. Regardless, we are dependent on him for every blessing, every morsel of joy and good. The most significant thing we can do is to realize that dependency every moment of our lives! Do we stand in the threshold of an open door of opportunity and blessing? Does it seem that all we need to do is walk through the door and enjoy the bounty? Who opened the door? Do we stand beside a closed door, a walled fortress which seems to deny every access? The Lord closed the door! The key that opens and closes the doors of life's opportunities and blessings is not our intelligence or ability, but the Greater David.
It is significant that the Philadelphia church was said to have a "Little strength." Perhaps when we think we are strong and have everything under control, we are actually in the most precarious condition. When we see the demands of life and our spiritual state with a sense of dependency on Christ and a sense of our own inadequacy, then we are in the best condition for blessing. In 2Co 12:10, after confessing his thorn in the flesh and his utter dependence on Christ's strength, Paul said, "When I am weak, then am I strong." Never are we in a better position to receive the Lord's strength than when know our personal weakness and cry out to him for help.
However prepared you think yourself for a particular responsibility, stop and pray for support and guidance in the work. Are you ready for that big leap into success? Ask for his protection and blessing. He has crowned you with his mercy. Pray that you may be faithful to him, that no man take your crown. Are you a pillar in the community, in the family, in the church? Pray that he make you a pillar in his temple. Are you considered a model citizen in your community? Pray that your life will demonstrate your most important citizenship in the city of your God. Do you enjoy a good name and reputation? Pray that you may enjoy the new name which he alone bestows. Remember, we never rise above dependency on him. Even the Philadelphia church needed the Lord to preserve its strength.
Did you ever know someone who was always a straight shooter? You could depend on him to "Tell it like it is." The Bible is no enemy to diplomacy, but there are times when the message, unpopular as it may be, needs to be laid on the line. The church at Laodicea needed that kind of message from the Lord. What this church thought of itself and what it was really like were exact opposites! I love that marvellous poem, Ode To A Louse. Remember the lady in church, who appeared to be the very best dressed person around? As the poet, who sat right behind her, was admiring the perfect style and dress, he suddenly noticed a louse crawling around on her hat. Her proud stylish image was ruined for him. The last two lines of the poem are priceless!
O would the power the gift give us To see ourselves as others see us.
The stark contrast between reality and what the Laodicean church thought of itself is like this lady whose picture-perfect style was spoiled by a tiny louse. This church was complacent, lukewarm, an unfeeling anesthetized state. We call it "Laid back." Why get excited about anything? To borrow from a precariously similar Twentieth Century philosophy, "I'm okay, you're okay." The Lord preferred cold or hot to lukewarm. They were rich, increased with goods, and needed nothing, so they thought. The Lord had a different opinion. According to him, they were wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked. What a contrast! There is an interesting thought in the symbol of nakedness. If a night guard in the Jewish temple were caught sleeping in his watch, he was stripped of his clothes, they were burned, then he was beaten and sent out into the streets clothed only in his shame. Whether that is the specific thought or not, it is obvious that the Laodicean church had gone to sleep in her watch, and the shame of her nakedness was apparent.
The city of Laodicea was a prosperous commercial center. We may think that the church is immune to the culture and social environment in which it exists, but it cannot be so. While the church is "In the world, but not of the world," it suffers deeply from the imprint of its environment. Prosperity is probably the greatest threat to the church! A prosperous economy enabled the Laodiceans to buy anything which the mind could imagine. Why bother with spiritual dependency on Christ? Aren't we sufficient? Isn't it a shameful embarrassment to admit need and insufficiency? This church learned the hard way that it was a greater problem to ignore its need of Christ!
It is encouraging that even this miserable excuse of a church was given the opportunity to repent and return to her useful place as a blessed church. Rather than rejecting the Laodicean church, the Lord counseled her. Think about the list which appears here. Trade the fool's gold, uncertain riches, for the incorruptible treasure of the kingdom of Christ. Trade the rags of self-deceit for the white robes of the believer's priesthood. Apply the balm of Christ to those diseased eyes. As the symbol of nakedness offers instructive thoughts to this lesson, so does the symbol of white raiment. As mentioned in the chapter on the Sardis church, the white garment symbolizes that the person wearing it has been examined and approved as a priest. Could it be that this church had forgotten the priesthood of believers? What a miserable thought! A church which has forgotten how to pray!
While Laodicea represents one of the most reprehensible scenes imaginable for a church, even here there is hope. After such a deep, thorough rebuke, the Lord immediately turned the table to the other side in verse 19, "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten; be zealous therefore, and repent." The thought that Christ encouraged the Laodicean church to repent and find forgiveness and restored blessing is one of the most amazing lessons in the New Testament on the doctrine of the church. It exemplifies the longsuffering of Christ as few lessons could. It teaches that chastening is not intended to destroy, but to correct. It also reminds us that the chastening of the Lord is specific and focused. Sometimes we all are caught up in a vague, generalized sense of guilt which cannot attach itself to any particular sin or error in our lives. We just feel generally guilty. I suggest that such unattached guilt is the product of Satan, the Accuser of the Brethren, and is destructive to a healthy, productive relationship with the Lord. How can you repent when you don't know what you did wrong? When the Lord chastens, he makes sure we know what we did that was wrong and why it was wrong.
We may also be encouraged by remembering that chastening is always a symbol of love. Only those who are beloved of the Lord are chastened of him! Chastening is measured, parental discipline, applied to correct the child, not kill him. When the prodigal son finally was willing to confess, "I have sinned," he was on the road to recovery, the road home. It is the same with us. The hardest words to speak, "I have sinned," are also the first words of submission to the chastening of a wise and loving God, who in the very act of chastening is bringing us home.
May God grant us deliverance from the Laodicean tendencies which reside in all of us. And may he convict us in love of our errors, at the same time assuring us of his love for us and provoking us to repentance and renewed commitment to him and his glory.
To modern Christians, this verse is almost as popular as Joh 3:16. It is memorized early and used frequently, but it is seldom taken in its true setting. These words are a part of the message to the church at Laodicea, the indifferent, self-deceived church. However, Laodicea was yet a church, beloved, albeit chastened, by a loving Father, verse 19. The people in this church were already members of the family of God! This is not an appeal to lost sinners, but to chastened Christians! What rich instruction is lost by such failure to rightly divide the word.
The church at Philadelphia stood before an open door, opportunity presented by the providence of God, a door which no man could shut. Laodicea stood behind a closed door, which the Lord directed someone, anyone, in the church to open. Are there any closed doors between us and the Lord? Do we bemoan lost opportunities and somehow try to blame God for the problem? If there is a problem between a child of God and his God, it is not God's fault! First, as in Philadelphia, he places open doors before us, doors which he has opened and no man can shut. Then when we close the doors instead of walking through them, he stands at the door, knocking to call attention to our error. In our petty, carnal insecurity we have shut out the very one who carries the keys with him to every door we will ever need to open.
When the Lord chastens, he makes sure that we know what's wrong. He knocks at the door! If you feel guilty, but can't identify a specific cause, some sin or error which constitutes the painful prick in the heart, tell Satan to stop accusing you. But if you experience conviction for some specific wrong, thank the Lord for the chastening and the love that came with it, then repent, open the door between you and fellowship with your Lord.
The issue at stake in this verse is fellowship, the warm friendly exchange of mutual friends who love and respect each other, who enjoy each other's company. "I...will sup with him, and he with me." Sup is translated from a Greek word which defines the evening meal, the main meal of the day. The setting is informal, warm, honest and intimate. The meal is shared with those we love and respect, those whose company we enjoy and desire. An intimate meal encourages open, friendly conversation. It is disarming and cordial. What a wonderful symbol for fellowship with Christ, especially for someone whose life is not altogether in order, like the Laodicean church. We unfortunately think of Christ too often as austere, moody, threatening, judgmental, and full of grudging disapproval. How wrong we are! Divine chastening is a love-engraved invitation to the erring child of God to leave the sin and come home!
How do we view the erring sinner who wants to come home, but fears the punishment he must endure if he tries? Too often, we invite those who "Feel to be sinners" to dine with us, but shun those who have really sinned, repentance notwithstanding. Parental chastening has a very specific objective, to correct the erring behavior. Once the child has learned his lesson and repented, the parent suspends all chastening and shows approval in every way possible. This lesson in Divine chastening has often been forgotten! Once we have repented of our sins, something we should do daily, the Lord does not continue to chasten us. Oh, there are sins which, once committed, leave permanent scars, and consequences, but this is the consequence of the error, not Divine chastening. True repentance always brings immediate forgiveness from the Lord.
Think of the scene in this verse. The Lord does not warn that he will only stand at the door for the next fifteen minutes. He says, "I stand at the door." The word translated stand, is translated elsewhere in the New Testament as abide, continue, and stand by. God's love is not conditional! It is as unchanging as the being of God himself! He does not say, "If you will open the door, I won't stop loving you." Even in chastening, he has already confirmed his love. All of the verses throughout the Bible which speak of the love of God describe it in terms of eternity. If God's love is eternal, it cannot end any more than it can begin! If God stopped loving anyone he once loved, his honor and immutability is discredited! The issue at stake here is not eternal life, or the continuation of a peevish, conditional love, unworthy of the character of God. The issue is family fellowship!
Many years ago in a business assignment, I made an unprofitable, but honest, error in judgement. The company for which I worked placed a lot of importance on profits, and I knew my decision had cost the company a sizable profit. The home office was half way across the nation. I could have probably stretched the truth a little and covered the whole thing up, but I knew that was wrong. Early the next morning I called my boss and told him exactly what I had done, why, and what I estimated the loss of profit to be. He listened patiently, and, without once raising his voice, his only reply was, "Well, Joe, we learned a good lesson, didn't we?" Later he commended my honesty with him. After that experience I would have done anything honorable within my power for that man. He had graciously accepted my confession, acknowledged that I had learned from the experience, and immediately forgave me. How much like our Father in heaven was this man's reaction to my fault. May we open the doors of separation between us and our Lord, never doubting that he will walk in and sit down to sup with us in honest loving fellowship.
What is the New Testament form of public worship? A study of the Bible church should, of necessity, focus on the spiritual, invisible qualities, for the church's business is with the invisible God and his believing children on earth. However, since the church is one of the vital links between the invisible God and the visible world in which his children live, it is necessary to examine the New Testament pattern for the order, or form, of public worship.
Interestingly, most religious people are dogmatic in their belief and argument about their theology, their view of God. They demonstrate a strong need to appeal to Bible verses in support of their particular view. Their interpretation may be strained or reasonable, but they feel compelled to appeal to scripture for their authority and belief. Just as quickly, when they are questioned about their form of public worship, they entertain all sorts of flights into fantasy to justify their particular form or ritual.
Most often, they offer the argument from silence, "Since the Bible doesn't specifically prohibit this practice, we are justified in observing it." Argument from silence is like building a steel and cement skyscraper on the foundation of a cumulus cloud! There is also the kindred argument from reason, "That's like motherhood and apple pie. How could anyone object to that practice?" Argue anything, but don't try to limit your church's order of worship to New Testament example! The third most common argument outside the Bible is the argument that each church is responsible for its own conduct before the Lord, so each church is free to decide how it wishes to order its form of worship. How can a church responsibly order its worship contrary to Bible pattern and claim Bible authority for its actions? So goes the fantasy.
In 2Ti 3:16-17 Paul clearly stated the value of "All scripture," both Old and New Testaments, for four specific purposes, the last of which was "For instruction in righteousness." His stated conclusion was "That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works." If the public worship of the church is a good work, then we must conclude that the Bible church must base its form of worship on the Bible it respects and claims as a full and thorough provider for everything good.
The first public act of the church after the ascension of Christ is recorded in Ac 2. The exclusive activity of this day was public preaching and the baptizing of those who responded to the preaching. Several similar episodes follow in quick succession throughout the Book. The only inspired history of the First Century church is truly a history of preaching. Add the emphasis found in other books of the New Testament and you quickly conclude that preaching, expository, relevant, Bible preaching, is the most prominent component of the public worship of the church. Some public prayers are recorded in Acts, and prayer is frequently mentioned in the writings of Paul and Peter. The Lord himself prayed, both privately and in public. Do we need a better example?
Finally, in Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 we are taught that the singing of spiritual songs and hymns is to be a part of the public worship of the church. From these two verses we learn that the purpose of singing is teaching and communicating in spiritual matters. The proper accompaniment is the melody of the heart, not artificial instruments of music. Without developing the convincing Bible argument against instrumental accompaniment, suffice it to observe that wood, ivory, and brass were not redeemed by the death of Christ. They have no living, resonant emotions with which to praise God for salvation. They have strings, but not saved heart strings!
In all three components of public worship quality and biblical pattern are to be emphasized. The prayer should be patterned after the model prayer, not ritually repeated in exact words. The preaching, in the model of Acts and the subsequent epistles, should be expository, relevant, and Christ centered. And the singing should be vibrant and alive. Frequently, people decide on a favorite hymn and select it Sunday after Sunday. This soon predicts that every song service will contain exactly the same songs. The only surprise is the order in which they will be selected. Such ritual repetition is unworthy of God and uninstructive to the congregation. What would the church do if the pastor repeatedly preached the same sermon Sunday after Sunday? Why is the song service different? The content, the message of the songs sung, is just as important as the content of the sermon. We would react with disgust to a preacher whose only message was about his dear departed parents. Yet we sing "Precious Memories," which does not once mention the Lord Jesus Christ. While every activity of discipleship which appears in the New Testament is vital in its place and role, the public worship service should be exclusive time for God. The idea of worship in the New Testament means to bow down before the only One who deserves unreserved worship from the redeemed of the Lord. The time of worship is set apart by God as exclusive time, during which he stands before us to receive our worship and we bow before him to give worship. A deeper dedication of time with God during the worship service will make living in an imperfect world with imperfect saints much easier.
May we respect and preserve the simple elegance of New Testament worship.
As we studied the seven churches in Asia, we noted the Lord's severe rebuke of both the doctrine and the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, those who held to a domineering role for the ministry over the church. While it is certainly possible that churches may hold to a disrespectful view of the ministry, it is more common that the ministry holds the congregation in too little respect. And while it is true that the Lord holds the ministers of the church in his right hand as they preach the message he directs, it does not hold that they are entirely unaccountable to the church for their conduct. We all need to prayerfully consider the significance of two words relative to the integration of the ministry in the church body, accountability and responsibility.
The force of this particular verse lies in the fact that all of the spiritual gifts are "Set in the church," not over it. Even the apostles are included in this list. In 1Ti 3:15 Paul taught that the church, not the ministry, is the "Pillar and ground of the truth." This being true, there should be a deep-rooted, cooperative relationship between the ministry and the church, one in which neither runs roughshod over the other. Here in 1Co 12, Paul began a discussion of spiritual gifts which continued through Chapter 14. Throughout this chapter he symbolized spiritual gifts as various parts and functions of the human body. A healthy body is one in which all the organs perform their function effectively for the good of the body. A body in which any organ ceases to function as a part of the whole is a sick body! A church is no different! No body organ functions solely for its own personal benefit; its role is to contribute its unique ability to the common good of the entire body. No gift in the church, ministry included, is exempt from this test.
While Paul severely rebuked the Corinthian church, he continued to respect her as a church. We find a loving respectful introduction, to "The church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints." He told this church, "I thank my God always on your behalf for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ." A preacher who cannot tell the church of his love, respect and prayers for them has lost his right to rebuke them! Think about the pattern of those seven messages to the churches in Asia. With one exception the Lord commended each church before he rebuked it. Preachers would do well to follow the Lord's example in those very tense, difficult moments when it is necessary to rebuke error in the church.
Far from teaching a papal supremacy over the church, Peter also set this serving example for the ministry. "Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock." 1Pe 5:2-3. The oversight of the ministry is to be taken, Peter teaches, but not by constraint, not by forcing and constraining the church to obey his personal views. Personal gain, financial or otherwise, is to be avoided, not for filthy lucre. Finally, he warns against the tendency to be lords over God's heritage, rather than leading by example. Can you not see a harmonious, unselfish body in these words, one in which each body part, each spiritual gift, is working for the good of the body, under the control and guidance of the head, Christ himself?
Peter practiced what he preached, too. Remember his conduct at the house of Cornelius? When Cornelius bowed before him as if her were a god, Peter quickly reacted, Ac 10:26, "But Peter took him up, saying, Stand up; I myself also am a man." Immediately Peter began at that time to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to Cornelius and his house.
After describing the ministry in 2Co 4, Paul concluded in 2Co 4:7, "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us." It is significant that the word translated ministry here is from the same Greek word which is translated deacon, a table servant. The Lord himself reminded his egotistical apostles who were competing for supremacy, "I am among you as he that serveth." The servant is required to attend to the needs of his master before his own, so is the ministry. The table guests may not be the master, but the servant should never forget that they are the master's invited guests! A preacher who remembers this simple relationship between his ministry and the people who come to hear him preach will have no problem with his accountability to Christ or his responsibility to the Master's invited guests at the gospel banquet.
The model New Testament ministry, compared with many popular preachers of the day, will reveal a glaring contradiction. The Bible role is the table servant, the gracious example, who takes care of the Master's invited guests before himself. A common perception of the ministry in our day is that of a performer, one who is evaluated and acclaimed a success or failure more on the basis of his performance than of his service. This conduct lacks both responsibility and accountability! The minister should strive in every way possible to find both acceptable words and methods of delivery to gain acceptance of the gospel message. However, the words and preaching methods should never be orchestrated to attract attention and notoriety to the preacher. They should enhance the message, not the messenger! May God grant us the wisdom to be clean, but inconspicuous, vessels who preserve and carry the message of the gospel without calling attention to the vessel.
Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. Heb 10:25.
Rather than laying heavy burdens on you, I want to focus your thoughts on the spirit of the church. Verses from the Bible could be multiplied in support of accountability and responsibility. Unfortunately, the word duty has become a vulgar four letter word in a "Do your own thing" religious culture.
Beginning in Ga 5:1, Paul contrasted Christian liberty and yokes of bondage, teaching the Galatians to "Stand fast in the liberty." Through the remainder of the book, at least seven contrasting yokes and liberties are mentioned. This verse denotes the first liberty in the list. The first yoke was devout legalism, strict adherence to a set of rules and regulations, Mosaic or otherwise. By nature we are all excellent legalists. We like to cite our authority, defend our rights, and impose our legalisms on any around us who will listen. This tactic will always end in a body of ritualized laws which "Neither we nor our fathers were able to bear." But we can prove that we are right. The problem is that when we make a law the basis of our status, we may very well be dead right! Emphasis is on the dead.
Those who reject the sovereignty of God in salvation always seem to hide behind a body of laws which define their Christianity, suggesting that believers in salvation by grace advocate antinomianism, no laws, an abandoned, lawless life style. They fail to realize that the Galatian problem, to say nothing of the Roman, Colossian, and Hebrew problems, exemplify Christian legalism. Was Paul antinomian? Did he live in abandoned sin because he was not under the law, but under grace? Of course not! In our study verse the contrast is not between legalism and no law, but between legalism and love, true moral, ethical, Christian love. Apparently, Paul had the deep conviction that love carried with it a profound, moral obligation. Imagine, a whole body of Christians living gracious moral lives from the single motive that they truly and deeply love their Lord! Find fault with such a matter? Hardly! Paul, Peter and John commended it, as did Christ himself! Of the many duties of church citizenship, they must all be motivated and practiced by true, unpretentious love, the same kind of love we read about here in Galatians.
The second study verse from Heb 10 strongly admonishes regular, faithful, committed church attendance. Included in the matter of church attendance is the admonishing of one another. How can you admonish a discouraged or erring member when you are absent from the meeting? And how do you know when there will be no one present who needs your admonition? I sincerely believe that in this busy, stressful world people make time for what they believe to be important. Frightening as it may seem, when we ritually make time to watch several hours of television a day, carefully plan our hobbies, and would go to work with one foot in the grave, something seems horribly wrong with the altogether casual attendance record of many church members. The approaching day of this verse is the one day in seven especially designated in scripture as the day when the church meets for public worship. The custom of casual attendance had already become apparent at this early time.
This admonition also relates to the context which follows concerning the gravity of willful sin. It becomes clear then that failure to attend worship services faithfully and regularly is a sin! Few people can boast of having all the answers they need for the daily barrage of problems they face, and God has promised help and wisdom through obedience to his known commandments. If God gives the minister a fourteen carat sermon which precisely resolves a sticky problem for you, what good is it if you are absent? And if God would have you, by your presence or by a simple kind word, admonish another, how can you do so if you are absent from the meeting of the church?
While many offer the excuse of a boring or irrelevant message as their reason for poor attendance, more often the real problem is expressed by the words of Mt 24:12, "And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold." Personal involvement in sin, a calloused acceptance of those things which should be morally objectionable, or a compromised life style tend to discourage attendance at church. Yet in truth, when these moral leaches have invaded our faith, we need the church more than at any time in our lives. The Bible church is God's prescriptive cure for the sins of the saints.
The model which is contained in the Great Commission is quite instructive. These verses at the close of Matthew are often used as authorization for baptism, including the words of the ordinance. In our legalistic nature we relish much talk of church discipline, referring to the censuring of those who have erred grievously from the theology or morals of the Bible. True Bible discipline, as presented in this lesson, is not exercised by public censure of an erring member. It is rather successfully exercised in the very act of preaching to and teaching those who are baptized. The word teach is translated from the same word as disciple. It would be altogether appropriate to say that the preaching of the gospel is to disciple, to discipline, those who are to be baptized, as well as those who have already been baptized.
No admonition, no advances in grace, and no correction of errors can be systematically carried out unless we are consistently present in the assembly of the saints. May we be motivated to faithfulness!
For thirty one articles now, we have been looking at the model New Testament church. It has appeared as a simple, devout, Christ-centered structure, dedicated to the worship of its Lord and the support and encouragement of God-fearing people. By design, no church has been named, the Bible model has been presented as clearly as space would allow. If this model is correct, then every organization which professes to be a church is to be measured against it. While failure to honor the Bible model disallows the organization's claim to be the church described in the New Testament, no church exists today which perfectly lives up to that model. Remember those seven churches in Asia.
Sincere Christian people are faced with a tremendous challenge. Many church organizations are so complicated, money-oriented, program laden, and harshly judgmental, that large numbers of people who hold deep convictions about God have rejected the idea of a Bible church. "I believe in God, but I reject all forms of organized religion," is the common reaction of so many. While we may share their just criticism of the sad record of many large, popular religions, we must not reject or ignore the simple fact that the word church appears throughout the New Testament in the words of Jesus and in the model of his immediate followers, the Apostles. In 1Ti 3:15 we read that the church is the "Pillar and ground of the truth." This is a rather significant role, certainly one which cannot be ignored or overlooked. Without the influence of the Bible church, no one, however sincere, can long hold to solid, balanced views of God any more than an elaborate building can stand with no foundation and a poorly designed superstructure.
It's easy to spot the weakness of any church, even the human frailty of the Bible church, and excuse total rejection of all churches, but such an action leaves one with no system of support and reinforcement. One soldier may take a brave stand against an enemy army, but he cannot long hold them back. He will soon become a casualty, brave and loyal though he may have been.
The verse quoted above from 1Corinthianssupplies us with a comprehensive view of the status of the individuals in the Bible church. They are sanctified in Christ Jesus. They are special for that reason, not because of their excellent character, personal strength, or any other quality resident in them or their human nature. There are no castes within this church with some in the ruling class and some disenfranchised with no rights or privileges. All share the common foundation of being sanctified in him. They are all called to be saints. This suggests that none of them has altogether arrived at the status of saints, but all have been called to that position.
Probably, the most amazing description is that they call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Only as we face problems which are greater than our ability do we call for help. The single most significant quality which makes a true Christian is this, "Who does he call on?" In Ro 6 Paul made quite a point of addressing the issue of who is master. According to his finely structured lesson, yielding yourself to obey any particular person or influence means that you are servant to that force and it is your master. Apparently, in Rome, as with many who still profess to be Christians today, it was thought that an occasional kind Christian thought, a word now and then telling a friend, "I am a Christian," was altogether adequate to make one a noble Christian. There was no thought in these people to hold to enough Christianity to embarrass them before the worldly culture in which they lived. What was Paul's thought about this? Simple, "Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey?"
The identification of Jesus Christ as Lord in our study verse is precisely the issue Paul taught. Many call on Jesus from varied motives, but there is no way they intend for him to be Lord of their lives. Like the seven women of Isa 4:1, many are willing to eat their own bread and wear their own apparel, but they insist on the name of the Lord, only to take away their reproach. The giants in the service of God do not sing, "I did it my way!" Jesus Christ is their Lord! He is the Captain of their salvation, Author and Finisher of their faith, and Lord of their life. In the vital issues of life they yield to him, even when such action makes them walk away from the popular opinions of the day. It may require compromising career, altering life style, and being selective in the choice of friends, but Jesus Christ is their personal Lord and is more important to them than anything else in life.
It is significant that the book of 1Corinthians closes with "If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha." Anathema is suggestive of a Divine curse, "Let him be accursed of God." Maran-atha is literally translated by Strong's Exhaustive Concordance as "The Lord has come." Many use this word to teach that the Lord is coming, rather than that he has come. In context the first advent of Christ is much more apparent than his second coming. He came, he lived out the perfect example of the life he commanded his followers, his church, to live. These words describe the loving, willing service of true Christians. They not only do what he taught by word and example, they love him for such an example! Since Christ has come and set forth the perfect example, failure to love him and order our lives according to that pattern of life is inexcusable. "The Lord has come!" May we keep the Bible church always in our hearts and in our spiritual view.
The Bible Church