Part II of the series “The End of the World as We Know It: The Book of Revelation.”
The Theater in Ephesus today, taken during my trip there in 2009.
Ephesus is one of the most amazing places in the world and is on my top ten of places I’ve enjoyed visiting. In terms of archaeological sites, Ephesus is a treasure trove of Greco-Roman culture, with buildings dating all the way back to the first century and beyond. This city in western Turkey was a major cultural center in the first century with a population of about a quarter million. The massive Temple of Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting and virginity (an interesting combination), was one of the wonders of ancient world. The Hall of Tyrannus was a place for philosophical debate and, later in the second century, the Library of Celsus would hold some of the intellectual wonders of the ancient world within its walls. Of course, Ephesus was also thoroughly Roman with the usual Roman entertainments, evidenced by the gladiator graveyard that is there and the presence of signs in the pavement pointing the way to the brothels in the city.
Christians, however, tend to remember Ephesus as figuring prominently in the New Testament. One of Paul’s most famous letters, Ephesians, was written to the church there. In Acts 19 we read about Paul getting into trouble in Ephesus because his preaching was turning people away from the mythological Artemis and toward Christ, which resulted in a riot. Paul and his companions were dragged into the massive 24,000 seat theater where the crowd shouted “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” over and over again. You can stand in that theater today and walk on the very same stones that Paul traversed. The apostle John likely settled in Ephesus as well where, according to tradition, he wrote his gospel and the three epistles attributed to him. Despite some early opposition, the Christian church in Ephesus grew to the point that in the early second century Christian writers were holding it up as an example of faithful Christian life and witness. In the fifth century, one of the great church councils was held there and archaeologists have found a building in the city where this council may have taken place. In other words, Ephesus was a Christian success story—a shining example of what could happen with the gospel of Jesus Christ began transforming a culture.
But in just a few centuries, a very brief time historically speaking, Ephesus was no more. A seventh century earthquake destroyed part of the city, including the Temple of Artemis, and the harbor began silting up, causing the city to be abandoned. Where there was once a strong Christian presence there are now virtually no Christians in Ephesus and surrounding environs. What was once a bright shining example of the transforming power of the gospel is now a place where there are no active churches.
That would have been unthinkable in John’s day, just like it’s unthinkable that our large churches in America today could be abandoned with no new Christian fellowships rising up to take their places. But this sense of devastation, where there was once a thriving Christian witness but where there is no more, is precisely what Jesus warns the Ephesian church about through John’s pen in Revelation 2. “Repent and do the works you did at first,” Jesus warns the Ephesian church. “If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place unless you repent.” Today there is no significant church in Ephesus- the lamp has gone out.
In fact, that’s the same with all seven of the churches to whom John writes in Revelation 2 and 3. All of those towns are now ruins, some still buried and largely unexcavated. The area of Western Turkey in which the churches once thrived now has a population that is less than .02% Christian. What was once an area from which Christianity spread to the Roman empire is now a place with virtually no Christian memory.
A lot of people skip over this part of Revelation to get to the “good stuff”—the prophecy stuff with all the visions of beasts and dragons and heavenly worship. Actually, however, I would argue that these two chapters of Revelation represent the most important things that the Christian church needs to focus on today, just like they were key issues in John’s day. In a culture that is increasingly secular, where Christianity is in decline, those of us with a Christian memory find it unthinkable that in a country ostensibly founded on Christian principles there might be very few of churches left one day. If we do not learn the lessons and heed the warnings of Christ to these churches, we may find ourselves like them—our lamps snuffed out, our witness nothing more than an archaeological curiosity.
“If we do not learn the lessons and heed the warnings of Christ to these churches, we may find ourselves like them…”
The seven letters are sharp and pointed messages to the churches in question. We get no sense from reading them that Jesus is going to be meek and mild with them, but rather offer equal parts of encouragement and judgment. This introduces one of the major themes of the whole book—that God’s judgment is the other side of the coin of God’s grace. Revelation disavows us of the notion that God will forever put up with things and people who run counter to his character and will for his creation, including the churches. The warnings to the churches, then, is a warning to the church in every age. Looking over the shoulders of the elders in these seven churches, we have a chance to learn from them and change our course.
Each of the letters follows a similar pattern. They begin with a reminder of the images that describe Jesus in chapter one—the one who was and is and is to come, the one with the sharp two-edged sword in his mouth, the one with eyes like a flame of fire, the one who holds the seven spirits of God and seven stars in his hand; the one who holds the keys to death and Hades. The Jesus who speaks is the one who is worthy of worship and who is Lord of heaven and earth. The letters continue by congratulating each church on what it has done well (except in the last letter to Laodicea, where there is apparently nothing to praise), which then follows with a warning about what is wrong with each church (except in Smyrna and Philadelphia, where things seemed to be going well at the time). Each letter ends with a warning and promise—the Spirit is speaking to the churches and calling them to “conquer”—to overcome their present situation, be it persecution from without or turmoil from within. Failure to conquer, to overcome and remain faithful, will result in their light and witness fading out.
There’s a lot of detail in these letters that are both fascinating historically and challenging theologically and in a series like this it’s difficult to get into the details. There are, however, seven things that I think Jesus wants to teach us to focus on in these letters—seven criteria by which the church in every age should be judging itself if our lamp is to continue to shine:
Maintain your first love.
A single column is all that is left of the Temple of Artemis
Jesus laments that the church in Ephesus has lost its first love. This being the message of the first letter somehow lends itself to giving us the first principle and perhaps the most important of all—everything the church is and does must emanate from a white hot love for Christ; a love that in turn finds its way outward in love for people. “Repent and do the works you did at first,” Jesus commands them. For Jesus, love is not merely an emotion, a personal inward devotion, but rather love is always active—it seeks out opportunities to love. The church is to be known first as a people who love God and love others. Without that passionate love as a foundation, a church will quickly turn inward and ineffective.
One of the images we use to describe this kind of love is the triangle of Up, In, and Out. Our love for God is the up, our love for those in the body of Christ is the in, and our love for others that we are called to reach is the out. These were three key dimensions in the life of Jesus—his relationship with his Father, his relationship with the disciples, and his relationship with others whom he loved and healed. We maintain our first love and follow Christ’s example when we pay close attention to each of these dimensions, undergirded by the love God has for us. Most churches will emphasize one of these dimensions more than the others, which can lead to either spiritual superiority, insular relationships, or trying to reach people with a love that you yourself haven’t experienced. Maintaining the Up, In, and Out together, however, is the way of Christ. How are you doing in each of these areas? How are we doing as a church?
The ruins of Smyrna
The church in Smyrna was facing a serious threat from some fellow Jews who hated them for proclaiming Christ as the Messiah. They were facing prison and possible death at the hands of the authorities. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer,” says Jesus. “Be faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life.” Fear is often the thing that keeps the church and its members from truly following Christ. We fear offending someone with the truth of the gospel, we fear being ostracized by our neighbors and coworkers, we fear death and we are tempted to follow the culture into an “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” way of life. Jesus says to not be afraid. He’s the one “who was dead and came to life.” We can conquer our fear because the second death, eternal death, has been defeated in him. Those who overcome their fear receive the crown of life. In a culture where death seems to hang over everything, we proclaim resurrection, hope, and renewal. The church that focuses on this will be the church that conquers, even as Christ has conquered death itself!
Hold fast to the truth.
The remains of ancient Pergamum
The church in Pergamum was dealing with false prophets in their midst. Some in the church were led astray like the Israelites were led astray by Balaam, who compromised the prophetic message for his own personal gain. Balaam was promised a reward by an enemy king if the prophet cursed Israel, but while Balaam refused to do that, he did encourage the enemy king to send Moabite women to entice the Israelite men into sexual relationships where they then drawn into worshipping their Moabite idols as well.
The false teachers in Pergamum were using a similar tactic—inviting the church to compromise its faith in the gospel by subtle degrees. The same is happening today as some in the church become more and more willing to compromise God’s design for sexuality and hold up sexuality itself as an idol to be worshipped. The problem in Pergamum is that the church lost its cutting edge, its ability to say “no” to the culture around them, and it is the same falsehood that is destroying the church today by degrees.
Jesus response to this compromise is to wield the sword from his mouth. We see here an echo of a passage in Hebrews where the writer reminds us that the word of God is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” The word of Christ will cut through the junk and expose the truth if we are willing to hear it. Jesus challenges the church to reengage his word, his truth; to exchange the false intimacy of sexual license with the true intimacy of union with himself; to hold fast to the truth about who we are and who God is. Our identity is not ultimately found in our sexuality or in the idols we create for ourselves—our identity is found in Christ.
Do not compromise.
The church in Thyatira was dealing with a similar issue. Here Jesus uses another Old Testament image, that of the pagan queen Jezebel who goaded the King of Israel into compromising worship of God for the idolatrous worship of Baal, to describe the sexual licentiousness that has crept into the church. Jesus tells the church not to tolerate this sort of thing in their midst but instead they must repent. After all, he is the one who “searches minds and hearts and will give to each what their works deserve.”
“Tolerance” is a big value in our culture, but it isn’t really a biblical value. Tolerance in our world means that every choice we might make is of equal value and that every way of living is equally valid. To insist that there is such a thing as the right way and the wrong way is considered to be the cardinal sin in our culture. To suggest that there are some things that are out of bounds is to be labeled as “exclusive” and “intolerant.” But if you read the Scriptures carefully you begin to realize that Jesus isn’t very tolerant, especially when it comes to sin. While we are not called to ultimately judge, Jesus has no such restriction. In the end it will be him who judges the world and each of us and he will judge the life of the church as Revelation 2 and 3 makes clear.
The clear message, then, is that the church is to live its life in light of Christ’s judgment as well as his grace. The church must lovingly refuse to compromise with the culture, otherwise it will become unrecognizable as belonging to Christ. The biggest threat to Christianity in our time is not outright, violent persecution but rather the slow fade into oblivion as the church compromises by degrees, and the more the church begins to look like the culture, the more the culture will continue to ignore it and the more Jesus will ignore it, too.
So, what’s the solution? Well, Jesus tells the church in Sardis to Wake up! An interesting historical fact here—Sardis was a powerful, prosperous city in the sixth century BC, believing it was invulnerable to attack, when one day the Persians snuck in and conquered it. Jesus urges the church in Sardis to not be so asleep at the switch when he comes. “If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you,” says Jesus. The call is to be vigilant, always being a work in preparing for the coming of the Lord. One of my favorite bumper stickers says, “Jesus is coming. Look busy!” Actually, that’s prophetic. The way that the church avoids compromise and stays faithful is by living every day as though Jesus were about to return. When he returns, what will he find us doing? Will we be sleepily in bed with the culture or will we be up and about, spreading the gospel and living out our first love?
Look for open doors.
Indeed, Jesus tells the church of Philadelphia, “Look for the open door.” Jesus is the one with the “key of David” who opens the door that enables the church to take the good news about him to the places in the world where it has not yet reached. One of the ways that the church stays faithful to Christ is by always looking at ways to share him with others. A church that has staying power, a church that conquers, is one that is always looking at the world outside its walls as a place for the gospel of Jesus to run loose. When the people of a church catch that vision, even more doors are opened.
We have an open door right in front of us, church. 80% of the people within ten miles of us right now have no connection to Christ. One of the questions I want us to wrestle with this year is, how will we reach them? We also have an open door opportunity to impact people in another part of the world by helping them receive God’s Word through our new Adopt-a-Verse project, which you’ll be hearing about in a few minutes. There are lots of open doors for the church that is truly following Christ.
Don’t be lukewarm.
A water pipe in Laodicea, where the water was always lukewarm
And lastly, Jesus is looking for a church that isn’t lukewarm. The Laodiceans lived in a place where the water was always lukewarm no matter what direction it flowed from. Nobody likes to drink lukewarm water, and nobody wants to be part of a lukewarm church. There are plenty of them out there, mind you. Jesus will ultimately spit them out as having no use. The Laodiceans were prosperous and often it’s the wealthy and secure who are the least zealous in following Christ. The best churches are those in which everyone, regardless of their economic status, recognizes their poverty of spirit and invests their lives in the mission of God. The church is not an occasional hobby for those who want the American dream with a little Jesus overlay, it is a hot or cold, in or out, all or nothing proposition.
Jesus ends this section by knocking on the door—like the master returning to his home at an unexpected hour. What will he find us doing? Will we open the door and join him in the feast? That is, after all, what we reenact at the table each week. Those who share this meal with the risen Christ are thereby strengthened to “conquer,” to go forth and be the church in the world the rest of the week. It’s a sharing in the “royal priesthood,” the vocation for which Christ called us.
Jesus has John write to individual churches, but these principles apply to them all even as they still apply to us. The seven churches of Revelation no longer exist, but this one does and reading these letters is a chance to evaluate ourselves. How are we doing, individually and collectively, at being the church? How are we investing in the mission of God? These are questions I want to invite us to consider this year here at TLUMC—to be the kind of church that isn’t so much relevant to the culture as it is relevant to God’s coming kingdom—a church full of people who are maintaining their first love, overcoming fear, holding fast to the truth, not compromising, fully awake, looking for open doors for ministry, and anything but lukewarm.
Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church!
Wright, N.T. Revelation for Everyone. Westminster/John Knox, 2011. Pp. 10-40.