Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Missional Reading of the Letter to the Church at Pergamum

In the letter to the church at Pergamum, several missionally related themes are repeated. As in the letter to the Smyrnan church, the theme of spiritual warfare is present – the church will be harassed by satanic forces as it strives to be faithful to its mission. Also, the importance of protecting the deposit of sound doctrine is stressed here as it was in the letter to the Ephesian church. If the church is to maintain its witness it must maintain its doctrinal purity, for doctrine is essential to its witness – Christianity is not a content-less faith.

However, a new principle emerges related to the missional nature of the church. In addition to waging a spiritual warfare and guarding her doctrine closely, the church must watch its manner of living too. The church must not allow itself to succumb to the immorality of its surrounding culture or yield to the licentiousness being promoted by certain false teachers.

Pergamum lies approximately seventy miles north of Smyrna atop a hill rising 900 feet above the plain below, giving the city an “imposing and dominating aspect.” Ramsay describes the city, “Other cities of the land have splendid hills which made them into powerful fortresses in ancient time; but in them the hill is as a rule the acropolis, and the city lies beneath and around or before it. But here the hill was the city proper…” The city of Pergamum was home to a famous library, a gymnasia, a theater capable of seating ten thousand, and numerous important temples.

Among the most important temples were those belonging to the imperial cult. Pergamum had long been allied with Rome and was honored with the first temple in Asia dedicated to Augustus. Later (after the time of John’s writing), Hadrian would build a temple to Trajan, and still later, a third imperial temple to Hadrian would be added, making Pergamum δὶς νεωκόρος, or “thrice temple-wardens”. The city also included important temples to Demeter, Athena, and Asklepios which became a leading healing center. Also of significance, Pergamum was home to the famed Altar of Zeus. Yamauchi gives detail, “The structure is a monumental colonnaded court in the form of a horseshoe, 120 feet by 112 feet. The podium of the altar was nearly 18 feet high. The great frieze, which ran at the base of the structure for 446 feet, depicted a gigantomachy, that is, a battle of the gods and the giants. It was one of the greatest works of Hellenistic art.”

Jesus’ self-identification to the church at Pergamum, “him who has the sharp two-edged sword,” is meant to remind this church that the ultimate power of judgment is in the hands, or mouth, of Christ. It is his verdict that truly counts, not that of the Roman proconsul who merely wields only the power of the state, not the ultimate power of eternal life and death.

Jesus assures the church that he knows their situation full well; he knows they live “where Satan’s throne is.” “Satan’s throne” has been taken by some as a reference to the Altar of Zeus or to Temple of Asklepios, by others as a reference to the city as a the center of Roman power in region, and by still others as an allusion to the general appearance of the city. Osborne considers all of those options as possible, but contends that the best option is the imperial cult, for “It was emperor worship that most directly occasioned the persecutions under Domitian and Trajan, and Pergamum was the center of the imperial cult for all of the province of Asia.”

As in Smyrna, Jesus reminds the church that it is a spiritual war they are in. The great distress the church is suffering for Christ’s name is not simply at the hands of human political or religious authorities, but it is Satan working through these human institutions who is persecuting the faithful. In fact, Satan does more than hold court in Pergamum; verse thirteen describes the city as the place “where Satan dwells.” Beale comments, “The concluding phrase of v. 13 (“where Satan dwells”) is a contrast with the first clause of the verse (“I know where you dwell”) in order to accentuate the idea that light and darkness cannot dwell in peaceful coexistence. Therefore, the witnessing church will be a persecuted church.”

Jesus commends the church for maintaining their faithful witness in the face of this satanic onslaught. The believers had not denied the faith, even when Antipas, whom Jesus affirms as “my faithful witness,” was killed. Again, some of the church are or will be martyrs in the sense that they were put to death, but this is because they are martyrs in the sense that they bore witness to Christ, which is the primary sense of the word in the New Testament.

Despite their holding up under persecution, Jesus does have a complaint against the Pergamum church, and a multifaceted complaint at that. First, Jesus points out that there are some in the congregation who “hold to the teaching of Balaam.” Also, Jesus reprimands the church because “they have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Some commentators have argued that the church was facing threats internally from two distinct groups – the Balaamites and the Nicolaitans. However, the grammar of the sentence, awkward as it is, points in the direction of identifying those who follow Balaam with the Nicolaitans. Verse fifteen could read, “and (καὶ) after this manner (οὕτως) you have some who likewise (ὁμοίως) hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” The piling up of words, including καὶ, οὕτως, and ὁμοίως tend to emphasis the similarity of the groups to the point of identification one with the other. Osborne is correct, “The best solution is to take this not as a comparison between two similar movements but as a comparison between a single movement (the Nicolaitans) and the Jewish tradition about Balaam.”

John will make a similar rhetorical move in his letter to Thyatira, comparing the Nicolaitans to the woman Jezebel in Israel’s past. Here, in connecting the contemporary false teachers with Balaam, he illuminates for the church the nature of the threat. John understands the Nicolaitans are a modern embodiment of the spirit of Balaam, who brought Israel into sin through seduction and compromise. Balaam first appears in the canonical record in Number 22 where he is hired by Balak to come and curse the Israelites. Balaam was, however, prevented from doing so by the angel of the Lord (and a particularly astute donkey). Yet, Moses blames Balaam for Israel’s treachery towards God, when “the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab” and worship Baal at Peor (see Numbers 25:1-9 & 31:16).

Apparently, the Nicolaitans were tempting the church at Pergamum with similar compromises, compromises that certainly promised to make life in the pagan city easier. The charge indicates that the Christians in Pergamum were being led into eating meat sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. Several interpretive issues need to be addressed regarding the nature of the Pergamum sin.

Regarding the meat sacrificed to idols, one must determine whether it was meat sacrificed to idols and sold in the marketplace or if it was meat served at pagan festivals and in an idol’s temple. Of the meat sold in the marketplace, that offered to idols and that which had not been were indistinguishable; thus, Paul instructs the church at Corinth that eating meat from the market poses no spiritual problem (1 Cor. 10:25). It seems unlikely that this is the issue at hand. The meat that the Pergamum Christians are improperly partaking in is, more than likely, meat at pagan festivals, meat served in an idol’s temples or meat served at a guild banquet. This then is a much more serious issue, involving participation in idolatrous worship.

The second interpretive issue relates to the meaning of the word πορνεῦσαι, “immorality”. Osborne rightly points out that in the Apocalypse “immorality” can be taken literally, as in sexual promiscuity, or metaphorically for idolatry. Beale and Keener are representative of commentators who take the immorality as a metaphor for idolatry. Mounce and Osborne, on the other hand, take the immorality in a more literal sense. Osborne argues convincingly, “That there is no need for such redundancy as a statement on idolatry followed by an OT metaphor for the same things.”

Thus, the Nicolaitans were leading the church into idolatry and immorality, both of which were common aspects of pagan festivals and guild associations. It is not hard to understand why a group like the Nicolaitans, teaching that participation in these feasts and guild banquets was permissible for a Christian, would be so dangerous to the church, as the temptation to compromise would have been incredibly strong as idol worship was central to the whole of public life in Asia. Of the Nicolaitan heresy, Stott writes, “They were insinuating their vile doctrines into the church. They were daring to suggest that the liberty with which Christ has made us free was a liberty to sin…This travesty of the truth was to ‘change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.’”

Not only was such participation in idolatry and immorality a travesty against the truth of the gospel of Christ, it is also a deep betrayal of the church mission. As Israel in the OT, so the church in the NT was to be a contrast people. Christopher Wright articulates this truth well, “The people of God in both testaments are called to be a light to the nations. But there can be not light to the nations that is not shining already in transformed lives of holy people.” By compromising core bastions of the faith (i.e. the uniqueness of Christ, God as the only true god, gospel as liberty unto holiness, etc.), the Pergamum Christians would be better able to fit into their surrounding culture. But, that was not their call! Central to their missional task was being a different unassimilated people. This aspect of their calling was being threatened by the Nicolaitans; therefore, Jesus calls for repentance and threatens judgment if they will not.

Jesus warns that he will come to the church and war against the heretics “with the sword of my mouth.” Beale draws attention to the connection between the threat issued to the Pergamum church here and the threat to Balaam in the book of Numbers. In Numbers Balaam was threatened with being “killed with the sword” in the hands of “the angel of the Lord”. This coming in judgment is imminent (ταχὺ, “soon”) if they do not purge themselves of this group who hold to false teaching. While “coming” in Revelation often refers to the Paurousia, here it “must be interpreted as ‘coming’ in judgment preceding the final and decisive coming of Jesus.”

To the Pergamum overcomers Jesus promises to give “some of the hidden manna” and a “white stone, with a new name written on that stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” There are several interpretive options for the phrase “hidden manna”, but the best seems to connect this phrase with the jar of manna that was placed in the ark of the covenant. If this is the proper connection, then this promise draws the church’s attention to the eschaton where the ark would reappear in the new eschatological temple, a temple which encompasses the whole of the new creation (see Rev. 11:19). The eternal blessing of eating of this heavenly food is not for those who have eaten of the earthly meat polluted by its association with idol worship.

In addition, the overcomers receive a white stone with a new name. The best possible options for understanding this reference include white stones of acquittal (versus black stones of conviction) used by jurors, stones as admission tickets to guilds and feasts, pagan magic amulets with secret names, and stones given to gladiators to mark their freedom.

Osborne concludes, “the manna and white stone are both eschatological symbols related to the messianic feast at the eschaton but also teaching the spiritual food and new name that God gives to the believer in the present as well.”

In this, the promise is once again connected to God’s mission and the participation of the church in it. If the church and her members will participate in God’s mission by faithfully living as the contrast society she was called to be, then, when God’s redemptive mission is complete, she will be blessed. Faithfulness meant avoiding compromise with the surrounding culture, avoiding its idolatry and immorality, and suffering for maintaining her witness.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A Missional Reading of the Letter to Smyrna

The second church addressed in Revelation is the church at Smyrna, a city a short distance north of Ephesus. Smyrna was a wealthy city, an important intellectual city, and a city well known for its beauty. It was a city, also, brimming with civic pride which stemmed not only from its wealth and beauty but also its history.

Smyrna boasted itself as the birth place of Homer and had a long history, believed by its citizens to have begun in the third millennium BC. In addition, Hemer notes the “liberal policy of Smyrna in granting its citizenship,” citing a treaty in 242BC which granted all free Hellenes residents citizenship in Smyrna. Certainly this added to the civic pride and it can be reasonably deduced that the Christian community included citizens who shared in the cities pride.

Smyrna also maintained a close relationship with Rome, siding with it on more than one occasion, being one of four cities to host the provincial assembly, and the first city in Asia to build a temple to the goddess Roma (195 BC). Smyrna also enjoyed the title of νεωκόρος for the imperial cult, a privilege given to it by Emperor Tiberius. Adding to, and likely instigating the pressures the church faced, was a large Jewish population.

 Hemer also makes an interesting connection between the cities name and the suffering of the Christians in the city. The cities name was believed to have been tied etymologically to the Greek word for ‘myrrh’, whether truly or only coincidentally. Myrrh was associated with mourning, death rites, weeping, etc. Hemer writes, “The name Smyrna was fitting and expressive to the ancient mind for a city which seemed to exemplify characteristics which myrrh symbolized.”

In a city whose name was metaphorically connected to suffering, the church knew suffering most intimately. As in all the letters, Jesus begins by identifying himself in a way that would be especially meaningful to the church in their specific situation (always drawing on aspects of the vision recorded in chapter one of the Apocalypse). Jesus affirms himself as “the first and the last”, emphasizing his sovereignty over history past, present and future. He adds, “who died and came to life”, a reminder that is incredibly significant to a church suffering and forewarned in this letter that some will suffer unto death. Beasly-Murray writes, “To a congregation, faced with the prospect of renewed persecution and death of some of its members, the reminder that Jesus is the lord of Easter serves as a welcome consolation.”

 The letter to the Smyrnan church reminds the reader that things are not always as they appear. The Smyrnan believers appear poor, but are rich. The Jews appear to be the people of God, but are of the synagogue of Satan. And death is not as final as it seems.

The call to the church in Smyrna is simple – be faithful in your testimony to Jesus through suffering, imprisonment and even death. In this letter there is no accusation and no warning about impending judgment. Jesus has found this church faithful to their calling to bear witness, and it is due to this faithfulness that they are suffering.

One aspect of this congregations suffering is her poverty. Hemer points out that several factors contributed to this material poverty. He summarizes, "It has often been observed that the poverty of the Christians may have been due to the despoliation of their property by mobs, whether Jewish or pagan. There may have been other contributory causes, the fact that converts were oftener made among the poorer classes, and the devoted Christians on occasion reduced themselves to penury by the liberality of their own giving, or that it was difficult for an uncompromising Christian to make a living in a pagan city."

Whatever the specific reason, their poverty was tied to their faithfulness to their missional calling. If it was because of hatred of the Jews towards them, stirred up by their uncompromising proclamation of Jesus the Messiah, or hatred of pagan mobs incensed by their lack of participation in the city’s cultic life, their poverty was directly connected to their unwillingness to compromise their message and mission. If their poverty was due, in part, to their incredibly generosity, it was for love’s sake they were poor and the cure for their poverty would have been a stinginess or greed that betrayed her mission.

Jesus warns that the suffering the church had known would be intensified in days to come. Having been ostracized from the Jewish community and slandered by them, they are about to be put into prison for a duration of ten days – symbolic of an intense period of persecution, yet a period that has a definite end. It is likely that the end of the persecution would not be release from imprisonment, but release through death (prison was typically a holding place for those to be executed, not a punishment in and of itself).

This persecution, though it comes at the hands of Jews and of Rome, is truly from the devil called Satan. The ten day period is a testing of their faith, and hence the call is to remain faithful in the midst of the testing, even unto death. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna who suffered martyrdom in the early second century, would prove the truth of this warning and serve as a beautiful example of a faithful witness to Christ for the rest of the church.

This letter to the congregation at Smyrna reminds the reader that to be the church in this age will mean being the church militant and the church suffering. Being faithful to the call to bear witness brings the church into direct conflict with the powers of this age, animated by Satan and his spiritual armies. The church that remains faithful to her missional calling will be hated and persecuted. While on the surface this suffering may seem to come at the hands of the populace, the state, or false religions/philosophies, the reality of the spiritual dimension cannot be forgotten. The war she wages is spiritual.

Jesus’ words of promise to this beleaguered congregation point ahead to the church victorious. Conquering is equated with faithfulness, and though victory for the church may mean physical death, it also ensures that they will not be hurt by the second death. Instead, the God who will assuredly bring his mission to completion will reward those faithful followers with a crown of life.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Precious Church

This morning I was reading though the first half of 1 Corinthians (part of my goal of reading through the NT each quarter of the year). I came across some notes I had scribbled in the margin of 1 Cor 5 some time ago on the nature of the church.

1 Corinthians 5 is Paul's instruction to the church regarding a sexually immoral member of the church - a man was boasting about having his father's wife!  Paul tells the church that the man is to "be removed from among you," that the church is to "deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved," and that they should not associate with the sexually immoral person (in the church, not the world). 

This chapter shows how precious the church is in three ways. First, the church as they body of Christ is so precious it is to be protected from defilement. Paul say that "a little leaven leavens the whole lump" just as a little immorality that is allowed to persist will pollute the whole body. The church was to protect itself from despoilment, much like one would want to protect a clean well. If the well gets polluted it is not longer useful and life-giving.

Second, the church is shown to be precious in that being put out of the church constitutes the greatest form of discipline. In the OT, the height of discipline in Israel was the death penalty. Excommunication is the NT equivalent in the New Israel, the church. In our house, electronics are precious and one of the greatest punishments we hand down is banishment from all screens.  We wouldn't take away, say, vegetables, because they aren't precious to our kids. The church banishes teh immoral brother from something that is important, something that ought to be precious. (Bizarre isn't it, how many self-excommunicate by neglecting the body and failing to participate in the life of the church). 

Third, the church is shown to be precious in that it is a safe haven from Satan. To kick someone out of the church is to remove them from the safe haven of the Kingdom's embassy and throw them out into the world, which is Satan's domain.

Do our attitudes towards the church reflect God's?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Missional Reading of the Letter to Ephesus

Throughout the book of Revelation, John reminds the church that her central task is holding firmly to and bearing faithfully the testimony of Jesus. They are to be the light to world, and through their Spirit empowered endeavors, God would bring the nations into his blessing. Add this to the missional impact of the books canonical placement and the reader can see how crucial the theme of God’s mission and the church’s participation in it is to the book. With this background the reader is in a better place to fully understand the missional nature of Jesus’ words to the seven churches.

Each of these short letters, which serve as short introductions to the book as a whole, contributes uniquely to the missional theme of the Apocalypse, and it is these contributions that will be the focus of the next few (seven) posts.

Ephesus is the first of the churches to be addressed. Yamauchi contends that Ephesus was the fourth most important city in the world at the time of John’s writing, only behind Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch in significance, boasting a population of about 250,000 people, and making it the most significant city in Asia Minor, as the title ‘Supreme Metropolis’ indicates. Ephesus’ was at the juncture of three major trade routes, served as the de facto capital city for Asia, and was an important center for trade and banking. Once an important harbor city, the shore now lies more than six miles from the edge of the city – a product of the silting at the mouth of the Cayster River that was a constant problem for the city of Ephesus.

While the city certainly included a Jewish community that enjoyed special privileges, as they did throughout the Asia Minor, the city’s pride in their pagan religion dovetailed with its civic pride in ways that would have made life as a religious non-conformist very trying – for the Jews and the Christians. The city was religiously zealous (see Acts 19) and was home to several important temples, including temples to two emperors, Augustus and Domitian. In fact, Ephesus had the privileged status of being νεωκόρος, “temple warden”, to the imperial cult of Domitian. Most notably though was the Artemision, or temple to the goddess Artemis (Roman Diana). The temple to Artemis was a massive structure, making it one of wonders of the ancient word, and employed thousands of priests and priestesses, many in the role of cult-prostitutes.

The church in Ephesus was likely established by Aquila and Priscila with the aid of Apollos (Acts 18) and later shepherded by Timothy. Ephesus had served as a strategic base of ministry for Paul and his traveling band of evangelists/church-planters for two years, and the city’s importance as a crossroads of travel, commerce, and politics positioned the church there to continue her role as mission outpost for Asia into the future.

Yet, the church was not without issues. From the biblical record, one could safely infer that the church struggled to find unity as Paul lays such a heavy emphasis on unity and oneness in Christ in his epistle. Also, false teaching had become a significant issue threatening the church by the time Paul wrote his letters to Timothy.

These internal concerns and external pressures continued to plague the Ephesian church at the time of John’s exile on Patmos and threatened to undermine the church’s effectiveness in her missional calling. Jesus’ words to this church reflect a deep concern that this church takes her task of being a witness seriously and bring the fullness of her life into alignment with that purpose.

The letter begins, as every subsequent letter will, with the command to write to “angel of the church” followed by the city name. In this letter to the Ephesians, Jesus identifies himself as the one “who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” This self-identification offers comfort and warning to the church. It is a comfort in that Jesus knows them intimately, is ever present in their midst, and holds them in his hand. Ladd points out that the word used in 2:1 for “hold”, κρατέω, is stronger than the word in 1:16, ἔχων, “indicating a firm grasp, indicating that Christ holds his churches firmly in his hand, that they should not be snatched away.”

Yet this is also a warning, for Jesus is in their midst watching them, observing how they live, aware of their successes and their failures. This awareness is made evident in the next verse when Jesus declares that he knows their works (or deeds). This is certainly more than just a passing knowledge of individual acts, good or bad, but denotes the “overall manner of life.” This overall manner of life includes their relentless hard work and endurance in the face of exhaustion, abiding hostility of the surrounding culture, and specifically the ongoing struggle against false teachers.

Jesus commends the church for recognizing the true nature of these false teachers as evil, not simply mistaken or ill-informed, and for not bearing with them. The church held up the teaching of these would-be apostles to the light of truth and proved them and their teaching to be false. This task of identifying and purging false teaching must be seen against the backdrop of the church’s mission, for true doctrine is closely linked with the church’s calling to bear witness. If the church’s message is corrupted or diluted they have failed to bear witness faithfully. Thus, contrary to the oft-expressed sentiment that concern for doctrine is petty and only gets in the way of doing the work of the church, the church that takes mission seriously must take doctrinal purity just as seriously. The church with a compromised message is a church with diminished power, for the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). The church, from its inception, has always “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), understanding that the story and its interpretation as passed on by the apostles was vital for the ongoing existence and missional success of the church.

By Jesus’ account, the Ephesians have been diligent in guarding this deposit of truth and have not indulged the false apostles or their wayward teaching. The church is commended for enduring patiently not having grown weary in standing up for the sake of Christ’s name. Yet, Jesus has a stern admonition for the Ephesian church. They have done the hard work of keeping their doctrine pure, and have patiently endured many things; yet, they have “abandoned they love they had at first”.

What was the nature of the churches defect? The text could be read to mean that they have abandoned the love that had for one another and allowed strife to poison the relationships within the church, maybe degenerating as far as open hostility to one another or possibly settling for mere coexistence. Alternatively, it could mean that they have abandoned the initial love they had for Christ and allowed their devotion to devolve into cold, dispassionate dogmatism. Commentators can be lined up on both sides of this, and Beale offers a third option, namely “that losing their ‘first love’ was tantamount to becoming unzealous witnesses.”

To some extent it is possible to hold all three positions. Love for one’s brothers and sisters in Christ is a key indication of the genuineness of one’s love for Christ (for example, see 1 John 4:7-8). Conversely, one’s love for Christ will naturally flow out into a love for one’s siblings in Christ. In other words, love in one dimension cannot fade without also betraying or leading to a lack of love in another dimension. Moreover, the love that Christians have for one another, which is a product of their love for Christ, will be a powerful witness to the world. Jesus instructs his followers, saying, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The love Christians share for one another has an unquestionable missional component to it. Even when the church turns its attention and affection inwardly, she does so in such a way that she bears witness to the world that they are Christ’s, whose love is sacrificial and open to all. Jesus’ assessment of their condition is followed by a call to repentance and action – “do the works you did at first”. If not, Jesus warns the church that their very existence as a church is in jeopardy.

Again, utilizing the imagery of the lampstand, Jesus threatens to come and remove theirs from its place. Their lovelessness compromises their mission to be his witnesses, which is the very reason for their existence. When the church ceases to serve its purpose, Christ will remove it from the rolls of his churches. Beale states it well, “They will cease to exist as a church when the very function that defines the essence of their existence is no longer performed.”

After again complimenting the church on its lack of tolerance for false teachers, specifically the Nicolaitans (detailed explanation of the false teaching will come in following posts), Jesus offers words of promise to the one who conquers (νικάω).

Overcoming or conquering certainly entails persevering in belief, but the context demands more. Overcoming includes persistence in the faith – denying Christ or abandoning belief would surely disqualify someone from being a conqueror and lead to a forfeiture of what is promised. But conquering also includes, for the Ephesian church, conquering the sin that threatens their ability to be a faithful witness, namely being lackluster in love. In other churches what must be overcome is different – sometimes it is immorality or idolatry, in several it is false teaching, in some churches it is sinful accommodation to the pagan culture, and in others it is the temptation to give in under persecution.

In all, overcoming is linked to being a faithful witness, even unto death, and is thus connected to their faithfulness to their God given mission. Here in Ephesus, the overcomers are granted “to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” This is a wonderful promise which reminds the church of God’s ultimate mission to redeem and restore all things and the assured success of God’s mission. Paradise will be restored and those who have been Christ’s faithful witnesses will be granted life in it. The church’s missional faithfulness is motivated, in part, by her confidence in the ultimate success of God’s mission and his promise to bless those who have partnered with him in it.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Waugh family fun

Last night was a blast...IU women's game to watch my niece, then dinner and games at home with inlaws, nieces and their friends. Mother Bears, Apples to Apples, Skippo, NBA 2K14 tourney...and so many cookies. Not a quiet night, but a blast.