Letters to the 7 Churches 2 - Ephesus and Smyrna
I receive lots of letters each week, from various organisations, and I have to say, most of them end up in the cardboard file on my floor - waiting to be recycled. Some, though, I take more notice of than others. Some I deal with immediately. Others I put in the pile in the centre of my desk to be dealt with as soon as I can get to them. How do I differentiate between these three groups? Sometimes I glance at the contents briefly and if it's something like an offer for life insurance or another credit card they go straight in the bin. But in other cases I check who they're from. I got one from the tax office last week, talking about my next tax return. That one I carefully put aside until I do my tax. The sender of a letter makes a big difference to the attention we pay it doesn't it?
Well look at the way this first letter begins: "To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands." Think back, if you were here two weeks ago, to the vision that John saw of the Son of Man standing in the midst of the 7 lampstands, clothed with a long robe and a golden sash, with his head and hair as white as wool, as white as snow, eyes like flames of fire, feet like burnished bronze, a voice like the sound of many waters, holding the 7 stars in his hand and with a sharp 2-edged sword coming from his mouth, and his face shining like the full force of the sun. It was an overwhelming image of glory and majesty. And now the postman arrives and in his pouch is a letter from that same Son of Man.
So what should they do? Where in the pile of mail should they put it? If the author of the letter sets its priority then it had better be right on top hadn't it? You can imagine the leaders of the church calling an urgent meeting so everyone can be there to hear this vital message.
And let's remember, before we begin to look at these letters, that the fact that they're recorded here for us means that they're equally important for us to read and pay attention to.
There are seven letters altogether, seven letters sent to 7 different churches in the region of western Turkey, what was called Asia or Asia Minor in the Roman Empire. Each letter is different but they all have the same basic structure. They all begin with a greeting to the angel of the church, then the sender, Jesus, is named, often with a description that reflects something of the glory depicted in ch 1. Then there's generally a note of praise, of what Jesus has observed about them, followed by some form of rebuke then a warning to pay attention to the message and a promise of reward for those who persevere to the end.
"I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false."
This was a church that had fought the battle of Christian orthodoxy and had triumphed. They'd taken seriously the words of Paul to get rid of false apostles, to stand firm in the faith, to rest on the foundations of the apostles and prophets.
He says they hate the works of the Nicolaitans. Now, we don't have any idea who the Nicolaitans were but there seems to be some connection with the Balaamites mentioned in the letter to Pergamum later in the chapter. They were most probably a sect that thought you could mix pagan practices with the Christian faith. So they had no problem with idolatry or immorality as long as it was within the constraints of normal secular standards. In other words they'd compromised the gospel so they could still live like any other Greek or Roman citizen, much as some parts of the church have done today. But this church wouldn't tolerate such evildoers.
So the Ephesian Church was doing well as far as orthodoxy was concerned. They'd held on to a reformation faith, they had their theology down pat. The Scriptures determined their moral behaviour.
What's more they were standing firm against opposition and persecution. "3I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary." It sounds like it's a church that's doing very well doesn't it?
But there was just one problem: "4But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first." How often do you see Christians who have a high sense of the importance of good morals, of pure doctrine, ending up being so hard on those who swerve from the truth that the idea of Christian love and grace fades into insignificance. How often do those who want to root out all error in the church end up with a rigid orthodoxy that denies the freedom of the gospel. Jesus spoke so harshly against the Pharisees not because they were ignoring God's law but because their desire to get things right had, in the end, led them to forget the nature of the God they were worshipping, a God who primarily wants his people to love him with all their heart and their neighbour as themselves.
So he calls on them to repent, to remember how it used to be.; to recover the love they had at first. And notice how they're to show that love: it isn't shown in the way you're feeling. He doesn't say get your feelings back into line. No, he tells them to do the works they did at first. Love shows itself in action. In the context here, it shows itself in the way we deal with those who veer away from the narrow path of truth. Do we discipline them with all the harshness of the Spanish inquisition, or do we gently plead with them, walk alongside them as we seek to show them a better way to go?
There are so many examples, in our history as a Church, of the way people have been alienated by those who want to maintain a strict orthodoxy but who do it without practising love. Let me give you a couple of examples. It's not so long ago that anyone who was divorced was ostracised, whether or not they were at fault. Christians were so opposed to divorce that they condemned even faithful spouses who'd been abandoned and divorced against their will. It's a bit like shunning someone who's been raped because we think rape is a terrible thing. Instead we should have been comforting and encouraging those people, helping them rebuild their self esteem. Helping them to feel accepted by us even if they felt rejected by an unfaithful spouse.
Similarly, in the present day, women in some places are marginalised or even accused of being in rebellion if they ask to be ordained or pretend to be able to teach men from the Bible, on the grounds that the prevailing orthodoxy or tradition says they shouldn't be doing it. So much so that many of these women have been driven away from the orthodox sections of the church. And as they've moved away many have also turned away from the Bible as their source of authority. Or they choose the parts they want to listen to and ignore the rest.
But how much better if the love and grace of God were applied to the situation and those with obvious gifts in the area of teaching and preaching, of leading others to faith in Christ, were encouraged and supported as they did it.
None of this denies the need to listen to what God tells us in his word. Remember this Church was praised for sticking with the truth. But love must inform the way we apply the truth.
And the danger for churches who forget the love of God is that God may remove their lampstand. That is, they may simply cease to exist. In fact if you think about it, a church where God's love no longer operates is really a counterfeit of a church isn't it?
Notice the way the promise at the end is worded: "7Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God." These people thought they were doing well when truth won out and evils and lies were overcome, but the real battle is with our own human nature. Can we conquer our desire to control and instead act in love? Can we maintain the love that we felt and exercised when we first came to faith in Christ? That's the real victory.
The letter to Smyrna begins with a series of contrasts: The words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life: These Christians are poverty stricken, yet are spiritually rich. Those who oppose them claim to be Jews but are not true Jews.
The situation here is quite different to that in Ephesus. There they appear to have had some success in overcoming those who would led people astray and in ridding themselves of evildoers, but in Smyrna the opposition they faced was too great, In fact it was likely to threaten their lives. Smyrna was like Ephesus in that it was a centre for worship of the Emperor, but it also had a strong Jewish community who were obviously strongly opposed to Christianity and were probably collaborating with the Romans in bringing accusations against Christians that would have led to imprisonment and possibly death. They're described as false Jews, probably because of this betrayal. John was a Jew himself. The churches would have considered themselves as true Jews because they followed the Jewish Messiah: hence the 7 lampstands (Jewish lampstands, you see) that represented the 7 churches. So as far as they were concerned, these false Jews were turning against their own race.
We need to be careful when we read something like this that we don't take it out of context. There have been times in history when Christians have read that expression "a synagogue of Satan" and used it as justification for oppressing or even trying to eradicate Jewish people. Even today there are white supremacists in the fundamentalist parts of the church, particularly in America, who are waiting for the day when Christ returns so they can begin the fight against the Jewish-controlled government. It's hard to believe but sadly it's true.
The expression "for ten days" is probably one of those numerical keys that Revelation is so full of. Ten is the number of completion, so ten days may symbolise extreme or complete persecution. In any case his exhortation is to be faithful to death, so this isn't just a few days in the slammer after which you can go home. This is a warning of the ultimate test of their faith. Will they stand firm under this level of persecution?
It's interesting that the only two churches that receive praise without any criticism are Smyrna and Philadelphia, both of whom were suffering severe persecution. Could there be a correlation there? Could it be that the more you suffer the more you concentrate on what matters? And conversely the more comfortable you are, the more you're tempted to compromise, to lower your guard, to accept half truths or to move into the morally (dark) grey areas of behaviour.
We're unlikely, in Australia, to face the sort of suffering that leads to death. As I said last time we're more likely to be ignored or made to feel irrelevant. But there are places in the world today where it's dangerous to have a living faith in Christ. There are places where to stand up for your belief in Christ could mean death. But even here, standing up as a Christian can mean economic disadvantage. For some it may mean losing a job, because you refuse to compromise on your behaviour. For others it might mean being passed over for promotion because you don't take part in some of the immoral behaviour that your workplace culture encourages. I know there are some women who suffer at the hands of their husbands either physically, emotionally or economically, because they want to worship as part of a church and the husband feels intimidated by it. It's hard to believe in this day and age but it's true.
So what's the answer for those who find themselves in such a situation, particularly those facing death for Christ? Well it lies in the contrasts we noted at the beginning of this section.
The one who speaks is the one who was there at first, at creation and who will be there at the last, when this world is wiped away and a new world is founded. He's the one who was dead but who came back to life who has already conquered death.
Though they're poor as a result of the persecution they're experiencing, spiritually they're rich.
We're having a huge emphasis in Australia at the moment on superannuation. You need to have enough superannuation put away to be able to live in comfort in your retirement is the mantra we hear over and over again. Well, here Jesus is saying they've got enough spiritual superannuation stored up to see them through death and into eternal life.
Finally all they need to do is to be faithful until death and they'll receive a crown of life. The crown here is the victor's crown, the laurel wreath that was given to the runner who won the race at the Greek games. This is the reward for those who remain faithful. In this race it isn't necessary to come first, mind you. All you have to do is finish. All you have to do is to overcome those who are trying to get you to deny your faith and you do that simply by remaining faithful.
As I said, few of us, if any, will ever be asked to give up our life for our faith. That may be reassuring, but don't forget the warning I gave that it may be harder to remain faithful when we're comfortably acceptable as Christians, when the temptation to compromise, to simply ignore the sins of our culture, is so subtly present at every turn. Better to prepare yourself for the possibility that being a faithful follower of Christ will mean opposition, because then you can also hold on to the promise that Jesus gives that he'll keep you safe until the time comes when we'll receive the crown of life and be able to eat from the tree of life in the Paradise of God.