Good and Evil in the Churches of Asia and Bethlehem
When a Tragedy Comes into an Individual's Life
When a tragedy comes into the life of a Christian, one of the most natural and healthy reactions is to look for some similar experience in the Bible and how God dealt with it. This is especially true when the tragedy is sin.
- How many robbers have looked to the thief on the cross to find hope.
- How many adulterers have looked to king David to find hope.
- How many murderers have looked to the apostle Paul to find hope.
- How many people who have denied Christ have looked to Peter to find hope.
- How many prostitutes have looked for hope to the woman who wiped Jesus' feet with her tears and her hair.
- How many crooked businessmen have looked to Zacchaeus for hope.
- How many demonized people have glimpsed dimly a ray of hope in the Gadarene demoniac sitting in his right mind.
When tragedy strikes our lives, we desperately want to see biblical examples of people like us who made it—broken, contrite, repentant, forgiven, renewed—sent on our way to freedom.
When a Tragedy Comes into a Church's Life
And it's the same with churches. At least that's the way I feel these days. I want to know if what has happened to us as a church has any precedent in Scripture. Are there stories of hope not just about people, but about churches? Is there hope for a church that has been so deceived? Is there hope for a pastoral staff (for me!) that did not see more and act sooner? Is there hope for a church when our worship has been so desecrated? Can God bless a church like ours? And we ask—especially those of us who have given our lives to this church—was our worship in vain? Is there a story in the Bible for us?
What I want to do this morning is not any detailed exposition. I simply want to point you to the place in the Bible where we can find some churches a little bit like us, and where we might find hope for Bethlehem.
The place is in Revelation 2–3 where the risen Jesus speaks through the apostle John to the seven churches of Asia Minor. What struck me as I read the letters again was not merely that four of them were threatened by sexual sin, but that Jesus told four of them that he had something against them, but that not everything they did was in vain. That's what grabbed me. Here we have four churches, and the Lord Jesus comes to them and says, "This you do well, but I have something serious against you—this you do not do well."
And in this I have found hope. Let me show you what I mean.
Jesus' Messages to the Seven Churches
Two of the seven churches get only commendations from Jesus and no criticisms: the church at Smyrna (2:8ff.) and the church at Philadelphia (3:7ff.). One of the churches gets only criticism and no commendations: the church at Laodicia (3:14ff.). But four of the churches get mixed reviews. Jesus approves some things and he disapproves of others: the churches at Ephesus (2:1ff.), Pergamum (2:12ff.), Thyatira (2:18ff.) and Sardis (3:1ff.).
And all four Jesus calls to repent and threatens terrible things if they don't. For example,
- to Ephesus: " . . . else I am coming to you, and will remove your lamp stand" (2:5);
- to Pergamum: "I will make war against them with the sword of my mouth" (2:16);
- to Thyatira: "I will cast her upon a bed of sickness . . . " (2:22);
- to Sardis: "If you will not wake up I will come like a thief and you will not know at what hour I come upon you" (3:3).
These are all merciful warnings to wake the churches up. They are all mixed—not that there is any perfect church—but these are evidently so badly mixed that their very existence is threatened.
Let's just look how each of these four churches is mixed and how the Lord talks about the good and the bad.
The Church at Ephesus
First Jesus says what he approves (Revelation 2:2–3, 6):
2 I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot endure evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; 3 and you have perseverance and have endured for my name's sake, and have not grown weary . . . 6 Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. [We'll see what these deeds are when we look at the church at Pergamum.]
Then Jesus says in verse 4 what he has against them: "But I have this against you, that you have left your first love."
So their hatred of evil and their vigilance against the deceptive false apostles and their perseverance is good. Jesus commends them for it. But all the while their deeds of love are drying up, and he holds that against them.
When we get to the church of Thyatira, we will see the exact opposite error: not love drying up under vigilance against sin (as here), but sin flourishing under the tolerance of love.
The Church at Pergamum
First Jesus tells them what he approves (Revelation 2:13):
13 I know where you dwell, where Satan's throne is; and you hold fast my name, and did not deny my faith, even in the days of Antipas, my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.
So Jesus strongly commends their Christ-centered courage even unto death. But then in verses 14–15 he says,
14 But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit acts of immorality. 15 Thus you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
So now we see what this Nicolaitan stuff is: it's a teaching that somehow encourages idolatry and sexual immorality. Some in the church were promoting this, even while others were laying their lives down for the gospel.
The Church at Thyatira
First, in Revelation 2:19 Jesus commends them:
19 I know your deeds, and your love and faith and service and perseverance, and that your deeds of late are greater than at first.
Now notice that this is the opposite of the church at Ephesus. To Ephesus Jesus said: you have left your first love. Here he says, "I know your love . . . that your deeds of late are greater than at first."
So what could he have against them? Revelation 2:20–23:
20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads my bond-servants astray, so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. 21 And I gave her time to repent; and she does not want to repent of her immorality. 22 Behold, I will cast her upon a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. 23 And I will kill her children with pestilence; and all the churches will know that I am he who searches the minds and hearts.
So in Ephesus they hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans (2:6)—Jezebel was probably a prophetess in this faction in the church. But while they hated the immorality of the Nicolaitans their first love was drying up. Here in Thyatira it was the opposite: their love was greater than at the first but they tolerated flagrant immorality.
But not everyone is guilty for this. Verse 24 says,
But I say to you, the rest who are in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching [of the Nicolaitans], who have not known the deep things of Satan, as they call them—I place no other burden on you.
What I hear from these two churches is that walking in the light of love and truth is not a simple thing. It is fraught with dangers on all hands—just like John Bunyan shows it to be on all hands ("Dangerous Journey"!). It seems that for some the path of love is so simple. Sometimes I envy them.
For me it is not simple. It takes tremendous spiritual insight to know when to be tough in vigilance and when to be tender in tolerance. In the one direction lurks the Ephesian indictment: you have left your first love. In the other direction lurks the other indictment: you tolerate adultery.
Jesus clearly does not want us to choose between these two, but to avoid them both: love and vigilance, tough and tender, truth and grace. This is our calling and it is not easy.
The Church at Sardis
Jesus starts this time (in 3:1b) with what he disapproves of:
1 I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of my God.
Nevertheless, even this church that seems all but dead hears Jesus say in verse 4:
4 But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with me in white; for they are worthy.
Hope for Us and Our Church
Now here's the point. Jesus did not write any of these churches off. He said the day may come when he would write them off—make war on them with the sword of his mouth, come against them like a thief, bring them into sickness, and, if necessary, take away their candlestick—put them out of existence. But not yet. He gave them all time to repent.
"The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands and forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin" (Exodus 34:6–7). That goes for people like and you and me. And it goes for churches like Bethlehem.
There is hope for us and our church, and I invite you to affirm it with me by singing Hymn 517, "My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less, than Jesus' Blood and Righteousness."