08 June 2015

continue in him 2

In the seven oracles given in Revelation 2–3, mention is made of the Nicolaitans. This group had been a factor in the Ephesian community (2:6), though not much is known about them. So it is difficult to assess what sort of challenge the Nicolaitans presented to the church, but the Ephesians are commended for deeming such theology and practice as false. The name Nicolaitan means something along the lines of "conquered the people," and Bauckham has wondered if this isn't a statement about those who would follow the ways of conquering, in the same manner as the Beast in later Revelation.*

If this is the case, then Bauckham further gives us insight in to the name Nicolaitan being connected to Balaam and Jezebel, both also mentioned in the seven messages to the churches. This gives us some better footing on which to understand the influence of the Nicolaitans, and the challenge they presented to the Ephesians.

Acclimating the Gospel

In the seven messages to the churches in Revelation we are hearing the words of Christ. He speaks as one who walks among the lampstands, which represent each of the congregation (2:1). Thus, he has intimate knowledge of these churches, and is close in their struggles. When he offers his commendation and criticism he does so from within the situation, not as a far-off bystander. It is common for scholarship to speak about John's polemic here, but he is seer who simply writes what he sees and hears – it is the risen Christ who evaluates his church, a point that many historians will not likely accept. We can be certain that John does not approve of the Nicolaitans, but his position is formed by the powerful presence of Jesus before him.

Clearly, the Nicolaitans were advocating a way that was contrary to the gospel that was first brought to Ephesus under apostolic authority. On the surface we see a conflict arising from food sacrificed to idols, and idolatry itself. For the modern world these appear as foreign practices on many levels, although beneath the surface there is a great theological battle being waged. The Ephesians were inundated with pagan religion; the presence of idols and their sacrifices was a constant presence in Ephesus. This was a very real and present danger for those cities in the Roman Empire, and Ephesus was the third largest in this dominant civilization.

The Nicolaitans advocated for more openness and accommodation to the larger culture, believing that there was a less-rigid way of being a people in-the-world-but-not-of-the-world than had previously taught by the apostles. They thought that culture could be experience without surrendering one's theological commitment to the Christian message, and that the more mature believer was equipped to navigate the more mature aspects of society. Advanced spirituality meant an increased participation in the life of the city would not contaminate the truly committed heart. (While we are mentioning it, it is probably safe to say that this was an ancient voice that would have denied the existence of a 'slippery slope,' if the phrase had been around.)

The Nicolaitans were probably attractive to many because they appeared to have mastered the art of faith and civic life, and they didn't suffer as much persecution as a result. On a very important level, they were chameleons in the city – Christians who did not awkwardly stand out in a crowd, even if they were supposed to be.

Our present culture might not struggle with what to do with food sacrificed to idols, but when it comes to adapting our Christian spirituality to the wider culture we have proven ourselves to be masters of the art. The common evangelical in America can go through every aspect of life without raising an eyebrow, perhaps even achieving such blended spirituality as to never give the world any reason whatsoever to think about gospel in the same breath as the individual.

What is worse, we have churches and leaders who advocate this interaction – even celebrate our assimilation into the pagan culture. This is done under the guise of Christian freedom, but is nothing more than adolescent faith masquerading as something advanced – the foolish being used to appear as wise. The church is being made to accommodate culture, a practice that, whenever God's people are guilty, is referred to as spiritual whoredom. So it is no surprise that the evaluation of the risen Christ here is that he "hates" the practices of these Nicolaitans – those who would act as conquerers in the manner of the Beast, as opposed to being victorious in the Lamb.

The Ephesian church is here commended for evaluating the teaching of the Nicolaitans and rejecting them. They do well in this part of their faith, though they still fall short. It appears that maybe the Nicolaitans might have had a different effect than they intended, for they were able to take the Ephesian church off their game. For while this congregation had won a theological battle, they are still summoned to get back to their first love by working out their faith as they had when they first believed. So, theirs is a matter of practice driven by theology. Now that they had their theological understanding of how to live, their summons was to indeed live as the church in the midst of the great city of Ephesus. As John writes these words he can envision the hard work that lay before the church, who could hear the Spirit and become victors in the kingdom of God.

*Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 127.
**For this series, see the detailed study: Paul Trebilco, The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

02 June 2015

playing the whole game

As the pitcher came to a stop, rounding first base after confidently slugging the ball into center field, the broadcasters exchanged their delight on his recent success. One particular line caught my attention: He's having so much fun right now playing the whole game. This, of course, is a reference to the fact that here, in the National League, pitchers take their turn at the plate. This is not so in the so-called junior league, which employs the DH to keep their hurlers focused singularly on pitching. I also place this comment in direct contrast with the recent comments of a certain AL pitcher, as he lamented on taking his at-bats during interleague play, that he does not like hitting and should not be forced to do so.

It strikes me as odd that this individual, making multi-million dollars for playing a game, would so publicly complain about one aspect that he rarely endures, because he doesn't feel like it. I think this is a more modern problem because our culture more readily raises complaint instead of simply accepting circumstances and doing one's best. It is when we struggle through those areas which don't come easily to us that we grow and develop. Could it be that when pitchers take up the challenge of hitting that they could become better at pitching? It is hard to say for certain, but to love the game is to accept its challenges and perceived shortcomings.

The same might be said also of the work of pastoring. Simply stated, there are a number of pastors who decide that there are certain aspects of their work that they simply don't feel like doing. For example, a certain individual might be more naturally gifted as a speaker and communicator, but feels as though visiting the sick is something that simply gets in the way of his "church work." Therefore, he makes the simple decision to avoid this part of the pastoral vocation to only do what he would like to do. (Any aspect of congregational ministry could work in this example, and there seem to be many definitions of what is and is not "pastoral work.")

But to love the church is to accept its challenges and perceived shortcomings, knowing that the experience of the whole is necessary for truly appreciating it various parts. Simply stated, the work of pitching only makes sense in the context of being a baseball player – connected to the game. Likewise, our work of preaching is strengthened by placing it within the context of vocational pastoring – the two are not equated. And when the pastor engages these various aspects of the church, even when some of them are perpetually challenging to the individual, the fruit of ministry is more evident and pleasing.

Playing the whole game may come with difficulty and frustration, requiring the pastor to dig deeper in his or her efforts, but also to rely on the strength of the Spirit. And this brings about the joy of the pastoral vocation that comes from service to the church with all of one's heart, soul, mind and strength.

31 May 2015

the pure in heart

Jesus was known to bless certain character traits that we typically don't value in our world. Some say he was turning the world on its head, or offering a new perspective on God, or perhaps providing promised rewards to those who can follow the path. It all comes down to that word – blessed. We so often dilute its power into something like happiness or self-satisfaction, neither of which are particularly part of the human experience of blessedness. At least, they are often absent from heaven's understanding of being blessed.

There is something more than becoming contented in the words of Jesus, which is why those who experience the depths of life can find even more depth in his words. This is true even when we run out of human understanding and are forced to think of something beyond ourselves. When we consider the teachings of Jesus we must be prepared to wrestle with things that we simply aren't ready to experience yet. Thus, while we may wonder at his words, we can so quickly ignore his calling as we don't know what to do with ourselves when we meet them face-to-face.

But then there are those among us who seem to grab hold of these blessed traits, and who embody the very essence of what Jesus was describing. Perhaps one of the most challenging is that he spoke of those who are pure in heart.

If you have ever known someone who can be aptly described as pure in heart then you probably have spent a good deal of that relationship shaking your head, either in bewilderment or laughter (or maybe both). For a good many years my wife and I have known someone who we have thought of in this way, which has left us with many good stories. It has been in the last six years that I have come to realize that there is one living in my house, and there is something special there indeed.

One of the problems with those who are naturally pure in heart is that they are frequently misunderstood by the world around them. They can be more than carefree, even to the point of impulsive and reckless. They make other people nervous, and often appear as though they are haphazardly meandering through life. While I cannot speak in absolutes in any direction here, I am convinced that there is something quite different happening beyond these outward appearances.

The pure in heart can be socially clumsy, not because they are unaware of their surroundings, but because they are willing to speak words that convey truth without embarrassment. They will speak of themselves and their thoughts on life, and they will describe others all with an openness and honesty that can brink about a smile or a raised eyebrow. Those who are pure in heart do not evaluate relationships on their ability to manipulate them for maximum benefit. They see people as people and are genuinely interested in others – and speaking truth is part of being a friend, right?

The pure in heart can show signs of reckless abandon, not because they are ignorant of the future, but because they are too busy living in the present. While others may think of the pure in heart as having no realistic grasp of planning for tomorrow, or how today's messes will ever get cleaned up, these pure souls lose neither sleeping nor waking hours on the problems of tomorrow. They are not naive, but rather show us what it means to trust that God will clothe and feed his children, because he has done so for the flowers and the sparrows.

The pure in heart might also be accused of being ignorant when it comes to evil and tragedy in this world. Based on my experience alone, I can assure you that this is not the case. Those who are pure in heart, with their often-worryless demeanor, can appear carefree in regards to life's challenges – even when they are facing them head on. But, and here is one of the most important points known the pure in heart, their trust in God gives them a peace that it truly beyond human understanding. These are the ones who express confidence in the providence of God, both present and future.

And so Jesus refers to those who are pure in heart as blessed, and he promises that they will see God. For most of my life I figured that this was a future-oriented condition given to those who will be able to purify their lives in the gospel. Yet those who are more naturally inclined to be pure in heart show us something quite important for our understanding of the kingdom of heaven: those who are pure in heart – who appear to be naive and out-of-touch by the standards of this world – see God on a daily basis, experiencing his lovingkindness and peace every step of the way. They are often challenged and left hurting, for their pure hearts are often trampled on by those of us who are still convinced that we must use our own cunning and conniving as part of the formula for being a part of God's kingdom. Nevertheless, their pain will not linger for long, for their vision of God will carry them into the next moment, where his healing will be sufficient.

Jesus spoke of those who are pure in heart as being blessed for their participation in the kingdom of heaven. Not many of us have this natural inclination to a pure heart, and so we must work together with the Spirit of God to be transformed into this likeness. But rather than relegating this characteristic to the back-burner of a nice-but-not-realistic-idea that will be given a happy-ending-in-heaven, we might look at those few who show us today what it means to see God every day of this life. And we might discover the powerful challenge of being blessed with a pure heart.

26 May 2015

continue in him 1

There is a lot going on around Ephesus in early Christianity. The NT has numerous writings that are somehow linked to that city – more than many people even realize. Yet we can identify this city as a leading Christian center within the early church, and note that Ephesus was capital of the province of Asia, and the third largest city in the Roman Empire (see Trebilco for more historical data). In a series of blog posts I wish to explore some of what was said to this community and its context.

Certain People

Key to understanding The Pastoral Letters is to recognize the unique concern the author has for the welfare of the believers and the local church community. Many scholars believe that the letters of 1 & 2 Timothy reflect the situation in and around Ephesus, and we can reasonably think of them as being written to the Ephesian community. When facing issues related to the well-being of this community, it is the pastor's voice that speaks, keeping in mind "the goal of this command is love" (1 Tim 1:5).

According to this pastoral voice, there are "certain people" who have risen up in the church community that are deviating from the true message of the gospel (1 Tim 1:3). These are competing leaders, who have certainly been identified by the community as persons of influence. To many in the congregation they are seen as people of good Christian character, with a theological understanding that is worthy of a hearing. In fact, these certain people probably do not think of themselves as corrupting the faith, but of moving it forward. These are voices from within the church community, and such situations always begin to bring about shades of right and wrong.

The pastoral voice of Paul speaks to Timothy and urges him to address this head-on, because what is being taught among these certain people is more fanciful mythology and fantastic conjecture than the true nature of God's work in the gospel. Although they believe they are on the right track (and, who knows that they aren't sincere in their quest), when compared to the gospel of Christ they are clearly in the wrong. Timothy is called to the often-difficult pastoral work of confrontation, made more difficult still because of the growing acceptance being given to these alternative voices. We can imagine that he was met with ready defense as he made his challenge: That's your opinion! or Who made you the judge of such things? or They are growing the church! or, perhaps, What harm are they really doing if they bring people to the church?

We might well imagine such things because church life dynamics don't really change that much over time. Today there are just as many (most likely more) voices that become so concerned with matters that distract from the gospel, that reinterpret the truth of Christ, and which lead the church  away from advancing God's work. What is more is that the difficult pastoral work of confrontation is becoming all-the-more-difficult still, with more voices rising up to challenge those who would hold firm to the truth of the gospel. All of this and we have yet to leave the doors of the church. It is often from those who are regarded as leaders in the church and community that exert this influence; seldom do those with little social status hold this type of sway. But the pastor voice is certain of one thing: these wanna-be teachers actually know nothing about what they talk about, and now must be challenged before the church (1 Tim 1:7).

It is important for us to see that the pastoral voice, the concern for the community and the gospel, the directive given from a seasoned apostle to the younger leader is a head-on collision of truth and corruption. Paul writes as a warning so that this teaching might be stopped dead in its tracks, even if it meant that certain people would be handed over to Satan himself (1 Tim 1:20). The first and most basic principle of dealing with this sort of division and opposition within the community is to remove all of the oxygen from it, that it might suffocate and drown in a sea of truth. The only way that this corruption can spread in the community is if it is allowed to circulate as though it were acceptable to the leadership of the church. If it is called out and compared to the truth of the gospel, then it will not stand in the power of message of Christ.

Perhaps we have become overly conditioned to a cultural context that suggests that everyone who means well does well, that we forget that in all of the love with which we may speak, it must be loving speech about truth. There will be those who are uncomfortable with this, and there is room for pastoral sensitivity to those who are weaker. But to those who corrupt the message – willingly or not – there must be accountability. Those who dare to stand for the gospel will quickly discover the challenges that come with questioning those popular and influential voices, especially when it begins to turn into a popularity contest (which many certain people will be more-than-happy to hide behind). But the church needs men and women who are willing to stand as shepherds, not hesitating to take out the wolves that find themselves in with the sheep – these are those certain people that will not take the correction of the gospel, but will bare their teeth at the sign of any disagreement.

This is why the pastoral voice speaks to Ephesus, and why we must speak to our local churches today. God's people are to continue in him, not being swayed by certain people who are motivated for their own interests than for the gospel.

19 May 2015

made and being made

Several years ago Loretta Lynn was known for singing Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, but Nobody Wants to Die. While it appears as a simple country song, the message below the surface is quite compelling. It speaks to the human condition that we often want the rewards without enduring the work or suffering. There are many aspects of life – especially the spiritual journey – that can be described with this sentiment.

Recently I had a friend who was being challenged greatly through his work. One particular day was incredibly difficult, and his leadership was being put to the test. Seeking to encourage him I said, "Hang in there. These are the days that make you."

Probably he needed to hear that, although in that particular moment he might not have wanted to hear it. This is because it is sometimes difficult to hear this type of encouragement in the midst of struggle. But it is also because there is an internal struggle within us that We all want to be Made, but we don't want the process of Being Made. Just like the man who wishes himself to be physically built, but who refuses to train and exercise because it is too hard, it is commonplace for us to desire strong character without ever having to be challenged in such a way that grows that character. My friend was going to be stronger if he strove to get through that particular day, but he wasn't enjoying the process of growing in his leadership character.

It is not that we must enjoy the difficult experiences that make us grow – in fact, it is often the most painful moments that grow us the most. Rather, it is for us to embrace the challenges with the presence of the Spirit that will shape us into the person God desires.

This is the growth of character, and it is becoming lost on a generation of Christians who too often shrink at the first moments of trial. Here we have an example of social culture overriding church culture, where the message of the cross is relegated to the back while we take the more convenient route of instant gratification. If believers no longer wish to engage the difficult days then how will we develop as people of the gospel? Without working through the moments that allow us to be shaped by the Spirit, how will we carry the truth that is able to transform the world because it has been forged by the presence of Christ Jesus in our lives?

Instantaneous character development doesn't happen. It isn't a thing. We might wish that we could swing through some drive-thru on the way home and pick up a little bit of character from the value menu, still making it in time for our favorite show, but it simply doesn't happen like that. This is one way in which we die so that we might participate in heaven. It is possible. In fact, it is what God desires from us, as he has given us the ability to embrace a life more abundant. To be made we must endure the process of being made, often referred to as sanctification ... if we're doing it right.