Posts Tagged With: Ephesus

Revelation 2: Balancing “In” And “Not Of” The World

Live in the world, but do not become like the world.  That is the calling of a Christian, and a formulation we have probably all heard all of our lives.  (Did you know that phrase is not actually in the Bible?  The concept certainly is.)  We are called to be involved in the lives of non-Christians, not a detached group that vilifies, hates, and avoids those not like us.  We are called to shape the culture in which we live for the sake of Christ.  At the same time we are called to remain unspotted from the filth of this world.  We are not to become so like our non-Christian neighbors that we are shaped by their culture.

That is a challenging balance to maintain!

In Revelation 2-3, John addresses the seven churches of Asia, each in turn, in what are most like little “letters” to each.  A common theme running throughout these interesting sections is the way in which each church has interacted with the pagan, sinful culture in which they live.  Life in the first-century Roman Empire required one to worship the pagan gods and the Emperor.  Most of the publicly available meat came from sacrifices offered to pagan gods.  Business required a person to be a part of a trade guild (like a union) that had a patron god.  Public life was immensely immoral, especially sexually immoral.  Like any large economy, it was important to turn a buck, one way or another.  How do you live as a follower of Christ in such an environment?

Remember, the recipients of Revelation were persecuted Christians, targeted because they were identifiably different from their neighbors.  An easy way to avoid that persecution, though, is to lessen the degree to which you stand out as different.  A little cultural accommodation never killed anyone, right?  Maybe it might even keep you alive to share the gospel another day.  Jesus, who is in their midst (1:12), has seen their lives and has a message for each, usually focused on the way that church has chosen to live in their non-Christian society.

For ease of discussion I am including a chart that places each of the seven churches (and two other groups) on a continuum according to how they chose to interact with their culture (click on the graphic to enlarge and print from this PDF).  As you read through the “letters” to the seven churches, see if you can tell why I have placed them where I have.

There was a group in the churches of Asia Minor who were extreme accommodationists.  The Nicolaitans seemed to believe (like the Gnostics) that a Christian showed his superior spiritual strength by engaging in all the sinful practices of pagan life but without that affecting his soul.  The followers of “Balaam” (2:14) and “Jezebel” (2:20) — surely, two code names — were likely Nicolaitans.  It appears that this sort of thinking had been influential to various degrees in the churches of Thyatira and Pergamum.  The Laodiceans had developed the same sort of arrogance those in their city had who have become rich and self-sufficient (3:17).  Given that the Christians in Sardis were not suffering any persecution at all, it would appear they had chosen not to stand out from society in any great way.  Jesus scolds these churches for their compromise of doctrine, purity, and zeal.

At the other extreme would have been Christians who were on guard against this sort of cultural accommodation to such a degree that they isolated themselves from society, becoming judgmental and unwelcoming to outsiders.  While immensely pure, they also lacked the love for others that God so desired His people to have.  The Pharisees (literally the “set-apart ones”) would have the best known example of this mentality, though they were not Christians.  Of the seven churches of Asia Minor, the church in Ephesus was most known for this lack of love, and thus Jesus highlighted this compromise of attitude (2:4).

Only the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia escape any criticism at all from Jesus.  These centrist churches seemed to recognize their role as shapers of culture and were doing so admirably, even if that did mean that both of them would have to sacrifice their own comfort to do so.

Of course, this same continuum can be used to describe churches at any time in history and any place on the globe.  God’s kingdom in always an alternative community, different from the cultural norm.  He calls us to be the “kingdom of priests” (1:6) who stand in the gap as mediators with one hand on God and one hand in the world.

What do you think?

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BONUS: An Introduction to John’s Letters

Though never identified in the letters, the author of the Johannine letters is almost certainly the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, and author of the Gospel of John.  Based on writing style, there is good reason to think the writer of Revelation is a different John.  The John who wrote 1, 2, and 3 John was one of the inner circle of apostles and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23).  Though he started his adult life a fisherman, he ends it as one of the pillars of the new, growing Christian church, a highly respected leader in the Ephesus area in particular.

“The Apostle John” by Rembrandt

The Johannine letters are likely some of the latest parts of the New Testament.  Some date John’s letters to the late 80s.  If this is correct, the first generation of those who had actually seen Jesus were dying and John was pure royalty.  Given that no specific recipients are mentioned in 1 John, the first epistle was likely a circular letter distributed among a diverse group of Christians, especially in Asia Minor around Ephesus.  Given the general nature of the teachings of the letter, that makes perfect sense.  Second and Third John are equally as general and universal.

Most scholars situate the Johannine letters in the context of Gnosticism.  This false version of Christianity really blossomed in the second century AD but it was likely an early version John was addressing.  Gnosticism taught that the physical was evil and the spiritual was good.  The fleshly body was wasting away and either an impediment to holiness or a temporary object of no consequence to be used and abused because only the soul really mattered.  Gnosticism derives its name from the Greek word “gnosis” which means “knowledge,” because the truly spiritually enlightened ones have a special knowledge that sets them apart from their more earthbound peers.  With these beliefs, a good Gnostic could not believe Jesus was fully human and flesh.  One version of Gnosticism called “doceticism” taught that Jesus only seemed to be flesh and another version called “Cerinthianism” taught that the man named Jesus gained his spiritual nature at baptism and lost it before he died.  We will hear John attacking this sort of thinking in his letters, 1 John especially.  As the flesh was evil, one was supposed to either deny his fleshly desires through asceticism (seen earlier in Colossians) or indulge the flesh in licentiousness.  This latter version seems to be the one John addresses.

John wrote 1 John to expose false teaching and counter any wrong thinking about Jesus that had cropped up.  As one of the last eyewitnesses of Jesus, John could testify that Jesus was indeed flesh.  John also believed that the libertine worldliness of pre-Gnostic Christianity was eroding the true Christian witness.  In 2 and 3 John, John encourages faithful Christians to extend hospitality to evangelists he would have sent out even if powerful, possibly-Gnostic leaders in his church opposed him.

Categories: 1 John, 2 John, 3 John | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

1 Timothy 4: Overemphasizing the External

It is really easy to turn the way of Christ into a series of rules about external behavior.  That is not to say that the way of Christ is only internal — one does need to give attention to how one acts in this world — but there is something missing from a person’s Christianity if it entirely revolves around laws that dictate what a person does and does not do with their bodies.

We learn today that this was certainly happening in Ephesus:

They [the false teachers] will forbid marriage, and teach people to abstain from foods which God intended to be received with thanksgiving by people who believe and know the truth. (4:3)

Sometimes we do the same, especially when talking to younger Christians.  We make it seem like the task of following Jesus is all about not getting drunk, not smoking weed, and not sleeping around.  Then as people get older we talk about staying away from pornography, not speeding, and not missing church.  Of course, I am not suggesting that any of these are wholesome or appropriate; I simply beg us to remember there is more to the way of Christ than external rules, and limiting Christianity to external rules is action akin to the false teachers of Ephesus.

Like Paul was calling the Ephesian church to (1:5-7), like he was calling Timothy to (4:12), the way of Christ is all about “faith, love, and holiness” — all of which have external manifestations but all of which start as attitudes and desires of the heart first and foremost.  According to Paul today, to forget this is the beginning of false teaching.

What do you think?

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1 Timothy 2: The Topic Is Dispute, Not Women

I come from a conservative denomination.  By conservative I mean what is typically thought when that term is used.  “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” was a saying I often heard growing up.  Our denomination was founded by men who coined slogans like “We are just Christians” and “We speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent.”  We didn’t dance, drink, smoke or chew, and certainly didn’t go with girls who do.  At summer camp the boys swam separate from the girls.  The college I attended, that is associated with the same denomination, has recently been called a “bastion of conservatism.”  When the long-time college president died during my time there as a student, George H. W. Bush sent a note of condolence.  Ann Coulter has spoken on campus.  You get the gist.

So you can imagine that we have also been pretty patriarchal when it comes to male and female roles in society and church.  There are certain things women are simply not free to do, and when an inquisitive child asks why, seeing that this is the 21st century and women and men are fast approaching equality in most arenas of life, he is taken to this chapter (and 1 Corinthians 14).

They [women] must study undisturbed,in full submission to God.  I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; rather, that they should be left undisturbed.  Adam was created first, you see, and then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the women was deceived, and fell into trespass. (2:11-14)

I have no interest in tackling female roles in ministry in this post.  I recently reviewed Scott McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet on my other blog and you can read a synopsis of his defense of the full participation of women in ministry there if you are interesting.  Suffice it to say, his is a view I did not grow up with.

I would like to make note of one point about the broader context of this chapter that comes out strongly when one comes to this chapter and is reading the New Testament through without any agendas, as we are doing this year, and that impacts the topic of women’s roles in ministry.  Look back to 1:4-5 from yesterday.  The false teachers stirred up dispute.  Those influenced by their teachings likely did as well.  Yet, Paul wanted Timothy to be a person of faith, love, and purity.  Earlier in this chapter, Paul instructs Timothy to encourage the people to pray for their political leaders so that they “may lead a tranquil and peaceful life, in all godliness and holiness” (2:2).  Men are instructed in this passage too, not just women.  They are told to lift up “holy hands” in prayer, which has less to do with worship style and much more to do with a spirit between brothers and sisters in which there is “no anger or disputing” (2:8).  Women are given instruction about their dress and appearance (instructions most people see as cultural, and no longer literally binding) and the most important point is that they are to be “modest and sensible,” “decent” women who are known for their good works not their fashions (2:9-10).  In 2:11-12 women (or at least some specific women in the Ephesian church) are told to conduct themselves in times of worship and learning with “silence” (most translations) or they should be left “undisturbed” so they can study in peace (Wright’s translation, one that seems rather flavored by his Anglican position on female roles in ministry).  Last, the chapter ends with the same phrases from chapter one:

. . . if she continues in faith, love, and holiness with prudence. (2:15)

Paying attention to the context does not crack the code on this passage as it pertains to women in ministry; I think you could make this passage support any position.  What we must do is honor the Bible enough to let the main point stay the main point and not lose it in the midst of our pet issues and positions.  Paul was addressing a church in the midst of dispute, a church quick to argue, who thought that argument was in fact a badge of honor.  Paul couldn’t have disagreed more and he encouraged Timothy to adopt the same approach.  Men were arguing.  Depending on which translation you use, women were either arguing as well or were so oppressed they were not able to study without harassment.  Paul’s main point is clear, though: stop arguing.

It is kind of ironic to me that we argue about this passage so much.

What do you think?

Categories: 1 Timothy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Ephesians 1: Jesus the King

Over in England, it was the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation this past weekend.  Unless you have just been away from a media outlet of some sort you have seen the celebrations — flotilla, horse races, Sir Elton John, and all.  Now imagine walking into the middle of the crowds outside Buckingham Palace and shouting, “There is another queen, one better and more powerful than Elizabeth!”  Yeah.  I am thinking that wouldn’t go over well, even as fair-weather as the British people are about their royals.

But that is essentially what Paul does as he starts Ephesians.  This is where N. T. Wright’s choice to translate “Christ” as “king” really makes the point.  Eleven times in twenty-three verses Paul calls Jesus the “king.”  But there already was a king in Ephesus: Caesar.  And if that wasn’t enough to fill their hearts they had the blessings of the local goddess Artemis.  This was not a people in need of another king, another power, and more blessing.  Yet, that is exactly how Paul starts.  How confrontational!  Notice how in-your-face these verses sound when you remember where they are being read:

His plan was to sum up the whole cosmos in the king — yes, everything in heaven and on earth, in him. (1:10)

This was the power at work in the king when God raised him from the dead and sat him at his right hand in the heavenly places, above all rule and authority and power and lordship, and above every name that is invoked , both in the present age and also in the age to come.  Yes: God has “put all things under his feet.” (1:20-22a)

Artemis (Diana)

Artemis was usually depicted with many breasts from which her worshipers were nourished.  Her blessings sustained life.  Yet, Paul packs blessing after blessing into Ephesians 1 as he reminds the Ephesian Christians what they have received from God, not Artemis (1:3):

  • Being holy and irreproachable in God’s sight (1:4)
  • Adoption as God’s sons and daughters (1:5)
  • Deliverance by the forgiveness of sins (1:7)
  • Making known the secret of God’s purposes to us (1:9)
  • Marked by the Spirit as an inheritance (1:11, 13)
  • Being made wise, understanding things others do not (1:17)
  • Enlightenment to the “eyes of your inmost self” (1:18)
  • Knowledge of the amazing power of God towards us (1:19)

Paul also sneaks the real issue into the chapter three times:

To the holy ones in Ephesus who are also loyal believers in King Jesus. (1:1)

I’d heard that you are loyal and faithful to Jesus the master (1:15)

You will know the outstanding greatness of his power toward us who are loyal to him in faith (1:19)

The real question that the Ephesians had to grapple with first was to which king they would be loyal.  To whom would they go for blessing?

What did you notice in this significant chapter?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Ephesians

Though some have doubted it because of the lack of personal greetings so common in his letters, the apostle Paul is stated twice as the author of Ephesians (1:1; 3:1), a letter likely written while the apostle was under house arrest in Rome (3:1; 4:1; 6:20) around AD 60.  The other Prison Epistles — Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon — would have been written at this same time, and we will be reading all four together in the next month.

The Temple of Artemis

Ephesus was an important city in the ancient world and in the life of Paul.  Situated at the nexus of sea and land trading routes, Ephesus became both a commercial and cultural center, by far the most important in Asia Minor and one of the top five most important cities on the Mediterranean.  Home to the Temple of Artemis (Diana), one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, Ephesus also became a religious center as pilgrims flocked to the temple seeking a blessing from the many-breasted fertility goddess.  You may recall it was Ephesus where the silversmiths rallied a large part of the city to chant “Great is the Artemis of the Ephesians” for two straight hours (Acts 19:23-34).  Paul spent almost three years here (Acts 19:10) growing very close to the leaders in the church and using the Ephesian church as a home base for his evangelism of western Turkey.  This Ephesian church is the one to whom Paul sent Timothy in 1 and 2 Timothy towards the end of the apostle’s life in an effort to set them straight when they apparently went off track.  John would warn the Ephesian church to regain their “first love” in Revelation 2.

Ephesians may be the most general of Paul’s letters.  Whereas Paul usually addressed a problem or threat to the church, he only seems to be encouraging the Christians in Ephesus to know how blessed they are and to stand firm in those blessings appreciating the high calling of the Church.  In a unique way, Ephesians talks about how the work of God on behalf of Christians impacts all areas of life — spiritual, religious, ethnic, and social.  The general nature of this letter makes some theorize Ephesians was really a circular letter sent to many churches in western Turkey.

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Acts 20: Bound by the Spirit

I would love to go to Jerusalem.  What a great trip that would be!  Maybe some day.

Interestingly, in this passage Paul isn’t as enthusiastic about his trip to Jerusalem.  Nor was Jesus in Luke’s first volume (Luke 9:51).  Both had to set their faces resolutely towards the city of David.  Jerusalem meant death.  Jerusalem is the place of loss and separation, in this context.

This is likely why Paul seems more melancholy and introspective in today’s reading.  By the middle of the chapter Paul is in Troas on his way to Ephesus on his way to Jerusalem.  The rest of his party sails from Troas to Assos but Paul, who usually surrounded himself with traveling companions, walks the 25-mile journey to Assos alone instead.  In Ephesus, Paul gathers the elders of the church together to encourage them to watch out for “fierce wolves” in sheep’s clothing and to stay strong in Christ (20:29-31).  Paul knows he is “bound by the spirit” to go to Jerusalem (20:22).  Twice he tells the Ephesian elders they will not “see my face again” (20:25, 38).  Paul’s phrase “after I am gone” (20:29) has a foreboding tone of finality.

These are last words.  The kind of things Jesus said to his apostles in John 13-17 just before he died.  The kind of things you say just before “going to Jerusalem.”

Yet, both Jesus and Paul went.  It was their mission, and they knew it.

What stood out to you?

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Acts 19: Power Struggle

Today’s chapter is filled with power.

God performed unusual works of power through Paul’s hands. (19:11)

So the word grew and was strong, in accordance with the Lord’s power. (19:20)

Paul walks into Ephesus with incredible power.  Disease and evil spirits flee from Paul whose very skin exudes power (19:20).  An evil spirit, “too strong” and “overpowering” for the seven sons of Sceva, the Jewish high priest, submissively acknowledges Paul’s power through Jesus (19:15-16).  The name of Jesus grows in “prestige” and “power” in Ephesus (19:17, 20).

This emphasis on power is no accident.  This is Ephesus, after all.  Power was everything in Ephesus.

Ephesus was the most important city in Asia Minor at the time.  Though the city was a part of the Roman Empire, they had been granted the right of self-government so long as they maintained the rule of law and a general state of peace in the city (read that into the end of the chapter).  All roads converged in Ephesus, making it a center of commerce.  They had a major stadium and theatre.  Most every street had a major temple to some pagan god or the Caesars.  Ephesus was the home to the temple of the fertility goddess Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  Altogether, Ephesus had the power of empire, trade, law, culture, and the womb.  This was an ancient New York, London, or Toronto.  Power in every kind, everywhere you went.

But now, with the gospel’s arrival with Paul, there was a new power in town.

What did you notice today?

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