Posts Tagged With: idolatry

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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Categories: Revelation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

BONUS: An Introduction to the Pastoral Epistles

We come now to three books that are typically called the Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus — because they are addressed to two men who were leading churches Paul had started and because of the attention given in these letters to ministry issues.

Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles toward the end of his life.  As we read through the letters we will likely get the sense that these are the letters of a man who is about to hand his life’s work over to his protégés.  He is reflective and slightly anxious.  He pours every ounce of cautionary wisdom into his words.  Paul wants to push westward past Rome and on to Spain, however Paul seems to know with prescience that he may not even get that far.  Either way, it is time to entrust his work in Ephesus to Timothy and his work on the island of Crete to Titus.  By the time 2 Timothy, Paul’s last preserved letter, is being written Paul is, in fact, imprisonment in Rome in a cold dungeon (2 Tim. 4:13) unable to be visited by friends.  Tradition says Paul is killed by the Romans within a year.

The Pastoral Epistles are highly instructive.  So much of these letters rotation around instructions about what makes a good leader, the threat of false teaching, the corruption that can easily come to church leaders when money is involved, and how to live as Christians in a decadent and immoral culture (idolatry in Ephesus, and sexual immorality and raucousness in Crete).

This Timothy was the same young Jewish man mentioned in Acts 16 who became Paul’s traveling companion and “son in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2).  Six of Paul’s letters were co-authored by Timothy (2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon).  Titus is never mentioned in Acts, yet he does show up in various other places in the Letters as a loyal companion to Paul.  He evidently was an uncircumcised Gentile who Paul proudly took with him to the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) to support his stand against attaching law observance to faith in Jesus (Gal. 2:1-3).  Titus was especially important to Paul in Crete and he is left there to ensure the churches stayed strong.

Categories: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

BONUS: An Introduction to the Corinthian Letters

I imagine the church at Corinth was not an easy church to lead.  Yet, the Apostle Paul went far and beyond to help them become what God would have them be as a church.  We likely only have two of the four letters we can tell Paul wrote this church (maybe three if our Second Corinthians is actually two letters combined).  We can tell from the way Paul starts many of the sections in First Corinthians that this letter is actually a response to some sort of correspondence from the Corinthian Christians.  Next maybe only to Ephesus, Paul spent more time in Corinth during his missionary journeys than anywhere else.  As challenging as the Corinthians were to Paul, he dearly loved them and that comes out in these letters.

Paul seems to be combating several issues in these two letters, each letter quite different from the other.

Holy living in an unholy culture:  Corinth was home to many temples, not all of which were likely in use at the time of Paul.  The most famous of these was the Temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, in which 1000 temple prostitutes once had served.  On the north side of the city was a temple to Asclepius, the god of healing.  This background of idolatry and sexuality will appear several times in the two letters.  This may be Corinth’s most recognized vice.  There is a now-archaic English verb, “to corinthianize,” which means to engage in lewd and indecent acts of debauchery, especially unbridled and indecent sexuality.  Paul’s instructions will be unequivocal: navigate through a sinful society with purity, abstinence, and consideration for your brothers and sisters in Christ.  This point is also what makes many people say 1 Corinthians is especially relevant for today’s world.

Airs of superiority amongst the members and the division that naturally would bring:  Wisdom was key to the Greek culture.  At least in some people’s minds, one’s value was attached in part to their intellectual development.  Education, philosophy and conventional thinking would have been held in high esteem.  As we will see early in 1 Corinthians, this attitude was clearly present in the Corinthian church as well.  This thinking also seems to have shaped how they thought about the spiritual gifts they had been given by the Spirit.  A pecking order of giftedness seems to have been causing a problem, as was their penchant to group off according to which religious teacher they preferred.  Unity will be the most recurring point in these letters.

Misunderstandings about the resurrection of the dead:  There can be no misunderstandings about this all-important idea fundamental to Christianity, yet it seems the Corinthians had many.  Paul will speak to the who, when, how, and what of the resurrection from the dead.

Encouraging the Corinthian Christians to give generously to famine-striken Christians in Jerusalem:  Situated at a main commercial nexus point between the Adriatic and Aegean Seas, there would have been a good bit of wealth in the city.  Paul will encourage his Greek brothers and sisters to use that wealth to show tangible love for the Jewish brothers and sisters who started this movement they are now a part of.

Having to defend this apostolic authority:  Paul’s response to this issue composes most of Second Corinthians.  This was an especially big deal as questions of authority would have undermined everything Paul had been working for in Corinth.  The emphasis on wisdom in Corinthian culture would have contributed to this as Paul was foreign, educated in non-Greek religion and philosophy, and he did not emphasize the charisma commonplace in Greek cultural leaders.  More troubling for Paul were false teachers posing as apostles who had come to Corinth since his departure who were turning the church against him.  They painted Paul as opportunistic, greedy for their money, unreliable, and unskilled.  Paul responds will great passion and fire.  For what it’s worth, Paul’s explanation of why he is competent to be a “minister of reconciliation” has been one of my favor sections of Scripture since first training for the ministry in undergrad.

So much of the Corinthian letters has to do with church life.  This may be where we see Paul’s pastoral heart best of all.

Categories: 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Luke 20: God and Caesar

Even if you haven’t been reading along in Luke, when you read today’s passage it is clear we are coming to the end of Jesus’ life.  He is being attacked and framed on every side.  People are trying to make him say something that will make him easy to kill or at least turn public opinion against him.

A group of people come up to Jesus purposely trying to catch him in a predicament regarding Roman taxes.  They ask whether it is right to pay the tribute tax using Roman coins that bear the image of the Caesar, something deemed idolatrous.  By this time it might have even been that the Caesar was declaring himself “Lord” in the inscription on these coins.  Jesus knows what they are up to.  He answers them in such a cunning way that it shuts down their attempts to frame him, but it also gives us wise guidance on how to interact with government.

“Show me a tribute-coin,” he said.  “This image . . . and this inscription . . . who do they belong to?”

“Caesar,” they said.

“Well, then,” replied Jesus, “you’d better give Caesar back what belongs to him!  And give God back what belongs to him.” (20:24-25, emphasis Wright’s)

Given that the central point in their discussion is an image on a coin, it is quite likely that what Jesus is saying that paying taxes is no big deal, even with a seemingly blasphemous coin, because that is simply what is required in Caesar’s world.  His image, his coin.  Give him what is his.  However, pushing his questioners deeper than they intended to go, if we are going to talk about images, let’s remember that we have an image stamped on us too, Jesus says.  We bear God’s image.  Give Him what is his.  Work in the system, fine and dandy; pay your taxes and stay out of trouble.  But be sure to give your heart, your life, your energy to God.

Which leads to some unpopular questions in a country as patriotic as America.  Do we ever give too much to our Caesars?  Sure, we pay our taxes and fulfill our civic duties.  That is fitting.  But do we also give our heart and being to our countries?  Do we pledge allegiance to our governments so much that they become our first love?  Are we willing to die for a country yet we are not willing to suffer discomfort for Jesus?  Do we bleed red, white and blue (or any other flag’s colors)?  Do we think our favorite politician is the savior of life as we know it?  Will we debate, fight, divide, or attack for our candidate?  Do we proselytize for our political party and forward political emails to friends, yet do neither for the Creator of our souls?  Do we accept attitudes popular with our political persuasions but which are actually contrary to the way of Christ?  How much is too much?

I know, not a popular set of questions in an election year.  Oh, and the Olympics start this week!  Just going where the text takes me.

What do you think?

Categories: Luke | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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