Church Diagnostics: Self-Dependence (Letter 1 of 7)

In case you missed it, here is the introduction to this series, as we look into the seven letters written to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. My attempt is to harmonize the letters with Church History as well as to use it as a sort of diagnosis on today’s churches, looking at the possible pitfalls and necessary cures. Each study will begin with (1) a look at letters in chronological order, (2) we will discuss its historical or ‘end times’ significance, (3) we will look into the symptoms of modern churches and Christians in the context of the passage, and lastly (4) we will diagnose the problem and prescribe the antidote for our own lives and our churches. 

Apostle Paul in Athens

– The Danger of Self-Dependence –

The Letter to Ephesus (what does the text say?):

To the angel of the church in Ephesus, write the following:
“This is the solemn pronouncement of the one who has a firm grasp on the seven stars in his right hand — the one who walks among the seven golden lampstands:
‘I know your works as well as your labor and steadfast endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have even put to the test those who refer to themselves as apostles (but are not), and have discovered that they are false.
I am also aware that you have persisted steadfastly, endured much for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary.
But I have this against you: You have departed from your first love!
Therefore, remember from what high state you have fallen and repent! Do the deeds you did at the first; if not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place — that is, if you do not repent.
But you do have this going for you: You hate what the Nicolaitans practice — practices I also hate.
The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will permit him to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God'” (Revelation 2:1-7, NET)

Historical Application (how does it fit into Church History and/or Eschatology?):

This passage has many similarities historically with the Apostolic Church, between 33 and 95 A.D. 33 being the year of Christ’s ascension, 95 being the death of the Apostle John in Patmos, thus drawing to a close the existence of living Apostles. 

Their strengths include good works, a hatred of evil, a passion to studiously find the truth, and perseverance in the face of intense persecution.

Their weakness is one, in turning Christ into something secondary, a truly terrible thing.

One would think that living among the Apostles would lead to a constant centrality on Christ, yet as all the letters from Paul, Peter, James, etc. make clear, the churches seriously struggled with a correct understanding of Christ and were quick to be lead astray by Judaizers and Gnostics. It was no “Golden Age” for the Church, but the tense and challenging beginning of a radical movement struggling perseverantly to change the world.

Jewish converts during this time were constantly tempted to join together Law and Grace, forming a Christianity that was heavily dirtied by Jewish traditions (Judaizers). They did not have to leave Judaism behind as a cultural practice (Acts 15), but they had to understand that Christianity was wholly contrary to the Pharisees’ Law-based salvation. Peter himself struggled with this paradigm shift (Acts 9; Galatians 2), where Jews were allowed to follow Judaism culturally, yet only as long as it never contradicted primary Christian teaching.

To counter this, the Apostles taught the divinity of Christ, His perfection being the only hope to become justified before God, thus proving the Law void to save (Gal. 2:16). They also had to teach unity and love in the Church among all members and races, whereas the misuse of the Law usually brought in legalism and arrogance.

Gentile converts struggled with gnostic tendencies, seeing as they had come from a world of idol worship, polytheism, demi-gods, and gnostic ideals. Gnosticism is not really a religion as it is a loose philosophy about man’s relation to the deity or deities. Gnostics differed greatly in their teaching from place to place, but in general they taught that (1) the material world is evil, (2) the immaterial/spiritual world is good, and (3) both a bad and a good deity (or deities) were responsible for the creation of these two realms. Practically speaking, this turned into an excuse for exaggerated immorality and sin, blaming it on the “material world”, whereas anything good done was by the “true self” and was attributed to the “immaterial world”. Rome and Corinth were ancient cest-pools that breeded a disgusting culture of bisexual behavior, feminism, and gluttonous lifestyles.

To counter this, the Apostles also taught the humanity of Christ, one who was perfect in action being truly a man. They taught on the importance of morality, honesty, and a repentant lifestyle. Thus they countered the licentiousness of the time, something that over and over invaded the church, which we can clearly see in Paul’s responses to the Christians in Corinth. John is also an important author in this respect, focusing on Christ’s divinity and the lifestyle change that must happen if we are His true followers.

The most important historical ties between this passage and the Apostolic Church would be: (1) studious Christians in a time of persecution, (2) hatred of the historical practices of the “Nicolaitans” sect, something later unknown, (3) and a loss of the “first love” meaning falling into legalism or licentiousness, thus forsaking the centrality of Christ and His grace.

Modern-Church Application (what kind of churches have these pros and/or cons?):

The strengths of the church described in this letter remind me a lot of churches in big cities where the members are well-educated in Scripture. Churches where the preaching is powerful, profound, and deep. Churches where they “call a spade a spade” and openly reject immoral government actions and the growth of sects. These are Christians that stand-up to Evolution, materialism, homosexuality, abortion, radical Islam, etc., unashamed to use Scripture to show it’s faults. These are Christians that have remained faithful to the Lord in spite of the huge temptation to be quiet and keep religion “in the closet”, and have thus undergone intellectual persecution at schools, colleges, and workplaces.

The weaknesses of the church in Ephesus reminds me that churches with great, intellectual preachers and a huge social influence can sometimes miss the point of Church entirely. The tendency is to fall into the Social Gospel, seeing helping people materially as more important than actually preaching Christ. Another tendency is for the messages to be intellectually sound, but lacking in love, life, and real rock-solid power to change. Preachers that stand and cite all the authors they have read, rattle-off in Hebrew or in Greek, leaving the audience thinking how great the preacher is, instead of how great Christ is. To lose one’s “first love” is to fall into either legalism or licentiousness, to focus on the secondary doctrines in Scripture, more interested in debating Calvinism vs. Armenianism than in rejoicing in Christ and telling the world about His love.

Church Diagnostics (how do we improve based on this evidence?): 

One must always go back to this question: why am I a Christian? We live to glorify Christ and spread His glory to all mankind, wishing all to be saved through the glorious Gospel.

SymptomsA true student of the Word. Reads commentaries and Bible dictionaries. Constantly studies Christian authors. Is caught-up with current events and new government policies. Loves to debate with others using evidence and Apologetics. Remains steadfast to the faith even when faced with tremendous opposition and scoffing from the world.

Side-effects: Rarely actually preaches the Gospel by being focused more on Apologetics and “being right”. Uses the pulpit or classroom to enlarge his persona, more interested in being thought-of as a “great preacher” than letting the Word speak for itself. Lifestyle doesn’t often add-up to what he is preaching and teaching. Tends to be very dogmatic and argumentative about secondary doctrines (things that aren’t necessary to salvation). Hates to lose a debate, thus creating hostility and envy instead of love and unity.

Cure: To repent of arrogance and self-dependence, returning to Christ as one’s greatest love, seeking to do all things for His glory and exaltation. To love, defend, and focus on the primary doctrines (things that save me), yet being able to lovingly accept when another Christian doesn’t agree on secondary things in order to create unity. Returning to the humble spirit and character of the Lord Jesus, eager to “walk the talk” and attract others through His Gospel by both words and actions.

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