Revelation #6 The value of selective intolerance

Temple of Artemis

In a culture that was hostile to Christianity, the Ephesian church was intolerant of those who called themselves Christians, and yet indulged in sin and called it OK. They were intolerant of would-be celebrity leaders who taught bad doctrine. Jesus praised them for this sort of intolerance.

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Revelation #6.

Revelation 2:1-7. Part A.
In the future, I hope to finish each of the remaining six letters at the rate of one sermon per letter. However, there is some more introductory material that I think is important, so we’ll take the letter to the Ephesian church in two parts.
As I said before, that the number of seven churches were chosen to indicate that these are messages are relevant for all churches at all times; and the particular churches were chosen because their victories and struggles are examples for all believers. So I agree with the great Bible commentator, Mathew Henry, who said:

“What is said to one church concerns all the churches, in every place and age.”

So it is safe to read Revelation 2-3 just as we read Paul’s letters to other churches. They contain warnings, promises and encouragements. In fact, in the case of Revelation 2-3, there is a very structured format in the messages sent to the churches. First, each message emphasizes a particular revelation of Jesus – a certain aspect of his character that the church really needs to focus on (I call this part A). Next, comes an “I know…” from Jesus, as he reveals that he is actively watching over his people. He knows everything they are about, both good and bad. Usually, Jesus commends his people in this section, which I call part B. Part C is a rebuke, where Jesus points out a place where the church needs to repent and grow. Part D describes an action that the Lord wants the church to take in response to the message, and part E lays before God’s people a wonderful promise.
The church at Ephesus is the first one to receive a message. The Ephesian Christians had been in a culture war from day one. By this point in history, Ephesus maintained its status as a great city only because the Shrine to the Greek goddess Artemis was found there. People came from all over the Roman world to worship at the shrine, and naturally, many of the city’s residents made their living from the tourist trade associated with the goddess. Thus in the very beginning Christians had come into conflict with merchants who sold little statues of Artemis (Acts 19). One of the silversmiths who made the statues was even forthright enough to say to his fellow craftsmen,

“Men, you know that we’re earning a good income from this business, and you see and hear what this man Paul has done. He tells people that gods made by humans are not gods. There’s a danger that people will discredit our line of work, and there’s a danger that people will think that the temple of the great goddess Artemis is nothing. Then she whom all Asia and the rest of the world worship will be robbed of her glory. (Acts 19:25-27).”

So the Ephesian church was born into hardship, born into a culture that was immediately hostile toward it.

In “part A,” the special picture of Jesus is that he holds the seven stars in his right hand, and walks among the seven lampstands. What the Spirit is emphasizing is that Jesus Christ is personally present among his people, and he tenderly cares for each, and holds the future of each. This was especially important for the Christians in Ephesus to remember, as we will see.
In part B, Jesus praises them for several things. In the first place, their works, their labor, and their patient endurance (2:2). These are good and faithful Christians. The first word, “works,” indicates working energetically. The second, “labor” includes the idea of hard labor, or even pain. Patient endurance tells that the Ephesians are not sunny-day Christians. They have stuck with it, when it is easy and good, and also when it is hard, and long. Verse 3 fleshes this out even more: they have had to bear many hardships, and they have done so without growing weary. They have spiritual endurance, and grit.

One very helpful thing to do when you read the Bible is to look for examples you might follow. There is much that we could learn from the Ephesians, especially for modern American Christians.

It is common for people in this country to move from church to church, searching for the ones with that feel the most exciting, or which have the best programs, or most convenient schedule. There wasn’t a scent of that sort of behavior among the Ephesians. They stuck with each other, and with their faith, through thick and thin, through exciting times, boring times, hard times, painful times.
There is another wonderful thing about this Ephesian church, something else that Jesus praises: though they tolerated hardship and hard work and pain, they did not tolerate evil. They also tested those who claimed to be apostles (but were not) and exposed their lies.

As I look at the church-at-large in the Western world today, I do not see the sort of passion for truth, and intolerance-of-evil that the Ephesians Christians had. Remember, Jesus praises them for this. Instead, everywhere, I read articles by Christian leaders who seem willing to compromise truth in the name of tolerance, or “reaching out.” I want to be sure you get this. Jesus actually praised the Ephesians for being intolerant of evil. Today, the only evil our culture recognizes is what they call “intolerance.” That is certainly not the case in the New Testament.

Now, I do want to make sure we understand what kind of intolerance Jesus is talking about. He gives us two examples. First, the Ephesians did not tolerate those who falsely claimed spiritual authority over them (false apostles). They tested the false leaders, and found out the truth, and kicked them out of their church. They compared the words of the popular leaders and preachers with what they already knew of Jesus and God’s word, and they did not tolerate someone who claimed to be a Christian, or a good leader, and yet was not. It makes me sad today how our “Christian culture” has become so celebrity oriented. Many, many, people allow themselves to be led by Christian celebrities, and so often we accept what a Christian celebrity says without testing it. So often we are afraid of the crowd, and so we accept what these celebrities say, even when we suspect it isn’t quite right.

The second target of intolerance for the Ephesians was the Nicolaitans. They hated their practices (v 6). This group, and others like it, will crop up again in the next chapter or two, so it is worth spending a bit of time on them here. Early church leaders, writing roughly 100-150 years after Revelation, say that the Nicolaitans claimed to followers of Nicolaus, one of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles in Acts chapter 6 (In other words, a “Christian celebrity.”) They claimed it was OK for Christians to participate in idol-worship, and also in sexual immorality, because Jesus had freed them from all sin. Tertullian (an early church leader) wrote that their practices were so obscene that he declined to describe them in detail. The bottom line is, they tried to use Christian theology to justify sinning.

This reminds me of someone I know personally. The man, let’s call him Andrew (not his real name) was once an alcoholic and a drug addict. He was miraculously healed by Christian minister – with no cravings, no withdrawals symptoms, he simply quit everything. A few years later, Andrew thought to himself, “I’ve been healed from addiction. Therefore, it should be OK for me to have a beer. After all, I’m no longer an addict.” Within a few months he was doing cocaine, and who knows what else, and had destroyed his family by his renewed addictions.

You see, Andrew was not healed so that he could indulge himself without consequence. He was healed so that he was no longer bound by his addiction, so that he could be free. But by indulging himself once more, he became bound once more. This is how it is with sin. We aren’t forgiven in order to allow us to sin without consequence – that is what the Nicolaitans taught. The rest of the apostles taught otherwise:
13For you were called to be free, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. (Gal 5:13, HCSB)

1What should we say then? Should we continue in sin so that grace may multiply? 2Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. (Rom 6:1-4, HCSB)

11So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its desires. 13And do not offer any parts of it to sin as weapons for unrighteousness. But as those who are alive from the dead, offer yourselves to God, and all the parts of yourselves to God as weapons for righteousness. (Rom 6:11-13, HCSB)

The Nicolaitan heresy reminds me of certain people in our own time. Many, calling themselves Christians, believe that there is a vague, over-arching principle in the Bible called “love” (though they are careful not to define too closely what they mean by “love”). The Nicolaitans said that forgiveness means we can sin all we want. The modern day heretics say that love means that as long as we do it in “love,” nothing is a sin.
In fact, according to them, if we say that what someone else is doing is sinful, then we are not “acting in love,” therefore we ourselves are sinning. With this kind of false teaching, modern Nicolaitans undo much of what the Bible actually says.

In fact, scripture teaches us that love is expressed by following the commands of God:

3This is how we are sure that we have come to know Him: by keeping His commands. 4The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” yet doesn’t keep His commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5But whoever keeps His word, truly in him the love of God is perfected. This is how we know we are in Him: 6The one who says he remains in Him should walk just as He walked. (1John 2:3-6, HCSB)

Another one, from John’s second letter:

6And this is love: that we walk according to His commands. (2John 1:6, HCSB)

In addition, according to the Bible, not all that is called “love” is good or Holy:

15Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. 16For everything that belongs to the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle — is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever. (1John 2:15-17, HCSB)

So not all “love” is good. The Love of God provides forgiveness of sins through Jesus, but it does not give us a license to continue to sin. Love does not eliminate any sin.

I think we have plenty to chew on for now.
Jesus praises the Ephesian believers for rejecting this Nicolaitan heresy. We are facing something very similar to the Nicolaitans. What will he say to us about how we handle the distortion of the doctrine of love?

He praises the Ephesians church for not tolerating Christian celebrities who teach bad doctrine. What will he say to us about our celebrity-oriented culture?

He praises the Ephesian church for endurance and grit through hardship, opposition and pain. What will he say to us about how we handle hardship, and about how well we stick with each other even when it is hard work?

Now, in a way this message is incomplete, since we are stopping in the middle of the letter. The end of the letter contains a promise from Jesus if we repent. No matter how badly we may have done up until this point, Jesus does offer forgiveness and newness of life, and the power of the Holy Spirit for us to live as he asks.
Let us take advantage of that right now.