My Visit to a Greek Orthodox Church

logo-20190219231418-largerLast Sunday was the final Sunday of my month-long sabbatical that began on May 28th. (My sincere thanks to Central Baptist Church, North Little Rock, AR, for granting this sabbatical!) We were back in town last Sunday though I had a guest speaker scheduled at Central Baptist Church preaching for me. So Roni and Hannah and I decided to visit Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Little Rock. I attended church four of the five Sundays I was on sabbatical and wanted to try to go to a number of different places. I attended a Congregationalist church in Boston, a Catholic church in Dallas, a Baptist church in Columbia, SC, and the Orthodox church in Little Rock.

My dealings with Orthodoxy have been primarily through three sources. First, I remember reading Frank Schaeffer’s Dancing Alone after he converted to Orthodoxy. Second, I have tried to keep up with the work of David Bentley Hart, the Orthodox theologian. I do wonder, now, how reliable these two guides are. Schaeffer has drifted further and further into more and more shrill and angry leftist politics and I do not know about his church affiliation at this point. And David Bentley Hart is hard to think of as classically Orthodox at those times when he sounds like an outright Anabaptist…or whatever else he tends to sound like at times! (That is another topic for another day, my journey with Hart’s work.)

My third source is the late James Leo Garrett Jr., former Professor of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX, whose eight volume Collected Writings I am currently editing. In the mid-90’s Dr. Garrett presented two papers before the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul as part of the Baptist World Alliance’s “pre-conversations” with the Orthodox Church. I have written a bit about that here. Dr. Garrett’s two papers can also be accessed through that link.

Greek Orthodoxy has always had an “exotic” feel to it, if you will allow the term. The week before visiting Annunciation, I attended the service at the Cathedral Guadalupe in Dallas while I was in the area for a few days of study at Southwestern. While a Roman Catholic mass is very different, of course, from a Baptist worship service, I do at least recognize somewhat what is happening in the mass. That is to say, after visiting these two churches over the last couple of weeks I am reminded again that Protestantism is indeed a Western phenomenon. The Orthodox Church has always been something…”over there,” to most Baptists (I would venture).

Prior to visiting Annunciation, I had only attended one other Orthodox service, at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Orlando, Florida, when my family was there for vacation. I had slipped out and gone to the service while Roni and Hannah were getting ready one morning. These, then, are my encounters with Orthodoxy: the writings of Schaeffer and Hart, the presentations and reminiscences of Dr. Garrett and his ecumenical work, and two visits to Orthodox services.

Last Sunday I was struck by a number of things that I would like to share here. I offer these in no particular order and I offer them with appreciation. The intent of this post is not polemical. Suffice it to say I remain a Baptist and believe that Baptists have something to offer the Orthodox. Even so, I believe Baptists could learn much from getting to know their Orthodox neighbors and from watching and listening as we tried to do last Sunday.

With that said, some observations:

  • The people of this church were very friendly and very welcoming.
  • I recall in Orlando thinking that I felt like the only non-Greek there. I was curious to see the ethnic makeup of this congregation. It seemed more mixed. If you think this point is strange, note that one criticism of Orthodox churches in the states is that they tend to become ethnic enclaves for Greeks and do not seek to reach out to  others. This fact was addressed in one of the pamphlets we picked up last Sunday, the last point of which was that Annunciation Church was a church in which everybody was welcome. I could see that this was so, and we experienced this fact ourselves.
  • Orthodox worship is “sensual,” if you will. Meaning it involves all the senses. In this, it undoubtedly is being faithful to, say, Tabernacle and Temple worship which most certainly touched all of the senses. Baptists services, on the other hand, are disproportionally auditory. The centering of the sermon in Baptist churches along with too-frequent diminishments of the Supper contribute to this. I hasten to add that I do not think the latter to be the result of the former. We should value the word proclaimed and the word memorialized.
  • I very much enjoyed when the priest said “Let us be attentive!,” quoting the Divine Liturgy. I cannot promise I will not sing these words in a sermon at Central Baptist one of these days soon. “LET US BE ATTEEEENTIVE!”
  • I appreciated the homily (do the Orthodox call it a homily)? It was about 10-12 minutes, perhaps, and touched on being a saint and carrying our cross. It made much of Jesus and called for faith and trust in him.
  • I was intrigued that the Orthodox alone can go forward for the Supper (something I knew beforehand) but that the blessed bread is for everybody. This is something I would like to understand more.
  • I do not mean disrespect when I say this, but the humorous side of me had the thought that whereas a Baptist service is like a documentary an Orthodox service is like a musical. Almost everything is sung. It is fascinating and strangely beautiful to see and hear. Furthermore, the almost constant movement by the priests and his assistants give the service the feel of a kind of dance with holy choreography.

I am glad that Roni, Hannah, and I attended the service. It was indeed a fascinating experience. Hannah summed it up well: “I’m a bit overwhelmed.” She did not mean it as a criticism.

Let me encourage you: attend other Christian services when you are able. It is good to step out of our own customs and watch and learn and listen. It is good to expose ourselves to the rich history and liturgy and practices of Orthodoxy. Do not do so uncritically, of course, but do not do so uncharitably either.

I am grateful for the kindness shown me and my family in our time at this church. In the spirit of Dr. Garrett’s and others’ work in this area, I want to hold true to my Baptist convictions while trying to understand in a non-defensive posture the ways of other ecclesial communities.

Revelation 5:2,8-14


Revelation 5

And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”

8 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” 11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” 13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

The first church I ever pastored was Jimtown Baptist Church in Burneyville, OK, a small, country church just over the Oklahoma line coming up from Texas. I was a seminary student in Fort Worth from 1996 to 1998 and, during that time, Roni and I would drive up to Jimtown Baptist Church where I would preach, then we would spend the day, then I would preach again, then we would drive the two hours home again.

One year, the local ministerial association held a baccalaureate service for the graduate class. It was held in a local high school auditorium. On the platform was a line of metal chairs on which all of the ministers sat. So I was sitting there with the other ministers when a lady from one of the churches came up to sing a solo. She stood directly in front of me. She started to sing this powerful song of worship. About midway through she threw her head back to belt the great high note that we all knew was coming. When she did this and hit her high note it was apparently too much for her…because she fainted! In fact, she fell back and her head hit right between my feet. For a brief moment I was looking down at her and she was out cold! Immediately people moved to tend to her. I recall family members running to the stage shouting in fear. Finally, thank goodness, the dear lady came to! And I thought to myself, “This will be a story I will tell a church one day!”

It is a fascinating thing to see somebody fall to the ground in worship. The way this lady at the baccalaureate service did it was one approach, to be sure. But another approach is found all throughout Revelation 4 and 5, when we find numerous figures falling on their faces before the wonder and grandeur of God.

In verse 2 of Revelation 5, a question is asked. A “mighty angel” asks it and it is the question around which not only this chapter but all of human history hovers in anxious expectation: “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”

Put another way, the question is this: Who is at the wheel of human history? Who knows what is going on and who has ultimate authority over it. Who, indeed, can open the scroll that tells what is happening in God’s great plan for humanity? Who has the authority to break the seals?

We saw in verse 7 that the Lamb steps forward and takes the scroll. We are told that the Lamb is worthy.

What happens next is so amazing, so glorious, and so majestic, that the New Testament commentator Gordon Fee says we should find it hard to read this passage without worshiping.

These are the kinds of moments that should give any interpreter reason for pause, since these words hardly need commentary, but rather affirmation and acclamation. Readers of this passage who themselves fail to join in with the heavenly host are listening to the text only cerebrally, and not with the exhilaration intended by John, so that his readers are themselves drawn into the heavenly scene as part of the worship. Indeed the reader who fails in the present to enter into the heavenly worship, which for them is still to come, will have missed John’s purpose by several leagues. John’s original readers may indeed be excused if they held back in joining the worship noted in our chapter 4, but they will have little excuse for holding back here.[1]

Yes, what happens next is not fodder for our curiosity, it is fire for our souls.

The Lamb steps forward to take the scroll. The Lamb is shown to be worthy. And when this happens, all Heaven breaks loose.

8 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 

In these verses, the Lamb’s worthiness is proclaimed and Heaven worships! It is therefore important that we grasp the reality of the Lamb’s worthiness in our effort to understand this majestic scene.

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Matthew 12:38-42

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Matthew 12

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.

Rarely does a movie add anything to a book, much less The Lord of the Rings movies. Wonderful as they are, they do not compare to reading the real thing! But there is one little scene that may actually add a bit, if I may be so bold. Shortly after the hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party, as Bilbo is preparing to slip quietly out of The Shire, the wizard Gandalf, who had only just been at the party and had earlier done some amazing fireworks for some amazed children, tells Bilbo that he needs to leave the ring of power behind. When Bilbo, under the ring’s spell, angrily accuses Gandalf of wanting the ring for himself, the room darkens and Gandalf seems to grow taller, filling the room, as he rebukes the now-terrified Bilbo for his foolishness. All of that happens in the book, but the movie version has Gandalf deliver a nice little line of perspective to the quaking Hobbit. In the film, when Bilbo false accuses Gandalf of wanting the ring, Gandalf grows tall and thunders down at Bilbo: “BILBO BAGGINS!! DO NOT TAKE ME FOR A CONJURER OF CHEAP TRICKS!! I’M NOT TRYING TO ROB YOU!! I’M TRYING TO HELP YOU!!” Bilbo, horrified, rushes, quaking with fear, into Gandalf’s comforting arms.

It is quite a moment. In this moment we are reminded that, in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is more than fireworks and parlor tricks. In fact, he is mighty and powerful and, when he desires to be so, terrifying!

My mind went to this scene when reading Matthew 12:38-42. Here, the scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus to perform a sign for them. Instead, they get a glimpse behind the curtain, we might say, and are informed that Jesus is no conjurer of cheap tricks. On the contrary, He is more powerful than they could ever imagine.

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Revelation 5:1-7


Revelation 5

1 Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.

Earlier this week in California a video surfaced on YouTube of a man riding in a completely driverless Tesla down I-80 in California. This happened after another car in self-driving mode hit and killed a man. MarketWatch reports on these stories:

The investigation comes just after the California Highway Patrol arrested another man who authorities say was in the back seat of a Tesla that was riding down Interstate 80 with no one behind the wheel.

Param Sharma, 25, is accused of reckless driving and disobeying a peace officer, the CHP said in a statement Tuesday.

The statement did not say if officials have determined whether the Tesla was operating on Autopilot, which can keep a car centered in its lane and a safe distance behind vehicles in front of it.

But it’s likely that either Autopilot or “Full Self-Driving” were in operation for the driver to be in the back seat. Tesla is allowing a limited number of owners to test its self-driving system.[1]

The video is something to see. A car pulls up alongside Param Sharma and there he is: smiling in the back seat while the car drives itself. It was, to be frank, frightening and the police, thankfully, stopped it. What is so frightening about this? It is frightening because there is something honestly scary about realizing that nobody is at the wheel. As far as cars go, maybe we will get there at some point…though I do not ever intend to get in a car with nobody behind the wheel!

No, human beings, by and large, want to know that there is somebody at the wheel. This is true whether we are talking about cars or history. In fact, as we return to the throne room of God in Revelation 5, the scriptures appear to be answering just this very question: Is anybody at the wheel? In the unfolding of human history, in the ebb and flow of the story of humanity, is somebody at the wheel or is the world just in self-driving mode? Is somebody driving this ship? Or are we sitting in the backseat with fingers crossed hoping that we do not all get destroyed.

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Matthew 12:33-37

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Matthew 12

33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

In Ryan Holiday’s amazing book, Ego is the Enemy, he writes

In Aristotle’s famous Ethics, he uses the analogy of a warped piece of wood to describe human nature. In order to eliminate warping or curvature, a skilled woodworker slowly applies pressure in the opposite direction—essentially, bending it straight. Of course, a couple of thousand years later Kant snorted, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing can be made straight.”[1]

It is fascinating to see the great philosophers wrestle with the question of human nature. The picture of warped wood is not a bad one for human nature…and neither, frankly, is Kant’s skepticism at the idea that the twisted natures of men can be made straight simply by virtue of strategic pressure being applied.

This much is true: if human nature is twisted, then we will live twisted lives. We live out of the condition of our natures, our hearts. Jesus, after having spoken of the sin of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit—a sin the Pharisees had just committed in Matthew 12 when they accused Jesus of working with the power of Satan—moves on to discuss the reality of human nature and the ways that our behavior and particularly our speech reveal that reality.

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Revelation 4


Revelation 4

1 After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

Something is missing from our doctrine of God…and it is hurting us. I would like to argue two things: (1) most Baptist Christians have not thought sufficiently enough about or reflected deeply enough upon the beauty of God and (2) most Baptist Christians are ill-equipped to handle the demands and terrors and challenges of life precisely because they have this deficiency in their doctrine of God.

Yes, I am overgeneralizing. I am basing this on anecdotal evidence and observation over the years as a pastor. But I am speaking personally as well: I too often neglect the reality of God’s beauty and, when I do so, I suffer and I struggle.

Does this sound odd to you, the beauty of God? If so, consider what David says in Psalm 27:

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock.

Notice four things:

  • There is only one thing David has asked of God.
  • David is seeking after this one thing.
  • This one thing is to dwell in God’s house and “gaze upon the beauty of God.”
  • David connects this desire and the beauty of God with God’s protection and blessing of Him.

It is therefore not surprising that just after the Lord speaks to seven churches and their various struggles and problems and just before God will speak to John of the judgment to come upon the earth, God shows John an unbelievable picture of His own beauty.

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Revelation 3:14-22


Revelation 3

14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. 15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

British evangelist Henry Varley once famously said the following to D.L. Moody: “Moody, the world has yet to see what God will do with a man fully consecrated to him.” Those words set Moody’s heart on fire. He would later tell Varley:

“Ah, those were the words sent to my soul, through you, from the Living God. As I crossed the wide Atlantic, the boards of the deck of the vessel were engraved with them, and when I reached Chicago, the very paving stones seemed marked with ‘Moody, the world has yet to see what God will do with a man fully consecrated to him.’

It is an astonishing thought: “Moody, the world has yet to see what God will do with a man fully consecrated to him.”

I ask you just as I ask myself: what would our lives look like if we were “fully consecrated to Him”?

Wholly committed.

Wholly on board.

Sold out.

Recklessly abandoned to Jesus.

The great tragedy of the church of Laodicea is that they had not determined to be this. It was not on their radar. Why? Because they were rich and comfortable and complacent. The word that Jesus used was “lukewarm.” Verses 15-16 are two of the most famous verses in all of scripture:

15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.

There are two general schools of thought about what Jesus means by His references to “hot,” “cold,” and “lukewarm.”

  • Proposal #1: “Hot” is a positive statement and “cold” is a negative statement. The terms refer to the church’s degree of commitment and the quality of their walk with Jesus. In this proposal, “hot” means “truly committed,” “cold” means “not committed at all,” and “lukewarm” means “somewhere in the murky middle: neither committed nor uncommitted.” Therefore, Jesus is saying that believing wholeheartedly or not believing at all is preferable to trying to straddle the fence. We are to declare ourselves and be all in or all out.
  • Proposal #2: “Hot” and “cold” are both positive statements (as opposed to Proposal #1 in which “hot” is a positive term and “cold” is negative) referring to hot water that is useful for various things and cold water that is refreshing to drink. In this proposal, in the words of Rudwick and Green, Laodicea “was providing neither refreshment for the spiritually weary, nor healing for the spiritually sick. It was totally ineffective, and thus distasteful to the Lord.”

While I lean toward the first proposal, the second cannot be ruled out. Regardless, there is agreement on this point in both proposals: either spiritual or missional lukewarmness is noxious and unacceptable for the church of the living God.[2] The church was not what they were supposed to be: fruitful, faithful, and Christ-honoring. They were lukewarm.

We should be wholly committed to the Christ! There can be no half-hearted carrying of a cross. Discipleship does not lend itself to partial measures. Leon Morris writes that “to profess Christianity while remaining untouched by its fire is a disaster. There is more hope for the openly antagonistic than for the coolly indifferent.”[3]


So I would like to ask two questions: (1) What is a “lukewarm” Christian? (2) How does one cease to be “lukewarm”?

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Revelation 3:7-13


Revelation 3

7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens. 8 “‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

In his biography of the late Christian musician Larry Norman, Gregory Thornbury writes about how Larry became indicative of the view of church embraced by many young people in the Jesus people movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Neither the media nor many churchgoers had expected a revolution to take place so far outside the confines of institutional religion on one hand, and the American mainstream on the other. In a television interview Larry Norman took pains to explain the difference. When asked by a reporter if he had been religious before his “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” he replied, “I was religious, but Jesus isn’t a religion. People make up a religion about him, but he’s more than a religion.”

REPORTER: What do you mean “more”?

NORMAN: He’s real. To me religion’s not real, it’s all based on superstition, guilt, and ritual. Jesus isn’t.

REPORTER: Explain that to me.

NORMAN: Well, I don’t have to go to church every day. I go to church in my heart. I don’t have to kneel or bow, [because] my spirit has been humbled and bowed. I’m not afraid of the preachers or approval of the members of the church. I just have to be right before God. I have to read my Bible to stay informed on who man is and who God is…The whole Bible is real to me. It’s accurate. I didn’t used to think that way. I was too intellectual, but now my mind is more cleared up than when I thought I was intellectual. Now it all makes sense.

Writing of Norman’s devaluation of assembling together in church, Thornbury writes:

Suddenly it became plausible to Christian young people that following Jesus and listening to their pastor might be two different, and possibly unrelated, behaviors. The “church of the heart” became the de-facto ecclesiology of the Jesus movement. All of this sort of talk was enough to make the phenomenon suspicious at best and dangerous at worst to what at that time was “the evangelical industrial complex.”[1]

I want to argue that, in point of fact—and I actually write as a fan of the music of Larry Norman—Larry Norman’s idea of the “church of the heart” is dangerous insofar as it is synonymous with “there is no need to gather with other Christians.” On the contrary, I want to argue that the gathered and worshiping and singing and scripture-reading and walking together church is a powerful, beautiful, and needed reality. It was to the churches that Jesus spoke His seven letters in Revelation, not to detached individuals. And in His words to the church of ancient Philadelphia, Jesus reveals not only His great love for His church but also the many ways that He helps and sustains His people together. In this letter, we find many things that Jesus gives His church.

The church of Philadelphia is a good church. There is no rebuke here. There is no judgment. They are small but they are faithful. They are persecuted but they endure. And it is to this church that Jesus offers His presence and His strength.

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Revelation 3:1-6


Revelation 3

1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

Chuck Swindoll once told the story of a high school teacher who finally reached his limit. His class was lethargic, indifferent, unengaged, and utterly bored. Finally, in the middle of a class, after yet another particularly-long and overly-exaggerated yawn emanated from the class, the teacher stopped, slammed his book closed, walked to the board, took out his marker, and wrote this word in huge letters: APATHY.

Sitting up front were two of the slackest teenage boys the earth has ever seen. At the teacher’s dramatic behavior they stirred from their slumber and studied the word he had written. One of the young men squinted his eyes and stared intensely at the word. He then nudged his compatriot and asked, “Hey, what does a-pay-the mean?” His friend glanced up at the word, chuckled, locked his fingers behind his head, stretched out his legs in front of the desk, yawned, and said, “Who cares, man?”

Apathy. It is defined as “lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern.” It is when you are there but not really there. An apathetic life is one that just walks through the world largely indifferent, lacking passion, drive, or conviction.

If you could put a scarlet “A” on a church you would put one on the church of Sardis and the “A” would stand for “Apathy.”

Sardis: a comfortable, wealthy, unprepared city with a comfortable, wealthy, unprepared church.

1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.

Sardis was being destroyed by comfort, not by (1) persecution or (2) false teachings, neither of which are mentioned. Scott Duvall writes:

No mention is made of persecution from without or false teaching from within because the primary problem is a wholesale assimilation to the surrounding culture.[1]

That is a good way of putting it. Douglas Moo concurs and observes:

John does not mention anything like the persecutions at Smyrna and Pergamum or the heresies of the Nicolaitans. It may be that this church had not suffered disturbance from without and that its troubles stemmed from its comparatively sheltered existence. The temptation for the sheltered is always to take things easy, and they readily become slack.[2]

This reality of death masquerading behind a façade of life—this apathy, this lack of vitality, this lack of genuine passion and conviction and movement forward in the Kingdom life—was spoken of before by Jesus. For instance, consider how Jesus calls out the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

It is possible to appear to be alive but to in reality be dead. It is possible to keep the blood flowing and the machinery in operation while lacking anything resembling actual life. When this happens we make a mockery of the Lord God and we position ourselves for judgment.

So I would like to talk to the dead people walking among us: the apathetic, the indifferent, the alive but not really, the here but not really. And I would like to ask this question: How can we avoid the swift destruction that will come upon the compromised life? Jesus outlines five needs for such a person.

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Revelation 2:18-29


Revelation 2

18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze. 19 “‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. 20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. 22 Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come. 26 The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. 28 And I will give him the morning star. 29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

A bad reputation is a hard thing to shake and a bad reputation unfairly created through false accusation is a cruel thing indeed. But sometimes, every now and then, bad reputations are earned. One example of a justly-deserved bad reputation involves a woman who appears in the Old Testament and then is named again in Revelation. I am talking about Jezebel.

The word “Jezebel,” when applied to someone, is usually not a compliment. Jezebel’s bad reputation continues on into our day. To get at the general sentiment concerning her we might consider the 1951 Frankie Lane hit song “Jezebel,” which goes like this:

Jezebel, Jezebel

If ever the devil was born without a pair of horns
It was you, Jezebel, it was you
If ever an angel fell, Jezebel, it was you
Jezebel, it was you

If ever a pair of eyes promised paradise
Deceiving me, grieving me, leavin’ me blue
Jezebel, it was you

If ever the devil’s plan was made to torment man
It was you, Jezebel, it was you

Could be better that I never know a lover such as you
Forsaking dreams and all for the siren call of your arms

Like a demon, love possessed me, you obsessed me constantly
What evil star is mine, that my fate’s design should be Jezebel?

If ever a pair of eyes promised paradise
Deceiving me, grieving me, leavin’ me blue
Jezebel, it was you

If ever the devil’s plan was made to torment man
It was you, Jezebel, it was you, night and day, every way
Jezebel, Jezebel, Jezebel![1]

Well! That is harsh! But I am going to argue that in this case it is fair and accurate. But who was Jezebel and why was/is she so loathed? Jezebel, we are told in 1 Kings 16:31, was “the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians.” In 1 Kings 16:29-34 we read:

29 In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab the son of Omri began to reign over Israel, and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. 30 And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him. 31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. 32 He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33 And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. 34 In his days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho. He laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the Lord, which he spoke by Joshua the son of Nun.

So Jezebel was a pagan princess who married a King of Israel and brought her idolatry into the nation. Furthermore, in 1 Kings 18:4 we read that “Jezebel cut off the prophets of the Lord” and that Obadiah had to hide one hundred prophets in caves from her. Furthermore, Elijah the prophet had to flee the murderous wrath of Jezebel after he defeated the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 19). In the end, Jezebel’s demise was as brutal and disturbing as her life. We read of it in 2 Kings 9.

30 When Jehu came to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it. And she painted her eyes and adorned her head and looked out of the window. 31 And as Jehu entered the gate, she said, “Is it peace, you Zimri, murderer of your master?” 32 And he lifted up his face to the window and said, “Who is on my side? Who?” Two or three eunuchs looked out at him. 33 He said, “Throw her down.” So they threw her down. And some of her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses, and they trampled on her. 34 Then he went in and ate and drank. And he said, “See now to this cursed woman and bury her, for she is a king’s daughter.” 35 But when they went to bury her, they found no more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands. 36 When they came back and told him, he said, “This is the word of the Lord, which he spoke by his servant Elijah the Tishbite: ‘In the territory of Jezreel the dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel, 37 and the corpse of Jezebel shall be as dung on the face of the field in the territory of Jezreel, so that no one can say, This is Jezebel.’”

My goodness! Then, amazingly, after all of this and after all of the years that pass, we find her here in our text, in the church of Thyatira in Revelation 2!

20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.

But how can this be? How can dead Jezebel be in the New Testament church of Thyatira in Asia Minor at the end of the first century? It is because the name “Jezebel” represents a type and that type had become a member of Thyatira. I believe there actually was a literal woman in the church of Thyatira and that she was so like Jezebel of old that Jesus used her name as a warning to the church. Let us unpack what it means that Jesus warned the church about Jezebel in her midst.

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