How to Forgive What You Can’t Forget

How to Forgive What You Can’t Forget

Matthew 5:43-48

Dr. Jim Denison

The Wall Street Journal recently carried a front-page article describing the so-called “Revenge Industry.” This is a new kind of business which caters to those who have been wronged and are unwilling to forgive.

“Revenge Unlimited” is one example—through its web site it sells dead flowers, black roses, boxes of fish heads, melted chocolates, and stones with curses on them. Drop Dead Florist in Orlando has five full-time employees, and had to hire six more for Valentines Day week. The Voodoo Boutique will sell you a variety of magic-spell kits and voodoo dolls for the person you hate.

Only in America, you say? No, the Revenge Industry is as old as Cain, the brother of Abel, and as appealing to us as it was to him.

Lewis Smedes wrote the wonderful book Forgive and Forget. Here’s how it begins: “Somebody hurt you, maybe yesterday, maybe a lifetime ago, and you cannot forget it. You did not deserve the hurt. It went deep, deep enough to lodge itself in your memory. And it keeps on hurting you now.

“You are not alone. We all muddle our way through a world where even well-meaning people hurt each other. When we invest ourselves in deep personal relationships, we open our souls to the wounds of another’s disloyalty or even betrayal.

“There are some hurts that we can all ignore. Not every slight sticks with us, thank God. But some old pains do not wash out so easily; they remain like stubborn stains in the fabric of our own memory.

“Deep hurts we never deserved flow from a dead past into our living present. A friend betrays us; a parent abuses us; a spouse leaves us in the cold—these hurts do not heal with the coming of the sun….

“Forgiveness is God’s invention for coming to terms with a world in which, despite their best intentions, people are unfair to each other and hurt each other deeply. He began by forgiving us. And he invites us all to forgive each other.”

How? Where do we begin? Let’s follow Jesus’ wisdom on the subject, for the sake of our homes and our hearts.

What is forgiveness?

We begin with the logical first question: what is forgiveness? What does this mean? What is it? Listen to Jesus’ answer: “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Let’s understand what Jesus is saying.

“If you are offering your gift at the altar”—this is the act of worship, in the context of the Temple sacrifices. We would say, “If you are about to put money in the offering plate.”

“And there remember that your brother has something against you”—not just that you have something against him, but he has something against you.

“Leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother”—we would say, “Get up from church, go make things right with him, then come back and put money in the offering plate.”

And so biblical forgiveness is reconciliation—it is “making things right” with someone with whom things are wrong. The most common Greek word translated “forgiveness” is “aphiami,” which means to wipe away, to remove, to let go, to release. This can be a legal word, meaning to release from a debt or punishment, to pardon.

Here’s what forgiveness is not:

Biblical forgiveness is not forgetting the pain. You do not have the human ability to do this. God can “remember our sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34), but we cannot.

Biblical forgiveness is not excusing the person, pretending the pain did not happen.

It is not ignoring the conflict, as though it will go away; it will not.

It is not tolerating the person, merely accepting that this is the way he or she is. Then nothing is solved or resolved.

Biblical forgiveness is pardon. It is to choose not to punish. When the governor pardons a criminal he does not forget the crime, or excuse the criminal, or ignore the situation, or tolerate the problem. He chooses not to punish the criminal, even though he could. To forgive someone is to choose not to punish them.

You may be thinking that you cannot do this. That the pain is too great, the hurt too deep, their spirit too unrepentant. That this is beyond you. You’re right. But it’s not beyond the God in you.

Think of all Jacob did to his brother Esau, stealing his birthright and family position. But there came a time, years later, when “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept” (Genesis 33:4).

Think of all Joseph’s brothers did to him—selling him into slavery, stealing years from his life, separating him from his father and family for multiplied years of imprisonment and suffering. But at the end of it all, Genesis 45:15 says, “And [Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept over them.”

Stephen was the first Christian martyr. As the religious authorities were stoning him to death, the Bible says, “Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59-60).

If they did this, so can we, with God’s help.

How do we forgive?

So, how do we do this? Counselors describe stages in this process.

First, we are hurt so deeply that we cannot forget the pain. Next, we hate; we want to strike back so that the person hurts as deeply as we do. Then, we begin to heal; we see the person who hurt us in a new light. Finally, we help; we invite the person who has hurt us back into our life. Sometimes he or she won’t, but we’ve done what we can.


How to Leave a Legacy

How to Leave a Legacy

Ruth 4:13-17

Dr. Jim Denison

Alfred Nobel’s brother died, but the press got confused and ran his obituary instead. It was titled, “The Dynamite King,” since he invented the explosive, and described the mass destruction dynamite had caused. Nobel was horrified. Then and there he determined to change things. In his last will and testament, he deeded his great fortune to establishing an award honoring those who work for peace and harmony in the world. The Nobel Peace Prize was the result.

We all want to leave a legacy. We carve names into granite or marble tombstones, and in tree trunks and wet concrete. We want to outlive ourselves, to be remembered well.

But there are better ways. We can determine today what our legacy will be. In fact, we must.

Start now

Ruth was a Gentile, thus hated by the Jews. And worse, she was from Moab, and they hated the Moabites most of all.

Moab was the son of Lot and one of his daughters; the name Moab means “from father,” a permanent reminder of his incestuous beginnings.

When the Jews came through on their way to the Promised Land, Moabite women seduced them into immorality and idolatry. 24,000 Jews died in the judgment of God which resulted. They never forgave Moab.

The Law commanded that no Moabite would ever enter the worship of God (Deuteronomy 23:3), and that the Jews would be perpetually at war with Moab (Deuteronomy 23:6).

And Ruth was from Moab.

She was not the last person to feel excluded from the people and plan of God, was she?

Maybe you feel on the outside of life, looking in. Maybe you’re new to our city, or your circumstances. Perhaps you have problems no one knows about, and it seems no one cares. There are many ways to be Moabites today.

No one would have thought Ruth could leave a legacy of eternal significance, would they? But she did. So can you. So can I.

Believe that God believes in you. You cannot alter your past, but you can bring your past to the altar. Today.

God wants to use your life, right now. Become intentional about your life, your future, your contribution to God’s kingdom and world. If he could use Ruth, he can use you. If you would leave a legacy that matters, start now.

Experts agree: the best way to predict the future is to create it. It has been truly said, Where there’s no gardener, there’s no garden.

At Yale University in 1953, the graduates were asked how many had clear, written, substantive goals for their lives. Only 3% did. Twenty years later it was discovered that this 3% had accomplished more than the other 97% combined.

Begin writing your obituary, determining your legacy, right now.

Invest with God

Where do you begin? With God. Remember Ruth’s statement of faith, in the famous KJV rendering: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (1:16).

Ruth is turning from her pagan, Gentile gods to the true God of Israel. And she is definite about it. The Hebrew literally says, “Your people my people; your God my God.” No questions or reservations—absolute, unconditional commitment to the God of Israel. And only now, her life began to build an eternal legacy.

God promises the same to us: “Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and everything else will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

And our eternal God can make your life to have eternal significance, no matter your circumstances today.

John the Beloved Disciple was Jesus’ last living apostle, sent to the penal island of Patmos to isolate him and silence his witness. It didn’t work.

As John was sailing to the Alcatraz of the ancient world, he won those on the boat to Christ. Then the soldiers assigned to him. Then the other prisoners. He started a church which has met on Patmos for twenty centuries. When I visited there on a Sunday morning, we saw that church still worshipping in the cave where John lived.

God can give our lives eternal significance. Only he can.

So, how fully are you investing in your relationship with him today? When did you last spend an hour listening to him? Walking with him? Worshipping him? Are you asking him to make your life significant? To use you for his purposes? To establish an eternal legacy through you?

To leave a legacy that lasts, first invest in your relationship with God.

Invest in people

And then invest in people. Souls are the only eternal reality in our world. People are all that matters forever. Charles Spurgeon’s advice is still sound: “Those who loved you, and were helped by you, will remember you when flowers are withered. Carve your name on hearts, and not on marble.”

See Ruth’s example: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God” (1:16). She will invest in God, and then in the people of God. And she did.

And so Ruth gave up her homeland, her security, her safety. As a despised Moabitess, she traveled to the land of her nation’s worst enemies. Why? Because her first commitment was to Naomi. Not to her society, or culture, but to this suffering person before her.

She chose to put people first. And the results have been eternal.

What people? Start with your family. They are your highest and first commitment under God, your first and most significant legacy.

1 Timothy 5:8: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” This is true financially, but spiritually as well.

Every parent’s first legacy is our children. And those without children can extend their legacy through people as well. Through spouses, nieces, nephews, friends, co-workers, extended family, fellow students.


How to Stay in Love with God

How to Stay in Love with God

Revelation 2:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

Sometimes the honeymoon ends too quickly. And sometimes it never starts.

I read about this classified ad: “For sale—Wedding dress. Never been worn. Will trade for .38 pistol.”

I heard about the man who was determined to marry a certain woman. He began writing her a love letter every day, then three a day. In all he wrote her more than 700 letters—and she married the postman.

What do we do when love grows boring? When the new wears off of our faith, or our family?

One third of all married Americans say they are now or have had an affair. Nearly half of all Americans say there is no reason to ever be married. Only 32% say they would stay in a bad marriage for the sake of the kids. 53% say they would cheat on their spouse, given the opportunity.

And what’s true horizontally is also true vertically. Only 27% of Americans participate in worship regularly. Only one in ten of us believe in each of the Ten Commandments. It takes 39 Baptists a year to lead one person to Christ. Across all denominations, it takes 85 church members one year to lead one person to Jesus.

How do we stay committed to the ones we love? Horizontally and vertically? How do we continue to love God with our heart, soul, and mind? How do we continue to love our neighbor as ourselves? God’s word has the answers we need.

Today we’ll look at our vertical relationship with the God we love. Next week, we’ll explore our horizontal relationships with the people we love.

Losing our first love

We need to go to ancient Ephesus, to study the two letters in Scripture written to them. One came from the Apostle Paul, the other from the Lord Jesus. Both deal directly with our issue.

Let’s begin with a brief tour of the city.

Ephesus was located on the western coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). It was often called Lumen Asiae, “the light of Asia.” This was the wealthiest city in Asia Minor, with the greatest harbor and most lucrative trade routes in that part of the world.

Her ruins are spectacular even today. A massive theater, holding 25,000 people. Ornate marble temples to the various Roman emperors; a gargantuan Library of Celsus; marble even in the public latrines.

Her chief claim was the Temple of Diana. 425 feet long by 225 feet wide, with 127 columns, each 60 feet high; 36 of these columns were covered with gold, jewels, and carvings. The Greeks said, “The sun sees nothing finer in his course than Diana’s Temple.”

And the church here was magnificent as well.

Their congregation was probably founded by Aquila and Priscilla; they were later joined by Paul, who preached here more than two years. Timothy pastored the church, as did Apollos. And John the Beloved Disciple pastored this church, and is buried in the city. Church councils were held here in later centuries, bringing Christians from across the world.

Jesus commends this congregation in wonderful ways.

First, he applauds their actions (v. 2a): he knows their “deeds” (the word means activities) and “hard work” (the word means toil or sweat). He commends their “perseverance” (the word means to endure with steadfast courage despite all opposition).

Second, he compliments their theological integrity: “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false” (v. 2b). Later he commends them for rejecting the Nicolaitans (v. 6), an early cult of heretical, self-indulgent behavior.

Irenaeus, bishop of Antioch, wrote them just a few years after this letter arrived. He said that they were so well taught in the gospel that no sect could gain a hearing there. This is a congregation filled with hard-working, Bible-believing Christians.

But they have a problem. A spiritual malignancy is growing in their hearts; left unchecked, it will destroy them. “You have forsaken your first love,” Jesus tells them (v. 4).

“First” here means “first in time.” They have forsaken the One they loved first when they became Christians—the Lord Jesus. This church has gotten so busy with the work of the Lord that they have forgotten how to walk with the Lord. They are consumed with “doing,” and have lost “being.” They have fallen out of love with Jesus.

Enemies of the heart

How does this happen? How do we fall out of love with God, and with other people? The Ephesian story is ours as well.

First, time makes love boring.

It’s been forty years since these Christians have first trusted in Jesus, first heard his word and responded to his love, first knew the thrill of sin forgiven and life changed.

Their faith is now routine. Their worship is set and standard; their prayers are learned; their work is organized and efficient. And the same thing happened to them that happens to our churches, our marriages, our relationships: time makes love boring.

The fastest-growing churches are five years old and younger. Past that, churches almost always plateau in growth and energy. The hardest time for marriages is between ten and fifteen years. The kids are well along in school; careers are established; finances are steady. And we get bored, and trouble starts.

What about your faith? Are you settled into a routine, a tradition? Be careful—time can make love boring.

Second, busyness makes love secondary.

They’re hard at work—toiling, persevering, enduring. Jesus commends them for all of this. But they’re so busy working for Jesus, they’ve forgotten Jesus. They don’t love him any more—they’re too busy serving him.

How easily this happens to us. So busy with our kids, work, church. We spend time together, but not really. Not quality time, just for each other. We’re too distracted, too busy, working too hard. And love burns out.

What about you? Are you really busy serving Jesus? Committees, work, Bible studies, activities? Then watch out—busyness can make love secondary.


What Every Marriage Needs

What Every Marriage Needs

Ephesians 5.22-33

Dr. Jim Denison

The publication New York Newsday carried this report a few years ago: “Former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman’s son is to marry Bill’s ex-wife’s mother. Wyman’s son from a previous marriage, Stephen, age 30 announced his engagement to Patsy Smith, age 46, the mother of Wyman’s former wife, Mandy, age 22. The marriage would make the rock star his ex-wife’s step-grandfather.”

Marriage can be confusing.

And no marriage is safe from storms. Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford were a model of married happiness until their problems made headlines. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and Alex Baldwin and Kim Basinger are only the most recent Hollywood break-ups. No marriage is immune from problems. No relationship is guaranteed.

And relationships are even harder when we don’t know the essentials necessary to them. Fortunately, God’s word is clear on the basics. What do wives’ needs have in common? The gift our text calls “nourishing love.” What do husbands’ needs have in common? The commitment our text calls “encouraging respect.”

Because God made us, he knows exactly what we need from each other. In his word, he tells us how to give these gifts. Whether you are married or not, in committed relationships or not, you need these essentials. To understand yourself and those you care about. Here’s God’s answer to one of our greatest needs today.

What every man needs

Let’s discover first what every husband needs from his wife, what men need from women. The key word in our text is “submit”—”Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.”

The Greek word is “hupotasso,” a military term which means “to rank under,” “to take your post.”

This is the present tense, pointing to an ongoing, continuing commitment. Not just for the wedding, but for the marriage; not just when things are easy and good, but when they are not.

Now, here’s a very important point. It is made very clearly in Paul’s original language, but not so clearly in English.

Paul’s word, “submit to your husbands,” is in the middle voice in the Greek. Translated literally, he says to “place yourself in submission.”

This is a decision, your choice, a voluntary decision. Clearly, women are not by nature in a subordinate role to men, as so many have thought. The wife chooses this role with regard to her husband. This is not the inferior admitting her place, but the co-equal deciding freely to do this.

Scripture is clear: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In God’s eyes, men and women are equal in status. This is a voluntary submission, made freely by the wife. Not because she is the inferior—far from it.

Thomas Wheeler is a retired CEO of the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. He tells about a time when he and his wife were out driving and nearly ran out of gas.

They pulled off the freeway and into a dumpy little gas station with one pump. There was only one man working the place, so Wheeler asked him to fill the tank while he checked the oil. He saw his wife talking and smiling at this attendant. When they saw Wheeler looking at them, the man walked away and pretended that nothing had happened. Wheeler paid the man and he and his wife pulled out of the seedy little station.

As they drove down the road, he asked his wife if she knew the attendant. She admitted that she did know him. In fact, she had known him very well. It seems they had not only gone to high school together, but they dated seriously for about a year.

Wheeler couldn’t help bragging a little and said, “Boy, were you lucky I came along. If you’d married him you’d be the wife of a gas station attendant instead of the wife of a Chief Executive Officer.” His wife replied, “My dear, if I had married him, he’d be the Chief Executive Officer and you’d be the gas station attendant.”

A wife chooses to support and respect her husband. Not because she is inferior to him, but because God’s word calls her to do so.

Verse 33 elaborates: “the wife must respect her husband.” The word here means to support, encourage, honor. Paul describes a wife who supports her husband, who respects and encourages him, who follows his leadership. Encouraging respect is the gift God wants wives to give their husbands.

Why? Because this is a man’s greatest need. Every husband needs from his wife an ongoing commitment to support and encourage him. Not just while they’re dating, or when he deserves it. Remember, this is in the continuous tense: “Wives, continually respect and encourage your husbands.” Because this is his greatest need.

John Gray wrote the famous book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. He states the fact well: “A man’s deepest fear is that he is not good enough or that he is incompetent.” Encouraging respect is the gift every husband needs.

What every woman needs

Now let’s see what every wife, every woman needs. The key is in verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives.” The word here is not the Greek term for sexual love, or for friendship or business partnership, but for serving, nourishing love.

Martin Luther was right: “Some marriages were motivated by mere lust, but mere lust is felt even by fleas and lice. Love begins when we wish to serve others.” Nourishing love is the gift every wife needs from her husband. How do we give it?

We make love a lifestyle. Verse 25 is also in the continuous tense: “Husbands, continue to love your wives.” Not just until you are married to them, or feel like, or want something from them, or are moved by circumstances to do so. Continuously, repeatedly, as a lifestyle.

We put our wives first: “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25b).


When It’s Hard to Say No

When It’s Hard to Say No

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Dr. Jim Denison

Revelation 2:12-17

Jesus’ letters are addressed in a circular route. From Smyrna, the road north followed the coastline some 40 miles before turning in a northeastern direction up the valley of the Caicus River. About 10 miles from the Aegean Sea stood the city of Pergamum.

Pliny, the Roman governor of the area, said Pergamum was “by far the most distinguished city in Asia” (Historia naturalis 5.30). For more than 300 years she was the capitol city for the entire region.

Built on a cone-shaped hill a thousand feet in elevation, Pergamum dominated the valley below. From this height the inhabitants of the city could see the Mediterranean Sea 15 miles away. “Pergamum” in Greek means “citadel,” an appropriate description of the city.

Her history began 400 years before Christ, and was a story of constant warfare. Attalus III (ca. 170-133) bequeathed his entire empire to Rome, so that Asia Minor became a Roman province with Pergamum as its capitol. The city retained this status until AD 130.

Pergamum was Rome’s capitol in the region; it was Satan’s as well: “I know where you live–where Satan has his throne” (v. 13). His temptations were three in number.

First: cultural possessions. Pergamum had an outstanding school of art; and was best known for its library, second in size only to the famed library at Alexandria, Egypt, with some 200,000 volumes.

Parchment (animal skin used as writing material) was invented in Pergamum, in conjunction with its library. And when scholars in Pergamum found their parchments difficult to store as scrolls, they invented the “codex,” or book, to bind them together. The stadium of the city is well preserved and stunning as well. And sculpture was highly developed in Pergamum and famous for its quality.

This cultural prosperity may explain why the cult of the Nicolaitans thrived in Pergamum. The sophistication of the society made this heresy very attractive and persuasive.

Second: religious performance. Gigantic altars to the pagan gods stood at every corner. The most famous was the altar to Zeus. Forty feet high, it rested like a throne 800 feet up Pergamum’s canonical hill. All day long it smoked with sacrifices offered to Zeus. Carved around its base was one of the greatest sculptures of the ancient world, a frieze of the Battle of the Giants which proclaimed the victory of the Greek gods over the barbarian giants. These ruins are still visible to visitors today.

The shrine to Athena was important as well. This is the first site a visitor to Pergamum sees today. A third shrine was dedicated to Aesculapius, the Greek god of healing. Sufferers from around the world flocked to it. As a result, medical wards, schools, and priests made their headquarters in Pergamum. Galen, second only to Hippocrates in ancient medical significance, was born in Pergamum and made its medical practice even more famous.

As we will see, there are very clear parallels between the pagan worship of the city and the Balaamite heresy so prevalent in the church.

Third: political power. This was the official center in Asia Minor for the imperial cult. In 29 BC Emperor Augustus gave permission for a temple to be erected in Pergamum to “the divine Augustus and the goddess Roma” (Tacitus, Annals 3.37). This was the first temple in all of Asia built to the worship of a living ruler. Soon the people added a second and third temple as well.

The ruins of the temple of Trajan are still visible today, a reminder of the idolatry of the city and its constant pressure on the Christian church.

Faithful but flawed

As his letter to the Pergamum Christians begins, Jesus speaks a word of hearty commendation: “you remain true to my name” (v. 13). The Greek says, “You are holding onto my name”–“holding” means to grasp tightly onto a treasured possession. Jesus’ “name” denotes his character or person. These Christians are honoring the third commandment in a city which breaks it daily.

Then Jesus describes their courage in another way: “You did not deny my faith.” They have held his name by refusing to deny their faith. And this refusal has come at great cost: “even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city–where Satan lives.”

Antipas is the only person named specifically in any of Jesus’ seven letters to his churches. His name means “against all,” a reputation he fulfilled to the death. He refused to bow the knee to Caesar or proclaim him lord, and paid the price of faithfulness with his life. Every Christian in Pergamum could expect the same consequences for keeping the faith.

Satan cannot defeat the church by a frontal assault, so he attempts an insidious strategy: idolatry, then heresy. First he uses idolatry: “You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality” (v. 14).

Here’s the story in brief. Balak, the king of Moab, tried to entice Balaam the Hebrew prophet to curse Israel, but Balaam refused. However, he did even worse. He arranged a plan whereby the daughters of the Moabites seduced the men of Israel. Then these men led the Israelites to sacrifice to the pagan god of Moab and worship him (Numbers 22-25). From then to now, Balaam stands for the deception of idolatry.

And so Satan attempts a successful, strong church in the same way, enticing us to worship things or people other than God.

Second, Satan employs heresy: “Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (v. 15). We met this heretical group in Ephesus. Apparently they practiced a kind of Gnosticism, an early heresy which taught in part that physical actions do not bear on our spiritual lives.

In the letter to Ephesus we learned that Jesus “hates” this heresy. Unfortunately, the Christians in Pergamum did not.


When Life Makes No Sense

When Life Makes No Sense

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Dr. Jim Denison

Revelation 2:1-7

Ephesus was the greatest city in Asia Minor and was often called Lumen Asiae, “the light of Asia.” It was the wealthiest city in Asia Minor and had the greatest harbor in that part of the world. Three lucrative trade routes led to her shores, bringing wealth from across the Empire. And so she grew to a population of a quarter-million people, a giant metropolis for her day. Her ruins are spectacular still today.

Ephesus was the most religious city in Asia as well. Her money had built the greatest temples and shrines in the ancient world. Her chief claim to fame was the Temple of Diana. It had the following characteristics:

425 feet long by 225 feet wide.

127 columns, each 60 feet high and the gift of a king.

36 of the columns were covered with gold, jewels, and carvings.

The entire temple was made of cypress wood.

The Greeks said, “The sun sees nothing finer in his course than Diana’s Temple.”

Emperor worship was very significant in the city as well, with shrines to the emperors on every major street. Greek mystery cults had followers here as well, and the Jewish contingent was strong.

Visiting the Ephesian church

By popular consent, the Ephesian church was the most accomplished Christian congregation in the world.

The church was probably founded jointly by Aquila and Priscilla; they were later joined by Paul, who preached there for more than 2 years (Acts 18.18-19; 19.1-10). Timothy succeeded Paul here, as did Apollos. John the Beloved Disciple pastored in Ephesus as well; tradition says that Mary lived and died in the city also. Church councils would be held here in later centuries, bringing Christians from across the world.

In our letter, Jesus commends the church with wonderful praise. First, he commends their actions (v. 2):

He knows their “deeds” (ergon, activities).

And their “hard works” (kopos, to toil or work hard).

He notes their perseverence. The word is hupomone, which means to endure with steadfast courage despite all opposition. Jesus commends them: “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary” (v. 3).

He commends their integrity: “how you cannot bear evil men but have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and found them to be false” (v. 2).

Later he repeats his approval: “this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (v. 6). Nicolaitans are mentioned only here and in 2.15: “You also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”

Irenaeus attributed the movement to Nicolas, one of the Seven (Acts 6.5) and said, “They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence” (Against Heresies 1.26.3). Clement of Alexandria described them as “abandoning themselves to pleasure like goats, as if insulting the body, lead a life of self-indulgence…while their soul is buried in the mire of vice” (Miscellanies 2.20).

Victorinus of Pettau, the first commentator on Revelation, refers to them as “false and troublesome men, who, as ministers under the name of nicolaus, had made for themselves a heresy, to the effect that what had been offered to idols might be exorcized and eaten, and that whatever should have committed fornication might receive peace on the eighth day” (Commentary on the Apocalypse 2.6).

Perhaps the reason more is not known about them is that their sect lasted for only “a very short time,” according to Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3.29).They were obviously a doctrinal threat to the church, for Jesus says that he “hates” them (2.6). And the Ephesian Christians agree.

So we begin our tour of the seven churches with the most attractive one of all. Their actions, courage, and doctrine are above reproach. They appear successful in every way. But appearances are usually deceptive.

Solving the Ephesian problem

Their problem is simple, and disastrous: “I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love” (v. 4). “First” means “first in time.” The person a Christian loves first in coming to faith in Jesus himself. Put simply, the Ephesian Christians have forgotten Jesus. In doing the work of the church, they have forsaken the Lord of the church.

They have lost their sense of purpose, their direction in life. They are so busy doing, they have forgotten being. Their lives and faith makes no sense, as they are consumed in the busyness of “success.”

Now they must return to him, or he will “remove your lampstand from its place” (v. 5). The lampstand symbolizes their church (1.20). As the “light of the world” (Matthew 5.14), their church exists to shine the candle of God’s love into a very dark world. But this lampstand is in Jesus’ hand, and it is about to go out. They are perilously close to losing their church. They must “Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first” (v. 5).

We must “remember” the time when we loved Jesus first and most of all and “repent,” change our minds and lives about our priorities now. Then we must “do the works we did at first,” acting ourselves into a new way of feeling about the Lord Jesus.

Do not assume that you can make this decision later. Today Ephesus is no more, their church gone, their city in ruins. The Temple of Diana is a metaphor for her greatness and fall: the once magnificent temple today has only one column standing amidst the ruins.

So it is with any church or Christian who forsakes Jesus. But you and I have this day to return to him. Does your life make sense? Would Jesus say that he is your first love, your first priority? What practical step does he intend you to take, today?


When You’re Afraid of Tomorrow

When You’re Afraid of Tomorrow

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Dr. Jim Denison

Revelation 2:8-11

In this study, we visit Smyrna, the second of the seven churches of Revelation and location of the modern-day city of Izmir. “Smyrna” is translated elsewhere in the New Testament as “myrrh.” Myrrh was a gum resin used to make perfume, oil, and embalming fluid. It was extremely bitter. This city was so named because myrrh was one of the products often traded through its port.

For Christians living in ancient Smyrna, “myrrh” or bitterness was not just a name but a reality. Consider the following five stark areas of contrast between the city and her Christian population.

First, her beauty. Smyrna was a thriving metropolis located 35 miles north of Ephesus. She was a resurrected city–destroyed around 580 B.C. by Alyattes, king of Lydia, the city lay in ruins for 300 years before being rebuilt personally by Alexander the Great as a model city and center for his cultural movement.

Her population of 200,000 made her the second-largest city in Asia Minor. While Ephesus claimed to be the “Light of Asia,” Smyrna was known as the “Glory of Asia.” She owned a famous stadium and library, and boasted the largest public theater in Asia. The city also claimed to be the birthplace of Homer, with a famous monument dedicated to the poet.

In contrast, the Christians living in Smyrna struggled for survival and lived in the most basic simplicity. They experienced none of her beauty and grandeur.

Second, her wealth. The city lay on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea and boasted an excellent harbor. The road leading east from Smyrna extended to the rich valley of the Hermus River, making the city a major export center in the ancient world. While impoverished Christians struggled to support their families and earn the barest of essentials, the rest of their city lived in remarkable wealth and opulence.

Third, her heathen worship. The most famous road in Smyrna was called the “Golden Street.” At one end of it stood the Temple of Cybele, and along its way there were temples to Apollo, Asklepios, and Aphrodite. Inland, where the Golden Street ran into the foothills, stood the Temple of Zeus.

Smyrna was also famous for her devotion to emperor worship. She was the first city in the world to erect a temple to Dea Roma, the goddess Rome, in 196 B.C. (Tacitus, Annals 4.56). In AD 26 the city competed with eleven other Asian cities for the opportunity to erect a temple to Tiberius, the reigning emperor, and won.

In contrast, the Christians of this city met in humble, obscure places of worship, in the midst of some of the most stunning temples and religious shrines in the Roman world.

Fourth, her pride. Smyrna was known as the proudest city in Asia Minor. She claimed to be the first in beauty, first in Caesar worship, and the birthplace of Homer. She was the center of all that was glorious and great. And so her people looked in utter contempt on the poor and humble Christians in their mist.

Choose Caesar or Christ

Smyrna had always been a center of great political influence. In the numerous civil wars of preceding centuries she had consistently chosen the winning side, and the winners were grateful. Her emperor worship and political connections made Smyrna a place of great political prestige and influence. The government which crucified Jesus would do no less to his followers here who commanded little respect from their pagan neighbors.

In Smyrna, the worship of Caesar as Lord was mandatory and enforced. When such worship was offered annually, a certificate was given to the worshiper. Failure to possess this certificate was punishable by death. We have an actual request for such a certificate, found among the artifacts of the Empire:

To those who have been appointed to preside over the sacrifices, from Inareas Akeus, from the village of Theoxenis, together with his children Aias and Hera, who reside in the village of theadelphia. We have always sacrificed to the gods, and now, in your presence, according to the regulations, we have sacrificed and offered libations, and tasted the sacred things, and we ask you to give us a certification that we have done so. May you fare well.

Accompanying the request was an official certificate which read: We the representatives of the Emperor, Serenos and Hermas, have seen you sacrificing. Then the date follows (Barclay, Letters to the Seven Chuches, 29).

Those who refused to burn incense to Caesar and proclaim him as Lord were subject to charges of treason and paganism, and often put to death in Smyrna. Believers here risked their lives daily to follow Christ.

And the Jewish population in the city only made things worse for the Christian church. The Empire had long since given up coercing the Jewish people into their emperor worship. And so they granted them an exemption from this idolatrous practice. So long as they saw Christianity as a Jewish sect, they exempted Christians from emperor worship as well. But the Jewish leaders in Smyrna soon made clear their own rejection of the Christian faith.

And so Jesus says, “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (v. 9). The Christians faced persecution from their Roman rulers and their Jewish neighbors as well. Things were “bitter” indeed in Smyrna for the followers of Jesus.

Why serve Jesus?

Jesus offers his suffering saints several reasons why they should choose to follow him and not Caesar, even in the face of a very uncertain future.

First: he knows our problems and has conquered them. In verse 8 he claims: “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” Jesus calls himself “the first and the last,” identifying himself with God the Father, who called himself by essentially the same name earlier (1.8). In Isaiah 44.6 the Lord says, “I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.” Now Jesus claims this same sovereignty for himself. And he makes clear the fact that he “died and came to life again.” He has already defeated our greatest enemy, so we have nothing to fear when we follow him.


When Your Faith is On Trial

When Your Faith is On Trial

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Dr. Jim Denison

Revelation 2:18-29

Thyatira was located 45 miles due east of Pergamum. Jesus wrote his longest letter to the smallest of the seven cities, proof of the significance of the issues confronting his followers there. Her ruins today are not remarkable, but her challenge to Christian fidelity was of vital importance.

Thyatira possessed strategic military significance. It lay at the mouth of a long valley connecting the Hermus and Caicus rivers. Enemies of the empire would have to pass by Thyatira on their way to attack Pergamum. And so the city would defend the capitol of the region, and at least delay attackers until the main city was ready.

The city was not a center of religious importance. She housed temples to Artemis and Apollo, but they were not famous. Neither did she possess a special center for emperor worship. She did own the shrine of Sambathe, a kind of ancient fortune-teller whom many came to consult for guidance.

Her chief importance was as a commercial center. The roads traveling through Thyatira brought to her doors the commerce of half the world. The city was known for its linen, apparel, leather work, and tanning. It was also a great center for wool trade and the dye industry. The city was especially noted for its production of purple cloth (from the madder root, which grew abundantly in the region). It is no surprise that Lydia, a “dealer in purple cloth,” came from Thyatira (Acts 16.14).

Labor unions were important in Thyatira, and the city possessed more of them than any other town in the region. This is where the problem Jesus addresses originated. No merchants or craftsmen in Thyatira could prosper unless they joined a guild or trade union.

Each trade union had its own patron god. Whenever the union members met, they shared a common meal which began and ended with a wine offering to this god. The meat at the meal would usually be from an animal sacrificed to the pagan god as well. They would burn a few hairs from the animal on the altar and then barbecue the rest as their supper. After the meal, the meeting would often become a drunken orgy.

Now imagine being a Christian in Thyatira. If you refuse membership in your union, you will go bankrupt or worse. Your family could literally starve to death. But if you join your union, you must attend its mandatory meetings, where you will be required to eat the food and drink the wine offered to idols, and then to join in the corruption which follows.

The leader named “Jezebel”

To make matters even worse, there was a leader in the church at Thyatira seeking to convince members to make exactly this compromise–a woman whom Jesus assigns the name “Jezebel.” This person encouraged the believers to join the trade unions and participate in the activities, all the while maintaining their faith in Jesus.

The original Jezebel was the conniving daughter of the king of Sidon. She married King Ahab and became the queen of Israel (1 Kings 16.31). She soon brought Baal, Astarte, and other assorted pagan deities into her new kingdom, and led the people in their worship. She defiled the nation and earned an everlasting reputation for corruption. Now, at Thyatira, her first-century counterpart is doing the same thing.

We know that she “calls herself a prophetess,” an office of great influence (v. 20). A female prophet was not nearly as unusual in the first century as it is for us. Philip the evangelist had four unmarried daughters who prophesied (Acts 21.9); Luke speaks of Anna the prophetess (Luke 2.36), and Paul assumes that women will prophesy in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 11.5).

The Old Testament describes Miriam, Huldah, and Deborah as prophetesses as well. In the New Testament context a prophetess would cite the inspiration and leading of the Holy Spirit in whatever she said. The fact that she could claim divine authority in encouraging compromise would be very alluring to these Christians.

Furthermore, this Jezebel may have had an even more influential position in the church, quite possibly as the pastor’s wife. The “angel” in Thyatira receives this letter (v. 18), and “angel” can signify the “messenger” or “preacher” of the church. “Woman” (v. 20) can be translated “wife.” In fact, some ancient manuscripts inserted “your” before the word, thus “your wife Jezebel.” It’s possible that this Jezebel is not only a prophetess herself, but married to the prophet of the church as well.

Her sin is simple: “By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (v. 20). She is misleading the followers of Jesus in Thyatira, encouraging them to compromise with the morality of their trade unions and culture.

She has been warned: “I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling” (v. 21). Perhaps Jesus has already sent earlier letters to the church, or preachers to address the situation, or simply the strong conviction of the Holy Spirit. But she has refused to repent of her compromising leadership and immorality.

So the consequences will be severe: “I will cast her on a bed of suffering” (v. 22a). Here Jesus could refer to the “beds” or banquet couches used at Thyatira in their idolatrous feasts, or he could be using a Jewish expression for becoming ill.

What’s more, “I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways” (v. 22b). Her followers may be committing adultery physically, or spiritually. Both lead to the same punishment: they will “suffer intensely.” This phrase translates a Greek idiom for the crushing stone which ground wheat into flour and grapes into wine.

In addition, “I will strike her children dead” (v. 23a). These could be the physical children of her sexual adultery, or more likely, the spiritual children of her moral compromise. The Greek is “kill with death,’ an idiom for pestilence (cf. Rev 6.8).