sermon: The More Things Change
1st Century Problems
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Given 20-Oct-18; Sermon #1457; 70 minutes
The perennial desire of all cultures is to return to a mythologized "Golden Age," a paradise wherein peace, abundance and harmony abound. When people claim that "old times" were better, they often overlook the thorny problems besetting those living then. God's people also have a proclivity to perceive the early Church nostalgically, focusing on a few Scriptures which point to the unity of that era. Reading the Scriptures more maturely however, we find that early church members experienced problems similar to what we face today. The early churches had to experience the same God-ordained process of sanctification (I Peter 1:3-7) and the same fiery trials (I Corinthians 10:13) we do today. Paul found it necessary to admonish (1) the Roman congregation to be discerning, shunning false teachers, (2) the Corinthian congregation to flee envy and strife, (3) the Galatian congregation to flee from tendencies to return to Judaism, (4) the members of the Ephesian congregation to maintain their "first love," (5) the Philippian congregation to put away division, (6) the Colossian congregation to eschew Jewish-gnostic philosophies, and (7) the Thessalonian congregation to reject interpretations of prophecy informed more by theory and rumor than by Scripture. The Golden Age has not yet arrived but will be coterminous with the Kingdom of God.
I have spoken in past sermons and articles about the concept of a golden age, and I tend to bring it up from time to time because I am somewhat fascinated by the subject. I think it is part of the spirit in man to yearn for a golden age, just as Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 3:11, that God has put eternity in man's heart.
The two ideas, that is, of a golden age and eternity, certainly go together in our conception of the Millennium, and the new heavens and the new earth, because that is what is going to be; it is going to be a golden time in the history of mankind, and that we will live in harmony with one another, and with God. So that future golden age, or that future time is our true golden age. But the classical concept of a golden age comes like many of these ideas do, from Greek mythology and literature.
In the Greek imagination, the golden age was what they thought of as a glorious time when humanity lived under the rule of their god Chronos; who happened to be the leader of the Titans and he presided over a period in which the people of that time had no need for any laws or rules as everybody did the right thing. They never made a step wrong it seems: Immorality and corruption were nowhere to be found; it sounds like a great time and place to have lived. During this age, their golden age, peace and prosperity prevailed. It was a time of leisure and fear was absent. They did not fear any wrong because there was no wrong being done. People did not have to work to feed themselves for the earth provided food in abundance; animals were tamed: It sounds a lot like the World Tomorrow, does not it?
These golden humans, as they were called, lived to a very old age, and they retained their youthful appearance, long after they should have started to look old, but they did eventually die, as all people do, but they peacefully fell into a gentle sleep and just did not wake up. But their spirits, the Greeks say, lived on as guardians over the next generation. Here is a description from [the] Greek writer Hesiod: It is in his Works and Days, which was written right toward the end of the 2nd Century BC:
Men lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief. Miserable age rested not on them, but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died it was as though they were overcome with sleep and they had all good things for the fruitful earth, unforced, bear them fruit abundantly, and without stint they dwelt in ease and peace. (Hesiod: Works and Days: II. 109-120)
So overall, the golden age, that idea denotes a period of primordial peace, prosperity, harmony, and stability. It is closely linked with the idea of, as you might have guessed, paradise. The Greek myths seemed to blend the memory of the Garden of Eden with the early years of the pre Flood world. In mythology, the golden age ended when Prometheus brought fire and other arts to humanity and Pandora opened her box, releasing innumerable evils into the world and all that remained was hope.
Just to throw this in, a possible parallel to this myth of the golden age appears in Genesis, obviously in the Garden of Eden, and all the way up to Genesis 4:19-22, when it is talking about Cain’s line and where Lamech’s children are mentioned there as the originators of such things as livestock breeding, music, and metalworking. That was Prometheus bringing things to humanity and it is possible (I am just bringing this up just for those of you who are curious) that Chronos historically may have been Lamech, the one who supposedly killed Cain, and then also wounded or killed, eventually got rid of Enoch. He wounded Enoch, because remember it says there that he killed a man for grieving him or whatever, and he wounded a young man, for whatever he did: I cannot remember right off the top of my head.
Chronos, in the mythology, killed his father and then he himself was killed by Zeus or however that worked; overthrown at least, maybe not killed. Just for those of you who are interested in that sort of thing, there might be a connection.
The Romans had the same kind of idea as the Greeks, in terms of the golden age; Romans often followed the Greeks in this sort of thing. The following is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses written in about 87 AD:
The gold age was first, when Man yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted reason knew
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear
His words were simple, and his soul sincere
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast. [Which has a link to the idea that God is going to write His law on our hearts.] (Ovid: Metamorphoses I: 1-162)
The Romans version of the golden age was clearly humanistic and, as you may have noticed there, their highest virtue was reason. No outside force, they said, had given them any kind of written law: They had not been bound by any moral law so obviously they are talking about the time before God had given them a law; actually He had given them the law from the very beginning but they chose to ignore it. These golden humans were free, they thought, to live as they saw fit. It is almost as if these Greeks and Romans were saying: We are happy and good on our own until God interfered in our paradise on earth by imposing his harsh demands; and now look at how degraded man and the world have become. They blamed God for what had happened, kicking them out of Eden, rather than human sin.
Other cultures and religions have their golden ages, and many of them feature similarities to the Greek and Roman idea. Then there various ones, like the Hindu idea that says that the golden age is the best part of a cycle of recurring ages; and a lot of times they named these by the metals: There is the golden age; there is a silver age; there is a bronze age, there is an iron age, or whatever: There is a cyclical thing where it just keeps coming around every several thousand years.
Various peoples have their historical golden ages such as the golden age of China, or the golden age of Persia. Some historians call the reign of Queen Victoria the golden age of Britain. Many baby boomers consider the 1950’s and the early 1960’s, up until the assassination of John F. Kennedy, to be America's golden age. As a matter of fact, they had made a big thing out of the Kennedy administration calling it Camelot. We hear about things like the golden age of radio, and there is the golden age of television, and there is the golden age of Hollywood: We have all kinds of golden ages!
Notice that in pretty much all but one of these golden ages that I have mentioned are all in the past; they are all deep in the past, sometimes the remote pre-historical past. Mankind as a group seems to have an innate pessimism that tells us that we could never reach the glorious heights that our forefathers did. We can never really accomplish what they accomplished, not necessarily in technology, but in the way of life that they lived. We can never return to the peace and prosperity and the contentment that people seem to have long ago enjoyed. And by the way, this just happens to run absolutely contrary to the more modern idea of evolution which believes that our best days are yet to come.
We have these two counterbalancing—or counterattacking sometimes—ideas in the heart of man that, on the one hand, the greatest things are all in the past, and then there is this other part of mankind that says, No, the greatest things are all in the future. Generally, in literature, when people tended to talk and write about golden ages, these things occurred when life was new, when life was simple, when life was unregulated; that is a big one for them. They did not have anybody over them telling them what to do. This is even the case with the golden age of radio or the golden age of television. There was a lot less regulation back then, you could do all kinds of neat things and not have somebody come down on you for it. But we in these days, with our complex lives and mounting evils as we see it, we could never pass that way again.
We had this yearning to go back; this nostalgia for a time when it was so much better and simpler and freer. We think that it was better in the past, and it is just getting worse and worse and worse and worse as time goes by. Everything is, that is the general idea.
We tend to have this feeling in the church. We have a golden age. Many people have talked about it, wrote about it, and it is found in Acts the second chapter. We are going to read verses 40-47; of course, this was at the beginning: the founding of the church; things were new; things were simple; things were not very complex at this point:
Acts 2:40-47 And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” hen those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
Many people in the church see a golden age in this description of the fledgling first-century church. The church was in its infancy. It had just begun that day with the baptism of all those people: What was it? Three thousand people on that first Day of Pentecost? Thousands were being added to the flock, healings, and miracles, as we see in the next few chapters, were abundant, and the church was always in harmony. Everybody was with one accord with one another. They had all these things in common, and they shared with one another. And hey, it was the greatest thing.
But too soon, we start reading into the end of chapter seven where we have the martyrdom of Stephen and then chapter eight we start seeing things like Simon Magus and his problems, and chapter five actually we have Ananias and Sapphira. Things start happening such as persecution, wrongdoing, infiltration of tares into the church. And it seems like ever since about chapters four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine things have just gotten worse. We have been suffering, disunified, and riddled with false teachers and teachings ever since. We regret in a way that we could not have lived back then when there was so much zeal in the church and it was so wonderful, and all the harmony was there. We regret that we seem not to be able to return to that glorious, harmonious time in the church.
We see it as kind of an unreachable pinnacle of spiritual unity: It is in the past and it can never be reached again. So in that blush of first love, that fledgling church, the whole church, right there in Jerusalem, was flush with inspiration, good intentions, zeal; everybody was trying to do what was right. But you know what? Even though we look at it and remark about it as being something truly great and astounding, we know it could never last. It is because they were human beings; they were people and people are always the fly in the ointment, if you will. Though they had the Holy Spirit, these first members of the church of God still had human nature. It was going to break out at some point; there was no way that they could continue on as ‘perfect’ individuals for very long. And because of that problem with human nature, the church developed problems: significant problems that they had to overcome.
We are going to take the rest of the time of this sermon to survey those problems. I know it is not really fun to look at other people's problems, but I want you to see them to see that they were human, that this was not a golden age. I want you to be able to see and maybe be encouraged and inspired by realizing that our own trials are working the same sanctification in us as their trials did to them; that it is part of a process that God is working out. This was what God meant to happen. He knew that they could never maintain that high level of how they were at the end of Acts 2. He allowed these things to happen to test them, to try them, to make them better people by having them overcome things.
That time, at the end of Acts 2, those first few weeks or months, or however long it was, was just the beginning. It was a good beginning; it was an inspired beginning; it was a great beginning, but it was just the beginning, and there have been good times since then in certain areas. I do not know if we will ever come back to that amount of harmony in the church, maybe in small areas we have, but that really does not matter because God has been working something out for the eventual golden age, the real golden age, when He returns, sets up his Kingdom and we are changed to be like Him. And then for all eternity after that point, we will be living the golden age, and it will never end.
I want you to see, first of all, that the trials that we face are not unusual. Let us go first to I Corinthians 10. I just want the first few lines here of this particular verse:
I Corinthians 10:13 No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man .
So the things that face us are things that most men and women would normally face in their lives. It is not something strange or unusual, and Peter says something very similar. Back in I Peter 4, he says there:
I Peter 4:12 Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you.
So here he is talking about fiery trials, things that are really tough and hard to get through, things that hurt. When you go through a fire, you are going to get burned, you are going to suffer, and Peter says even these ones, these really bad trials that make you suffer and cry, and feel all kinds of pain, there is nothing strange about them, they are normal. That is not to say that the Christian life is normally going to be going through fiery trials, but he is saying that when we come upon hardships of one form or another, they are the same kind of hardships that everybody goes through, it does not matter who you are.
Our trials are the normal downs in our lives; we have ups and downs, do not we? We have good times and bad times: The trials that we have in our lives are just the normal down times in our lives. The times when things go wrong, things go bad, it is not like God is up there trying to figure out the best way to make you hurt. He is not that kind of God. He takes things as they come, and He works certain things out so that you have to solve problems and make decisions, and that is what He does.
He is not up there inventing intricate and personalized obstacle courses that you have to make your way through. The Christian life is not our version of ‘American Gladiators’ or some other ones like the ‘Ultimate Beastmaster’; I do not know if you have seen that, or ‘American Ninja Warrior.” ‘The Rock’ has a new show called the ‘Titan Games.’ These are all obstacle courses where you have to do all these feats of strength and athleticism to make it into the next round or whatever.
God does not do that. He does not have to build us all these contraptions for us to overcome. He does not make us personalized hoops to go through. He, most of time, works with the life that you have chosen for yourself. So, God tests us within the normal course of events. How many times you have you gotten a trial at work or at your play? Maybe you break an ankle or something like that while you are playing; or there is some dispute in your backyard football game: That is a trial; you have to overcome it. You have to do the right thing.
He tests us in our relationships within the community and how people think of us in terms of the way we live our lives. One of the big ones that He does are He tests us in our health. We are living in bodies of flesh that break down over time, and sometimes we do not treat them the right way. God uses those things to test us. This is one that affects us all at some point in our lives.
He tests us with the death of our loved ones: We have to face that. But most of all, He tends to test us and looks at what we are going to do, how we react in the course of our relationships with one another. Spouses too, the other spouse, spouse to children, parents to children, neighbors, and what not.
It is all within these relationships where we have to interact with one another and do the right thing. That is mostly where He tests us and sees what we are made of. He does this, especially within the family, because we are at each other or with each other all the time and we have to first learn then how to make proper and right decisions in terms of how to get along with one another. These are things everybody faces at one time or another.
That is how God tries us. That is why Peter and Paul can say these things are not strange; even these bad things are not strange. These are all common to man, they are common everyday things that most people have to face at one time or another.
Let us go to I Peter 1. What Peter does here in this section is he lays out essentially the process of sanctification and I just want you to hear how he puts this:
I Peter 1:3-9 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls.
Like I said, Peter lays out the whole process here in these seven verses. So, he tells us that God calls us by His mercy and brings us into His Family, gives us a magnificent goal in which we hope, and then He guards us and helps us to bring us to salvation. But in the meantime, we must go through various trials. He says this or that, God does not explain exactly what they are. They are various; not everybody gets the same trials although we tend to get a lot of similar trials throughout our lives.
These are trials that grieve us he says hurt us, they make us mourn, or they make us feel pain, and we do not like them because we are being tested by fire, like I mentioned before. Fire burns; fire hurts; fire causes pain. Peter compares this to the testing of precious metals like gold. Those precious metals have to be brought under high heat to get rid of all the stuff that is not gold, not silver, and so forth. So, what it does is it tests how genuine they are.
If you want twenty-four carat gold, you are going to have to put that gold in the fire and make sure all the impurities are burned off, or taken off so that you can get pure gold. It is only by the application of a lot of heat that that is going to happen, because God is trying to produce the highest quality of individual that he can.
And so, as we go through our Christian lives, He gives us these various trials and usually He ends up turning up the heat at some point, just to see where we stand and whether we are going to maintain our righteousness before Him; or whether we will fall into sin because we cannot take it; we just are not that pure in faith at the time.
What he implies here very clearly is that rigorous, painful testing is necessary! It is not just an added thing for those whom He has high offices for, this is for everyone. This is a necessary testing that is going to happen to all members of His Family so that their faith, their character, as Peter says here, bring praise, honor, and glory to our Savior Jesus Christ. God is going to put us through the paces throughout our Christian lives just to give us tests every once in a while so He can remark to Himself just how far along we are and what further finishing we may need, whether there is something else that might be necessary for us to become a complete Christian, and not somebody who is not yet finished.
This is the pattern of life for all Christians: past, present, future; those same people, who were there at the end of Acts 2 having such a wonderful time with all that harmony, ended up going through the same kinds of trials. It does not matter who one is, male or female, they are going to get these trials. Free or slave as it says, young or old, rich or poor, butcher, baker, candlestick maker, it does not matter what it is that you do, where you live, it is going to happen. One of the big reasons why this is going to happen it is not the main reason but it is a big reason why we go through this is because Jesus Christ went through this; these are the steps that He took.
Bill Onisick was in Hebrews 2 to open up his sermonette so I will not go there, but I just want to mention Hebrews 2:10, where it says that Jesus Christ was perfected through sufferings. He had to go through various trials throughout His life, even as the Son of God, even full of the Holy Spirit, even as zealous as He was, and wanting to do what God wanted to do, and determined never to sin. Yet Jesus Christ had to face all kinds of trials; He had to go out on the mountain and pray to make sure that He had the strength from God. He had to go into the garden of Gethsemane and pray, and ask for help, because He faced the greatest trial of all! If Christ went through it, and this is the way it is to be done, then of course, we have to follow in His steps and a lot of His steps were very painful ones.
If we want to have the wonderful character, that Christ has and be with Him for all eternity, well, we are going to have to take our lumps and we are going to have to overcome, as He did. This was the path He took to become complete. He, of course, was perfect but He had to be put through certain things to prove Him and to complete Him. And the same thing happens to us because He had to fulfill God's plan at a certain very high level.
We, too, have to fulfill God's plan at our own levels. And the tests and trials that we get will be commensurate with that level. None of these things matter—where you lived and when you lived. The process is essentially the same for everyone, no matter what the historical period, no matter what kind of government you lived under, where on the globe you happen to live; it does not matter. The trials will be essentially the same, with only minor details changing; because that is where God has chosen to work in the course of our lives.
With this in mind, we are going to take a fairly quick survey of the churches of the New Testament. We are going to see the trials and the problems they faced, mostly as a group. These are general things and we are going to see that they were actually not part of a golden age; we might look at it that way but it really was not a golden age in terms of there being peace and harmony. There was significant turmoil in the first century church, and each church had a slightly different problem, as we will see.
If nothing else, it will give us an appreciation for what they endured and overcame, and with that appreciation, we can be encouraged that we, too, can endure the trials that are given to us and overcome them because they are not any better than us. We are not any better than them. God has picked us out of this world and given us this awesome goal that we have; and He is working with us like He worked with them to bring them into His Kingdom.
I am going to go through the epistles of Paul and the churches that he wrote to, and we will pull out a few significant details from these various churches just to give us an idea of what they were going through, and I think you are going to see that it is not very different from us.
Let us go back to the book of Romans. Romans is largely a doctrinal book: The first eleven chapters are almost straight up doctrine, and then the rest of the chapters tend to be practical things that you should do in terms of Christian living. Paul gets here to the end of the book in chapter 16, and kind of points his finger at them and says, you have got something to work on her.
Romans 16:17-19 Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple. For your obedience has become known to all. Therefore I am glad on your behalf; but I want you to be wise in what is good, and simple concerning evil.
It appears that the Romans were susceptible to false teachers and false teaching. The word that we need to key in on is ‘susceptible.’ Paul had not founded the church there. In fact, when he wrote this letter to them, he was still in Corinth; he had not visited Rome yet, and nobody is quite sure who founded the church in Rome. In fact, some people think that it may have just been Christians finding each other and gathering together to have fellowship. There is no clear indication that there was any leader there, although if we get any indication, it is probably in Romans 16:3 where Paul says, greet Priscilla and Aquila. Maybe Paul considered them to be the leaders because of his working with them in the past. It could have been a church that just got together and did not really have any leadership: We do not know. No one is mentioned as a pastor or elder, or leader there straight up, we just kind of have to guess.
Knowing these things, knowing that they had not had any, maybe, formal introduction to all the doctrines, Paul felt it necessary to give them a fairly extensive doctrinal exposition, concentrating on things like law and grace, faith, righteousness, the faith of Abraham, the place of Israel in all of this, which touches on Jew and Gentile relations there within the church, as my dad has been talking about in his Hebrew series, and also the high stakes of salvation.
This is not something that we can just look at, like, on a Sabbath or something; this is something that we really need to be involved with all the time. Paul talks a lot about God's wrath in chapter two and that He is judging, and we need to be the ones that are on the ball that He will judge to be faithful. He probably felt that they needed this doctrinal foundation to brace them against the onslaught of falsehood that they were receiving, that they were feeling pressure to compromise.
If you think about it, they were in the capital city of the Roman Empire; there were a lot of weird things going on. The Romans did not like the Christians necessarily, and there were all kinds of pressures for them to give in to become more Roman and less Christian, if you will. We get an idea there, when Paul says that they were known for their obedience; everybody knew that they were very obedient people. This is a great thing when you are talking about obedience to God and to God's Word—things that He wants us to do. That is wonderful.
But, could it also have been that they were obedient to just about everybody? That they were not necessarily the kind of people who would stand up for something? They would just do what you told them to do? I do not know, but he mentions here that they seem to have been rather gullible. It is in the wording there in verse 18 and 19. He says that they may have been simple; that is the last word in verse 18, I believe, flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple. That is what he is warning them against. They were letting in these false teachers, and that they ought to kick them out because they were there to deceive the simple.
The first thing Paul says is, we know that you are obedient. Everybody knows that! He might have been saying to them that they were kind of guileless. They were innocent, maybe unwary as a group. Maybe a bit Pollyannaish? I do not know. Maybe easy going? Little backbone? Not critical enough? They had a lack of discernment, they just did not know, because they did not have a great foundation, so they were easily twisted and moved, one way or another? It is possible. I am not saying it is true, but it is possible just from the wording that he gives here. They were a church that was a little bit simple and could be easily deceived and that is a problem. He just says here he does not want them to be that way, he says, I want you to be wise in what is good and simple concerning evil.
It seems like from the way he puts it that they were being simple in what is evil, and that is not good. He says, essentially here, you guys need a backbone, and I have just given it to you in this letter. That way they could judge things by the truth, and he would later then come there and personally preach these things to them once he got to Rome. I do not know if you remember when Martin Collins was going through his sermons on Paul and him coming to Rome. When Paul got to Rome, he met with the Jews. It does not necessarily say that he met with the church, although some actually came and helped them meet with him, but gives another indication that things were a little loose there in Rome rather than organized with a central authority figure.
Let us go on to the Corinthians. Oh, the Corinthians! I hope not to take too long on the Corinthians, I have seven sermons on the church in Corinth that you can go back and refer to. Let us just go to I Corinthians 3 and get the gist of their problem.
I Corinthians 3:1-3 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?
The church of Corinth must have tried Paul's patience. He probably went there with a full head of hair and left bald. They were a wild bunch, and this passage that we just read points to the main problem: They were still carnal! They were carnal people; they really loved their fleshly things. They loved their lusts of the flesh and their lust of the eye, and they were very reluctant to get rid of them. It was like pulling teeth.
As we know a few had some serious sexual problems. One guy was married to his stepmom; another one is they loved a good party. They were the most partying people in the church it seems. They had a bad habit of celebrating at inappropriate times, like on the Passover. They tended to form cliques and two sides, and to be thoughtless and uncaring about anybody else and the other brethren.
They would go through the line first and let everybody, you know, whatever. They did not get along with one another very well. Anyway, we find out in chapter six that they were even going to court against one another. That tells you their relations with one another were not really very good at all. Some had problems with idolatry as we find in the later chapters and finally by the time he gets to chapter eleven he castigates them about their church services and how they were basically a circus—people talking over one another and people's babbling in tongues. And he says, “Stop this! God's way is one of peace, not of confusion; so let us get some order here.”
Paul had to set them straight on all of these points and to their credit, they repented of a lot of it. In chapter 2 of II Corinthians he talks about where the man repented of having his father's wife. They had to welcome him back to the church. Paul was still concerned about them in his second epistle. He was especially concerned that they would be like the Romans corrupted by crafty false ministers who would lure them back to the ways of the wickedness that they had come out of.
By the time we leave the end of II Corinthians, it is still kind of a precarious situation there in Corinth. Paul tells them to examine themselves, to see whether they are in the faith, and to prove themselves. These were people who were rather carnal. They had one foot in the Kingdom of God and the other on a banana peel, that sort of thing. They were almost ready to fall back into the world at any time, and so he had to bring them along, as he says, here as babes.
Let us go on to Galatians. Mr. Armstrong used to come to this quite a bit.
Galatians 1:6-9 I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
Like the Romans and the Corinthians, the Galatians were entertaining a false gospel. They were having trouble with people coming in and preaching things that were not part of what they had received from the apostles. Their problem, if we would go through the book of Galatians more finely, we would find that these false teachers were basically turning them back to Judaism. They were trying to get them to justify themselves through works.
Remember this is the epistle where Paul had to correct Peter, because he and Barnabas had gotten caught up in this thing that they would not even eat with the Gentiles. And so Paul goes through a lot of details about the law and the worth of the law, and what the law does as opposed to justification through faith. He had to reteach this idea to these Galatians because they kept wanting to prove themselves through things like circumcision and other works of the law.
Paul even goes so far, in Galatians 4:9, to say that he feared that they were returning to serving demons, which he calls the weak and beggarly elements. He ends the epistle in chapter five telling them that they needed to learn to walk in the Spirit and to produce the fruit of the Spirit. That is where all this gets to by the time we are about the end of chapter 5, he is talking about producing the fruit of the Spirit. Those are the works that are good; not that we wear phylacteries or whatever; or that we have our boys circumcised. The works that God wants you to do are things like love, joy, peace, and patience, and those sorts of things. That is what God wants to see; those are the works that He wants us to produce and to come out of those other works he mentions as the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21.
We have to reject the works of the flesh and do the works of the Spirit while living our whole lives in the Spirit. Because this false teaching that they were going back to which was a form of Judaism, was hindering their journey to the Kingdom of God. Here we have another church that was susceptible to false teachings; theirs was a little bit different; theirs was having to fight this pull toward a return to Judaism.
If you know anything about some of the other churches of God in our day, there is a definite pull, in some of these churches, to go back to being Judaistic: wearing of things under their garments with the tassels on them and yarmulkes; having to be circumcised and that sort of thing. They are Judaizing the truth. Galatians is a kind of screed against that. It is not what God wants; God wants us to follow the truth not to follow Judaism. Judaism is a corruption of what He gave to the people of Israel.
Let us go on to the Ephesians. At first glance, the Ephesians do not seem to have a whole lot wrong. They seem to have been a pretty solid congregation and eventually this church was pastored by the apostle John. It seems like a pretty good group of people; but a little reading between the lines shows that they had their fair share of problems just like everybody else.
Let us go to Ephesians 4, and look at the first couple of verses and then we will skip down through the chapter.
Ephesians 4:1-3 I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Paul would not just say this to anybody. He must have said this with the purpose that they were having some problems amongst themselves. The whole book of Ephesians is about unity; it seems that they were having problems with internal conflicts. The things he talks about here are bearing with one another, with lowliness, gentleness, and longsuffering, and love. That seems to me that it is a clue that they were having some problems with disunity; with people not fellowshipping with others in the church; with people thinking that others were sinners and they are not bearing with them. Or that they were doing this and that wrong and they will not get together with them. Let us see a little bit more of this in verses 17-20:
Ephesians 4:17-20 This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to licentiousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But you have not so learned Christ.
Maybe there were some people at Ephesus who were leaning back toward what they had come out of. They were beginning to, as he says here, harden their hearts. Let us go down to verses 22-24:
Ephesians 4:22-24 That you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.
He goes on and talks about putting away lying, be angry and do not sin. Do not give place to the Devil. Do not steal any longer. Do not let any corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you with all malice. Though, the Ephesian church seems on the outside to have been quite a good group of people from what Paul instructs them to do, they had a lot of work to do; especially with their interpersonal relationships within the church.
Paul, in this epistle, spends a great deal of ink on God's work for us; the grace that He has given us; His acceptance of the Gentiles (and that is perhaps a clue as to why there was this disunity in the church); perhaps the bane division was: Jew versus Gentile and Paul is telling them all: Let us get together; we are one church. He does talk about their being one body and all of these unifying things which brings us back to the point that the theme of Ephesians is unity. This may have been another divided church who needed the understanding of being one body and bearing with one another in love.
As I mentioned, they seem to have been holding on to the old man a bit too tightly. They were still lying, arguing, fighting, stealing, and speaking evil of one another. They had their own problems. I should say, as we go on through chapter 5 (we will not do this), but it seems they also needed some help in marriage and family matters; in employee-employer, or slave and master relationships as well. Because this is what he focuses on in chapter 5 and the first part of chapter 6: The Ephesians were not perfect by any means.
Let us go to Revelation the second chapter, where Jesus writes them a letter at the end of the 1st century.
Revelation 2:1-6 “To the angel of the church of Ephesus write, ‘These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.’ ”
From what He says here they seem to have been pretty good at resisting false apostles and false teachers and false teachings. They seem to have been really good, gung-ho and zealous, in doing the work of God. But in all their busyness, they lost what was most important, their first love, their love for Christ. It looks like, if we are just going to use this as a kind of a measure of them throughout the whole period (and I am not talking in any way of using these letters as attitudes or eras or anything like that. I am just taking it as if Christ wrote it specifically to that church.), they were spending a lot of their energy and time on a lot of external matters. They were good external matters, getting rid of the false apostles and false teachers and doing God's work, laboring for Him, but they were failing or neglecting to take care of the internal spiritually matters.
They were a busy people. They were a working church. They were a church that got things done. They appeared on the outside to have things in hand but Jesus, who sees to the heart, said, you have got a lot of problems inside, especially that big one, where you do not really love Me anymore. Of course, that could mean, putting it together with certain parables that we find in Matthew 25, that they were neglecting their brethren. Remember, Christ says, if you have done it to Me, you have done it to them. Or what you have done to them, you have done it to Me (that is the other way around). If you have done it to them, you have done it to Me.
Let us finish with the Ephesians and go to the Philippians. We have Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians here, let us motor it through here starting with Philippians 2 and this will just give us a hint about what was going on.
Philippians 2:1-5 Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteems others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:2 I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.
What is the problem at Philippi? Paul's epistle has a theme of encouragement. And overall, the Philippians supported him and encouraged him a lot and he is returning the favor. He really seemed to have liked the Philippian church quite a bit. But the church did have a problem and it is centered on these two women it seems; whom he calls out by name as having a prolonged conflict that had not been resolved. These were the two matrons of the church, and they were glaring at each other across the aisle, it seems. The church perhaps had formed sides—one behind Euodia and the other behind Syntyche—and they were another divided church.
That is why Paul talks about being of one mind so much, and having love for one another and being of one accord. So that was their problem: they needed unity of mind. They needed the lowliness and humility of mind that Christ had left an example for them. They were not acting very Christlike in the way that they were taking sides.
Let us go to Colossians the next epistle.
Colossians 2:8-10 Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead [or the divine nature] bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the Head of all principality and power.
Like those in Galatia and the other churches, the Colossians were struggling with false teaching and philosophy that contradicted the teachings of the apostles. This is different from how it was in Galatia. This was a kind of Jewish Gnostic asceticism that they were dealing with in Colossae that was drawing them away from Christ and back to again demons and idolatry. Paul calls it here the basic principles of the world, which is kind of a code for demons. It was also taking them back to carnality and works of the flesh, which he talks about in other places here.
What was happening in Colossae is that the world, with its ideas, was slowly drawing them back, using spirituals sounding arguments that Paul says were really empty deceit. He uses that term there in verse eight and he says that instead of echoing Christ, being what Christ had given them, these empty deceits were merely the traditions of men and teachings of demons. They were having a problem, because the world was too much in their ear and they were too willing to listen.
Let us go to II Thessalonians: To me the Thessalonians are an interesting group. Some of you probably would fit in there, not maybe you people in this room but others
II Thessalonians 2:1-3 Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition.
The Thessalonians were the prophecy buffs and conspiracy theorists of the ancient world. They were so concerned about the end times, so concerned that the Day of the Lord had already come and gone. They were concerned that the resurrection had passed, and they had missed it. They were concerned that they were destined to wrath rather than to salvation, because they had missed all of these things. They were counting the days; they were listening to the news; they were going to their websites; they were finding all kinds of things, and they had come out wrong in their answers. They were troubled, and Paul had to write to them and tell them, look, none of these things have happened; there is a certain order of these things! You well know as he goes through and explains these various things. He had to even tell them in I Thessalonians 4, that the dead in the Lord our okay, they will be fine. They are just resting in their graves until the resurrection, and then we will all meet them in the air and be with Christ at the last trump.
They were on edge about prophecy; they were concerned that they were missing it because they had made all their calculations and come out wrong. Evidently, with their fears about all of this prophecy stuff they were keeping everybody at a high level of anticipation about these things happening. It was riling up the entire congregation, so he had to admonish them to be at peace among themselves. Let us look at this in I Thessalonians 5.
I Thessalonians 5:12-15 And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves. Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all. See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all.
Think of these in terms of being kind of strung out on prophecy.
I Thessalonians 5:16-22 Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.
He was saying that their focus on prophecy was getting the congregation all unsettled; they needed to do these things to settle them down. It is fine to look at prophecies, he says there in verse 20; do not despise them, but test all things and hold fast to the good things. Do not let what you think is happening in terms of prophecy get you going toward the twigs, in other words; and get you away from the trunk of the tree.
Let us go to Revelation 3 to close this. We are going to read from the letter to the church of the Laodiceans: I want you to notice what he says here:
Revelation 3:21-22 “To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Here in the book of Revelation our Savior tells us, He tells the reader, seven times—it is in every one of these seven letters—that we are to hear what God has inspired to be written about to the churches. He probably means the seven churches in Revelation but we can learn from the other ones that we went over as well: Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and Thessalonica. We can learn from them too.
We saw a lot of warnings in those epistles and there were more than I did not go over. We saw that Paul was telling them to be careful. Be careful of false teachers and false teachings; be careful about being too gullible; be careful of going back to carnality or from being carnal. Be careful about being drawn into thinking that works will save us. Be careful about becoming so involved in the physical things than the more important spiritual things. Be careful of relationship problems between members causing division in the church. Be careful of getting too involved in prophecy and in time speculation. Be careful.
Remember what is said to the churches? Because the more things change, it seems the more they stay the same. So, he who has an ear, let him hear!