Monday, April 2, 2018

Reviving Biblical Church History? The Importance of Revelation 2-3

If chapters 14 and 16 in the Gospel of John did not exist or were ignored, it would handicap an understanding of the mystery of the inter-workings of the Trinity. Likewise, if Revelation chapters 2 and 3 did not exist or were ignored, the mystery of the history of the churches of Christ would scarcely be understood.
Five interesting facts emerge from a look at the seven churches in Revelation 2-3:
  1. All seven churches, no matter how good or bad their doctrine or practices, were still called churches;
  2. All seven churches had different names, primarily based on their regions, but not necessarily by the political powers of those regions—as some were severely persecuted;
  3. No one church appears to be given authority over all the others, even though Ephesus was the leading urban center among those listed;
  4. All seven churches co-existed simultaneously as true independently identified churches—not merely as churches existing only in the mind of John—hence for the original readers of Revelation they did not exist in a chronological conception, but simultaneously; and
  5. All seven churches had distinctive doctrinal and practical orientations.

From these points it appears that Revelation 2-3 affirms a type of pluricity or denominationalism.
However, there exists a very long history of a single church dominating most of Western Christianity. Every branch of the Catholic tree is bent on proving and maintaining that it is the only legitimate and true church on earth. Only she has the right to decide who is and who is not to be called “church.”[1] The Western Church has a very long history in which every possible biblical proposition has been stretched to validate the “one world church” model. Meanwhile, every biblical passage that would negate this preconceived “one world church” notion has been misapplied, shunned, or dismissed as irrelevant to properly understand church history. Revelation 2-3 seems to fall into this latter category.
Therefore, in this context, it is understandable that a straw man argument would be constantly echoed for the interpretation of Revelation 2-3. Once this view is taught, then it is immediately discredited, proving Revelation 2-3 to be totally irrelevant, unhelpful, and unuseful for biblically understanding church history. Thus by disproving a “chronological approach” to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, the conclusion is formulated that Revelation 2-3 has no place in understanding church history. “Nothing to see here. Let’s keep moving!” This straw man argument is nothing more than the fallacy of irrelevant proof. Disproving the “chronological approach” does not at all negate its usefulness to an understanding of church history.
Years ago, the “chronological approach” was soundly refuted by Reformed theologian Pierre Jurieu—in 1687! Jurieu juxtaposed the views of three precedent commentators on Revelation 2-3, showing their inconsistencies and contradictions in their chronological interlinking of this list of churches:
  • Patrick Forbes (1564-1635), a Scottish Presbyterian;
  • Cocceius (1603-1669), a Dutch Covenant Theologian;
  • Henry More (1614-1687), A Jesuit Priest.[2]

Jurieu, in my estimation, successfully refuted the “chronological approach.” He explained that this interpretive scheme necessitates an arbitrary application of the teachings of Revelation 2-3.[3] Jurieu helped Western readers break free from the monolithic “one world church” interpretation of Revelation 2-3. Accordingly, the “one world church” approach suffers from the presupposition that only one church existed at any one time in the history of the churches. Therefore, each of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 to be placed in an end-to-end successive pattern.

Some difficulties of a “one world church” presupposition are:
  • John used the plural “churches” eight times in Revelation 2-3 and a total of eleven times in the Book of Revelation, seeming to imply multiplicity rather than an ever-morphing unicity model;
  • The end-to-end model is fraught with inconsistencies when any one church from Revelation 2-3 is superimposed on any era of church history, as was clearly proven by Jurieu;
  • To this very day many ancient autocephalous churches continue to exist (e.g. Antiochene Orthodox Christian Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Greek Orthodox Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, and Syriac Church of St. Thomas in Indiato name a few), each having its own historical identity and church history.

Philip Jenkins in his book, The Lost History of Christianity, exemplifies a new historiography in which other non-Western church groups are included.[4]
  • At any given period of time in any society where the church is planted varieties of churches immediately spring forth, in fulfillment to the prophecy of Jesus in Matthew 13:24-25 and following the example displayed within the church in Corinth in 1 Cor 1:11.

So, it is important for the interpreter of Revelation 2-3 to break free from this long-ingrained “one world church” model.
However, breaking free from a chronological interpretation is only the beginning of a proper understanding of this important passage. A cognitive reset is needed to apply the lessons of Revelation 2-3 to the history of the churches of Christ over these past 2,000 years.

Here are several radical learning points that can be made from a reoriented understanding of Revelation 2-3:
  • Though perhaps alluded to, Rome was not listed as one of the churches in Revelation 2-3.
  • No state-church model seems represented among the seven churches of Revelation 2-3, except perhaps Thyatira—because of John’s use of Jezebel’s name.

Queen Jezebel, the daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidon (1 Kings 16:31), was notorious for her massacre of the prophets of God (1 Kings 18:4) and for her challenge to the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:2). Further, Jesus in His letter to Thyatira accused that Jezebel of seducing His servants “to commit acts of sexual immorality and to eat things sacrificed to idols” (Rev 2:20). If the Apostle John’s use of Jezebel is considered an affirmation of the state-church model, then there exists a systemic problem with the state-church model from its inception.
The original readers from among the seven churches could not have conceived of a state-church model. Those in the church in Smyrna were to be thrown in prison (Rev 2:10). The ruling authority in Pergamum seems to be Satan, since John wrote, “where Satan’s throne is” (Rev 2:13). The church in Philadelphia was to enter “an hour of trial” (Rev 3:10), which is not consistent with a state-church model. The first readers of Revelation could not conceive of a state-church model, since their political system was that of the antagonistic grip of Roman rule.
  • John’s mysterious use of the Nicolaitans points to a diversity among these churches. The "deeds of the Nicolaitans" were hated by the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:6). But those who taught the "doctrine of the Nicolaitans" were welcomed by the church in Thyatira (Rev 2:15).

Rather than a ever-morphing unicity, Revelation 2-3 prefigures a simultaneous multiplicity of denominations. 
This same multiplicity found in the 16 different churches of the Medieval Cathars of Southern France (circa 1250).[5] This same plurality of churches currently exists in the United States due to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
  • John’s sprinkled use of the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9; 3:9), the dwelling of Satan (Rev 2:13), and the “depths of Satan” (Rev 2:24), seem to indicate rival doctrinal approaches that led to persecution of the true followers of Christ.
  • If a chiasm is applied to the interpretation of the seven churches in Revelation, then Thyatira stands out as being in the middle of the chiasm.

The church of Thyatira is central in the chiasm with Pergamum and Sardis on each side. These middle three churches seem to prefigure a pattern of doctrinal drift. A similar pattern of apostasy is quite noticeable in the history of United Stated denominationalism!
This brief survey exemplifies the potential contributions of Revelation 2-3 to a proper understanding of the history of the churches. These epistles from Jesus to the seven churches in Asia Minor incorporate truths that can help the student of the Bible understand the mysteries of church history. Just like John 14, 16 are important chapters giving insight into the mysteries of the Trinity, so it is with Revelation 2-3 for understanding church history. Is it not time to reintroduce biblical primacy in the study of church history?

[1]On the other hand, the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church. …
For those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, “salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit”; it has a relationship with the Church, which “according to the plan of the Father, has her origin in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church” [Rome, 16 June 2000; 6 Aug 2000], §17 and 20).
[2]Pierre Jurieu, The Accomplishment of the Scriptures (Rotterdam & London, 1687), 1:7-18.
[3]By the way, in researching the writings of two mid-16th Century Reformation historians, Johannes Sleidan and Jean de Haineault, I did not find any evidence of a chronological approach to interpreting Revelation 2-3. Nor was the chronological approach found in the writings of mid-16th Century Geneva publisher Jean Crespin.
[4]Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died (New York: Harper One, 2008).
[5]“Behold the Cathar Churches. All the Churches of the Cathars are sixteen. Please do not reproach me, reader, for calling them Churches, but reproach them, for this is what they call them. the Church of the Albanists or of Desenzano; the Church of Concorrezo; the Church of Bagnolais or of Bagnolo; the Church of Vincence or of la Marche; the Florentine Church; the Church of Val de Spolète; the Church of France; the Toulouse Church; the Carcassone Church; the Albigensian Church; the Church of Slavonia; the Church of the Latins of Constantinople; the Church of the Greeks [ibidem]; the Philadelphia Church in Romania; the Church of Bulgaria; the Church of Dragovisia. And they all have their origin in the last two” (Jean Duvernoy, “Frère Raynier de l’Ordre des Frères Prêcheurs, Des Cathares et des Pauvres de Lyons” [circa 1250]; from [Online]; accessed: 8 Sept 2004; Internet; translation mine).

Saturday, March 3, 2018

On the Very Words of the Bible: Experiencing God's Holy Presence in the Midst of Conversation!

In the past several weeks of evangelism we have encountered the special presence of God entering evangelism conversations when the Bible has been opened. These past two Thursdays I have partnered in initiative evangelism with a Midwestern student named D. J.
On both Thursdays something similar happened. I engaged a person in a gospel conversation. Typical questions came off my tongue:
  • “Have you heard about Jesus?”
  • “What do you think of Jesus?”
  • “Has there been a time in your life when you have asked Jesus to forgive you of your sins?”
  • “Could you tell me about it?”
  • “Has the Lord given you a local church that you attend?”

Moving from these questions conversations either proceeded toward Jesus and the gospel or came to an end. My goal is threefold:
  1. To understand if the person has a genuine relationship with Christ.
  2. To seek out if the person has a hearing of faith as it relates to the Word of God.
  3. To discern the person’s readiness for repentance and faith.

Something noteworthy happened these past two weeks. When I was at the point of concluding a conversation that was becoming unfruitful, D. J. asked a question:
  • “Can I show you something in the Bible?”

In both cases the individual said, “Yes!” Thereupon, D. J. opened his Bible and showed them a verse that he had discerned would be helpful for the person to hear in light of the former conversation. And in both cases, it happened—God came down on the conversation!
It was as if God Himself had stepped down onto the street beside us.
The focus shifted from my words, from the gospel tract, and from any of my conversational attempts, to the words in the Bible itself. In both cases conviction came down upon the listeners. They suddenly became attentive and submissive to the words of God’s Word. It was beautiful to see!
We experienced this with Wilma two Thursdays ago. She had indicated that she had a relationship with Christ, but the conversation was going nowhere. D. J., however, showed her 1 Corinthians 6:19-20:
“Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.
The Holy Spirit came down and anointed those words, and we felt the presence of God. Wilma received D. J.’s admonition from God’s Word and he prayed for her.
We met A J. this past Thursday. Seeing that we were Christians, A. J. was aggressively asking us for money. D. J. opened his Bible to James 2 and read:
“But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” James 2:18-19.
After D. J. read verse 18, A. J. said, “That’s what I’m talking about!” But D. J. kept reading. Verse 19 contained the warning. D. J. showed him that the important thing was not just believing, but living out that belief. A. J. was immediately humbled by the words of the Word of God. He said, “Now that’s true! I know that’s true!” Apparently, God revealed to A. J. that he was not living out the faith that he claimed. His immediate humility was remarkable. We prayed for him on the street outside the liquor store.
In both cases, in the hallway of an apartment building and outside a liquor store, God’s presence came down. When the Bible was opened and the words of God were read, His presence was definitely felt.

“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Billy Graham's Legacy (1918-2018)

As a child I remember seeing the photos of Billy Graham on the covers of Décision, the French edition of Decision Magazine in our living room. Later my father joined the Board of Trustees of the Billy Graham Association, a position he held until his death in 2009. In the 1980s Billy Graham would call our home once or twice a year to ask my father for advice on pertinent issues.
From 1997 to 2001 I researched and wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Billy Graham’s theology of evangelism. It was during these times of gathering books, articles, and sermons that I began to grasp the worldwide impact of this man. It is amazing to consider how God could use the determination, calling, and giftedness of one man who preached his first revival in Palatka, Florida in 1937.
It is hard to capture the overall impact of Billy Graham. Likely more people heard the biblical gospel emitted by his vocal cords than any other living human. Dr. Graham was aggressive in using the latest communicative technology to preach the gospel. It is very likely that the verbal spiritual impact of Graham may only be exceeded by the words on the pages of the millions of Bibles printed by the many Bible societies of the world.
When considering the legacy of Billy Graham, five highlights come to mind.
  • Moral Uprightness

In 1937, it is said that the Graham team gathered at the peach farm of Cliff Barrow’s father. Graham asked them to consider all the ways that evangelists had fallen in the past. They came up with a list of four pitfalls:
  1. Sexual Immorality
  2. Exaggerating Numbers
  3. Speaking Negatively of the Lord’s Anointed
  4. Financial Indiscretion

As Graham’s ministry is considered from the hindsight of 80 years, God protected this man and his evangelism team from any of these pitfalls. What an example and legacy to God’s faithfulness!
  • Gospel Focus

Graham’s ministry did not drift from a focus on the ministry of the gospel. When some of his contemporaries drifted from a biblical priority, Graham did not. Others in his early entourage shifted into social ministry. Not Graham. He continued preaching a biblical gospel far into his 80 years of evangelism ministry.
  • Evangelistic Priority

Hand-in-hand with an emphasis on a ministry of the gospel is the evangelistic priority of Billy Graham. His priority remained the spiritual needs of those to whom he was called. While his organization began to support humanitarian ministry after 1975, the greater majority of the funding sent to the Billy Graham Association supported spiritual ministry.
  • Cooperative Agenda

Cooperation between Bible-believing Christians became an enthusiastic focus of Graham crusades. His love for God’s people in various denominations provides an ongoing legacy that Graham championed. While ecumenism may be considered a concern in Graham’s ministry, Graham wanted to focus on love over doctrinal particularities.
  • Biblical Basis

Perhaps the most important legacy of Graham was the often repeated statement in his preaching, “The Bible says…” Beginning from his early ministry, Graham would punctuate his sermons with citations of the Bible. “The Word of God says…” “The Bible says…” No one who heard Graham could be unsure that his source of authority and his source of power in preaching was the Bible.
Perhaps this last legacy is his greatest legacy. Graham preached with an undaunted commitment to the authority and power of the Bible. As we mourn the passing of Billy Graham today, may there be many who follow his example of an unashamed commitment to the Word of God.