Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Letter to the Satisfied Church, Part I

There is little that could be seen as positive in Jesus' message to the church at Laodicea. The indifference he saw there, ultimately toward himself, was a deal breaker. Really, the only positive note sounded was that the litany of rebuke directed at the Laodicean Christians was motivated by love. They were not being written off, but were being warned about what could happen if they did not repent.

The indifference of the Laodicean Christians is alluded to metaphorically in terms of the [water] temperature their deeds betrayed. Significant, perhaps, in directing this criticism at the Laodiceans in particular, was the well known sources of hot (Heiropolis/Pamukkale) and cold (Colossae/Honaz) water a short distance to the north and southeast of the city. Whereas there were good, obvious uses for hot or cold water, tepid water was all but useless, as the Laodiceans could well attest. In calling these Christians lukewarm, Jesus was indicting their uselessness which resulted from their indifference toward him.

How did they get to be in such a careless state? The reason implied in the message was that their satisfaction with earthly wealth had blinded them to their spiritual poverty. Laodicea had experienced a devasting earthquake in 60 C.E. and was knocked virtually flat. The wealth of the city was such that its inhabitants rebuilt it without government assistance, recovered relatively quickly and continued their prosperous ways afterward.

It seems the Laodicean church could have been interpreting that history as a sign that they were blessed by God and just fine in his sight. They were mistaken. They did not remember that we cannot serve God and mammon, for if we serve the latter we'll end up despising the former, and be useless to him. As Jesus saw it, they actually wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.

Jesus counsels them to come to him and engage with him (i.e. "buy from him") rather than to be satisfied with the bounty they got by their own devices--a rather ironic command considering he just said they were wretched and poor. The gold, garments and salve they were able to procure pursuing their own worldly agenda was actually not a sign of blessing but merely the wallpaper over the pits and cracks of their profound need. Though tangible, the earthy is no substitute for the spiritual, and when one has that aright, there is no need for wallpaper.

I can't help but see, in this letter, a dire warning to the Western Church, first as it existed in Europe and now as it does in America. That church, in large measure, discovered a marketability in the Gospel and has been producing a wealth-generating, product-oriented salve for the guilty consumer for much of its history. Whether depending on a few rituals (e.g. mass, baptism, confession) or a few works (e.g. church attendance, tithing) or just grace, this church sells the convenience of a guilt suppressing palliative, without the necessity of taking up the cross and walking with Christ.

If salt has lost its saltiness it's good for nothing; if living water is not different from the world around it (for instance, in temperature), even it is useless. If those of the Laodicean ilk, useless to Christ, indifferent and thereby in peril, can but open their eyes and remember that they are nothing, and have nothing without Christ, their recovery begins. The world and its riches offer nothing of true value to any of us that we should find it satisfying. Jesus has all we need, and all that is worthy, and he's willing to give that to us if we'll come to him.

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Letter to the Rapture-Ready Church, Part II

That the message to the church in Philadelphia has special import and reference to end-times I don't think can be fruitfully denied. What context, other than the end-times, is there for the all-inclusive, global trial mentioned? It is very difficult to find a context historically which could have justifiably had this description applied to it. Though the nature of the referenced global trial is not specified, it is said that it is tempting and targeted which, in light of other things mentioned, does help place it.

The words used to convey the notion of global testing (tou peirasmou [the testing] and peirasai [to test]) are somewhat ambivalent in meaning. They can refer to temptation (as in an enticement), or to trial (as in an assaying pressure), or to both at the same time. The use of the definite article (tou) is supportive in understanding this phrase as referring to a specific testing or temptation, rather than to testing or temptation in general; i.e. the trial. What is in mind in this message, it seems to me, is a singular kind of testing, the scope and nature of which is such that it will leave no doubt that it is occurring when it does occur.

The test will come upon all the inhabited earth to try those that dwell there. Whereas it is possible to see this as an idiomatic reference to the Roman Empire, I see this more along the lines of a Hebraism (e.g. Exodus 8:21) or just straightforwardly referring to the entire world (as does the word's usage in Acts 17:31 or Hebrews 1:6). The inclusivity of the statement means that anyone on earth at that time will experience the trial, at least in some fashion. One would have to not be living on earth to be kept [out] from such a trial, which I think is the best reading of the promise contained: "I also will keep you from the hour of testing..."

Whereas Chapter 7 of the Apocalypse (and Chapter 12 too) does demonstrate that it is possible to live through the trial on earth protected by God in the midst of it, it also reveals (as does Chapter 12) that for the largest proportion of believers, escape means removal from the scene. 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 describes the escape in as great a detail as we have in all of scripture. Taken together the picture clarifies. A trial, so significant and singular in nature as to be unmistakable, will come upon the entire earth, but those believers, Philadelphian in character, will be kept from that trial by God taking them out from the earth. Rapture!

It is clear to me that the Church in Philadelphia is ultimately a symbol for the church extant and ready when the end comes with its trial of trials. Since it is my belief that the churches which were sent these messages are contemporaneous and representative of different types of the whole, all the churches will be there at the end. However, it is to the church in Philadelphia--the ready church--that promise rather than warning is issued. Those that embrace the promise of removal and overcome get to be with God always, like pillars in his Temple.