The church has not always recognized the spiritual gifts of women. But God has fashioned them to be key players in His kingdom.
Let’s imagine for a moment what the world would be like without women. All the wonderful traits women are capable of providing with exuberance—gentleness, nurture, care, refined beauty—would be missing.
Men possess these same qualities but in smaller supply; women, on the other hand, overflow with them. Without women the world would look like an army base where everything’s painted white or gray and designed for efficiency at the expense of beauty. An awful sense of incompleteness would permeate the planet.
Women have many qualities unique to their gender, one of the grandest being the ability to host life. This privilege to shelter another life at such an intimate level has been granted exclusively to Eve and her daughters.
Women can nurture their newborns through the most intimate interaction between a female adult and a child: breastfeeding. The image of a baby being nursed by a loving mother is a picture of total dependency, perfect care and the most sublime transfer of nurture from one being to another.
Women are also the ones who predominantly shape the character of their children during their crucial early years. They plant tender gestures in the inner layer of a child’s malleable soul and watch as, like the seeds in a flowerbed, the spiritual seeds sprout, spreading beauty over the adult landscape in the form of noble deeds.
When were the seeds planted? During the nurturing years when a child spends most of his time with a woman: his mother!
Jesus’ First Teacher
It was a woman, young Mary, who first heard beating within her the heart of God Incarnate when she was pregnant with Jesus. It was her hands that first touched Jesus’ body and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes.
Think for a moment what this reflects: God Almighty, Creator and Preserver of the universe, took the form of a baby and became dependent on the care of one of His creatures. When God experienced human flesh, with all its limitations, who was there to meet His needs? A woman.
Jesus’ mother, Mary, was His first teacher and also later His first disciple. No other human knew Jesus as intimately as Mary did.
Ponder for a moment the scene at Calvary. While most of Jesus’ frightened disciples hid at a distance, Mary and a group of faithful women gathered at the foot of the cross. Despite the pain and suffering Jesus endured, His last earthly concern was for a woman—His mother.
He could not forget that she had taken care of Him when His earthly life began. And now, as His life was about to end, Jesus lovingly turned her over to the care of His beloved disciple (see John 19:26-27).
Women’s Hall of Fame
Throughout the Bible are inspiring testimonies of other brave and brilliant women who were not mere privates in God’s army but key players who were given pivotal assignments at strategic points and in crucial times.
Moses’ mother challenged the pharaoh’s genocidal decree when she preserved the life of the one who would eventually lead millions of Hebrews to freedom (see Ex. 2).
Rahab held the keys to the taking of Jericho. By turning them in the right direction she assured the fall of the fortress city (see Josh. 2).
Hannah cried out to God for Samuel to be born, and he went on to become the greatest prophet and judge Israel ever knew (see 1 Sam. 1).
Deborah was an illustrious judge and a proven prophetess who delivered Israel from the mighty chariots of Jabin, the oppressing king of Canaan. Another woman, Jael, helped to bring total destruction to Jabin and his leading general, Sisera (see Judges 4-5).
Esther courageously risked her life to save her nation, God’s people, when they were in danger of being exterminated.
Sarah was called “mother of nations” by God Himself (see Gen. 17:16) and is listed among the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11.
Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, instructed and guided Apollos, who had been preaching less-than-perfect theology (see Acts 18: 24-26). The fact that in most tranlations, Priscilla is listed first in this passage signifies the prominence of her role.
On the shoulders of these women—and countless more down through the ages—rested the fate of cities, tribes and nations.
Pillars of the Early Church
One of the main reasons Christianity spread so rapidly in the early years is because its message restored honor and self-worth to half the world’s population: women. Romans had such a low view of women that some men engaged in sex with other men. Jewish rabbis completely silenced women inside the synagogue, and pagans used them as temple prostitutes.
However, early church leaders dignified women by teaching that in Christ “there is neither male nor female” and we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, NKJV). Women were also given positions of honor and leadership.
Priscilla, for instance, was part of the team that founded the church in Ephesus—site of the greatest power encounter recorded in the book of Acts. She was there, inside the crux of God’s power, when God dethroned Artemis and brought down the demonic socioeconomic structure that had controlled Ephesus.
Throughout the epistles women are unapologetically exalted as pillars of the faith. Paul identified two women as the headwaters of Timothy’s faith: his mother and his grandmother (see 2 Tim. 1:5). In Romans, a letter intended for wide circulation and public reading, Paul praised several women as people of faith and proven ministry (see Rom. 16:1-15).
The first European convert was a woman, Lydia, and hers was the first household to be baptized (see Acts 16:14-15). She was very assertive in her interaction with the apostles: “She begged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.’ So she persuaded us” (v. 15).
Three centuries later, the driving force behind Constantine’s conversion and the subsequent Christianization of the Roman Empire was another woman, Helena, the emperor’s mother.
Women have an extraordinary sensitivity to spiritual things. I am not saying that they are more godly than men, but I believe they are definitely more spiritual. This is why Jesus was able to reveal two of the most powerful truths in the gospels to women.
He told Martha that He is the resurrection and the life (see John 11:25-27). To the Samaritan woman Jesus explained that He is the living water (see John 4:7-15). These women were in a state of confusion when Jesus found them, but both were able to hear, understand and believe these profound truths.
If you will indulge me for a moment, I am about to be quite cliché by writing about giving thanks in the week prior to Thanksgiving. However, if you’ll hang with me, I hope to give us a take on giving thanks that doesn’t necessarily conjure images of Puritans.
As my children grow older, it is fun to think back with them to the funny, insightful, innocent things that they said as small children. When it comes to thanks, I am always reminded of a prayer that our little man offered when he was still parading around in underwear and a Mickey Mouse blanket-turned-cape as “Fooper Jack.”
It is our bedtime habit of saying prayers together and, as is often the case during those days before they learn “prayer-ese,” their conversations with God are brilliantly honest and innocent. One particular evening Jack was on a roll. He had already paraded through his gratitude for a thankfully still-small circle of every person with whom he currently had relations – mom, dad, sisters, extended family, friends, “that kid next door,” and several dearly loved stuffed animals.
Next on his list was thanks for several food groups. With culinary acumen beyond his years, he made his way through each of the day’s meals. When he came to dinner, he offered up this beautiful nugget: “And thank you for the vegetables… even though I don’t like tomatoes very much…” As I stifled a laugh that I tried to pass off as the spiritual grunt of agreement, the candor of his honesty led to a silent prayer on my behalf that God would preserve his infantile innocence. I asked our Father to please nurture Jack’s childlike faith to childlike maturity. I petitioned for a faith in my son that would grow from thanking God for under-appreciated parts of the food pyramid to a one that trusts Him enough to believe that the “all things” which work together for good are not always things we like.
Too often in my own life the things for which I give thanks are the things I perceive as blessings. Things that “went well” or moments of crisis averted. However, as I realize this, I am reminded of an admonition from the apostle Paul as he writes to the church in Ephesus, “…giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:20). And I don’t believe that Paul is speaking idealistically or metaphorically. I believe he is calling the church to believe in the sovereign providence of their God who loves them more than they can comprehend. This trust is one that results in true gratitude in every circumstance that God is using all things to bring the fruit of His Spirit to harvest in your life.
We might call this “hard thanksgiving.” How do we express thanks in hard circumstances? Not simply accepting them, but rather being thankful for them? When my prayers seem to go unanswered, how do I give thanks? When I face a challenge from which I can see no way out, how am I to be grateful? I was challenged recently be a dear friend and prayer partner to seek to present my requests to God in the form of thanks. “Father, thank you that financial difficulty serves to remind me that YOU are my provider” … “Father, thank you that you are my identity rather than my effectiveness” … “Thank you, Lord, that Jesus is my complete righteousness and not my works or lack thereof” … “Father, thank you for difficult people who you are using to bring to bear the fruit of the Spirit in my life.” This is what it looks like to truly give thanks. This is gratitude for tomatoes…
My son had tomatoes on his plate. This was not an oversight by his parents nor was it a punishment. He may not have been a fan of the “fruit,” but his parents who loved him knew that they would be of more benefit to him than he realized. If you are in Christ, you are a child of the Almighty Creator of all things. He loves you with a love that eclipses the greatest love an earthly parent could ever muster. The things on our plate – both the enjoyable and the not-so-enjoyable – are there for a purpose. As you think during this season of the many blessings for which you are thankful, let me encourage you to take time to think on the challenges, disappointments and difficulties as well – and express your gratitude.
Find out how to recognize and defeat the seven demons that attack the church.
We have explored many of the ways Satan organizes the demonic forces. We have also exposed many of the demonic strategies against individual believers. When we begin to look at the seven churches described in the Book of Revelation, we discover specific demonic strongholds that can be found at church. Let’s take a look at these spirits.
Spirit of Religion (Revelation 2:4–5, 7)
The church at Ephesus had “left their first love” (Rev. 2:4). They were doctrinally sound and had everything in order but they had lost their passion for God. When you turn to Acts 19 to look at “first works” and “first love” you discover an astounding truth.
At the birth of the Ephesian church they were baptizing in water, laying hands on the people for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, magnifying God in tongues, casting out demons, healing with prayer cloths, and being evicted from the old order.
The church at Ephesus had every element of church life in order and they were a hard working congregation. Yet the fire, the passion, the love had gone out of it. We see now that religion had taken over with its dull duty and tired traditionalism. The power of God was missing; demons were no longer leaving, tongues were absent, miracles were simply a memory. A loveless routine of religious works had replaced the power and passion of the Holy Spirit.
Who can deny the present reality of this deadening demon of religion? Many churches like Samson have been shorn of their power by the Delilah’s of religion! Now blind to spiritual things, we grind out our religious activities and traditions with no transforming power. This demon must be exposed and expelled.
Spirit of Intimidation (Revelation 2:10–11)
The church at Smyrna endured persecution, and many members suffered martyrdom. With this threat, Satan tries to strike fear in the hearts of believers by sending intimidation to frighten us away from faithfulness to God and His Word. Remember Simon Peter warming himself by the enemy’s fire on the night of Jesus’ arrest? This faithful disciple was intimidated by his surroundings and the questioning voice of a little servant girl. Today the church is silent and cowed down before the world and its governments. This demon must be cast down!
Spirit of Compromise (Revelation 2:12, 14–17)
Pergamos was the capital city of the province of Asia mentioned in Revelation as one of the seven churches of Asia. It was a celebrated city of Mysia in the Caicus valley, 15 miles from the Aegean Sea about 60 miles north of Smyrna. The river Selinus flowed through it and the river Caicus ran just south of it. This city was rich in historical and literary heritage with a library which boasted well over 200,000 volumes, topped only by the library in Alexandria.
The city had a “pet” god in Asklepion, an idol symbolized by a snake who called himself a savior. They believed that their god incarnated into the area snakes, so serpents were allowed to slither freely around the temple. Those who desired healing spent the night in the darkness of the temple, hoping a snake would crawl over them. The city was an outpost to Greek civilization and was home to the temples of many other deities.
Can you see the parallels of the secular plight in America and its churches? Most churches operate in a community or environment that is controlled by Satan rather than God. What can a church do when ministry becomes difficult? Can we allow the snakes of secular humanism to slither through our congregations? Compromise is not the answer. We cannot become comfortable with the sin around us!
The church of Jesus must take active steps to stand strong in our lost and dying world!
We must recognize the conflict. Jesus pointed out that the city was the church’s dwelling place or permanent residence. To flee was not an option. Instead, He advised them to settle into service and draw the battle lines. Paul recognized the need for battle-readiness when he penned Ephesians 6. The armor of God is needed in the middle of war. Most of all, the church must go forward under the name and banner of Jesus, never operating in their own strength, for in the flesh the enemy could find weakness.
We must repent of compromise. The church at Pergamos had some weaknesses to be dealt with. There were doctrinal problems along with problems with some of their deacons and leadership. One in particular is mentioned, Nicholas, who began teaching heresy, and leading others into sin. How sad when a leader goes bad and quits truly serving the Lord! Often times they lead others astray and take others with them. Yet another conflict in the Pergamos church was a discipline problem. They tolerated the mess they were in by overlooking the sin in their own camp. Jesus called them to repentance. Another problem that arose was the spirit of Balaam. To give you some history of this, Balak, the pagan king, literally bought the prophet Balaam’s ministry. Balak eventually sent women to seduce the men of Israel, thus bringing judgment upon them. It was Balaam that sold out the people of God. In keeping the spirit of Balaam, too often today, money has become the goal and prize of many in the church. Popular preaching has replaced prophetic preaching. Image has replaced anointing and the church is reduced to no more than a place where pop psychology tickles the ears of its parishioners on Sundays. The image-makers and the politically correct have dulled the sword of the churches and its men of God.
We must rely on Christ. The Pergamos church needed to rely on their Savior, who provided the weapon of the sword of the Spirit, His own word. This is the weapon we claim as Christians. The popular “Star Wars” phenomenon has had two generations of children captured in imaginative play with light sabers, defending the galaxy as Jedi Knights! The movies show the young Jedi apprentice was carefully taught to use his weapon, to guard it, to perfect its use. In the same way, we must cling to the Word of God as our weapon—it has a power that is supernatural and effective against the onslaughts of Satan. Our weapons are not carnal (2 Cor. 10:4) but mighty in God, and Satan can be defeated by the power of the Word.
Overcomers are promised gifts. Jesus promised this church that those who didn’t succumb to the sins around them—not eating things offered to idols and partaking in sin—these faithful would eat hidden manna, the blessing of Jesus Himself. They are promised the presence of Jesus in the barren wasteland of the world’s wilderness. He also promised this church that He would set a white stone, promising acquittal, acceptance, and acclaim. The new name upon this stone was Jesus!
Spirit of Jezebel (Control) (Revelation 2:18-20, 26)
A war goes on in today’s church, and the battle lines are drawn. One of the most powerful spirits at work in this ongoing battle is the spirit of Jezebel or control. First Kings tells the story of the woman for whom this spirit is named.
Known as the wife of King Ahab and a follower of the false god Baal, the scriptures regarded Ahab’s marriage to this woman as a horrible sin: “He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him” (1 Kings 16:31, niv).
Jezebel ordered a “hit” on the innocent man Naboth so that she could obtain his prize vineyard. Not only was this murder, but it broke God’s land covenant with His people. In addition to her disrespect for ordinary people and their property, she hated the prophets of God. Scripture says, “While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.” (1 Kings 18:4, NIV)
Later, Jezebel pursued the prophet Elijah following the great contest where God sent fire from heaven and defeated the prophets of Baal. Her relentless pursuit drove the prophet into depression and suicidal thoughts.
Jezebel’s character was wicked, controlling, sexually immoral, murderous, and demonic! It is astounding that the same strong spirit was still operating in Revelation 2:20 and still operates in today’s church. In every congregation we find those who want to control, manipulate, and subvert the men and women of God.
Recognizing the spirit
This spirit is basically the spirit of domination or an unwillingness to cohabit peacefully. This is not about women or liberation, for this spirit can attach itself to a man or a woman. Many may think that this spirit is identified with sexuality, believing that a woman who looks a certain way is a “Jezebel” in her character. But this is not so. A wolf can easily hide in sheep’s clothing.
When you find a spirit of Jezebel operating, you will also find an “Ahab” nearby, or someone in leadership who is allowing the spirit access and control.
The strategy of Jezebel
The tool this spirit uses is manipulation. In 1 Kings 21, we learn that King Ahab would pout when he did not get his own way. He had seen a vineyard that he greatly desired, but the owner would not give up his precious property, even to the king. As King Ahab lay on his bed sulking, Jezebel assured him she would get him what he wanted. This powerful woman had introduced pagan worship into her kingdom, and now she was not below killing to obtain the things she needed to gain more power.
The seat of Jezebel
Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.
When the spirit of Jezebel begins to manifest in the church, it seeks a high seat in the church or a place of dominance. Usually it will manifest in someone who wants to teach or lead, usually leading them astray! To find that place of leadership, Jezebel must look and act in a spiritual manner.
One of these spirits operated in Moses and Aaron’s day. Numbers 16 tells us, “Now Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; and they rose up before Moses with some of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, representatives of the congregation, men of renown. They gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?’” (Num. 16:1–3).
Korah was operating in the spirit of Jezebel, with Dathan and Abiram operating as his power core, and 250 other princes as a structure under them. Moses took immediate action—he fell on his face before God and prayed. Following his prayer, he confronted the spirit, saying, “Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the work of the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to serve them; and that He has brought you near to Himself, you and all your brethren, the sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking the priesthood also?” (Num. 16:9–10).
Judgment came to this Jezebel spirit—an earthquake came and took the three evil leaders and fire consumed all the rest.
The controlling spirit wiggles into the church, bent on destroying and undermining the very things that we hold dear as believers. Through manipulation, domination, and control, the spirit begins its battle against the body of Christ.
First, this spirit hates the prophets, the true leaders of God. She cannot control them, and when she tries to win their approval and fails, she will stop at nothing to try and kill them.
In addition, the spirit of Jezebel hates the preaching of the Word. She can’t cope with its message. She will try to either reduce the messenger or the message.
The controlling spirit also hates the praise of the church. During times of true, powerful worship, her carnality is exposed. In 1 Kings when the prophet Elijah prayed fire down from heaven against the prophets of Baal and Jezebel’s schemes, praise broke out (1 Kings 18:39). Jezebel had lost, and the praises of God filled the air.
A Jezebel spirit also hates the preeminence of Christ. There is no way to compete against it. The first time “preeminence” is mentioned is in Colossians 1:18: “And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence” (kjv). However, the second time we find the word, a Jezebel spirit is attempting to control a body of believers. “I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not” (3 John 1:9, kjv).
Banish the spirit
If you sense this spirit is at work in your church, it is important to see the enemy as spiritual, not fleshly. Don’t hate the person being controlled by the spirit of Jezebel, recognize that it is a spiritual power—one that God must fight. Let your prayer be, “O our God, will You not judge them? For we have no power against this great multitude that is coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are upon You” (2 Chron. 20:12).
Spirit of Traditionalism (Revelation 3:1–6)
For centuries the church has been the victim of rumors, hostility, and, what we call in this day and age, negative press. Churches often have to survive this hostile environment; however, outward hostility is not the greatest threat to a local church! Very often the greatest danger comes from within!
The Sardis church lived in a favorable environment with a great reputation. However, in Christ’s letter to this church, He ignored their human reputation and told this church they were listed in the obituary!
Environment of death
The city of Sardis was a city of wealth. History tells us that in 550 b.c., King Croesus found gold in the city’s river and issued the first gold coins in history! Even in New Testament times, gold could be found all along its rivers.
In addition to its wealth, the city was known for its paganism. The favored idol was Cybele, and worshippers of this pagan god participated in wild, frenzied worship that included sexual immorality.
Remarkably, the community was at peace, for the inhabitants were comfortable in their self-sufficiency. This peaceful self-sufficiency had also invaded the church in Sardis; it became the peace of death. A peaceful coexistence with the city and its wickedness had settled into the church and all they had left was their reputation.
Evidence of a church’s death
Viewers of our television broadcast often write and ask, “How can I find a good church in my area? How can I tell if a church is alive and healthy?” A dead church has some basic characteristics that are spotted easily.
Ignores the Holy Spirit. When the complete work of God’s Spirit isn’t embraced in a church, that body is already headed for the grave. Jesus told the church at Sardis that they had a spirit of religion and didn’t have the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit will not be managed or controlled by religious tradition or preferences! John 3:8 says, “The wind blows where it wills…so is every one who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
Lack of godly leadership. The “seven stars” mentioned in Revelation 3 stands for the messengers or pastors of the seven churches addressed in the letters. What the church in Sardis needed was a leader who was called by God and served Him whole-heartedly. Too many churches today fail to get God’s man. Several times a month our church offices receive requests from pastor-less churches that have been searching for a replacement. If these churches choose a pastor by his reputation, resume, physical appearance, or even recommendation, they may find later that they’ve made a big mistake. As important as background information is, the fruit issued in a pastor’s life and his walk with the Spirit of God is what should be investigated. The superficial doesn’t matter as much as the supernatural. Hiring solely on superficial facts may result in a short-tenured, flash in the pan, or morally bankrupt leader.
Reputation over reality. Sardis was a busy, working church with a good name—but it had death upon it. They were an organization, but not a living organism. Sadly, they were so caught up in their reputation they didn’t even realize that they had died. One winter night I noticed our house becoming colder and colder, even though I had turned our heat on full power. I called upon our faithful church grounds supervisor to take a look at the gas-heating unit, and he discovered the pilot light had gone out. The blower was blowing, but the fire was out. Going to church is good, if you meet God. Worship is good if it brings on God’s presence. Giving is good if we have first given ourselves. Prayer is good, but “if we regard iniquity in our hearts, the Lord will not hear us.” Form without force is death to a church. It is like a store window containing lots of fluff and finery, but hiding an empty stockroom.
Growth in numbers without growth in people. The letter to Sardis indicated that even Christians who had life in the Sardis church were dying in the cold environment. Churches must offer ministry that encourages its members to grow in the Lord.
Ministry and work incomplete. Beginning a new program or outreach is easy; seeing it to completion is much more difficult! A dead church is a graveyard of partially fulfilled goals and half-baked programs. These skeletons are evidence that they went “partway” with the Lord and then backed up and sat down. A church that goes backward is doomed to death.
Escape from death! To eliminate the spirit of religion from your church, the leadership should gather and repent of religious death. Together they should acknowledge that Jesus’ kingdom is coming, and there will be an accounting for what they accomplish in His name. In almost any dead church, there are a handful of believers who do live in triumph and desire to be alive in God. This team of people should be lifted up and encouraged. Stay with the winning crowd! Finally, rebuke the religious pride that strangles your church. Reject the love of religion and its rules and reputation, and fall in love with Jesus. Determine to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit in all decision-making regarding the church, and let His Word edify, rule, and reign from the pulpit.
Spirit of Inferiority (Revelation 3:7–8, 12)
Many times a pastor will contact me about a speaking engagement at a church, and he will begin by saying almost apologetically, “We are just a small church…” His tone implied a sense of weakness or inability. But there is nothing “little” or “insignificant” in the kingdom of God!
At the other end of the spectrum is the church that thinks they have all the answers, who loves to proclaim their statistics and numbers but are satisfied with mediocre efforts as long as they bring the church notoriety and recognition.
God deals strongly with the church in Revelation 3: “Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name” (Rev. 3:10–12).
Too many churches and individuals use their supposed weakness as an excuse for failing to advance the cause of Christ. Such notions and statements are foreign to the New Testament portrait of the church. I am convinced that such an attitude is not only false and hurtful but also demonic in its origin. There is a stronghold of inferiority, self-pity, and weakness. The enemy deceives those manifesting this spirit by making them think their attitudes are actually meekness and humility. This counterfeit humility is debilitating to the kingdom of God, crippling the advance of the gospel, and it insults the Holy Spirit.
The church at Philadelphia was at risk to be overtaken by such a spirit. If they were ever to become a “pillar” in the kingdom, they would have to overcome the spirit.
The scripture sets forth the church as a victorious company. Matthew 16:18 declares, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” In his great prayer for the church in Ephesians 3:14–21, Paul ends with this benediction, “Now to Him that is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all we ask or think according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages” (Eph. 3:20–21).
It is “in the church” that Jesus looses His divine ability, energy, and glory. The answer to our inferiority is His superiority! It is not in trying harder, but in trusting wholly that His work is accomplished.
The church at Philadelphia had “a little strength” (Rev. 3:8). Greek culture, international commerce, and religious diversity dominated them. The pagan goddess Dionysus was worshiped. This ancient Greek god of wine was credited with inspiring ritual madness and ecstasy. Worship of Dionysus was thought to bring an end to care and worry. The city was also a center of orthodox Jewish worship.
This small church could have surrendered to the pressures around them. Yet they did not! They received the wonderful encouragement in Revelation, and history tells us that for nearly 1400 years, this city stood as a Christian city in the face of Muslim pressure. It was only after centuries of courageous resistance that the city was overthrown by an unholy military alliance of Byzantine and Muslim forces.
How did this church overcome inferiority and have a ministry that would last for 1400 years? They came to know the Lord of Opportunity (Rev. 3:7–8). Obedience always leads to opportunity! God promised this church the “key of David.” With God’s favor and their dependence upon His superiority, nothing could stop this body of believers!
Spirit of Pride (Revelation 3:14–17, 21)
Revelation 3 also issues a charge to the church at Laodicea. This city was a wealthy and prosperous one. So vast was their wealth that when an earthquake destroyed the city, they required no outside help to recover! Tacitus, the Roman historian, recorded, “Laodicea arose from the ruins by the strength of its own resources.”
The city was famous for the dark, black wool they produced and was known as the center for fine wool in the ancient world. Laodicea also boasted a famous medical school, having produced two of the most popular medicines for treatment of eye and ear maladies. In short, this city was pompous and full of pride.
But here in Revelation 3, years have passed and now the church in Laodicea has fallen into a rut of mediocrity. The Lord Jesus Himself renders the verdict on this church. What was His appraisal? This lukewarm church was nauseating Him! What had happened to this church to make it slide into a state of mediocrity?
Sadly, this church reflects the state of many American churches today. Not too cold…not too hot. Not too bad…not too good. Not too faithful…not too unfaithful. The Laodicea church was an ordinary church that had warmth but no fire. If asked about their work, they would say, “We are holding our own.”
Jesus is sickened by the mediocre. He would rather a church be as cold as the Arctic or as hot as the Sahara. In God’s work, there should be no place for “just getting by.”
Elijah recognized this need for commitment when he challenged Israel at the contest of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. He shouted to the congregation, “If Baal be God, serve him, but if the Lord be God, serve Him!” Standing in the middle was not an option.
A complacent church is a disappointment to Jesus! Laodicea had lost the fire of love for Jesus and for lost souls. The altar fires of prayer were in need of rekindling. It was business as usual week after week. They needed to pray!
The great hymn by Gene Bartlett should be the earnest prayer of the church needing a fresh fervency:
O for a passion for souls, dear Lord!
O for a pity that yearns!
O for a love that loves unto death!
O for a fire that burns!
The Laodicean church had tried to become self-sufficient. They boasted of wealth, increase of goods, and that they needed nothing, not even the Lord. They were cursed by their wealth.
When the great Thomas Aquinas visited the Vatican, the Pope escorted him through the vast corridors and vaults adorned with jewels and gold. The Pope commented, “No longer do we say, ‘Silver and gold have I none.” Aquinas replied, “Neither do you say, ‘In the name of Jesus, Rise and walk!’”
A church’s reach must exceed its grasp. An ever-enlarging vision must be forged. The challenges we take should be beyond our resources, so that our reliance and faith remains upon God. Our dreams and our plans should be God-sized.
When God blesses financially, the church should give more to missions, build a needed building, add another staff member, and have the faith to stretch those resources to their limit.
Unfortunately, the Laodicean church did not really see their true condition. God said they were “wretched, poor, blind, naked”—they were pitiful in the sight of God. They were without riches and spiritually blind in God’s eyes. He looked at them and saw them as they really were: spiritually bankrupt.
This church no longer trembled in the presence of a righteous God. There was no remorse recorded for their failures. Jesus warns them by giving three motives to repent: His love, His rebuke, and His chastening rod. These three things could provide the motivation to set this church on the right track.
Jesus was standing and knocking outside the door of this church. At one point, He had been shut out; He was no longer the center of things. The church had no basis for fellowship with other churches because Jesus Christ was the only common ground among the fellowship of churches. Without Him, a church can have a “get together” without really being together in unity! “That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
The presence of Jesus Christ is the ground of all true fellowship, but too many churches have shut Him out.
God’s Promise and Plea
Jesus keeps on knocking, hoping that someone in the church will open the door. When that happens, it sets the stage for revival and fellowship can be restored. A seat at the Lord’s table is promised when we welcome Him at ours. We can share in His glorious reign! So, let us blaze and burn for Him until He comes in the blaze of His glory.
“Because I was confident of this, I wanted to visit you first so that you might benefit twice. I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia, and then to have you send me on my way to Judea. Was I fickle when I intended to do this? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say both ‘Yes, yes,’ and ‘No, no’?” (2 Cor. 1:15-17 TNIV)
I was startled recently to read on a friend’s blog that it was a sermon on 2 Corinthians 1-2 which was part of what convinced him that it was OK to renege on a promise that he had made. Indeed, he was convinced God was guiding him to back out of a commitment he had made to a large group of people that would have wide-reaching effects on them in favor of a new opportunity that would be personally more fulfilling. He had just not had a peace about the previous commitment but now felt completely at peace.
Of course, I don’t know what was said in the sermon that proved influential. Presumably it had something to do with the passage, quoted above, in which Paul justifies changing his travel plans to Corinth. Paul was in Ephesus at the time (1 Cor. 16:8), on the west coast of what we would call Turkey. He initially envisaged traveling across the Aegean Sea by boat to Corinth in the province of Achaia, which formed the southern half of Greece. Then he would head up the northern half of the peninsula, to Macedonia, visit the cities he had evangelized there (like Berea, Philippi and Thessalonica), retrace his steps to the south, back through Corinth, and then by boat across the Mediterranean Sea all the way to Israel. The geography of 2 Corinthians 1:15-17 makes perfect sense if this is what Paul had in mind.
2 Corinthians 1:23-2:4, however, makes it clear that Paul chose to abandon those plans. As he goes on to explain, he did not want to make another painful visit to Corinth. Instead, he wanted to wait until he was assured that they had dealt with a certain individual there who was causing all kinds of problems—possibly the incestuous offender of 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. Now, however, Paul has learned that this man has repented (2 Cor. 2:5-11). Paul is therefore on his way to Corinth, but traveling over land instead, along the northern shore of the Aegean to Macedonia and then making his way down south in Greece to Corinth (2:12-13, 7:5-7).
Apparently, this change of travel plans provoked criticism from someone in Corinth. Paul appears to have been accused of not being trustworthy, like the person who says “yes, yes” to something at one moment and then says “no, no” the next. Paul emphatically denies that this is the case (2 Cor. 1:18-22). All along he had wanted his next visit to Corinth to be one of mutual encouragement and if that meant postponing his trip and altering his itinerary, then so be it. The constancy was not at the level of the timing of the trip or who else Paul would visit en route before or after Corinth, but that he would indeed come again and do so when the Corinthians had mended their ways.
But neither was Paul breaking any promises. Paul says he “wanted” to visit them twice according to a certain itinerary (Gk. eboulomēn—v. 15), not that he ever actually said he would definitely do things this way. The verb appears twice again in this passage, both times in verse 17, translated by the TNIV as “intended” and “did… make plans.” And the reason for Paul’s change of plans had nothing to do with his own personal fulfillment. His concern was entirely for what was in the best interests of the Corinthians.
But what about 2 Corinthians 2:12-13? Paul has now left Ephesus, heading overland to Greece, to meet up with Titus who has been in Corinth and find out if things were better with the church there. Apparently, the two have an agreed-upon travel route, each coming from opposite directions, and they are not sure at what point they will meet up. As he always does as he travels, Paul will also preach the gospel in the communities through which he passes. He does so at Troas, in what we would today call northwestern Turkey. Apparently, there was a good enough response there and perhaps invitations to stay longer than he had originally planned so that Paul can write “that the Lord had opened a door for me.”
But the main purpose of his trip is to meet up with Titus, in hopes of hearing that things are well enough in Corinth for him to continue on to that city. Paul’s lack of peace comes from not encountering Titus and thus from not yet receiving that good news. So he continues on his journey. This is a far cry from making a promise to engage in ministry at one location, subsequently not having a peace about it, and so going elsewhere. It is the exact opposite. The lack of peace comes because Paul’s original and primary commitment has not yet been fulfilled. He must remain faithful to that and not be tempted to go back on it in favor of a new opportunity, however alluring it must have been to stay in Troas to lead more to Christ.
I’m afraid the sermon my friend heard must have exactly inverted Paul’s original meaning. 2 Corinthians 1-2 is all about promise-keeping and in no way justifies promise-breaking because of new, unforeseen opportunities that are more personally appealing.
Call it intuition, call it instinct, but there’s a nagging sense in me that says “church is messy.” To be clear, what I mean by that is simply “untidy,” not perfect, can be disorderly. Even as a young man I was always suspicious of things that looked too tidy, too perfect—too sanitized, too “Stepford Wives.”
Think Corinth, then Ephesus and Sardis, and you know that church is not perfect. That’s the reason young people get turned off by church. Self-righteousness, which projects an unreal piety that covers up mistakes—or worse, pretends to not make any—is nothing more than hypocrisy. Like preachers who call out errors in others, but have secret lives.
Herein lies the importance of discipleship, of life exchange, of being real, of acknowledging that while we are sinners, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is capable of transforming us into saints. Discipleship that speaks of a journey of ever-increasing trust blooms into faith as we encounter Christ’s love each day.
Lives that know reality understand that while things can be messy for now, we’re progressively being transformed as the revelation of His love grows in us. Perfection is not achieved by our works and efforts, but in view of His mercy that causes us to offer our lives as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—that is our reasonable act of worship.
A people and a church, while imperfect, are walking in the joy of their God and that forms the basis of their strength. It’s joy that radiates because of His presence in their lives. Joy that knows one’s salvation is not religious, but real. Church, although “messy,” is full of joy.
As I watched the video of Discipleship 2013 and the some 7,000 small-group leaders, I wasn’t filled with the self-righteous pride that we have grown. I was filled with joy seeing the lives of people who have trusted the finished work of Jesus in their unfinished lives, while joyfully desiring to share it with others.
This weekend, as you go to church and see the messy reality, I pray that you will also realize that as we focus on God’s greatness, as we worship Him for His majesty, He will continually make us the people that reflect His love and glory.
Written by Joey Bonifacio
Joey Bonifaciois the senior pastor of Victory Fort, one of 15 congregations that make up Victory Church in the metro Manila area of the Philippines. He is also the author of The LEGO Principle, which draws parallels between the famous toymaker and core discipleship elements. Visit Joey’s website at joeybonfacio.com, or follow him onFacebook or Twitter.
I will never forget the words spoken one night by the pastor of the church in which I was saved. He said, “A person may take 20 years to backslide” (referring to a complete apostasy from the Lord). This is a sobering thought.
You grow old gradually. Your hair turns gray gradually. You can backslide just as gradually. Before you know it, you have wasted your whole life.
Where is the present course of your life taking you? Are you moving toward the Lord or away from Him? If you continued forever on this path, would you wind up in heaven or in hell?
MY SECRET BACKSLIDINGAt one time in my walk–in the late 1970s and early 1980s–I began to backslide, though all the while I claimed to be growing and maturing. My prayer time and devotional reading of the Word decreased. My fasting all but stopped; my witnessing dropped off. I virtually never took authority over the devil. (I really couldn’t have done much anyway!)
I had less and less control over the flesh. I fell in areas I had never fallen in before. Don’t get me wrong: I never touched another woman or misused ministry funds or stole anything. But I slipped up a few times in ways I never had before. I even became addicted to video games!
I felt the presence and joy of the Lord less frequently and less abundantly, yet I preached with fervor and remained an absolutely committed believer in Jesus. I was engaged in many good and even sacrificial works–still, I was backsliding!
I will be eternally grateful to my sister-in-law who, without my knowledge, helped to pray me back on fire. How I praise God for miraculously intervening–for planting the first seeds on New Year’s Day morning 1982, lovingly rebuking me in March of that year, awakening me with a vision of a spiritual outpouring in May, showing me how far away I was drifting in September, calling me to lay everything on the altar in October, and then sending a visitation November 21, 1982. I have not been the same since.
OUTWARD VITALITY, INWARD DECLINE Tragically, we can have all the outward trappings of Christian zeal and service without having a vibrant relationship with the Lord. According to New Testament scholar Robert Mounce, “At Ephesus, hatred of heresy and extensive involvement in the works appropriate to faith had allowed the fresh glow of love for God and one another to fade.”
In other words, wrote Mounce in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Eerdmans), “Every virtue carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction.” So, it could be that our very zeal for truth and purity coupled with our penchant for hard work and sacrifice could rob us of our love both for God and man.
In Revivals of Religion, Charles Finney asserted that it is possible for a person to be active in Christian service and maintain forms of religion and
obedience to God–even with a backslidden heart. “But,” a troubled believers asks, “if I can seem to be on fire for God, keeping busy for the Lord and staying true to His Word, and yet be backsliding at the same time, how can I really know the state of my heart?”
A SELF-EXAMINATION Let me describe for you some tangible tests by which you can examine yourself. There’s no reason to be in the dark when it comes to your own spiritual life. Ask yourself:
Has my personal devotion to Jesus decreased? Perhaps your desire for intimate times with the Lord has waned, especially for prayer and worship, and your once-ravenous hunger for the Word is now lacking. (John G. Lake says backsliding begins with lessening hunger for the Word, while Leonard Ravenhill claims backsliding begins with decreasing prayer.)
Do you love Jesus today as you once loved Him before? You may enjoy the forms of worship–good music, singing, dancing, being part of an exciting corporate experience–but what about the object of worship? What about the Lord Himself?
You may have a message or a burden. Theology may intrigue you. The ministry may consume you. But all these things are mere idols and distractions in comparison with coming into God’s presence and fellowshiping with Him. You grow and bear fruit only to the extent that you abide in the Vine (see John 15:1-8).
Has my personal satisfaction in God decreased? Do you feel the need for things other than God to gain fulfillment? Are you increasingly seeking social orientation in place of private devotions? Do you desire recognition and acceptance by persons of flesh and blood?.
The Word says, “The desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4:19, NIV), and “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).
At one time promotion on the job was not your primary source of satisfaction, nor was a big paycheck, a nice home, a new car, a special boyfriend or girlfriend, an exciting sports event, or even a happy family. (Yes! Spouses and children can take away from your delighting in the Lord above all.) Walking with God used to satisfy you.
Does it still satisfy you? Fully and completely? If not, you have left your first love.
Has my passion for spiritual work decreased? This will be reflected by a decreased burden for the lost (both at home and abroad), a decreased burden for revival (often replaced by good works, and more subtly by good spiritual programs), and a penchant for respectability in place of radicality. Holy zeal makes you uncomfortable, and you are becoming ashamed of Jesus and His reproach.
Witnessing used to come naturally, but now you almost avoid the subject. You simply don’t care about the ones Jesus died for. Or maybe you don’t fully believe that they are lost. Unbelief is always a result of backsliding somewhere, somehow. Do you find yourself spiritually numb?
And what about revival and visitation? How would you feel if the Spirit fell in power? (Not necessarily in some cultured–and “containable”–way, but with intensity and suddenness and upheaval.) Are you willing to let Him be in control–of the service, of the leadership, of you? Or have you become satisfied with a comfortable seat in the theater while the show itself never goes on? Beware of a powerless spiritual sophistication. The world admires it, but it has no teeth.
Have my standards of holiness become lower? Perhaps you have permitted things into your life, family or congregation that would have been unthinkable when you were on fire. You now find you are able to engage in certain activities, watch certain movies, enjoy certain sports and forms of entertainment, and attend certain functions which the Lord at one time convicted you of–but now there is no conviction!
Beware! This type of backsliding is often done in the name of spiritual maturity. I warn you as one who once fell into this very error: It is a trap and a lie!
The fact that something doesn’t “bother you” may be the loudest warning you will ever hear. You are not experiencing the freedom that comes as a result of trust; you are experiencing the insensitivity that comes from hardness. Absence of divine conviction does not mean absence of divine displeasure. It may actually point to a withdrawing of His presence. In fact, if the Holy Spirit is dealing with you even now, cry out to Him right where you are for restoring grace.
Am I backsliding in spiritual authority and personal victory? Perhaps you are experiencing a lack of victory over the flesh, falling back into old habits and lusts, finding yourself unable to resist and drive out the devil from strongholds in your life or the lives of those to whom you minister.
Remember: You can fool others, but you can’t fool the flesh–and you can’t fool the devil. As Leonard Ravenhill often asked, “Are you known in hell?” Are you moving from victory to victory, or do you find yourself more and more entangled every day (or month, or year)?
Peter taught that “a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him” (2 Pet. 2:19). You must ask yourself if Jesus is your Master or if you are mastered by sin.
CHOOSING TO RESTORE FIRST LOVE The Lord speaks of our first love as a height–a glorious, wonderful height. We forsake–not lose–our first love, meaning that we leave that place of spiritual passion by the choices we make and the lifestyle we adopt. Our first love is not something we accidentally misplace.
The Lord calls us to repent of the sin of forsaking our first love, meaning that we can be restored to that place of spiritual passion by the choices we make and the lifestyle we adopt.
What then are those choices and what is that lifestyle? Jesus gives us the answer: “Repent”–meaning make an about-face–“and do the things you did at first” (Rev. 2:5).
Have you ever read a Christian book on rekindling love in a failing marriage? Such a book would diagnose the nature of marital problems and give practical steps to correct them. It might give as an example the husband who, in the early days of his relationship with his fiancée or wife, called her several times a day, sent her flowers once a week, took her on a special date every Saturday and so on. He knew how to keep the home fires burning.
But five children, three apartments, one house, four moves, six jobs and about 20 pounds later, he’s forgotten what it takes. This husband needs to do the things he did at first. He needs to set aside time for his wife and love her again as his bride!
Are you choosing to be an empowered leader or an empowering one? The results for each one couldn’t be more opposite—or impacting. A leader whose focus is holding on to power will ultimately cause a ministry team to fall apart. A leader who centers on others will grow that team and ultimately develop more leaders who empower others to build the kingdom.
Teams don’t need empowered leaders but leaders who are truly empower-ing, who know that serving a church and ministry team is an honor and a privilege. They make their mark not by controlling the team but by challenging, facilitating and empowering the individuals on the team to realize their collective potential for God’s kingdom purposes.
How do you know if you’re empowered or empowering? Ask yourself some important questions and be honest with your answers: Is my leadership more about my own power or empowering the team I’m leading? When people on my team talk, am I really listening to them or am I thinking about what I’m going to say next in response? Does my team feel free to say “no” to me or is their response to me always “yes”? Do I really want and seek out people for my leadership teams who will disagree with me? Do I effectively empower the people on my team? If not, why not? If so, how can I be even better at developing leaders?
A leader who focuses on holding power instead of using it:
monopolizes team discussions.
fails to delegate responsibilities to the team regularly.
has to oversee (or micromanage) every church project.
doesn’t include the team in new hires interview process.
What does it take for leaders to become empowering? The first area of change must be humility. The second is genuine interest in the lives and growth of the people you lead. The team leader is the ministry’s cultural architect and the pacesetter for the full potential of the team’s effectiveness.
Perhaps the main picture of a disconnected church (or team) in the New Testament was the Corinthian church. If the “big idea” of Paul’s first letter to Corinth could be whittled down to a declarative statement, it would probably read, and I’ll paraphrase: “Don’t compare yourselves. Don’t condemn others. Don’t condone sin. Don’t competewith each other. Don’t campaign for your own interests. Rather, commune with God and each other. Live and serve as one.”
Empowering leaders consistently study and communicate how everything and everyone in their team circle connects. Paul paints a picture of how the roles of believers and team members differ but also of how they have in common this idea of being a part of a greater body. He uses a “supporting ligaments” metaphor in Ephesians: “Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does their part” (Eph. 4:15-16, CEB; italics mine).
While other body parts such as the heart and the head get much more press and attention in sermons and seminars today, Paul draws out a less familiar reference: the supporting ligaments. Physiologically, ligaments are the tough, fibrous tissues that connect our bones and create joints. In a very real sense, our ligaments hold our frame together. They literally keep us from falling apart. Paul draws upon this image to urge the believers of Ephesus to work hard at being joined, held together and built up. Paul, a true teaming leader, calls leaders to do a better job of not only working, but working together. It’s what teaming leaders do.
Written by Robert Crosby
Robert Crosby is an author and professor of practical theology at Southeastern University. His latest book is The Teaming Church: Ministry in the Age of Collaboration (Abingdon Press).