To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
-Revelation 3:1-6

The reputation is not always the reality. The church in Sardis had a reputation for being alive, but the spiritual reality of their condition was that they were dead. Maybe they were coasting on the spiritual vitality of a previous generation. They weren’t creating any momentum for God’s kingdom themselves. Stuck in neutral, they were enjoying the downhill speed created by the courage and faithfulness of their parents’ generation. But a steep climb is coming, and they aren’t going to make it unless they wake up and hit the gas.

Strengthen what remains but is about to die.

Or maybe they’re just blind to the reality of their actual spiritual condition. It’s hard for me to see what’s wrong with me. It’s difficult for me to diagnose my own disease. What isn’t already dead is dying, and I’m out here believing my own hype, coasting on the work of others without adding any forward momentum of my own. This is what it’s like to be in Sardis, the corpse-church that thinks it’s doing just fine. “You’ve got the reputation of being a fine vineyard,” Jesus says to them, “but you can’t show me a single grape you grew yourself.” What are you going to pass on to your children? A stalled car at the bottom of the hill fresh out of gas. Wake up, Sardis. Wake up, America.

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To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first. Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds. Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.’ To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations— that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’ —just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give that one the morning star. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
-Revelation 2:18-29

Jesus is, once again, upset with one of the seven churches because of their tolerance of, let’s call them alternative teachings within a congregation. Do you remember when tolerance was the big cultural buzzword? It was considered a virtue to be tolerant of other people’s beliefs, decisions, and ways of living. Who are we, after all, to judge another person? There was some truth to this perspective. Christians need to understand that it’s none of our business what those do who are outside of the church (see Paul in 1 Corinthians 5). We are, however, supposed to express a certain level of intolerance toward those who are inside the church — those who, like Jezebel from this passage, are teaching and practicing things that are transgressive, that are against God’s laws.

That which we tolerate will dominate.

If you’ve been paying attention to the culture over the past couple of years, you may have noticed that tolerance isn’t good enough anymore. It is an insufficient minimal virtue. We have moved beyond tolerance, and the new minimal social demand is acceptance. The call to tolerate the transgressive has become the demand to accept the transgressive, and is quickly becoming the mandate to celebrate the transgressive. It is no longer culturally acceptable to let other people live their lives, even if you disagree with or disapprove of their choices. We must now at least accept, if not outright celebrate, every choice. (Well, not every choice, but you know what I mean.) We might call this “the transgressive journey,” where something which was once roundly condemned slowly becomes tolerated, then accepted, then celebrated, and finally it will dominate and redefine the culture itself.

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Remain True
To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives. Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
-Revelation 2:12-17

Have you ever been somewhere and felt a dark, oppressive presence? Have you ever visited a house or a church and gotten angry for no apparent reason? Maybe there was just something about this place that felt off to you. Maybe you would go so far as to call it demonic. My wife and I felt this when we visited Las Vegas on the last leg of The Zekey Trip in 2014. I know that Vegas is considered “sin city,” so it has a reputation to uphold, but we had been pretty open-minded about staying the night there. It didn’t take long, however, for us to realize that this was not a place we wanted to be for long. (No doubt that some parts of Vegas are perfectly lovely, but this particular spot felt spiritually dark to us.) We stayed in the RV that night and left as soon as we could the next morning.

The spirit of a place can be dark and oppressive.

The spirit of a place can be dark and oppressive, and ancient Pergamum was such a place. Jesus even called it “the place where Satan has his throne.” That sounds pretty dark to me! Pergamum was a spiritual stronghold in a geographic sense, as the church there could attest, having endured the martyrdom of their bishop, Antipas, shortly before the writing of the book of Revelation. (See this article for more information on Pergamum.) Jesus’s praise of the Christians in Pergamum, “You remain true to my name,” demonstrates the power of their courage and character in the face of violent persecution and severe resistance from the dark spiritual powers who had made their home there.

It’s hard to remain true to Jesus in dark places because dark places are owned by dark spirits. Their presence is often manifested through human beings as false teaching, false religion, or cultic practice. This false teaching spreads from person to person as a majority of the community comes under the sway of the evil spirit. Sometimes evil spirits will possess a particular person in a horrifying way, but I think it’s more often the case that these spirits “hover over” a certain place as if they are governing it. And if you think this sounds a bit like Stranger Things, then you’re getting my point.

Dark spirits resist the presence and spread of Christianity through persecution and colonization.

These evil spiritual beings are invested in their own power and position, and the last thing they want to do is give any ground, spiritually or physically, to the kingdom of God. Dark spirits resist the presence and spread of Christianity, and will always seek to take out believers and churches who are trying hard to remain true to Jesus. These spirits tend to do this in two ways. The first weapon an evil spirit will use against Christianity is a blunt cudgel — persecution. Violence and oppression are effective means of eliminating a particular belief system or way of living, especially when that system is in its early phases. But as the system gains a foothold in a community, persecution is no longer a viable option. That’s when the second weapon of evil spirits comes out — colonization.

Colonizing a church is a more sophisticated weapon against the spread of Christianity. It’s also much more effective than persecution, even if it takes a lot longer to accomplish. To colonize a church means to take it over from the inside, to convert its leaders to the dark spirit’s preferred ideology or religion, thereby making it a culturally respectable institution of false teaching rather than a spiritually dangerous outpost of Gospel belief and practice. In America, a colonized church is one that teaches political ideology more than the Gospel — and this is true whether that ideology is conservative or progressive. (Christians in America need to wake up to the reality that there are dark spirits and false teaching to the right of us.) A colonized church looks and sounds almost exactly like the other respected institutions of its community. It takes up the same causes and harbors the same prejudices that the evil spirit has led the rest of the community into.

It is not easy to resist the colonizing efforts of the dark spirits in your community, much less to revolt against the presence of these spirits once they have placed their throne in your sanctuary. And that is what every dark spirit is trying to do. It is trying to smother the light of the Gospel and pervert the witness of the saints. It is incumbent upon us, in order to remain true to Jesus, to resist these attacks both in ourselves as individuals, and within our midst as a church body. There are many ways that we can do this, but I want to highlight two that I think are especially important today.

A colonized church becomes a culturally respectable institution of false teaching rather than a spiritually dangerous outpost of Gospel belief and practice.

First of all, we must understand what is false about false teaching. We live in a chattering and arguing age, and bad arguments do not help the cause of God’s kingdom. The ignorance of the saints actually empowers the darkness to spread further and thicker over our communities and into our churches. Let me be blunt: Your ignorant social media posts are making things worse. Spreading conspiracy theories is spreading darkness. Insulting other human beings and believing the worst of them is not how we are supposed to fight, because our struggle is not against flesh and blood. We are not fighting people; we are, in a sense, fighting ideas. We are fighting lies. And we need to educate ourselves about these deceptive ideas in order to be victorious over them. You don’t need to know everything about a subject before you speak about it, but you should be able to anticipate some objections and then respond by speaking the truth in love. Being victorious doesn’t mean that we win an argument or make someone else look foolish; it means that we have loved someone out of the darkness of these dark spirits and into the light of Christ.

The second thing we need to do to remain true to Christ is more challenging because it involves confronting people that we know, love, and respect. Jesus was critical of the church in Pergamum because of their tolerance — they let beliefs that were contrary to the Gospel fester in their congregation. We cannot tolerate false teachers, or even people who are invested in these lies, among our church leaders, and that includes pastors, elders, and staff. A church leader who is under the sway of a false teaching will bind that church to the dark spirit rather than to the Lord. Such people should be rebuked, and if they don’t repent, then they must be removed from their positions of authority. Paul warned us that “a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough,” and that’s exactly what happens through people who are under the deception of these lies. An entire church can be colonized by a dark spirit because of the deception of a single, well-placed individual.

But we need to be careful with our accusations. All too often it is the person doing the accusing who is under the sway of the dark spirit, and not the pastor or elder who is being accused. The Bible is clear that an accusation against a church leader should not be entertained unless it is verified by two or more witnesses. You need to check your own heart and mind, first, and the person that you should be most critical of is yourself. Dark spirits have a way of making their darkness look like light to our eyes, which is why they can so easily deceive us. You might be angry at your pastor for preaching the social gospel, but it could be your overly-conservative politics that is the real lie. Or you might think your elders are unloving because of their position on LGBTQ issues, but it could be that you have fallen under the sway of the sexual revolution. Examine yourself first, and be committed to remain true to Jesus in this dark and oppressed world.

There is so much to discuss in Carl Trueman’s latest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, that it is hard to know exactly where to begin. I have attempted a proper book review, but the flood of information is worth parsing through slowly. One of the most important concepts of the book is the idea of expressive individualism, a phrase taken from the great philosopher Charles Taylor. Expressive individualism is the idea “that each of us finds our meaning by giving expression to our own feelings and desires.” (46) I can only be an authentic person, and therefore truly flourish as a human being, if I am free to outwardly express what is inside of me, especially my feelings and desires. Jean-Jacques Rousseau laid the philosophical groundwork of expressive individualism when he identified the fundamental corrupting influence as society itself, and not, as Augustine and the Church had taught for centuries, the sin and wickedness at the heart of the individual. In other words, I am inherently good, but society has corrupted me, especially by suppressing and repressing the expression of what I feel inside of me with it’s oppressive rules and standards. Trueman summarized Rousseau’s thought this way: “The individual is most authentic when acting out in public those desires and feelings that characterize the inner psychological life.” (125)

Expressive individualism is the idea that each of us finds our meaning by giving expression to our own feelings and desires.

According to Rousseau, authenticity is the highest good that any individual can pursue, because it is the only way to guarantee happiness. I will never be happy unless I can freely express myself. Charles Taylor describes this way of thinking like this: “…Each of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and…it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.” (46, quoted from Taylor, A Secular Age, 475) I have to be myself! I have to get what’s inside of me out into the world! I can’t be me and live by society’s rules at the same time! External authorities and institutions, especially religious ones, are, by their nature, oppressive to the individual and repressive of his or her expression of their true selves. They are, in a sense, enslavers of the will. To quote Charles Taylor again, “self-determining freedom ‘is the idea that I’m free when I determine the conditions of my own existence.'” (Quoted by O. Carter Snead, What It Means to be Human, p. 81-82) A longer quote from Snead is called for:

Flourishing is achieved by turning inward to interrogate the self’s own deepest sentiments to discern the wholly unique and original truths about its purpose and destiny. This inner voice is morally authoritative and defines the route forward to realizing the authentic self. The truth about the self is thus not determined externally, and sometimes must be pursued counter-culturally, over and above the mores of one’s community.
-O. Carter Snead, What It Means to be Human, p. 87

I must be free to express myself, or I cannot be authentic. I will live a lie. And if I live a lie it is impossible for me to flourish or ever be truly happy. Social institutions, and especially the Church, force me to repress my inner feelings and desires, and therefore push me into living a lie. The end result is that these institutions make it impossible for me to flourish as a human being. They are, in my lived experience, erasing my existence through their moral oppression of my inner, psychological reality — my truest self.

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To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.
-Revelation 2:8-11

It’s been said that American evangelicals have a persecution complex, that we are hyper-sensitive to even the smallest slight against our religious beliefs. The accusation is that we are quick to claim that we are being persecuted, even in relatively mundane situations where no violence has occurred. For example, we often equate dismissive comments by atheist professors with persecution, but is it? Granted, the power structure and knowledge differential between teacher and student is significant, and dismissive or incendiary comments from the person at the top of that structure carry a special weight, but we shouldn’t see this as persecution. We tend to view any opposition to our faith as the persecution of the righteous, but maybe we aren’t always being opposed by people because our love for Christ and Christlike behavior are so evident to them. Maybe we’re opposed and “persecuted” because we’re being jerks — because, all too often, we actually fail to be like Christ. We need to be careful with the word persecution.

American Christians are far more likely to be seduced away from the faith than intimidated or oppressed out of it.

Real persecution is a program to exterminate a group of people because of their religious or ethnic identity. It involves violence (though it is not always murderous), oppression, and subjugation. In the case of religious persecution, the goal is for the religious person to renounce his beliefs and adopt whatever beliefs his persecutors think he should have. If the believer refuses to recant, then the penalty is either death or imprisonment. Persecutors operate with the power and permission of the state (or, at least, enact their violence while the state looks the other way) because the aim of persecution is the extermination of a particular group or belief. Many Christians around the world are experiencing this right now, perhaps more than ever before. You can learn more about what the violence and oppression that our brothers and sisters in Christ are experiencing today at The Voice of the Martyrs.

Understanding the Times

Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John all told us that we should expect to suffer for our faith, but not all suffering is equal. It dishonors the real suffering and martyrdom of these saints when we call what we experience in America persecution. The devil and the world have many ways to achieve their goal of seeing Christians renounce their faith. Sometimes they use violence. Other times they use intimidation or opposition. Other times they use seduction. American Christians are far more likely to be seduced away from the faith than intimidated or oppressed out of it.

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