January 26, 2008

Bible Describes End-time Church

Probably no book of the Bible has received as much speculation-- idle to bizarre-- as the enigmatic book of Revelation. The most credible scholars recognize that the entire book is written in symbols, using vaguely familiar images from the Old Testament re-worked and imbued with new spiritual significance. It presents insights of value to Christians of all ages, but is considered primarily as some kind of screenplay of the future, complete with science-fictional overtones in some readers' mind (not mine). Among the more accessible passages of the book are the first three chapters wherein John envisions Jesus providing specific messages to the 'seven churches of Asia Minor;' which most scholars take to represent seven ages or facets of the Christian Church, from post-apostolic to the 'latter days.' While these verses appear to address historical issues, there are still numerous overlays of symbolism that puzzle readers to this day. One of the sparely worded descriptions that Jesus levels at the last church, the Laodicean congregation, is the term 'lukewarm.' I would like to discuss that single, simple-looking term.

While the casual reader is tempted to dismiss the word lukewarm as self-evident, or insignificant, or even opaque, the fact is that this one word has enormous significance for the Christian Church of these apocalyptic times. Various theories have been advanced to describe the underlying meaning of the symbolic term lukewarm. Let's consider the more common ones before I get to a new analysis.

One theory, perhaps the most obvious, is that it refers to insipidness, that is, to a lack of zeal, a listlessness that characterizes the people who nominally profess faith in Christ. Well, it's easy to agree that this view makes a lot of sense-- on the surface. We live in an era of enormous wealth and general ease of life, amid a secular, multicultural society; therefore it is difficult for churches to motivate their flocks to promote the Christian message vigorously. That's a rather superficial understanding, but it has some validity. An obvious flaw with this literal view is that it hardly conforms to the generally symbolic or metaphorical tone to the overall book.

Another theory, that I have only heard from one erudite pastor, makes some sense on first examination. He proposed that the lukewarm condition is really referring to the motivation of the believers' heart. Noting that Jesus' words admit of 'deeds' by the Laodiceans, he claims that the deeds are being performed largely out of 'fleshly' motives-- i.e. for personal prestige, to promote denominations, to gain new tithe-payers, for bragging rights on new converts, and so on. Again, there's a lot of credibility to this outlook. We've all cringed at those TV evangelists who seem so transparently phony, and who've been uncovered as self-indulgent, hypocritical multi-millionaires. But not all Christians are like that, even among those in the spotlight. And besides, that condition is not easily allegorized as lukewarm, since it is really hypocrisy. Could there be more to the metaphorical condition than that?

To understand the third explanation for lukewarmness, we first need to grasp some important background. We have to consider how the gospel of Christ is understood, and promoted to the world by the mainstream organizations that profess to be Christian. First, what is the 'gospel?' Well, the word means 'good news,' right? But what is that good news? Christians would recite the rehearsed line that it's the teaching that Jesus died for our sins and opened the way for mankind to have eternal life. 'How do we get that eternal life?,' people want to know. We respond, 'by believing in Jesus Christ.' 'Is that all?,' the hearer inquires. 'Not quite,' the evangelist replies. Once you've confessed your sins, and accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior, you must live the rest of your life in obedience to the Ten Commandments. There may be various ways of formulating (or disguising) this 'packaged gospel,' but basically, those are the elements that 'official Christianity' proclaims. You may argue that this isn't so. My counter-argument is that, if it isn't so, it is certainly the picture that the vast majority of people understand to be the Christian message, as numerous polls and interviews demonstrate.

Many readers will accept that version of the gospel with tacit comprehension, and never notice something peculiar about it. The main churches have been promulgating that gospel paradigm for centuries, and it rarely is challenged; certainly not by insiders, those employed by the denominations. So, what's the problem? Well, the problem is that this bifurcated gospel is a non-scriptural hybrid. It states, on the one hand, that salvation is attained through faith, through belief in Christ; and then appends, on the other hand, that after exercising initial faith, the believer is thereafter under obligation to 'keep the Commandments' in order to ensure their salvation! This desire to have it all, the old ways plus the new, was the very problem tackled by Paul in his straightening letter to the Galatian believers. Once made explicit like this, the two-pronged gospel must be admitted as 'problematical' at the least. Yet, I know from hard, first-hand experience that legions of 'scholars' have worked feverishly over the centuries in Herculean efforts to square the theological circle, and justify the imposition of this crossbreed gospel. [*]

Now we are in a suitable position to discern the true intent behind the application by Jesus of the word 'lukewarm' in describing the end-times church of emblematic Laodicea. The 'Alpha and Omega' states [3:15] "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!" He goes on to state his utter disgust with this loathsome condition; he wants to vomit this congregation from his mouth! What is it about this condition that is so abhorrent to our Lord? Is it merely a lack of zeal? In his address to the church at Sardis, he admonishes their flagging company as 'dead' and advises them to wake up; but he certainly does not indicate guttural distaste for them. Is it worldly motivation that so disgusts Christ? Again, rather dubious. My thesis is that the lukewarm condition is referring to the unscriptural hybrid gospel being promulgated by the mainstream churches of today.

Lukewarm means neither hot nor cold, a mix of the two extremes of heat and cold that results in an insipidness that is muddled and impotent. Worse than that, this chimera really casts aside the ineffable sacrifice of Jesus and his boundless grace toward us (Heb 10:29). Why does Jesus say that he wishes 'you were either one or the other'? Well, if this church were 'hot,' that would mean (in my analysis) that they were committed to the true gospel of liberty that he proclaimed in his earthly ministry, and in that case, they are already full citizens of the heavenly kingdom. On the other hand, if they were 'cold,' that would mean that they adhere purely to law-keeping as their mode of salvation. (And remember, most world religions fall into this camp; besides Judaism, there's Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, etc.) In this case, the Holy Spirit has scope to exercise His influence in convicting their hearts and leading them towards truth. They are reachable. In between those extremes, exist the pseudo-legalists-- they deny they are legalists because they "accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior;" but, just to be safe, they also accept the yoke of Moses Law! Hence, their lukewarm condition.

These lukewarm people-- those who mix Jesus' gift with Judaic law-keeping-- are in the most miserable state because they are so difficult to reach. Jesus states '[17] You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' In other words, this group believes they have acquired the riches of all truth, already, and have no further need of anything. That's why Jesus admonishes them bluntly: 'But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.' That is a damning condemnation that our Church leaders of all stripes do not seem to take very seriously! The worst aspect is their self-righteousness and self-satisfaction, so that they do not realize their terrible condition! If any extra proof is needed to support my view that lukewarmness relates to mixing law and grace, it is found right in that verse and the next (17,18), where Jesus refers to the necessity to cover their 'shameful nakedness.' As is well known by Bible students, Jesus used this same metaphor in the parables ('the wedding feast,' Matt 11-13; the prodigal son, Lk 15:22) to symbolize the covering garment of God's grace provided by the shed blood of His Messiah. And blindness is precisely the same charge Jesus leveled at the Pharisees on numerous occasions, for their unwillingness to see beyond the surface and to discern with spiritual insight how he fulfilled 'the Law and the Prophets' (Lk 16:1).

What can be done with such a congregation? Jesus offers his remedy: [18] 'I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.' It seems odd to advise people to 'buy' gold if they are 'poor,' doesn't it? Yet Jesus is obviously advising his hearers to purchase, by whatever sacrifice required (perhaps pride), the purified gold of the blood-bought gospel, the gift of inestimable value. Those white garments are, as we know, the symbol of his salvation that covers the stained rags of our pathetic self-generated righteousness. And the salve, like oil in the parables, seems to point to the unction of the Holy Spirit, who alone can impart the insight necessary for man to see the gospel in its pure light. The message to Laodicea ends with the admonition to 'be earnest and repent.' It is a hard thing for the legalistic mind to repent-- just think of how many Pharisees became Jesus' disciples.

The cure for spiritual blindness-- the 'salve' of the Holy Spirit-- is a curious thing in itself. Notice that the word, salve, comes from the same root as 'salvation!' I suggest that it is no accident that this word was employed in this context. Again, it provides yet another clue in decoding the hitherto hidden meaning of the term 'lukewarm.' When the legalist finally recognizes from where his salvation originates, and the futility of looking at the Law, then he or she can start to understand the everlasting gospel of Jesus. I know the neo-legalist position that 'we don't observe the Ten Commandments to merit salvation, but for other reasons.' Those reasons can sound plausible at first glance. 'We keep the Commandments to evidence our faith,' is one of the most laudable-sounding. Yet when you think about it, much of the worst atrocities committed worldwide springs from a desire to enforce compliance with 'God's laws!' Before the European 'Enlightenment, there were the Church Inquisitions. Today, it's Islamic fundamentalists desiring to impose 'sharia law' on whomever they can. American Evangelicals are just as zealous in wanting to impose 'God's laws' on the USA, and then exporting the cause abroad at the end of a gun-barrel. Extreme examples? Not really, when you consider the homes where legalism has turned children away from anything to do with religion. Turn the notion on its head. Wouldn't Christians attract far more interest if, instead of obsessing about law-keeping, they would give 'positive evidence' of faith in the form of loving their societal neighbors, instead of judging them?

Another argument I've heard from legalists is that we 'need the law to show us what sin is.' That statement betrays a very na•ve, superficial understanding of the concept of sin and salvation. Yes, Paul seems to say something like that, but if you put it in context, you will see that he is saying that the law makes knowledge of sin unavoidable; but we were sinning before that awareness, regardless (Rom 3:20). Paul goes on, almost in passing, to acknowledge a basic comprehension of sin (that can also be found in the Old Testament)-- that it is not a matter of mere behavior, but that 'whatever is not from faith is sin' (Rom 14:23). I used to argue with legalists that we are no longer under the Ten Commandments of Moses, but rather, under Jesus' law of love (e.g. Matt 7:12; Jn 15:17). That is true, in a sense. But I have come to realize that it doesn't matter whether we think of 'the Law' as ten commandments, or 613 rabbinical laws, or just one law; our sole duty as Christians is to 'keep' our eyes on Jesus, that's all! (Jn 6:29). That's the beauty of the eternal gospel that is just so hard for people to accept-- that it's all about a person, Yeshua ha'Mashiah, (Jesus the Messiah), and nothing else is to interfere. If the believer could focus his/her attention on Christ, then-- don't you see-- everything else falls into place! This is the one, enormous characteristic that is supposed to distinguish the Christian faith from all others-- that it is based on a personal relationship with its 'guru'-- while all other systems depend on some kind of performance from the adherent in exchange for divine favors. And yet Christians too find it so hard to let go of their neurotic need to 'do their part' in gaining salvation.

This whole insight into the lukewarm condition came about for me thanks to a telling demonstration that came through a one-time friend, a charter member of the Laodicean church. Ironically, said friend had been instrumental in helping me escape the legalistic system of modern 'churchianity.' Yet, when I pursued this path to its logical conclusion upon realizing that the New Covenant life cannot be lived with an Old Covenant mindset, this friend (and his fellow-travelers) parted company with me. It was not without some unpleasantness, as they labeled me 'antinomian' and an anarchist. A recent attempt, after several years, to re-establish contact, ended in like fashion when this person rejected some books I'd left for him to read, after perusing them for 'ten minutes'. The worst part was the note he included with the books, which was the rudest letter I have ever received, and whose tone can be summarized in the word 'indignation.' He was absolutely indignant that I had the temerity to even suppose that he'd lower himself to read such patent 'garbage.' Another observation during this visit emerged when my 'friend' expressed his disgust with the municipal government for providing housing for homeless people. This harsh attitude towards life's 'losers' is typical of the legalistic spirit; the reasoning seems to be, 'if I can succeed, why can't everyone else?' Now I don't want any reader to surmise that this fellow is malevolent; he's not. That's why his note was such a shock. What you should perceive here is the 'spirit of legalism' acting through an unwitting, virtual member of the Laodicean church. Like most legalists I've met, he is so enthralled with his supposed wealth of Bible knowledge that he refuses to remove the blinders from his eyes long enough to expose them to (the possibility of) some genuine illumination. Ironically, I am now indebted to him again for confronting me with a situation that sent me searching the scriptures!

Unfortunately, if Revelation is indeed a book of prediction, it does not reveal whether the Laodicean church succeeds in shaking free of the chains of legalism intermingled with the gospel. It is entirely in our hands, the members living in the era of Laodicea, to sound the alarm, to entreat the Holy Spirit to break through the stony shell of righteousness that insulates the Laodiceans from truth that challenges them. If only they would accept that challenge!

[*] Every skeptical reader is urged to check the Bible for themselves. You cannot find a salient enunciation of the gospel that mentions anything about the law... anywhere. The arguments of the legalists (or pseudo-legalists, the lukewarm) rest entirely on assumptions and fabricated inferences. They will claim that the Commandments aren't explicitly cited because they are 'understood' or 'implied.' My response is that they are omitted quite deliberately... God does not imply what is essential to human salvation! And incidentally, but importantly, you can clearly see why the scriptures are so often written in symbols, which are a kind of code that is only decoded spiritually. The Divine author ingeniously hides His vital messages in a form that is opaque to the worldly and malicious editor, to protect them from tampering, and preserve them for those being saved. Pure genius!

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