Thursday, 26 February 2009

Of Temples and Frat Houses

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
“Give careful thought 
to your ways”
Haggai 1:5

I was reading through Haggai the other day. I hadn’t been there for a while. Haggai is not a big book; it’s only two short chapters long. While there, I noticed something interesting. Within those two chapters, the Lord spoke through the prophet by saying, “Give careful thought to your ways.” He didn’t say that just once; He said it five times. Five times in two little chapters God says, “Give careful thought.” One thing repetition does is it gives powerful emphasis. When God repeats something this often, it is probably a good idea for us to sit up and pay attention.

The main theme of Haggai centers around the people who had just returned with Zerubbabel from captivity in Babylon. They had begun to rebuild their lives and were very preoccupied, maybe even selfishly, with nothing but their own affairs. They were busy building their own homes, earning a living for themselves and all sorts of important things like that. If we are honest with ourselves, we too would be no different. After all, earning a living and building our homes are valid ventures.

There was a problem, however. The problem was that the house of the Lord was still in ruins and was obviously neglected. God wasn’t too happy about this, which ultimately led to the prophecy of Haggai that God had actually withheld His blessings as a result. “You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it” (Haggai 1:6). Is there a parallel between the situation that Haggai addressed and that of our day today? I believe that the Lord was telling me that there is. Nothing has changed from that day to today. Someone once said that, “history has a way of repeating itself.”

I believe that what the Lord was saying to me was that the house of the Lord is still in ruins, even as we His people go about our daily business. Today we are still preoccupied with building our homes, planting our crops and earning our livings. We still preoccupy ourselves with things such as food and clothing, all the while the temple of the Lord remains in ruins. What is the temple of the Lord today? Paul says it is our individual bodies. “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16) “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” (1 Corinthians 6:19) “For we are the temple of the living God.” (2 Corinthians 6:19).

Now I’m not pointing fingers, at least not without also pointing them back towards myself, but it seems to me that God is saying that we too have not given His temple any care. It seems to me that God is saying to you and to me that we have become too preoccupied with our physical lives at the expense of neglecting His temple. We too seem to never have enough. We too plant but harvest little. We too eat but still remain hungry. We too drink but it seems like we are always still thirsty. We have clothes, but they never seem good enough, and we also often remain cold. We too earn wages but they too often seem to disappear as if there were holes in our wallets and purses. We think that all these conditions are simply the way things go. However, could it be that just maybe things are so because God has also withheld His blessings from us as He did from the returning exiles in the days of the prophet Haggai? Were their situations so much different than ours? I don’t think so.

We too are concerned with a great many different things; everything it seems, other than these temples of the Holy Spirit that we call our bodies. It is an interesting coincidence (or is it?) that soon after the Lord spoke to me about these things, a cartoon appeared in our local newspaper in which two guys are seated at a bar and the one asks the other,
"Do you believe in the old adage, the body is a temple?" The other replied, "No, I view it more as a frat house. More pork rinds?" The first guy then replies, "You bet!"
Do we believe that our bodies are temples? We may give lip service that we do, but in reality, we more often than not live more like they were frat houses. Why are we so much more concerned with the “beer and pork rinds” of life than the blessings of God that come with rebuilding His temple?

With all the junk we pack into our lives, have we left any room for the Holy Spirit to dwell within us? Maybe the better question is, with all the crap (forgive me if that sounds harsh) that I put into my body and my lifestyle, does (or can) God’s Spirit reside in the midst of all that too? Some of us drink too much, some of us smoke too much, some of us eat too much, and most of us don’t get anywhere near enough exercise. Yet, isn’t it a little strange that we don’t see the connection between these conditions and the putting of these temples of the Holy Spirit into ruins? Isn’t it a little strange that we continue right along in our gluttony and drunkenness, either figuratively or literally, only to hobble into some church on Sunday morning completely oblivious to our true condition?

God says that when we defile His sanctuary we actually profane His Holy name. I like how the Living Bible paraphrases this, “thus making my Tabernacle unfit for me to live in, and insulting my holy name” (Leviticus 20:3). In context it was about another sin, but ultimately I don’t believe that God classifies some sins as being greater and other lesser. With God, sin is sin. Idolatry, stealing, adultery, murder, neglecting the temple of the Holy Spirit; they are all sin. They all equally require us to come clean before Him through repentance. Thankfully the penalty for sin has already been taken care of by our Lord Jesus on the cross of Calvary. God calls each of us to holiness, because without it, nobody will ever see Him (Hebrews 12:14).

There is an interesting promise that God makes that results from the rebuilding of the temple. He says that if we rebuild the temple, then in that temple we shall have peace (Haggai 2:9). Dear friend, could you use a little more peace in your life right now? Are you longing to experience the blessings of God once again? I know that I sure want to be there. The lesson from Haggai is to tear down these Frat Houses that we’ve turned our lives into and to begin at once to rebuild the temples of the Holy Spirit.

Five times in Haggai God says, “Give careful thought to your ways.” Are we going to heed His advice? Or are just going to continue down this same path through these cess pools of our lives, completely oblivious to the fact that God desires so much more for us? I wonder.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

The Nicolaitans: Who Were They? Who Are They?

Jesus said, “But you have this in your favour:
You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” (Revelation 2:6)

Over the years in reading the Book of Revelation, I’ve often pondered the question of just who those Nicolaitans were that Jesus alludes to in Revelation 2:6 and again in verse 15. Were they just a bunch of heretics from the early church? If so, what was it that made them heretics? Is there something we can learn from them? Perhaps more importantly, is it possible that the spirit of the Nicolaitans lives on in many of our Christian churches today?

First of all, what does church history tell us about them? There are many scholars who claim that the Nicolaitans were followers of Nicolas, one of the deacons listed in Acts 6:5. Apparently, according to Irenaeus, one of the key teachings of Nicolas was that “the flesh must be abused,” implying that the body must be kept under control. Supposedly the Nicolaitans misinterpreted, or changed his teaching, to mean that a person could live any way they wanted to and that anything to do with the flesh was really inconsequential and ultimately of no concern at all. This led to the belief by the Nicolaitans that people could live in any fashion they wanted to, regardless of how wicked or immoral a lifestyle that choice was. This seems to be what several of the early church fathers have said, however according to several modern day scholars, there is really not much more information available. Ultimately, any association of Nicolas to the Nicolaitans is mostly filled with speculation.

There is another school of thought on who the Nicolaitans were. To see this, we must first look at the etymology of the word “Nicolaitans.” It comes from two Greek words, “Nike” (or “Nikos”) and “Laios” (or “Laos”). The first word (Nike) means to conquer, subdue, or overcome. The second word (Laios) means a body of people, or the common people. When we put these two words together, we arrive at a definition of Nicolaitans as “conquerors of the common people.”

Then, in Revelation 2:14-15, the Nicolaitans are spoken of in the same breath as the teaching of Balaam. Now I’m less of a Hebrew scholar than a Greek scholar, but as I understand it, the word “Balaam” also comes from two words; “beli” which means “conqueror”, and “haam” which means “the people.” Put together, Balaam seems to be the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek Nicolaitan, or “conqueror of the people.”

If we look at it this way, is it possible that the Nicolaitans were people within the body of believers in Ephesus and Pergamum who came to have a major controlling influence among the people? By virtue of their name, were they people who positioned themselves above the common people and who claimed some sort of authority over them? Certainly if we look at the etymology of the word “Nicolaitans” this does seem likely.

While Balaam did not directly curse the people as Balak requested (see Numbers 22-25), somehow he did manage to turn the Israelites away from what God had in mind for them. We see this in Numbers 31:16, “They [the Midianite women] were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the Lord in what happened at Peor so that a plague struck the Lord’s people.” What happened at Peor? It was there that the Israelites became involved with the Moabites (Num. 25: 1-3; Rev.2: 14), the very thing the God told them not to do, which ultimately lead to the death of 24,000 people (Numbers 25:9). The invasion of Moab that King Balak feared never happened, but the Israelites were still conquered.

It is interesting to note that there is yet another word that comes out of the Greek word “Nicolaitan,” and that is our word “laity.” While the word originally simply meant “people,” as early as the second century it had already come to mean those people that are not ordained to the ministry. Therefore, for those who use the word “laity,” they must believe in a distinction (or hierarchy) in the body of Christ between the professional clergy and the average common people. According to the so-called “Early Church Fathers,” by the second century the clergy system was already established with bishops in various churches. Unfortunately there is no New Testament support for either “laity” or “clergy.” On the other hand, the New Testament does teach of a priesthood of all believers equally (eg. 1 Peter 2: 5,9) and that the only High Priest (clergy) that any of us have is Christ alone (eg. Hebrews 7).

The implication of those who support a clergy system is that the common people cannot possibly hear from God on their own, so they need a professional to do so for them. It is an Old Testament mindset, not unlike the people telling Moses “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Exodus 20:19). The truth, however, for the Christian is found in 1 John 2: 26-27, “I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit – just as it has taught you, remain in him.”

Whose anointing teaches you and me? Does a minister, pastor, or priest’s personal anointing teach us? No, because each of their personal anointing can teach only them individually. So then whose anointing teaches you and me? It is our own personal anointing that each of us receives the very minute that we receive Christ that teaches us, just as it teaches everyone else individually. Anyone who says different we are to count among “those who are trying to lead us astray.”

It would seem very likely that the whole clergy system had its roots in the Nicolaitans. Whether or not it is said in so many words, churches with a clergy system (minister, pastor, priest, etc) advocate the elevation of professional “ministers” over common people. Churches with a clergy system are churches that (like our earlier Nicolaitan definition) conquer and subdue the common people. Clergy influence the common people and claim all sorts of authority over them.

A great example is a fellow named Diotrephes. 3 John 9-10 says, “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.” Diotrephes had a Nicolaitan spirit about him. He elevated himself and oppressed the common people. He set himself up as THE Minister, THE Pastor, THE Priest. In so doing he conquered and subdued the common people. Churches that have clergy systems today are no different; they also have a Nicolaitan spirit about them.

Our risen Lord said to the church in Ephesus, “But you have this in your favour: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Does this mean that Jesus is saying that He hates the clergy systems that have crept into the churches? Yes, I think He’s saying exactly that. Please notice, He’s not saying that he hates the people that have become clergy; rather He’s saying that He hates the clergy systems. It’s the proverbial “love the sinner, hate the sin” relationship.

So why would Jesus hate the Nicolaitan clergy systems that have long since become so prevalent in the church? I believe that the answer is because these systems have created a two-tier form of Christianity. They have elevated a minority of “professional” people over the “common” people. They have conquered and subdued the common people to such an extent that the Body of Christ no longer functions like Christ intended His body to function. The common people have become lethargic spectators and often cannot seem to even hear the Holy Spirit for themselves. They have caused the common people to think that only the clergy can serve God and that ministry is their job alone. The priesthood of believers that God intended for the church has instead become only the priesthood of the clergy.

To sum up, anything that causes the church to function in a way contrary to what God intended is a Nicolaitan spirit that Christ Jesus hates. The sin of Balaam led to the Israelites disobeying God by mingling with the surrounding nations through idolatry. The Nicolaitans likewise disobeyed God by creating a clergy system in the church through which the few essentially conquered the many. Either way, the problem is the same. The problem is the elevating of the flesh over the walking in the Spirit. The problem is that, instead of the fathers feeding the children (as it’s supposed to be), it is the children who are feeding the fathers. The problem is ultimately failing to obey God and walking instead according to our own carnal desires. Anytime when this happens, we have also become Nicolaitans.

Lord, help us to see the truth in this. Lord, help us to walk in humble obedience. Amen.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7).