The Next Generation: Gravity's Tug
The human species was created for one purpose: friendship with God.
Once, in a place not so far away and a time not so long ago, man and woman lived with their Creator in a state of peaceful contentment and loving submission. They experienced His love and care every second of the day and in every square foot of their paradise home. They lost their whole reason for existence, though, with a tragically stupid attempt at being their own gods. And it didn’t work. Humans failed miserably at being independent mini-divinities.
But in an amazing display of creativity and love, God gave humanity a second chance at friendship. He began by showing up in Person and literally walking with anyone who was humble enough to appreciate the opportunity. After accomplishing His purpose through the cross, He returned to heaven. But God didn’t just stay there, located in some inaccessible dimension outside our universe. Instead, He poured Himself out on every man and woman who was finally ready to enter into the loving, trusting submission that their species had rejected in the Garden.
God created a new paradise, a new place to walk in friendship with man. That place was known as the ekklesia, the church. It was built from an interwoven network of lives, linked together daily by a common devotion to Jesus and to each other.
Christianity in those days was unlike anything the world had seen since Eden. It was unheard of in history: a race of people who surrendered their autonomy and welcomed their Creator to move into the little nooks and crannies of their daily lives. No longer did they try to confine Him to a few special days or a handful of special places. No longer did they create special men as buffers to stand between them and their God. Now every day called “today” was special. Every place where the ekklesia set its feet, whether “in public” or “from house to house” was holy. Every member, “from the least to the greatest,” was a “royal priest.”
The results were nothing short of amazing.
People who once were full of hatred, selfishness, and bitterness now loved one another desperately. People who once were enslaved by every kind of addictive passion and pleasure now lived in glorious freedom. People who once worshipped rocks and sticks now had an intimate knowledge of the Living God.
The ekklesia was Paradise reestablished in the midst of a fallen world. It was “paradise” for the same reason Eden had been: men and women could find their Creator there and “walk with Him in the cool of the day.” Paradise did not mean “utopia,” of course. Problems happened. But the ekklesia provided a ground where problems could be solved. The apostles’ letters to the local ekklesias occupying the cities of the Roman empire were full of practical instruction and direction on how to resolve the causes of any confusion or disorder. And people listened. Even in the weakest, most immature local assemblies, people overcame every obstacle to experiencing true Life (see, for example, 2 Corinthians 7:5-16).
The first century church soared with God on eagle’s wings. But the pull of gravity never went away. The fallen world—with its pagan notions of religion and carnal values of independence and self-indulgence—never stopped tugging at the believers, trying to drag them down into fallen humanity’s realm once again. For a generation or more, it was as if the ekklesias defied gravity. And truly, they could have kept soaring higher and higher with God if they chose to, right up until the return of Jesus. But as the century drew near a close, the New Testament bears witness that the world’s gravity was starting to have an effect.
Just before AD 70, six persons of extraordinary spiritual stature—one of them with quite amazing stature—wrote letters warning of decline and urging the ekklesias to take their faith to a higher level than they had ever known. These letters make up eleven of the last books in our New Testament.
Paul had once been the ekklesias’ fiercest persecutor. But after Jesus quite literally knocked him off his horse, Paul became their most devoted servant. In an astonishing turn-around, the man who once dedicated his life to crushing the ekklesias received the radically different assignment of establishing and strengthening new ekklesias throughout the Roman world.
The end of Paul’s earthly existence was now drawing near. Soon he would die at the hands of a Roman executioner. First, however, he would write three letters to Timothy and Titus, brothers he considered faithful and gifted, to help them carry on with the work of the gospel. He filled these letters with notes of concern and alarm about the direction the church seemed to be drifting.
Already, a few people were abandoning the Life and freedom of the gospel for a religion tainted with human tradition and philosophy. They were wandering away from the simplicity of “love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” and turning instead to “meaningless talk” (1 Timothy 1:3-7). They had developed an “unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words, resulting in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction.” They were now “men of corrupt mind, who had been robbed of the truth and who thought that godliness was a means to financial gain” (1 Timothy 6:3-5). In fact, a desire to make a buck from peddling God seemed to be their main motive (Titus 1:10-11). They had already “shipwrecked” their own faith and now were threatening the faith of others (1 Timothy 1:18).
These people were still a small, though troublesome, minority. But Paul could foresee a day when many others would also refuse to “put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires,” they would “gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears” would “want to hear.” They would “turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
The results would be catastrophic:
The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. (1 Timothy 4:1-3)
There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. (2 Timothy 3:4)
Paul’s advice to Timothy? “Have nothing to do with them.” Paul was not speaking of a “tribulation” in some distant century, but of a time he fully expected that Timothy would live to see. Remember, to the early believers, the “last days” had already begun (Acts 2:17; Hebrews 1:2; James 5:3).
How did Paul try to prepare these brothers—and through them, the church as a whole—for this coming crisis? He reminded them of the bedrock foundations of the gospel he had passed on to them. He stressed the pivotal importance of the ekklesia, “the pillar and foundation of the truth,” and provided practical direction for teaching its members how to function as a healthy unit. He emphasized strongly in each of the letters that leadership is recognized by character and personal fruitfulness, not conferred by position or title or office. And he braced them for the strenuous work ahead with some of the most inspiring exhortations in the entire Bible.
Paul was anything but defeatist. He remained to the very end a man of vision, faith, and hope. Yet as the first generation of believers passed the baton to the second, Paul was deeply concerned. The ultimate victory of the church was secure; God would “crush satan under their feet.” But would the next few generations be ready to overcome the evil one? Would the ekklesia remain a “garden” where God and man could walk in intimacy? Or was it drifting towards a distressing future?
Peter and Jude
Other men of God were pondering the same questions at the same time. Peter, like Paul, had been an awe-struck participant in some of the mightiest outpourings of God’s power in his or any generation. Peter had walked on water. He had experienced the miracle of Pentecost. He had been delivered from prison by an angel. He had seen the Holy Spirit fall on gentiles. He had witnessed the dead raised—both physically and spiritually. No one had to convince Peter of God’s power. He had lived in that power from the moment he first met Jesus. It was impossible for Peter to be a pessimist, and yet as his life drew to a close, he, too, shared Paul’s deep concern that the church was heading for a crucial fork in the road.
Peter responded with a pair of open letters, addressed not to an individual or even a specific ekklesia, but to believers throughout the eastern half of the Roman empire. His first letter, written around AD 64, was meant to strengthen the ekklesias in the foundations of their faith and to stiffen their spiritual backbones in the face of persecution. But his second letter, written only a year or two later, sounded a much more urgent note of warning. Something had happened—either in Peter’s environment or in his spirit—to deepen his concern for the ekklesias’ future. He knew that he would a scant year later “put aside the tent of his body” (2 Peter 1:13-14). He had some things he just had to say before he left the planet.
Peter began this second letter with strong exhortations to the believers that they “make every effort” to “add to their faith” with a practical growth towards maturity. He challenged them to remain true to the prophecies of scripture as well as to the testimony of the apostles. But his main emphasis was a potent warning about the challenges they would soon face from counterfeit leaders, teachers, and “scoffers” who would totally misdirect the church if left unchecked:
There will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping. (2 Peter 2:1-3)
The people who read these words were Peter’s “dear friends,” and he was confident that they “already knew” better than to drift into false religion. Still, he felt the pressing need to warn them: “Be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:17-18).
Were the ekklesias really in danger of being “carried away” by religious error? Could they actually “fall” from their “secure position”?
Peter wasn’t the only one who thought so. Jesus’ half-brother, Jude, wrote a very similar letter, probably a year or so after Peter. In fact, Jude may well have read Peter’s letter and sent out his own shorter note to underscore the warnings Peter had given. Without a doubt, Jude expressed the very same concerns in similar language:
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. (Jude 3-4)
The rest of Jude’s short but powerful letter stressed his concern that his “dear friends” needed to “remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold”: “’In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.’ These are the men who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit” (Jude 17-19).
Jude exhorted his readers to “build themselves up in their most holy faith” (Jude 20). God was able to “keep them from falling” (Jude 24), but the possibility of the world’s gravity pulling them down from their secure position was very real.
The Writer of Hebrews
Around the same time, an anonymous author wrote still another open letter addressed to believers from a Jewish background. We call it Hebrews. We may not know the author’s name, but we know for certain that he had a deep revelation of Jesus and an equally deep concern about the current state and future direction of the church. This writer, too, sensed that the tug of the world was having its effect on the ekklesias. “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard,” he wrote, “so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:1-3)
It is the same feel we get from the last letters of Paul, Peter, and Jude: the church was at risk, because it was drifting away from something crucially important.
For one thing, the believers were losing their grip on the fundamental, bedrock teachings of Jesus and His apostles:
We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:11-14)
The writer felt compelled to give his readers strong cautions against dabbling in false teaching: “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them” (Hebrews 13:9).
The readers were also being lured by temptations to worldliness and sin. The writer of Hebrews gave them this stern warning:
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace. (Hebrews 6:1-4)
Such strong language! The first century believers had enjoyed a potent spiritual Life. They had “tasted the powers of the coming age.” How many Christians since that day could honestly make that claim? And yet their spiritual position was far from secure.
Besides voicing a deep concern about his readers’ spiritual direction, what did the Hebrews writer do to help them turn things around?
First, the writer held up Jesus, describing in towering language how He was both the sacrifice for sin and the High Priest who offered that sacrifice. The words “Jesus” and “today” appear over and over in the letter. The readers needed to understand that Jesus was ever living and continually available, that a “right here, right now” relationship with God was always possible through Him.
Next, the writer held up the vital importance of the ekklesia as God’s fortress for defeating the evil one. If each believer lived in the daily encouragement and exhortation of brothers and sisters, then the attraction of sin would lose its power to deceive (Hebrews 3:12-14). Further, each member of the church was to take personal responsibility to consider how to inspire and motivate his or her fellow believers towards love and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Finally, the writer exhorted his readers to look back on the heroes of faith for inspiration for the challenges ahead (Hebrews 11). They must not only hold their position but press ahead even higher: “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what He has promised” (Hebrews 10:35-36).
The need of the hour, judging from all of these letters, was a decisive refocusing on both the Person and teachings of Jesus, an unwavering loyalty to the Life of the local ekklesia, a clear rejection of religious deception, and a whole-hearted commitment to moving forward in faith.
During his early years, John—”the apostle Jesus loved”—had enjoyed a profound friendship with his Teacher. For three years the “band of brothers and sisters” who followed Jesus had experienced “walking with God in the cool of the day.” John, more than anyone, had grasped the immense privilege they had been given. He was never far from Jesus. John had been with Jesus on the Mountain of Transfiguration and with Him on the Mount of Olives. John had been one of the few to risk his life by standing near the foot of the cross. He had also been the very first apostle to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. John, together with Peter, had been at the forefront of proclaiming the risen Christ throughout Judea and Samaria. He had been a pillar of the Jerusalem ekklesia.
John knew what living “right here, right now” with Jesus meant, not only when Jesus was living in His physical body, but also when He was living in His Body, the church. He understood how critically important it was for the ekklesias to reject the religious low road and instead press ever higher with their Lord.
That’s no doubt why, as the first generation of believers gave way to the second and third, John felt so deeply concerned about what he saw. He, too, sensed a “drift.” In response, he wrote three letters that are preserved in our New Testament—two short notes of warning to specific locations, and one lengthy letter sent to ekklesias at large. It is no coincidence that John wrote his letters at the same time Paul, Peter, and Jude were writing about their own sense of concern.
In the remarkable first letter, John laid out in clear terms a series of tests designed to distinguish genuine Christianity from mere religion. Jesus was Real. John had heard, seen, and touched Him. Fellowship with Jesus right here, right now could be equally Real. But it required living in the light—calling sin what it is, and coming to Jesus for forgiveness in honesty and exposure, whenever any darkness crept into the believer’s life. It meant obeying Jesus in practical daily living. In fact, it meant living the way Jesus did. It demanded both unwavering love and unflinching rejection—love for brothers and sisters, and rejection of the world and its ways. It called for an eager expectation for Jesus’ return and a passionate pursuit of purity in preparation for His coming.
A Real relationship with Jesus always changed a person’s life, according to John. After all, Jesus had come to planet earth to “destroy the works of the devil.” That’s exactly what He would do when He came into a person’s life as well.
John was determined to uphold the standard of genuine Christianity. He also wanted to warn the believers about the false religion that he could see tugging at the church. It was imperative that the ekklesias “not believe everyone who claimed to speak by the Spirit.” Instead, they needed to “test them to see if the spirit...comes from God.” For there were “many false prophets in the world” (1 John 4:1).
He urged them:
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour...See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what He promised us—even eternal life. 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. (1 John 2:18-27)
He sounded the same note of warning in a brief letter to a specific local ekklesia, a writing we now call 2 John:
Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work. (2 John 7-11)
There was a rumor circulating throughout the first century that John would never die but would stay on earth until Jesus’ return. John knew differently. He realized just how short his remaining days were. He also realized how grave a danger the church was already facing from the gravitational pull of the world and from fleshly human religion. That is why he worked so hard to recalibrate the believers’ understanding about what Christianity even meant. There was a real danger that something immensely precious—something John had heard, seen, and touched—could actually be forgotten in the coming generations.
The years passed. The close of the first century was rapidly approaching. Peter and Paul had long since “graduated” to a full time residence in heavenly realms. Virtually all the first generation of disciples had exited planet earth as well. John was one of the few who remained. As the elderly “disciple whom Jesus loved” was in exile on the island of Patmos, his Master decided to give him one last assignment: to write what we now call Revelation.
Jesus began His visit with John by dictating seven remarkable letters, addressed to seven local ekklesias in Asia Minor. They were not signed by John this time, but by Jesus Himself. These letters provide a snapshot of the “state of the church” in this entire region around AD 90. The composite picture is disquieting: five of the seven ekklesias receive a warning or rebuke from Jesus.
There are at least two disturbing trends. First, there was a pervasive slide towards false teaching. What the apostles had foreseen was now happening. Bogus apostles, “Nicolaitans,” and “Jezebel” were trying to peddle lies as some sort of “deep secret.” They were luring many into pagan notions of “mystery religion” that basically amounted to nothing more than a sloppy gratification of fleshly appetites. These false teachers were making alarming inroads into several of the ekklesias, and in most of them, they were being “tolerated.” Jesus was not pleased.
Second, there was a creeping spiritual lethargy and dullness beginning to set in. Jesus rebuked one ekklesia for being dead, another for being lukewarm, and a third for forsaking its first love. The ekklesias had largely ignored the warnings of the apostles and prophets. They were allowing the pagan world’s gravity to tug them down to its level. Something had to be done, and soon. Jesus urged them, “Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.”
Jesus then issued an admonition that included some of the most alarming words in scripture: “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:5).
The term “lampstand” is a word picture that stood for the identity of these local assemblies of believers as ekklesias in the sight of God (see Revelation 1:12-20). When Jesus spoke of removing their lampstand, He was warning them that if their current spiritual decline continued, at least one of the seven churches would soon lose the right to be called an ekklesia! They might continue indefinitely as a religious society, but they would no longer be a genuine church. Jesus would no longer walk in friendship among them.
It would be paradise lost all over again.
It had been a remarkable century, beginning with the birth of Jesus, continuing with His life and death and resurrection, progressing with His establishment of the ekklesia as His home on earth, and culminating with the spread of ekklesia-life throughout the Roman world. During these few remarkable years, God had reversed the curse that had hung over the human race for millennia.
But what would this new race of humanity do with this precious gift? As the next century began, would they go on to soar to new heights with God? Or would they allow gravity to drag them down from their “secure position” in Jesus?