Beware of infiltrators
The history of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament is a battle between faith in the one true God and idolatry. The teachers of idolatry were always trying to lead Israel away from the teaching of the law of Moses into sin which often included sexual immorality as part of their worship. One example is the golden calf (Ex 32). Another is Balaam (Num 22-24). The prophet Ezekiel spoke around 600 B.C. to those who had been taken captive by Babylon. He foretold that after they returned to their homeland that idolatry would no longer be a problem (Eze 36:25, Eze 37:23). He says over 60 times that they would know that He is the Lord. When God came in the flesh as Jesus Christ to Israel, there were many spiritual problems, but we do not read of the Lord addressing idolatry. The biggest problem was teachers who falsely represented the word of God. Jesus did not get angry at common sinners. Rather, it was they whom He came to save (Mt 9:10-13, Lk 19:1-10). When they repented He forgave them, and He turned no one away (Jn 6:37). However, when it came to the unrepentant false representatives of the word of God, He was angry, harsh, and judging (Mt 23, Mk 3:5). He warned of the danger of false doctrine (Mt 7, Mt 16:12). He warned that in last days this would be a big problem (Mt 24:4-5, 11, 15, & 23-27). The apostles also warned of the danger of false doctrine, and that false teachers would infiltrate the church (Acts 20:29-31, 2Cor 11:3-4 & 13-15, Gal 1:6-9, Col 2:3-19, 2Thes 2:1-12, 2Pet 2, Jude, 1Jn 4:1-6, 2Jn 7-11). A recurring them in Paul’s advice to young pastors Timothy and Titus was to guard against false teachers and their doctrine. These warnings do not indicate that these false teachers will come from outside the church in plain view declaring themselves to be deceivers. They would not be very successful if they did that. Lies are dangerous because they masquerade as the truth. They will pretend to be Christians with the true doctrine.
When Paul and his companions went on their missionary journeys in what is now eastern Europe, many churches were started. We can read about some of them in Acts 13-21. He later wrote letters to the disciples in those places which we now have in the Bible as his epistles (Rom-Heb). He wrote some of those letters while imprisoned in Rome. He was martyred in Rome by Nero. Later, the apostle John was banished to the prison island of Patmos where he received the vision recorded in the book of Revelation (Rev 1). The second and third chapters of Revelation are epistles to seven churches in seven cities in the same area Paul preached. It was called Asia back then. We have very little information about all but one of these churches – the church in the city of Ephesus (Acts 18:19 - Acts 20:38, 1Tim 1:3, 2Tim 1:18, 2Tim 4:12). Timothy was the pastor of that church. The church of Laodicea is mentioned in Colossians 2:1 and Colossians 4:13-16. That is the only information in the Bible about these 7 churches. The other 5 are not mentioned anywhere else. These churches and the cities they were in do not exist today, although the apostolic church at large has never ceased to exist. There has always been someone somewhere preaching the doctrine Jesus gave the apostles.
These seven churches were like churches of today in some ways. They were not perfect because they were made up of people. They had their strengths and weaknesses. The Lord gave John messages to each of them addressing their issues. Five of them had problems with false teachers and their doctrines:
1. Ephesus had false apostles (Rev 2:2), and the deeds of the Nicolaitans (Rev 2:6).
Ephesus was the capitol city of the area and had the pagan temple of Artemis, which was
one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. It had a large, thriving church in the days
of the apostles. Paul’s letter to them has great depth of revelation about the eternal
purpose of God for the church. They were apparently not like the Corinthians who
were too caught up in battles of spiritual immaturity which Paul had to address instead of
deeper things (1Cor 3:2). Paul did not address issues of false doctrine to the Ephesians.
Yet by the time John wrote to them they did have problems. What were the deeds of the
Nicolaitans? There is no specific description given in the Bible, but there are some
theories. It is believed that the Nicolaitans were followers of someone named Nicolas.
Some historians such as Irenaeus thought this was the Nicolas who was one of the
seven deacons mentioned in Acts 6. The word Nicolaitan means “to conquer the people”,
which indicates to some that they practiced a religious hierarchy which Jesus spoke
against (Mt 20:25-28, Mt 23:9).
2. Smyrna had false Jews who were the synagogue of Satan (Rev 2:9). Smyrna means the
spice myrrh. This city was about 40 miles from Ephesus and had a busy commercial
harbor. “False Jews” is usually understood not to mean literal Jews and synagogues but
to be spiritually speaking of Christians (Rom 2:28-29, Gal 6:16). The church did not
replace the Jews, but the new covenant is the progressive fulfillment of the old one (Mt
5:17, Heb). These false disciples were pretending to be one thing while actually being
disciples of Satan. This was also true of the hypocritical Jews that Jesus deal with (Jn 8).
3. Pergamos had Satan’s seat (throne) and it was where he dwelt (Rev 2:13). This was a
major Roman city which contained a great library, the temple of Aesculapius which was a
pagan hospital, and the temple of Zeus. It is believed that the altar of Zeus is what is
called the throne of Satan. The altar of Zeus was excavated by Germany, brought to
Berlin in 1930, and placed in the museum of Pergamon. Hitler had a reproduction of it
made in Nuremburg, which was the headquarters of the Nazi party and the site of the
planning of the “final solution” – the destruction of the Jews and others. He used it for his
infamous speech and propaganda video. The Nazis were heavily involved in Satanism
and the occult.
Pergamos also had the doctrine of Balaam which included eating things offered to idols
and fornication (Rev 2:14). This was a problem for those Gentiles that had become
Christians (Acts 15:19-20). Balaam was a soothsayer who hired by the Moabites to curse
Israel (Num 22-24). When God refused to allow him to curse His people, he told Moab to
have their women seduce them into fornication and idolatry as a way getting them to
curse themselves (Num 25, Num 31:16, 2Pet 2:15, Jude 11). Pergamos also had the
doctrine of the Nicolaitans (Rev 2:15). Some connect the two doctrines, but the phrase
"So hast thou also" at the start of verse 15 shows a distinction.
4. Thyatira had Jezebel who taught fornication and eating things offered to idols (Rev 2:20),
which was a doctrine and the depths of Satan (Rev 2:24). Thyatira was where Lydia the
first disciple of Philippi was from (Acts 16:12-15). This city was known for its cloth dyed
purple. Jezebel was the wicked, pagan, Gentile queen of wicked king Ahab of Israel (1Ki
16-2Ki 9). It was her false prophets and prophets of Baal Elijah had killed. Jezebel did
not literally live in Thyatira almost 1,000 years later. It is her spirit and practices that did.
5. Although Philadelphia kept God’s word (Rev 3:8), they had the synagogue of Satan and
false Jews (Rev 3:9)
So, in summary the issues addressed in Revelation 2-3 described above were about false teachers which had gotten into the church. They presented themselves as Christians teaching the word of God but were in fact representatives of Satan teaching people to direct their worship and affection away from God to idols (which can be anything we prioritize over God – Col 3:5), and to sexual immorality. There was also apparently the setting up of religious hierarchy based in the authority of man and not God. Although these letters were written to churches almost 2,000 years ago, they are highly relevant today. These are critical issues the church faces now. Also, any false doctrine is equally as dangerous to people’s relationship with God and to the mission of the church. “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners (1Cor 15:33).” Don’t just assume that because someone presents themselves as Christian and even quotes the Bible that they are doctrinally sound. Satan quoted the Bible in his temptation of Jesus (Mt 4:6). The most dangerous lie is a half-truth. Just because someone is physically in the house of God does not make them a Christian or doctrinally sound. “But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonor (2Tim 2:20).” In the context of 2Tim 2:15-26, this is talking about people at the church who are doctrinally sound and those who are not. Satan went before the throne of God to accuse Job (Job 1-2). Access to location does not equal access to divine approval. We must know the Lord and His word for ourselves (2Tim 2:15, 1Jn 2:27, 1Jn 5:20-21). That is the only way to tell the difference between the real and the infiltrator. It is not enough to be around those that do.