Persecution, deception, and moral erosion … the devil’s strategy is still the same.

The following is taken from remarks by Billy Graham at the annual retreat of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association last January. This is an informal talk to an audience of close friends, associates, staff members, members of the BGEA board, and invited family members.

The messages in Revelation to the seven churches of Asia are among the most important passages we can study today. These seven churches, all on the western seaboard of modern Turkey, were relatively young, but already the devil was at work. His strategy: persecution; intellectual deception, including false teaching; and moral erosion, including sub-Christian ethical standards. The diabolical strategy is still the same.

The first chapter of Revelation is a rich description of our Lord. Around him were seven separate lampstands, each representing one of the seven churches. His right hand held seven stars. Stars and lamps shed light. Churches and Christians are to be light-bearers in a dark world. Are you bearing the light, the reflected glory of your Lord Jesus Christ, in your life, your ministry, and your family?

The church of Ephesus represents the danger of leaving our first love. In Acts 19 we learn what a great beginning that church had had. Paul spent two-and-one-half years there. The Lord said, I know your works. You are a good church. You have worked hard. You have endured much. You are patient. You have had the courage to throw out error, you have discipline in the church. Nevertheless, he had something against them. They had left their first love. He didn’t tell the Ephesians that they had lost their first love, but that they had left it. This was an act of the will.

To love is an act of the will. If it weren’t it could not be commanded. The church in Ephesus had left the intensity of its first love. Was it the church’s first love for God? For each other as people? For the poor and the oppressed? Perhaps, but I think primarily what the church had left was love for men’s souls.

Christ told the Ephesian Christians, “Unless you repent, I will come and take away your lampstand, and with it my power.” That’s something to take notice of. No organization or congregation has a secure, permanent place in the world. Each is continuously on trial. Many churches today are bereft of power. Their buildings remain intact, their ministers continue to minister, their congregations to congregate. But their lampstand has been removed. Has your home church left its first love? Is there any hint that our organization has lost its passion, drifted from its first love, its first calling? Have you left your first love? Be warned before the lampstand is withdrawn, the power removed. Renew your devotion to me, says Christ. Repent and recapture that first love.

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The message to the second church, Smyrna, is taken up almost entirely with the suffering of the people because of their testimony for the Lord. The Smymans were very poor, perhaps like the people of India, where poverty is so intense. Jesus told the church at Smyrna that he knew they were very poor. But like the Macedonians, they shared from their poverty with others. And all over India collections were taken in churches for those who died or were left homeless by a cyclone and a gigantic tidal wave that hit that land last year. Gifts from ordinary people are so precious, like the widow’s mite.

The church at Smyrna also faced slander. Jesus said, “I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews, but are not.…” Tongues were wagging busily in the town. False rumors were circulating. Jesus describes their source, the false Jews, as the synagogue of Satan. The malicious stories were patterned after the ways of the devil, the accuser, the slanderer.

On the television program “Sixty Minutes” there was a report on a widely circulated sensational weekly paper. They interviewed people who were buying the paper at grocery store check-out counters. “Do you believe what you read in this paper?” the reporter asked. “No,” came the reply, “but we like to read it anyway.” Gossip holds a strange fascination for all of us.

The new trend in the American press toward interpretive news rather than objective journalism encourages gossip. It affects me and it affects the Christian Church, especially with the increased publicity given to what the press calls the born-again movement. C.H. Spurgeon once wrote of “hot sweat rising from my brow under some fresh slander poured upon me.” But he added later: “If to be made as the mire of the streets again, if to be made a laughingstock of fools and the song of the drunkard once more will make me more serviceable to my master and more useful to his cause, I will prefer it to all this multitude and to all the applause that man could give.”

Christians at Smyrna faced physical persecution as well as slander. In A.D. 156 Bishop Polycarp refused to bow to Caesar as god. They burned him at the stake. A great wind blew away the fire, so a soldier hurled a spear into his body to end his life. Festo Kivengere tells of suffering today in Uganda. He tells of a man being executed for his faith in Jesus Christ. He stood against a tree and faced the firing squad. He asked to speak: “I love you, I love my country, and I want to sing a song.” Then he began “Out of my bondage, sorrow and night, Jesus I come …” He was shot. And many thousands have met a like fate for their testimony to Christ.

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Around the world there is a growing revival, and at the same time a growing hostility. Jesus said, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer.” When I read about some of the methods of torture used today, I often wonder if I would deny my Lord. I’ve wanted to ask the Lord to preserve me from any such trial. If that is God’s will for me, then that is what I want. And yet, I don’t want it.

The message to the church at Pergamos speaks of the danger of theological compromise. “I know … where thou dwellest,” Christ said, “even where Satan’s seat is.” Pergamos had many temples and altars. Christ commends them for not denying their faith. But he pointedly warns them about heresies and theological compromise creeping into the church. The sin at Pergamos, for which the Lord demands immediate repentance, was not that the whole church had given in to heresy. Only a few had departed from the narrow path of truth. The sin was that the church tolerated theological error in its midst, taking no corrective action, applying no discipline.

We cannot be indifferent about truth. We can love those who err or who vacillate doctrinally, but we cannot permit the weakening of sacred revealed truth. Truth becomes hard and bitter if it is not softened by love. But some Christians try to make love paramount, leaving adherence to revealed truth as the second priority. They are equal. The Lord states that if doctrinal error is tolerated and allowed to grow, if true teaching is watered down, he will attack with a sword. The lampstand and the power will be withdrawn. The warning still applies to us today.

We are living in a day of evangelical resurgence. Many views are being expressed about the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and social involvement. As the views are argued, they become to some extent divisive. But certain theological positions are not open to negotiation. They are the fundamentals—the Virgin Birth of Christ, his vicarious atonement, his bodily resurrection, and the certainty of his coming again. Further, we will not compromise on the authority of Scripture. I believe that the Bible is infallible. But I can fellowship with people whose views vary from mine. Also, we cannot compromise our ethical standards. Integrity and holy lives are essential. You can have the highest view of Scripture and believe all the great doctrines about Christ, but if you are morally lax, God’s power will be withdrawn.

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Moral compromise is the central danger in Christ’s message to the church at Thyatira. Christ strongly commends that church for its works, charity, service, faith, and patience. Here was a living, growing church with much to its credit, perhaps very much like your own church. Even so, the Lord has a few things against them. Some Christians were practicing sexual immorality. Some were eating foods sacrificed to idols. The emphasis here is not on doctrinal error, but on moral sin. The Lord indicates that though immorality was not rampant in the congregation, the church was tolerating moral sin. They either had a poor conscience or little courage. They overlooked sinful practices and began to think God might overlook them too. It doesn’t work that way. In the message to Thyatira, the Lord describes himself as having eyes like a flame of fire.

Now I think this problem of moral compromise is not just about gross sins, but includes what we sometimes consider “little” things. Remember, Christ praised the church at Thyatira before warning about moral compromise. The warning is not for dead organizations, failing churches, inactive Christians. It is for active, Christ-honoring groups and individuals. It is a very appropriate warning to you and to me.

Last year, Kenneth Kantzer spoke in Atlanta about worldliness, and one of his points struck me personally. Our permissive society has affected me: I watch things on television today I would not have tolerated in my life twenty years ago. Am I being slowly brainwashed by Satan’s forces, by the very culture about which the Lord says, “Come out from among them and be separate and touch not the unclean thing”?

Where should we draw the line? In these areas of entertainment the lines have become blurred. Where do we distinguish between what a non-Christian enjoys and what a Christian should enjoy? I tell you frankly that I feel convicted in this area. The same subtle, creeping compromise confronts us also in what we say, do, and tolerate. If I do not repent, if you or your church continue to ignore moral compromise, God’s power will be removed.

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I’ve always dreaded the day when I would get up to preach and the power of God would not be there. Many years ago I met a gifted evangelist at a Midwest conference center. His ministry had been long and full of power. He invited me to his room, closed the door, and said, “Billy, you’re just starting out. I want to tell you something. I preached tonight, but what most of the people didn’t know is that I had no power with God. I have not had power with God in two years. I am a sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.” He told me that he had committed a grievous sin, and he told me what the sin was. “I have repented now,” he said, “and I feel that I am forgiven, but the power has not been restored.” Integrity, honesty, truthfulness, avoidance of worldliness—these are things God expects. He is looking for men and women who are holy, not people with great gifts.

The message to the church at Sardis stresses the danger of spiritual deadness. The socially distinguished congregation there was a spiritual graveyard. It seemed to be alive, but it was actually dead, an empty shell, one of the first churches in history to be filled with nominal Christians. We often hear of churches like this. Outward appearances can be deceptive. In Sardis, the Christians who did not share in the general stagnation are described as people who have not soiled their garments. Such spiritual deadness is soiling; it is dirt. Beneath the nice exterior was secret uncleanness. At Thyatira the problem was tolerating open compromise and known sin. In Sardis the uncleanness was hidden. How easily and deceptively—if slowly—the leaven of worldliness can spread through a body.

What would Jesus say to us today? What is he saying? How many of us are hypocrites? Do we preach one thing and do another? Have we a form of godliness but deny the power thereof? To the Sardis congregation Christ said four things. He warned them to wake up, to strengthen what remains, to remember what they had received, and to repent. Whether it be Sardis, or the church today, or you or me, the message is the same. If there is hidden uncleanness, repent, or the power will be removed.

The church at Philadelphia represents problems and opportunities in evangelism. There is a door open that no man can shut. The Gospel must be preached in all the world and then the end shall come. I believe it is possible for the Gospel to be preached in all the world right now. I have seen the tremendous antennas of the Far East Broadcasting Company, beaming the Gospel all over China and Russia and most of the rest of the world’s population.

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We hear stories about what God is doing today in China. My wife is a China watcher. She has her contacts and her special ways of finding out things about China, but the church there is an underground church, and the stories she hears cannot be told publicly lest they hurt someone. Ruth reminds me often that we need to be preparing the church in America to go underground, because that may be where we’re headed. It may not be too long before judgment comes upon America and upon Europe, leaving us to face hostility and oppression as Christians.

One China story I can tell you about involves a famous violinist from Hong Kong. He taught in Peking for five years at the invitation of prime minister Chou En Lai. After Chou died the violinist’s request for an exit visa was refused. He started going to the visa office every day. One day as he stood in line a little man walked up and slipped a piece of paper into his pocket. It was a page torn from the Bible. The next day the same little man approached and asked if he wanted another piece of paper. Eventually that musician put together enough of the Gospel of John that he became convicted and was converted to Christ. Today he is a Christian violinist teaching in Vienna.

Christ told the church at Philadelphia that they had before them an open door. This represented the door of salvation, yes, and the door of service, too, but I think primarily the Lord meant here openings to spread the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire of the first century. Wherever these early Christians went, they found groping minds and hungry hearts. The old pagan superstitions were being abandoned. The Holy Spirit was stirring the thoughts and desires of men and women.

The same thing is happening today—in Asia, in Europe, certainly in Latin America. I have never seen such an open door to evangelism. We have never known so many invitations for major crusades as we are getting now. They come from places we never expected to go. We can only say that God has set before us an open door.

In the message to Philadelphia, Christ says he has the keys. He opens the doors that no man can shut. We can’t barge ahead of him, but we must take the opportunities he creates. We must go through the doors he opens. That applies not only to a church or an evangelistic organization. It applies to individuals.

Once I felt under a sort of legalism to hand a tract to everyone I met, to speak of Christ to every person I encountered. Then as I “matured” I got out from under that legalism. In retrospect I believe that was wrong. I have recently begun speaking about Christ to as many people as I can. And I have seen people come to Christ unexpectedly.

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I don’t think this means every Christian has to witness to every person he meets on every occasion. Each of us needs to discover for ourselves what God expects. But I believe many people are ready to accept Christ, if someone would show them how. I believe there is a fear and an uncertainty in the world. There is a loneliness among people, and a guilt. Now is the accepted time, Scripture says. I have set before you an open door. Remember that discipling is an essential part of evangelism. Witnessing without followup is not biblical evangelism.

Finally, the message to Laodicea deals with complacency. “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot; I would that thou wert.… Because thou art lukewarm … I will spew thee out of my mouth.” Laodiceans felt they were rich. So they became complacent. In America today we have gadgets and money and computers. We can have things done automatically. We can buy what we need. Compared to the rest of the world, we are rich, and we need nothing.

But it is all like Ezekiel’s dry bones. With comfortable resources and comfortable incomes we can easily become complacent. The Laodiceans thought they were prospering, but God looked into their hearts and said, no, you are “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.”

The familiar verse that begins “Behold I stand at the door and knock …” was written to the Laodiceans. It is a part of Christ’s message to them. Here is God’s message to each of us. Christ is knocking. The message is “repent.” Don’t get comfortable. Don’t count on prosperity. Don’t allow complacency to creep in.

God has entrusted much to us. It is my earnest prayer that nothing in our lives will stand in the way of continual outpouring of God’s Spirit on us and on this great work he has given us.

(For C.W.)
Thomas reached out
To Christ’s wounds,
Put man’s flesh
In God’s dark places,
Felt his own darkness
And found the Light.
We too have left You in the tomb,
Have closed ourselves
To open promises.
Those dark, dry days
Have been for us death
And bring about birth.
Blind and alone
We enter pain and thirst,
Find in that desert,
In that night of choice,
Our own, awful beauty.
We pass through that side.
In the darkness that bares
This dawning day.
We reach into Your wounds
And know our own.
By this touch You unveil
The living sacrifice.
And make our hands Yours.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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