The Feelings of Jesus' Heart
His Whole Person's Affective Narrative
Chapter 5 Completing or Competing Narratives
“As you complete my outcomes…take to heart, I am with you always,
so you will never be relational orphans to the end of the age.”
“You have disengaged from the relational involvement of love
that was your relational reality at first.”
The profiles of Jesus displayed by Christians in the world today are being challenged by many who witness them. Their objections speak to the underlying issue about Christians portraying Jesus based on extrinsic portraits over intrinsic profiles, and thus rendered more in their own likeness than his likeness. Consequently, the bias of these variable profiles displayed and/or proclaimed by their faith lacks the essential significance of his whole person. Therefore, Jesus himself would not only challenge these Christians but confront them at the heart of their faith.
The affective narrative of Jesus’ feelings can easily be perceived as portraying his human dimension embodied by the incarnation. This is not only a misleading assumption but also limits and constrains his person to the bias of human lenses. Jesus’ feelings are also God’s feelings, whose heart was vulnerably embodied, revealed and enacted, which is the only basis for the heart of human persons to be in his, God’s likeness. Thus, in his post-ascension narrative, the heart of his whole person continues to be vulnerably expressing God’s feelings.
What unfolds continues to be the affective narrative of his person, which he enacts after his ascension in this vulnerable extension of his heart involvement—his ongoing involvement that either supports those functioning with heart level involvement in a completing narrative, or critiques those engaged in a competing narrative. This either-or process can be overtly explicit, indirect, or simply implied.
The first recorded appearance Jesus makes is an interaction with a person whom he pursues to both critique and support. In a vulnerable connection Jesus pours out his pain, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Jesus takes personally in his heart all the counter-efforts Saul engaged against his followers. So, when Saul asks, “Who are you?” Jesus shares his heart to correct him, “I am Jesus, whom you are countering to negate in your competing narrative.” But, then, on the other hand, with no other apparent explanation except for the grace of God, Jesus implies his forgiveness of Saul and implicitly sets him on a new path for his life. This pivotal juncture will be transforming for Saul, whereby he will undergo the redemptive change from his old competing narrative to rise up in the new completing narrative. In explicit support of Saul’s turnaround, Jesus communicates directly with a disciple named Ananias and unequivocally directs him to support Saul’s transformation. Even though this baffled Ananias, who knew of Saul’s competitive narrative, he fulfills the desires of Jesus’ heart, so that Saul will have the support needed to be a key person completing Jesus’ outcomes.
Saul’s sudden and quick turnaround has the appearance of a mere miracle by Jesus’ touch, but the process of Saul undergoing redemptive change should not be underestimated, much less overlooked. Jesus didn’t have unrealistic expectations of Paul but realistic assurance of his own outcomes.
Redemptive change is a struggle for Jesus’ disciples. For example, the early church is inequitable because it maintains traditions that treat persons unequally. Peter is at the center of this fragmenting process, since he hangs onto remnants of the old defining his identity and determining his function that makes outer-in distinctions among persons. Thus, as a relational extension of his last heartfelt interaction with Peter (“Do you love me?”), Jesus deeply intervenes on his and the church’s competing narrative to facilitate their redemptive change. His words firmly communicated to Peter seem indirect, but they clearly imply that Peter didn’t listen to Jesus’ teaching about what is clean or unclean. The old in Peter and the majority of the church, however, assert their biased lens shaped by their tradition and culture of such distinction-making. And Peter has to change in order to take the lead to bring this change to the church. Since God makes no distinctions of and between persons, anyone who does engages a competitive process that counters Jesus’ outcomes, not helps complete them.
Jesus’ intervention helps Peter change on the theological level, but on the emotional level he still struggles—with relational consequences for Jesus’ gospel, for which Paul later confronts Peter and others joining him, to change at their heart level. It now becomes apparent that Paul assumes the key function at the epicenter of completing the outcomes of Jesus’ gospel and his church—not a gospel or a church that competes with his, no matter how conservative the theology or innovative the practice. Therefore, those will be outcomes that will dissettle the Jewish people and rock the surrounding Graeco-Roman world.
The remaining interactions of his post-ascension narrative—at least, which are recorded for the Word—concentrate on church (Rev 2-3). Jesus expands on his formative family prayer (Jn 17) to clarify the ecclesiology necessary for his church to be whole in God’s likeness. As the early global church forms, there are seven representative churches that Jesus, together with the Spirit, address either in their support or critique. Out of the seven, only two are involved in a completing narrative that warranted Jesus’ support. But the large majority of churches are diversely engaged in a competing narrative, the diversity of which misrepresents his gospel and thus counters his outcomes—churches even with the best of intentions. Under these conditions, Jesus confronts their practice and corrects their theology, the theology and practice which rendered these churches subtly to a competing narrative.
With his direct relational response Jesus integrates the theological framework for globecclesiology with the essential relational work to make whole his church family in the world but not of the world. The outcomes from this segment of his post-ascension narrative will be the basis for any future unrecorded interactions Jesus will have in supporting those involved in completing narratives, and in critiquing those engaged in competing narratives.
The churches critiqued by Jesus each vary in their ways, and it is important to know their surrounding contexts in order to understand for what Jesus holds them accountable. Moreover, underlying their diverse ways is a common function that determines why and how they operate in a competing narrative. And the Word, who communicates explicitly to churches here and indirectly to its leaders, will continue to resonate for churches in the future—notably today, similarly encompassing the majority composing the global church.
Each of these churches is notable for its own variation of church practice, which parallel church practices today. An underlying issue, however, common to these churches emerges in Jesus’ correction of them: the referentialization of the Word from God’s whole relational terms (composing Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path) to referential terms. In its common mode, referentialization of the Word involves a narrowing-down process resulting in an incomplete, selective or otherwise distorted view of the Word—for example, not closely listening to the Word discussed above, notably his defining prayer for his church family—which then reshapes his theological trajectory and fragments his relational path that compose a competing narrative. One of the common theological consequences of fragmenting the Word is substituting a hybrid theology for whole theology; and this further results in related consequences of fragmenting practice by substituting hybrid practice for whole practice.
A hybrid process emerges clearly in the church in Thyatira (Rev 2:18-19). Thyatira’s economy emphasized trades (including brass-working) and crafts (cf. Acts 16:14). In the Greco-Roman world of that time, trade guilds organized the various trades and were necessary to belong to if one wanted to pursue a trade (much like unions today). These guilds served various social functions as well, one of which was to meet for common meals dedicated to their patron deities, thereby engaging in activities of pagan worship and immorality. For Christians not to belong to a guild and participate would generally mean becoming isolated economically and socially. The economic structure of this church’s surrounding context shaped them to take an apparent pragmatic approach to their practice of faith, rather than become isolated economically and socially.
In the nature of this surrounding context, Jesus acknowledges this church’s extensive Christian practice: love, faith, service, patient endurance, and that their “last works are greater than the first,” indicating not a status-quo church but actually performing more practice than before. Yet, what Jesus clarifies and corrects are that their practice also “tolerated” (aphiemi, to let pass, permit, allow, v.20) a prevailing teaching and practice from the surrounding context (likely related to trade-guilds), which compromised the integrity of whole theology and practice. Significantly, their hybrid process is not simply an issue about syncretism, synthesizing competing ideologies, or even pluralism; and the issue also goes beyond merely maintaining doctrinal purity (as another church will soon demonstrate) to the deeper issue about participation in (en) a surrounding context having the prevailing presence of reductionism and its subsequent influence on their perceptual-interpretive lens. Their lens, of course, determines what they ignore (or tolerate) and pay attention to, which shapes their practice in a hybrid process (like the church in Pergamum, (2:12-17).
Theologically, the Thyatira church demonstrates a weak view of sin, that is, sin without reductionism, consequently what they certainly must have considered good works is ‘good without wholeness’. Functionally, this exposes their lack of reciprocal relational involvement with God in the indispensable “out of the world-into the world” (ek-eis) reciprocating dynamic necessary to distinguish their whole identity as God’s family in the surrounding context without being fragmented by it in a hybrid process. What converges in a hybrid process is critical to listen to carefully and pay attention to closely: ‘sin without reductionism’ subtly composes ‘good without wholeness’, so that the church’s theology and practice are not distinguished whole in the world—though perhaps having longstanding, popular or uncompromising distinction in the surrounding context (as other churches demonstrated), which does not impress Jesus.
To what extent does a hybrid process shape the global church today? Added attention needs to be paid to global South churches, who must adapt to a global economy, fixed cultural traditions, and even the spirit world. Yet, common practices by global North churches already demonstrate having absorbed the limits and constraints from the common into their theology and practice, although the hybrid process is much more subtle.
The influence of reductionism is usually more subtle than witnessed in the Thyatira church, as becomes evident increasingly in the other churches Jesus addresses. The subtlety should not be lost to us because the recurring issues Jesus clarifies and corrects also penetrate deeper into the global church today.
Next is the church in Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22), perhaps the most recognized of these churches due to familiarity of key words by Jesus: “you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot…. Listen! I am standing at the door knocking.” Now his words need to be heard in this church’s full context.
Laodicea’s water supply was unique—hot water piped in from hot springs and cold water trenched in from the mountains—yet what characterizes this church is how common it was. Western churches, notably in the U.S., need to pay added attention here. This is a rich city known as a prosperous banking center, for its textile industry and its renowned medical school—cultivating great pride by their residents in their financial wealth, fine clothes and famous eye salve. The church there isn’t isolated from this context but shaped by these secondary substitutes for the primary. The state of the church reports this self-assessment: “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing” (v.17). Whether or not they consider themselves “hot” as a church, they certainly thought they are a good church compared to a “cold” church. It is unlikely that anyone would consider them “not good,” particularly in comparative church history. In prevalent ecclesiastical terms, they are good indeed, yet measured only on the basis of outer-in quantitative terms focused on the secondary (cf. a marketplace). Their narrow lens and fragmentary basis reflect how they define persons from outer in by what they did and possessed, which signify how they engage each other in relationships, thereby determining the basis for how they practice church. Underlying their practices is a theological anthropology of reduced ontology and function—subtle but common theology and practice of most churches. This is the fragmentary condition that the embodied Word (in and from the beginning) clarifies and corrects to expose the true state of their church from inner out in qualitative relational terms, the reality of which composes an inconvenient truth for the church: “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked,” which certainly then is “not good”—even by common comparative terms.
The strength of Jesus’ feedback—which doesn’t appear to be loving or, at least, irenic—is necessary to penetrate their self-assessment illusion shaped by reductionism and to expose their functional simulation with substitutes composed by reductionism. Since they are not paying attention to reductionism, he strongly reminds them that “the measure they were using was the measure they were getting,” and that they could neither boast of nor even hope for having anything more. Just as their water supply turned lukewarm by the time it reached the city and was an inconvenience to their lifestyle, the reality for this church is the condition of being lukewarm. For Jesus, their lukewarm church practice is not only inconvenient but distasteful—if you’ve ever had lukewarm water on a hot day—“I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Even if they were “cold,” at least they wouldn’t operate the church with illusions. Lukewarm, however, is a subtle practice from reductionism that promotes the status quo; it signifies what is common in the surrounding context and serves to maintain the status quo of the common—with no thought, desire or need to be distinguished as the uncommon in likeness of Jesus. In other words, this church embodied the common theology and practice that what’s good (or at least OK) for the church is ‘good without wholeness’; and it maintains this illusion because it only acknowledges any sin as ‘sin without reductionism’, while ignoring ‘sin as reductionism’ of their persons, relationships and thus church under the assumption that they are not reduced or fragmented. Does this explain Jesus’ feelings of “spit you out of my mouth”?
Moreover, and this is crucial today for the global church to listen and pay attention to, the prevailing reality is that the Internet and social media have amplified the comparative process to compose “virtual good.” And these pervasive messages and referential information subtly both shape our lens and thinking as well as construct illusions and simulations in our practice. Churches (including the global South) are neither isolated nor immune from this globalized comparative system. Think about all the church and academy websites, and remember the early disciples primary concern for “which of them is the greatest.” How much does this create a consumer mentality promoting consumer products to feed our consumption of what’s good? Therefore, since Christians and churches are exposed to and participate in this comparative process, we cannot assume any longer that “we are not and will not be reduced or fragmented.”
What Jesus found in the Laodicean church he continues to find common in churches today. As we listen to the Word and to reductionism, we also need to listen to him pursuing us at the door of our hearts (3:20). His family love seeks for his family to be uncommonly whole together in likeness of the whole and uncommon God, which is irreducible to anything less and nonnegotiable with any substitutes—notably prevalent in the surrounding contexts. The classic image of Jesus knocking at the door is a metaphor of his deep desires and the redemptive change needed for this relational outcome—a metaphor relationally directed less to the individual (as is Christian convention) and more to his church family, the full context for ecclesiology to be whole.
The pervasive influences of reductionism in churches is to be expected when they don’t pay close attention to their theology and practice shaped by ‘good without wholeness’ and ignore the presence in their midst of sin as reductionism. The convenient alternative assumed in theology and practice—which readily provides a rationale for this to continue, even develop into traditions—is some hybrid. This is the subtle challenge unfolding from reductionism that continues to be engaged with increasing subtlety. Two other churches demonstrated an increased subtlety in their theology and practice, which listening to the Word will help us understand the dynamic of reductionism and its counter-relational workings even in our prominent churches that, comparatively speaking, put lukewarm churches to shame.
The next church is in Sardis (Rev 3:1-3). They have “a name, reputation, brand [onoma] of being alive” apparently in the prevailing perception surrounding them, even though this city hosts many pagan cults whose practices pervaded the surrounding context. The implication here, which we need to understand fully, is that this church lives behind their name, reputation, brand, that is, onoma is used as the substitute for what a person (in this case church) actually is. A popular name or brand, for example, is highly respected and has a strong reputation (perhaps even appeal) in the surrounding context, which in a diverse context like Sardis commanded even more acclaim. Yet, does this onoma actually represent what the church is, or merely represent what the church hopes to be, hopes to achieve in the surrounding context or even hopes to claim in their comparative system? That is to say, does their onoma in reality become a reductionist substitute for what the church actually needs to be?
Jesus simply isn’t impressed by their practice and makes no such assumptions about them being alive in their ontology and function. Rather he examines how they function, that is, examines in relational terms through his qualitative whole lens penetrating inner out with family love. Though he is subjected to reductionism yet not determined by the influence of the surrounding bias perceiving this church—which is important for us to distinguish in our church assessments—Jesus then exposes what actually exists beneath the outer layer (and onoma) of “being alive”: the simple, if not inconvenient, truth is, “contrary to your esteemed identity, you are dead” (nekros, the condition of being separated from the source of life, thus being unaccompanied by something, i.e. “to be apart”); this reality based on the fact that “I have not found your practice complete [pleroo] in the sight of my God”; that is, their ergon (works denoting what defines them) is incomplete (contrary to pleroo, to make full, complete or whole) and fragmentary based on God’s whole terms, not as defined by the surrounding context. This church assumes that ‘the measure they used’ for their ecclesiology and practice would not reduce or fragment their ontology and function; yet the often-ignored subtle reality is that such a consequence is ‘the measure they got’—just as Jesus earlier made axiomatic as well as paradigmatic (Mk 4:24).
Is there also something more specific missing in their church practice that we can understand? Unlikely if we are listening only in referential terms, yet there is indeed in relational terms. Since no explicit sins such as idol worship and sexual immorality are mentioned (as in Thyatira), their incomplete deeds point to something more subtle or lacking. Their activity is perceived as alive, yet likely in the quantitative aspects of bios, not the qualitative function of zoe. Their reputation signifies only a substitute (onoma) of the integral identity of who, what and how Jesus’ church is, consequently lacks the integrity of wholeness. While Jesus’ polemic about soiled and white (leukos, bright, gleaming) clothes describes those incomplete and a remnant who aren’t incomplete respectively, bright clothes symbolized those who participate in God’s life (3:4).This is about reciprocal relationship and involvement together, which soiled clothes symbolizes a barrier to, precludes or maintains with relational distance. Any type of “soiled” clothes—whether stained by blatant sin or dirtied from subtle incomplete work, including preoccupation with the secondary—would have this relational consequence.
What this more subtly indicates is the lack or absence of ongoing involvement in the ‘out of the world-into the world’ (ek-eis) relational dynamic that Jesus made the relational imperative for his church family to be distinguished in the surrounding contexts of the world (Jesus’ definitive family prayer, Jn 17)—distinguished in their whole and uncommon identity from the common and fragmentary surrounding them. Without this relational outcome from the ek-eis relational dynamic, this church became subject to the shaping influence of reductionism with the following consequences:
Therefore, they were unable to distinguish being whole from reductionist substitutes in their practice, which emerged from subtly renegotiating God’s whole relational terms down to their terms, thereby submitting to a comparative process measured by ‘good without wholeness’, which composed their illusion and simulation of being alive, unable to perceive that “you are reduced and fragmented,” which rendered them to reflect, reinforce and sustain the human condition “not good to be apart,” leaving them to know only ‘sin without reductionism’—the biased knowledge of good and evil too many churches are subject to and thus shaped by.
It seems incongruent that this highly esteemed church is so incomplete. Their practice obviously wasn’t lukewarm to reflect a status-quo church as in Laodicea. Yet, the subtle self-contradiction is that what often appears compatible to Christ’s church (known early as the Way) is in reality not congruent with the trajectory of Jesus’ relational path embodying God’s whole relational terms (cf. Mt 7:22-23). Being complete and whole and not reduced or fragmented has been an ongoing issue in church history, with recurring issues facing the global church today. Yet, the issue of not being complete or being whole started back at creation and the purpose to “fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). The Hebrew term for “fill” (male) generally denotes completion of something that was unfinished. When God declared “it is not good for human persons to be apart,” God started, with Adam and Eve, the relational context and process of the function to be God’s family. This was later fulfilled by Jesus—as he declared “I will not leave you as relational orphans” and sent us the Spirit for completion of his interpersonal outcomes—in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love. This relational context and process of God’s family were not the primary function of the Sardis church’s involvement and ministry, so Jesus critiques what they “filled their church” with, as he does all churches—critiquing, not supporting, churches engaged in a competing narrative.
In spite of how well the Sardis church presented itself (its appearance) and how well it was perceived (its image), qualitative substance was lacking. This reflected a shift in how they defined themselves from the inner out to the outer-in aspects and functions (metaschematizo, change outward form). Their lack of deeper qualitative substance exposed the credibility of their reputation as essentially meaningless—though worth an image in comparative reductionists terms—while the validity of their work (apparent service and ministry) was relationally insignificant because they were separated (“to be apart”) from the substance primary to wholeness of life.
Some may say that these are severe critiques Jesus made of a church that at least was doing something to earn that reputation of being alive—unlike the Laodicean church’s lukewarmness. The choice essentially of style over substance is not unique to the church in Sardis. In fact, the distinction between style (for appearance and image) and substance is blurred in many current church practices. Yet, the credibility gap between what appears to be and what actually exists is not readily apparent to a church and observers, when a church relies on what it does to define itself. Reputation becomes one of those valued indicators of success that many churches depend on for feedback to evaluate their work—or value to validate their position in God’s kingdom. Jesus asks, “What are we filling our churches with?” The above is not the dynamic of pleroo (making complete, whole) that distinguishes the pleroma (fullness, i.e. whole) of Christ (as Paul illuminated for the church’s wholeness, Eph 1:23).
Jesus’ family love functions for the integrity of relationship together to be whole, and for accountability for anything less and any substitutes. Thus, Jesus’ critiques are ‘a critique of hope’ in his call to be whole—a functional key in his involvement for ecclesiology to be God’s whole family. When Jesus confronted them to “wake up,” the sense of this two-word combination (gregoreuo and ginomai, v.2) is to emerge as new, whole persons. This was not about self-determination but redemptive change—the relational imperative for transformation. They needed to be transformed in the inner-out aspects and functions (metamorphoo, the inward change of transformation) of the person and relationships, while being redeemed from the outer-in aspects and functions (metaschematizo) that does not give full importance to the qualitative function of the whole person (signified only by the heart) and the primacy of relationships together in likeness of “my God.” Their outer-in over inner-out way of defining themselves determined what they paid attention to in how they did relationships and how they practiced church—which were not complete but fragmentary and thus without wholeness. The Father makes it a relational imperative for us to “Listen to him in his wake-up call.”
The last church in this majority group is in Ephesus (Rev 2:1-4). It is the first church recorded in Jesus’ critiques yet it summarizes the primary issue underlying the other churches, as well as many others through church history into the present. When reductionism is not carefully listened to and its counter-relational workings is not closely monitored in its subtlety, there is an increasing loss of qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness.
This loss emerged initially in the primordial garden when persons changed from “naked and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:25) in the primacy of whole relational terms from inner out, to “naked and covered themselves” (Gen 3:7) in fragmentary referential terms from outer in. The shift to referential terms from relational terms is often more implicit than in this scene, and thus is easily overlooked if we don’t pay attention in church practice to both the quantitative having the main focus over the qualitative and the secondary having more priority over the primary. The referentialization of the Word is the prime indicator of this shift, resulting in a distinct qualitative insensitivity and relational unawareness of the primacy of relationship together distinguishing God’s family—just as the embodied Word prayed only in relational terms (Jn 17:23,26). The church in Ephesus demonstrates this shift and its relational consequence. As you listen, compare this church with churches today and see if there are recurring issues.
In his post-ascension narrative, Jesus consistently discloses knowing these different churches’ “works” or deeds (ergon, what defined them). The list of the Ephesian church’s deeds is impressive: their “toil” (kopos, denotes not so much the actual effort but the weariness experienced from that effort); their “endurance” (hypomone, endurance as to things and circumstances, in contrast to patience toward persons; signifies character that does not allow losing to circumstances, cf. church in Thyatira); they maintained the doctrinal purity of the church under trying circumstances and did not tolerate falsehood, unlike the Thyatira church and its hybrid theology; they even suffered repercussions for Christ’s name and yet endured the hardships to remain constant in their faith. It seems fair to say that their theological orthodoxy or conservativism appeared uncompromising and spotless, maintaining their integrity in the surrounding context. This list forms a composite picture describing how they are, what they do and are involved in, which essentially is extremely dedicated in major church work, and which can also describe a number of successful churches today.
Jesus knows not merely the information about their deeds but also knows (oida) the nature of them, and the extent of their functional significance. It may seem somewhat perplexing that Jesus is not impressed with this church and even feels to the contrary about their church practice: “You have abandoned the love you had at first” (v.4). We may wonder “how can a church so involved in church work abandon its first love?” If this were not Jesus’ own critique, we would easily discount this as a misguided conclusion or uninformed allegation. Yet, his strong critique here for the integrity of his church raises a serious issue of church function, which is crucial to account for in how we practice church ourselves. His critique makes conclusive the very heart of his desires for his church to be whole in relationships together as his family.
The term “abandoned” (aphiemi) means to forsake, abandon persons, to leave, let go from oneself or let alone; and this also includes functionally maintaining relational distance even while in close physical proximity or in mutual activity. Aphiemi is the same term Jesus used in his promise to “not leave his followers orphaned” (Jn 14:18). Connecting these relational messages provides the context and process for the function of ecclesiology to be God’s whole family. In the church context at Ephesus this strongly describes not paying attention to the whole person and not giving primary priority to whole relationship together. They worked hard doing things for God but the relational process necessary for their “works” to have functional significance was deemphasized or misplaced in their effort. This often happens as churches develop and the goals of church growth become the priority of church practice. In the process, as the Ephesian church demonstrated, there is a subtle shift in which the means become the end and its primary purpose for relationship together to be whole is abandoned or made secondary.
As the term hypomone for “perseverance” denotes, they were so focused on circumstances and situations such that persons (especially God) unintentionally were ignored in relationship, inadvertently left in relational distance or emotionally forgotten. This is a common relational consequence when secondary matters (such as situations) become the priority over the primacy of relationships. Their hypomone was in contrast to the Philadelphian church’s hypomone, which was a reciprocal relational response to Jesus’ desire (“you have kept my word”) for relationship together (3:8,10). What distinguished them from the Ephesian church was the latter’s referentialization of the Word. Enduring “for the sake of my name” (2:3) narrowed down “my name” to “name without my person,” that is, apart from relationship together; this namesake issue subtly involved a fragmentary process that either disembodies or de-relationalizes, or both, the Word embodied in only relational terms for only a relational purpose and outcome. By “abandoning” their involvement in relationship together (however unintentional or inadvertent), their focus shifted to their persevering character of not giving in to bad circumstances. Thus, their endurance for the sake of “name without my person” also stands in contrast to makrothymia, which is patience, endurance, longsuffering with respect to persons; the former is about dedication in hard work (characteristic of the Ephesian church) while the latter involves relationship with mercy, grace and family love (cf. Mt 18:21-22, Rom 2:4).
Despite what would usually be defined as significant church practice reflecting sound ecclesiology, there was distance in their relationships leaving them in the condition “to be apart,” indicating a well-run orphanage (i.e. an organization substituting for family) that could only simulate ecclesiology of the whole. They did not have the relational involvement of family love, therefore they lacked the only involvement having relational significance to God (cf. Mary’s anointing of Jesus as a priority over ministry to the poor, Mt 26:8-13, par. Jn 12:1-8). This is further demonstrated by their reduction of the truth to mere doctrinal purity. They forgot that the Truth was vulnerably disclosed only for relationship together on God’s terms, which they were effectively redefining on their terms. Essentially, their referential terms reversed the priority order of Jesus’ paradigm for serving (Jn 12:26) that clearly defined the first priority of discipleship as intimate involvement in relationship together, not focused first on the work to be done for serving (diakoneo). Consequently, they also compromised their identity as the light, which is rooted in their relationship with the Light (Rev 2:5b, cf. Mt 5:14-15); this was also contrary to Paul’s relational imperative for the church to “live as children of light” (Eph 5:8).
Jesus exposes unequivocally this church’s lack of qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness in their theology and practice. In reality, what unfolded in this church is neither surprising nor unexpected. Since they focused primarily on what they did—indicating their reduced theological anthropology in how they defined themselves—they paid attention to related situations and circumstances and less important issues, while ignoring the primacy of relationship together in family love. Functioning with this perceptual-interpretive framework of a reduced theological anthropology resulted in the relational consequences of forsaking their first love, which reflected the lack of relational involvement in their church practice and signified their renegotiated ecclesiology in narrow referential terms, even with their good intentions as conservatives. This should raise serious concerns for church theology and practice today. Does this mean that such church theology and practice reflects, perhaps reinforces or even sustains, the human condition “to be apart?” Jesus’ critique holds them accountable for their competing narrative.
The basic complaint Jesus had against this church is the primary issue facing all churches for defining their ontology and determining how they will function: embracing the whole ontology and relational function of the Trinity, and embodying church practice in likeness of the Trinity’s relational ontology, therefore in congruence with and ongoing compatibility to Jesus’ defining prayer for his family (Jn 17:20-26). In all that the Ephesian church was doing (which was a lot), they were not directly involved in the relational context and process of the whole and uncommon God and did not function in the context of family and process of family love constituted in the Trinity. They demonstrated a direct correlation between the priority we give relationships and the extent to which we are loving, as defined by relational involvement, not as doing something (like serving others), however dedicated. For Jesus, this correlation is irrefutable for ecclesiology to be whole; “the measure you use will be the measure you get.” Whether Jesus’ complaint against this church included both their relationship with God and with each other is not clearly indicated in the narrative. Yet we can strongly infer that his feelings included all their relationships, because their primary emphasis on their work reflected the three major issues ongoing in life: (1) how they defined themselves, which further determined (2) how they did relationships and thus (3) practiced church. These three major issues are always deeply interrelated, and also in integral interaction with the primary issue of the Trinity, thereby together they need to be accounted for in church theology and practice in order to be whole.
The global church today needs to learn from the contradictions in both the Ephesus and Sardis church practices in order to counter reductionism’s influence of ‘good without wholeness’ (and ‘virtual good’ today) and ‘sin without reductionism’—recurring issues throughout church history. What these churches focused on and engaged in were reductionist substitutes for the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love. The relational consequence was to become embedded in ontological simulation and functional illusion, notably (pre)occupied by the secondary over the primary.
Moreover, the relational function of the Trinity cannot be understood in theological propositions nor experienced in church doctrine, even in its purity. By reductionist practice, these churches demonstrated how their practice (“abandoned the love you had at first” 2:4) and their understanding (“a reputation of being alive,” 3:1) became decontextualized from what was primary, and embedded in human contextualization. In their ironic struggle to remain distinct in a pluralistic Greco-Roman context, the Ephesian church stopped paying attention to the greater context that defined them and distinguished their significance. In their effort to be significant (or popular) in their surrounding context, the Sardis church ignored the primary context that constituted them. That is, they were both shaped by the fragmentary human context. Thus, they were removed, diminished or deemphasized from the relational context and process of the Trinity, and needed to be recontextualized in the relational nature of the Trinity. This is the function of reciprocating contextualization in the ek-eis relational involvement that Jesus made imperative to distinguish his family in the ecclesiology to be whole and to make whole. Without this reciprocating relational dynamic, church practice increasingly finds its functional basis only in the surrounding context, in which reductionism prevails.
When a church disembodies the Word embodying the heart of Jesus’ whole person to fragmentary parts of his teachings and actions, and also de-relationalizes the Word from Jesus’ relational terms composing reciprocal relationship together, then that church disconnects with the whole of Jesus’ person (whose ontology integrally includes the Father and Spirit) and thereby becomes relationally uninvolved or distant from the presence and involvement of Jesus’ person (and the Trinity) in the primacy of reciprocal relationship together person to person, heart to heart. This unfolding relational consequence (often unrecognized or just ignored) emerges directly from the referentialization of the Word, which renders that church’s theology and practice to the shaping influence of the surrounding context. This consequence unfolds since the reciprocating ek-eis relational involvement is not engaged to integrally distinguish church identity, purpose and function from beyond merely its position in the common of the world. Unable to be distinguished beyond referential terms, this shaping influence subtly shifts church theology and practice to a variable hybrid process. This subtle shift encompasses the following:
The lack of qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness are prime indicators that a shift has taken place to a hybrid theology and practice.
As long as our perceptual-interpretive framework is reductionist, our lens’ view of the qualitative, the ontological and the relational will not discern the extent of the surrounding influences reducing the whole of church practice. The relational demands of grace, however, clarifies for church function that nothing less and no substitutes than to be whole is the only practice that has significance to God. Additionally, the lens of repentance in conjoint function with a strong view of sin makes no assumptions to diminish addressing sin as reductionism, first and foremost within church practice and then in the surrounding contexts. And Jesus wants “all the churches” to clearly “know that I am he who searches hearts and minds” (Rev 2:23)—that is, examines the qualitative significance of persons from inner out, whom he holds accountable for authenticity to be whole in vulnerable heart-to-heart relationships together as the whole of God’s family (2:25; 3:11). In their effort to be relevant (and possibly pragmatic) in the surrounding pluralistic context, the Thyatira church forgot in their many admirable church practices what was necessary to be whole and to make whole (cf. a similar error by the church in Pergamum in a reductionist context, Rev 2:12-15).
It is not sufficient for churches to be a mere presence, or even merely to function, in the world; their only significance is to function eis (relational movement into) the world both to be relationally involved with others as God’s whole and, by the nature of this function, also to confront all sin as reductionism of the whole. Jesus teaches us about the heart of his whole person embodying the church , and the lesson we need to learn from the Thyatira church is: to let pass, indifferently permit or inadvertently allow—“tolerated,” which the others also did more subtly—the influence of reductionism in any form from the surrounding context proportionately diminishes the wholeness of church practice and minimalizes their relational involvement with God, with each other in the church and with others in the world. For churches to get beyond practice merely in the world, they need a different dynamic to define and determine their practice.
By searching hearts Jesus teaches us that church function is about being whole from inner out, not merely doing correct ecclesial practices. And the eis relational engagement of church function in the world has to be conjoined with the ek (movement out of) the common’s influence in order to be relational involvement with the whole of God, as its defining antecedent in the ek-eis dynamic. This reciprocating relational process negates the continuous counter-relational work of Satan and its reductionist influence (Rev 2:24) by ongoingly engaging, embracing, experiencing and extending God’s whole in the qualitative significance of the integrated ontology of both personhood and the church constituted in and by the Trinity.
Therefore, as long as churches continue to function with their biased lenses focused outer in, their view of the qualitative, the ontological and the relational will not discern the extent of the surrounding influences reducing the whole of church practice. The churches critiqued by Jesus were not unique in church formation; and if we listen to his key words for the church he embodies, those churches cannot be considered exceptions in church history. Each church has at least one counterpart in the contemporary church, which must be taken seriously because of Jesus’ critique for his global church family to be whole and uncommon in likeness of the whole and uncommon God:
All these churches have in common what continue to be critical recurring interrelated issues needing epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction: a weak view of sin not including reductionism, an incomplete knowledge of what’s good (for the church) without including wholeness, and a fragmentary theological anthropology reducing ontology and function from wholeness—all working subtly under the assumption that “we will not be reduced or fragmented” because “we know good and evil.” Therefore, Jesus’ key words in whole relational terms are indispensable for the assessment of the global church’s condition today, and are irreplaceable for the global church to be whole. And its wholeness doesn’t have to have theological consensus, but it is imperative to constitute relational oneness, as Jesus prayed.
Jesus teaches us a profound lesson that delineates a simple reality of life about the human person and the existing social order—issues we either pay attention to or ignore depending on our working assumptions of humanity and society. Since we do not live in a vacuum, our practice is either shaped by the surrounding context we are in (thus embedded) or constituted by what we enter eis that context with. In the latter function, for eis to define and determine practice necessitates the ek relational involvement to disembed us from a surrounding context in order to embed us to the whole of God’s relational context and process, thus constituting God’s whole for the eis relational movement back. This reciprocating relational process signifies the relational demands of grace compatible with the working assumptions with which Jesus came eis the world, and his assumptions of humanity and the existing social order with which he engaged the world.
For our practice both as person and persons together as church, disembedding from the influence of reductionism to re-embed to God’s whole is the issue we need to wake up to. Without the function of nothing less and no substitutes, which grace demands for person and church, wholeness is diminished and the whole is minimalized—or functionally not whole. For church practice to fulfill its divine purpose and function, it must account in its function for being relationally embedded in the whole of God and God’s trajectory for its globalizing commission “sent to be whole” in conjoint relational function with its “call to be whole and holy” (as Jesus pointed the Thyatira church to, 2:26-29).
Jesus’ post-ascension narrative is not merely an addendum for his church. This is what in pre-ascension he vulnerably embodied with nothing less and no substitutes of the whole of God and ongoingly accounted for the whole of God’s intimate response for relationship together. After his church had opportunity to establish its practice in his call and commission, his feedback provides in family love the critique of hope necessary for all churches also to embody in its practice the qualitative relational function to be God’s whole. Now in deeper reciprocal relational responsibility, his church is ongoingly accountable for God’s whole with compatible relational response back. And his post-ascension narrative for completing his outcomes is clearly definitive for his church’s response to be whole as God’s new family, and for his church to live and make whole as equalizer for God’s new relational order. His outcomes constitute church function only in relational congruence with his embodied function as the equalizer in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family, nothing less and no substitutes but God’s whole on God’s terms.
The affective narrative of Jesus’ beginnings, trajectories and outcomes ongoingly resonates for those who listen heart to heart to his whole person. However, listening deeply to the Word in his relational language is neither the same nor should be confused with reading the Bible attentively in referential language—just as many Jewish teachers were confronted by Jesus for the insignificance of their studying Scripture. The level of involvement in this distinctive basic process is the open question only you can answer, which will determine who or what will compose your narrative. And the critical issue facing all Christians and churches leads us back, again and again, to the axiom made paradigmatic by the Word: “the measure you use will be the measure you get, nothing more but eventually something less” (Mk 4:24).
Until we examine vulnerably the measures used for our theology and practice, we will not understand or be aware of who or what composes our narrative. This lack of understanding is the consequence of a lens used that lacks the laser focus of the innermost, which then is consequential in having a lack of qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness; and the lack of being aware of the composition of our narrative makes inconceivable being able to distinguish between completing and competing narratives. Christianity in the U.S. struggles in this condition for its witness to be distinguished, for example, simply from partisanship. That’s why the measure we use is axiomatic for the measure we get, and subsequently use to get a comparable measure, to further use….
At the close of his recorded post-ascension narrative with his vulnerable heart, Jesus shared his feelings unmistakably so that “all the churches [and their members] will know that I am the one and only who searches hearts as well as minds.” The heart of the person has always been primary for his person, the whole of which he shares vulnerably in his involvement in all relationships. Therefore, the intrinsic profile that fully distinguishes his whole person is illuminated as the Light only by the primary measures (1) of the qualitative from inner out, and (2) of his vulnerable involvement of love (family love) in relationships.
The primacy of these integral measures renders all other portraits of his identity and function secondary at best, and thus nonnegotiable to any of the secondary. Peter’s narrative highlighted the secondary in the dimness of his lens, contrary to the Light, and thus with his blurred vision he often competed with Jesus’ trajectory and outcomes. What has and will always affect the heart of Jesus’ person is whenever the secondary is used as a substitute (intentionally or unintentionally) for the primary, not only to portray his person but also for his followers—the extrinsic portraits of anything less and any substitutes. Sadly, with disappointment and anger, the heart of Jesus vulnerably keeps witnessing such secondary measures evolve among his followers and their churches to prevail as the primary determining measure for their identity and function in the world—just like the churches he critiqued earlier, and contrary to Paul’s imperative for the only church’s measure to be “the wholeness of Christ” (Col 3:15).
The who and what composing our narrative today are subject to the same influences and measures as in the past. The main influence comes from our surrounding context, which all Christians and churches are subjected to ongoingly; the problem, of course, is when we submit to this influence and thus become subject to it. The overriding and soon overcoming measure revolves on our view of sin. As noted in his post-ascension narrative, a weak view of sin keeps evolving to limit sin to disobedience of God’s commands, and/or frames sin around moral/ethical failure. Lacking is the strong view of sin that encompasses all the choices, efforts, processes and structures that reduce who and what God created and recreated whole in the likeness of God’s wholeness.
The interaction between surrounding influences and our view of sin is evident as follows:
When our view of sin doesn’t center on reductionism, our focus is unable to be aware of the surrounding outer-in influences that both reduce our person and relationships, and thus our lens becomes incapable of discerning the consequences for our person and relationships. Social media is the prevailing example of this reductionist impact.
Such reductionism persists unless exposed in its subtlety and negated in its counter-relational workings. This outcome, however, only unfolds from the direct relational involvement of the heart of Jesus’ whole person in reciprocal relationship together with us person to person, heart to heart.
Just as Jesus’ heart, vulnerable in all his feelings, constituted the presence and involvement of his whole person, he searches our hearts: (1) to examine our view of sin, (2) to see the level of influence from the surrounding contexts, and (3) to know our level of involvement in relationship together. On this innermost basis, it will be clarified: (1a) how our view of sin determines how we live, (2b) what influences the main composition of our existential narrative, and (3c) who is the subject in our narrative that determines who is the principal person defining our identity and constituting our involvement in relationships.
Clarified foremost in our narrative is whether or not “you have kept relational distance from my relational involvement of love that you experienced at first.” It is essential that his relational involvement of love (family love) be our ongoing relational reality heart to heart, so that his outcomes will be our experiential truth in daily life: “I, my whole person, am with you always, so you will never be relational orphans to the end of the age.”
Our narrative continues with who or what…either completing or competing. His affective narrative shares vulnerably the feedback needed to continue with the significance constituted only by his outcomes. And as he shared directly to include those with good intentions in his discipleship paradigm, even “serving me” is neither adequate to be his follower nor sufficient to be his disciple. Therefore, “whoever identifies with me must follow my whole person, as vulnerably revealed in my affective narrative; and where the heart of my person is, there also will be vulnerably involved, the hearts of my followers”—nothing less and no substitutes are definitive for discipleship.
 For further contextual information, see Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000).
© 2023 T. Dave Matsuo