The ancient cities of Turkey and the modern world

ICEJ Worldwide

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8 Dec 2016
The ancient cities of Turkey and the modern world
The Republic of Turkey is a land of rich beauty and history, a land of ancient empires with shores on the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Today, even with the turmoil of terrorism and regional conflicts many people from all over the world come to enjoy the beauty and history of this land. Few tourists, however, seem to know or remember that this ancient land, which today is 99% Muslim, was once the cradle of Christianity.

It was here that the Apostle Paul spent most of his time during his first, second, and third missionary journeys in the First Century AD. Paul brought the gospel of Jesus Christ and established many churches, which later are mentioned in the Book of Revelation: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. It was here in the ancient city of Antioch of Pisidia that the term “Christians” was first used to describe followers of Christ (Acts 11:26).

Over time the teachings of Christ were incorporated into the daily lives, community and culture of these followers throughout the provinces. Christianity spread throughout this area, but there is little physical evidence of the early church, since the Christians tended to meet in private homes. It was not until the 4th Century AD when the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire that churches came into public view.

It was in the land of today’s Turkey where ecumenical councils developed the foundations of the Christian faith that exist to this day. A long list of great figures laid the moral and cultural values that are the foundation of the Judeo-Christian faith. This cradle of Christian civilization however was rocked with the coming of Islam, which had its beginning in the 7th Century AD.  For 700 years the Byzantine Empire, at that point vastly Christian, resisted the onslaught of Islam but on May 29, 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.

Under the rule of the Ottomans, Islam became the official religion of the area. Churches and Synagogues were destroyed or converted to Mosques. The magnificent St. Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople was taken by the Islamists and turned into the Hagia Sophia Mosque. Soon policies were designed to encourage or force conversions of Christians to Islam. As a result, in today’s Turkey, with population of more than 70 million, less than 1% profess themselves as Christians.

Under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first President and founder of modern Turkey, a secular form of government was established. Today this system is under attack, and in the 2007 elections the pro-Islamic AKR (Party of Justice and Development) took over the power, with hopes to amend the constitution making it more “Islamic”.

Besides Christians, there is another community in Turkey that is rapidly disappearing - the Jews. Today it is estimated there are only 20,000 Jews in Turkey, mainly in Istanbul, the capital city. They keep a low profile for fear of the hostility from their Muslim neighbors. In November 2007 one Imam in Istanbul attached to the door of his mosque a verse from the Koran that read “friendship with Jews and Christians is forbidden.”

Today terrorism and radical Islam have taken over most of the Middle East and spread further into Europe. What happened?  How is it that the world has become distracted from the teachings of Christ?  Why is it that the religion of peace and love has been effectively swept away? The Bible teaches us that the way to distraction starts with a cooling down of the hearts and spiritual lives of Christians, in churches, and in the culture.

The fall of Christianity in Turkey began far earlier than the invasion of the Ottoman Turks. Jesus commended the great church in Ephesus for testing those who claimed to be Apostles but were not. He applauded them for enduring persecution, nevertheless He held it against them that they had forsaken their first love. They got caught up in church administration and neglected the purpose of the church – to glorify God through the work of Christ.

To the church of Pergamum Jesus said that they had allowed the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans within the church - they allowed false teachings. Jesus accused the church at Thyatira of tolerating the teachings of Jezebel who was misleading people into sexual immorality and consuming food sacrificed to idols. He accused the church in Sardis of being a dead church and warned them to “wake up”. Finally, the church in Laodicia was considered lukewarm, because they became too comfortable in their wealth.

Do these messages to churches nearly 2,000 years ago have any relevance to today?  Absolutely! Persecution is not the worst thing that could happen to believers. The true danger lies in compromising Church doctrine by including secular and pagan ideas in our teachings. The churches in Philadelphia and Smyrna resisted pressures from the world and they endured the persecution that came their way. The other five churches turned from a pure love of Christ and allowed sensuality, false teaching and worldly ideas to distract them from the pure gospel.

The fact that there is a remnant of Christians still existing in Turkey today can be attributed to the values lived and steadfastly adhered to long ago by those in the churches of Philadelphia and Smyrna. Jesus’ words were not just for the seven churches from 2,000 years ago. He speaks to every church, in every culture, in every period of time in the past, present and future. His message is of the victory we achieve by endurance, commitment to truth, boldness, and unyielding adherence to the unmodified teachings of Christ.

The lessons from the seven churches in the Book of Revelation are relevant today. Many have forgotten their first love and focused on church teachings polluted by secular inclusiveness, ignoring God’s call to holiness. Is this what we expect to happen to the Christian churches, to fade into dust leaving only a remnant, like in Turkey? It is time for all of us to listen to what Jesus said to the church at Sardis: Wake Up!

 

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