Twilight is the time between the lights. The bright light of the sun is fading, and the shadowy light of the moon and the stars is taking its place. Night is coming. It’s dusky then, when shapes and dangers are indistinct. In the early church, it was the time of transition from the fervor of the first days, as seen in the community in Jerusalem described in Acts 2 and 4, to the complacency and worldliness a generation later.
A “good” example of this is the Corinthian church. In his first letter to them, Paul addressed very serious problems, grave lacks of wisdom, and a shameful example of immorality such as would make even the Greek world of that day blush. But at least he had the confidence to deal with the problems in the belief that somehow they still had the same Lord.1
By the time he wrote his second letter to them, he wrote in fear and trembling that they may have already been deceived by the Serpent of old, the devil. His ministers among them masqueraded their true nature and real intentions so well that Paul called them “super apostles.”2 His words to the Corinthians were full of irony concerning how well they bore deception and even received another spirit:
For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully. (2 Corinthians 11:4)
This did not happen all at once, but the light of Messiah, which was His love dwelling in a people who loved as He loved,3 was fading fast. The signs were everywhere for those who had eyes to see, and were recorded for our benefit so that we would not be deceived in the same manner. Another “light” was filling the church. The Savior had already spoken of this light in Matthew 6:
But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:23-24)
Despising the Savior began in personal compromise; “little” things crept in so subtly and slowly that it was hard to see what was happening. In comparison to the gross sins of the world, things like failing to confess their sins, neglecting their children, and resisting their leaders were not very noticeable. In time, however, these things would lead to outright challenges to even the apostles’ authority.4 They would end up enthusiastically serving mammon. But right away it led to something not so obvious — the loss of spiritual confidence on the part of many.
This led to the loss of their outspokenness in the assembly, where once all were speaking and all were prophesying.5 They had once lived in the reality of what would later be called the “priesthood of all believers” where each one had the freedom and the grace to help the other, to speak in the gatherings, to evangelize, and even to prophesy. That priesthood was fading away in the face of the little acts of compromise and cowardice. In its place, another more exclusive priesthood was arising. These were the Nicolaitans,6 the men who presumed to speak for everyone; they made it increasingly clear that no longer was everyone welcomed to speak up and share their revelations and their concerns.
Without this confidence to speak, however, an event of great, even cosmic significance took place. Cosmic means pertaining to the entire universe, inconceivably extending in space or time. Yet, it passed very quietly and was largely unnoticed except by the sensitive few.
Messiah ceased to be the head over their house.
This happened one community at a time, as the infection spread, until the lampstands7 — the light of revelation from the Father — were extinguished in the entire church:
But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end. (Hebrews 3:6)
The word translated confidence meant what they no longer had – “freedom in speaking, unreservedness in speech, open, frank, free and fearless confidence.”8 At the same time, the sheep were being beaten down and oppressed by self-seeking shepherds, as the Master had warned would come.9 Paul said that after his departure, “savage wolves” would arise among the leaders, leading a following after themselves. Both of these prophetic warnings were fulfilled by men like Diotrephes, in 3 John,
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church. (3 John 1:9-10)
What would these proud men, so bold as to speak maliciously against the apostles, say to the sheep? But the destructive, intimidating, and silencing effect of their words we don’t have to imagine, for history records the silence that soon settled upon the churches. It was settled practice by 150 AD.10 Soon the speakers needed special garments to set them off from the common people. Naturally, they chose not the Biblical sign of purity and a good conscience — white robes — but just the opposite.
Outward signs are used for many reasons: to point the way, to warn, even to mock. In the Scriptures, white garments are the clothing of the Bride of Messiah and a figurative sign of individual purity.
“Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.” To her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. (Revelation 19:7-8)
You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments... (Revelation 3:4-5)
Stained or defiled garments are just the opposite of white garments, being a sign of a bad conscience. They represent unconfessed sin. Seen in this light, it is not a little surprising that the ancient garments of the clergy — allegedly the godly, spiritual leaders of the congregations — are black. It is just like a neglected conscience that accumulates guilt, becomes stained, and in the end is evil. An evil conscience has reached the point where good can be called evil, and evil good.
The black garments of the clergy (the Nicolaitans) were the outward sign, if anyone cared to notice it, of the evil they represented. It was more than mockery of the good conscience the shepherds were to have in taking care of the flock.11 They were commanded by their Savior to be servants, but soon they became tyrannical monarchs. History even terms them monarchal bishops. And it is not only the Catholic Church that is still organized according to this pattern. In the beginning, they were men who arose from among the elders — as Paul warned would happen12 — to take the prominent, leading role in each church. Eventually, these men behaved like the lords of the Gentiles, mocking, by their earthly power and authority, the very words of the Savior:
“You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
So the light among them became darkness, and how great was that darkness!