| Church and|
Time Period of Prominence
|Emphasized Aspect of Image of Christ||Words of Commendation||Words of Rebuke||Words of Exhortation||Promises to Overcomers|
|Holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands||Deeds, hard work, perseverance. Intolerant of false teachers. Endures hardship. Hates the practices of the Nicolaitans||Has forsaken her first love||Remember; repent, do the things you did at first||Will eat from the Tree of Life|
The Age of Martyrs
|The First and the Last who died and came to life again||Suffers persecution and poverty||--||Do not be afraid. Be faithful even to the point of death||Will receive a crown of life, will not be hurt by the second death.|
Marriage of Church and State
|Has the sharp, double-edged sword||Remains true to Christ, does not renounce the faith||Some there hold the teachings of Balaam and of the Nicolaitans||Repent||Will receive hidden manna and a white stone with a new name on it.|
The Medieval Church (Roman Catholic)
|The Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze||Deeds, love, service, faith, perseverance, doing more than at first.||Tolerates Jezebel with her immorality and idolatry||Repent. Hold fast to what you have||Given authority over the nations; will receive the morning star.|
|Holds the seven spirits and the seven stars||Deeds, reputation of being alive||Actually Dead||Wake up! Strengthen what remains. Remember what you have received, obey it, repent.|
Will be dressed in white linen and acknowledged before My Father and his angels.
The Missionary Church
|Holy and True, holds the keys of David||Deeds, keeps Christ's word and does not deny His name, endures patiently||--||Hold to what you have.||Overcomers will be pillars in the temple; the name of God, of the New Jerusalem, and Christ's new name will be written on them.|
The Indifferent Church
|The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the ruler of God's creation||--||Lukewarm, neither cold nor hot. Wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.||Buy from Christ gold refined by fire, white garments, and eye salve. Be earnest, and repent.||Overcomers will eat with Christ; will rule with Christ|
Notes from Ray C. Stedman:
THYATIRA: THE WORLDLY CHURCH
As we look at these seven letters in the book of Revelation, it is helpful to remember two things about them: First, they are a picture of seven kinds of churches that you find in any age, in any period of history. Every church in the world today will fall into one or more of these categories of churches. We fit into one of these ourselves. The second thing is the prophetic nature of these letters. They are a preview of the entire age of the church, falling into seven periods, from the first coming of our Lord to his second appearing.
Today we come to the fourth of these churches, the church at Thyatira. Beginning in Verse 18 of Chapter 2, the Lord addresses the angel of the church. Thyatira was located about 35 miles southeast of Pergamum. It was a very small city, but a busy commercial center. It was on a major road of the Roman Empire, and, because of this, many trade unions had settled in this city. Everyone who worked there was a member of one or more trades. There were carpenters, dyers, sellers of goods, tent makers, etc. In the church at Philippi, which the Apostle Paul began, there was a woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, who came from Thyatira. It was difficult to make a living as a Christian in Thyatira without belonging to the union. This is a factor which will bear upon the interpretation of this letter, as we will see. Our Lord's first words to this church indicate both judgment and approbation. He says:
"These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first." (Revelation 2:18b-19 NIV)
Notice that he uses, for the first and only time in the book of Revelation, the title the "Son of God." There are people who claim that Jesus never said that he was the Son of God, but here is one of several places in the New Testament where he makes that claim very clearly. This means, of course, that he is stressing his deity. As the Son of God he has "eyes like blazing fire," eyes that can pierce the facades, the disguises, the postures and pretensions of his people and get right to the heart of what they are doing. He has feet "like burnished bronze" which can trample sin under foot and severely punish that which is wrong, if need be. Both are needed in the church at Thyatira. It is the most corrupt of the seven churches that are presented here.
But there were some good things going on in this church. Our Lord tells us what they are. "I know your deeds [i.e., your works], your love and faith, your service and your perseverance." Those are related. Love leads to service; faith leads to perseverance. If you love God, you will serve his people. You cannot help it. It is the sign that you love that you are willing to serve. And if you have faith you will persevere; you will understand that God is in control and things will work out according to his purpose. You keep at your work; you do not quit. So here was a church that had many people that loved God and served his people. They had faith in his word, and they persevered. They helped many, and they kept it up. As others then got involved, the church grew. So the deeds, or the works, of the church were far more when this letter was written than when it first began.
That is the way a church grows. If you and I had been there at Thyatira, we would have been greatly impressed by this church. It was a busy, bustling, active church with some wonderful people in it who obviously manifested love and faith, concern and care for others. It must have seemed a very attractive church. But now the blazing eyes and the burning feet go into action. We begin to learn deeper facts about the church. Our Lord says:
"Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead." Revelation 20-23a NIV)
Evidently there was in the church at Thyatira a woman who was a very dominant leader. Jesus names her "Jezebel." That was not her name, of course, but our Lord always names people according to their character. That is why he often renames people in the Gospels. Here he chooses the name of the most evil woman in the Old Testament.
The Old Testament Jezebel was the daughter of the king of Sidon, a town in Lebanon that is often in the news these days. She was the wife of King Ahab of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and she is particularly noted for having made the worship of the god Baal popular in Israel. Baal was a fertility god, and his worship involved immoral and licentious practices. There were temple prostitutes, both male and female, associated with the worship of Baal. It was Jezebel who spread that degraded worship widely among the ten tribes of Israel until it became one of the popular religions of the day. She herself supported over 800 prophets of Baal, who ate at her table. She was the one who tried to kill Elijah after his famous encounter with 480 of the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel when fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifice. That mighty man of God had faced with great courage 480 false prophets, but when Jezebel got after him he ran for his life. She was also the one who murdered her neighbor Naboth because her husband wanted his vineyard. She was a ruthless, immoral, seducer of the people, and that is why Jesus selects her name for this dominant woman at Thyatira. According to the prophecy of the Old Testament, Jezebel ended her days by being thrown from her palace window into the courtyard below where the dogs came and ate her body and licked up her blood.
This Jezebel in Thyatira called herself a "prophetess." There is nothing wrong with that in itself. I want to make clear that it was not her sex that was wrong -- it was her teaching. There were other women prophets in the Bible. The Old Testament lists a number of them who were well respected in Israel. In the book of Acts, in the New Testament, we are told that Philip, that wonderful, Spirit-filled evangelist who preached throughout the land of Palestine, had four daughters who were prophetesses and who had prophesied within the church. But the trouble with Jezebel is that she was a false prophet. Our Lord points out what her teaching was. She taught that it was all right for Christians to indulge in sexual immorality and in idolatry.
Here is the link with the trade unions of Thyatira. In order to work in these unions, which constituted the entire business of the city, Christians had to join a union, or guild, made up of pagans for the most part. The meetings of the guilds were devoted to licentious debaucheries which were connected with the worship of erotic idols of the Greek world. Let me quote from the great British Bible scholar William Barclay. He says,
These guilds met frequently, and they met for a common meal. Such a meal was, at least in part, a religious ceremony. It would probably meet in a heathen temple, and it would certainly begin with a libation to the gods, and the meal itself would largely consist of meat offered to idols. The official position of the church meant that a Christian could not attend such a meal.
This was the problem these Thyatiran Christians faced. In order to make a living they had to belong to a union, but to attend the union was to become involved, or to be sorely pressured to become involved, with the worship of idols and with licentious and lascivious debauchery. So they had to make a choice. It was difficult to live in Thyatira for this very reason. But apparently Jezebel had begun to teach that it was all right for them to go along with the requirements of the guild, that they needed to submit to the pressures of the world around in order to make a living, and that God would understand and overlook this. Her philosophy was what you often hear today: "Business is business." If business practices collide with your Christian principles, then your principles have to go -- because you have to make a living. Have you ever heard that argument?
This whole scenario is paralleled in many churches today that accept the easy going sexuality and lack of standards that is so widespread in our society. For instance, some churches approve of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle. Many do not discipline their members when they fall into sexual immorality. Others allow pornography to go unchallenged in their midst. But notice that the Lord holds the church responsible. His accusation to them is, "You tolerate that woman Jezebel." This is a problem that church leadership has to face in our day just as it had to face it in the 1st century.
Notice that in the letters to the church at Pergamum, and to the church at Thyatira, the Lord links sexual immorality with idolatry. We may find that strange, but actually one inevitably leads to the other. The reason is this: Fornication and adultery are both clear-cut violations of specific and explicit statements in the Word of God. Anyone who reads the Bible can see very clearly that God forbids these activities. It is wrong for believers to indulge in sexual immorality of any sort. When one does, he or she has deliberately violated the authority of God, therefore, in practice, if not in profession, God is no longer their God.
It is impossible to miss the condemnation of the Bible in these respects. If people deliberately reject the Lord's authority, he is no longer their God. The result is, they must find another god, for it is impossible for the human spirit to live without something to live for. That is what a god is. Whatever you are living for, whatever makes life worthwhile to you, becomes your god. It may be the god of pleasure, even sexual pleasure. It may be the god of wealth. It may be the god of power, a lust for power and ambition. It may be the search for fame. The point that is being made here is that wherever you work is the place of greatest temptation in this regard. Right here this morning there are businessmen and businesswomen, stockbrokers, professional people, clerks, secretaries, various laborers in the marketplace, and in shops, etc. It is right where you work that you will be under pressure to compromise, and to go along with the standards of the world around. Our friend in Berkeley, Dr. Earl Palmer, has said a very helpful thing in this connection.
The most subtle challenge to faith does not usually originate in public amphitheaters but in the daily places where we earn the money we need to live. What the trades need, what professions need, what all deployments of our lives need, is not our soul but our skills; not our worship but our hard work. When we once learn this vital alignment of values, we will do better in our work and have fewer ulcers too. Idolatries, whether of the dramatic, amphitheater type or the low-grade office type, always make us sick.
That is what was going on in Thyatira.
This morning I listened to one of the wonderful series that Tuvya Zaretsky is giving on how Jews cope with life today, and especially the pressures that are upon them. When a Jew contemplates becoming a Christian he must face severe social consequences that are painful and agonizing. This is also true of the choices that have to be made in the marketplaces on the question of morals. Many find themselves having to choose between a job and a moral standard.
The punishment that our Lord assesses against this teaching reflects the sickness that idolatry and immorality always bring. There are three parties involved: First, there is Jezebel herself. Jesus says: "I will cast her on a bed of suffering." There is a note of irony or sarcasm there. He is saying, in effect, "She likes beds, so I will give her one, but it will prove to be a bed of agonizing pain and hurt." It would constitute her only chance to realize what was happening to her, and lead her to change. Then there is another group: "I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely [literally, "I will give them great affliction"] unless they repent of her ways." Those who commit adultery with her are those who practice, as she did, immorality and the consequent idolatry. The suffering that he refers to, the intense suffering or affliction, is a reference very likely to sexual diseases. What invariably accompanies immorality? Some form of sexual disease. Gonorrhea and syphilis were well-known and widespread in the ancient world. Today, of course, we have the additional plague of AIDS that results largely from sexual immorality. Anybody who has watched, as I have recently, someone dying of AIDS knows what a terrible, painful thing it is, both emotionally and physically. There was still a third group. The Lord says, "I will strike her children with death." Children represent those who not only practice immorality but who teach it as well, as Jezebel was doing. The "death," I think, refers to spiritual death, i.e., what is called in the letter to the church at Pergamum "the second death," the terrible destruction of the lake of fire described in Chapters 20 and 21 of this book. It is a commitment to evil that makes repentance difficult.
But notice the good news here: "unless they repent of her ways." Our Lord always gives an opportunity for repentance. I have often thought that natural disasters -- earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, etc. -- are opportunities being given men to think again, to stop and look at what we are doing, and to change our ways. It is opportunity to repent, a slap in the face that says, wake up! "But," Jesus says, "she was unwilling." And so the judgment must come. The impact of that judgment is given in verse 23:
"Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds." (Revelation 2:23b NIV)
The result of judgment and discipline within the church is that the church is purified, strengthened, and helped. People begin to take note of evil tendencies and become careful not to drift into the pattern of society around. They are willing to stand against the tide or swim against the current. That is what needed to happen in Thyatira. And it happens in PBC today. In those rare times that we have had to take severe disciplinary action against some member of the congregation because of sexual immorality, the result has always been a purifying of people's lives, a willingness to examine the morals of the day, and an increased understanding of the importance of being pure in these areas.
The churches will come to understand, our Lord says, that he searches the hearts and minds. Literally, "the kidneys and the hearts." Kidneys were in ancient times regarded as the source of feelings. If your kidneys are not working, you do not feel very well! They saw them as the source of feelings. Hearts were viewed as the source of choices, the decisions we make, the will in exercise. Our Lord says that, when you see him acting in judgment, you realize that your feelings are important, and your choices equally so, and that each one will be held responsible for his/her choices. No one else can be blamed but we ourselves.
As we look at the church of Thyatira prophetically, i.e., within the scope of church history, we see that this church foreshadows the time from the 6th to the 16th century, a thousand years that has been called "The Devil's Millennium," the "Dark Ages," or, it is known to history as the "Middle Ages." It was a time when the church became corrupt by combining pagan rites and Christian teaching. Many pagan practices and heathen rituals were introduced into the churches, baptized with Christian terminology, related in some way to elements of the Bible, and thus accepted as being true: Images began to be worshiped in churches. Various practices of priests which were unknown to the early church began to be approved. The control of political powers by religious authorities was widely sought. This was the time when the Bishop of Rome came into universal acceptance, was called the Pope, and began to exercise dominion over even emperors and kings. On one occasion, one of the German emperors was summoned to Rome and had to stand barefoot in the snow for several hours before the pope would receive him. When he came in, he had to come crawling on his hands and knees. So the church sought to exercise political power.
Yet, even during this period of corrupting influences, there were true souls who loved Christ and did many works of loving service: The monasteries which flourished then often served as hospitals and refuges for the poor and downtrodden. Some of our enduring hymns were written by Catholic Christians such as Bernard of Clairvaux and others. This was the time when hierarchy was widely established in the church as the system of government instead of the simple servant-leadership that we read of in the New Testament. All of this will find its ultimate culmination in this book of Revelation when we get to the 17th and the 18th chapters, and view the great harlot who rides the beast and who has dominion over the kings of the earth.
I know it is popular among many commentators to relate all this to the Roman Catholic Church, but I want to make clear that it is not only the Roman Church that suffers from these errors. We so-called Protestants have had a quarrel with Rome for centuries, largely over the three M's -- Mary, the Mass, and the Magesterium (the government, the leadership of the church). But you will find many of these errors also in the great Orthodox churches of the East, in the Coptic church of Egypt, and even in the Anglican and the Lutheran churches of northern Europe. The great Protestant denominations have also allowed many of these errors that are reflected here in Thyatira to take over. I wish I could say, and I would love to say, that only PBC is pure! But I have to say that the seeds of these things are found among us as well. In his appeal to the church, our Lord says several wonderful things:
"Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan's so-called deep secrets (I will not impose any other burden on you): Only hold on to what you have until I come." (Revelation 2:24-25 NIV)
That is a wonderfully sensitive and thoughtful word. Here, for the first time in these letters, our Lord lays special stress on his coming. Notice the phrase "the deep things of Satan." That indicates that when a church drifts in these areas of moral standards it almost invariably involves the rise of mystic rites and rituals. People love to feel they are being let into special, secret things.
You find these mystic cults arising in many of the movements of our day. The New Age Movement, for instance, intrigues people with revelations of powerful spirit beings who can impart information that ordinary people do not have. These are what Jesus calls "the deep things of Satan." In Paul's letter to the Corinthians he speaks of the "deep things of God," (1 Corinthians 2:10). Whenever God has something good, Satan imitates it. These dark and hidden matters are Satan's imitation of the wonderfully deep truths in the Word of God. Now to those who refuse these, Jesus says, "Hold fast what you have." Do not let it go. Do not accept these degrading moral standards. It may be difficult to live for Christ in a worldly church, but hang on to your moral standards at least. Do not go along with sexual immorality. Do not accept the idea that adultery is only a minor sin, that you need to have affairs now and then. Hold on," Jesus says, "until I come." To such who overcome by holding fast till he comes, he adds another word in Verse 26:
"To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations -- 'He will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery' just as I have received authority from my Father. (Revelation 2:26-27 NIV)
That quotation from Psalm 2 is a reference to the rule of Christ in the earthly kingdom that we call "The Millennium." It is a promise of reigning with Christ, not in the new heavens and the new earth, but in a period marked by the type of rule found in this quotation: Jesus says, "He will rule them with an iron scepter." That means with some degree of stern judgment. "He will dash them to pieces like potter's vessels" Psalms 2:9 KJV), i.e., the combines of evil will be broken up in that day.
It is referring, therefore, not to the new heavens and the new earth (because nothing evil ever enters there), but to the millennial kingdom, the earthly kingdom over which the saints will share a reign with Christ. We need to understand that the Millennium is a time when righteousness reigns, i.e., it rules over the earth, it judges among people because sin is present and death as well. But the new heavens and the new earth reflect a condition where righteousness dwells. Nothing shall enter there except that which is righteous and pure and good. Now our Lord becomes even more specific.
"I will also give him the morning star." (Revelation 2:28 NIV)
That is a beautiful symbol. I do not know how many of you have ever seen the morning star, but you have to get up while it is still dark to do so. In the book of Malachi, the closing book of the Old Testament, there is a great prediction by the prophet that the "Sun of Righteousness will arise with healing in his wings" (Malachi 4:2 KJV), i.e., the Lord Jesus will return in power and great glory. He will be like the sun appearing in the darkness of this world's night. But before the sun rises, the morning star appears. In Revelation 22:16, Jesus says of himself: "I am the bright and morning star." So what he is saying here is that there will be an appearing of himself for his own before he comes in power and glory, visible to the world. In other words it is a promise of the rapture of the church, the first such promise in the book of Revelation. He will appear for his own, for those belonging to him, who are true Christians, who have been held and kept by the Spirit of God from the evils of the society around. It is not that they cannot, and do not at times, fall, but they invariably recover, and repent, and turn back to him. That is the sign that our faith is real. Those who have real faith will repent. Someone has well said, "If your faith fizzles before you finish, it is because it was faulty from the first!" True faith holds on to the end. Finally, the Lord says, "Listen to all the letters of the churches."
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Revelation 2:29 NIV)
Not just to this church, but to all the churches. These promises and warnings are needed in our individual lives, no matter what our local church may be like. Ephesus tells us, "Do not let your love for Jesus grow cold," Revelation 2:1-7). Smyrna says, "Do not fear the persecution of the world," ( Revelation 2:8-11). Pergamum says, "Trust the Word of God to keep you strong and faithful," Revelation 2:12-17). And Thyatira tells us, "Avoid both sexual and spiritual adultery. Keep your moral standards clear." These are tremendously practical letters for the age in which we live. We need to heed them today as much as they did in the 1st century.
SARDIS: THE CHURCH OF THE ZOMBIES
Some years ago I was in the city of Adelaide in Australia, and found I was scheduled to preach in a certain church on Sunday evening. I had never been there before, and had no idea what the service would be like, but I can say that it was so terrible that I have never forgotten it. It was an old-fashioned church building, with a spire reaching up into the heavens and a great pipe organ in the auditorium. Although it could seat about 800 people there were only around 35 present. Most of them must have been well over 60 or 70. They had hired an organist to play for them who was visibly gay, and when he had finished he gathered up his music and left. The choir consisted of seven old ladies, all in their 80's it seemed, led by a cheerful old lady who tried her best to get everyone to sing but without much success. As I waited for my time to preach I was aware of the life of the city streaming by outside, with people totally unaware of and untouched by this church. Whenever I read of the church of Sardis, I think of that congregation in Australia.
Sardis was once one of the greatest cities of the world. It had been the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, and in the 6th century B. C. was ruled by a fabulously wealthy king whose name, Croesus, became a byword for uncounted wealth. When I was young I remember hearing rich people described as being "as rich as Croesus." (You do not hear that proverb much anymore, now it is "as rich as Merv Griffin!") Sardis was built on a mountain spur about 1500 feet above the valley floor. It was regarded as virtually impregnable to military assault.
Several times armies had tried to overthrow it but were unable to do so. But twice in its history it had fallen to foreign assault, once by the Persians, and once by the Greeks, and both victories were achieved by stealth. Sardis was so confident it could not be overcome that it failed to guard its walls adequately. In the dead of the night a band of brave soldiers climbed up the sides of the ravine and entered an unwatched gate and overthrew the city. Thus, Sardis was a city characterized by a complacent spirit. The church in this city is the least attractive of the seven churches to whom these letters are written. Our Lord finds nothing to commend about it. Here is his appraisal of it, given to us in the first verse of Chapter 3:
"To the angel of the church in Sardis write: 'These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.'" (Revelation 3:1 NIV)
The way the Lord presents himself to each of these churches is a clue as to what the church needs. Here he calls himself "him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars." These symbols were identified for us in the first chapter of Revelation. The "seven spirits" are a symbol of the Holy Spirit in his fullness. What this church at Sardis desperately needed was the Spirit -- life by the Spirit. They needed also to remember that Jesus is Lord of his church. It is not left to the members to run the church, to set up its form of government or to determine the nature of its ministry, but it is the prerogative of the Lord in their midst. These were truths they had forsaken or forgotten in Sardis.
As in all these letters, the life of the church is revealed in its deeds. Our Lord says, as he does in most of the letters, "I know your deeds; I know your works." In Sardis these were works that were done to impress people. They gave this church a name to live. They had a good reputation, but it was actually a dead church. The members of it were for the most part not even believers. They were not spiritually alive. They were what we would call "nominal Christians." Nominal comes from the word "name" -- someone who has a name for something. Our Lord has declared, "You have a name to live, but you are not alive. You are dead!" This indicates a church made up of people who outwardly professed Christ -- probably many of them thought of themselves as believers -- but who actually possessed no spiritual life. They were Christians in name only. A contemporary poet has described churches like this in these words:
Outwardly splendid as of old,
Inwardly lifeless, dead and cold.
Her force and fire all spent and gone,
Like the dead moon, she still shines on.
Unfortunately there are thousands of churches like that around the world today. It is what gives non-Christians such a negative impression of Christian faith. They see the profession, they hear the wonderful words, but there is no life in them. Nothing backs them up. These churches consist largely of what someone has described as,
meeting in mild-mannered ways,
striving to be more mild-mannered."
Hollywood has given us a name for people like that: it calls them "Zombies" -- corpses that are alive, that walk about as though they are living but they are really dead. As we read this letter, we are looking at the First Zombie Church of Sardis! That word has been updated a bit recently. I ran across a quotation from our friend Calvin Miller, of Omaha, Nebraska. Some of you know his poem "The Singer." He says:
Many Christians are really Christaholics and not disciples at all. Disciples are cross-bearers; they seek Christ. Christaholics seek happiness. Disciples dare to discipline themselves, and the demands they place on themselves leave them enjoying the happiness of their growth. Christaholics are escapists looking for a shortcut to Nirvana. Like drug addicts, they are trying to "bomb out" of their depressing world.
The church at Sardis, says our Lord, is a church that has a reputation to live, but is really dead. It is a church of Christaholics! But there was a time, apparently, when this church was alive, when it was filled with people who knew the Lord. Because they knew him, they served the homeless and the needy of the city. That is the way they won a reputation. They appeared to be a people committed to good works, but now there was no life there. Remember that Paul warns us of that condition in his great 13th chapter of First Corinthians. He says, "Though I speak in tongues, have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and knowledge, and have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal," 1 Corinthians 13:1-2 NIV). Here was a church that once had a great ministry but it had slipped away from them. It once had much impact in the city of Sardis, but now nothing is happening.
Dr. William Barclay has said: "A church is in danger of death when it begins to worship its own past; when it is more concerned with forms than with life; when it loves systems more than it loves Jesus; when it is more concerned with material than it is with spiritual things." This church in Sardis was so devoid of life that it actually had no struggles going on within it. Notice the difference between it and the other churches. There are no Jewish accusers of this church even though there was a large colony of Jews in the city of Sardis. They ignored the church, or perhaps did not even know of its existence. There were no false apostles here. There were no domineering Nicolaitans who needed to be guarded against. There were no female seducers, as at Thyatira. There was nothing! Zip -- that was the ministry of the church at Sardis!
What does a dead church need? Our Lord wastes no time in telling them. It is interesting, is it not, that he still owns this church? He does not say, "I have nothing to do with you." He gives them a way of recovery, and he still reveals himself as Lord of the church. As we look at these steps to recovery, they will also help us to identify a condition of death in a church. The first thing a dead church needs is to wake up. Jesus says:
"Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you." (Revelation 3:2-3 NIV)
The first need of a church that is dying or dead is to awaken to its condition. These words in Greek are staccato commands, sharp words, like a slap in the face, designed to stimulate, to wake up. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul says,
"Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you," (Ephesians 5:14 NIV).
This was the need of the church here in Sardis. Wake up! Honestly face your failure! Feel the dullness of your services! Smell the deadness of your life! Ask yourself, "What has gone wrong? Why are our services so dreary, so dull, so unattractive? Why do people not want to come?" A church in this state needs to ask itself some very serious, sobering, honest questions. "Wake up!" says Jesus.
Second, "Strengthen what remains." What was that? Jesus has already told them what there is of value in the church. "I know your works," he says. They were good works, in a way, but they were incomplete. "Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God." Their works were incomplete, unfinished. The actions were right, but the motives were wrong. They were not doing them for the right reason. As you read this you can see that here is a church that is busy doing good things, but doing them to impress people. They were trying to display and enhance a reputation they had. They were concerned as to whether people around would see, and know what they were doing. But Jesus says even those good deeds were about to die. "Strengthen them," he says. How? By putting their motives right!
All through the Scriptures we are told that God judges, not the things we do, but the reason we do them. He reads our hearts. He is judging whether our work is done out of love for him and gratitude for what he has done for us, and not caring whether people see them or not, whether we are praised for them or not. They are done because we want to please him. What this church needed was to capture again the meaning of the words, "for the Lord's sake," and, "as unto Him."
I noted last week in Tim of the Magazine an interview with Mother Teresa, who is doing such a wonderful work in the city of Calcutta, India. Among other things she said were these words, "We try to pray through our work by doing it with Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus. That helps us put our whole heart and soul into doing it. The dying, the crippled, the mentally ill, the unwanted, the unloved -- they are Jesus in disguise." What a wonderful spirit! That is what this church in Sardis so desperately needed.
Third, they needed to remember what they heard; to obey it, and to repent. At this particular point the New International Version, from which I am reading, is not accurate. It says, "Remember, therefore, what you have received," but, in Greek it is not what but how -- "how you have received." What they heard, of course, was the gospel. They had heard the message of Jesus: his crucifixion on behalf of sinners, of his resurrection, of his availability to human beings by the Spirit to strengthen them and impart to them his own righteous life and position. They had heard all that, but the important thing was, how did it come to you? "Remember how you received and heard this." What he is referring to is the ministry of the Spirit. Remember, he is the One who holds the seven spirits. When these people had first heard the gospel they had heard it by the Spirit. The Word came to them in the power of the Spirit.
Many years ago I was in Chicago, and one Sunday morning I slipped into the great Methodist Temple in the Loop. As I was waiting for the service to start, I read in the back of the hymnal the doctrinal statement of the church, a statement that originated largely with John Wesley. It came out of the days of the great Evangelical Awakening in Britain when the Wesleys and George Whitfield preached to tens of thousands in fields and streets throughout the British Isles. That gospel was the same gospel the church has always preached, but in those days it came with unusual power because of the Spirit. The creed of the church in Chicago was still unchanged, but the spirit of the service I watched was cold and formal. There was little of life in it. That church may have recovered now, I hope it has, but then it had a name to live, but was spiritually dead.
How do you lay hold of the Spirit? How do you bring the Spirit's life back into a church which has the gospel? Scripture only suggests one way. It is very simple. In its briefest form it is, "Repent and believe." Repent! Look at yourself and see your wrong attitudes, your wrong outlook, your self-appraisal as unacceptable before God. Then believe! Cast yourself upon the grace of Jesus. Receive from him the word of grace. Let it take deep root in your heart. He will impart to you the life of the Spirit of God. That is what the members of this church needed -- to repent and believe.
As I sat reading that doctrinal statement in Chicago, I rejoiced over the fact that the Methodist denomination has held to the creed that John Wesley formulated, but my heart was saddened as the service went on. I went away, not warmed and cheered but saddened by what I beheld. True repentance brings about conversion and allows the Spirit to impart the life of Christ. That is why our Lord says to Sardis, "Remember how you have received and heard, and obey it and repent." That is the place of new beginning.
The fourth thing they needed was to recover the hope of the Lord's return. "If you do not wake up," Jesus says," I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you." We have already seen in the first chapter and in several of the letters the hope of the coming of the Lord described. It is the great hope toward which the church has been headed since its very beginning. But here is a church that has lost its expectation of that coming. The aspect of our Lord's coming that they particularly needed was not his visible appearing in glory to establish his kingdom, when every eye shall see him, as described in the first chapter, but rather that aspect of his second coming that our Lord described in his great Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24:43. There he says that he will come suddenly, without warning, like a thief comes to steal away the treasure of a home.
Some friends of mine were once sleeping in their house upstairs and when they came down in the morning they found their home had been ransacked and their silverware, their treasure, was gone. They had heard nothing because a thief does not announce his coming. He comes silently and takes what he wants and then disappears again. That is the way the parousia, the coming of the Lord, will begin. He will take his church suddenly out of the world. It will disappear from the world's sight. Paul describes it in wonderfully exciting words in First Corinthians 15, the great resurrection chapter. There he says, "Behold, I show you a mystery. We shall not all sleep (i.e., die) but we shall all be changed; in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye," 1 Corinthians 15:51-52). He holds that forth as the special hope of the church. The church is the unrecognized treasure of the world, but the Lord will come as a thief and take it to himself. That is his description of what we call, in theology, "the rapture" of the church (the departure of the church is perhaps a better term).
When the Lord comes as a thief, if a church is made up of members who are not believers, who have a name to live but have no spiritual life, they will be left behind. Thus our Lord warns here. "If you do not wake up I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you." As we have said, there are many churches like this today throughout the world. I have been in many of them in different countries, and many also here in the United States. It is sad to see them so lifeless and dull when they could be so alive and vital.
There is a period of church history which is predominantly characterized by Sardis conditions. It extends from the last half of the 16th century, immediately following the Reformation, to about the middle of the 18th century, to the beginning of the Evangelical Awakening. The Reformation, of course, was a time when the church came out of death into life. When Luther discovered the great truth of justification by faith alone and began to preach throughout Germany, the good news spread like wildfire throughout the nations of Northern Europe. People realized afresh the greatness, the liberty of the gospel. All Europe was aflame with freedom. As you watch your television sets today and see the cities of Eastern Europe filled with excited, turned-on people, caught up with the thrill of being set free from conditions of bondage and depression, you are seeing again what must have happened in Europe during the early days of the 16th century. There has not been so much excitement over the toppling of a wall in Berlin since Joshua brought down the walls of Jericho. So also in Luther's day, the gospel spread like wildfire throughout that area and the cruel walls of spiritual bondage fell before the power of God's word. The Reformers preached again the truth about Jesus. They preached in the power of the Spirit. Martin Luther in Germany, Count Zwingli in Switzerland, Calvin in Geneva, John Knox in Scotland -- all of them preached justification by faith; that Christ was the sufficient Savior of men and they needed to believe that and receive it individually. This good news spread quickly, but it only lasted a relatively short time.
Anyone familiar with church history must wonder at the way the great fires of the Reformation began to cool so quickly after the Reformers had gone. A fatal error had been made. The churches began to fail even while the Reformers were still alive because they neglected large areas of theology and centered upon the way of salvation largely. Thus these men came to make a great and serious mistake. They began to link the oversight and leadership of the church with the government of the country in which they lived! Luther did it when he looked to the German princes for protection against the power of Rome. Zwingli did it in Switzerland because he was associated with the government of the country and brought the churches under his oversight into a direct tie with the state. Calvin did it in Geneva when he sought to turn the city into a theocracy. Knox did it in Scotland as well. The system of State churches was adopted. This practice proved to be a very dangerous and destructive error and it ultimately drained the gospel of its spiritual content. There was no longer life within the great words. The creed was right -- and these creeds remain to this day -- but in most places where this occurred the vitality of the churches has disappeared.
In 1965, I traveled with a group of businessmen from this area all through northern Germany, Denmark, Holland, England and Scotland. We had the opportunity to meet with the lay leaders of the state churches in these countries. Invariably they told us how unattractive church life was to them. Many of them were attending regularly but not getting any enjoyment out of it. Only loyalty to a system kept them involved at all. The reason for this death was that the pastors of the state churches were commissioned by the state to act as civil servants. They had to do all the baptizing, the marrying and the burying of everybody in the parish (a geographical area that was assigned to them, often consisting of tens of thousands of people). That meant they had no time left for proper study and preaching of the Word. The result was that the churches were deprived very quickly of the hearing of the Word and the power of the Spirit. Life drained away from their midst.
In Copenhagen, a pastor said to me, with tears in his eyes, "Oh, I wish I could preach the Word like you do in America, but I have no time. I have to marry everyone. I have to baptize all the babies that are born and bury everyone who dies in this whole parish, and I simply have no time to study." (They often describe it as having to hatch, match, and dispatch everyone!). He longed to study, but he was unable to impart the truth of the Word to his congregation because of the tie to the state. This is still widely true in Europe today. Churches there are almost totally empty. There may be a few believers among those present, but the membership of the church is made up of people who have a name to live but are spiritually dead. But now a promise is given to the individuals who are faithful to the Lord even in dead churches, in Verses 4-6. Our Lord says:
"Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Revelation 3:4-6 NIV)
White garments are always in Scripture a symbol of redemption. In the seventh chapter of this book we read of a great multitude of people who come out of the great tribulation and who have "washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb," (Revelation 7:14). Clearly, white garments are a sign of being redeemed, being saved by the grace of God. Remember Isaiah's great word in his opening chapter. The 18th verse says,
"Come now, let us reason together," says the Lord, "though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." (Isaiah 1:18 KJV)
That is what the blood of the Lamb can do. These are said to be "worthy," not because they have lived good moral lives -- many of them very likely had not -- but because they had washed away their sins in the blood of the Lamb. They were worthy because God had imparted to them the righteousness of Christ. That is the gift which he gives to all who come by faith to him. You need no longer to try to earn your way, or work your way, into a good relationship with God. You can never do so, but you are given it by believing his Word and receiving his forgiveness. These, then, are the overcomers who are mentioned in Verse 5. The Lord promises them three specific things:
First, they will be "dressed in white," i.e., they will be given his own righteousness. Many of the hymns reflect this great truth:
Jesus, thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
'Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.
Second, he promises: "I will never blot out his name from the book of life." That promise has bothered many people because they immediately think, "That implies that some can be blotted out of the book of life. If I am once given the righteousness of Christ does this mean I can lose it again? If I do not live up to what I should, or walk rightly before the Lord, can I lose it again?" But notice the way the Lord puts it. He does not say anything about anyone's name being blotted out. His words are simply assuring that those who trust him will never be blotted out. I think he is addressing himself to the fears of the redeemed. Many Christians are troubled by the thought that perhaps they can lose their salvation. Sometimes when we have misbehaved badly, when we have done things we are ashamed of, we ask ourselves, "What has happened to me? Am I no longer a Christian? Have I lost my salvation?"
When I was a young pastor I remember being called one day by a beloved old Presbyterian pastor, Dr. Francis Russell, one of the men who ministered at PBC in those early days. He lived here in town, and in his 90's, this godly old man called and asked me to come over to see him. I found he was deeply troubled by the fact that as he was nearing the end of his life he wondered if he was really a Christian after all. People are often troubled by such thoughts. Our Lord knows that, and he is here reassuring such. "No, you need not be disturbed. If you are really a believer, if you have come to Christ, if you have been born again, and have my life in you, I will never blot out your name from the book of life." That wordnever, is the strongest negative in the Greek language. It should be translated, "I will never, ever, under any circumstances, blot out your name from the book of life." What wonderful reassurance!
"On the contrary," says Jesus (and this is the third thing), "I will acknowledge you before my Father and the angels in heaven." When we arrive in glory our lives will be visible to everybody. Nothing is hidden then. Jesus tells us, "That which you have done in secret will be shouted from the house tops," Matthew 12:13 KJV). Everything is wide open. No aspect of life can be hidden away. Knowing that, many of us are a little afraid to appear in glory. We know truths about ourselves that we do not want known. But Jesus says, "When you stand there with your entire record exposed for everybody to see, I will look at you and say, 'You are mine.' I will acknowledge your name before the Father and all his angels. This sinner, this defiled person, this unworthy character -- I want the universe to know -- he is mine!" That is what he promised to do in the 10th chapter of Matthew.
So the closing word, as always in these letters, is to the one who has ears to hear. "Listen," he says, "to each letter." All of Scripture is profitable to someone who has the life of Christ within. As we draw this service to a close it may be that there are some here who have never really come to life in Christ: Church attendance is excellent, but it will never save you. Church membership has value, but it will never save you. You are saved when you repent of your self-dependence, your hope that you can get by on your own character, and believing that Jesus has settled it for you by the sacrifice of himself, you receive him as Lord and Savior. That is when the life of the Spirit is imparted -- and that is what the church at Sardis required.
PHILADELPHIA: THE LITTLE CHURCH THAT TRIED
Everyone knows that our historic American city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, named for the church to which we come today, means "brotherly love" (although some Philadelphians today call it "the city of the brotherly shove!"). The biblical city was located about 28 miles southeast of the city of Sardis. It was the youngest of the seven cities whose churches are addressed in these letters.
Philadelphia was founded about 150 B.C. by King Attallus of Pergamum, whose nickname was Philadelphus, which means "lover of a brother." This man was noted for the admiration and love he had for his brother, Eumenes, and he named this city in honor of him. One feature about the city, which ties closely to us here in the Bay Area, was that the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 17 A. D., along with Sardis and other cities in that locality. Most of the others recovered rather quickly from the disaster, but the after-shocks continued in Philadelphia for quite a number of years, with the result that the people had to flee the city repeatedly. Tiberius Caesar helped Philadelphia to recover from the earthquake, and out of gratitude the city changed its name to Neocaesarea (New Caesar), and for awhile it bore that name. I mention these facts because they have a bearing on the promises to the church in this letter, as we will see.
This church in Philadelphia is unique among the seven churches because it is the only church the Lord registers no complaint against. This is the church that delights Christ! I have noticed something interesting in reading the various commentators on this letter. The Baptist commentators make the church appear to be a Baptist church, while the Presbyterian commentators make it sound Presbyterian. My own conviction is that the full name of this church was probably the Philadelphia Bible Church, or PBC! The Lord presents himself to this church in a very unusual way, seen in Verse 7 of Chapter 3:
"To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens, no one can shut; and what he shuts, no one can open." (Revelation 3:7 NIV)
In all the other letters, our Lord uses symbols to describe himself that come from the vision John had of him, recorded in Chapter 1. In this letter, however, Jesus makes no reference to that vision. He uses other titles to describe himself. He tells them plainly who he is and what he does. Who he is is "the holy one" and "the true one." He is the holy one -- morally perfect. His character is without flaw or blemish. And he is genuine reality. He is the true one, the one behind all that really exists. That is who he is. What he does is: He "holds the key of David." That is a reference to an incident recorded in the 22nd chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah. In the days of Hezekiah the king there was a courtier (we would call him a chief-of-staff, for he was in charge of the palace) whose name was Shebna. He had been caught in a personal scam run for his own benefit, and as a result God says a very unusual, very descriptive thing about him: "I will take him and whirl him around and around (like a discus thrower), and hurl him into a far country," Isaiah 22:18). It was a prediction that he would be sent into Babylon. He would be replaced by a godly man named Eliakim, of whom God said,
"I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David. What he opens, no one can shut, and what he shuts, no one can open." (Isaiah 22:17 NIV)
Our Lord refers back to that passage in Isaiah and applies it to himself: "I am the one who shuts and no one can open, and opens and no one can shut." His will cannot be opposed. He governs the events of history on earth. He will open some doors; he will close other doors. What he opens no one can shut, what he shuts, no one can open. No human power can contravene what he determines. Now he tells the church, beginning in Verse 8, how he will use this power to open and shut.
"I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no man can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name." (Revelation 3:8 NIV)
To a church like the church at Philadelphia the Lord says he will open doors of ministry and service, and no one can shut them. The Apostle Paul uses this analogy about himself. On his second missionary journey he tried to go into the province of Asia to preach the gospel but was forbidden by the Holy Spirit; it was a shut door. Then he tried to go into Bithynia, on the southern shore of the Black Sea, but was not allowed of the Lord -- another shut door. But when he came to Troas he had a vision of a man from Macedonia, and he learned that the Lord had opened a door for him into Europe. Paul's commitment to enter that open door has changed the history of the whole Western world, affecting all of civilization since that time. It was an open door of tremendous significance which the Lord had opened for Paul. But in First Corinthians 16, he says of Ephesus, the capital of Asia, "A great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me," (1 Corinthians 16:9 NIV). So the door which had been closed to him once was opened to him later by the Lord.
We are seeing something unusual in this line today. Without any announcement, the Lord has, to everyone's surprise, opened doors in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary; doors which had been closed for decades. It is wonderful to see how the people are responding to that open door. Yet not far away from these countries is a closed door. Albania, on the shores of the Adriatic, is the most closed country in the world to the gospel. Christians are forbidden to practice their faith there. No churches are allowed. It is a tightly closed door. There are other countries of Eastern Europe that remain closed as well. We are encouraged to pray for these, but it takes the One who "opens and no man shuts, and shuts and no man opens" for those prayers to succeed.
I must make a correction to the NIV text at this point. The words, "I know that you have little strength," is not what the Greek text says. I am sometimes amazed at these modern translations. There is no word in Greek for I know. What it literally says is, "...because you have a little power and have kept my word and have not denied my name." The church is being given the reasons why the Lord opened a door for them. What the text actually says is, "I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut because you have a little power and have kept my word and not denied my name."
That teaches us something very important. It says that an open door is given when a church fulfills the conditions that will allow it to move through that door once it has been opened. Chief among those conditions is that it have discovered the power of the Spirit. It is spiritual power the Lord is talking about. It is not so much strength as it is power -- power obtained by faith, i.e., by expecting God to act. Individuals in the church sense that God can do something. They look for an opportunity, a need to appear, and when they respond, a door opens for continued service which may grow even wider so others may enter with them.
I believe Ephesians 2:10 is in some ways the most exciting verse in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul says, "We are his workmanship [this word has also been translated "masterpiece"] created in Christ Jesus unto good works." That is why you have been made a Christian -- that you might do good works -- deeds of help, mercy, kindness, witness, love, comfort, counsel and strength. That is what each member of the church is capable of doing. We are "created unto good works." And then comes the exciting part: "which God has prepared beforehand for us to walk in them." When you are confronted with a need it may appear rather insignificant at first. Perhaps it is a neighbor with a heavy heart; perhaps it is a family member who has what may appear to be a fairly minor problem. When you respond to that, however, it becomes an open door. Ministry may grow out of it which will challenge and encourage and bless you as you go on. Notice that the Lord says to this church at Philadelphia, "you have a little power." That realistically stresses the fact that most, if not all, churches hardly realize the potential they have for ministry. I have often thought that it applies to PBC. Twice this morning I have had the privilege of addressing a large congregation. Each one of you who know Christ has been given spiritual gifts and has been commissioned by him to use those gifts to bless people and meet their needs. Yet how few of us enter into this! What vast potential resides in a single congregation if everyone would exercise the ministry that has been given you to utilize the spiritual gifts that have been given to each! That is why the Lord says of this church at Philadelphia, "You have some power, but not much." He is hoping they will increase that potential for ministry.
We need to remember that the presence of the Spirit is promised to each church without any condition whatsoever. When we know Christ the Spirit comes to live within our hearts and to reside there. But the power of the Spirit is given only to those churches who learn to keep his word and to not deny his name! Those two things are central in the ministry of every church. First, there must be the Word. Always God plants his Word at the heart of his church. We must preach it, teach it, study it, and truly know it. And it is not just for the leadership, but everybody in the church is to know God's Word. The Bible is the most amazing book the world has ever seen. It conveys insights into life that you will find in no other place. No great university in the land can give you an understanding of life that this Book will give you. Therefore we must keep it, know it, walk in it and love it. We must soak ourselves in the Word! But beyond the Word is the Lord himself. One of our old hymns puts it this way,
Beyond the sacred page I seek Thee, Lord.
My spirit pants for Thee, O Living Word.
It is the Word which enables us to know the character of Jesus, to have fellowship with him, and to not deny that character in our lives. We are to reflect in our lives all that his name stands for. We are to know him as present with us at all times, and seek to conform our behavior to his life. Those are the qualities it takes to enter into the open doors which the Lord gives to a church and to the individuals in it. Then, second, the Lord says in Verse 9:
"I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars -- I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you." (Revelation 3:9 NIV)
To a church that is responsive and ready to be used, the Lord will use his power to "open and shut" to make their enemies respect them and openly acknowledge God's blessing upon them. We saw this phrase, "the synagogue of Satan," used also in the letter to the persecuted church at Smyrna. It referred to certain Jews in that city who claimed to be spiritual descendants of Abraham but in actuality they were only his physical descendants; their attitude toward the truth of God was far removed from Abraham's faith. The Lord himself continually confronted the Pharisees who claimed to be Abraham's descendants, but Jesus said to them, "You are of your father the devil," (John 8:44). So here in the city of Philadelphia Jesus refers to this Jewish opposition as "the synagogue of Satan." But something amazing happens. What causes them to come at last and bow before the church and acknowledge God's blessing upon them? It is because the church responds to the opposition and hostility with love and with obvious knowledge of God which these Jews do not possess, even though they have the Scriptures. As a result, they come at last and acknowledge God's blessing on the church at Philadelphia.
Some of you have been listening to Tuvya Zaretsky during our Sunday School hour telling of his Jewish upbringing and how resistant he was to the gospel and to Christians. Jesus was a name of anathema to him. He would grow angry just hearing people talk about Jesus. But he met Christians who treated him kindly and loved him despite his anger and hostility. Eventually he was brought to see that salvation lay in Christ. He became a Christian and is now working with Jews for Jesus in San Francisco.
On two separate occasions I have met with a group of knowledgeable, nationally known, Jewish rabbis, once in Los Angeles and again in Houston. During our second meeting one of the rabbis said something very striking. He said, "You premillennial evangelicals are the only ones among the Christians that we can really talk to because you believe there is a future for Israel. That enables us to communicate with you but these others have written us off and we have nothing much in common with them." That reaction is highlighted here by the fact that when you truly represent the love and compassion of Christ, and you understand the promises of the Old Testament, you can communicate with Jews anywhere and find that they will come to respect what you say and do. The third way in which our Lord will exercise the power of opening and shutting is given to us in the amazing promise of Verse 10:
"Since you have kept my command to endure patiently [again, that is not a good translation. What he really says is, "Since you have kept my word of patient endurance." This is a reference to the Lord's own endurance. He has been waiting until his enemies be made his footstool, for long centuries. "Since you have learned to wait like that," he is saying, "since you have kept my word of patient endurance], I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth." (Revelation 3:10 NIV)
That is a clear reference to what our Lord himself calls in Matthew 24 "the great tribulation" -- a time of distress that will come upon the whole world, the like of which has never been known before in human history, no, nor ever will be again. This will be the worst time of distress and bloodshed that the world has ever seen. We will find vivid descriptions of it as we go on in Revelation. And it is particularly sent "to test those who live upon the earth." That does not mean the residents of this planet. It is rather a reference to their mental attitude, their state of mind. It is referring to those who live as though this life is all there is, who are materialistically-minded, who live upon the earth and for the earth and for the things of earth. That is what the time of testing is sent to reveal.
But the promise to the church is specifically that it is to be delivered from the hour of trial. Actually the word is not "from," but "out of" -- to be delivered out of -- not just the trial but out of the very time of the trial! This is one of the clearest promises in the Bible of the catching away of the church before the great tribulation begins. It is a promise of the departure of the church, which Paul describes so vividly in First Thessalonians 4:
The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first, then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall we ever be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 KJV)
A very wonderful promise, which many signs indicate may be very close at hand today. Viewed from the standpoint of Christian history, this church of Philadelphia foreshadows the great Evangelical Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries, following the time of declension among the Reformation churches: The Moravian Brethren in Germany began to meet in small groups for prayer, catching again a vision of God and what he could do, and eventually sent out missionaries to other parts of the world. It began in England as the movement which we call the Puritan Movement. John Bunyan, who wrote Pilgrim's Progress, was one of these Puritans; John Newton, whose hymns we sing so often, was another. This Awakening also encompasses the great Wesleyan Revival and George Whitefield's preaching in both England and America. In this country it includes the movement called the Great Awakening, with Jonathan Edwards as one of its leaders, and the Methodist Circuit Riders who rode horseback up and down the Eastern seaboard, later expanding westward when the nation began to move west. I personally have been benefited by one of these men, called Brother Van, who came to the Territory of Montana shortly after it began to be populated because of the gold rush. He went into the saloons and mining camps of Montana and preached the gospel, winning hundreds to Christ. He started churches all over the state, most of which are still there, but I'm afraid not doing very well. This was also a time of revival of missionary interest: William Carey in England got a vision of the need of India and eventually went out there and planted the gospel in a great work in that country. Robert Moffet and his famous son-in-law, David Livingstone, went to Africa and did marvelous work there. The American missionary, Adoniram Judson, went out to Burma and pioneered a work in that country. Hudson Taylor went to minister in inland China.
We have many other great missionary names that come out of this period of history. It is also the time of the emergence of great evangelists whose names we all remember -- George Whitefield, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon (a pastor, but also a great evangelist), Charles Finney here in this country, and D. L. Moody, who left a great work behind him. All of these were foreshadowed by this church of Philadelphia which came alive amidst the death that characterized many other churches. Our Lord's appeal is given in Verses 11-13:
"I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Revelation 3:11-13 NIV)
Once again we have a renewal of Jesus' wonderful promise, "I am coming soon." Many people ask when they read this, "How can he say that? This letter was written almost 2,000 years ago. The church has been expecting him ever since, but he still has not come. How could he have said to this church, 'I am coming soon?'" The answer is to see this promise in relationship to the context. He has just been describing a time when the greatest trial that the earth has ever known will come, the terrible great tribulation. He has described that very clearly in his Olivet Discourse, in Matthew 24. There we have a terrible picture of the sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light, stars falling from heaven, and men's hearts failing as they look in fear on the things coming to pass upon the earth. It is in relationship to that event that Jesus says he is coming soon. As the world nears that final, climactic upheaval we should hear again his promise that he is coming soon. He himself said, "When you see these things beginning to come to pass, lift up your head and rejoice, for your redemption is drawing near," Luke 21:28). It is in that connection that he utters this promise to come soon.
In relationship to that his word is, "Hold on to what you have so that no one will take your crown." As the times get harder and it is even more difficult to be a Christian, as hostility increases and the world becomes more and more secular and casts aside much of the trappings of Christianity that it had formerly practiced, then we must be careful that we do not give up and go along with worldly attitudes and worldly pursuits. We must not allow a desire for status, prestige, fame, a beautiful home and the things the world lusts for, to become central in our thinking. "Hold on to what you have," says Jesus, because there is danger that someone may take your crown. That is not a reference to the possible loss of salvation. What it is speaking of is your opportunity for service in the eternal ages. That is the reward which is offered, the opportunity for even greater service. James I. Packer has well said:
The Christian's reward is not directly earned; it is not a payment proportionate to services rendered; it is a Father's gift of generous grace to his children, far exceeding anything they deserved. Also, we must understand that the promised reward is not something of a different nature tacked on to the activity being rewarded; it is, rather, the activity itself -- communion with God in worship and service -- in its consummation.
This is the truth that Paul teaches in First Corinthians 3. Speaking of Jesus as the foundation being laid in human hearts, the apostle says, "If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light [this is the very Day that Revelation describes]. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each one's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames," (1 Corinthians 3:12-15 NIV). Thus the crown of greater opportunity for service is what might be lost. Do not let anybody take that away from you, says Jesus. Do not lose the opportunities you have. Possess them, and you will receive a reward.
There are two promises given to the ones who overcome, who hold on to what they have: First, Jesus says, "I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God, and never again will he leave it." The four pillars on either side of this auditorium support the superstructure of this building. A pillar is a symbol of strength and permanence. Our Lord is promising those who hold on to what they have, a position in the life to come of strength and permanence; they will be someone who upholds things. In Galatians, the Apostle Paul refers to Peter, James and John as "pillars" of the church; the church rested upon them in some sense as they were imparting guidance and knowledge to Christians. In the Jerusalem temple which was destroyed in 70 A. D., there were two great pillars in front of the building, one called Jachin (which means "established, permanent"), and the other Boaz ("strength"). Pillars are thus symbols of strength and permanence. "Never again will he leave it," says Jesus. When you visit ancient ruins you will notice that often all that is left standing are the pillars. This promise of Jesus to never go out again is a reference to the experience of these Philadelphians who had frequently to flee the city because of the earthquake tremors that came. When you labor for me, says Jesus, you will reach a place where you will not have to go out ever again. It is a picture of security, permanence and strength.
Then, Jesus says, "I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God ... and I will write on him my new name." Three names will be written on the overcomer. A change of names would be meaningful to the Philadelphians because that city changed its name twice in its history. It called itself Neocaesarea when Tiberius helped it; and later on, in honor of Vespasian, one of the Flavian emperors, it changed its name to Flavia. (It later resumed the name Philadelphia.) Thus these people understood what it meant to have a different name.
Jesus says, "I will give you three names." Names reveal the character of the named: The first is, "the name of my God." This is a promise that believers will be made godlike. "Godliness" is a shortened form of the word "godlikeness." The purpose of the Spirit in our lives is to make us godly or godlike. If you are growing and maturing as a Christian, each year you ought to be a little easier to live with -- more patient, compassionate, understanding of others, and mature in your judgment. You should become more godlike. That is the promise to the believer who overcomes by faith. Second, Jesus says, "I will write [on him] the name of the city of my God." The last two chapters of Revelation give a vivid description of this wonderful city, the New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven "as a bride adorned for her husband" -- a beautiful bride meeting her husband. That again is a picture of loving intimacy; someone captured by the beauty and goodness of another and longing to be with him or her. That is the second promise given to those who hold on, who stand fast in the midst of a decaying world. They will know the intimacy of a husband's love for his beautiful bride. Last, says Jesus, "I will also write on him my new name." What is that? Since a name symbolizes one's character this is a reference to the fact that when our Lord's work of redemption is finished he will have a new name. Everyone wants to know what that new name is, but in Revelation 19:12 we are told that when Jesus appears he will have that new name written upon him, but it is a name that no man knows. Before Jesus was born in Bethlehem an angel appeared to Joseph and told him that Mary would bring forth a son, "and you shall call his name Jesus." Why? "Because he will save his people from their sins," Matthew 1:21). Jesus is the redemptive name of our Lord. It means "Yahweh saves." But when the work of redemption is finished, when we are all home in glory with him and God's work of saving and redeeming us is over, Jesus will be given a new work to do. No one knows what it is; it will be a new role -- but the church is promised a share in those vast new labors! In the new heavens and the new earth redemption will no longer be required, but a new role will be given our Lord, and in that new work the church is called to share.
So we come again to our Lord's word of caution:
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Revelation 3:13 NIV)
Stop! Look! Listen! Hear the Spirit. Think through these letters. Pay attention to them, because they are spelling out your future destiny.
LAODICEA: THE POOR-RICH CHURCH
The city of Laodicea was located about 100 miles directly east of Ephesus, the first city to which these seven letters were addressed. Laodicea was part of a tri-city area, closely associated with the cities of Colossae (to which the letter to the Colossians was written), and Hierapolis. Laodicea was noted throughout the Roman province of Asia for its wealth, its commercial life, and its medical practice. As the banking center of Asia, it was the most prosperous of the seven cities. Many large, beautiful homes were built in this city, the ruins of which are still visible, and probably some of them were owned by Christians. Laodicea also had a flourishing clothing industry. A particular breed of black sheep were raised around this area, and the glossy, black wool was woven into special clothes that were sold here. The city was also noted for its medical practice, especially for its eye and ear salve. The medical cult of Aesculapius was located here. Incidentally, doctors in the military services of the United States still wear the symbol of a staff with entwined serpents around it, the symbol of Aesculapius. Laodicea was thus a kind of Bank of America, Macy's Department Store and Mayo Clinic all rolled into one. That will explain some of the references we find in this letter to the church there. As in all the letters, our Lord introduces himself in a very significant way. His opening description form the key to what the church needs.
"To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: "These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation." (Revelation 3:14 NIV)
Apparently the Lord wanted this church to see him in this capacity. He was first of all the "Amen." We are all familiar with this word. We utter it when we close a prayer or when we want to express our agreement with a meaningful statement. But it is also a word that Jesus used frequently. In the more modern versions of the gospels, he begins many statements with the words, "Truly, truly, I say unto you." The King James Version renders it, "Verily, verily." Actually, in Greek, that is "Amen, Amen." It indicates that Jesus is saying something extremely important. It always marks significant truth. So when you come to this word in the Gospels, pay careful attention because Jesus himself is underscoring that what he is saying is not only true, but it is important truth.
We use "Amen" as a last word, and it has that meaning too, when God speaks. The book of Hebrews begins, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son," (Hebrews 1:1-2a NIV). The word of Jesus is the last word, the final word of God to man. Anyone who goes beyond the words of Jesus is not giving us new truth; he is departing from the final word that God has spoken. Also, our Lord calls himself "the faithful and true witness." He has emphasized his truthfulness before in these letters, but here he adds the word "faithful," i.e., he not only tells the truth, but he tells all the truth. He does not hide anything. He speaks plainly and clearly and reveals the whole truth. He wants this church to understand that.
The third phrase is not, as the NIV version puts it, "the ruler of God's creation." It is really the word "the beginning of God's creation." It is the same word that the Gospel of John opens with: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," (John 1:1 NIV). Two verses later John says, "All things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made," (John 1:3 KJV). Jesus is the origin, the beginning of God's creation. But not merely of the old creation, i.e. the physical universe in which we live, including the great galaxies of space, the planetary system of our sun, and the earth itself. All came from the hands of Jesus as the source of God's creation. But Jesus is also the source of the new creation that God is building. Paul tells us in Second Corinthians 5, "if anyone is in Christ he [or she] is a new creation," (2 Corinthians 5:17a NIV). We are part of a new world that the Lord is bringing into being. It has already begun -- that is the point: "old things have passed away; behold all things have become new," (2 Corinthians 5:17b KJV).
This church in Laodicea particularly needs to know that truth. At the end of his letter to the Colossians, Paul says, "See that [this letter] is read also in the church of the Laodiceans," (Colossians 4:16b NIV). So the Laodiceans were to be familiar with the letter to Colossae, and it is in that letter that the apostle emphasizes Jesus' link with creation. He is the "firstborn of creation" (Colossians 1:15), and the "firstborn from the dead" (Colossians 1:18b KJV), [i.e., in resurrection] which is the new creation. This church at Laodicea needs to be told important truth, the whole truth, and especially truth about how to relate to God's new creation. What does the Lord see in this church at Laodicea? In every letter Jesus says, "I know your works." He is aware of what goes on in every church. He is watching us as well.
"I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm -- neither hot nor cold -- I am about to spit you out of my mouth." (Revelation 3:15-16 NIV)
There were two problems in this church: First, there was something wrong with their commitment. They were neither cold nor hot. They were suffering from what someone has well called "the leukemia of non-commitment." And, also, there was something wrong with their self-image, as we will see in Verse 17. They thought they were rich, but they were really poor. The church at Sardis was a cold church, a dead church. It was as cold as death. The church at Philadelphia was hot, alive, and vital. But here in Laodicea was a church that was neither hot nor cold. It is merely lukewarm. Archaeologists have discovered an interesting fact about this city. It had no local water supply, but obtained their water through an aqueduct from the hot springs at Hierapolis, some six miles away. If you were staying in a motel in Laodicea and turned on the tap to get a cold drink, and tasted the water, you would probably spit it out again because it was tepid, lukewarm. Traveling that distance, the hot water had partly cooled down, and it would be nauseating, repulsive. The word our Lord actually uses here is not "spit out," but "vomit." He will vomit out the church because it was nauseating to him. What created this condition? There is only one answer. It is compromise! When you want to make something lukewarm you mix together hot and cold. We do this continually with regard to air temperature.
This morning when I arrived here it was very cold in the church, so cold the choir actually had overcoats on. It has warmed up since then, and you can be grateful for that. We humans do not like extremes of temperature. We do not like it to be cold, and we do not like it when it is hot. So what do we do? For our comfort we mix the two together. We come out with what is comfortably warm. That is what was happening in the church at Laodicea. They were compromising spiritually for comfort's sake. It is much more comfortable to attend a church where nobody takes doctrinal issues very seriously, where, for comfort's sake, you avoid discussions over issues. This church was compromising its teaching for the sake of peace. They had enough truth to salve the conscience without becoming fanatics; but enough coolness to calm their wills without freezing people out. It was a comfortable church. You could have attended this church for years and it would have probably been very pleasurable, but nothing much would be happening. You would not be challenged, or rebuked, or corrected, or exhorted, but only encouraged and respected because it was a comfortable church, but also a compromising church. What does Jesus think of a church like that? Yuck! Its nauseating! Repulsive! The people may like it, but Jesus does not. It may make them comfortable, but it makes him sick!
Once again I have to say there are thousands of churches like this around the world today, here in our country as well as elsewhere. In my judgment the most destructive and dangerous attitude a church can have -- and I run into it everywhere -- is that the church belongs to the people, they own it, and it exists for their benefit. That is what turns a church into what some have called a Religious Country Club, operating for the benefit of the members. Some years ago a young pastor asked me: "What would you do if you were in my place? Last week," he said, "the chairman of the board of our church called me in, and said to me, 'You've been pastor here for a year and you're a fine young man. We like you. You're a good Bible teacher. But there are a couple of things we want you to understand before we renew your contract. First, we want you to know this: This is our church. It is not yours. We were here before you came and we will be here after you leave. We don't want you making a lot of changes in this church. Second, we want you to understand that we hired you, and we can fire you. If you don't like the way we do things, then you will have to go, not us.'"
He then said, "I have to meet with them again next week, what do you think I should tell them?" I said, "Well, I would tell them, 'The next time we meet please bring your Bibles because we're going to have a Bible study.' And when you meet together I would say to them, 'I understand that some of you feel that this is your church. Now I want you to show me that in the Scriptures, because as I read Scripture, I find that Jesus says, "On this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it," (Matthew 16:18 KJV). And when Paul speaks to the elders at Ephesus he says, "Tend the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof," (Acts 20:28). Nowhere in Scripture does it say that the church belongs to the people. It is Christ's church, and he has the right to determine what it shall be like and what goes on within it.'"
About two weeks later I got a letter from this young man. He said, "I did just what you said. I went back to the board and told them what you told me -- and they fired me!" But a couple of weeks later I got another letter from him, and it said, "Another church has called me, and we settled all these matters before I started. I think this one is going to go." I have followed it through the years and I can tell you a flourishing church has resulted from that young man's ministry. Each church is the Lord's church -- that is what Laodicea forgot. But Laodicea was not only comfortable but, even worse, it was complacent. The Lord says to it in Verse 17:
"You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked." (Revelation 3:17 NIV)
What a sad condition! There is a big difference between "you say," and "you are." Our Lord points this difference out. This is the "Faithful and True witness" speaking, the one who tells the whole truth, even though it hurts. This church at Laodicea was, to use a popular expression, "fat, dumb and happy." It was smug. It was self-sufficient. It was complacent. They had plenty of money. Perhaps they had beautiful buildings, gifted preachers, a great choir, a great organ, and the respect of the community. They thought they were doing well. But when Jesus looks at it, he says, "You are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked." Why such a difference in these two views? It is because they were being measured by two different standards.
I might say to you, "What is the temperature today?" and you would look at a thermometer and say, "It is 32 above zero." But I might check another thermometer and say, "No, you are wrong. It is zero." The truth is, we would both be right because one thermometer was Fahrenheit and the other was Centigrade. Zero in Centigrade is 32 above on Fahrenheit. If you use two different standards of measurement, you will never be able to agree on what the true temperature is. That is what was happening here. They were being measured by two different standards. Laodicea was using the standards of the world. It was pleasant, comfortable, approved by the community around, and they thought they were doing well. But Jesus is using the standard of what he intended his church to be like. It is definitely not to be a Country Club, run for the benefit of the members. It is not a Performing Arts Center either, where one is entertained with wonderful music. It is not to be a Political Action Group, taking sides on the issues of the day, nor is it to be a protest movement. Elements of all these may, at times, be legitimately expressed in the church, but none is to be its raison d'etre, the purpose for which it exists.
Jesus tells us plainly what his church is to be like. It is to be salt -- and not just plain salt, but salty salt! He said, "Salt that loses its saltiness is good for nothing," (Matthew 5:13, Mark 9:50, Luke 14:34). It will only be cast out and trodden under the feet of men. But a church that is salt should be salty. He means that, like salt in food, it should be spread throughout the whole area, flavoring whatever it touches. The church is to function not only when it meets on Sunday, but out where you people are during the week -- in business offices, in the marketplace, in shops, in your home, wherever you are. That is where the church does its work. That is where it is to tell the good news and to be salt, flavoring life with a different flavor, a different attitude toward circumstances, which does not go along with the willful, wicked, and wanton ways of the world but which chooses to walk in truth, righteousness, love and honesty. That is how the church becomes salt, filled with good works.
And it is also to be light. "You are like a city set on a hill," said Jesus. "You are the light of the world," (Matthew 5:14 NIV). Light is a symbol of truth. The church is to be a source of truth and of vision. It is the church that is charged with the task of making people understand the program of God throughout history, and of interpreting the events of the day so that men see what God is doing, not what man intends to do. That is the work of the church: To declare the truth about humanity's lost condition and the good news that a Savior has been born who will save us from our sin. Judged by that standard, Laodicea had nothing. They were as though stripped naked, poor, pitiful, wretched, and blind.
In each of these letters we have been looking at the churches as prophetic of a certain period in the history of the church. There is nothing in the text itself, I grant you, that tells us that, other than the general statement made in the first chapter that this whole book is a prophecy -- and that description applies to Chapters 2 and 3, as well as to the rest of the book. But, when you look back across these twenty centuries of church history, you can see how accurate this prophecy has been. Each of the seven churches represents a time where the prevailing general atmosphere was consistent with the conditions described in that church. Now we come to the seventh age of the church. It is clear, as both history and prophecy would confirm, that Laodicea is the church of the 20th century, the last age of the church. It is characterized by the phenomenon of the people dictating what will be taught. It is significant, is it not, that the name Laodicea means "The judgment of the people," or, to put it loosely, "People's rights." That is the cry of our times, is it not? The rights of the people -- exactly the opposite of the Nicolaitans who were a dominating clergy class that told the people what to believe. But Laodicea is where the people tell the ministers what to preach. We are seeing this happen today. The Apostle Paul predicted it in his second letter to Timothy when he said, "In the last times people will gather unto themselves teachers having itching ears, who will turn many from the truth and turn them unto myths and fables," 2 Timothy 4:3-4). Unfortunately, and sadly, that is what is happening today.
There was once a time when the church taught that the self life, the natural life with which we were born, was something that needed to be crucified. It needed to be denied. It required careful control and to be kept under rigid restrictions. Jesus said it himself, "He that comes after me must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me," (Matthew 16:34, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23). But we are living in a day when churches are openly advancing self, asserting self, saying we should discover its possibilities, and act and live in the light of those possibilities. Once the inerrancy of Scripture formed the bedrock of all evangelical churches. You could count on the fact that the Bible was fully accepted as the unerring Word of God. But now churches, seminaries, and colleges that call themselves evangelical, are rethinking the nature of the Scriptures, denying the inerrancy of the Word, and claiming that we cannot trust it; it must be judged by men before it can be accepted.
I heard last week of a man who has made a careful study of three of the major Christian colleges of this country. I will not name them, but they are well known. This man studied their beginnings and then their present outlook and he carefully documents the drift away from the truths that the founders of the schools wanted to perpetuate. This is the age of compromise, of drift within the church. Once there was a great urge within the church to evangelize the lost, simply because they were lost. The Scriptures tell us that all men are lost, that we are a lost race, drifting down the river of time. We reflect that lostness in the corruption and evil that is widespread in our day -- the pollution of our planet, the terrible rise of crime, the frightening toll that drugs and other things take of our youth, the failure of morals, etc. All this is testimony to the fact that we are not a pure people. We are not born good. We are born lost. But in many churches we are being told that God is too loving to condemn anybody; that good people like Gandhi and Schweitzer, who were not evangelical Christians at all, must at least have a second chance after death. Once it was unheard of in churches that the murder of unborn babies would be approved by evangelical believers, or that homosexuality would ever be acceptable. Yet, as we well know, abortion is increasingly accepted, even by evangelical Christians in many places. And on national television this week it was announced that the Episcopal Church has ordained its first openly practicing homosexual as a priest within that church. This is truly the age of Laodicea. Our Lord's appeal to this church falls into three simple divisions. First of all, verse 18:
"I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see." (Revelation 3:18 NIV)
The key to that verse is the three little words "buy from me." Jesus has all the church really needs to function. It is nice to have buildings, great choirs and beautiful music. These are not wrong, I do not mean in any way to suggest that they are, but they are not what the church needs. What it needs is what our Lord describes here, "Gold, and white clothing, and eye salve." We will see in a moment what those symbols stand for, but he alone possesses them. That is why it really does not make any difference whether we are persecuted, hounded by the government, put to death, or patronized and accepted. What the church needs is to be obtained only from Jesus, and our Lord tells us what it is.
First, "gold refined in the fire." Peter interprets that for us. He tells us that our faith is like gold refined in the fire: "More precious even than gold that perishes, though it be tried by fire," (1 Peter 1:7). Faith in God. Faith in his Word. Faith comes from Jesus. As we look to him our faith is awakened and stirred. We then see how true the Scriptures are, how they explain life and fit with all that we experience daily. That awakens a sense of confidence and faith, and that is what this church needed first. It lacked faith in God, but was resting on its own abilities or the world's resources.
Then, second, they needed white clothes: "white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness." Everyone is morally naked before God. Every one of us knows something about ourselves that we would not want anyone else to know. But God knows! He sees us in our nakedness. What does he offer for it? The righteousness of Christ! All through these letters we have seen that white clothes stand for redemption, for righteousness imparted by Christ. We are no longer to be clothed with our own self-righteousness, which Isaiah says is nothing but filthy rags in the sight of God, but we are to be clothed with the righteousness of Christ himself, a perfect righteousness which God accepts.
Jesus, thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
'Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head."
White clothes stand for a changed character; they mark someone who has taken his robes and washed them in the blood of the Lamb, as we will read in Chapter 7. Then the third thing that is needed is eye salve. Laodicea was noted for their eye ointment. But Jesus says they need spiritual eye salve that will enable them to see. Everywhere in Scripture we have mention of an anointing of the Spirit which opens eyes to understand the truth of God. John speaks of this in his first letter. He says, "The anointing that you received from him remains in you and you do not need anyone to teach you, but his anointing is real, not counterfeit, and teaches you all truth," 1 John 2:27 NIV). That does not do away with the need for human teachers. It means that unless the Spirit in you is opening your eyes to the meaning of truth taught it will fall upon deaf ears. But if we have the Spirit of Christ within, our eyes are opened to understand the Word of God and we see the Bible in a new, fresh and wonderful way. Are you having trouble with your Bible reading? Is it hard going? Is it difficult to understand? Then ask yourself, "Do I have the Spirit of truth? Have I received him or do I need this counsel of Jesus to "come to me and I will give you that anointing which opens your eyes to see"?
The second division of our Lord's appeal is given in Verses 19-20, where we learn how to get this gold and white clothes and eye salve. This is, I believe, one of the most beautiful sections of Scripture, a most gracious offer our Lord makes to individuals within the church of Laodicea to change. Here is what he says:
"Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will go in and eat with him, and he with me." (Revelation 3:19-20 NIV)
What a kind and loving word! Our Lord is simply telling this church, despite its terrible weakness and failure, "I love you, and it is because I love you that I rebuke you and discipline you." Does that remind you of the way your father treated you? Did he ever take you aside and paddle you for something and say as he did it, "I am only doing this because I love you"? You go away rubbing your behind and saying, "I wish you didn't love me so much!" But Jesus speaks with bluntness because he loves this church, and he offers them a wonderful way out.
Verse 20 is one of the finest explanations in the whole Bible of how to become a Christian. I have used it hundreds of times and seen it work. It has three simple divisions: First, there comes a sense that Christ is outside your life and knocking at the door of your heart, wanting to come in. That occurs when you feel your life is not what you want it to be. You feel empty and disturbed about yourself. You hear the good news in song and word about Jesus, the kind of Lord he is, what he can do, and something within you responds. You sense the knocking of Christ and you want him to come in. You long for it. You begin to be awakened to your need, and you sense him offering to enter your life. That is step number one. Then the second step is very important. You must open the door. He will not open it. He is not going to force himself upon you. He never forces anyone into salvation. He offers it to you. Everywhere in Scripture Jesus offers himself to men and women, and he grieves over the fact that people do not receive his offer. Remember that remarkable scene in the Gospels during Jesus' last week in Jerusalem when he comes over the top of the Mount of Olives and sees the city spread out beneath him. He wept over the rebellious city, saying, "O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You stone the prophets and kill everybody God sends to you. How often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, but you would not," (Matthew 23:37, Luke 13:34). So he offers himself here, if you will open the door. You must invite him in. You must say to him, "Come in Lord Jesus. Enter my life. Be my Lord. Be my Savior. Deliver me from my sins -- and myself." Then the third step is very clear. He will enter in! He says so. You do not have to feel him enter. He does not say he will give you the feeling that he is there, although certainly that will come in time, but he says, "If you open the door I will enter in and remain with you. We will eat together and be together." It is a beautiful picture of permanently dwelling with you. He will move in to live with you.
There may be some here this morning who have never opened their hearts to Christ. If you turn away from his knocking you will remain lost, and, eventually, if you never repent, you will enter eternity lost forever. But our Lord says if you will open the door (you can do it even while I am finishing this message), and say in your heart, "Lord Jesus, come into my life and deliver me, change me, save me; I receive you, Lord," he will enter. John promises in his Gospel, "As many as received him, to them gave he the power to become the sons of God, even to them who believe on his name," (John 1:12 KJV).The third aspect of our Lord's appeal is his word to the overcomer. It is given in Verses 21-22:
"To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Revelation 3:21-22 NIV)
Again, as we have seen in the last three letters, the promise is to share in our Lord's reign. The true church is intended to reign with Christ. But our Lord makes a very careful distinction here. Notice how he distinguishes between his throne and his Father's throne. The Father's throne, of course, is the sovereign government of the universe. God is sovereign over all. The whole universe is under his control. Every human event comes under his jurisdiction. That is the Father's throne. When our Lord had overcome, when he, too, had endured faithfully to the end of his life, trusting God (as we are to trust God throughout the rest of our lives), he sat down on his Father's throne. When he ascended, we are told, "He sat down at the right hand of the throne of God," (Hebrews 12:2). Hebrews says that and Psalm 110 had predicted it. Thus he is Lord over all the universe right now, on his Father's throne.
But he too has a throne. He calls it "my throne." The overcoming Christian is invited to reign with him on it. In Scripture that throne is called the "Throne of David." When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, as recorded in the first chapter of Luke, he told her that she would have a son, that he would be called the Son of God and that the Lord God would give unto him "the throne of his father David, and he would reign over the house of Jacob forever," (Luke 1:32-33). The house of Jacob is the nation of Israel; all twelve tribes are descended from the sons of Jacob. So this is a promise particularly relating to the time yet to come when Jesus assumes the throne of David and Israel is made the head of the nations. It is the millennial kingdom which has been mentioned several times in these letters already. The church, resurrected and glorified, is to share with him in that reign. That does not end the reign of the church with Christ. It goes on into the new heavens and the new earth. But this is a particular promise looking to the coming kingdom on earth when Jesus will reign over the earth. Our Lord had explained this to his disciples in a rather amazing passage in the 19th of Matthew. In verse 28 it says, "Jesus said to them, 'I tell you the truth [i.e., verily, verily, or, Amen, Amen] at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel,'" (Matthew 19:28 NIV). You could not put that any plainer, could you? "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters of father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first," (Matthew 19:29-30 NIV). That is our Lord's amplification of this promise here.
Now for the last time in these letters we hear our Lord say, "He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" -- not what the churches say about themselves, or to the world, but what the Spirit says to the churches. We are to receive truth from God and dispense it to the world. But we do not originate truth. We do not think up the things that we would like to believe and spread that abroad. We are responsible to hear what the Spirit says to the churches and then to pass that along, as we function as salt and light in the world. (Stedman Library web site:http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/revelation/).
The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia--And their place in the plan of the Apocalypse, W. M. Ramsay, 1904, http://philologos.org/__eb-lttsc/
Tour Guide to Turkey and the Seven Churches: http://www.ephesusguide.com/seven_churches.html
Web site: Notes and audio: http://ldolphin.org/cleanpages/