Christ’s Letters for Our Churches - Part 2
What lives in a local church? What is its culture and spirit?
Leaders and members alike want to put their finger on this, and it can take a while to figure out. But not for Christ. The glorified Jesus stands right in the midst of the lampstands, John tells us in Revelation 1:12-13. The lampstands are the churches, and the Lord Jesus dwells among them, and He knows them deeply.
Jesus sees their light, and He feels their heat—or their lack thereof. So He says to each of the churches things like, “I know your works” (e.g., Rev. 2:2), or He says, “I know where you dwell” (2:13). Christ understands what is going on in each place. There are at least seven points to consider.
We have already highlighted the importance of how these letters are:
1) written to the church leaders
2) sent to local churches in their local situation
3) written by the glorious Jesus as King and Saviour.
This time we will consider four more points from which we can learn.
4. Christ Praises His People
Despite the sinful flood sweeping all around these seven churches, and despite the severe troubles they face, there is usually something for Christ to commend and encourage. With the exception of the letter to Laodicea, Jesus offers praise for all of his churches in Asia Minor.
What does Jesus commend the churches for?
· Ephesus was carefully testing false teachers and refuting heresy (2:2).
· the believers in Smyrna were patiently bearing persecution and suffering (2:9).
· in Thyatira, their “love, service, faith and patience” were continuing to grow (2:19).
· some in Sardis were not being defiled by the impurity all around them (3:3).
· those in Philadelphia, though weak, were being faithful to the Word of Christ (3:10).
It is striking how much praise Jesus offers here. When we read these seven letters, we probably zoom in on the criticism, and we like to underline the warnings: “Don’t be lukewarm, or I’ll spit you out. Don’t compromise with the world. Don’t forsake your first love.” Those warnings resonate with us, surely because there is always something to disapprove of in the church today.
More than likely you have had a conversation with someone who said, “Do you know what’s wrong with the church today…? There’s lukewarmness. There is apathy and hypocrisy. The youth just aren’t committed to the faith. There is so much materialism...”, and so on. Some of these things are probably true. Yet even with serious corrections to give, Christ is persistent in speaking loving words of affirmation. When things are going right, He acknowledges it, even puts it up front.
Christians are sometimes afraid of promoting sinful pride, so we hesitate to tell someone when they have done a good job. We don’t want them to get conceited, so we hold back the compliments. But in these letters we have a divine example to follow: Jesus affirms the good works that He sees, and so should we.
As one example, if elders have a wonderful visit with a family, they should tell that family why it was good, and why they are thankful for God’s work among them. Or if you appreciate how the young people in your church are enthusiastic about their Bible study meetings and their fellowship events, tell them so. Or if you know a brother who is fighting hard against sin, acknowledge to him how his struggle is the evidence of God’s gracious work in him. The examples can be multiplied.
And rather than promoting pride, it gives glory to God when we say to a person how we see the LORD working in their life. It honours God when we tell each other that we appreciate their Spirit-led kindness, or their devotion, or wisdom. By encouraging a person, we actually put the focus on what Christ is doing in and through his church.
5. Christ Criticises His People
The church is a work in progress, for there is always something to improve, something to be repented from. So there is praise for the churches in these letters, but also criticism. All but Philadelphia and Smyrna are criticised for something.
We will single out two criticisms. First is Jesus’s rebuke of Ephesus. Have you ever heard of a church being so focused on keeping the right doctrine that they don’t bother with personal godliness? “You people are all talk, and no walk. You have creeds without deeds.” It’s not a new criticism. The Ephesians had zealously defended the doctrine (2:2-3), yet they’ve missed something. Says Christ, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (2:4). These believers had once been filled with love for God and one another, but their love has started to fade. Despite all their zeal for the truth, they’d begun to neglect one another.
This is something to learn when we’re concerned about how God’s truth is being eroded. There is certainly a powerful spirit of unbelief today, where even in some churches there is a frightening willingness to accommodate doctrine to culture. In such an age, we must contend for the faith and guard the good deposit that has been entrusted to us.
But then we should also listen to the warning that Christ gives to the heresy-fighting Ephesians. We can be so immersed in carrying on one good fight that we don’t realize we are losing another. We could be so busy with polemics that we fail to have compassion on those who are struggling. Or we have no time and energy left for our neighbours who don’t know the Lord. But it’s exactly because we love the truth that we want to put the truth into practice and to share it with others.
Consider also the criticism of Sardis. The church there seems untroubled by the heresies plaguing the other congregations, and it appears not to have been persecuted. Yet Jesus says they were dying, or already dead! (3:1) Sardis enjoyed smooth sailing—and maybe that was the problem.
When there is no trouble and lots of blessing, it’s easy to become self-focused. We are so busy enjoying the comforts of our own life that our influence on our neighbours becomes minimal. When Christ’s people aren’t getting ridiculed by unbelievers, maybe it’s because we are simply not causing them offense, and we’ve simply blended in. Could it be that we are too harmless to persecute? So “hold fast and repent” (3:3).
Four times in these letters Jesus calls one of his churches to repent. Surely it’s a call that churches need to hear today as well: Turn from sin, and change your ways! To be sure, critiquing is hard. It’s uncomfortable to point out to a person—or to a church—when they are not living in way that honours Christ. We live in a time when no one wants to be judged. But if we will be faithful to Christ, then we have to know when to ask the difficult question, to rebuke someone, to call for repentance—and also to listen humbly when we ourselves are called to repentance.
6. Christ Warns of Judgment
In some of these letters, Jesus threatens judgment. “Repent and do the first works,” He says to Ephesus, “or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand” (2:5). And when He says that He “will come,” He is not simply referring to the last day, but there is an immediacy to this warning. If there is a church who needs rebuke, Christ won’t hold back. Some of these churches needed to know that if they did not repent and live differently, their sin was going to have grave consequences. Christ would even take away his presence from among them.
These warnings should make us think about how we rebuke one another in the church. How urgent do we get? How serious do we make it sound? We are called to tell each other about the deadly consequences of leading a godless life, and our brothers and sisters are not helped if we ignore the obvious just because we want to be polite and keep it comfortable. They need to know—we all need to know—that a life not joined to Christ will only end in death.
7. Christ Gives a Promise
In each of these letters, Jesus gives his believers a glorious promise. For example,
· to Ephesus, He promises “the tree of life.”
· to Smyrna, “the crown of life.”
· to Pergamos, “the hidden manna and a stone with a new name.”
· to Thyatira, a position of dominion over the nations, and “the morning star.”
· to Sardis, that they will be honoured and “clothed in white.”
Each of these promises relates to our eternal hope, to the restoration of all things, and to our position with Christ in heavenly glory.
We know about the hope of eternal life—but so what? What difference does it make for today? Do we really think about eternity? Maybe not a lot. Perhaps during a serious illness, or when there has been another funeral, we will think about things like the glorious future. But eternity usually seems a long way off when we are enjoying this life and building a home on this earth.
Yet Christ’s repeated promises in Revelation 2-3 show that it is important to foster an eternal perspective. For we are pilgrims, looking for a better homeland. The promises that conclude each of these letters demonstrate the need to have a focus beyond what is here and now, to have an eye for what is coming.
And that is not just relevant for the elderly sister who just turned 89. It is relevant for the young man struggling with sin: Is he living today in true readiness for Christ’s return? It is relevant for moms and dads who might wonder about the point of all their hard work in raising children: Are these children being prepared to dwell forever with God? It is relevant for everyone in the church, for we all need to keep our eyes on the reward that Christ promised. Let us remind each other about where we’re headed, and be encouraged.
He Who Has an Ear…
These seven points from the seven letters give a snapshot of how Christ’s words in Revelation 2-3 can address the church today. He sets before us a calling that is simultaneously demanding and beautiful. We know Christ’s power and grace, and by the Holy Spirit and Word we have access to his own wisdom and guidance. So let us be warned by his warnings and encouraged by his promises.
And let us pray often that Christ will bless our life together as his churches, until He comes again!