“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet, saying, ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last’ and, ‘What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia; to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’” Rev. 1:10-11
The Book of Revelation is a strange piece of literature, and I claim only the barest understanding of it. My relationship to it, as a teacher of scripture, has evolved and improved as I’ve heeded its simple instruction, “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy . . . “ (1:3) I recommend reading it.
With the limited space I have here I can only suggest a couple of things that emerge from John’s word to the seven churches that are straightforward and are of enduring relevance to the church. (chs . 2-3) These seven churches are a revealing microcosm of the good and evil that can co-exist in a congregation and of God’s dealings with it all. We’ll be enlightened and fortified by understanding these stern messages.
“I know your works” is generally the Lord’s first word to the churches. “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” (Heb. 4:13) The Glorious One who walks among the lampstands (“You are the light of the world’ – Matt. 5:14-16) watches over His own with deep desire and loving concern.
The Lord commends almost all the churches for their faith, love, and perseverance, especially under much trial. He praises their rejection of those who falsely claim position or authority, and He especially recognizes the (sometimes) few who have kept themselves pure and Christ-centered.
However, in most every church the Risen Lord takes issue with their conduct. “I have this against you . .” “But I have a few things against you . . .” “I have not found your works perfect before God . . .” Now, most believers understand there is no perfect church, yet in these very direct messages it is clear the Lord expects the churches to admit and address what is wrong.
What are the most troublesome issues facing those churches, and do they generalize to our time? Here is a sampling of them:
- “You have left your first love.” Doubtless, this is a challenge for any church; to remain fiercely devoted to Jesus over time. Passion gives way to passivity and routine. Peripheral issues take priority over devotion. The antidote? Remember where you once were, repent, and be “filled with the Spirit.”
- “. . .the doctrine of Balaam . . . the doctrine of the Nicolaitans.” It is difficult to know precisely what these doctrines are, but in general they are teachings and practices that encourage compromise with the world and its values. Immorality, greed, and flirting with false gods is either overlooked or is cleverly inter-woven into accepted church practice. These often arise from within the church body, slowly eroding its integrity and character. What to do? Repent; i.e., turn around now before the moral law (Romans 1:18) brings devastation.
- “You allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and beguile my servants . . .” Sometimes powerful personalities find their way into leadership of a church. They entice and seduce with the right words, altering their meaning, and often lead innocent searchers to peer into “the depths of Satan,” under the guise of ‘spirituality.’ What to do? Pray, speak the truth, and trust that God will deal with these impostors.
Years ago, a fine pastor from a northern state related a conversation with the Lord. A church across town was growing rapidly, drawing great crowds, and generating a lot of excitement. This pastor knew the leader there and was privy to his affairs with some female staffers.
“Why are you blessing that guy so much while we’re working hard and trying to live right?” He asked.
The Spirit’s reply: “What makes you think I’m blessing him? That ‘blessing’ is coming from someone else, so that when he is exposed, the damage to the church will be maximized!”
- “You are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm . . . I will spit you out!” These folks had become self-satisfied, lauding their stature and affluence, no longer sensitive to the blind-ness, poverty and spiritual nakedness that had overtaken them. God’s answer? “In My love I rebuke and chasten you! Now repent!!”
We all realize that issues like these are recurring within churches over the centuries. Sooner of later, almost every congregation must deal with incidents of blatant sin and error. And that brings us to perhaps the two most significant statements in Revelation 2 and 3.
Here they are:
- “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
- “To him who overcomes, I will . . . .”
The Lord is clearly appealing to individual believers, urging them to hear the warnings and censures directed toward the churches. Digest them, remember them, abhor them! Though it’s surely important to respect church leadership, we cannot always rely on them to detect, or deal with, the errors, deceptions, and sins within a body of believers.
So, the Spirit pleads for each one of us to be a ‘watchman’ for our various fellowships. Along with the joy and celebration associated with church life there must also be a deep sense of responsibility for the integrity of the message and our practice of it. Our eyes and ears are servants of the Spirit of God.
There are always things to ‘overcome,’ both around us and in us! We’re all aware of it, aren’t we? But it’s a holy task with great promises; the Tree of Life, the Hidden Manna, the Morning Star, and a place at the Throne of God, to name a few. What a destination!
We sit in celebration with all the Overcomers, for our victory is the resurrection and Lordship of Jesus Christ!
“The spirit of Antichrist . . . is already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – Our faith!” – 1 John 4:4, 5:4