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The Book of Revelation (lit. ‘unveiling’) opens with a vision of the risen and ruling Jesus and his words to seven particular churches each in a different city, with a different history and a different set of challenges. But these seven letters are intended for us all as Christ pieces together a mosaic of what he desires from every church in every place and time and in every circumstance.
Ephesus – large and successful, proud, doing all the right things – but they have moved away from their first love. Like a marriage that has lost its ‘spark’ – they need to return and do the things they did at first to rekindle the passion and intimacy of their relationship with Christ.
Smyrna – a church suffering, from which came one of the most famous martyrs of the early church – Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. But Jesus doesn’t promise to end their suffering, he knows that suffering is the end result of faithfulness. He even tells them that more suffering is coming – it will be intense, but it will be short (10 days). This is the comfort to those in pain – God is still in control, despite the appearances. He is allowing the suffering (and it may even be formative for them), but He will end it.
Pergamum – a church that was resisting the forces of Rome and pagan religions that were prevalent in the culture, but had allowed some false teachings to infiltrate the church. Jesus shows his commitment to the truth, the only context from which we can speak and act with love.
Thyatira – a leader in the church was influencing people to accommodate their faith to the culture around them, arguing that one can be faithful to Christ and still participate in the immorality of the culture around them (including the pervasive influence of guilds and the immoral, pagan practices involved). Jesus calls his church to a whole-hearted holiness, being set apart, not just from the immoral culture, but for Jesus, like instruments in the temple that were ‘dedicated’ for a particular purpose and not to be used for anything else.
Sardis – has a reputation for being alive, but Jesus held up a mirror to wake them up to the harsh reality – they were really dead. This was a wake up call to a church filled with hypocrites (Greek for ‘actor) – no acting, no pretending, just authenitic life.
Philadelphia – a crossroads and an important center for spreading Greek culture throughout the Roman Empire, Jesus tells this small church that he is opening a door of opportunity for them, which no one can shut, an opportunity to spread Kingdom culture to the ends of the earth. In a city of earthquakes and civic heroes enshrined on pillars, Jesus promises that they will be acknowledged as heroes in the unshakable New Jerusalem.
So in our composite picture of what Jesus expects of His people, we see that we should be marked by intimate, passionate love of God and others, willingness to endure suffering for Jesus, committed to truth, set apart for Christ’s service, living an authentic life with no pretending and seizing the opportunities for witness and Kingdom expansion that Christ opens up for us.
Wealthy – rebuilt after an earthquake in AD 60 without asking for any help from Rome or anyone
- Bankers / money
- Black wool / clothes, rugs
- school associated with Aesculapius “whose physicians prepared Phrygian powder for the cure of opthalmia”
One of three sister cities in the Lycus valley –
- Hierapolis, famous for its hot springs, which flowed out of the city and over a cliff just across from Laodicea
- Colossae, with its cool refreshing springs
Laodicea had no water source, came through miles of Roman Aqueducts
- 2nd hand, not fresh
Johnson says of this letter that there is no greater threat (spit you out of my mouth) and no greater invitation (eating with Jesus and sitting on his throne)
Why is Jesus so harsh? Why would he ‘vomit them out of his mouth?’
The first problem – pride. They were proud of themselves and their city – rich, educated, healthy, independent. “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” Jesus’ diagnosis – “you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”
– Proud of their banks and wealth – Jesus says you are poor and need to come to my to buy gold refined by fire.
– Proud of their decadent clothes and fine black wool – Jesus says they need white clothes to wear from him to cover their shameful nakedness.
– Proud of their medical knowledge and famous eye powder – Jesus says they need salve for their eyes to cure their blindness.
C.S. Lewis speaks of pride as ‘the complete anti-God state of mind.’ Independence is the chief sin, like the original sin in the garden, when our first ancestors chose to do life on their own, outside of life with God and obedience to his command.
How quickly our good accomplishments and strengths can actually drive us away from God! We live without gratitude, take the credit for ourselves instead of giving God the glory. We revel in the gift and forget the Giver. We begin to think of these things as ‘mine’ and deny that all we have and all we are belongs to God (stay tuned for our series on the Heidelberg Catechism!).
Add to this pride their lukewarmness. What does it mean to be lukewarm? Hot or Cold does not mean ‘on fire for Christ’ or cold towards God (why would Jesus want anyone to be cold?). Jesus is referencing their water supply – wishing it was either hot and healing, like Hierapolis’ mineral springs, or cold and refreshing, like Colossae. But it’s stale & tepid, unhealthy & unsatisfying.
“Lukewarmness is the worst sort of blasphemy” says G. Campbell-Morgan. Given who Jesus is and all he has done for us, our passive, bored faith is unforgivable – like spitting in Jesus’ face. He deserves our wholehearted zeal. Johns defines zeal as “the overflow of being fascinated with and compelled by the One who made us and redeemed us and holds us together.”
Pride and complacency – a deadly cocktail. And against this anti-God state of mind and this nauseating secondhand faith, Jesus says one word, now a common one to these churches – ‘repent.’ I could act in my anger to spit you out, but my desire is to see you transformed – alive and life-giving. So I come with a stern warning (‘rebuke’) and the correcting hand of a father (‘discipline’).
And an invitation. The famous picture of Jesus outside knocking has been used as a metaphor for conversion – Jesus knocks on the door of our heart. There’s no handle on the outside, we must open from inside. Jesus is a gentleman and he won’t intrude where he’s not wanted. These are nice images and many have responded by ‘opening the door’ and praying a prayer of faith. I don’t doubt the sincerity of those prayers or those inviting people to pray them.
But that’s not the picture here. To Philadelphia, Jesus reminds us that he opens doors that no one can shut and shuts doors that no one can open. Our hearts can have no defense against the invasion of love. I think of John Donne’s wonderful poem:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to'another due,
Labor to'admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly'I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me,'untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you'enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
I am grateful that Jesus is no gentleman waiting on my fainting, faltering heart. Unable to save ourselves, God the Lover is not willing to watch us die, but comes and invades.
No, Jesus is not making an individual appeal and then waiting on our response for salvation. Rather, he is speaking to his church, his people. To the extent that they truly have been chosen and called by God, their eternity is not at issue. What is being condemned is the weakness and complacency of their church. Their pride and comfort have led them, as a church, to a state where Christ is not present! This is the damning diagnosis – not individuals sent to hell, but a church devoid of the power and presence of the living Christ because they have decided that he is not necessary, not needed. They are fine doing church on their own, without Jesus.
In the Alpha Course, Nicky Gumbel shares a tongue-in-cheek article entitled, “God to leave Church of England:
Following the precedent set by leading former Anglicans, God has indicated that He too is to leave the Church of England. … According to sources close to God he’s been unhappy for some time with the direction the Anglican Church has been taking and has now finally had enough. A Church of England spokesman said, “Losing God is a bit of a blow, but it’s just something we’re going to have to live with.”’2
Sadly, I believe this is true in many churches today. I don’t believe that the people in these churches are going to hell or not true believers. But as a church, if they are relying on their own strength, their own resources, their own intelligence and wisdom and have ceased being dependant on God’s continuing guidance and power – then they may find if they look around that Jesus the King has left the building! If their leadership meetings are about attendance, programs and bank balances and their concern is with outward appearances and maintaining a ‘nice’ church for themselves, they have opted out of the mission of God that they were formed for and called to. If prayers are rote and controlled, not desperate and constant and their worship is secondhand, living off of past experiences of faith or the faith of others, then they may have lost the heart of worship and discipleship. If they no longer live in submission to the clear teachings of Scripture and for the clear mission of God to the lost and the least, then they may have missed the moment Jesus was trying to lead them out of the sanctuary and stayed behind for a nice potluck. The lyrics of a more modern day poet, Todd Agnew, always send a chill down my spine:
Which Jesus do you follow?
Which Jesus do you serve?
If Ephesians says to imitate Christ
Then why do you look so much like the world?
Blessed are the poor in spirit
Or do we pray to be blessed with the wealth of this land
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness
Or do we ache for another taste of this world of shifting sand
Who is this that you follow
This picture of the American dream
If Jesus was here would you walk right by on the other side or fall down and worship at His holy feet
Cause my Jesus bled and died
He spent His time with thieves [and sluts and liars] and the least of these
He loved the poor and accosted [the rich, the arrogant,] the comfortable
So which one do you want to be?
Cause my Jesus would never be accepted in my church
The blood and dirt on His feet might stain the carpet
But He reaches for the hurting and despises the proud
I think He'd prefer Beale St. to the stained glass crowd
And I know that He can hear me if I cry out loud
I want to be like my Jesus!
Do you want to be rich and comfortable – or do you want to be poor in spirit, blessed by God? Do you want to be like Jesus? Well, if we want to see people become like Jesus in this church, than we need to make sure he’s in the room and not outside knocking!
And there are so many distractions in our culture today! The letter to Laodicea is a wake up call to the American church that lives in an even more extreme situation of wealth and pleasure, leading to the kind of independence and complacency that turns Jesus’ stomach. Christians from third world countries of poverty and persecution look to us and don’t see a beacon of what they hope to become. They speak of ‘the poverty of the wealth of the American church’ – a burden they fear is too much for us to carry. They are concerned for us, for the tragedy of allowing worldly comforts to replace communion with Jesus.
But the promise is that if we let Jesus in, he will eat with us, share fellowship with us, be one with us. We don’t just invite him to our table, we accept the invitation to meet him at his table – where he presides as host, but also prepares the table as servant. We merely come and receive.
Assuming we desire this fellowship with Christ, we must ask the question – how do we make sure we keep Jesus in the building? As a church, we submit to his Word and Spirit and we invite him in and eat together with him at his table of grace. As leaders we commit to desperate and constant prayer and seek the filling and leading of the Holy Spirit. We pray for the courage to follow Jesus out into his world, resisting the lure of worldly comforts and wealth that will compromise our witness to a different way of life.
We’ll know that we are his by the fruit – fruit that can’t be explained by our money, our programming, our gifts and talents. Fruit of transformed lives that are becoming more like Jesus by living submissively and sacrificially under his Kingship – following his direction and accepting his truth as it comes in rebuke and discipline to meet us in our pride and complacency.
While Jesus speaks to his church, he calls for individual response – “anyone who hears me…” I personally feel convicted of my own half-hearted faith, hedging my bets and compromising my clear convictions. I fear just how much pride and complacency have invaded my heart. You may be feeling something similar. If you are, know that Christ comes towards us with love and invites us to repent recommit ourselves to following more fully.
And as a church, let’s spur one another on to rich, vibrant faith – to zeal for Christ and his Kingdom that results in our living a life free of the poverty of wealth and richly dependant on God for everything. May we be a laboratory for those seeking to become more like Jesus – in our worship (both inside and outside these walls) and in our witness (as a church placed in this community and as individuals placed in families, neighborhoods, schools and workplaces).
May Jesus be the center of our lives and our life together, present with us always as we meet in His name and as we follow him in each and every moment of the week.