Church Health Check

Last week, we talked about the pressures that we face which might discourage and even overwhelm us. We saw that the churches, John was writing to were under intense pressure too. They were the minority in a cruel, Godless empire.  They faced opposition and persecution. We will see some of that this week.

However, you know, often the greatest pressure that causes discouragement, despondency and even suffering does not come from the outside but the inside.  How many people have experienced tearful, sleepless nights because of what was said to them by another believer or the fall out at the church meeting? How many have ended up just drifting along aimlessly due to a lack of good teaching and discipleship. How many have ended up burnt out and given up because of bullying in the church (and you know, sometimes that’s because of overbearing leaders but sometimes it because of bullying members who oppose leaders because they see their own status threatened). 

So, before Jesus shows these churches (and us) what is happening on the outside and how he is going to deal with it, he starts by getting the churches (and us) to have a look at themselves.

This gives us the opportunity to do a little health-check. Rather than take seven weeks to go through each church in turn, we are going to look at all of the churches together.  This may well be the right way to do it in any case, because John did not send off individual letters to each church, they all got the same letter. Also, the book was intended to be passed on. These churches in Turkey were along the main postal distribution route and in fact, were the regional postal hubs meaning that something arriving in Ephesus or Smyrna would be easily disseminated out to other towns and villages.[1]

  1. We should take time to examine ourselves in the light of God’s Word and the conviction of the Holy Spirit

Here are some of the characteristics that Christ is looking for in his churches.  How do we measure up? These are things that Jesus is looking for corporately in each local church so we will want to ask the question of our whole church. However, you may also want to start by asking whether these things are true in your own life. After all, for the whole church to reflect these qualities, we all have to be showing them individually.

So why not take a look at each of these qualities and ask two questions

-To what extent do I display this in my life?

-To what extent do we see this displayed in our own church?

For each one, try to give examples of where you do or don’t see this happening. By the way, don’t treat this exercise as though you are coming in from the outside to assess the church and see if it meets the standard. Remember that we are part of the church together and so we carry responsibility together when things are not as they should be, Remember, as well that there isn’t a perfect church yet but that does not stop us listening to God and seeking to be more Christ-like.

Whole hearted love for God

Ephesus had lost its first love (2:4).  A number of interpreters see this as being to do both with love for God and for each other. I think they are right to do so. As we have often seen, our relationship with God affects how we relate to others.  Perhaps a zeal for pure doctrine had led to suspicion of each other or a dry intellectual defence of truth.[2]

Sardis was a church with a reputation for being alive but is dead (3:1). It is possible to be hard working, have lots of programmes and activities, be well known among the other churches and in the community and still be dead. A church that does not truly love God is a church where there is no spiritual life. It is no use having a great reputation  for others if the reality that Jesus sees is something different.

Laodicea is described as “lukewarm.” (3:15) It was known for having two springs that fed into the city creating warm water. The water was undrinkable. The church was coasting and complacent. Laodicea was a prosperous City and took pride in that after an earthquake in the early 60s, they’d been able to rebuild without need for outside help (cf 3:17 “We lack nothing).

Thyatira was marked by faithful love and service (2:14)

Hardwork

Jesus tells all the churches “I know your work.” Indeed, we should not lose sight of the point that this is really a work evaluation. He commends the Ephesians for their hardwork (2:2). Martin Luther said that we are saved by faith alone but that faith never comes alone. There should be the fruit of salvation present and a sense of joy and delight in the Lord along with a deep grasp of grace does not oppose hard-work but encourages it.

By the way, throughout the Bible, work is seen as a good gift from God. This means that your work as labourers, teachers, cleaners, drivers, doctors, engineers, cooks, managers, parents, nurses etc all has great value before God.

It means that the hard work of putting out chairs, making tea and coffee, running a kids club, planning a sermon, posting invitations through letter boxes, having gospel conversations etc all are important.

Last week we talked about the vital importance of daily feeding on God’s word but eating should go hand in hand with exercise.

Therefore, hardwork is not the antithesis of being part of the family and enjoying God’s Goodness and grace. Hardworking is not the enemy of grace and faith. It is a natural and appropriate fruit of our trust in the Gospel.

Faithfulness and patience -especially through suffering and persecution

A number of the churches are facing persecution from the outside including Smyrna, (2:8-9). Pergamum, where one of their number, Antipas, has been martyred (2:13) and Philadelphia (3:8-9) which in human terms looks weak but strengthened in Christ.

The opposition comes from “Satan’s Synagogue” or false Jews. In other words, these would be people from the Jewish community but their willingness to cause suffering and death would immediately have marked them out as not keeping the Law but further more they have rejected Christ their true Messiah.[3]

Pergamum is described as the place where Satan has his throne. The city was the regional capital and increasingly became the centre of emperor worship and this is probably what was behind the reference. Emperor worship expresses the very spirit of ant-Christ and opposition to the true God that comes from Satan.[4]

 

Passionate holiness that does not tolerate sin

One challenge facing the church was a group referred to as The Nicolaitans. Ephesus is commended for standing against them (2:6) whilst Pergamum seems to have fallen into their trap  (2:14-15). The issue here seems to be licentiousness particularly around sexual immorality.  Similarly in Thyatira, one leading member is compared to King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, because through her teaching and behaviour she is leading people astray (2:20). This probably included a similar temptation to the one facing the Corinthian Church (1 Corinthians 8-10), to engage in social and business practices at the pagan temples leading to religious compromise. The point is more than that. All sin is idolatrous because it causes us to turn away from the true and living God and find satisfaction and hope in other things and other people.

A zeal for truth that will not tolerate falsehood

The church in Ephesus stands against evil falsehood (2:2-3) and suffers for it. The church in Philadelphia is also commended for standing against a false Gospel (2:9).  Often, we see that sinful behaviour and false teaching go together.

The church at Sardis is called to repent and return to the true Gospel (3:3). The death that overshadows them is not just about lost love or zeal but about wring beliefs.

So how do we fare, individually and corporately.  I hope that along the way, there was plenty to encourage you there. I certainly found some great encouragements. Our church may feel messy and chaotic, we may make lots of mistakes but so often there is a genuine desire to love God, honour his word, share the good news and I know that this is characterised so often by patient endurance through tough times. I see a lot of people committed to hard work for the Gospel too.

However, we will also be challenged -and quite rightly.  So that leads us to the next application.

  1. We should respond to what we discover appropriately through the Gospel, on the basis of grace

All of this is deeply sobering. We may find the evaluation deeply uncomfortable.  Indeed, I think we should do.  God’s Word should bring us out of our comfort zones. It should wake us up when we are snoozing.

I want to suggest three things

We will recognise the seriousness of sin

Sin for the church means that we are living and acting as though Christ is on the outside looking in (3:20). We have displaced him from his rightful place. The one who should be the host at The Lord’s Supper and indeed at the same time the honoured guest is left outside.

Sin is serious and so judgement coming. Later in Revelation we will see that the eternal consequence is Hell but there are also immediate warnings too for individuals that sin will lead to discipline through their circumstances (2:22-23) and that churches that are not faithful to the Gospel will be removed (2:5). Don’t assume that God will always allow a church to keep going so that there is a witness. Sometimes it is better for a bad witness to close down.

True repentance

When we become fully aware of sin then we realise the need for true, whole hearted repentance. The church in Sardis called to repent and to turn back (3:3).

Note that repentance means acknowledging our complete dependence on God. The need to be washed clean and re-clothed. The church in Laodicea through itself wealthy and self-sufficient. It needed to recognise its spiritual poverty. True riches can only be found in Christ (3:18).

When we are challenged about our sin, do we respond with true repentance?  I think that too often we tolerate a pretence of repentance. Bonhoeffer warned about cheap grace that minimises the need for repentance.  We allow cheap grace when we don’t really understand the cost of sin and when we treat repentance as a process to go through. I fear that too often for us, repentance means “I’ve been caught out” and/or “I need to go through a process to get people back on side so that I can get what I want.” In effect, I have tried to acquire things through sin and now I hope that I can get it through religion.

For example, when the you send your child to their room and tell them that they can’t watch TV because they’ve just thrown a tantrum or lied or kicked their brother. When they come back crying and saying sorry, I guess it’s tempting at that point to say “okay you can watch TV now” and maybe that’s the right thing to do sometimes. But you’ll also know that sometimes this is what they really are hoping for and they need to know that they are still going to be having that early night.

Or, for a more serious example, I was asked this week by another church leader what my approach would be to someone wanting to get married again after they had committed adultery in the previous marriage.  My response was that it is so easy to get sucked into a situation where the person says that they are sorry but really what they are doing is going through the process hoping that by saying the right words, it will get us to endorse and support their chosen future life choices. I think that’s one of the reasons that Jesus says you can’t just divorce and re-marry. There needs at that point to be a recognition that my repentance does not guarantee that I will get back to what I wanted.

True repentance recognises that I do not deserve and cannot expect to obtain the things I want. True repentance is not a means for negotiating with God or others. True repentance means that I put myself completely at God’s disposal and depend upon his grace and mercy.

Learn to depend upon God’s promises

There’s some wonderful promises here

–          That Christ will be with them and not desert them even as they suffer persecution

–          That those who repent and return will receive forgiveness and restoration

–          That those who persevere and overcome will receive a glorious inheritance in Christ.

There’s some fascinating imagery here that links us forward to the rest of the book with the promise of white robes to wear and preservation from the lake of fire. There’s also Old Testament echoes (we get a lot of them in Revelation) such as to manna waiting for them -or the provision of heavenly food, spiritual nourishment. By the way, the white stones may link to this as such objects (tessera)  were used to gain admission to official banquets.[5] They could also provide another Old Testament allusion to the stones in the High-Priest’s breastplate. If so, then again, the point is about access into the presence of God.[6]

There are great and precious promises. Are we depending on them as we go forward?

[1] See Kistemakker, Revelation, 93.

[2] See Mounce, Revelation, 68-69.

[3] It is important at this point to remember that John writes as a Jew himself to churches including both Gentile and Jewish believers. They will also ne fully familiar with Paul’s theology that the church is grafted into Israel. This should protect us from an anti-Semitic or “Replacement theology” type reading of the passages.  Romans 2:28-29 reminds us that a Jew had to be one inwardly, not just outwardly. See Mounce, Revelation, 74-75.

[4] Mounce, Revelation, 79-80.

[5] Apparently they were distributed as tokens to enable fair and efficient distribution of food. See Mounce, Revelation, 83.

[6] See Kistemakker, Revelation, 134.

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