Monday, May 04, 2009

Among the Lampstands: Revelation 3:1-22

Approaching this set of churches in Jesus' letters is not been easy. Reading the letters is easy, but the application of scripture is not, for one is not only able to diagnose one's own church body, but there are the greater applications that face the individual. This is the beauty of God's plan in Christ Jesus, to let us know what's on His heart concerning those who represent Him to the world.

The world notices the church, but the church seems to have difficulty noticing the world. The kinds of things churches tend to do to get unbelievers to notice them either make the unbeliever scoff and look with scorn on the church, or shakes the unbeliever to the core and draws them into a life of discipleship. Consider the personal level: I was sharing the law and gospel with some college students the other night and one girl could not understand why a Christian would have a tattoo (I have one on my arm). She had a problem because she saw someone claiming the name of Christ, yet clearly marked in a way that seemed to go against Christ. I pointed out that she did not ask me WHEN I got the tattoo . . .

There are times when the church tries so hard to reach the world that it has lost identity and purpose, and the world notices--is even offended! This last week a church in Melbourne, Florida has been threatened to boot New Hope Church out of Sherwood Elementary School. The reason? The church 25,000 colorful fliers to Melbourne households, asking residents "Is Your Sex Life A Bore?" and inviting them to go to the school to "learn how to have the Great Sex that God created you to enjoy!" Here's a video on the controversy.

Then there is The Revolution Church, who uses the Beastie Boys' hit "Fight For Your Right To Party" to invite people. If you dare, here are the lyrics.

Party Promo from Revolution Church on Vimeo.

Have you heard New Spring Church's opening number from this past Easter, 2009?
The world can't understand why this church hates church.
This church broke their attendance barrier by putting their pastor in a box.
Maybe the church should be sold like used cars.

Thanks to the Ministry of "A Little Leaven" for pointing these and others out. Oh, so many, many more.

That the church is point of confusion to the world is not new and this should not surprise us as we read Jesus' letter to these churches. Sure, people may come to a local church, but the church who looses its identity and purpose has only two choices: function under a compromised gospel (which is no gospel at all) and keep people busy with religion until they die and go to hell; or make excuses and rationalize and keep people people busy with religion until they die and go to hell. I suppose there is a third option: repent. But I get ahead of myself.

What makes an unbeliever sit up and take notice? Being different in the world. Obedience to Christ by doing that which is right, good and holy, and there are plenty of churches doing that.

Jesus addresses the churches of Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea, each real churches in real places in John's day. Interestingly, they are now dead churches, which should make us pay attention because dead churches exist in our day--if they have not closed their doors yet, they just don't know they are dead. I remember the first church I ever preached in--a church in the Navajo Nation capital. They had a nice sized building, a good parking lot (for the area). Plenty of space. But only two people showed up--well, four. Me, my wife, the guy who unlocked the door and turned the lights on, and somebody else. I preached the first extemporaneous message ever called, "Satan owns a Ghost-town." The next week there were close to twenty people present. Their problem was not that they were trying to be like the world, but that they had simply stopped being the church: no preaching, no Bible study, no prayer, no singing--they died and did not know it. As far as I know, they are still in the same town, just in a different location.

Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6): dead, and the things that remain are about to die--they are alive in name only. Their works are not perfect before God, they are not watching and are defiled. The future of this church lies in those who are still alive, not defiled. The ones who are watching will not be taken by surprise because they are walking with Him.

Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13): This church has before them an open door because, though there is little strength left, they keep His Word and have not denied Jesus' name. Because they stand for truth, the world sees Jesus' love for them. The overcomers will be pillars in God's temple. Jesus says, "Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown." What does this mean?

Different crowns are mentioned in scripture (not at all mentioning the metal rings of royalty, per se): honor (Job 19:9); an indictment of the enemy (Job 31:35-36); the hair of the head itself (Ps 68:21); beauty (Proverbs 4:9); an excellent wife (Proverbs 12:4); riches (Proverbs 14:24); grandchildren (Proverbs 17:6); The Lord of Hosts (Isaiah 28:5); Zion and Jerusalem (Isaiah 62:1-3); those who God saves are stones in a crown (Zechariah 9:16); thorns (Matthew 27:29; Mark 15:17; John 19:2, 5); other Christians (Philippians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:19); righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8); life (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10); glory (1 Peter 5:4) and majesty (Psalm 8:5).

Watchman Nee suggests that this church is in danger of losing what the other churches are trying to gain. William Barclay suggests that this does not mean someone will steal what was given to this church, but that God would give their crown to someone else who is worthy to wear it. "It sometimes happens in life that a man is given a task to do, that he is selected and chosen for that task, and that he goes towards that task with the highest hopes; but it begins to be seen that he is too small for the task, and that the task was too big for him; that is not worthy of the trust which has been reposed in him; that he has not got it in him to rise to the height of the challenge which has been given to him. When that happens, that man is removed from the task, and it is given to someone else." (The Revelation of John, Vol. 1. (1960) p. 168-169) Since the Lord Jesus Christ has made it clear concerning the suddenness of His return and consequences for those who are not watching for Him, and since this church is on the brink of death, this could be a reference to the crown of her own life.

Laodicea (3:14-21) is perhaps the most well-known church of the seven, mostly because of how the Lord Jesus Christ responds to her lukewarmness. This church has one view of itself, while the Lord sees it in a completely different way. Despite how they see themselves, the Lord views this church as wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked. They seem to have such a self-sufficient attitude that they've not only forgotten why they exist, but also their purpose. They seem to have an attitude of autonomy, non-dependent self-sufficiency. The world does not exist to serve the church, but the church to serve the world. A good example of this would be New Riverside Church and their pastor responding to a lawsuite to curb his $600,000.00 plus perks. The Laodicean church (and many still thrive today) is a body that has forgotten their head--literally. Colossians 1:15-18.

John R.W. Stott has written: “Perhaps none of the seven letters is more appropriate to the twentieth century church than this. It describes vividly the respectable, sentimental, nominal, skin-deep religiosity which is so widespread among us today. Our Christianity is flabby and anemic. We appear to have taken a lukewarm bath of religion” (What Christ Thinks of the Church [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980], 116, quoted in The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Revelation 1–11 [Chicago: Moody Press, 1999], 137). I find it interesting how keen the world in on hypocrisy. I met a Arab man just last week who grew up in Jerusalem and only recently has abandoned Islam because of hyprocrisy. He will not become a Christian because of hypocrisy and has no interest in Judiasm. Just about every time I go out for ministry I meet someone who has the same excuse--I say excuse because each person will have to stand before God on judgment day. Will his sin problem be removed in Christ Jesus? This is part of the purpose of these letters: you take care of you before Christ. Never do we see the excuse of hypocrisy come to the surface in these letters.

Laodicea would do nothing about their sin problem--this was their danger. They saw themselves as self-sufficient and on the right path. The Lord Jesus Christ had another view of them. Professing Christians need to take a closer look at how God sees their hearts through regular introspection. We should be concerned with pleasing God in Christ Jesus by an obedient walk according to His Word. There is never a place or time when we can say, "Ok, God, I can take it from here."

The church in Sardis was alive, but they were dead; that is, their reputation was not their situation. Program-driven church life is no life at all. Seeker-sensitivity and marketplace church is not a living church but a church that is busy at life, but is not alive. An example of this can be seen in a new chemical-driven robot just developed by science. It looks alive, but moves because of a chemical reaction then quits when the "fuel" is exhausted.

The problem with Sardis is that they were alive, but are in danger of dying. The situation with present-day churches is that while many may have been planted with the right intentions, they lost their direction, focus, purpose and became what they were never intended to be. Churches are killing themselves because they are discovering they must keep people with greater things than what they win them with.

We learn a huge lesson from the church at Philadelphia concerning keeping God's Word. Obedience brings perseverance, keeping in the hour of testing. Times are getting tougher--this goes without saying--and our sure hope in found in the author and finisher of our faith. We must learn now not only how to respond to crises situations on various levels (flu epidemics, faltering economy, wars and rumors of wars) including spiritual crises. If we don't have our lives built on the rock-solid foundation of God's Word as a regular discipline, what will happen when the stormes come but that our house will fall flat.

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