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Laodicea: The Nauseating Church of the Revelation

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(To listen to or download the audio message, click Audio.)

Study #8: ‘’Laodicea—The Nauseating Church”

Some time ago, Newsweek magazine printed an article called “The Super-Churches of Houston.” It was an analysis of a trend that is becoming more and more common among the mega-churches. The direction is towards ecclesiastical entertainment centers that not only offer Broadway quality musical productions as worship services, but also multi-million dollar sports complexes and huge professional staffs who provide everything from exercise classes to meal services.

One church boasted 17,000 members and a budget of over $10 million. At the time of the article, they were nearing completion of a facility featuring two full-size basketball courts, a roller rink, six bowling lanes, four glassed-in racquetball courts, a suspended jogging track, saunas, whirlpools, and a restaurant called “The Garden of Eatin.” Their pastor explained: “There’s a phenomenal amount of money here, and that makes for a catalyst to do great things for the kingdom of God.” His associate added, “America does things in a big way, and the Lord is not going to be left in the backseat.” Of course, their crosstown rival wasn’t either. Their plans? A $34 million facility with two more bowling lanes than the first church and a state-of-the-art sports complex out-rivaling all their competitors.

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What do you think of this trend? More importantly, what does Jesus think about it? Is He cheering them on to ever greater levels of bigness?   Or is He about to judge them for their pride? The late Ken Chafin, pastor of Houston’s second biggest church, gave his opinion. Refusing to be caught up in the competition, he said: The super-church cult is tied to something larger. It’s tied to the success syndrome of American business. Its pastor is like the chief executive of a large corporation, growth is the bottom line, and that puts extreme pressure on the church to measure itself with a different measuring stick than God.”

Why mention this trend? Because most churches want to grow. The question is: What kind of growth do we want, and what methods will we use to accomplish it? When we started our fellowship, we could have tried to attract people from other churches. But we didn’t because that’s sheep-stealing and superficial growth. Instead, the people we’ve added have come the old-fashioned way—by one sinner telling another sinner where he found spiritual food.

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There are two extremes to avoid when it comes to growth. One we discovered in our study of the church at Sardis—no growth. Why didn’t they grow? They were dead, and dead· things do not grow. But the other extreme is just as bad, and that’s the problem exemplified in this study—superficial growth. The church of Laodicea was the super-church of its day. They were big, active, and wealthy. But in the things that mattered, Jesus called them “poor, blind, and naked.” Let’s find out why by looking at the problem of this church.

  1. THE PROBLEM

The most striking thing about this letter is its lack of commendation. In each of the other letters, Jesus found something to praise. But not in this one! For there was nothing good to say about this church.

A.  Hinted at in the Description of Christ

You can see a hint of their problem in verse 14. Jesus begins with a description of Himself intended to challenge their behavior. He begins, “These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God.”

“Amen” is a very significant word in the Bible. Jesus used it in the Gospels whenever He introduce a key thought or emphasize His point. “Verily, verily I say to you.” That’s the word “Amen.” “God said it. That settles it. The matter is beyond dispute!” Yet I want you to notice, this is more than a loud “Amen!” tacked onto the end of a sentence. This says that Jesus is the “Amen.” What does that mean? It means, as 1 Corinthians 1:20 says, that all the promises of God are “yes” and “amen” in Jesus Christ. Or to say it another way, not one word of this Book will ever fail. Why not? Because Jesus Christ is the guarantee and fulfillment of it all. Why was that important for the Laodiceans to remember? Because lukewarm Christians do not take the Word of God seriously. They may give mental assent to the major teachings and warnings of the Bible, but they compromise in those “gray areas” which they consider nice but not necessary. After all, a little bit of carelessness and neglect never hurts anyone. Or does it?

The story is told of an ocean liner that sank off the coast of Ireland. Divers were sent down to investigate how the tragedy happened. One item recovered was the ship’s compass, inside of which they found the tip of a knife. Apparently, while cleaning it, one of the sailors had broken off the point, which then lodged inside. It was just a little thing, but sometimes that’s all it takes to throw a life off course—just a little bit of spiritual unfaithfulness and neglect.

Cathy Layman | Times Photo xxxxxx: William Stender III will be featured in some upcoming episodes of Salvage Code Red, a series of 6 shows which will be shown on National Geographic channel soon. He's holding a ship's compass, one of the latest trinkets he's pulled off the bottom of the sea at the Straits of Gibraltar. Date taken Thursday, February 4, 2009

Cathy Layman | Times Photo
Date taken Thursday, February 4, 2009

Verse 14 adds, “These things says the Faithful and True Witness.” Why emphasize that? Because this was a church full of hypocrites. You hear that sometimes, that the church is full of hypocrites, but in this case it was true. The members claimed to be Christians, but their lives said something different. Jesus talked about this in Matthew 7:21. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

And He continues, “These things says the Beginning of the creation of God.” Jehovah’s Witnesses love this verse. In fact, I’ve found it’s one of the first things they point to in denying the deity of Christ. “See,” they say. “Jesus is not Jehovah God. He’s only a created being!” But that’s not what the verse means. It means just the opposite. The word “Beginning” is the Greek word arche and  should be translated “the Originator or Beginner of the creation of God.” It’s emphasizing that Jesus is the Creator of the universe, that “all things were   made by Him and without Him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:3)

Why was that important for the Laodiceans to hear? Because they thought they had it all together, and they prided themselves on it. They prided themselves on their wealth. They prided themselves on their success. They prided themselves on their intelligence. So Jesus reminds them, “The only reason you enjoy any of these things is because I, your Maker, gave them to you. And I can take it away in a moment. Because I’m the Origin of it all!

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We need to remember that too! Think of how much we enjoy. Certainly far more than the Laodiceans ever dreamed of having – cell phones, hot and cold running water, televisions, fast food, automobiles, word processors, hot tubs, RVs. Every creature comfort we could want and more! And that’s dangerous. Because when you have so much, why do you need God?

Some of you may have read about the eagle that attacks seals. The bird swoops down and fixes its claws in the creature’s back, pulling it to shore and killing it. But sometimes the seal proves too strong for the bird, and with a mighty lunge heads for deep water. The eagle shrieks and struggles to release its grip, but the helpless bird is slowly pulled beneath the waves to its death. That’s the way it is with the things of this world if we become attached to them. They drag us away from Christ towards spiritual and sometimes eternal disaster.

B.  Stated Plainly in the Correction of Christ

You say, “l am not sure I see all of that in these few phrases. Then read on in verse 15 where Jesus corrects them, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot.  So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.”

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Christ found two major faults in this church. The first was lukewarmness. That was a concept the Laodiceans could immediately understand. The neighboring cities in the Lycus River Valley were Hierapolis, known for its hot spring with its reputed healing qualities. Colossae, on the other hand, was located at the foot of the mountains, enjoying cool and refreshing water. But Laodicea had no water supply of its own. They had to pipe in mineral water through two underground aqueducts from miles away, which made it almost undrinkable by the time it reached them.  In fact, those who visit the spring today say it tastes so bad that their immediate reaction is to spit it out.

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What does that supposed to represent? Some say “cold” refers to unbelievers, “hot” to Spirit-filled believers, and “lukewarm” to carnal Christians who are no longer living for Christ. But there’s a problem with that interpretation. It is this. Jesus said He was about to vomit these people out of His mouth. But that is inconsistent with other things Jesus said to His followers. Listen, for example to John 6:37. “All the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means (That is the strongest negative statement available in the Greek language, meaning “I will never, no never”) cast out.”

Then you ask, “who is He talking to?” The unbelievers in the church, which was the majority of the congregation. They professed to be Christians, but had never committed their lives to Christ. You say, “Is that possible? Can a person faithfully attend church and still not be a Christian?” Of course, the devil himself often visits churches, and we know that he is not a true worshiper of God.

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In fact, I grew up in a church like this—with a membership of over a thousand very nice people who believed in God, but never was there any emphasis on the Gospel. Rarely did anyone mention sin or that Jesus had died on the cross to pay for them. Nor do I recall even one time hearing someone say with conviction, “I believe Jesus rose from the dead!” The only time I heard the gospel was during a confirmation class I was taking. One of my friends asked the minister, “But how can I be sure that I’m going to heaven?” His answer was John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Other than that, I never heard God’s plan of salvation. Nor did the other members of the church. And how can anyone be saved without hearing the Word of God? We believed in God and professed to be Christians, but how many had faith in Jesus Christ? I didn’t. And that’s scary! Attending church for years and still not being right with God because you have never invited His Son into your life and yielded your heart to His Holy Spirit.

Earlier I quoted Matthew 7:21. Now let me quote the next verse, Matthew 7:22. Jesus added, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.’”

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Their first fault was that they were spiritually lukewarm. Their second fault was that they were spiritually proud. In 60 AD, just 30 years before this letter was written, the province of Phrygia was struck by a devastating earthquake. But guess what! Of all the cities in the region, only Laodicea was able to rebuild itself without the help of Rome. How? Because of their money. Laodicea was a major banking center, bringing the city enormous wealth. And they took pride in that fact. But, unfortunately, so did the church. They looked at their resources and said to themselves, “We are rich and have need of nothing! Not even Christ.”

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How could that be? How could a Christian be so influenced by the world that he finds his value and significance in something other than Christ? Friends, it happens all the time, and not only in Houston. Rightly understood, this is the challenge of the ages. To find our security and significance in Christ alone. But how many of us truly do that? Not many. Most of us spend most of our time in a mad pursuit of recognition and image thinking, “This is what makes me matter! This is what makes me valuable!” When, in fact, Christ may be saying to us, “You are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.” Jeremiah put it in poetic terms. Speaking for the Lord, he wrote: “For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn for themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

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The superficial nature of our growth came to mind when reading about the Queen Mary, once the largest oceangoing vessel on earth, now a floating museum in Long Beach, California. Those who’ve seen it know how impressive it is! But before her conversion, something interesting happened to her. They removed her smoke stacks for painting, and when they set them down on the dock, what happened? They crumbled. Why? Because there was nothing left of the ¾ inch steel from which they were made.  All that remained were thirty coats of paint that had collected over the years. That’s the danger we face if what we’re concerned about is what others think of us. The danger is that we can have an impressive outer image, but empty be on the inside. Because we’ve never allowed Jesus to remake us from within. But He has a remedy.

  1. THE REMEDY

And here I want to keep it simple and straightforward, because it is easy to make the solution more complicated than it is. The Savior says in essence, “You need to be real. You need to exchange your hypocrisy for three genuine articles.” First, you need to replace it with—

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A.  Genuine Faith

Verse 18 continues, “I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich.” What’s Jesus talking about? Here is a case when it’s helpful to compare Scripture with Scripture, for 1 Peter 1:7 explains it like this. He says, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Instead of working like crazy to solve all your problems and merely confessing Jesus as your Savior, you need to accept your hardships as opportunities to trust Christ as your problem-solver and thereby grow strong in your faith in Him. Proverbs 3:5-6 say, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths.”

B.  Genuine Righteousness

Verse 18 continues, “And white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed.” This was something else the church would have immediately understood, because one of the major industries in Laodicea was garment-making. The sheep raised in the area produced a high quality wool that was raven black and glossy. But Jesus corrects them, “What you need are new garments made not from black wool, but of pure white linen.” What does that represent? The righteousness of Christ. Revelation 19:8 says of the church, “To her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white, for the fine linen is the righteousness of the saints.” Of course, our righteousness is a derived righteousness, in that it doesn’t come from us. It is given as a gift to those who put their faith in Christ. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Rom. 4:5)

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Colossians refers to the same thing. Paul urges us, “Put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.” We are to put on the character of Christ like a beautiful new garment. You say, “I’ve been trying to do that. I’ve been trying to be like Christ for years.” I know. That’s the problem. You’ve been trying. The good news is you don’t have to try anymore. What you need to do is accept the righteousness of Christ by faith. How?

The Bible says there are two steps. First, you need to take off the old. What many believers try to do is wear two coats at the same time. They try to put on the new coat of Christ’s righteousness over the filthy coat of their self-righteousness. But you cannot wear both. To wear the coat of Christ’s righteousness, you have to quit trying to patch up that smelly coat of self-effort, because that will never be accepted in God’s presence. You have to recognize your ragged garments, ask Christ to remove them, and then trust Him to give you the coat of His righteousness as a gift.

C.  Genuine Insight

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Verse 18 adds, “And eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.” That was the third industry for which Laodicea was famous. It was the site of a medical school that boasted an eye powder which could heal all sorts of visual problems. And Jesus agrees. You need an anointing, but not of eye powder. You need the anointing of My Holy Spirit, so that the eyes of your understanding may be opened and you can understand the things of God.

Let me liken it to a visual problem I have. Doctors call it color deficiency. It used to be called color blindness. But that’s no longer considered polite. So now I’m color deficient, which means there are some colors in the spectrum I cannot see. The primary colors I recognize—red, blue, yellow, orange. But many of the shades—pinks, purples, greens, browns—are hard for me to distinguish. Why? Because there is something lacking in my rods and cones. And something similar can be said of the unbeliever. You can talk to him day and night about spiritual things, and he just doesn’t get it. Why not? Because he does not have the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

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  1. THE PROMISES

You might assume from all the harsh things said to this church that Jesus doesn’t like them. But nothing could be farther from the truth! He assures them in verse 19, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore, be zealous and repent.” Why? Because of two wonderful promises He makes to them in verses 20 to 21. The first is directed to unbelievers in the church.

A.  To Unbelievers

He says in verse 20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” This is one of the most beautiful yet controversial verses in all of Scripture. Millions of soul-winners have used it over the years to invite their friends to accept Jesus as their Savior, while other Bible “experts” smile knowingly and say to themselves, “That’s fine, if you want to use it that way. But that’s not the right interpretation. For this wasn’t written to unbelievers; it was written to a church.” And in so doing, they rob the soul-winner of one of the most powerful tools in his spiritual arsenal. I myself have had people tell me I can’t use this verse like that.

So who is right? The soul-winners! Two facts make this clear. First, the context. Our study has shown that though this was a promise to the church of Laodicea, most of its members were unbelievers who professed to be Christians, but had never opened their hearts to Christ. Furthermore, where is Jesus in this verse? He’s standing outside the door, clearly indicating that He is neither in their lives or inside their church. However, His gracious promise is if just one person in the church opens her heart to Him, He will come and have fellowship with them.

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So let me encourage you, my dear evangelistic friend, use this verse as freely and as often as you like. For it was written with your ministry in mind. In fact, the word “dine” in this passage is the Greek word for the last meal of the day, implying what? That the time is short for receiving Christ. So feel free to use every chance He gives you to tell others about Him. Of if you yourself have never received Christ as your Savior, please open your heart to Him today!

Perhaps you’ve seen the painting by Holman Hunt with Christ standing outside a home, gently rapping on the door. But there’s something unusual about the door. The handle is on the inside, reminding us that Christ will not force His way into our lives. If you want Jesus in your life, you must invite Him to come in. How can you do that? In prayer. Say something like this—

Lord Jesus, I need You in my life. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins and rising again to give me new life. I open the door of my life and invite You to come in. Please forgive me and make me the kind of person You want me to be. I turn from my sins and trust You as my Savior. I pray in Your name. Amen.

B.  To Believers

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Finally, Jesus promises us that if we make room for Him in our hearts, He’ll make room for us in heaven. Verse 21, “He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” You may feel small and insignificant right now, but you won’t for long. For the Bible promises, “If we endure, we shall also reign with Him.”

Some time ago, I read an article about the residents of a Florida apartment building who awoke one more morning to a terrifying sight just outside their windows. The ground beneath the street in front of their building had literally collapsed, creating a massive depression called a sinkhole. Tumbling into the ever-deepening pit were automobiles, sidewalks, and all manner of goods from nearby businesses. The building itself would obviously be next to go.

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Scientists say that sinkholes occur when underground streams drain away in times of drought, causing the ground at the surface to lose its underlying support. Suddenly everything caves in, leaving people with the terrifying feeling that nothing—not even the earth beneath their feet—is trustworthy. Sadly, there are many people whose lives are like that sinkhole. They have accumulated a plethora of possessions as well as important assets like academic degrees, work experiences, influential friendships, and physical beauty or strength. But they discover too late that their inner world is on the verge of collapse.

That was the case in Laodicea. On the surface, they looked substantial. But underneath, where only Jesus can see, they were “miserable, wretched, poor, blind, and naked.” Don’t make that mistake! Ask Christ to give you “gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover the shame of your nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.”

(To download the written form of this lesson, click Written. To download the Powerpoint slides for teaching this lesson, click Slides.)

Revelation Study #6: Church of the Walking Dead

Study #6: Sardis—Church of the Walking Dead

(To listen to or download the audible study, click here – Audio Study)

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One of the hit television shows the past few years is a horror program called “The Walking Dead.” Some of you may have seen it. For those who haven’t, it’s the story of a deadly disease that ravages the planet leaving the vast majority of humanity dead except for their brain stems. This allows the victims to stumble about appearing to be alive, but their minds no longer function. Instead, the disease turns them into rabid killers who feed on those who have survived. The question that propels the show is: Will the survivors band together and find a way to protect themselves against “the walkers,” or will it be every man for himself? The program purports to be a study in human nature and the various ways in which survivors might react to an apocalypse. I don’t recommend it to anyone troubled by violence and gore, because the show is filled with it.

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However, it does provide a graphic metaphor for the world in which we find ourselves as Christians. I think of that when I attend a big event like a football game and rub shoulders with those in the concourse. I remember that though everyone looks alive, most of them are dead. Unlike “the walkers,” they may not appear to be diseased—no missing arms or decayed body parts. Nor are they apt to take a bite out of me. Most of them are hungering for garlic fries or nachos. But if they do not love Jesus Christ, they are spiritually dead. So I stop and pray for the crowd, that God will in His mercy give new life to many of them, just as He did for me. Ephesians 2:4-6 reminds me, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” In fact, I believe that’s the reason we enjoy the fellowship of the saints, whether it’s a small group Bible study or a large worship service. We are nurturing and enjoying the new life that comes from having Jesus in our midst.

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Unfortunately, not every church enjoys that new kind of life. That becomes apparent as we come to the fifth church of the Revelation—the church in Sardis, which I call the church of the walking dead. Remember that in each of the letters to the churches, Jesus credits them for what they’re doing right and critiques them for what they’re doing wrong. Listen with me, then, to Jesus’ words in Revelation 3:1-2. It’s the most frightening judgment we’ve heard so far.

  1. The Doctor’s Diagnosis 

Having examined this church, Doctor Jesus says to them, “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. ‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.’”

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The church of Sardis had a reputation for being one of the most active churches of its day, for there was always a flurry of religious activity going on. But a flurry of religious activity is not a proof of spiritual life. For when Jesus examines His church, He always looks beneath the veneer of our image to our character. For fruitfulness is the evidence of spiritual life. And when He looked at this church’s character, He found they were dead and not alive. What He said to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 could be repeated here. “You are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones.”

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Several years ago, I visited the Hollywood Wax Museum with my family. There we spent an hour or more looking at some of the most lifelike figures I’ve ever seen. In fact, it was often hard to tell the living from the non-living. At one point I was looking at Keystone Cops when one of them suddenly one of them stepped out of the scene and said, “Hi!” I thought my heart was about to stop.

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That was the scene in Sardis. There was an appearance of life, but on inspection, Jesus found that most of them were spiritually dead. In fact, this church was so dead it couldn’t even conjure up a “decent heresy.” And that’s dead! Usually, when Satan attacks a church, he introduces a lie to lead the people astray. But not this church. Nor is there a hint of persecution. Why not? It wasn’t necessary. Satan had no reason to attack this church. It was already dead.

What led to this frightening condition? The obvious answer is: Live people were replaced by dead people. There were spiritually dead men in the pulpits, spiritual dead people in the pews, and spiritually dead people leading the ministries. That’s the point in verse 4 where Jesus says He only had a “few names” left in Sardis who would walk with Him “in white.” Why? Because most of them were not believers at all. And even those who were believers were on the verge of falling asleep. It reminds me of a ling from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

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“Corpses man the ship; Dead men pull the oars; Dead men hoist the sails; Dead men steer the vessel.”

You see, so often we think that what we need to improve the church is better planning and programming. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What the church needs today is not better programs, but better people—living people who are empowered by God’s Holy Spirit.

How could this happen to a church? Several steps are involved. First, believers stop depending on the Holy Spirit for their power and direction and start relying on self. Next, sin is tolerated in the church and unbelievers feel comfortable attending the church’s services and social functions. But instead of leading them to salvation, they are accepted into membership just as they are. Finally, those who truly love the Lord become disgruntled and withdraw from attendance at the church leaving its leadership in the hands of those who do not know the Lord. So that in the end it has the appearance of a church, but in reality it’s nothing more than a religious social club without the Spirit of God.

 

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This is what happened to many of the mainline denominations at the beginning of the last century. Most of the pastors loved the Lord. But a few unbelieving pastors began to deny the fundamentals of the faith like the Deity of Christ and the infallibility of the Bible. Masquerading as true believers, they worked their way onto the central boards of the denominations, which made the decisions for the churches—which missionaries would be sent out, how money would be sent, what their doctrinal positions were, and who would teach in the seminaries. Finally, hundreds of good pastors and churches felt forced to pull out of the denominations. Understand! This was no polite parting of the ways. This was war! Many churches were forced to buy back their buildings which were owned by the denominations. And pastors, like my wife’s grandfather, lost their denominational pensions. It was a scandalous situation that occurred because the world was allowed to worm its way into the church and take control.

The same thing could happen to your church. The first generation which plants a church is filled with passion and dedicated to the things that matter. But with the passing of time, a second generation grows up acknowledging the same beliefs, but lacking the passion of their parents. So by the third generation it’s doubtful that those who claim to love the Lord really do. That’s why there is always a need for revival in the church. Without it, a church gradually begins to die. That was the Sardis problem. They lacked the life that comes from loving Christ.

a.  Spiritual Deficiencies

SevenStarsSeveral factors contributed to their deadness. Notice, first, their spiritual deficiencies. Remember that in each of the letters Christ emphasizes something about Himself that is needed by the church He is addressing. In this case we see a hint of two deficiencies by the way He introduces Himself in Revelation 3:1. He says, ““And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.”

The “seven Spirits,” you’ll remember, refers to the Holy Spirit in His seven-fold fullness. Why does Jesus emphasize that here? Because there was no evidence of the Spirit’s presence in this church. That’s not to say He was completely absent. If He had been, then no one would have been saved. Romans 8:9 says, “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.” Yet Jesus says in verse 4 that there were still a few who were faithful to Him. The problem was that the majority of the members were religious people who had never been born again by the Holy Spirit. So they lacked the new life which Jesus gives us. These false believers then took over the leadership of the church making carnal and worldly decisions. This grieved and quenched the Holy Spirit within the few members who were still trying to follow Christ. Jude 1:19 says of them, “These are sensual persons who cause divisions, not having the Spirit.”

The first step in overcoming this problem, then, was for the majority of the members to cry out to God for the new life that comes from the Holy Spirit.

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The “seven stars,” on the other hand, refers to the pastors of the churches. Why does Jesus highlight them here? He’s indicating that the church lacked the right kind of leaders and encouraging them to call out to God for a godly team of pastors and elders who love Christ and are filled with His Spirit. Because as the pastors and elders go, so goes the church. That is the frightening principle of leadership. People get the leaders they deserve. If they are seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, God gives them good and godly leaders. But if they are worldly and selfish, then that is the kind of leaders they get. Makes me want to pray not only for our church, but for our country as well!

b.  Environmental Factors

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Several environmental factors also affected this church. First, Sardis was the capital of Lydia and a major center of trade. It was called “the first metropolis of Asia, Lydia, and Hellenism.” Yet despite its busyness, the city was nothing like it had been in its heyday. For instead of building for the future, its citizens were always looking back to the glories of the past—a certain formula for decline. Second, it was a morally sick society. Herodotus, the Roman historian, said it had a reputation for lax morals and open licentiousness. But it is the military history of this city that is most interesting. Sardis was built on a 1500-foot plateau with a river at its base, which served as a natural moat and made it one of the most impregnable cities of its day. And yet, three times it had fallen to surprise attacks, which the inhabitants said “came like a thief in the night.”

Unfortunately, the church in Sardis contracted the same complacent attitude. Planted 40 years earlier by the Apostle Paul, its members were still rejoicing in its past victories rather than actively serving the Lord today. They were apathetic, arrogant, and about to suffer great loss. For Jesus says to them in verse 3, “I will come upon you as a thief,” unless you repent.

  1. The Doctor’s Prescription 

How does a church reverse a case of spiritual lifelessness? The Great Physician prescribes a three-step treatment plan, each step intended for a different group within the church. The first step is intended for the religious unbelievers.

a.  Wake Up!

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Or “be watchful!” as some translations put it. This is a call to vigilance in the face of danger. What danger were they facing? Verse 3 gives the answer, “But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.” This is a reference to the Second Coming and the same warning Paul gave in 2 Thessalonians 5:2 where he wrote, “You yourselves know perfectly that the Day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night.” He then went on to say that this is a judgment which is going to fall, not on believers, but on unbelievers. In fact, we’re going to learn in our next study that true Christians are going to be removed from the earth before this judgment begins. This command, then, was not intended for the genuine saints in Sardis, but for the dead ones—unbelievers who had sneaked into the membership of the church, reminding religious people everywhere that no amount of religiosity will save you. To receive eternal life, you must believe in Jesus and receive Him as your Savior.

This warning had special meaning for those in Sardis. The city was built like a giant watchtower overlooking the valley below. This made the people feel very secure. But this sense of security led to disaster on three different occasions.

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The first time was in 549 B.C. when Cyrus the Great invaded the city. In order to conquer it, Cyrus had to find a path to the top of the plateau. But how? The answer came one night when one of his soldiers was standing guard at the base of the cliff. He noticed an object rolling down the side of the hill. One of the Sardinians dropped his helmet! Not knowing that he was being observed, the soldier quietly made his way down the cliff, retrieved his helmet, and headed back to the top. Watching him, the Persian realized there was an easy way up, at least for a few of them. So he quickly gathered together a band of warriors and headed in the same direction. Climbing over the wall into the city, they found everyone asleep. The people felt so secure that they had only posted a single guard. History records that Cyrus captured the city in one night.

That’s how the religious unbeliever feels. Because of his religious activities and Christian friends, he feels safe. But his is, in fact, the most precarious position of all. His exposure to the truth not only makes him more accountable to God, but his religious affiliations cause him to neglect the most important relationship of all—a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

Don’t make that mistake! You may have attended church for years. But that is not what makes you a Christian. Jesus said, “You must be born again…unless a man is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” How can you be born again? By calling out to Jesus for salvation. John 1:11-13 explains, “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” So if you’re religious but lack spiritual life, you need to wake up and be born again by receiving Jesus as your Savior. By the way, did you know that is what “Sardis” means. It means “escaping ones,” reminding us that we can escape the wrath to come by trusting Jesus our Savior.

b.  Reach Out!

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Verse 2 continues, “Be watchful and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God.” Not everyone will agree with my interpretation, but I believe this is a challenge to the real, Spirit-filled saints in Sardis. They are to strengthen the carnal Christians in the church who are no longer actively serving Christ. They are just “remaining.” In that case, what’s our responsibility as Spirit-filled Christians? To shake them awake and help them get their eyes back on Jesus. Because whether or not they’ll admit it, they don’t like what they’ve become. They too have a God-given desire to be like Christ. It’s just that they’ve been defeated by the enemy so often that they’ve lost their hope and are ready to fall asleep. Galatians 6:1-2 clarifies our duty: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in a trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

Some of us need to wake up. Others of us need to reach out. And step #3, Jesus speaks to the carnal Christians themselves, telling them to think back.

c.  Think Back!

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Not in the sense of reliving the past, but in the sense of remembering what was had in Christ and how we went wrong. One preacher said, “When you get lost, the fastest way to get back on track is to return to the place you got off and start again.” That’s Jesus’ counsel in verse 3. “Remember, then, what you have received and heard. Keep it and repent.” He’s warning them to shake themselves out of their spiritual stupor and start following Him again.

You say, “Is it worth the effort?” Notice the three-fold blessing Jesus adds to His wake-up call. He promises in verse 5 to 6, “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

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White garments pictured two things in the ancient world: 1) Purity, which is why brides still wear white on their wedding day; and 2) Victory. Quite often, when a Roman general won a battle, he would clothe himself in a white robe as a symbol of his victory. And that’s the promise here. One day, because of our victory in Christ, we will be clothed in brilliant white clothing, shining like the stars of heaven. But let’s not forget. It isn’t because of our righteousness that we’ll be clothed in white. Revelation 7:14 gives the reason for our victory. John begins in verse 13, “Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, ‘Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ So he said to me, ‘These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’” It’s the righteousness of Christ we’re given, not a righteousness of our own.

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Furthermore, He promises, “I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life.” Some people worry, “Can a Christian have his name written down in the Book of Life, do something wrong, and suddenly have it blotted out?” No, that is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus promised that those who truly believe in Him will never perish. Nor can anyone pluck them out of His hand. Instead, He’s saying that He is unlike the other kings and rulers of earth. For example, in John’s day, a king would keep a register with a list of the subjects in his kingdom. And if a person committed a crime against the state, his name would be removed and his citizenship revoked. Or if a person moved, his name would be blotted out and put on another register. Or if a person died, his name would be erased. In other words, Jesus is promising that “petty kings may blot your name out of their books, but I will never blot your name out of My book—not if you truly belong to Me. He isn’t hinting that we can lose our salvation if we’re not careful; He’s emphasizing the opposite—that “you’re eternally secure in Me.”

Judgment

Finally, He adds, “I will confess his name before My Father and His angels.” Isn’t that incredible! One day Jesus will stand before His Father and all the angels of heaven and say, “Gary belongs to Me!” He won’t be ashamed to call me His own. In fact, what’s the only condition attached to this promise? That we confess Him before others today! “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father in heaven.” Have you done that? Have you awakened to your need of Jesus Christ and let others know about it in a public way?

 

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Nobody likes alarm clocks. I’ve owned many over the years and I can’t remember even one whose sound I enjoyed. But that’s intentional, isn’t it? If if they weren’t obnoxious, we simply roll over and go back to sleep. Likewise, some of you may not have enjoyed this study. But that’s an indication that you needed to hear it and that you’re sleepier than you think. So don’t hit the snooze button now that you’ve finished reading or listening to it. Shake yourself out of your complacency and start living for Jesus Christ with all your heart, mind, and strength.

(To read or download this study, click Written Message. To download the Powerpoint slides for teaching these materials, click Message Slides.)