If Jesus walked into your church this weekend, what do you think He would say? Would He primarily affirm the good things going on, or would the bulk of our Lord's comments likely be corrective in nature? In reality, His words would probably include both affirmations and corrections. That's at least the way He did it with seven churches at the end of the first century.
The revelation which our Lord gave the apostle John on the island of Patmos was instructive and insightful on multiple levels. Seven churches in seven cities of Asia Minor were each given a special letter from Christ, and each letter addressed issues going on in that particular church.
Imagine a parent, for example, writing seven different letters to seven different children. Each letter would obviously address things unique to that child. Likewise, Jesus loved each of the seven churches because these were people for whom He died. And each church needed to hear words from their Lord which "comforted the afflicted" and "afflicted the comfortable."
That is to say, those who were faithfully facing pressure received much encouragement from Christ, while those who were coddling sin received a stern rebuke. After all, that is how love operates in a family and in God's church. And no one is more loving than Jesus with His people.
These seven letters have amazing relevance for Christians today. The teaching and behavior exhibited in those first century churches continues to surface today in one way or another. The heart of man has basically remained the same, and the temptations faced by Christian disciples have not really changed. While the exact details differ from one century to the next, the spiritual struggles remain very similar.
For this reason, we can apply these seven letters today wherever Christians gather around God's Word and sacraments. The true church of Jesus Christ has been in existence ever since our Lord first started calling disciples to follow Him. And the insights gleaned from these seven letters have guided an untold number of churches and Christians into greater faithfulness to Christ.
Some churches today are like the church addressed in the first letter. The church in Ephesus was commended by Christ for having "persevered" and having "endured hardships" without growing "weary." (Rev. 2:3) At the same time, Jesus told them, "You have forsaken your first love." (Rev. 2:4) This was a significant departure from where they had started in their love for Christ and their passion for the truth. Therefore He told them, "Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first." (Rev. 2:5)
The problems in Ephesus still occur today, and can even be compared to marriage. After starting out with much love and devotion, things can easily digress into a dry and mundane formality which lack the fire that once burned brightly. Who in marriage or the church hasn't had to fight against this common tendency toward formality? God's love in our hearts can overcome our natural weaknesses.
In the second letter, the Christians in Smyrna were facing "afflictions" and "were about to suffer persecution," and Jesus had nothing corrective to say to them. Their trials had led them to rely upon the grace of God, and their spiritual lives were displaying the beautiful fruit of redemption. In the midst of their genuine display of godliness, Jesus lovingly encouraged them with these glorious words: "Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life." (Rev. 2:10)
Christian churches in various parts of the world today need to hear the same message from our Savior. Their faithful witness is a wonderful testimony to how God sustains His people in the midst of persecution, and a vibrant example of deep faith for those of us who are not facing the kind of severe trials which those Christians are going through in their oppressive nation.
The disciples in Pergamum (third letter) were displaying some good, as well as some bad. Jesus told them, "You remain true to my name." (Rev. 2:13) And yet, the Lord also told them, "Nevertheless, I have a few things against you." (Rev. 2:14) Some of the people in the church were compromising their faith "by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality." (Rev. 2:14)
This greatly dishonored the Lord, and He loved them enough to rebuke them for their wicked behavior. He told them flat out, "Repent therefore!" (Rev. 2:16) Jesus wanted them to stop eating food sacrificed to idols and stop engaging in sex outside of marriage. There are churches and Christians today who need to hear this message from the Lord regarding the use of the body.
It reminds me of the apostle Paul's words to the saints in Rome: "In view of God's mercy, offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. This is your true and proper worship." (Romans 12:1) Jesus was telling the disciples in Pergamum the same thing.
What would Jesus say to you and your church today about your teaching and practice regarding sexuality?
The fourth letter in Revelation was to the church in Thyatira. Like the other letters, this would have been read to the congregation on a Sunday morning. Jesus commended them for their "deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are doing more than you did at first." (Rev. 2:19) So far so good. But the church in Thyatira was about to hear words from the Lord which were anything but complimentary.
A woman in the church had become a self-appointed "prophetess." Jesus uses the name "Jezebel" to identify her, and everyone in the church knew immediately who Jesus was calling out. Her offense? "She misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols." (Rev. 2:20) She had convinced people in the church that God wasn't opposed to that sort of behavior. And we certainly see examples of that deceptive and false teaching in certain churches today, including a number churches which seem to have some "love" and "service" just like the church in Thyatira.
The church in Ephesus had good doctrine, but had fallen away from their first love. In contrast, the church in Thyratira had some love, but was allowing treacherous teaching which promoted sexual sin. Thankfully, there were some disciples in that church "who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan's so-called deep secrets." (Rev. 2:24) As for "Jezebel" herself, Jesus said, "I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering." (Rev. 2:22)
The clear message? Those who lead Christ's church into sexual sin pay a high price for their misguided agenda. And those who follow such a dangerous philosophy had better wise up, and quickly. In his love for those who had been led astray by "Jezebel," Jesus said, "I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways." (Rev. 2:22) Our Lord graciously gave them an opportunity to repent and avoid disaster! And where would any of us be without God's gracious love toward us which leads to repentance? (see Romans 2:4)
Jesus told the church in Sardis (fifth letter): "I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead." (Rev. 3:1) How many churches and Christians today are simply "running on the fumes" of their reputation and perhaps the glory of their past, while their spiritual life is currently non-existent? Such was the church in Sardis.
Interestingly, there were hot springs about two miles outside of Sardis which were believed to have mystical healing powers. How ironic. The culture of Sardis put more faith in "hot springs" than in the wellspring of God's living water, and those in Christ's church didn't seem to know the difference!
No wonder Jesus said the church in Sardis was dead. They had moved away from the Gospel message and the healing power which flows to every soul who trusts in Christ alone for salvation. And they were placing more confidence in their past success than in the power of God and the power of the cross. Spirit-filled believers, on the other hand, experience real spiritual healing and a steady flow of God's living water.
In the sixth letter, Jesus told the church in Philadelphia, "You have kept my word and have not denied my name." (Rev. 3:8) What joy it must have brought to the believers there when these words were read to them in a church service. Isn't this what it means to follow Christ? To keep His word and not deny His name. There are various churches and Christians in the world today doing that very thing by the grace of God.
If only the church in Laodicea (seventh letter) had been like Christ's disciples in Philadelphia. Instead, Jesus told them: "Because you are lukewarm - neither hot nor cold - I am about to spit you out of my mouth." (Rev. 3:16) Notice the 3:16 reference. Just think if they had been fired up over the other famous "3:16" verse which John authored in the fourth Gospel. Instead, the church in Laodicea was lukewarm. They needed to get back to the foundation of Christianity which is the cross and the righteousness which covers those who trust in Christ alone for salvation.
This is why Jesus counseled them to receive from Him "white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness." (Rev. 3:18) Like Adam and Eve before them, their sin left them vulnerable before a holy God, and only the righteousness of Christ can give a person an appropriate covering for sin. (see Romans 3:21-26)
No wonder John would go on to write these insightful words regarding those who will stand before the throne of God one day: "These in white robes - who are they, and where did they come from? I answered, 'Sir, you know.' And he said, 'These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.'" (Rev. 7:13,14)
As with the other six churches, Jesus loved everyone in the church of Laodicea. He told them, "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me." (Rev. 3:20) While this passage is often used today in the context of evangelism, it was originally spoken to those in Christ's church who needed to repent of their sin.
Our Lord has prepared a feast for our souls if we will just embrace and celebrate His good news of salvation, and then submit to His will for our lives of discipleship. When we go astray in doctrine or deed, the Good Shepherd guides us back to correct teaching and correct living. Christ's plan is the only good plan. This involves Christian doctrine, Christian love, and Christian living. All three of those things are needed just as much today as when Jesus sent personal letters to those seven churches in Asia Minor.
Each of Christ's seven letters concluded with this loving and instructive admonition: "Whoever has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Rev. 2: 7,11,17,29 & Rev. 3:6, 13, 22) One must be open to receiving God's Word and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. This is what it means to have "ears to hear."
So what would Jesus say to churches today? Actually, He already said it. Now just prayerfully consider which of the seven churches in Revelation best represents your current spiritual condition and the spiritual condition of your church. And then apply our Lord's words to your own soul and your own church.
After all, who knows better than Jesus what you and your church need to be told at this point in your spiritual history?